One of the biggest issues separating Catholics and Protestants is the question of the necessity of good works for salvation. At the risk of oversimplifying it, we Catholics believe that salvation depends on both our faith and our good works, whereas Protestantism has traditionally taught that it depends solely on our faith in Jesus. In fact, there is a strand within modern Protestantism that even goes so far as to say that our moral conduct is entirely irrelevant. Adherents of this theology claim that believers will go to heaven no matter how bad they are.
This view probably strikes a lot of us as obviously contrary to the entire tenor of Christianity, but many people sincerely believe it, so it is actually very dangerous. It encourages people to live contrary to the Gospel, so we need to know how to effectively refute that view when we encounter it.
There are numerous ways to do this, as just about every book of the New Testament contains at least one verse that contradicts this radical “faith alone” theology, and some of the best places to look are the four Gospels. Their teaching on this question is very clear, so let’s take a look at them and see what they say about the necessity of good works for salvation.
The Gospel of Matthew
We can begin with some passages from the Gospel of Matthew:
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)
Not every one 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. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.”(Matthew 7:21-23)
Matthew has a lot more to say about salvation than just these two texts, but I chose them because they bookend the Sermon on the Mount, a collection of teachings on various topics, mainly having to do with morality. Once we recognize that, these two passages become very important for our topic. The first one says that we have to be righteous to enter the kingdom of God (which is essentially the same thing as getting to heaven), and in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, this has to mean that we need to follow Jesus’ moral teachings. If we do not, we will not enter heaven when we die.
In the second passage, Jesus says that we have to do more than just profess belief in him; we even have to do more than just perform mighty deeds like prophecies and exorcisms in his name. Rather, we have to do the Father’s will, and once again, the fact that this passage is found in the Sermon on the Mount tells us what that entails. In context, it clearly means that we have to do good works. And in case there is any doubt, the last line of the passage confirms it for us. The people Jesus is talking about miss out on heaven because they are “evildoers,” which implies that to be saved, we need to do good instead.
The Gospel of Mark
And we see this same message in the Gospel of Mark as well. For instance, consider this passage:
Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched. (Mark 9:42-48)
This text isn’t as explicit as the ones we looked at from Matthew, but if we reflect on it a bit, its message is just as clear. Jesus is telling us the opposite of what we have to do to be saved; he is telling us what kinds of things will get us condemned to hell. He specifies that causing others to sin can send us to hell, and then he explains that we have to remove sources of sin in our lives in order to avoid eternal condemnation.
For our purposes here, it is significant that Jesus gives no indication that we can commit these sins but still go to heaven as long as we believe in him. He simply says that they can condemn us to hell, so faith alone can’t be enough. Instead, to get to heaven, we have to live good, moral lives as well. We have to do good works.
The Gospel of Luke
Next, let’s look at a passage from the Gospel of Luke:
And some one said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the householder has risen up and shut the door, you will begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us.’ He will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from; depart from me, all you workers of iniquity!'” (Luke 13:23-27)
Again, this text is not as explicit as the ones we looked at from Matthew’s Gospel, but its message comes through loud and clear just the same. In this passage, someone asks Jesus if only a small number of people will be saved, and he responds by saying that it is hard to make it to heaven. With that answer, we see right off the bat that faith alone isn’t enough. Believing without changing our lives is just about the easiest thing we could do, so that is clearly not what salvation requires.
Instead, we need to lead good, moral lives. Granted, Jesus does not say that explicitly, but what he does say implies it. Look at his last sentence. The condemned people he is talking about are “workers of iniquity,” which means that to be saved, we have to be the opposite of that. We have to do good works and avoid sin.
The Gospel of John: Balance Between Faith and Good Works
Finally, we have the Gospel of John. Unlike the other three, this one contains some passages that seem to teach that faith alone is sufficient, so we have to spend a bit more time with it. To begin, let’s look at some passages that seem to contradict what we saw in the other three Gospels:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24)
At first glance, these texts seem to teach that our salvation depends solely on our faith, and the necessity of good works is nowhere to be seen. However, these verses only tell half the story. Consider another passage:
Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment. (John 5:28-29)
In this text, Jesus teaches that good works are in fact necessary, serving to balance the other passages I quoted. We can see that John often splits up the truth about salvation, giving part of it (the necessity of faith) in some passages and the rest (the necessity of good works) in others.
The Nature of Faith
And if there’s any doubt about this, let’s take a look at a verse in John that puts these two halves together:
He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him. (John 3:36)
At first glance, this text may not make much sense. We don’t normally think of faith and disobedience as opposites, so it can be tough to see the logic in this teaching. One possible explanation is that in John’s Gospel, Jesus commands us to believe in him (for example, John 6:29), so obeying him actually entails nothing more than believing. However, Jesus also commands us to love one another (for example, John 15:12), so by telling us that our salvation depends on our obedience, John has to mean that it requires both faith and works.
So how do we explain this strange contrast between faith and disobedience? The key lies in the nature of faith. To believe in Jesus means to accept all of his teachings as true, and if we do that, we should also live those teachings precisely because of our belief. Granted, it is possible to accept intellectually that we should do good works while living contrary to that knowledge, but the Gospel of John is not a doctoral dissertation on the nature of faith and salvation. It is not intended to lay out every possible way that someone could respond to Jesus’ teachings. Rather, it is concerned with the correct way to respond to him, and that way involves both believing in him and living out that belief.
In other words, in the Gospel of John, when Jesus says that we need to believe in him, that is not merely an intellectual requirement. No, it means that we have to accept his teachings as true and act accordingly.
Salvation in the Gospels
At the end of the day, the Gospels are very clear that salvation requires both faith and good works. Even John, which sometimes seems to say that faith is all we need, teaches the necessity of good works as well.
So the next time you encounter a radical “faith alone” theology that entirely discounts the importance of moral conduct, you can be confident that it is not the teaching of the Gospels. It is at best a partial truth, only one side of the coin. The fullness of that truth is the Catholic understanding of salvation, which involves both our faith and our good works.