What does the Catholic Church teach about Earning Salvation by Good Works?
The Catholic Church has never taught such a doctrine. In fact, it has consistently condemned the notion that we can earn salvation. Only by God’s grace, completely unmerited by works, is one saved.
The Church teaches that it’s God’s grace from beginning to end which justifies, sanctifies, and saves us. As Paul explains in Philippians 2:13, “God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work.”
Notice that Paul’s words presuppose that the faithful Christian is not just desiring to be righteous, but is actively working toward it. This is the second half of the justification equation, and Protestants either miss or ignore it.
James 2:17 reminds us that “faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” In verse 24, James says, “See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” And later: “for just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (v. 26).
In other words, the kind of faith which is mere belief in a list of propositions is insufficient for justification. Authentic, saving faith is always manifested in good works. And it is those good works which, when they become habitual, keep us from bad works, sins. We lose our salvation when we fall into serious sin. Good works help keep us out of sin, which is to say they help to keep us in a state of grace, and in that way they contribute to our salvation. But the initial justification still comes from faith, not from works.
Good works by themselves aren’t enough. The Council of Trent taught it is impossible for anyone to be justified before God by works, no matter how fine they might be. Catholics who think they can qualify for heaven by praying a certain number of rosaries or attending a certain number of Masses are mistaken. So are those who think heaven is theirs if they engage in lots of do-goodism.
What makes us justified in God’s sight is faith. If we have true faith, good works follow naturally and protect that faith.
So, far from teaching a doctrine of “works righteousness” – that would be Pelagianism, which was condemned at the Council of Carthage in A.D. 418 – the Catholic Church teaches the true biblical doctrine of justification.
It avoids the two erroneous extremes. Works alone aren’t enough, and neither is a bare faith in a list of propositions.