Grace Alone: Perfectly Acceptable Catholic Teaching

Grace Alone: Perfectly Acceptable Catholic Teaching January 19, 2016
“Art4TheGlryOfGod Photography by Sharon” [Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0 license]
* * *

This was written in response to a critic of mine, named Juan (words in blue below), who is active in an involved discussion on merit and related issues that is occurring on The Catholic Community Forum. Catholic apologists (and personal friends) John Martignoni and Jimmy Akin are also being charged with misrepresenting the Catholic faith and “grievous error.” I’m proud to be in their company. None of the accusations can withstand scrutiny. I already dealt with the Catholic teaching on merit and these false accusations in an earlier paper.

* * * * *

The Catholic Church teaches that good works can be truly good before regeneration and justification (over against total depravity), but not that they can in any sense justify us or be meritorious. Good works done after justification are (if certain conditions are met) meritorious and can contribute to salvation and attainment of eternal life, but only hand-in-hand with, soaked in, enabled by, grace, which alone saves us. Catholics believe in sola gratia. But it is a faith that is not separated from works (per James). Faith inherently includes these works (even Luther and Calvin agree with that). But we’re not saved by faith alone (that’s where Protestantism errs); we’re saved by grace alone. That is the Catholic teaching.

* * *

Two general audiences given by Pope Benedict XVI are excellent expositions of Catholic soteriology:

19 November 2008

26 November 2008

* * *

The Catholic Church does teach salvation by works. She also teaches salvation by faith. And salvation by grace. The Catholic Church does not teach salvation by works alone. nor salvation by faith alone, nor salvation by grace alone. The Catholic Church does not teach that Jesus is either God or man. But that Jesus is God and man. It is both/and. Not either/or.

BY THE GRACE OF GOD, we are saved through our faith and works.

One must understand that when a Protestant hears “salvation by works,” he immediately thinks “Pelagianism.” And this is not unreasonable, because that heresy did teach a salvation by works. So it is unwise to ever state without qualification: “The Catholic Church does teach salvation by works.” Your final formula was, I think, much better:

BY THE GRACE OF GOD, we are saved through our faith and works.

That’s good. But it could still be misinterpreted by Protestants as semi-Pelagianism (happens all the time; believe me, I know, from dealing with them for 18 years, and formerly being one myself). I would modify that just a bit, to the following:

BY THE GRACE OF GOD, we are saved through our faith; this faith entails by its very nature, good works, always enabled by prior grace, without which it is dead.

These are the necessary distinctions we must make, so as not to be misunderstood as Pelagians or semi-Pelagians.

Also, we do teach salvation by grace alone, insofar as grace enables all faith and meritorious good works, which are all part of the package of justification / sanctification and eventual final salvation. Grace is primary in the whole process, so in that very real sense we can say “saved by grace alone” — whereas we can never say “saved by faith alone” (i.e., with works playing no part at all) — which is classic Protestant heresy, or “saved by works alone” — which is the Pelagian heresy that St. Augustine struggled so mightily against.

* * *

I appreciate your concerns about my phraseology. But I have the same concerns about yours. The Catholic Church does teach salvation by works. She also teaches salvation by faith.And salvation by grace. To deny any of those three is to deny Catholic Teaching. Plain and simple. That is grave enough but… I am also concerned for my Catholic brethren who have always been taught that good works are necessary for salvation. I believe that statements such as the one you made:

They mistakenly think that Catholicism teaches salvation by works, so whenever a Catholic talks about justification by faith, they falsely think (based on their false premises) that he has seen the light and is now thinking like a Protestant.

These are confusing to good and devout Catholics who believe just that. And with good reason, since it is true.

Also, we do teach salvation by grace alone.

No we don’t. That is the heresy known as “monergism”.

* * *

It is you who have in part fallen prey to “either/or” thinking, which is strange since you posted a link to a page that rightly opposed it.

You want to reserve the right to say “salvation by works” as if that is a true statement on its own.

The true Catholic position will always include the works alongside grace and faith. Both/and . . . just as Scripture / Tradition / Church are both/and and not either/or. We teach neither sola Scriptura, nor sola ecclesia, nor sola traditio. Likewise with the faith / works / grace triumvirate. But if anything at all can be said to be primary, in any sense of the word (I speak largely rhetorically here), it is certainly grace, not works or faith.

You say that grace alone is “monergism,” but this is incorrect. Monergism is the heresy of Calvinism or double predestination. Grace alone is a larger category than that, and mustn’t be collapsed to Calvinism only. The Catholic position is that grace is the ultimate cause of our free will decisions and good works, in cooperation with that grace, whereas Calvinism / monergism rejects free will altogether (that was the whole gist of the Luther-Erasmus debate, that I have actually been studying lately) and all good works before regeneration (i.e., total depravity, which Catholics also strenuously deny).

Moreover, you need not inform me about the necessity of good works as part of salvation process (beyond just sanctification, where Protestants place them vis-a-vis salvation). For I already have a paper online with 50 passages showing the centrality of works as the central criteria of how God judges whether one is saved or not: “Final Judgment in Scripture is Always Associated With Works And Never With Faith Alone (50 Passages)”

Even so, I would never describe Catholic soteriology as “salvation by works,” for the important reasons I have been explaining. The only viewpoint to which that description can properly be attributed is the heresy of Pelagianism.

Every heresy isolates and grossly exaggerates one aspect of the faith (there’s your either/or mentality again), rather than incorporate it in an organic relationship with other aspects: from which it cannot be extracted. This is what many Catholics do, insofar as they harmfully speak of “salvation by works.”

I already explained exactly what I meant in saying “grace alone.” It was explained in relationship to works and faith, not in isolation from them. That’s the key. That is how we must understand it and explain it to others.

Also, to ignore the contextual and social aspect of our language and terms used, in relation to Protestants who are observing us: some of whom might even become Catholics in the future, so that they might very well misunderstand the Catholic faith, is to ignore the very wise, magisterial counsel of the Second Vatican Council:

. . . every effort to avoid expressions, judgments, and actions which do not represent the condition of our separated brethren with truth and fairness and so make mutual relations with them more difficult . . . Through such dialogue everyone gains a truer knowledge and more just appreciation of the teaching and religious life of both communions.

We must become familiar with the outlook of our separated brethren. Study is absolutely required for this, and it should be pursued in fidelity to the truth and with a spirit of good will . . . Most valuable for this purpose are meetings of the two sides — especially for discussion of theological problems — where each can treat with the other on an equal footing, provided that those who take part in them under the guidance of the authorities are truly competent . . . In this way, too, we will better understand the outlook of our separated brethren and more aptly present our own belief.

(Decree on Ecumenism [Unitatis Redintegratio], 4, 9)

Following the study of Sacred Scripture, the Fathers, the doctors and liturgy of the Church, and under the guidance of the Church’s magisterium, let them rightly illustrate the duties and privileges of the Blessed Virgin which always refer to Christ, the source of all truth, sanctity, and devotion. Let them carefully refrain from whatever might by word or deed lead the separated brethren or any others whatsoever into error about the true doctrine of the Church.

(Dogmatic Constitution on the Church [Lumen Gentium], 67)

You may not like the terminology “grace alone” but the Holy Father does (in the same sense that I used it):

Indeed, it is to him and his grace alone that we owe what we are as Christians.

(General Audience, 8 November 2006)

The awareness that divine grace alone could bring about such a conversion never left Paul. When he had already given the best of himself, devoting himself tirelessly to preaching the Gospel, he wrote with renewed fervour: “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me” (I Cor 15: 10). Tirelessly, as though the work of the mission depended entirely upon his own efforts, St Paul was nevertheless always motivated by the profound conviction that all his energy came from God’s grace at work in him.

(Homily of 25 January 2008)

As usual, I will follow his lead, and would strongly advise others to do the same.

See also:

Aren’t We Saved by Faith Alone?, Dr. Kenneth Howell (This Rock, March 2003)

* * *
I was further challenged by this critic of mine:

Show me the Catholic teaching that uses your wording “grace alone”. You are essentially making the same error that Luther did when he inserted the word alone in Scripture behind faith.

The lie is to say that the Church does not teach Salvation by works. . . . I’d like to see the denial in Church doctrine. It is not a denial of Catholic Teaching to say that the Church teaches Salvation by works. It is a denial of one aspect of Catholic Teaching to deny the same. Therefore, pretending that the Church does not teach salvation by works is a misrepresentation of Catholic doctrine. . . . It is the absolute Truth. Those who teach otherwise are watering down the faith in order to appease Protestants. 

Salvation by works …. It is one aspect of Catholic Teaching. Denying it is a misrepresentation of Catholic Teaching. By the Grace of God, we are saved by faith and works. To deny any aspect of that teaching is to misrepresent Catholic Teaching. It is Salvation by Grace. Salvation by Works. Salvation by Faith. It is both/and. Not either/or. Unless Dave has received permission from the Magisterium to deny the efficacy of works, he has no right to tell anyone that the Church does not teach Salvation by works. It is he must explain that we do not deny salvation by works, but that we also believe in salvation by faith and most importantly salvation by grace. And if the Protestants don’t like it, it is their problem. We aren’t here to misrepresent the Truths of the Catholic Church. But only to present them in their Splendor.

I think this is indeed largely a matter of semantics. I have explained what I mean over and over. I understand what Juan means. I’m not sure he understands what I mean, or he wouldn’t be making these serious charges that I am misrepresenting the faith.

I’ve already stated it many times, but I will again: I fully agree that works have a crucial (indeed, indispensable) role to play in salvation. As I noted, one of my papers has no less than 50 scriptural proofs that works (not faith) were the criterion by which God judged whether someone was saved or not. So this is a bunch of hysteria and concern for nothing: just as it was in the case of my friends John Martignoni and Jimmy Akin. I have only stated that I think it is unwise and incomplete to speak of Catholicism as being a system of “salvation by works” without mentioning grace.

I have not asserted grace alone in an absolute sense (which would foolishly exclude faith and works as part of the equation). I have asserted grace through faith by works (the latter two always entirely caused by grace). What I have stated is that if we are to take one of the three it makes the most sense to say “salvation by grace” because that is the ultimate cause of both the faith and works: since it comes from God and not us. In this sense, there are a number of Catholic dogmatic proclamations that are relevant, but here are two clear ones:

Council of Trent, Decree on Justification


In what manner it is to be understood, that the impious is justified by faith, and gratuitously.

And whereas the Apostle saith, that man is justified by faith and freely, those words are to be understood in that sense which the perpetual consent of the Catholic Church hath held and expressed; to wit, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and the root of all Justification; without which it is impossible to please God, and to come unto the fellowship of His sons: but we are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification-whether faith or works-merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle says, grace is no more grace.

Canons on Justification

CANON I.-If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema.

And of course the emphasis on grace comes right from Holy Scripture. Here are some passages (RSV) which highlight grace in justification and salvation:

Acts 15:11 But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.

Acts 18:27 . . . When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed.

Acts 20:24, 32 . . . the gospel of the grace of God.. . . And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified.

Romans 3:24 they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus,

Romans 4:16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants — not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all,

Romans 5:2 Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.

Romans 5:15, 17 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. . . . If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

Romans 5:20-21 Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Romans 6:14 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

Romans 11:5-6 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

1 Corinthians 15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me.

Galatians 1:15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace,

Galatians 2:21 I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose.

Ephesians 1:7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace

Ephesians 2:4-10 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with him, and made us sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God — not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

2 Thessalonians 2:16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace,

2 Timothy 1:9 who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not in virtue of our works but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus ages ago,

Titus 2:11 For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men,

Titus 3:7 so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.

1 Peter 1:10 The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired about this salvation;

Note, then, the overwhelming usage of grace as tied to salvation, or to the justification that will lead to salvation if a person perseveres to the end (including doing good and meritorious works). Salvation is undeniably tied in explicitly with grace in these seven passages (and two of them explicitly deny salvation by works):

Acts 15:11 . . . saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, . . .

Romans 5:21 . . . grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (cf. 5:17 above)

Ephesians 2:5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),

Ephesians 2:8-10 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God — not because of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

2 Timothy 1:9 who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not in virtue of our works but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus ages ago,

Titus 2:11 For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men,

1 Peter 1:10 The prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired about this salvation;

We know that the Protestant error of faith alone is expressly denied:

James 2:14 What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?

James 2:17-18 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But some one will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

James 2:20 Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren?

James 2:22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works,

James 2:24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

James 2:26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.

We see above, directly in 2:24 and indirectly in all the others, that works play a part in the sanctification and salvation process as well. Two more passages in this overall context also teach justification by works:

James 2:21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?

James 2:25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way?

But of course, we clearly see in the overall thrust of the passage, that this justification by works is not by itself, any more than faith is operative by itself. James writes of Abraham being “justified by works” (2:21) but this can’t be ripped from context, so as to distort his meaning, since in the verse immediately before he ties faith organically in with works, and he does the same in the verse immediately after, as he does in the larger context of 2:14,17-18 and 2:26. They simply can’t be separated.

Likewise, when justification by works is asserted again in 2:24, it is qualified in 2:26, by connecting faith with it, and in the larger context before the statement, also in 2:14,17-18,20,22. The works can’t possibly be interpreted as on their own, then, without doing massive violence to the contextual meaning and teaching.

The same applies to 2:25 and the statement about Rahab the harlot being “justified by works” — it is qualified in the same way in context, by the consideration of 2:14,17-18,20,22,26. Moreover, salvation by works alone is flatly and explicitly denied by St. Paul in Eph 2:8-9 and 2 Timothy 1:9, and the same is strongly implied in Rom 11:5-6.

Also, it has to be borne in mind that for the Catholic, justification is not the same thing as salvation or the attainment of eternal life. It can be lost. We don’t believe in eternal security or perseverance of the saints, insofar as it means that one can be saved in an instant and never lose it. So to assert “justification by works” even in a qualified sense, is not at all the same as asserting salvation by works.

Therefore, it is scripturally improper to assert either salvation by works alone or salvation by faith alone. They are never taught in Holy Scripture, and are both denied more than once. We can assert justification by faith or justification by works in a limited sense, as Scripture does: always understood as hand-in-hand with the other two elements in the grace-faith-works triumvirate.

That brings us back to “grace alone” or sola gratia. As we have seen, Holy Scripture does indeed assert this in the exact sense that I have argued all along: grace is primary in that it enables both faith and works that are organically tied to it in the process of sanctification and eventual eschatological salvation (i.e., when we actually get to heaven, or purgatory: which means we are saved, too, and inevitably on the way to heaven).

The Bible does teach that there is a sense in which we are saved by grace alone (in the seven passages I produced above), and it asserts this unambiguously without immediate qualification (as we see to the contrary in the cases of faith alone and works alone). That highlights the nature of the difference of Grace Alone compared to faith and works. It is, therefore, an entirely biblical, orthodox, Catholic statement, as long as it is understood exactly in its proper sense (i.e., not utterly excluding works and faith in the overall mix).

So to claim that the assertion of “grace alone” (rightly understood in its Catholic “both/and” sense) is against Catholic teaching or a misrepresentation of it, etc., let alone some foolish capitulation to Protestantism in order to make Catholicism more palatable to outsiders, is a manifest, demonstrable falsehood.

* * *

Juan has been invited here to defend his positions if he wishes to do so. He has also invited me over to his board, where this topic was begun, and has been vigorously discussed. I have already stated I am not interested in debating him, for several reasons: mostly having to do with my aversion to nitpicky debates about words and semantics, and his seeming inability to comprehend both contextual requirements in interpretation and my arguments (as seen in repeated assertions that they are irrelevant and off-topic). That’s a dead give-away. If a potential debate partner doesn’t even comprehend the relevance of arguments (let alone their force), then the dialogue is doomed from the start as a Pauline “vain disputation” or “stupid controversy.” And, following St. Paul’s advice, I avoid those like the plague, as unworthy of further time being devoted to them.

I also have not participated in Internet discussion boards for over five years, because I became completely disgusted (after seven years’ experience) with them on several grounds, and had had enough of the nonsense. The only reason I am at the CHNI board is because I have the ability to control the nonsense and personal attacks (as moderator), and I certainly do that. I began this blog four months after I swore off the boards, with the same end in mind.

So that is my reasoning. But of course anyone else here is free to discuss the issue with Juan, should he bless us with his appearance.

Stay in touch! Like Biblical Evidence for Catholicism on Facebook:

Browse Our Archives