Can Works Aid In Our Salvation?

Fr. William G. Most (1914-1997) will not end up numbered among first-rank apologists, but his book Catholic Apologetics Today (now out of print) came to my attention just when I could profit from it. It appeared as I was putting together the newspaper columns that, when collected and revised, became my first book.

Every Fundamentalist I have dealt with—or so it has seemed—has faulted the Catholic Church for teaching, supposedly, that we are saved through good works. We earn our salvation by what we do.

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Although I took the usual route of referring Fundamentalists to James 2:17 (“faith without works is dead”), I learned early on that that scriptural verse failed to make much of an impress on them. A few seemed to be wholly unfamiliar with that book. That might seem unlikely, given that Fundamentalists style themselves “Bible Christians,” but many of them read (or study) only those parts of the Bible recommended to them by their preachers. Those who read the whole of the Bible often have little appreciation of the import of some passages, such as John 6, in which the Eucharist is promised and described. James’s comment on works is another. “Faith without works is dead” either is passed over or, at most, is interpreted to mean that good works have no significance higher than public affirmation of having “accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.” Doing good works is a good thing—but not a necessary thing.

It was through reading Most that I adopted a formulation that helped clarify the discussion. It came from his making a distinction between the way James wrote about faith and the way Paul wrote about it. They used the same word but in differing senses.

“Is it true that there is salvation in faith alone?” asks Most. “Definitely, yes!” It is “the chief theme of Galatians and Romans.” Yet James could write that “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24)—a seeming contradiction.

Either salvation is by “faith alone,” as Luther so imperiously insisted, or it is not; either it comes through faith and nothing else or through faith plus something else. Which is it?

Most made the obvious point that the issue here is with the meaning of the word faith as used by the two apostles. The word was not used univocally. James “clearly uses faith to mean, narrowly, just intellectual acceptance of a revealed truth.” To faith in that restricted sense one needs to add good works. We see this confirmed by Paul himself in Romans 2:6: “He will repay to man according to his works.”

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Here comes the crucial part. Most says that “Paul does not mean that works can earn salvation—but violation of the law can earn eternal ruin.” Paul does not disagree with James, but he uses a broader sense of faith: “total adherence of a person to God in mind and will. This, in turn, implies certain things.” Chief among the implications is that works have a kind of negative role to play in salvation, this being the main takeaway I had from Most. We can affirm that salvation is through faith, but salvation can be forfeited through sin. Salvation is a gift, but any gift can be rejected or returned to the giver. Something taken on by compulsion is not a gift.

Once a Christian is in the state of grace, through baptism or through repentance followed by sacramental confession, he is, at that moment, “saved”: were he to die in that state, he would end up in heaven, even if with a sojourn through purgatory. But his state is precarious. There is no adult Christian who has not fallen out of grace through sin. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Someone who has not fallen short of the glory of God, however transiently, is someone who is imbued with God’s grace; to fall short is to fall into gracelessness.

The key, then, is not to fall out of grace. This where works come in, both good works and bad works. Bad works are sins. Through mortal sins we lose sanctifying grace and thus salvation. What about good works? They don’t earn us salvation but they do something nearly as valuable: they keep us from throwing salvation away. To persist in good works is to avoid evil works, sins. Those who habitually perform good works habitually avoid (but they do not necessarily always avoid) sins that destroy grace.

This was, for me, Most’s most valuable point. The Fundamentalist, thinking about Catholicism’s insistence that good works are necessary, thinks we believe that we bring salvation to ourselves. The Catholic can answer by saying that good works are shields against bad works. Without good works, there is no prospect that a Christian can maintain grace in his soul, the opportunities to fall from grace being ubiquitous and, often enough, seemingly irresistible. Help is needed if they are to be resisted, and that help comes in the form of habitually performing good works, whether in the form of prayer, almsgiving, or something else.

It wasn’t that Most told me something I had not known, but he told it to me in a way that I had not seen before, at a time when I needed a clearer way to convey Catholic teaching to those who were sure the Church was teaching something contrary to Scripture. Already I was coming to appreciate that often apologetics consists of offering spectacles of varying prescriptions to an inquirer. Only one prescription will give him clear sight; all the others will give him at best indistinct sight. What you want him to see—some particular truth of the Faith—will remain fuzzy to him until you come across spectacles that precisely compensate for his particular defect of vision.
From Booked For Life: The Bibliographic Memoir Of An Accidental Apologist – Karl Keating