Dear Father, I have a Protestant relative who is constantly trying to convince me that we Catholics are wrong in saying that we need good works in order to be saved. He says we are saved by faith alone. How can I answer him?
This is the well-known question of sola fide, the Protestant belief in salvation by faith alone. Protestants typically believe that mankind is inherently sinful and can do nothing to merit salvation by works, so that we are saved only through faith in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for us. It is his merits that save us, not our own.
We should clarify that Protestants more often use the term justification by faith alone, and in this sense we have some common ground with them.
What is justification? The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us ‘the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ’ and through Baptism” (Rom 3:22; CCC 1987).
We see here that by justification we mean the passing of the soul from the state of sin, whether original or mortal, to the state of grace.
This takes place not only when we are baptised, but also when we commit mortal sin and are reconciled with God through contrition and confession.
If we now ask the question, “Can good works bring about our justification?” the answer must be no. Only when we are in the state of grace can our good works be meritorious, that is deserving of an increase of grace and of storing up treasure in heaven.
When we are in the state of original sin before Baptism, or in the state of mortal sin after Baptism, our works have no merit. It is the undeserved grace of God, won for us by Christ’s death and resurrection, that lifts us out of the state of sin.
For this reason the Catechism says: “Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favour, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call …” (CCC 1996).
So in this sense, we can agree with Protestants.
But does this mean that our good works have no value at all in bringing about our justification?
No it doesn’t mean that.
While good works by themselves cannot merit justification, they do dispose us to receive God’s grace.
For example, an unbaptised adult or a person in the state of mortal sin, through his kindness, generosity and service to others along with prayer to God, prepares himself to receive God’s grace of conversion more easily.
And of course faith is fundamental, too, as Protestants teach.
In this sense the Catechism teaches: “Justification establishes co-operation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the co-operation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent” (CCC 1993).
This faith, as the Catechism says, leads to conversion and works of charity, so that the person is better prepared to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit.
When we pass from considering what is needed for justification to what is needed for salvation, that is eternal life in heaven, we find that good works are absolutely essential.
It is Jesus who says so. For example, in answer to the man who asked, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” he said, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Mt 19:16-17).
And in teaching about the final judgment, Jesus makes salvation dependent on works of charity: “Then he will say to those on his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food’.” (Mt 25:41-42)
Taking up these teachings, St James writes: “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” He goes on to say: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone …” (Jas 2:14-17, 24).
Summing up, to be saved we need faith but we also need works.