Defending the Protestant Position of Salvation by Faith Alone

<p>This is a serious issue because one of the most important things a person should know is how he can become a Christian. When someone becomes a Christian, they are saved from the punishment of hell that we all deserve, forgiven, reconciled back to God, and welcomed into heaven to spend eternity loving God and loving others. If the Catholic position on faith and works is incorrect, then they aren’t telling people the correct way to become a Christian. In fact, if Protestants are right that someone is saved by faith alone apart from works, then adding works to salvation is a serious mistake. Paul even wrote that “[y]ou have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4).</p>

By Adam Lloyd Johnson, Ph.D.

Contents

Why is this important?

This is a serious issue because one of the most important things a person should know is how he can become a Christian. When someone becomes a Christian, they are saved from the punishment of hell that we all deserve, forgiven, reconciled back to God, and welcomed into heaven to spend eternity loving God and loving others. If the Catholic position on faith and works is incorrect, then they aren’t telling people the correct way to become a Christian. It’d be similar to giving someone incorrect instructions on how to get to Houston, TX; the danger in doing so is that the person receiving the incorrect instructions may not get to Houston. Now, it might be the case that some people would still make it to Houston in spite of the mistaken instructions, but it’d certainly be better to give them the correct instructions to begin with. In fact, if Protestants are right that someone is saved by faith alone apart from works, then adding works to salvation is a serious mistake. Paul even wrote that “[y]ou have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4).

In this article I’ll use the terms ‘salvation’ and ‘saved’ to refer to what happens when someone becomes a Christian. In other words, when someone becomes a Christian, they’re saved from hell and going to heaven. I’ll use the term ‘works’ to mean the things we do, good or bad. Doing good works (being kind, honest, faithful to your spouse, etc.) includes avoiding bad works (being mean, dishonest, cheating on your spouse, etc.).

I’ve chosen not to use more complicated terms like justification, sanctification, forensic justification, imputed or infused righteousness, etc. because, though such terms allow theologians to make more careful distinctions, I find that many times this actually causes more confusion. The Bible, God’s message to the world about how we can have a relationship with Him, was written to the common person, and we theologians tend to overcomplicate His simple message with our technical jargon. Instead, I think theologians should strive to explain God’s truth as simply as we can so as to eliminate people’s confusion, not cause more. In other words, I’m trying to help people understand the answer to the basic question the jailer asked Paul: “What must I do to be saved?” I, along with Paul, affirm that the answer is simple: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30-31).

Summary of the Catholic position on faith and works

The Catholic position on faith and works is spelled out in the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent, which you can read for yourself here: General Council of Trent: Sixth Session – Papal Encyclicals. Here are some pertinent quotes from this document: 

And, for this cause, life eternal is to be proposed to those working well unto the end, and hoping in God, both as a grace mercifully promised to the sons of God through Jesus Christ, and as a reward which is according to the promise of God Himself, to be faithfully rendered to their good works and merits.

Chapter XVI

If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.

Canon IX

If any one saith, that the man who is justified and how perfect soever, is not bound to observe the commandments of God and of the Church, but only to believe; as if indeed the Gospel were a bare and absolute promise of eternal life, without the condition of observing the commandments ; let him be anathema.

Canon XX

If any one saith, that the good works of one that is justified are in such manner the gifts of God, as that they are not also the good merits of him that is justified; or, that the said justified, by the good works which he performs through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life,—if so be, however, that he depart in grace,—and also an increase of glory; let him be anathema.

Canon XXXII

Now I summarize in my own words the Catholic position on faith and works. Some of my Catholic friends have read this summary and affirmed that I’ve accurately reflected the Catholic position. All the references below are from the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent which, again, you can read for yourself here: General Council of Trent: Sixth Session – Papal Encyclicals 

  1. The good works that someone does before he becomes a Christian do not in any way help him earn salvation because, as the Bible teaches, if salvation is by grace then it is not by works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace (Chapter VIII).
  2. The grace by which we are saved is not only the favor of God (Canon XI).
  3. Faith is the beginning and root of salvation (Chapter VIII).
  4. But a person can’t be saved by faith alone (Canon IX); he must also do good works (Canon XX, XXIV, Chapter X) such as obeying the commandments (Canon XX).
  5. These good works are not merely the fruits or signs of being saved (Canon XXIV).
  6. Heaven is given to those who work well to the end of their life as a meritorious reward for their good works (Canon XXIV, XXXII, Chapter XVI).
  7. These good works are only meritorious because Jesus infuses His virtue into Christians and His virtue precedes, accompanies, and follows their good works (Chapter XVI).
  8. Thus, a Christian’s salvation isn’t established from himself, or his own works without the grace of God (Canon I), but is infused in him through the merit of Christ (Chapter XVI).
  9. A person can lose his salvation, not by doing minor evils (Chapter XI), but by doing major evils (Canon XXIII, XXVII, Chapter XV) which include fornication, adultery, homosexuality, lying, thieving, coveting, drunkenness, railing, and extortion (Chapter XV).
  10. Someone who loses his salvation can have it again, not through faith alone but through the sacrament of penance (Chapter XIV, Canon XXIX).

We can summarize the Catholic and Protestant positions as follows:

Protestant: We’re saved by faith alone apart from works, and we can’t lose our salvation because of bad works.

Catholic: We’re saved by faith alone apart from works at first, but keeping salvation is based on our works.

Why should we believe that salvation is by faith alone apart from good works?

The New Testament teaches that salvation is by faith alone apart from good works. The clearest explanation of this is seen in Romans 3:19-4:25:

19 Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; 20 because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.

21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

27 Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one.

31 Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law.

4:1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:

“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven,
And whose sins have been covered.
“Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.”

Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, “Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” 10 How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; 11 and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, 12 and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised.

13 For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; 15 for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation.

16 For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17 (as it is written, “A father of many nations have I made you”) in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist. 18 In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken, “So shall your descendants be.” 19 Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; 20 yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, 21 and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform. 22 Therefore it was also credited to him as righteousness. 23 Now not for his sake only was it written that it was credited to him, 24 but for our sake also, to whom it will be credited, as those who believe in Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.

Here are other verses in the New Testament that teach that we’re saved by faith apart from works:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

Ephesians 2:8-10

According to these verses we’re not saved by our works, but we’re saved in order to do good works, to love God and love others. In other words, good works are what Christians do as a result of being saved, not what they do in order to be saved or keep their salvation. After someone becomes a Christian, God empowers them to grow and mature morally such that they live out the righteousness they’ve been gifted with and become more and more like Christ. But this growth and maturity in no way plays a part in earning or meriting salvation, nor does it play a part in earning or meriting the privilege of keeping this salvation and not losing it. This moral growth is the result of salvation which is accomplished by faith alone. In Philippians Paul said the same thing when he encouraged Christians to work out their salvation, not work for it.

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

Phil. 2:12-13

Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men. For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds. These things are good and profitable for men.

Titus 3:1-8

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God…. He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.

John 3:16-18, 36

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.

John 5:24

Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.

John 20:30-31

The Bible teaches that when someone trusts in Christ, God then declares them perfectly righteous even though they’re not yet living a perfectly righteous life. Paul wrote that “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:1-2). In some places the Bible describes this process in accounting terms such as “God credits righteousness” to their account (Rom. 4:5). In other words, when someone trusts in Christ, God puts “Jesus’ perfect righteousness” in their account. When someone trusts in Christ and becomes a Christian, God declares that person to have fulfilled all the requirements of God’s moral law based on Christ’s life and atonement being applied to their life. Paul explained that

When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.

Col. 2:13-14

From these verses we get the image of a moral bank account. The account goes down when we do something evil and goes up when we do something good. Unfortunately, we all have huge negative balances because we’ve all done a ton of evil things. We can never work off our debt by doing good things because our negative balance is just too big. However, when we trust in Christ, God pays off our debt by crediting to it an infinite amount of righteousness, i.e., His righteousness. God declares that person to have fulfilled all the requirements of His law as Christ’s righteous life is applied to their account. Christ takes our moral debt on Himself then and pays for it on the cross.

In some places the Bible describes this process in legal terms such as what happens in a legal situation where someone is not charged for what they rightfully should be charged with (Rom. 4:8). It’s similar to when someone is acquitted from the wrongs they’ve done, as Paul wrote, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation…” (2 Cor. 5:19). David explained it this way in the Old Testament: “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, Whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity” (Psalm 32:1-2). Paul quoted this verse from David as he noted that “David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works” (Rom. 4:6).

Paul argues that grace and meritorious good works (works that in some way earn salvation) are mutually exclusive. He wrote that “if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Rom. 11:6). In this context Paul is using the term grace to mean God’s favor that we don’t deserve. It’s similar to when someone graciously gives you a free gift you don’t deserve or didn’t earn. Specifically, he argues that ‘salvation by grace’ and ‘salvation by earning/meriting it through good works’ are mutually exclusive. In other words, if salvation is by grace, then it can’t in any way be something we can earn/merit initially through good works, and after we’re saved, we can’t earn/merit keeping our salvation through good works. If someone is rewarded the prize of their initial salvation for their good works or is rewarded the prize of getting to keep their salvation because of their good works, then it’s not truly by God’s grace alone. When one is rewarded for good works, the reward is not a matter of grace since the reward is owed, at least partially, for the good works that were done. This is Paul’s argument when he wrote that “to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due” (Rom. 4:4). What is worked for is not of grace and what is given by grace is not earned by works; the two are mutually exclusive.

That’s one of the reasons Paul gives that salvation must be by faith alone, for if it’s not by faith alone (if it includes good works in any way) then it’s no longer by grace. In the context where he’s discussing the righteousness that comes by faith (Rom. 4:13), Paul argues that salvation must be by faith because if works were involved in salvation, then salvation is no longer by grace. He wrote that “[f]or this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace” (Rom. 4:16). Catholics are insistent that salvation is by grace alone but not by faith alone. However, Paul here argues that in order for salvation to be by grace alone it must be by faith alone apart from works. In this context Paul is using the term grace to mean unmerited favor, and his point is that if salvation were based on works in any way, either to earn salvation initially or to earn the right to keep salvation, then it wouldn’t be a free gift but would be a merited/earned salvation. Thus, the idea of grace and works is as contradictory as the idea of unmerited merit. Gifts of grace can’t be earned or worked for; something that is earned or worked for is something that we’re owed or deserving of, and Paul says that would be a wage, not a gift (Rom. 4:4). But Paul explained that “to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness” (Rom. 4:5).

Another reason Paul gives that salvation must be by faith alone is that God designed salvation in such a way that someone can’t boast about their salvation. If salvation isn’t by faith alone (if it includes good works in any way, either to earn it initially or to earn the right to keep it), then a person could boast about their salvation.

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.

Rom. 3:22-28

Paul goes on to make another reason that salvation must be by faith apart from works, namely, that there is only one God. He wrote “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one.” (Rom. 3:29-30). In this context Paul is arguing that circumcision can’t be a requirement for salvation because then there’d be two ways to be saved (the way Abraham was saved before he was circumcised and then later if, in fact, it was the case that people had to be circumcised to be saved), which in turn would mean there are two gods instead of one. Paul agued that since there is only one God, there must therefore only be one way of salvation, which is by faith apart from works. We can extend Paul’s argument and say that if any requirement is added to salvation (baptism, circumcision, good works, penance, etc.), then there are two ways of salvation—the way Abraham was saved (by faith alone) and then this other way (for example, faith plus baptism). This is why salvation can’t be dependent upon circumcision or baptism or works, for then there would be more than one God. If Abraham could be saved by faith alone without baptism or good works, then we must be able to be saved the same way, through faith without baptism or works; anyone who argues differently is implicitly claiming there is more than one god. 

Abraham’s circumcision was merely a sign and a seal of the righteousness he had by faith (Rom. 4:11). Similarly, baptism plays a similar role today as circumcision did in Old Testament times, as merely a symbolic sign of the righteousness we have through faith apart from works. See Colossians 2:8-14 where Paul explains the similarities between circumcision and baptism and how they play the same role as a symbolic sign of the righteousness we have in Christ through faith alone. Paul uses Abraham as the prime example of salvation by faith apart from works:

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.

Rom. 4:1-5

What does it mean to repent?

Repentance is part of faith. Faith is trusting in Jesus Christ, that what He did on the cross reconciles you back to a right relationship with God which was broken because of your evil choices. Repentance is part of this faith because repentance is acknowledging that you’ve done evil things you shouldn’t have and that you shouldn’t do such evil things in the future. These acknowledgments are part of faith because someone wouldn’t be aware they needed to trust Jesus in order to reconcile them back to a right relationship with God if they weren’t aware they had done evil things which had broken their relationship with God.

Repentance also includes acknowledging that you shouldn’t do evil things in the future, but we need to clearly communicate to people that they are unable to change their life on their own; it’s only by God the Holy Spirit’s empowerment that they can become morally better after they trust in Christ for salvation. We need to communicate to people that if they become a Christian by trusting in Christ, then God will transform them into a new, morally better person from the inside out. If someone doesn’t want God to do that, then they are unwilling to become a Christian because they’re not ready to repent; in other words, they’re not acknowledging that they have done evil things they shouldn’t have and that they shouldn’t do such evil things in the future. Thus, while repentance is necessary for salvation, repentance is merely a part of faith in Christ.

What role do good works play in the life of a Christian?

When someone becomes a Christian, God the Holy Spirit gives him an inclination to do good works and empowers him to do them. Sometimes the New Testament authors use the term grace to mean God’s favor on us that we don’t deserve, but other times they use the term grace to mean God’s empowering ability He gives Christians to do good works and avoid sin. Thus, I find it helpful, when I communicate about these things, to use the terms undeserved favor of God’s grace in our lives and God’s empowering grace in our lives to highlight this distinction in how the New Testament authors used the term grace. Christians still struggle with evil desires and actions, but over time, if they walk by the Spirit, they grow and mature to become morally better people by God’s empowering grace.

What about the verses in the Bible that say Christians will be rewarded for their good works?

There are many verses which talk about God giving Christians rewards for their good works: 2 Cor. 5:10, Col. 3:24, Heb. 10:35, Heb. 11:6, etc. However, these rewards have nothing to do with receiving salvation initially, keeping your salvation, or getting into heaven, which the New Testament says is a free gift, not a reward or something you earn. These rewards discussed in the New Testament, then, are merely extra blessings in heaven awarded to Christians for their good works which they do after salvation. These good works don’t determine if someone is going to heaven or not but only what status a person will have in heaven, as Jesus explained in Luke 19:17-19. Also, Paul explained this when he wrote:

For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.

1 Cor. 3:11-15

Doesn’t James 2 say that a person can’t be saved by faith alone?

One of the primary reasons Catholics believe people are saved by faith and works is because James wrote:

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

James 2:14-26

I believe Catholics have misinterpreted these verses. It’s important to start with James’ question “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14). It’s a rhetorical question, and the obvious answer is no, that kind of ‘faith’ can’t save him because, as James goes on to explain, it’s a ‘dead faith.’ The hypothetical person ‘says’ they have faith, but they really don’t, and this is evident because of a lack of good works in their life. James’ point throughout this section is that this ‘false dead faith that can’t save’ isn’t a real, true faith. He’s describing a false faith, and the evidence it’s false is that it hasn’t produced a changed life, that is, it hasn’t produced good works. So the Catholic position and I agree that James is describing a faith that cannot save someone. However, the Catholic interpretation is that James is describing a true faith (but if it’s a true faith, why would James call it dead?), and thus they incorrectly conclude that true faith alone can’t save. Actually, James is describing a false faith claim (someone who ‘says’ they have faith), a dead faith, and the evidence that it’s false and dead is that it doesn’t produce works. According to James, it’s that type of faith, a false, dead faith, that cannot save.

James here is explaining that if someone has no good works, then that’s evidence their faith is false and dead; they’ve ‘said’ they have true faith, but they really don’t. Conversely, the good works which a Christian does are evidence that their faith is true saving faith. Good works in the life a Christian are evidence of God’s empowering grace in their lives, which they receive only as a result of putting their faith in Christ for salvation, that produces the fruit of the Spirit. Paul said something similar in Galatians:

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

Gal. 5:16-23

When someone truly puts their faith in Christ, then God changes them from the inside out and their life changes accordingly in that the Holy Spirit produces fruit in their life, that is, they engage in good works by God’s empowerment. That’s all that Paul meant when he wrote that what matters is “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Jesus also talked about how we can know whether or not someone has true faith by their works:

Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles, are they? So every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. So then, you will know them by their fruits.

Matt. 7:15-20

Jesus taught that false teachers will be known by their bad fruit and true teachers will be known by their good fruit. Similarly, James 2 is saying that if someone is a Christian, if they have true saving faith, then there should be fruit that functions as evidence that the Spirit is working in their life. One of James’ main messages throughout his letter is that Christians should “prove yourselves doers of the Word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (James 1:22-25). Thus we can be confident that he’s not talking about doing good works to earn salvation (or earn the right to keep their salvation) but is explaining that how people live their lives will be evidence as to whether or not their faith is genuine, real, true faith or if it’s a dead, unreal, false faith.

It is in this context that James goes on to drive home the point that good works in the lives of Christians are evidence of true faith. In other words, good works are the way to prove, or “show” evidence, of someone’s true faith they have that saved them. That’s why James wrote that someone can “show” their faith by their works (James 2:18). He argued that “faith without works is useless” (James 2:20), not only because it’s false and dead and thus can’t save but also because it provides no evidence of someone’s salvation; it can’t “show” that their faith is real. However, if someone “says” they have faith in Christ and is doing good works, then those works can be seen by others and considered as evidence that their faith is genuine and real. James then uses Abraham and Rahab as examples of how this plays out in practice.

First, James affirmed salvation by faith apart from works when he, like Paul, pointed out that the Old Testament taught that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (James 2:23). However, James explained that Abraham’s faith was evidentially justified by his action of being willing to sacrifice his son Isaac. James isn’t using the term ‘justified’ in this context to talk about salvation or to mean ‘to be made righteous’ like Paul often uses the term ‘justified.’ No, James is using the term ‘justified’ here to talk about how evidence justifies a certain conclusion. For example, a judge in a courtroom may say that the large amount of evidence justifies his conclusion that someone is guilty. Similarly, James is saying that good works in someone’s life serve as solid evidence that justifies concluding that the person is a Christian, that they have true saving faith. That’s what James was getting at when he wrote that “faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected [evidenced]; and the Scripture was fulfilled [justified, i.e., shown to be true by the evidence] which says, ‘and Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,’ and he was called the friend of God” (James 2:22-23). In other words, Abraham’s good works were evidence that showed he had truly believed/trusted in God. James concluded that a person’s salvation is “justified [evidenced] by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24), for we can’t ‘see’ a person’s faith but we can see the works that a true faith will produce. In the same way, James explained that Rahab’s salvation was “justified [evidenced] by works” (James 2:25) when she protected God’s messengers. Both Abraham and Rahab showed evidence of their true faith, and the salvation that results from true faith, through their good works.

On the flip side, if someone ‘claims’ to be a Christian and yet there’s no evidence of good works in their life, then that might be evidence they’ve made a false claim about being a Christian. The reason this is the case is that when someone becomes a Christian by putting their faith in Christ, God then transforms them into a new morally better person from the inside out. This transformation includes God giving them an inclination to do good works and empowering them with the ability to do them. So if I have a friend who claims to be a Christian, but I don’t see God’s transforming work in his life, it would be appropriate for me to be concerned and lovingly talk to him to make sure that he hasn’t falsely claimed to trust in Christ when in fact he really hasn’t. People make such false claims for various reasons: to get people to stop bothering them, to appease others, to impress folks for whatever reason, to get a job, to convince someone to date them, etc. Jesus talked about this in Matt. 7:15-23 when he warned of false teachers who claim to be Christians in order to take advantage of people. Jesus explained that we will be able to spot them by their bad works, i.e., their lack of good works. That’s the point James was making when he wrote that “faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself” (James 2:17). That is, if someone ‘says’ they have faith but there are no good works in his life, then that’s good evidence that his faith is dead, that is, that he has no true saving faith in Christ at all, it’s a ‘false dead faith.’

Lastly, it’s important to note that false dead faith might include believing some true facts about Christianity. This was the point James was making, that mere intellectual agreement on a set of facts isn’t true saving faith, when he wrote to his hypothetical objector that “you believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder” (James 2:19). This is a type of dead, useless faith; it’s merely intellectual assent, but since it’s not true saving faith/trust, it produces no good works in someone’s life. Real, true saving faith is not merely intellectual assent that certain facts are true; that would be a type of dead useless ‘faith.’ As I discussed above, faith is trusting in Christ, which includes repentance.

When Paul says a person is saved by faith apart from works, is he only talking about works someone does before he becomes a Christian?

Catholics argue that when Paul wrote that a person is saved by faith apart from works in Romans, Paul was only talking about the works someone does before they become a Christian. In this way Catholics maintain that while good works before someone becomes a Christian don’t play a part in salvation, good works (sometimes explained as the avoidance of bad works) after someone becomes a Christian play a part in salvation; namely, they’re required to keep someone’s salvation.

However, this idea is refuted by what Paul wrote in Galatians. Paul wrote Galatians to people who were already Christians through faith in Christ but then mistakenly thought they needed to do good works in addition to their faith in order to be saved. Paul repeatedly argues against this notion, so we can be confident from this that good works after salvation do not play a role in our salvation. Here are various verses from Galatians in which Paul argues this point:

[K]nowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified…. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.

Gal. 2:16, 20-21

This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations will be blessed in you.”

Gal. 3:2-8

Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.

Gal. 3:21-26

But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how is it that you turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things [the Old Testament Law and commandments], to which you desire to be enslaved all over again?

Gal. 4:9

You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love. You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion did not come from Him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough. 

Gal. 5:4-9

When someone truly puts their faith in Christ, then God changes them from the inside out and their life changes accordingly in that the Holy Spirit produces fruit in their life; that is, they engage in good works by God’s empowerment. That’s all that Paul meant when he wrote that what matters is “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6).

When Paul says a person is saved by faith apart from works, is he only talking about works of the Old Testament Law?

Catholics argue that when Paul, in Romans and Galatians, wrote that a person is saved by faith apart from works, Paul was only talking about the works of the Old Testament Law. In this way Catholics maintain that while works of the Old Testament Law aren’t necessary for salvation, general good works are necessary for salvation (that is, they’re necessary in order to keep your salvation).

First, consider Paul’s argument in Romans 4 that Abraham wasn’t saved by his good works. Were Abraham’s good works, which Paul says didn’t play a part in his salvation, works of the Old Testament Law or general good works? Abraham’s good works couldn’t have been works of the Old Testament Law because the Old Testament Law hadn’t even been given yet in Abraham’s day. The Old Testament Law didn’t come until four hundred years after Abraham lived. Since Abraham’s general good works didn’t play a part in his salvation, neither do general good works in our lives play a part in our salvation.

Second, even though in the immediate context of some parts of Romans and Galatians Paul is talking about the works of the Old Testament Law, it’s appropriate to extend Paul’s argument equally to all kinds of meritorious good works because all good works will in some way be in accordance with and derivative of God’s Law. All good works are works of the law in the sense that they are in accord with the moral truth contained in God’s Law. Paul himself makes this point in Romans 2 when he explained that when those without the Old Testament Law do the good works of the Law, it becomes a Law to them in that God has written the Law on everyone’s heart (Rom. 2:14-15). From this we can conclude that when Paul argues a person is saved by faith apart from works, he’s not only talking about the works of the Old Testament Law but also the works of the moral law written on everyone’s heart, which thus includes any and all good works.

The only reason Paul focused on works of the Old Testament Law sometimes when he argued in Romans and in Galatians against works playing a role in our salvations is because some were specifically arguing that salvation was dependent upon doing the works of the Old Testament Law. But Paul’s argument applies to any form of good works because all good works will in some way be in accordance with and derivative of God’s Law. Further, if the works of the Old Testament Law (which are the very best form of good works since they’re perfectly in accordance with God’s moral nature) can’t play a part in our salvation, then certainly no other lesser form of good works can.

Third, in several places in the New Testament, Paul condemns the idea that any works are necessary for salvation, not limiting his comments to merely ‘works of the Old Testament Law.’ For example, see Eph. 2:8-9 and Titus 3:5-7. Specifically in Ephesians we see that Paul is talking to Gentiles and therefore wouldn’t be referring to works of the Old Testament Law but merely good works in general.

When Paul says a person is saved by faith apart from works, is he only talking about works not done by God’s empowering grace?

Catholics argue, as can be seen in Canon XXXII which I quoted above, that when Paul wrote that a person is saved by faith apart from works, Paul was only talking about good works of your own. In this way Catholics maintain that while good works of your own aren’t necessary for keeping your salvation, good works done through God’s empowering grace are necessary for keeping your salvation.

In this context Catholics are using the term grace to mean God’s empowering ability He gives Christians to do good works. In other words, it’s not ‘your own’ works that cause you to keep your salvation but the works God produces in you. While this might be less incorrect than the idea that ‘your own good works’ cause you to keep your salvation, it’s still incorrect. Since, according to Catholics, a Christian could fail to do these good works, and thus lose their salvation, it’s still ultimately up to the person themselves, even if they’re empowered by God, to do these good works, and thus their salvation is dependent upon ‘their’ effort. That is why Catholics teach that heaven is given to those who work well to the end of their life as a meritorious reward for their good works (Canon XXIV, XXXII, Chapter XVI). If salvation can be lost by failing to do good works (or by failing to avoid bad works), then certainly it isn’t God’s empowering grace that failed (otherwise we’d have to say that God failed, which is impossible) but the person himself who has failed. Thus, it’s contingent on the person’s effort; they are required to do good works to earn the right to keep their salvation, and this is specifically what Paul argues against throughout Romans and his other letters.

In conclusion, if the good works Catholics claim are necessary for salvation are meritorious works we do in order to earn the right to keep our eternal life, then it makes no difference whether these works are prompted by God’s empowering grace or not because, either way, such works are meritoriously earned through a person’s effort, and Paul has argued that such meritorious works are mutually exclusive with salvation being a free gift of God’s grace.

Does it make a difference if, according to Catholics, the good works Christians do to earn the right to keep their salvation are works done through Christ’s merit and virtue?

Catholics teach that a person’s own good works don’t play a role in their salvation, only works done in and through Christ’s merit and virtue. In other words, it’s not ‘your own’ works that contribute to your salvation but ‘Christ’s works’ in you. While this might be less incorrect than the idea that ‘your own’ works keep you saved, it’s still incorrect. If keeping your salvation was only based on Christ’s merit and virtue, then it’d be impossible to lose it because certainly Christ’s merit and virtue couldn’t fail. However, since, according to Catholics, a Christian could fail to do these good works, and thus lose their salvation, it’s still ultimately up to the person themselves to do these good works, or fail to do them, and thus their salvation, or the loss of it, is ultimately dependent upon them and ‘their’ works. That is why they teach that heaven is given to those who work well to the end of their life as a meritorious reward for their good works (Canon XXIV, XXXII, Chapter XVI).

If salvation can be lost by failing to do good works, then certainly it isn’t Christ’s merit and virtue that failed, for that’s impossible, but the person’s own merit and virtue which has failed. Thus, the person’s effort is still required to do good works to earn the right to keep their salvation, and this is specifically what Paul argues against throughout Romans and his other letters. Paul argued that such meritorious works are mutually exclusive with salvation being a free gift of God’s grace.

Sometimes Catholics try to soften the idea that salvation is partially based on good works by describing our good works as though they’re all just Christ’s works being done through us. But within the Catholic doctrinal system, this can’t be the case because, according to them, if you lose your salvation because of bad works, then it’s not as though Christ failed but because you’ve failed.

And this is why Catholics believe it’d be prideful for a person to claim to know for sure he’s going to heaven because it does depend on him; it’d be prideful to say he knows he’ll be good enough to keep his salvation for the rest of his life. If it was all Christ’s work as some Catholics like to say, then it wouldn’t be prideful to confidently say you’re going to heaven because you’d be boasting in Christ’s work, not your own. So that shows it’s not just Christ’s works that Catholics believe are meritorious in the Catholic system but that your own good works, or lack thereof, are meritorious.

If someone loses their salvation, then Catholics don’t say Christ’s works have failed but that the person failed. Thus, in the Catholic system you play a part in the works, and it is your part that is meritorious, not Christ’s, because it is your part that ultimately determines if you go to heaven or not. If you play your part in good works, then you do go to heaven, so you merit it, and if you don’t play your part in good works, then you don’t go to heaven, so you demerit it. Thus, in the end it’s up to you and the part you play in the good works. In this system keeping your salvation becomes something you earn, work for, deserve, or merit and thus can be boasted about.

Can a person confidently know they’re going to heaven?

The Catholic position is no, a person can’t know they’re going to heaven. Catholics believe it’s prideful for someone to confidently claim they know they’re going to heaven because, since they think good works play a part in earning the right to keep their salvation, someone who is confident they’re going to heaven pridefully thinks they’re going to live a morally good life in the future when, in fact, they can’t know that for sure. That Catholics have this attitude confirms that they believe good works play a role in earning salvation (in that they earn the right to keep their salvation)—the reason they think it’s prideful is because they mistakenly think good works play a role in earning your way to heaven. Interestingly, they are correct that if good works play a role in your salvation, then you could rightfully boast about your salvation. However, that’s one of the reasons Paul gives as to why good works doesn’t play a role in salvation, that is, so that one can’t boast about their salvation:

Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law….  For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.

Rom. 3:27-4:5

Should we be concerned about people who claim to be Christians but have no good works?

Catholics often share that they’re concerned about Protestants who think that they can just believe in Jesus but go on living in sin. I’m also concerned with such Protestants. As I explained above, repentance is an important part of faith we need to explain to folks. We need to tell them that if they become a Christian, then God will transform them into a new morally better person from the inside out. If someone doesn’t want God to do that, then they’re unwilling to become a Christian because they’re not ready to repent; in other words, they’re not ready to acknowledge that they have done evil things they shouldn’t have and that they shouldn’t do such evil things in the future.

In addition, as I pointed out above from James 2, the New Testament indicates that Christian good works are helpful evidence that shows that one has true faith in Christ and is saved. The reason this is the case is that when someone becomes a Christian by putting their faith in Christ, God then transforms them into a new, morally better person from the inside out. This transformation includes God giving them an inclination to do good works and empowering them with the ability to do them. So if I have a friend who claims to be a Christian but I don’t see God’s transforming work in their life, it would be appropriate for me to be concerned and lovingly talk to them to make sure that they haven’t falsely claimed to trust in Christ when, in fact, they truly haven’t. People make such false claims for various reasons: to get people to stop bothering them, to appease others, to impress folks for whatever reason, to get a job, to convince someone to date them, etc.

Some Protestants believe that a Christian can lose his salvation. How similar is this to the Catholic position?

Though I don’t believe a Christian can lose his salvation, there are some Protestants who believe this is possible. However, such Protestants believe someone loses their salvation not if they fail to do good works but if they stop having faith in Christ. Thus, they still affirm that salvation is by faith alone apart from works, which is different than the Catholic position. If there are Protestants that believe a Christian can lose their salvation if they fail to do good works (or fail to avoid bad works, which is practically the same thing), then yes, they would be incorporating works into salvation, and I would say they’re incorrect to do so just like Catholics are incorrect to do so.

What about the warning passages in Hebrews?

Catholics interpret verses from Hebrews 4 and 6 as describing Christians who lose their salvation because they fail to do good works (or fail to avoid bad works, which is the same thing). Protestants who believe Christians can lose their salvation if they cease trusting in Christ interpret these verses as describing Christians who lose their salvation because they cease trusting in Christ. Protestants who don’t believe a Christian can lose their salvation interpret these verses to be describing those who have made a false profession of faith (they claimed to trust in Christ but in reality they didn’t) and thus eventually fall away because their faith wasn’t genuine to begin with. I affirm this last interpretation. Even though it’s true that the book of Hebrews uses some powerful language to describe what happened to these individuals (those who have once been enlightened, have tasted of the heavenly gift, and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit – Heb. 6:4), I understand this to be describing God’s wooing and empowering grace through which He was calling them to become Christians, but they resisted and ultimately rejected this offer.  

Is keeping our salvation based not on good works but merely on avoiding really bad works?

Sometimes Catholics claim keeping our salvation isn’t based on good works but only on unrepentant bad works. So they claim the only ‘work’ which must be done is the ‘work’ of avoiding sin and repenting when one fails to avoid sin. They claim someone can lose their salvation if they commit serious evil works and do not repent of them. In this way they try to avoid the charge that they’re making good works necessary for salvation. But isn’t ‘good works’ and ‘avoiding bad works’ the same thing? Isn’t ‘doing good works’ the same thing as ‘not doing bad works’? In other words, isn’t ‘staying faithful to your spouse’ (a good work) the same as ‘avoiding adultery’ (avoiding a bad work)? There is no distinction between the idea that keeping salvation is based on ‘staying faithful to your spouse’ and the idea that keeping salvation is based on ‘not committing adultery.’ It’s the same thing. Thus, Catholics’ claim that keeping salvation is only based on avoiding unrepentant bad works is just another way of saying salvation is based on good works. In addition, if Catholics are going to interpret James 2 as teaching salvation is based on faith and works, then according to that interpretation James specifically says salvation is based on good works, not based on avoiding unrepentant bad works.

Doesn’t Paul say in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 that those who do evil works won’t inherit the kingdom of God?

Consider what Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.

1 Cor. 6:9-10

Catholics interpret these verses to mean that Christians can lose their salvation by engaging in the evil works that Paul described. However, by considering all of chapter six we can confidently conclude this is not what Paul was talking about. In this chapter Paul is scolding the Christians in Corinth for fighting with each other. Some were even filing lawsuits against each other. Paul pointed out it was ridiculous that these Christians couldn’t handle their own disagreements but instead took their issues before unrighteous judges (1 Cor. 6:1). Then he describes the unrighteous in general, and these unrighteous judges in particular, in 6:9-10, the verses I quoted above. Immediately after this he wrote:

Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

1 Cor. 6:11

Thus, we can see that Paul isn’t talking about Christians who fall into these sins and thus lose their salvation. No, he’s describing the unrighteous in 6:9-10 and then reminding the Christians that some of them used to be like that too but now were forgiven and made clean in Christ. Paul does go on in this chapter to talk about Christians who commit the sin of sleeping with a prostitute. Interestingly, Paul doesn’t say such Christians would lose their salvation. In fact, Paul explains that since sex joins two people together, Christians, whose bodies are members of Christ, that have sex with a prostitute actually join the members of Christ with the members of a prostitute. If, as Catholics claim, Christians lose their salvation as a result of such sin, then it would seem odd that Paul would say such persons would join the members of Christ with the members of a prostitute. In other words, if doing such an act caused someone to lose their salvation, then they would no longer be a member in Christ and thus wouldn’t be joining the members of Christ together with a prostitute. Therefore, we can infer from this that even if a Christian would commit such a sin, they would continue to be a connected member to Christ, i.e., a saved Christian, and thus be joining the members of Christ with a prostitute. Even though that would be a terrible thing to do, it wouldn’t result in someone losing their salvation.

Is initial salvation dependent upon faith alone but growth in Christ dependent upon good works?

Actually, Paul explained that initial salvation is by faith alone and so is our growth in Christ:

This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.

Gal. 3:2-7

Paul here argued that since a Christian’s initial righteousness is given to them by God’s grace through faith, then they shouldn’t think they could grow in their righteousness in any other way than by grace through faith. So neither our initial salvation nor our growth in righteousness is dependent on meritorious works, since both are accomplished by grace through faith. The Galatians were failing to understand that initial salvation and growth in righteousness are both by grace through faith alone. Good works aren’t a condition for growth and maturity in Christ; they are a result of such growth and maturity. Paul explains that Christians are free from trying to keep the law to earn God’s favor and that if a Christian tries to keep laws or do good works to obtain more grace (God’s favor), then it only puts them back under bondage:

It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness.

Gal. 5:1-5

According to Galatians 4, being under the law is slavery in that you put yourself under these moral requirements that we just can’t live up to. But salvation by faith alone frees you from this bondage of having to live up to the requirement of the law, and you no longer have to worry about getting to heaven based on your own efforts. Paul wrote something similar in Romans:

Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh.

Rom. 8:1-3

Does salvation by faith alone apart from works result in a license to sin?

Catholics are concerned that if salvation was by faith alone apart from works, if at the point of salvation someone is forgiven of all their sins past, present, and future, then this results in a license to sin such that the person can go on to live as sinfully as they’d like for the rest of their life. Interestingly, as Paul argued in Romans that salvation is by faith alone apart from works, he anticipated that people would mistakenly come to this conclusion. Thus, he preemptively addressed this confusion and argued that salvation by faith alone apart from works doesn’t result in a license to sin. In fact, there’s a sense in which Romans chapters 6, 7, and 8 are all about this very issue:

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? … For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.

Rom. 6:1-2, 5-14

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Rom. 6:15-23

It seems that some Catholics think that Christians will only be motivated to try to live good moral lives if there’s a possibility of losing their salvation if they don’t. In other words, it seems they think that if Christians will still go to heaven no matter what they do, then there’s no reason for them not to continue to sin. But there are other reasons why Christians should be motivated to ty to live good moral lives. First, the New Testament promises rewards to Christians for living godly lives after they become Christians. Second, the New Testament explains that obeying God is the primary way we show our love for Him. Thus, Christians should be motivated to live good moral lives by their love for God.

What is the difference between ‘God empowering someone to have faith’ and ‘God empowering someone to do good works’? Why can’t someone boast about their ‘faith that’s empowered by God’ but yet can boast about their ‘good works that are empowered by God?

Protestants often point out, from what Paul wrote in Romans 3 and 4, that if good works played a role in our salvation, then Christians could boast about it. As I explained above, in those chapters Paul argued that since salvation is based on faith alone, we therefore can’t boast about our salvation. Sometimes Catholics push back against this by arguing that just like someone can’t boast about their ‘faith that’s empowered by God,’ nor can someone boast about their ‘good works that are empowered by God.’ Neither can be boasted about because both are empowered by God.

First, let me state up front that Paul, in Romans 3 and various other places, affirms that we are so evil that no one would trust in Christ if left to themselves, that coming to faith in Christ is only possible by God’s empowerment. However, I believe Scripture teaches that such empowerment can be resisted, so it’s still up to the individual to choose whether to trust in Christ or not.

Protestants maintain that people can’t boast about their ‘faith that’s empowered by God’ but could boast about their ‘good works that are empowered by God’ if such works played a part in their salvation. In response, some Catholics argue this is inconsistent. If both are empowered by God, then why could someone boast about one but not the other? The reason is that faith isn’t a way to earn or merit salvation but is merely a way to receive it. Thus ‘God empowered faith’ is different than ‘God empowered works’ in that ‘God empowered faith’ is a way to humbly receive salvation whereas, according to Catholics, ‘God empowered works’ is a way to earn or merit salvation. Faith alone, though empowered by God, doesn’t earn you or cause you to deserve salvation; it’s just a way to receive it. Thus, the distinction between faith and works isn’t that one is empowered by God and the other isn’t; the distinction is that one is done to earn salvation whereas the other is a way to merely receive salvation.

Paul indicates in Romans 3 and 4 that the nature of faith and the nature of works is different. Yes, they’re both something we do and yes, they’re both empowered by God, but ‘God empowered faith’ is a way to receive God’s gift (Christ’s effort/work on our behalf) of heaven whereas ‘God empowered works’ are a way to earn, merit, or deserve heaven. Faith isn’t something you do to earn, merit, or deserve heaven but merely a way to receive it. When someone believes they’re saved by faith alone apart from works, they can’t think of their salvation as being deserved, owed, earned, merited, etc. But when someone believes they’re saved, even in part, because of their ‘God empowered works,’ then they do see salvation as being deserved, owed, earned, merited, etc. as Catholic doctrine specifically teaches (Canon IX, XX, XXIV, XXXII, Chapter X, XVI). Catholic doctrine is clear that good works, even if they’re good works done after salvation that are empowered by God, are meritorious in that they earn a person, or cause them to deserve to keep, their salvation. However, faith is not meritorious because it doesn’t earn a person, or cause them to deserve to keep, their salvation but is a way to receive the work that Christ did for them.

Doesn’t Romans 2 say that those who do good works will receive eternal life?

Paul wrote that God “will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life” (Rom. 2:6-7). If all we had were these verses, then I could sympathize with the Catholic position that those who do good works will earn eternal life, i.e., salvation. However, to interpret these verses properly, we need to consider carefully the context in which Paul wrote these things as well as the overall structure of Paul’s argument in Romans.

Paul wrote Romans to a church of Christians, some of whom were ethnically Jews and some of whom were Gentiles (non-Jews). Though both groups had become Christians, there was friction between them because both sides viewed themselves as somehow superior to the other. Conflict at church? Hard to believe, right? The Jewish Christians thought they were superior because they were part of God’s chosen nation, God had given them the Old Testament Law through Moses, and they had been following God for centuries. The Gentile Christians thought they were superior because they didn’t have all the religious baggage the Jews had, they weren’t bound by all the traditions and rules of the Old Testament Law, and they could celebrate (sometimes flaunt) their freedoms in Christ. It is within this context that Paul wrote one of the greatest theological works of all time.

In Romans 1 Paul explained how Gentiles throughout history, even though they knew about God from how He revealed Himself through creation (Rom. 1:18-21), have rebelled against God by turning to evil. At the end of chapter 1 the Jewish Christians were probably cheering, “That’s right, you tell ’em Paul!” However, in chapter 2 Paul turns his attention to the Jewish Christians and explained how they’ve been just as evil. Paul pointed out that Jews had self-righteously judged Gentiles for being evil, but this was hypocritical because they themselves were just as bad (Rom. 2:1-3, Rom 2:17-24).

It’s in this context that Paul argued that there’s no favoritism with God (Rom. 2:11) based on ethnicity, that is, whether someone is Jewish or Gentile (non-Jewish). God’s favor, or lack thereof, is based not on ethnicity but on whether a person does good or evil. Paul explained that, yes, the Jews had the advantage of having God’s Law, so they knew more specifically what was good and what was evil, but that God favors those who actually do the law, not merely those who knew it (Rom. 2:13). In addition, Paul noted that the Gentiles also had God’s law, in a sense, in that He had written it on their hearts (Rom. 2:15). According to Rom. 2:25-29, God favors and praises a person (Rom. 2:29), either Jew or Gentile, if they follow His law, whether they have the specific Old Testament Law (the Jews) or whether they merely have His law written on their hearts (the Gentiles). So Paul’s point is that Jews and Gentiles are on an even playing field in that both knew God’s law, both are judged by God based on what they do, and, as we’ll see in chapter 3, both have failed to keep the law. It’s in this context that Paul wrote:

Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God. For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified.

Rom. 2:4-13

It’s important to realize that here in Romans 2 Paul is not talking about how someone can be saved through Christ or how a Christian can keep his salvation. As we’ll see, he doesn’t start talking about those issues until chapter 3. In chapters 1 and 2, Paul isn’t talking about Christians but about human history before Christ and how both Jews and Gentiles have always been on an even playing field in the sense that God favors those who do good and not evil, regardless of whether they’re a Jew or a Gentile.

Let’s imagine for a moment what it would mean if Catholics are correct and Paul in Romans 2:6-7 and Rom 2:13 really means that someone could be saved by their good works. If that’s what Paul is teaching here, then we’d have to conclude that some Jews and Gentiles are actually saved, justified (Rom. 2:13), and receive eternal life (Rom. 2:7) merely by keeping the Law apart from faith in Christ. We’d have to conclude this because here in chapter 2 Paul is talking generally about human history, not about how someone is saved through Christ. Remember, he doesn’t get to that issue until Romans 3. But even Catholics agree that it’s impossible for someone to be saved merely by keeping the Law. So even in light of their own doctrinal position, Catholics should conclude that Paul isn’t teaching in Romans 2 that someone can be saved by keeping the law.

So what is Paul saying in these verses? The correct interpretation of Rom. 2:6-8 is that he’s expressing a true conditional statement as follows: If someone followed God’s law perfectly, then they would receive eternal life. Paul is making the case that this is true whether they’re a Jew or a Gentile because God shows no favoritism. It’s not a matter of ethnicity but a matter of whether or not they follow the law perfectly. We see this conditional statement (if someone follows God’s law perfectly, then they would receive eternal life) throughout the New Testament. Consider this famous interaction:

And someone came to [Jesus] and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” And He said to him, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” Then he said to Him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not commit murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and mother; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.

Matt. 19:16-22

Certainly Jesus knew, and Catholic doctrine affirms, that it’s impossible for someone to be rewarded eternal life for keeping the Law because we all fail at some point. And it’s explained in James 2:8-11 that if you break one of God’s moral laws, then in effect you’re guilty of breaking all of God’s law. So why would Jesus, and Paul in Romans 2, indicate that someone can earn eternal life by keeping the Law? First, it’s important to note that Jesus and Paul aren’t wrong because it is true that if someone keeps the Law perfectly then they will be rewarded eternal life. However, Jesus here and Paul in Romans 1-3 are helping people realize that they haven’t, nor can they, keep the Law perfectly. A person only knows how bad they truly are when they actually try to be good. Elsewhere Paul explains the purpose of the Law was to help us realize that we’re not morally perfect:

Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions… until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made…. Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.

Gal. 3:19-25

Paul’s argument in Romans 1-3 follows the same pattern. Think of it this way—in Romans 2 Paul describes two categories of people: (1) those who keep the law perfectly and earn eternal life and (2) those who don’t keep the law perfectly. However, Paul then explains in Romans 3 that there is no one in the first category. So yes, God favors and praises good people and punishes bad people, but then Paul goes on to explain that all of us are bad. For example:

What then? Are we [Jews] better than they [Gentiles]? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks [Gentiles] are all under sin; as it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God, all have turned aside, together they have become useless, there is none who does good, there is not even one….” Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God; because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.

Romans 3:9a-12, 19-20

Paul couldn’t be more clear; we’re all in the same predicament, both Jews and Gentiles. No one will receive “eternal life” (Rom. 2:7) by “persevering in doing good” (Rom. 2:7) because no one actually does persevere in doing good perfectly. No one will “be justified” (Rom. 2:13) by being a “doer of the law” (Rom. 2:13) because no one follows the law perfectly. He explicitly says in Rom. 3:20 that “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight.” This verse directly refutes the Catholic interpretation of Rom. 2:7 and Rom. 2:13 which maintains that someone can be justified by persevering in doing good, i.e., being a doer of the law. Paul explains in Rom. 3:20b that the purpose of the Law was to help us realize we’re not perfect. After he powerfully explained how no one can be saved by following the Law because we’ve all broken the law, Paul finally explains God’s solution for how we can be saved:   

But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Rom. 3:21-26

Here in Romans 3 is where Paul explains how someone can actually be saved. It’s a mistake to think Paul is explaining how someone can actually be saved in chapter 2. As I explained above, in chapter 2 Paul isn’t explaining how to actually be saved but is building his argument that we’ve all failed to follow God’s law perfectly. That’s why we can’t be justified by the law, whether that law is the Old Testament Law or the moral law God has put on everyone’s heart.

Why would God let Catholics get this wrong for so long?

Sometimes Catholics will claim that their position of salvation by faith and works was affirmed consistently all throughout church history until the Protestant Reformation. I highly doubt this is the case, but it’s difficult to make an argument either for or against this because there’s just so much material from church history to cover. Theologians are too verbose! I’ll just note here that many have argued that John Chrysostom’s (c. AD 347-407) Homilies on Romans teach that salvation is by faith alone apart from works. However, I’m not going to engage in the debate over John Chrysostom’s position, or any early church leader’s position, for two reasons. First, it’s notoriously difficult to interpret ancient writers in light of our language and cultural differences. We have enough of a challenge just trying to interpret the New Testament! Second, even if all the church leaders from the second century to the Protestant Reformation taught that salvation was achieved by faith and works, I have no problem saying they were all wrong because we have first century writing from the ultimate church leaders—Jesus and His Apostles—that is, of course, the New Testament. Thus we should particularly focus on what the New Testament says and, as I’ve made the case throughout this document, I’ve come to the conclusion that it teaches that salvation is by faith alone apart from works.

Let’s get back to the original question now. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that Catholics are right and that every church leader from the second century up to the Protestant Reformation taught that salvation was by faith and works. Are we really to believe that God would let His church get something like this wrong for so long? I can’t think of a good reason not to. We’re often surprised at all the evil God allows people to commit and all the mistakes, even theological mistakes, God allows people to make. Why doesn’t God step in and stop immoral actions and correct theological mistakes? This ‘problem’ of evil arises precisely because God doesn’t step in and correct these things like we often think He should. Conversely, we could turn the tables and ask the reverse: Are we really to believe that God would let millions of Protestants get something like this wrong for so long? It must be the case that God either let Catholics get this wrong for a long time or that He let Protestants get this wrong for a long time. So neither side can use this as an argument for their position.

At this point it might be helpful for me to address the following question: If all church leaders for 1,400 years taught incorrectly via Catholicism that salvation is by faith and works, does that mean no one during those centuries went to heaven? My answer to this is no, even if it was the case that all church leaders during those centuries taught incorrectly that salvation is by faith and works, we shouldn’t conclude that no one during that time was saved. I believe that people can be truly saved even if their theology is pretty messed up. For example, it may be the case, though I won’t take the time here to argue for it, that someone who mistakenly believes they’re saved by faith and works is actually and truly saved by faith alone, even though they themselves don’t realize that. However, since only God knows exactly how much someone’s theology can be messed up and they still be truly saved, we should strive to get our theology as correct as possible.

Convincing Proof