Faith or Works?

One of the famous choices between Catholics and Protestants is the relationship between faith and works. Many Protestants hear Catholics talk about “earning years off purgatory” or hear them talking about doing certain actions in order to earn a “plenary indulgence” and they assume that Catholics believe in salvation by works. It’s an easy conclusion to jump to, but in fact, the Catholic Church has never taught salvation by works. That’s a heresy called Pelagianism, and it was the Catholic Church that first recognized the heresy and stomped on it.

One heresy usually begets another. When we react against one false teaching it’s easy to fall into the heresy of the opposite extreme. Luther did this with his doctrine of sola fide or salvation by faith alone. He went so far as to add a few words to the Scriptures when he was translating them in order to make the Bible fit with his doctrine, and he heartily dislike the Epistle of St James which flatly contradicts his false doctrine.

So salvation by works is a heresy and salvation by faith alone is a heresy. What’s the truth? We have to remember that a heresy is not a total lie. It is a half truth or a truth distorted or one truth that is emphasized to the exclusion of other truths. So it is with the Protestant doctrine of salvation by faith alone. The easiest way to explain the riddle between faith and works is to say Faith Works. A person who has genuine faith “works out their salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12) What does that mean? Not simply that a person who says they are a Christian had better “walk the walk as well as talk the talk”.

There is more to it than that. Instead, the good works themselves are driven by and motivated by and empowered by the faith of the individual. It’s not so much a case of a person who says they have faith getting up in the morning and saying, “Well, I’m a Christian so I had better behave in such a such a manner.” Instead the faith of the person so transforms their perspective, and so opens them up the grace of God that they are transformed from the inside out, and the good works they do are the result of them having become a different sort of person.

Of course good intentions, self discipline, a rule of life and a lifetime of surrender are required, but these are only the means to an end. They are not an end in themselves. The disciplined life–following the rules and regulations–observing the obligations of religion–these are the ways we practice the faith the way a budding musician will practice the scales, go to music lessons and learn to read music. The real joy is when they play a piece by Chopin with freedom, zest and total inspiration. That was the goal. Likewise, the goal of living by faith is to reach the point, as St Benedict says, where the monk does all the things he has always done, but with a complete sense of joy and freedom–not only because he wants to, but because he can do no other. If you would like to read more on this topic of faith and works, I have posted today a long article called One Saving Action which consists of most of chapter four from my book More Christianity.

Also for this year of faith I have started a free, weekly newsletter called FaithWorks! The idea is that it will provide practical pointers for the practice of the Catholic faith. There are articles on prayer, relationships, spirituality, forgiveness and more. Go here to read the latest edition. If you would like to sign up for the newsletter go here.

  • Lynda

    Each fulfills and perfects the other.

  • priest’s wife (@byzcathwife)

    CS Lewis said something like ‘asking which is more important- faith or works- is like asking which blade is most important with scissors’

  • Mike

    Oh dear. I have read so much about the doctrine of justification that my head is spinning round and round. Hans Küng wrote a book (‘Justification’) in which he attempted to reconcile the two doctrines. The Catholic Church signed a joint statement with the Worldwide Lutheran Federation about the doctrine of justification although there were a number of issues where there was still disagreement. (
    One of the best explanations of the Catholic doctrine and how it differs from the Lutheran doctrine I have come across is by Fr Brian Harrison:
    Faith, Works and Justification (
    Interestingly, Fr “Harrison was baptised in the Methodist Church and brought up in the Presbyterian Church. He spent a few years with a Lutheran mission in New Guinea, where he became a Roman Catholic in 1972.” (Wikipedia)

  • Matt R

    I always describe the Catholic teaching as living a life of faith, demonstrated by works.

  • Christian

    Good works are the manifestation of faith in the physical realm.

  • Independent

    Have not the Lutherans and the Catholic Church recently reached agreement in a ” Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification”? The then Cardinal Ratzinger played a major part in the discussions which led to the agreement.

  • Neill

    Please explain how purgatory fits into the Catholic viewpoint. Evangelicals have a lot of problem with purgatory.

    • dmw

      St. Paul explained it well in 1 Cor 3:9-15.

  • FW Ken

    Purgatory is like coming in to dinner after a long day in the fields. You really *want* a good washing up.