A grave misunderstanding about Catholicism is the notion of good works. The term good works seems to have a negative connotation to it in certain other Christian circles.
In order to clarify the Catholic position on what good works are and the role of works in salvation I propose that for the purpose of this article we substitute the term positive actions for good works. This new term will help to clarify misconceptions especially in terms of salvation, grace, and merit.
Positive Actions and Negative Actions
In some anti-Catholic literature the author seems to be trying to get his reader to think that Catholics believe that if they perform many positive actions after being baptized (justified by God) that they will go to heaven.
Well, this statement is partially true, but standing alone it is not the whole truth of what Catholics believe. Let’s contrast two ideas.
To sin means to offend God. It means that we damage or sever our friendship with him. We do this by performing an action that goes against what God has commanded us to do in order to stay in good standing with him. Thoughts as well are considered actions because thinking is doing something just as is breathing, walking or reading. Because thoughts are often involuntary, whether a thought is sinful or not depends on how we react to it. Anger is not necessarily a sin, but feeding resentment is.
Sin is an act or action. God will, one day, judge each of us human beings and decide which ones are worthy enough to spend eternity with God in heaven.
How or by what is God going to judge us? God will judge us by how we respond to the grace he offers. This includes our acts and actions, as well as our faith in him. A full response to God’s grace involves responding in faith and responding in the way we live.
We will be judged by the things we do and what we do not do. We can see this in the parable of the sheep and the goats that Jesus tells his disciples (Matthew 25:31-36). Those who enter heaven are those who have helped Jesus through the good they have done for others.
Good and Evil and Friendship with God
According to Christian theology God is the universal standard by which good and evil (synonyms are positive and negative respectively) are measured and God is 100% good.
God wills for each and every one of us to be good.
The fewer negative actions we perform the more we remain in friendship with God.
Therefore, the more positive actions we perform the more we remain in friendship with God.
Hence the more good works we perform the more we remain in friendship with God.
The bottom line is that God will judge us in the end by our actions done throughout our entire lives. Throughout our lives we can choose to remain in God’s friendship or not. We have free will to choose whether to obey God or not and if we choose to disobey God, which is to sin, then we choose not to remain in God’s friendship.
Yes, we must have faith that our savior is Jesus Christ, but at the same time our actions must reflect that faith.
Faith and Works: Both Necessary
So, in a sense, good works are essential to get to heaven, but not alone. Nor is faith alone sufficient, although faith is also necessary. James 2:26 tells us that faith without works is dead. In Romans 3:22 we see that we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ. Catholic theology supports these teachings of the Bible and holds them in balance.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church in paragraph 2008 says that “good works are done to glorify God and are done in honor of him.”
The Catechism goes on further to state in paragraph 2010, “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,” (emphasis my own).
Also important is this quote from the same section saying, “These graces and goods are the objects of Christian prayer. Prayer attends to the grace we need for meritorious actions.”
The Catholic Church does not believe that good works alone will get anyone into heaven nor does it believe that faith alone will get anyone into heaven. However, good works in conjunction with faith do have merit.
Our good works are done not on our own, and they have merit because they are a response to God’s grace.
For example, imagine that a father gives money to his young child, who has no money of her own, to buy Christmas gifts for her family. The child can respond to this gift that her father has given her by spending the money on toys for herself. She might respond to the gift by hoarding the money. Or she might please her father by using the money he gave her to buy gifts, as he intended. Because she has used the gift wisely, she pleases her father, and he is likely to give her money in the future to continue buying gifts for her family. She would not have been able to buy anything if her father had not given her the money, but likewise it is her free choice to respond to that gift.
Likewise, God gives us grace to do good things. We can choose to respond to that grace by performing positive actions through our free will. When we do so, we please God, and he will give us further grace to continue growing in friendship with him through our choices to do good things by his grace.