Catholics believe that good works do not guarantee, but do play a role in, our final salvation. That so many Protestants disagree is unfortunate, but this disconnect is why we must be as clear as possible about the biblical foundations for the Church’s teaching.
Previously, we considered an argument against the Church’ understanding of a key text on this question, Romans 2:6-7, from Protestant apologist Ron Rhodes, finding his position unconvincing. But in the interest of thoroughness, let’s consider here some other objections he raises to the Church’s position.
Here is the passage from Romans again:
For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing [Greek, ergou agathou—literally, “in work good”] seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.
Rhodes argues that the Catholic interpretation of this text is flawed because it doesn’t cohere with Paul’s theology that works are “the result of salvation, not the condition of salvation,” and that “we are saved unto good works . . . saved by grace but for works” (emphasis in original). He cites Ephesians 2:10 for support: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
How do we respond?
First, Rhodes fails to make the distinction between final salvation, the salvation that we receive at the end of life (cf. Rom. 13:11, 1 Cor. 3:15, 5:5), and initial salvation, the salvation we receive when we initially enter into relationship with Christ (cf. 1 Peter 1:8-9, Phil. 2:12). The Catholic Church agrees that works are not the “condition of salvation,” to use Rhodes’s words, if we’re talking about initial salvation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states,
Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. (2010)
It’s only after we’re in grace that good works play a role in our salvation:
Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life. (2010, emphasis in original)
The immediate context of Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 2:10 deals with initial salvation. Consider, for example, what Paul says in verses four and five:
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).
Paul here is speaking of that initial transition from death to life in Christ. And it’s this initial stage of salvation where Paul thinks good works play no role:
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. (8-9)
The stage of salvation that Paul refers to in Romans 2:6-7 is clearly not the initial stage but the final. Consider that he speaks of “eternal life” given as a reward to those who are already on the journey with Christ: “those who by patience in well-doing seek glory and honor and immortality.”
Moreover, Paul makes it explicit in the fourth verse that he has final salvation in mind, for he speaks of “the day of wrath” and the revelation of “God’s righteous judgment.”
So, a Catholic’s appeal to Romans 2:6-7 doesn’t conflict with Paul’s theology about grace and works in Ephesians 2 because Paul is referring to two different stages of salvation in each passage.
A second rebuttal that Rhodes offers is that good works “simply attest to the salvation that has already been received by faith,” and that they are merely “evidence that a person has saving faith.” And Rhodes thinks that’s what Paul is talking about in Romans 2:6-8:
In the context of Paul’s writings, it would seem that Romans 2:6-8 emphasizes that how a person habitually acts or conducts himself in daily life indicates the state of his heart. A person who habitually engages in good works thereby shows that his heart has been regenerated by God (verse 7). A person who habitually engages in bad deeds shows his alienation from God (verse 8).
The first thing to say in response is that Rhodes does have biblical grounds for thinking habitual good works are an indication that someone’s heart has been regenerated. Jesus teaches in Matthew 7:16-17, “You will know them by their fruits,” for “every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit.” John writes in 1 John 3:7, “[L]et no one deceive you. He who does right is righteous, as he is righteous.”
But just because the Bible affirms the evidential view of good works (that good works are evidence of faith) it doesn’t mean good works don’t have some other role to play, like disposing us to receive the reward of eternal life that Jesus promises to give for such deeds. Consider the following examples:
- Matthew 7:21—“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
- Matthew 12:36-37— “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
- Matthew 25:34-35—“ Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
- John 6:54—“[H]e who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Rhodes doesn’t think Paul has this view of works in mind in Romans 2:6-8. As we saw above, he thinks Paul is saying that good works attest to saving faith, that they are merely evidence of faith.
But Paul doesn’t say anything about works attesting to saving faith. He explicitly states that the good works performed in patience and the seeking for the gifts of glory, honor, and immortality are the reason for God granting eternal life. In other words, the good works are real causes that bring about a real effect: the granting of eternal life.
Granted, the good works don’t merit eternal life in a strict sense, since there is an infinite disproportion between our natural acts and the supernatural reward of the beatific vision. But the good works do contribute to the attainment of eternal life because Christ promised to give such a reward to those who perform good works (see the list above).
So, ultimately the reward is given based on Christ’s promises. But the giving of the reward does involve a response to our good works.
This principle is made even clearer in verse eight, wherein Paul contrasts the aforementioned good works with bad works: “[F]or those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.” Disobedience and wickedness are not merely manifestations of a degenerate heart, but are causes that bring about the effect of wrath and fury.
We will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10). And that judgment will go well for some and badly for others. For Paul in Romans 2:6-7, it goes well for those who do good works in faith and seek glory, honor, and immortality. But that’s no different than the Catholic teaching that good works, along with faith, play a crucial role in the attainment of our final salvation at the end of life. Therefore, a Catholic’s appeal to Romans 2:6-7 in support of this Catholic belief remains justified.