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Constance wrote:

Hi, guys —

I have a few questions.

  • How do priests know how many good works to prescribe?
  • What biblical basis is there for works playing any part in salvation?

I know these questions may seem very simple-minded, but I would like to answer my friend who showed me verses like Titus 3:5 and others that seemed to say that good works just come naturally after faith. For instance; James 2:17 (ESV, English Standard Version):

So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

  • Can you help me?


  { How do priests know how many good works to give and do good works come naturally after faith? }

Eric replied:

Hi, Constance —

I presume you're asking about penances in the sacrament of Confession. The priest uses his discretion. There is no formula, although the penance should be somewhat commensurate with the sin and preferably serve as an antidote to it.

As for good works, this is a complex subject. Try doing a Knowledge base search for keywords such as "works", "justification" or "justified", "law", and so forth. Different people have different definitions of works. It is possible to say in Catholicism that we are saved by faith working through love.

  • For some people, works are deeds of charity.
  • For others, works include avoiding sin.
  • For still others, works even includes sacraments such as Baptism.

Jesus spoke a lot about works and their necessity. Consider the parable of the sheep and the goats, which suggests at least some people will be judged on the basis of their deeds of charity (Matthew 25:32-46). (I disagree with one of my colleagues on who specifically this judgment applies to but we agree it applies to some people.) Even St. Paul says something similar in Romans 2:1-11.

When asked about how to be saved, Jesus replied to the rich young ruler with the Ten Commandments (Mark 10:17-21). In fact, he added something — go sell all you have and give it to the poor. The man went away unsaved. No "faith alone" here.

(The only time justification [salvation] by faith alone appears in Scripture is when the concept is condemned in James 2:24— an instructive chapter worth reading. Perhaps you have already read it.

Jesus says something interesting in Matthew 7:15-19. He talks about good trees and bad trees. He says a tree will be judged by its fruit, and those who do not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. This parallels what Jesus said in the parable of the sheep and the goats and what St. Paul says in Romans. It also says that a good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. The deeds manifest the faith, but the faith is useless without the deeds. They go together. As in many things Catholic it's, not an either-or, but a both-and.

So your friend is right in a sense, that good works come naturally from faith. We, as Catholics, believe that salvation is pure grace — no one can come to God except by grace, and no unsaved man is saved by his good deeds or even his moral goodness. We are saved through Baptism and, for adults, repentance. The fact that we believe that the just-baptized infant is saved and would go to Heaven, if it died, proves that we do not believe that works are necessary for salvation.
At the same time, someone who spurns God's grace after having received it, by willfully disobeying one of the Lord's precepts in a serious way, without repentance, as St. Paul says in Romans, will not be saved. We also believe that all our good works are gifts of God that come by his grace. The Catechism has a good line from St. Augustine:

You are glorified in the assembly of your holy ones, for in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts.

Roman Missal, Prefatio I de sanctis; Qui in Sanctorum concilio celebraris, et eorum coronando merita tua dona coronas

. . . citing the "Doctor of grace," St. Augustine, En. in Ps. 102,7:PL 37,1321-1322.

Good works come naturally from faith, but good faith naturally manifests itself in good works.
You can't pit faith against works any more than a good tree can product bad fruit; they work together. We are saved by works not in the sense, that of our own, we did something pleasing to God, but in the sense that we received and cooperated with God's grace which bore fruit in our lives, and that fruit, like the trees in the parable, God recognized and rewarded.

Also, we, as Catholics, believe that the justified (meaning saved, in sanctifying grace) person can be justified more (meaning grow more righteous) by doing good deeds.

Protestants don't generally believe this; for them, justification happens once when the unsaved person becomes saved.

This confuses the issue because when a Catholic says that we are justified by works, he means the just can become more just by good deeds prompted and enabled by God's grace, but Protestants think he [the Catholic] means the unsaved can work his way into salvation, which we don't believe at all.


John replied:

Hi, Constance —

Regarding works and salvation. Let me put it in a different paradigm for you.

First of all, we are saved by Grace alone. On that we all agree. Works only come in after grace has brought us to faith. You seem to be saying that works are simply evidence of faith and, yes, we agree that they are indeed evidence.

However, the practice of good works, inspired by and done by grace in faith, add to the quality of our faith and therefore help us to persevere in the faith.

Let's say faith is the muscle by which we are saved. Every time we obey the Holy Spirit and do a good deed, we exercise that faith muscle. By doing so, we strengthen that faith muscle, making it less likely that we will fall away.

In fact, even as evidence of faith, each good work reminds us that our faith is true and therefore we grow in confidence that our Lord will save us.


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