Salvation by works?
“If you die now will you go to heaven?” and “Do you want to have assurance of salvation?” are the two most common questions raised by “born-again” Protestants and/or “Bible only” Christians when they meet and challenge Catholics. Many Catholics are not ready to give the answer because they hardly know the teaching of the Catholic Church on salvation. Sadly, instead of trying to look for the answer from the Church, they simply accept what those Protestants or “Bible only” Christians explain about salvation in Catholicism. As one may expect what they hear or read is the distorted teaching of the Church.
Many Protestants and “Bible only” Christians think that Catholics must earn their way to heaven through good works, performing certain rituals like novena, pilgrimage, fasting, abstinence etc. In short they think Catholics believe in salvation by works. The late Calvinist scholar Lorraine Boettner, infamous for his anti-Catholic book “Roman Catholicism“, wrote:
In Protestantism salvation is a matter of grace. In Romanism [Catholicism] one must work hard for it and must pay dearly for it, and after he has done all that the priest has prescribed he still cannot know whether he has it or not.
Boettner, Roman Catholicism, page 268
Echoing the same view, former Catholic James G. McCarthy who founded Good News for Catholics (http://www.gnfc.org/) with the aim to convert Catholics to his version of “Bible only” Christianity wrote:
For the Roman Catholic, eternal salvation involves a lifetime of doing, working and striving. The Catholics must keep the commandments of God and of the Church. He must receive sacraments and performs acts of piety. He must do good works. His eternal salvation depends on all of these.
McCarthy, The Gospel according to Rome, page 69
As former Catholic either McCarthy is genuinely ignorant or he deliberately covers up what the Catholic Church really teaches.
It was Pelagius (c. 350 AD to 425AD) who first taught that men can earn their salvation without help (Grace) from God. He believed that the Fall of Adam did not affect mankind (or there is no Original Sin) and neither did the death and resurrection of Christ. While he did not deny the existence of God’s Grace, to him it only facilitates what we ourselves can do for our salvation. The Catholic Church, through Augustine, teaches that men, because of the sin of Adam, cannot reach the justified state to enter heaven without God’s Grace. Pelagius’ teaching, known as Pelagian or Pelagianism, was condemned in the Council of Carthage in 418 AD and Orange in 529 AD. After Reformation, the sixteenth century ecumenical council of Trent reaffirmed Catholic Church position that (1) we cannot reach salvation by our own works, i.e. without God’s Grace and that (2) God’s Grace is not facilitator but necessity for our salvation.
If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema.
Council of Trent, Canon I on Justification
If any one saith, that the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, is given only for this, that man may be able more easily to live justly, and to merit eternal life, as if, by free will without grace, he were able to do both, though hardly indeed and with difficulty; let him be anathema.
Council of Trent, Canon II on Justification