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.
In some anti-Catholic literature the author seems to be trying to get his reader to think that positive actions are bad and that Catholics think that if they perform many positive actions after being baptized (justified by God) that they will go to heaven.
Well, this statement is 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 sever our friendship with him by performing an act or 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.
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 our acts and actions. We will be judged by the things we do and what we do not do.
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. He wants us to be more positive than negative.
If sinning is done by our acts and actions then we must be able to remain in God’s friendship by our actions as well. The less we sin the more we remain in good standing with God.
The less negative actions we perform the more we remain in good standing with God.
Therefore, the more positive actions we perform the more we remain in good standing with God.
Hence the more good works we perform the more we remain in good standing 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 reflect that faith.
So, in a sense, good works can get you into heaven, but not alone, nor does faith alone as is says in James 2:26 that faith without works is dead and in Romans 3:22 we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ. Catholic theology supports these teachings of the Bible.
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.