Many Protestants will argue for their doctrine of salvation by faith alone by quoting Philippians 3:9. In this verse, St. Paul says he does not have “a righteousness of my own that comes from the Law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” We can replace “righteousness” here with the phrase “positive relationship with God.” Paul’s point here is to contrast a false path to righteousness (“from the Law”) with a true one (“that depends on faith”).
The Protestant Bible scholar Thomas Schreiner comments on Philippians 3:9 in his book Faith Alone: “Since obedience to the law does not obtain righteousness . . . justification is by faith alone” (p. 108). However, this is a misunderstanding of both what Paul is talking about and what Catholics mean by salvation.
First, Paul the Jewish convert is contextually comparing a Jewish model of salvation (the Mosaic Covenant) to a Christian model of salvation (the New Covenant). This can be gleaned from the key phrase, “righteousness of my own that comes from the Law.” The “Law” is a reference to living under the Mosaic Law, as Paul discusses in Romans 3:28 and Galatians 2:16 and 3:10.
We can see this comparison also in the verses leading up to Philippians 3:9. In verses 4-6, Paul says he used to have confidence that he was in a right relationship with God based on his Jewish way of life. He had been born a Hebrew, had entered the Mosaic Covenant through circumcision, and had maintained his covenant relationship with God through blameless obedience to the Law. All of this made Paul think he had righteousness based on the Mosaic Law.
So when Paul speaks in a negative way about having a “righteousness” of his own, in opposition to Christ’s righteousness, he is emphasizing that the Christless Mosaic Covenant did not generate a positive relationship with God.
Philippians 3:9 is not condemning good works. Rather, it’s condemning the Jewish Old Covenant. Man is separated from God due to sin (Rom. 3:10,23), and he does not become reconciled to God through rituals like circumcision and keeping the Jewish way of life. Rather, only through entering Jesus’ New Covenant can we receive the gift of God’s righteousness.
But what’s to say the Catholic model of the necessity of works isn’t just like the Mosaic Law? For, as Protestants say, depending on good works is creating your own self-righteousness. The Catholic path to righteousness warrants the same condemnation that Paul levels on the Jewish one!
The problem with this approach is that it can’t work unless Catholicism claims that good works bring about initial righteousness or reconciliation with God. But the Church does not claim that. Rather, the Church teaches that an unsaved, unbaptized man cannot bring himself out of his negative relationship with God through good works. Only faith in Jesus has the power to do that. The initial grace of salvation, coming through faith in the context of the sacrament of water baptism, is completely unmerited (Council of Trent, Session VI, chs. V and VIII).
Yet Catholicism still claims that baptized Catholics must maintain this initial gift of salvation by living in conformity with Christ. Catholics have to do good works after their initial salvation, and if they grievously fail in that, such as by committing the deadly sins (bad works) of hatred (1 John 3:15) or apostasy (5:16), then they lose Christ’s righteousness. Catholics stop acting like the body of Christ and fall out of a state of grace.
But even if the initial salvation from baptism is not dependent on good works, how much does that help when Catholics must depend on good works for the rest of their lives? Doesn’t this dependence on good works imply that Catholics create their own righteousness? Paul says explicitly in Philippians 3:3 that Christians have no confidence in the flesh, but when Catholics speak of sustaining salvation by good works, doesn’t that give them confidence in the flesh? Isn’t this a contradiction?
Not exactly. Catholics have Jesus’ righteousness with God through faith, not their own righteousness, and this is preserved by God’s grace. For apart from Jesus, Catholics can do nothing (John 15:5). They are the body of Christ, so Christ is the one who “works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Jesus is the one who preserves the state of salvation. Paul says, “I worked harder than any of [the other apostles], though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). Although Catholics have free will, they humbly attribute their good deeds to God’s strength.
Nevertheless, the Protestant might object, Paul says Christ’s righteousness is received through faith. He does not say anything about good works. If it is through faith, then wouldn’t that mean that salvation is by faith alone?
We can respond that the word for “faith” in Greek (pistis) can be translated as “faith” or “faithfulness.” The word implies obedience—good works. This is because faith is a concise way of summing up the entire Catholic faith. As the Council of Trent, session 6, chapter 8, says, “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.” Faith is the foundation of the Catholic religion. It holds up everything else.
Finally, Paul says in Philippians 2:12 to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. If Paul were teaching salvation by faith alone in Philippians 3:9, then why would he say we need to “work out” our salvation? There is no getting around this: sola fide (faith alone) is being read into the text by our Protestant brothers and sisters.
Philippians 3:9 is about two modes of salvation. One is focused on the Mosaic Law. The other is focused on Christ. One creates a false righteousness, or communion with God. The other creates a true righteousness before God. Catholics do not boastfully create their own righteousness before God by performing good works. They do good works by God’s power only. As St. Thérèse of Lisieux said, our good works are just throwing flowers to our beloved—and Paul would agree.