An Evangelical Response
to Catholic Arguments for Salvation by Merit
“We have already noted that the Council of Trent declared that no works prior to justification are meritorious.42 Nonetheless, several significant differences between the official Roman Catholic and orthodox Protestant views on salvation remain. Before stating the basis for the Protestant position, a response to the Catholic arguments in favor of merit is in order.
A Critique of the Roman Catholic
View of Justification
With all due recognition to the common Augustinian core of salvation by grace (see chap. 5), there are some important differences between the Roman Catholic and evangelical views of justification. Unfortunately the noble but unsuccessful recent statement by “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” lacked precision in this very area, speaking of a common belief that “we are justified by grace through faith.”43 What it failed to note, however, is what the Reformation was fought over, namely, that Scripture teaches, as Protestants affirm, that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone. As we will see, there is a common belief in salvation by grace, but Roman Catholics hold that justification takes place at
Many criticisms of the Catholic view of justification revolve around the concept of merit that was made into
It confuses reward and merit. While Catholics wish to remind us that the whole doctrine of merit should be viewed in the context of grace,46 they overlook the fact that Scripture teaches that grace and meritorious works are mutually exclusive. Part of the reason for the difficulty is that the Catholic use of the word “reward” has an equivocal sense that leads to a confusion between a reward based on
Catholic theology rightly points out that the Bible sometimes speaks of eternal life as a reward (e.g., Gal. 6:8) that one can “inherit” (Luke 18:18).47 In this sense, however, works are not a condition of salvation;48 salvation is a gift of grace received by faith alone apart from meritorious works. None of us works for an inheritance; it is something graciously given to us by a benefactor. If, however, we are “rewarded” for our work by salvation or eternal life, then it is not truly and solely God’s grace, despite Catholic protests to the contrary. When one is rewarded for works, the reward is not a matter of grace, since the payment is owed (at least in part) for work done. As Paul said emphatically, “But if by grace, it is no longer because of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Rom. 11:6). It is in this latter sense that the New Testament clearly speaks against obtaining salvation (whether justification or sanctification) as a reward (i.e., wage)49 for work done. For the Scriptures insist that “a worker’s wage is credited not as a gift, but as something due” (Rom. 4:4). If the Catholic concept of merit (that progressive justification [= sanctification] is obtained by good works) is true, then the grace of sanctification would be bestowed, at least in part, on the basis of good works. But what is worked for is not of grace, and what is given by grace is not obtained by works (Rom. 4:4; Eph. 2:8–9). So the Catholic concept of merit as a necessary condition for obtaining eternal life or ultimate justification is contrary to this clear affirmation of Holy Writ.
It makes works a condition of eternal life. The Council of Trent declared clearly that “those who work well ‘unto the end’ [Matt. 10:22], and who trust in God, life eternal is to be faithfully given to their good works and merit.”50 Even the new Catechism of the Catholic Church which tends to state doctrine in a way less objectionable to Protestants declares that “the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful” (2008, emphasis added, p. 486). Hence, it is grace plus good works. By
In the Gospel of John only one condition is laid down for obtaining eternal life: belief (e.g., John 3:16, 36; 5:24; 20:31). If salvation were not by faith alone then John’s whole message would be misleading, since it states that there is only one condition for salvation when actually there are two: faith plus works. Indeed, John states explicitly that the only “work” necessary for salvation is to believe. When asked, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” Jesus replied, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent” (John 6:29, emphasis added). There simply is nothing else we may do in exchange for our salvation. Jesus did it all (John 19:30; Heb. 10:14).
It makes works of sanctification a condition of ultimate salvation. The Council of Trent affirmed: “When he [Paul] characterizes the eternal reward as ‘the crown of justice which the Lord, the just judge, will render’ (2 Tim. 4, 8), he thereby shows that the good works of the just establish a legal claim to reward on God.”52 Of course, this “legal” claim is not intrinsic but only because God has promised it. Nonetheless, it is a promise to give us salvation based in part on our works. “If anyone shall say that the good works of the man justified are in such a way the gifts of God that they are not also the good merits of him who is justified, or that the one justified by the good works, which are done by him through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ (whose living member he is), does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life (if he should die in grace), and also an increase of glory: let him be anathema.”53 But one cannot work for a gift (Rom. 4:4–5). We work from our salvation but never for it (Gal. 3:11; Eph. 2:8–10). We are not saved by our works but in order to do good works.
Even granting that, for infants, works are not a condition for receiving initial righteousness (= justification), nonetheless, Catholic theology makes works a condition for progressive righteousness (= sanctification). In other words, one cannot receive a right standing before God by which one has the divine promise of salvation (eternal life) without engaging in works of righteousness. But this is precisely what Scripture says is not the case: It is “not because of any righteous deeds that we had done but because of his mercy, he saved us” (Titus 3:5).54 “It is not from works, so no one may boast,” wrote Paul (Eph. 2:9). To repeat the apostle,
The Catholic response that not all Protestants agree that one has the promise of heaven on the basis of initial justification55 alone (Arminians believe people can lose their salvation) misses the mark. For the question is not how we keep salvation after we get it, but how we get
It confuses working for and working from salvation. Put in traditional terms, Catholicism fails to recognize the important difference between working for salvation and working from salvation. We do not work in order to get salvation; rather, we work because we have already gotten it. God works salvation in us by justification, and by God’s grace we work it out in sanctification (Phil. 2:12–13). But neither justification nor sanctification can be merited by works; they are given by grace. Gifts cannot be worked for, only wages can. As Paul declared, “when one does not work, yet believes in the one who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited
In spite of the fact that the Catholic understanding of salvation does not logically eliminate forensic justification, it nevertheless obscures it. For when one fails to make a clear distinction between forensic justification and practical sanctification,57 then the good works Catholics believe are needed for sanctification tend to obscure the fact that works are not needed for justification. Perhaps this is why hundreds of thousands of Catholics are coming to know Christ personally outside of the Catholic church. Indeed, this may be why Catholicism has not produced any of the great evangelists (such as Wesley, Whitfield, Sunday, Moody, and Graham) and has no widely circulated equivalent to “The Four Spiritual Laws” or
It makes a false distinction between “works” and “works of the law.” The New Testament verses against salvation by works are clearly opposed to the Catholic teaching that salvation can be merited. In order to counter this, Roman Catholic scholars have made an artificial distinction between “works of the law” (which they admit are not a condition for salvation) and works (which they insist are a condition of salvation). But contrary to the Catholic claim, Paul’s statements against “works” cannot be limited to only “works of the [Mosaic] law” (such as circumcision) but extend equally to all kinds of meritorious good works, for all such works will in one way or another
Further, when condemning works for salvation Paul does not limit himself to “works of the law” but sometimes simply refers to “works” or “works of righteousness” (cf. Eph. 2:8–9; Titus 3:5–7). Contrary to the Catholic view, the Ephesians passage is clearly aimed at Gentiles with no suggestion of works of the Jewish law such as circumcision.58 Nor does the Jew-Gentile conflict diminish the fact that he is speaking to Gentiles about “works” other than those unique to the Jewish law. And the argument offered by some Catholics that the boasting mentioned in Ephesians 2:9 is an indication that it is Jewish boasting (since they boasted about works of the law) is implausible for many reasons. First, unbelieving Jews are not the only ones who boast in their good works; pride is a condition of all fallen creatures, not just Jewish ones. Furthermore, in this
Also, the Catholic claim that “works” are sometimes an abbreviation of “works of the law” (e.g., Rom. 3:27–28) fails for several reasons. Even if “works of the law” were sometimes summarized as “works,” it would not mean the reverse is necessarily true. All works of the law are works, but not all works are works of the law.
Further, when Paul is speaking to Gentiles (who, as Rom. 2:14 says, “do not have the [Mosaic] law”), he does not speak of them performing works of the Mosaic law as such but simply to “works” (e.g., Eph. 2:8–9). They too are said not to be justified by works (Rom. 3:21–24). To be sure, in the New Testament “works” often arise in the context of circumcision (cf. Rom. 4; Gal. 3). But this is only because that was the specific situation that occasioned Paul’s condemnation of any kind of works deemed necessary for salvation (cf. Acts 15). To limit all of his condemnations of “works” to only works of the Mosaic law is like limiting God’s condemnation of homosexuality in the Old Testament (cf. Lev. 18:22; 20:13)61 to Jews since these passages occur only in the Jewish law which was written to Jews! And to grant that a moral law (e.g., natural law) exists outside the law of Moses is to grant the Protestant point that “works” here are not just limited to works of the Mosaic law. The truth is that the condemnations are more broadly applicable than the immediate context in which they arose. The same is true of Paul’s condemnation of meritorious “works” as a means of salvation. To limit Paul’s condemnation to works of self-righteousness as opposed to meritorious works is reading into the text a distinction that is not there. What is more, if our works contributed anything to our obtaining salvation, then we would have grounds to boast and would still come under Paul’s condemnation.
Finally, the basic moral character of God expressed in the Ten Commandments is the same as that expressed through the natural law to all people. The fact that someone is not consciously or deliberately doing works according to the law of Moses does not mean that the basic moral standard is not the same. In one sense all moral “works” are “works of the law,” in that they are in accord with the moral principles expressed in the law. This is why the apostle Paul said that “when the Gentiles who do not have the law [of Moses], by nature observe the prescriptions of the law . . . they show that the demands of the law written in their hearts” (Rom. 2:14–15). In the final analysis, when it comes to the moral62 demands of the law, there is no substantial difference between “works of righteousness” and the “works of the law.” Thus, the Catholic argument that Paul meant the latter but not the former is a formal distinction without a real difference. The simple truth is that no works of any kind merit salvation. Eternal life is a gift received only by faith (John 3:16, 36; 5:24; Rom. 6:23)
It is similar to the error of Galatianism. By insisting that works are not a condition for obtaining initial justification (righteousness) but only for sanctification (progressive righteousness) Catholics do not avoid the charge of soteriological error. Claiming that sanctification is by works, even if justification is not, seems akin to the error that Paul addressed in the Book of Galatians. The Galatian Christians were already justified, or declared righteous, in the forensic sense (or, to use Catholic terminology, they had already received “initial justification”). They were “brethren” (Gal. 1:11; 6:1). They were “in Christ” (Gal. 2:4). Otherwise, they would not have been in danger of “falling from grace” (Gal. 5:4) as a way of living the Christian life. They had initial (forensic) justification but were in danger of losing their sanctification (progressive justification).
Paul’s warning to them clearly related to their sanctification. His fear was not that they would lose their initial (forensic) justification but that they would fall back into bondage to the law (Gal. 2:4). Even if Paul did mean that they would lose their justification (as Arminians say) it merely intensifies the problem with the Catholic view, for then the failure to do good works results in the loss of both sanctification and justification. In this indirect sense, failure to do good works is a means of forfeiting one’s (initial) justification too! Paul was afraid they would fall from grace as a means of continuing in the Christian life, not as a means of obtaining
Clearly, the message of Galatians is: You are not only justified by faith alone, but you are also being sanctified by faith alone. For “without
It should be noted that Paul’s reference to “false brothers” (
It confuses salvation and service. All the texts cited by Catholics about
It adds works into its concept of faith. Roman Catholic biblical scholars admit “the absence of any reference to sacraments and good works in Paul’s thesis in [Romans 1] 16f.” To this they respond by redefining faith to include works, saying, “Omission causes no difficulty if faith
In spite of the commendable insistence on the necessity of grace for salvation and the need for explicit faith in adults as a precondition for justification, it is still true that Catholicism teaches that even justification (in adults) is preconditioned on faith plus the resolution to do good works. Hence, the promise to do good works is a condition of initial justification. Thereby sanctification is frontloaded into justification. That is, the promise to live a godly life is a condition for receiving the gift of eternal life. But if this is so then it is not of grace but works. And for Roman Catholics, salvation in the ultimate sense, not just initial justification, always requires faith plus works to obtain eternal life.”
42 Council of Trent, “Decree on Justification,” chap. 8.
43 “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium,” final draft (29 March 1994). This statement was signed by noted Catholics like James Hitchcock, William Bentley Ball, Peter Kreeft, Cardinal John O’Connor, and Richard Neuhaus. Evangelicals signing it included Chuck Colson, Os Guinness, J. I. Packer, Bill Bright, and Richard Land. Conspicuous by their absence were the names of top evangelical theologians who are experts on Roman Catholicism, such as Harold O. J. Brown, Carl Henry, David Wells, and R. C. Sproul. Many of these have expressed criticism of the statement (see Appendix F).
44 Anderson, Justification by Faith, p. 54 (citing the Apology for the Augsburg Confession, 4:194).
45 George Salmon, The Infallibility of the Church (London: John Murray Publishing, 1914), p. 347.
46 See Avery Dulles in Anderson, Justification by Faith, p. 274.
47 The New Testament also speaks of eternal life in the sense of the kind or degree of reward one will inherit, based on the kind of faith that produces works which one performs. Gal. 6:6–10 seems to fit in this category, since it speaks of believers reaping “eternal life” by what they sow in their life.
48 While works are not a condition of faith they are a concomitant and fruit of true faith (James 2:24).
49 This is true whether the wage is an equal payment or an overpayment for work done. Salvation is a complete gift from God for which no work can be done to merit it (Rom. 4:4–5). Otherwise, Christ’s sacrifice was not the complete payment for our sin and we have some ground for boasting, both of which are rejected by Scripture (cf. John 19:30; Eph. 2:8–9; Heb. 10:11–18).
50 Denzinger, Sources of Catholic Dogma, no. 809, p. 257.
51 But Protestantism teaches that we can know with assurance right now that we have eternal life. This is true of Calvinists (and even Armenians, who believe they could later commit a serious sin and lose the gift of eternal life). But this is not true for a Catholic that cannot know with confidence that he possesses eternal life right now.
52 Cited in Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 265.
53 Denzinger, Sources of Catholic Dogma, no. 842, p. 809.
54 This cannot apply only to initial justification as Catholics claim, since the present tense (“renewing”) is used in this text.
55 That is, by initial (forensic) justification and its concomitant benefits, such as sonship, the forgiveness of sins, imputed (alien) righteousness, etc.
56 Catholic insistence that a right standing can be obtained without works is insufficient because, for Catholics, this standing does not entail the gift of eternal life. The Catholic argument that this gift is merited by works (though not deservedly earned) also is wanting. For even if one is given, say, a million dollars in exchange for a loaf of bread, the person obviously did not earn it but did do some work and, hence, it was not by grace alone. Likewise, if someone spends a lifetime of works (however long) as a condition for receiving eternal life, then it was clearly not by grace alone. Furthermore, the argument by some Catholic apologists that one need not work for eternal life but simply avoid mortal sin misses the mark for two important reasons. First, the question is not how one loses salvation but how he obtains it to begin with. Second, and most importantly, regardless of whether one only loses salvation by a mortal sin (and not by lack of works) or not, if he lives after initial justification he still has to work as a condition for receiving eternal life. If this is so, then salvation is not totally by grace.
57 Of course there can be forensic or positional aspects of sanctification as well (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2; Heb. 10:10). We speak here of forensic justification in the sense of the legal aspect of the initial act of salvation, namely, God’s graciously saving us from the penalty of sin. Sanctification, at least in the practical sense, is salvation from the power of sin in our lives (“glorification” is being saved from the very presence of sin when we enter heaven). There are also non-forensic (or actual) aspects of the initial state of salvation, such as our being made a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) and becoming “sons of God” (John 1:12) at the initial moment of salvation.
58 This is evident from the fact that Paul’s audience is (predominantly) Gentiles (Eph. 2:11) who were “alienated from the community of Israel” (2:12).
59 Some Catholics argue that this refers to works of Jewish almsgiving, since the concepts parallel Jewish literature. This is implausible since it is contrary to the context of the Titus passage, almsgiving not being in view. Further, even if Jewish almsgiving was a work of righteousness, not all works of righteousness were acts of Jewish almsgiving.
60 Further, this stretched interpretation is contrary to the Catholic claim that the “washing of regeneration” in this passage is baptism. Since they practice infant baptism, this would have to refer to initial justification, not to progressive justification (= righteousness), which evangelicals call sanctification.
61 In fact, God said that the pagans, who do not have the Mosaic law, would be condemned for homosexual practices as well (cf. Lev. 18:24–26).
62 This, of course, is not true of what are often called ceremonial or civil aspects of the Mosaic law; they were unique to Israel. And it is only true of the duty to obey God’s moral precepts, not the punishment for not obeying them which was often more severe in the Old Testament (e.g., capital punishment for fornication, adultery, homosexuality, rape, and even an incorrigible child).
63 Melanchthon, Apology of the Augsburg Confession 4.71; quoted in Anderson, p. 226.
64 We call the error of “Galatianism” (namely, works are necessary for sanctification) a “serious error.” If it is a heresy, then many Protestants are heretical at this point too, since, at least in practice if not in theory, they too teach works are a condition for progressive sanctification.
65 See “Romans,” in A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, ed. by Dom Bernard Orchard et al. (Nashville: Nelson, 1953), p. 1049.
66 Ibid., p. 1055.
Geisler, N. L., & MacKenzie, R. E. (1995). Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: agreements and differences (pp. 228–239). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.