Does Catholicism really teach works salvation rather than salvation by grace through faith? This is the "common wisdom" among non-Catholics. Yet a careful study of the Catholic view of salvation will reveal something very different.
Creation, the Fall and Redemption according to Catholicism
In the beginning, the Creator gave our first parents, Adam and Eve, three distinct sets of gifts:
When they disobeyed God's command, they cut themselves off from God, the Source of all life. Thus they forfeited sanctifying grace and died spiritually. As a result, we their descendents are born spiritually dead (Eph 2:1), bereft of sanctifying grace and cut off from fellowship with the living God. This is what the Church means when she says that infants are "in a state of original sin"; not that little babies commit sinful acts in utero, or are tainted by their parents' sins or by the sex act. The "state of original sin" is simply the lack of sanctifying grace which resulted from the original sin-the first sin committed by the human race.
Our first parents also forfeited all the preternatural gifts listed above, both for themselves and for their descendents. As a result we suffer (Genesis 3:16,19), die physically (Ro 5:15), struggle with passions and desires which our wills are too weak to control (Ro 7:19-23), and have minds which are darkened by sin (Ro 1:21; Eph 4:17-19).
Though they did not lose the natural gifts, the loss of control over passions and the darkening of their minds adversely affected their bodies and souls, giving them a certain inclination towards evil actions which they did not possess before the Fall. This proclivity towards sin, along with physical mortality and suffering, are among the secondary aspects of original sin in the human race. But original sin primarily consists in the loss of grace and divine communion.
So Catholics actually believe that the human race fell from a supernatural state of life-giving union with God to a purely natural state, devoid of spiritual life or preternatural gifts. The Fall did not totally corrupt our nature; it merely wounded it and severed fellowship with God, but these things are not irreparable. However, we still cannot save ourselves from this state, for we cannot restore to ourselves the sanctifying grace which we lost in the Fall. We can perform natural good deeds, but they cannot restore that holy quality to our souls, for God alone can restore that divine gift.
And God has restored it to us. Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, redeems us by His Cross and Resurrection and applies the sin-cleansing merits of His suffering and death to us through Baptism. He does not merely "impute" His righteousness to us, but actually makes us holy, righteous, new creations by this Sacrament (II Co 5:17). Through it we die with Christ to original sin and are raised to eternal life (Ro 6:2-11).
This is why Scripture says that Baptism now saves us (I Pt 3:21), washes away our sins (Acts 22:16), forgives sin (Ac 2:38) and regenerates us (Titus 3:5). Of course, the water in and of itself cannot do these things, but when poured over the forehead with the invocation of the Blessed Trinity, Jesus imparts His saving grace to the soul. As the Eternal Word redeemed us through the instrument of the Cross, so He applies that redemption to us through the instrument of water.
(Though water Baptism is ordinarily necessary for salvation, there are two exceptions in extraordinary circumstances. Those who desire to be baptized but die before receiving the Sacrament can receive from God the graces they would have received in Baptism. This is called Baptism of desire. And those who are martyred for Christ before being baptized are said to receive Baptism of blood, for God promises salvation for all who shed their blood for Christ - see Matthew 16:25.)
Though this Sacrament restores the supernatural gift of communion with God, it does not immediately restore all the preternatural gifts. We do not become immortal or free from suffering after Baptism; this will not occur until the redemption of our bodies at the general Resurrection (Ro 8:26; I Co 15:53; Revelation 21:4). Our disordered passions also remain with us throughout our lives, so we must struggle against our sinful inclination with the help of God, which comes to us as actual grace (as we saw in the first article).
Different Types of Good Works
Catholics distinguish between mere natural good works, which are performed by fallen humanity without the help of actual grace, and salutary acts, or good deeds performed by the just which are inspired and carried out by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 2:8-10 makes the same distinction between works which cannot save us (vs 9) and works which God wills us to perform in Christ Jesus (vs 10). The former are natural good works, the latter salutary acts.
Salutary acts clearly play a part in our salvation. They are the fruit of life in Christ (Jn 15:2-8); the works without which faith is dead (Jas 2:14-26) and the means by which we work out our own salvation (Phil 2:12-13). Since we perform them according to God's will and with divine help, they are not merely our works but the work of the Holy Spirit in and through us (vs 13). Therefore they, like our salvation, are the fruit of divine Grace.
Catholics, therefore, do not believe in "salvation by works"-in fact, the Council of Trent actually condemned that as a heresy:
"If anyone says that man can be justified before God by his own works, whether done by his own naturalRather, we believe that we are saved by grace from beginning to end: the grace of Jesus Christ regenerates us in Baptism, creates our faith, inspires salutary acts, sanctifies us through the Sacraments and will ultimately glorify us when Our Lord returns. Without grace we absolutely cannot be saved.
powers or through the teaching of the law, without divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema."
-Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Canon I
Why then do some Evangelicals think that Catholics believe in works salvation? Because they believe that salvation comes by "accepting Jesus Christ as ones personal Lord and Savior". So when they hear us tell our children to do good deeds and keep the Ten Commandments they interpret it as teaching works salvation, (since they consider the children to be "unsaved").
Yet we Catholics believe that Jesus saves us through Baptism (I Pt 3:21). So when we tell our children to be good we are teaching baptized, saved Christians which salutary acts God requires them to perform to "work out their own salvation" (Phil 2:12) and which sins to avoid which could cause them to lose their salvation. Naturally, they must rely on God's grace to accomplish these good works, for grace is the source of salutary acts.
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