Grace and Good works

Carmelina writes...

About 9 years ago, we invited our local Roman Catholic priest over for lunch. He was a lovely Maltese man and we had a nice friendship with him (he’s since moved on to another parish). We also invited Ray and Sandy Galea. It was an interesting conversation. At the end of our time together, our local priest said, "if you say a person’s saved by faith alone in Jesus without good works, you give people permission to sin as much as they want."

Is this true? If we claim that people are saved by faith alone in Christ alone, does this mean people can do what they want, without the need for good works in their life?

The Bible’s answer is no. God makes it very clear, that when he saves us from sin, he calls us to live a life of holiness: “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” (Ephesians 1:4) and “God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.” (1 Thessalonians 4:7)

So how do good works fit into the Christian life?

The best way I know to explain this is with 2 pictures. (Thanks to Martin Pakula who first showed us these pictures and sorry I can’t credit who first came up with them. And thanks also to Mike Pittman for putting them into computer form because my computer illiteracy would never have produced anything like this!)

Roman Catholicism basically says, people are saved by the grace of God in Jesus plus their good works. You can see it in this picture:

As the Council of Trent put it (the other way around):

Canon XXIV: “If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.” (6th session, 1547)

According to Roman Catholicism, good works increase justification and salvation. But the Bible tells us a different story. Firstly, the Bible says we’re saved by grace alone, through faith and not through works: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9

So why should we do good works at all? Because that’s what God saves us for. It’s a response to the grace of God. “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self controlled, upright lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” Titus 2:11-14.

And also “Therefore, I urge you brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship …” Romans 12:1

The Bible teaches that in response to God saving us in Christ through faith, we should live holy lives. And once, we’re saved, God himself, through His Holy Spirit changes us to become more like Jesus – to do good works and be holy. You can see the Bible’s teaching in this picture:

Good works can’t save us. Only faith in Jesus alone can save us. But salvation by grace leads us to do good works.

This is a wonderful, liberating truth which so many people don’t understand. If salvation is dependent on our good works, we will live our whole lives fearful of whether God will take us to be with him in heaven. Our good works will be motivated by fear, anxiety and a desire to please God without knowing whether he will accept our good works.

On the other hand, the Bible makes it clear that in Jesus, God has done everything needed to save us. He wants to save us. He wants us to be in heaven with him forever. All we need to do is accept his offer of salvation by placing our faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus for our sins. Knowing we are saved and loved by God, we can respond to God by giving him our whole lives as acts of worship, doing good works out of thankfulness to his mercy, knowing that he is at work in us to change us and make us more like His Son Jesus. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 3:17-18

Roman Catholicism strongly disagrees with this teaching. Faith alone in Jesus alone does not save people – there is still a debt to pay even after people receive the grace of Christ:

Canon XII: “If anyone saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake or that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema.” (6th session of The Council of Trent 1547)

Canon XXX: “If anyone saith, that after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise, that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance of the kingdom of heaven can be opened (to him); let him be anathema.” (6th session of The Council of Trent 1547)

Good works are not just the gifts of God but they are part of the way people can ‘merit’ an increase in grace and eternal life.

Canon XXXII: “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, 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.” (6th session of The Council of Trent 1547)

What’s the upshot of all this? Are we just arguing about words?

Well that’s where I’m going to hand it over to you. Here are some reflection questions for you:

1. Why is the difference between what Roman Catholicism teaches on the place of good works and what the Bible teaches important? Does it actually matter? Is anything at stake? (see Galatians 1:1-12)

2. If the difference is important, how should we respond? What action should we take in relation to Roman Catholics?

3. A friend of ours has been meeting every week to read the Bible with a Roman Catholic priest. He says that the priest has come to a more Biblical understanding of the death of Jesus for us and the forgiveness of sins. How could this be an example to us of the kind of action we could take with a Roman Catholic friend?

4. What have you learnt from the last 4 weeks’ blog posts and from Ray’s book? How has this strengthened your faith in Jesus?

5. Pray for at least one Roman Catholic friend asking God to give you an opportunity (and the boldness) to talk to them about Jesus and the Bible.