E. Daniel Box
Too many people misunderstand what the Catholic Church teaches about salvation. Some falsely claim that Catholics believe that a person can “earn” salvation. Others mistakenly accuse Catholics of the heresy of Pelagianism, which teaches that man can save himself, without faith in Jesus, by performing good works. But the Catholic position rejects salvation by works alone, as well as salvation by faith alone. For the Catholic, both faith and good works (i.e. charity or works of love) are necessary. But both are also impossible without the initial free gift of God’s grace. So the Catholic formula for salvation is simple, and it follows Galatians 5:6--
We are saved by grace, through faith, being lived out in works of love.
In other words, salvation is not a one-time event, but is a lifelong process. Scripture confirms this when it tells us that we “have been saved” (Eph. 2:5, 8), that we “are being saved” (1 Cor. 1:18, 2 Cor. 2:15), and that we “will be saved” (Mt. 10:22, 24:13, Rom. 5:9-10). Salvation, then, is a past, present, and future event—a real process—such that St. Paul reminds Christians that we must always continue to “work out our salvation” (Phil. 2:12).
This passage in Philippians is key, because Paul not only explains that we should “work out our salvation,” but also that we should do so “in fear and trembling.” Unlike Protestants, Paul never presumed himself to be destined for heaven, nor claimed to have had an absolute assurance of salvation. Instead, Paul says expressly that he would never dare “to make any judgment [regarding his salvation] before the appointed time” and that just because he was “not aware of anything against [himself],…[he did] not thereby stand acquitted” before God (1 Cor. 4:4-5). For this reason, Paul talks about physically pummeling his body into submission, out of fear that, even after all his preaching, he might still be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:27).
In Romans, Paul confirms that our salvation is not absolutely secured the moment we first accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, when he explains that “salvation is nearer now than when we first believed” (13:11). In fact, Scripture tells us many times that Christian discipleship is not defined by a single moment in one’s life (see Lk. 9:23), but can instead be compared to a marathon—a race—in which perseverance and endurance are necessary (Heb. 12:1-2). All of this is in keeping with the words of Jesus, who two times in the Gospel tells his disciples that only “the one who perseveres to the end will be saved” (Mt. 10:22, 24:13).
Again in Romans, Paul testifies to the importance of perseverance—and not only perseverance in faith, but also in doing good works—in the Christian’s quest for salvation, when he says:
“God…will repay everyone according to his works: eternal life to those who seek glory, honor, and immortality through perseverance in good works, but wrath and fury to those who selfishly disobey the truth and obey wickedness” (2:6-7).
Jesus Himself confirms that our life’s actions are pivotal in whether or not we will obtain eternal life. The only time in the Bible that Jesus is asked what a person must do to gain salvation, our Lord answers by saying, “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Mt. 19:16-17). And later in the Gospel, Jesus explains that those who do not do good—those who do not feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, or visit the prisoner—will be thrown into eternal fire for eternal punishment (Mt. 25:41-46). Jesus also tells His disciples that when the Son of Man “come[s] with his angels in his Father’s glory…he will repay everyone according to his conduct” (Mt. 16:27, see also 2 Cor. 5:10). This style of divine judgment is exactly what we see being played out in the Book of Revelation, when, at the end of time, “[a]ll the dead [are] judged according to their deeds,” and those whose deeds cause them not to be named in the book of life are “thrown into a pool of fire” (20:12-15).
Given all of this, it should not surprise us to read in Romans that Christians will receive God’s kindness only if we “remain in his kindness, otherwise [we] too will be cut off” (11:22). How do we remain in His kindness and avoid being cut off? St. John provides the answer, echoing the words of Jesus, when he writes, “Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them” (1 Jn. 3:24). This is why John, only two chapters later, discusses deadly versus non-deadly sin (1 Jn. 5:16-17). Protestant theology offers no satisfying explanation for what a deadly sin is. But the Catholic teaching of salvation ties in perfectly with this concept and with the rest of Scripture, because it affirms that certain sins kill—they kill our relationship with God. They terminate the supernatural life breathed into us by God, just as the sin of Adam did, which is why Jesus, when He breathes upon the Apostles, gives them the authority to forgive and not to forgive sins (Jn. 20:21-23). By confessing our sins to the Apostles and their successors, God’s supernatural life is breathed back into us, after we have lost this life as a result of our deadly sins.
Our need to keep God’s commandments, together with the consequences of deadly sin, explain two passages in Scripture, which devastate the Protestant idea that a person can never lose their salvation:
“If we sin deliberately after receiving knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment and flaming fire” (Heb. 10:26-27).
“[I]f they, having escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of [our] Lord and savior Jesus Christ, again become entangled and overcome by them, their last condition is worse than their first. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness than, after having known it, to turn back from the holy commandment handed down to them” (2 Pet. 2:20-21).
These Bible passages confirm that a person who gravely sins, after coming to Christ, forfeits the sacrifice of Jesus and the promise of salvation, because the price or “wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Jesus too warns us that it is possible to lose the forgiveness of sins that we have received, in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Mt. 18:21-35). Paul reiterates this same message to those who have already accepted Jesus in Colossae, when he warns them to “[p]ut to death…immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming [upon the disobedient]” (Col. 3:5-10). And again, Paul warns the Christians in Galatia and in Corinth that “those who do such things [like engage in immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, etc.] will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19-21, 1 Cor. 6:9-11).
Even with all the biblical evidence that has already been discussed, we have still have not mentioned the single passage that is most damning to the Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith alone (Lat. sola fide). In fact, this passage so clearly negates the doctrine of sola fide that Martin Luther seriously considered removing it from the Bible entirely, as he did seven Old Testament books. In James, chapter 2, we find the only place in the Bible where the phrase “faith alone” is used, and the passage reads:
“See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:24).
In fact, James points out that even demons have faith and believe (2:19), and then goes so far as to call anyone who needs proof that faith without works is useless an “ignoramus” (2:20). The standard Protestant interpretation of James 2 is that the Apostle was only condemning a dead faith, not a living faith. But even if that were true, James 2 itself would indicate that the difference between a dead faith and a living faith is good works—that is, whether or not your faith is lived out in works of love. And Paul confirms this—he declares powerfully that even the most enthusiastic, “living” faith, without charity, is dead, when he writes, “[I]f I have all faith so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2).
None of this is surprising. Deep down, the intuition of every Christian, whether Catholic or Protestant, tells him that sola fide is wrong—that Martin Luther could not have been right when, taking the doctrine of sola fide to its extreme, he stated, “No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill and commit adultery thousands of times each day.” In our hearts, we know that faith in Jesus requires faithfulness to Jesus—that is, that faith is not simply a one-time event, but requires a lifetime of assent, in both our words and our actions.
Of course, the fact that we must remain faithful to Christ in our actions, in order to be saved, in no way means that we can earn our salvation. It only means that we, like Adam and Eve who did not earn their place in God’s garden, can act in such a way that we earn our way out of heaven. We can forfeit the free gift of salvation. We can disinherit our place in His kingdom.
To be absolutely clear, Jesus’ sacrifice was perfect and entirely sufficient to save even the worst of sinners. The fact that good works are necessary for salvation in no way threatens this truth any more than the fact that faith is necessary for salvation. In other words, the necessity of good works does not put down the value of our Lord’s death and resurrection, while putting too much emphasis on the efforts of man. Instead, this teaching only affirms what the author of Hebrews declared—namely, that “without [holiness] no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
Scripture tells us that God created us “for good works” (Eph. 2:10) and that only “if, by the spirit, [we] put to death the deeds of the body, will [we] live” (Rom. 8:13). At the same time, the Bible also confirms that obedience to the commandments, without faith in Jesus, is obsolete (Rom. 7:6-7). These passages align with the Catholic teaching on salvation, which affirms that neither faith alone nor works alone is sufficient to secure our salvation. Only the two together, both of which are only even possible after we have been given the free gift of God’s grace (Eph. 2:5), can lead us to eternal life in Him.
Jesus warns us that there will be those who “believe only for a time and [then] fall away in time of trial” (Lk. 8:13). And so, while it is true that Romans 10:9 tell us that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,” we must be mindful of this warning from our Lord. This warning provides the context in which we should read Matthew 7:21, in which Jesus proclaims, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (emphasis added).
In sum, although Christians today can “know that [we] have eternal life, [if we] believe in the name of the Son of God” (1 Jn. 5:13), Scripture tells us, only one verse later, that this “knowledge” is better understood as a hopeful "confidence" (1 Jn. 5:14), rather than an absolute certainty.
“Whoever sins belongs to the devil” (1 Jn. 3:8), because we “are slaves of the one [we] obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness” (Rom. 6:16). So Paul reminds us that “a person will reap only what he sows,” which means that, if we want to “reap eternal life from the spirit,” we must never “grow tired of doing good” (Gal. 6:7-9). But because we have the “knowledge”—the hopeful confidence—that we will one day be with God in heaven, Christians can “rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, as [we] attain the goal of [our] faith, the salvation of [our] souls” (1 Pet. 1:8-9) every single day.
 Rom. 3:28-30 says that we are “justified by faith apart from works of the Torah [like circumcision].” It does not say that we are justified by “faith alone.” Martin Luther inserted the word “alone” into his translation, and when he was called out for having done so by Catholics, he—referring to himself in the third person and declaring the greatness of his own will and intellect—remarked, “Luther will have it [that the word ‘alone’ be inserted, because] he is a doctor above all the doctors of the pope…I know very well that the word ‘alone’ is not in the Greek or Latin text; it was not necessary for the Papists to teach me that” (Ein sendbrief D.M. Luthers. Von Dolmetzchen und Furbit de heiligenn).
 Luther, Martin. Saemmtliche Schriften. Letter No. 99. 1 Aug. 1521.
Daniel Box lives in Chicago with his wife, but is a proud Texan (Fort Worth native) and Mexican-American. He is a practicing real estate and zoning attorney, after having clerked with the Thomas More Society and served as the Board Chairman of the Chicago chapter of Young Catholic Professionals in 2015 and 2016. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Politics from the University of Dallas in 2012.