Hey Bible Geek, do we get into Heaven through faith or through works? I went with my friend to her non-denominational Church and the pastor guy said that Catholics believe that they earn their way into Heaven. Is that true? I don’t think it is but then my friend starting rattling off scripture verses and I didn’t have any to back myself up. Please help me!
Bible Geek: Did you know that this point you brought up is probably the biggest reason that keeps Catholic and Protestant churches divided, and yet, it is entirely based on one HUGE misunderstanding of what the Catholic Church taught and teaches.
We (Catholics and Protestants) believe, foundationally, the same thing about how someone “gets in” to Heaven, no matter what anyone (even a pastor, in this case) says.
What is “justification”?
Justification is a popular word when speaking about salvation. Webster’s dictionary defines it as, “to regard as righteous and worthy of salvation.” Basically, a “justified” person is someone who is “straight” with God, exactly where He wants them to be.
People like to quote Romans 3:28, and Ephesians 2:8-9 saying that each of these verses show how people are justified by faith, apart from works…meaning that we will be “right with God” and get into Heaven (salvation) if we just have faith (proclaim that Jesus is God) and do nothing else.
Usually after they quote passages like those above, they profess that Catholics disagree with those points. Which is not the case. Look no further than the Catechism:
“Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men…our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become his children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.” (CCC #1992, #1996) (Jn 1:12-18, Rom 8:14-17, 2 Pet 1:3-4)
What the Catholic Church DOES NOT teach or believe about “faith and works”
Just to set the record straight on a couple of things:
- The Catholic Church does not believe that people earn their way into Heaven through good works.
- The Catholic Church does not teach that works are more important than faith, and it has never taught that concept.
- St. Paul and St. James do not have different views on faith and works, they are completely in line with one another, they’re just focusing on different aspects of life and salvation. Any good Biblical scholar, Catholic or Protestant, can see that.
- The Catholic Church does not believe in the concept of “once saved, always saved”. It is completely unbiblical that once we accept Christ as our Savior, nothing we do (no matter how bad or how sinful) can cost us our salvation. That is simply not true.
What the Catholic Church DOES teach and believe about “faith and works”
Read these two verses and ask yourself, do they contradict each other?
“For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law” - Romans 3:28
“See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” – James 2:24
They seem to disagree, right? Well, that’s what a lot of people think, but in actuality, they don’t. Sadly, entire religions have broken apart and God’s family has continued to sever ties because of this supposed contradiction.
St. Paul and St. James were not disagreeing (although it might appear, upon a quick glance that they are) but they are actually in complete agreement, though two sides of the same coin.
When Paul mentions “works” he is talking about observances of Jewish law, like circumcision, purification rituals, regulations on what foods to eat…that sort of thing.
When James mentions “works” he is talking about Christian corporal and spiritual works of mercy like those we are called and commanded to perform…like the Beatitudes (Matthew 5).
St. Paul is trying to explain to Jewish Christians that they are no longer bound to Jewish rituals and laws in order to be “justified” or “in right relationship” with God. St. James is trying to explain that just a mental acceptance and invitation of God–”faith”–is not the end, but the beginning to a life in Christ, one which must serve others in order to “bear fruit that would remain” (John 15), otherwise they’d be in trouble because “the dead are judged according to their deeds” (Rev. 20:12-13).
What God expects of us, according to the New Testament
God expects us to do good works, and makes it clear that while they will not earn us our salvation, because we cannot do it on our own, that they will be strictly counted and mercifully remembered during our judgment. Several scriptures speak of the expectation for “good works”:
1 Cor 13:2
1 Cor 15:58
2 Cor 5:10
Phil 2:12-13 Heb 6:10
James 2:22, 24
1 Pet 1:17
1 John 3:21
A couple things that might prove helpful to you, just in case someone lashes out at your Catholic faith, regarding this topic in the future
- The phrase faith alone only appears once in the Bible (if it is an accurate translation of Bible): “See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” – James 2:24 How is that for irony?
- Martin Luther added the word “alone” to Romans 3:28, in his German translation of the Bible – in order for the scriptures to agree with the theology he was promoting and teaching. By the way, doing so goes against scripture directly, “I warn everyone who hears the prophetic words in this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book…” - Revelation 22:18
- Martin Luther, even after he left the church, still believed strongly in the Sacramentality of Reconciliation, the worth of a strong devotion to Mary and in the real and true presence of Christ in the Eucharist. All of these are found in his personal letters, after he was censured and silenced from writing or speaking publicly by his own followers.