Catholics, works and salvation

You will often come across people who believe that the Catholic Church teaches “salvation by works.” If you encounter this, ask them what they mean. For example, if they are referring to “works of the Mosaic law,” or “works of the first covenant,” this is not true. The Catholic Church teaches that the Mosaic law is no longer in effect because it has been superseded by the New Covenant.

I am reading a book on the Catholic teaching on salvation to help me understand this point better, because “doing” is important in Catholic teaching, yet I know it is not the basis of our salvation. The book is called, “How can I get to heaven?” by Robert Sungenis. I am not very far into it yet, but so far Sungenis says that when Paul talks about “works” or “works of the law” in Romans, Paul is using those ideas to mean that we can’t obligate God in any way to owe us salvation:

“Paul is condemning justification by law only with respect to contractual obligation…” (p. 21)

Any reward or blessing we receive from God is only due to his grace, not due to an obligation that was somehow created in him by us behaving well. Sungenis goes on to talk about the role of works:

“… however, the law, as expressed and practiced in virtue, fully cooperates with grace in justification.” (p. 21)

He then quotes Romans 2:5-10 where Paul discusses the relationship of works to salvation:

But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.

These good works are done under God’s grace, not in order to obligate God, but out of love for him: “…love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:10b).

For me, I think starts with the first commandment. We start by believing in God, loving him, then we love our neighbor as ourselves, then we learn what love really is so that we can do it the way God wants. Doing is important; the Bible is clear that we will be judged based on our works, which I think means we will be judged based on how much we loved and acted on that love. As it says at Fish Eaters:

We are saved by Christ’s grace alone, through faith and works done in charity [ie, love] inspired by the Holy Spirit.


Author: everybodysdaughter

I'm an adult child of divorce, having been raised in multiple divorce/remarriage situations. I'm writing in order to shed light on the problems of divorce from the perspective of the child. I will also discuss problems with other non-triad family structures, since there is a lot of overlap. People often think that better parenting skills will overcome problems in non-triad arrangements. While I agree that parenting skills are important, they cannot overcome the problems I discuss such as fractured ontology and perpetual liminality. I converted to the Catholic faith in 2012, and will discuss Catholic things from time to time as well.

39 thoughts on “Catholics, works and salvation”

  1. Everybodysdaughter,

    You said:

    “…you did not address the dilemma that the Judiazers faced after the council rendered its verdict. They thought the Scriptures meant something other than what the council said.”

    Ok, so they (the Judaizers) got it wrong, and the apostles clarified this issue by digging deeper into the principles of Scripture. So what?


      1. Hello Everybodysdaughter,

        I see that we’ve gotten way off topic (which was on works), and maybe it’s my fault, so please forgive me if that’s the case.

        But I don’t think that I am conceding the point here. Of course it was “human authority” who clarified the issue for the Judaizers. But the point is that those apostles in the Council of Jerusalem based their conclusion on Scripture, thus showing US what to do to when we have spiritual questions.

        We don’t have apostles today, but we still have their infallible teachings in the form of the Bible.

        Now, the real problem, I believe, is that you are assuming that one needs some special “authority” to interpret Scripture, but that is not true. Please see my latest article on that exact topic here:


          1. The problem is not private interpretation. The problem is that heretics such as yourself deny the inspired voice of the church at this hour. Private interpretation is inescapable, even for Catholics. However Catholics rightly recognise that the church has the power to receive “divine clarification” in the form of dogmatic statements – whether made by a pope ex cathedra or defined in the form of a divine anathema by an ecumenical council. Heathen such as yourself deny that the church has this power, and thus stand condemned. You are doomed to run in circles chasing your own tail, reinventing the wheel for all eternity and often getting it wrong. Rather than just accepting the divinity of Christ as an inspired dogma of the Catholic tradition, you feel the need to “prove everything from scripture”. As a result, many of you end up denying the divinity of christ, or the trinity, or the fact that salation is completely and entirely by grace. You “read the scriptures” and come to the erroneous notion that we must save ourselves by our own works.

            It is sad and pitiful. Join the one true church and immerse yourself in the holy tradition of Christ. Truth can be found nowhere other than Catholicism


              1. I nowhere used negative labels. I merely employed technical terms. If russell can’t handle the truth that he is a heretic (a non-catholic Christian) and a heathen (someone who is outside of christ and suffering animosity towards him and his truth) then he has no business engaging in public debate.

                Facts don’t care about feelings. If you are offended by the truth; too bad.


                  1. You’ve already pushed my limit past breaking point. I have no patience for discussion with ignorant and hypersensitive people online. You end up getting jumped on just for speaking the truth. Good luck with your future blogging endeavours.


        1. I think you misunderstood the Catholic claim. You are correct to say that people do not need a special authority to read or interpret scripture. See what I did here, for example:

          What Christians do need, in contrast, is a special authority to apply the one and only correct interpretation of Scripture to the entire Church (aka, setting doctrine and dogma).

          To summarize:

          I have the ability and authority to read and interpret Scriptures, such as I did for Luke 16. Like the Judiazers and any other Christian, I am free to make arguments and interpretations.

          However, when there is a conflict in interpretations, I am not free to take my interpretations and make the entire Church believe them as the one and only correct interpretation of those verses. This is where the Judiazers erred. They thought that they could continue to believe whatever they believed was best about the meaning of the Scriptures.

          You are, essentially, saying that the authority demonstrated in Acts 15 (to impose the correct interpretation of scripture upon the whole Church) no longer exists. The Catholic claim is that it does still exist and never stopped existing.


          1. Everybodysdaughter,

            You admitted that we don’t need a special authority to read or interpret Scripture. Ok, great. But then you immediately say that we DO need a special authority after all, to “apply the one and only correct interpretation” of Scripture if there’s a conflict.

            But on what do you base this information? Who says that we “need” this “special authority” if there is a conflict? Acts 15 never suggests that we will or must have a continual infallible authority in the church. You may say, “The Catholic Church says so. Therefore, it is on the basis of the authority of the Catholic Church.” But this is simply begging the question. How do we know that THEY have the authority to properly interpret in the first place?

            If you say, “On the basis of certain Scriptures that point to the Catholic Church as the final interpreter,” then how do you know that you have correctly interpreted THOSE Scripture verses? Is it because the Catholic Church tells you that that is the “only correct interpretation”? Of course, that would be circular reasoning.

            I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but it keeps coming down to two choices: either 1) common-sense, reasonable, and consistent interpretations, or 2) some mythical “infallible” and “only correct interpretation possible.” Again, the Catholic does not have any more certainty in his Bible interpretation than anyone else, since we all have to use private judgment and fallible interpretations with our fallible minds. Even when it comes down to interpreting our infallible authorities.

            Everybodysdaughter, I believe that we have both made our points and I don’t want us to waste each other’s time rehashing the same things. I will bow out and let you have the last word. I did really enjoy the discussion and I want to thank you for your time, your courtesy, and your patience with me. Let’s pray that God will open the eyes of ALL of us to His truth. Thanks again, and feel free to visit my blog anytime.

            In His Name,


            1. “Acts 15 never suggests that we will or must have a continual infallible authority in the church.” The authority is clearly there in Scripture. The burden is on Protestants to show where it says in the Bible, and in the history of the early Church, that the authority ceased, or was no longer needed.

              There are Scriptural and, to your point, historical arguments to defend the Catholic view. History supports the Catholic view (of the continuance of this authority); it does not support the Protestant view that the authority ceased. One famous saint said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” This is because the history of the early Church does not support a “me and my Bible” approach to being a Christian.

              Bishop Barron used an analogy of a sports game, and said: “If you love the game and want it to go on, there is a voice, a clear voice, a living voice, that can determine ‘fair or foul…'” It can’t go on without the umpire.

              The beginning of Christianity was the fulfillment of Judaism. It was not a break from it, as it to cut itself off from its roots in order to start anew. Contrast this with the beginning of Protestantism. It was not the beginning of Christianity, nor was it the fulfillment of Judaism or Catholicism. It was supposed to be a reform movement for the existing Church. But it went outside the Church to reform it. It cut itself off from its roots.

              You find it more convincing that the “Bible alone” doctrine is God’s will for us as Christians than I do. Yet unity remains elusive under that doctrine, and historical Christianity does not support it.


  2. Hello Everybodysdaughter,

    Nice to see you again.

    There are a number of official Catholic sources that tell us that works are NECESSARY for salvation. The 6th Session, chapter 7, of the Council of Trent says that the “instrumental cause” of justification is baptism (which is a work). CCC #1129 of the Catechism reiterates this concept, but uses “sacraments” (plural); more works. Vatican II (Apostolic Constitution on the Revision of Indulgences) says that “good works were also offered to God for the salvation of sinners… indeed, the prayers and good works of holy people were regarded as of such great value that it could be asserted that the penitent was washed, cleansed and redeemed with the help of the entire Christian people.”

    This looks like earning salvation through works to me. Saying that “merit” is not “earning” is just semantics.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Russell! I hope you’re doing well!

      Just one thought. Baptism isn’t a work because it’s not something we do ourselves. It is done by someone else to us.

      It’s late, and I’ve been studying like mad so I’m slammed for time right now and will be for the next few weeks. Not sure when I’ll be back. See you around. Thanks for stopping by. ☺


        1. OK, point taken–both are passive. However, nobody was saved by circumcision, nor does the Scripture claim that anybody was. The scripture does say, in contrast, “…baptism now saves you.” You probably don’t agree, which brings us back to a point I raised earlier on your blog.

          Who is to judge between us? I don’t want to go round and round on what the Scriptures mean, because I don’t have authority to enforce the one and only correct interpretation, and neither do you. One of is right and the other is not. And the point matters, it’s not inconsequential.

          This is why I brought up Acts 15 previously–those Christians who thought the Scriptures mandated circumcision for new Christian converts were required, by the council’s verdict, to change their views on what the Scripture meant. They didn’t have a choice in the matter if they wanted to retain their standing as Christians.

          The Scriptures cannot enforce anything, they cannot teach anything.


          1. Everybodysdaughter,

            First of all, thank you for your kind comments.

            Now, to address your point, I agree wholeheartedly. Absolutely no one can obligate God to give us anything. And that’s a healthy mentality! It’s really important for all of us to note the “gap” between God’s righteousness / greatness / majesty and our own puny weakness and spiritually bankrupt selves! Whatever we will ever have that is good certainly comes from Him! I think we both agree.

            I think that Robert Sungenis’ idea of salvation is closer to the truth than what I’ve seen and heard from most other Catholics. He recognizes that some try to use “works of debt” to “obligate” God to give them salvation. I understand his point here and I agree that we can’t do that. It is also true that we must do works with the right attitude, as Sungenis would agree. You and I would both agree that works done with the wrong attitude do not save. But simply labeling certain works as “works done under grace” does not make them salvific. There is no such thing as “works that save” versus “works that don’t save.”

            Let me ask you a few questions. Was Abraham’s circumcision a good work, a God-ordained work of righteousness (Genesis 17:10)? We have no reason to believe that he did this work with the wrong attitude. So, wouldn’t Abraham’s circumcision be a “work done under grace,” according to Sungenis? If yes, then why did this God-ordained work NOT save him (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:9-10)?

            Ok, I don’t want to go too long here, so I’ll stop for now.

            In His Name,


            1. I’m sure you will agree that I cannot speak for Sungenis. I do wonder though: if Abraham had refused to become circumcised, would we even know who he is today? I don’t see how that is possible. Had he refused, God’s plan would have had to pass to somebody else, somebody who was willing to obey. So was it a work done under grace that saved him? Kind of looks that way to me. I might be wrong though–not willing to say for sure one way or the other, because it strikes me as a pretty deep theological question… and an interesting one too! And of course, either way, God was not obligated to provide salvation as a result of the action.

              But yea… what if Abraham had refused to become circumcised?


              1. Hello again Everybodysdaughter,

                You said:

                “So was it a work done under grace that saved him? Kind of looks that way to me.”

                No, the Scripture clearly says that it was Abraham’s FAITH, his BELIEVING, that saved him (Romans 4:1-3; 4:9-10), not any “work done under grace.” He was saved long before he ever got circumcised.

                And what if Abraham had refused to be circumcised? I agree with you that God would have chosen someone else. But that’s really irrelevant. It wasn’t his obedience to do the work that saved him, but his faith that caused him to be obedient.


                1. I am not convinced we are talking about separate things. Here is an interesting thought experiment: I had a response written here, but instead of posting it as it was, I changed it so that the word “faith,” became the word “love.” I think it makes the connection more clear. See what you think. Here it is:

                  I don’t think speculating if Abraham had refused is irrelevant. It goes to the heart of the matter. What I’m seeing is actually a singular thing, not separate things (as if we could separate his love apart from his obedience). Yes, he had love, and that love informed his choice to be obedient. We can’t really separate them out, as if they are different things, can we? When the author of Hebrews talks about Abraham’s love, it is connected to his obedience. They’re not separate things. As James 2 says, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has love but does not have works? Can that love save him?… Indeed someone may say, ‘You have love and I have works.’ Demonstrate your love to me without works, and I will demonstrate my love to you from my works.”


                  1. Everybodysdaughter,

                    It is true that love and faith do act together in the sense that they are both PRESENT in salvation. I’m not denying that. But what we’re really hashing out here is what is the actual CAUSE of salvation, not making a list of all the emotions and characteristics that can be present during salvation.

                    But the verses I gave you earlier emphasize and isolate FAITH as the direct cause of one’s salvation. Please go back and read them carefully. To be even more specific, Romans 4:4-6 tells us that we are saved by faith APART FROM WORKS (just emphasis, I’m not yelling). This doesn’t mean salvation apart from the PRESENCE of works, but apart from the MERIT of works. It can hardly be any clearer.

                    In Hebrews 11 and James 2, your use of the word “love” in place of “faith” is not justified. You’re just putting words in the authors’ mouths. To find the truth on how one is saved, we should go to those parts of Scripture which deal directly and SPECIFICALLY with salvation / justification; and Romans 3, 4, and 5 do exactly that. These three chapters are the clearest, longest running, continuous passage that specifically deals with the topic. This passage defines the DOCTRINE of justification. Hebrews 11 and James 2 only deal with it in passing.

                    So, yes, Scripture does separate these traits. I am not saying that they won’t be present, just that they aren’t salvific.


                2. Apologies for butting in on the conversation. For some reason I am email subscribed to the comment stream and so am receiving constant updates about what you guys are saying.

                  Abrahams faith did not “save” him. Abrahams faith “Justified” him. You would do well to learn the difference. It exasperates me to run into so much ignorance on this issue among protestants.

                  We are saved completely and entirely by grace. Faith has absolutely nothing to do with it whatsoever. Otherwise you are preaching the heresy of pelagianism by putting conditions that we must meet onto salvation. If faith is what saved us, then salvation would be our responsibility rather than God’s, and this is blasphemy. I defy you to find a single verse in all of scripture which clearly says that we are saved “by faith”. People who say this clearly do not understand the gospel of grace.

                  On the other hand, we are “justified” by both faith and works, as per romans and james 2:24. Justification is not salvation. I recommend you drill that into your head ASAP. It is thoroughly embarrassing to see you claiming that Abraham was “saved” “by faith”.

                  Liked by 1 person

                  1. Everybodysdaughter,

                    I have to ask, in your view, can we really know anything at all? If we can’t interpret, how can we ever come to any conclusions about a particular Scripture verse? Does it really not matter? Is it all a waste of time?


                    1. Everybodysdaughter,

                      You asked what they did in Acts 15 (the Council of Jerusalem). If there ever was any infallible council of the church, it is this one. Why? Because it was decided by APOSTLES! But even so, this council was definitely based on the principles of SCRIPTURE.

                      You may have forgotten, but I already addressed your comments on this council in Acts 15 here:


                      Here was my answer to you:

                      [Begin quote]

                      You then claimed that the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) was decided by human authority with “weak biblical support.”

                      As far as the “weak” biblical support, I’m assuming that you are referring to Acts 15:15-18, which “does not even mention circumcision.” No, it doesn’t, but the apostle James is quoting Amos 9:11-12, which is emphasizing the allowing of Gentiles into the kingdom, and a de-emphasis on Jewish ceremonial laws (like circumcision). Other Old Testament biblical support would include passages like Leviticus 26:41, Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6, Jeremiah 4:4 and 9:25, which all speak of the circumcision of the HEART. These are all pointing out that this is what matters to God, rather than physical circumcision. The apostles recognized this and determined that this is the will and intention of God for the church; not just the physical cutting of the flesh, but the (spiritual) circumcision of the heart.

                      Also, the apostles were well aware of Abraham’s example in Genesis 15:6, where God reckoned Abraham as righteous through his faith BEFORE he was ever circumcised (Genesis 17:10).

                      So, the apostles’ decision in Acts 15 was indeed based on Scripture.

                      [End Quote]


                    2. Russell, I did not forget, but you did not address the dilemma that the Judiazers faced after the council rendered its verdict. They thought the Scriptures meant something other than what the council said.


    2. There are also a number of official Catholic sources that clearly tell us that Salvation by works is heresy. For example the Council of Orange in 529 AD.

      You really need to read up on the different types of merit before you start making accusations such as this. Catholics do indeed teach that we “merit” salvation, however this in no way compromises “salvation by grace”. Futhermore, works do not determine the “fact” of our salvation, only the quality of our salvation. If you want to develop some intuition for what Catholics mean when they say we “merit” salvation, look at all the passages in the New Testament which talk about receiving heavenly rewards for good works. There is even a passage somewhere in the Pauline corpus which states that we merit “eternal life” by our good works! Is it possible to be saved and yet not have done any good works and therefore not experience any significant eternal life? Yes, it’s what Catholics have historically referred to as Limbo.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. To elaborate on “merit”: There are two different kinds. The first kind (which you are probably thinking of) is the kind where you “earn” compensation on account of a debt of justice. You have done some work which has placed another person in your debt, and therefore they are obligated to pay you back. Obviously we do not “merit” salvation in this way, because there is nothing we can do which would put God in our debt.

      The second kind of merit is where you receive a gift (grace) on the basis of a conditional promise made by someone. That person in no way HAS to give you a gift, or reward you for your efforts, however they DID promise to reward you if you fufilled some condition. For example, a father might make a conditional promise to their child: “If you achieve 90% on the test, I will buy you a new phone”. In this case, the father is in no way forced to reward the child for success in their exam, however the father has bound himself to a promise, in which he states he will reward the child.

      It is in this second sense that we “merit” eternal life. God has promised to reward us if we do good. This is not because he is in any way forced to reward our good deeds, but purely because of his grace: he lovingly and gratuitously promises to reward us for good works. And the reward he gives us is eternal life.

      Lest you think this all boils down to “salvation by works”, please note that the brute fact of our justification in no way depends on works: it depends entirely on what Christ has done on the cross to save humanity. What we are “meriting” is an increased EXPERIENCE of the eternal life which Christ has won for us all. And always keep in mind Ephesians 2:10: The works which God promises to reward, were prepared by him beforehand for us to walk in in any case. In this way it is not even really us who are doing the good works: it is Christ working through us. We are his hands and feet after all. God is not rewarding us: He is rewarding Christ.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think when Protestants start hurling the accusation of “Salvation by works” at Catholics, what they are really getting upset about is a perceived lack of “assurance” in the current Catholic sensus fidelium. And they actually have a valid point! Most if not all Catholics I come across are either apathetic towards their own salvation, or they are utterly terrified of committing a mortal sin, dying and being dragged down to Hell. Catholics simply don’t have the “assurance” that evangelical protestants have. And because of this, Catholics lack the “Gospel Joy” that evangelicals revel in too.

    My conviction is that this need not be the case. Once you pair the Catholic Synergistic understanding of salvation with a robust doctrine of predestination and an understanding of the Universal Salvific will of God, you find yourself in the wonderful position of being able to affirm both the necessity of works to salvation as well as a divine guarantee that you will indeed successfully walk the path to heaven; God will succeed in the battle for your soul. In this way you maintain theological orthodoxy whilst also overflowing with the overwhelming joy and happiness of the evangelicals.

    If you want to know more, I talk about this all the time on my blog. Give it a visit and click on relevant categories in the sidebar (Assurance and Predestination are good starting points)

    PS. It is important not to slip into antinomianism when you have the described gospel joy. This is why we have a doctrine of purgatory: Even if you are guaranteed to go to heaven, Sin DOES have consequences, . Your sins will not be ignored just because Jesus died for you on the cross. There will be Hell to pay if you walk through this life in a state of presumption. Nevertheless, you WILL be saved, yet as through fire (1 Corinthians 3:15)

    Liked by 1 person

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