The First Attempt
The story of the offerings of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-5), the first sons of Adam, is very revealing to us, and relevant to this topic. It demonstrates the fact that, since the beginning, God never intended that man’s works would ever contribute to his salvation. Both Cain and Abel brought a sacrifice to God: Cain brought an offering of the fruit of the ground (i.e., the labor of his hands), while Abel brought an innocent animal, an unblemished victim, of his flock. And of course, the Bible tells us that God accepted Abel’s offering, and not Cain’s. Cain’s offering is man’s first recorded attempt to earn salvation.
The very fact that the work of Cain’s hands was rejected, indicates that God wants us to trust in the Innocent Substitute in order to be saved, rather than our good works. Abel’s sacrifice represents Jesus on the cross, an innocent and perfectly unblemished and righteous Person to die in the place of sinful man; while Cain’s sacrifice represents all of man’s energy, work, and suffering in his futile attempts to become right with God. But that didn’t save anyone at that time, and it doesn’t save today. If “faith PLUS works” is what saves (as Catholics believe), then why didn’t Abel offer fruits and vegetables ALONG WITH the animal sacrifice? No, there is only one thing that saves, and that is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, to which Abel’s offering pointed.
Cain’s offering was rejected for the same reason that the fig leaves were taken away from his parents, and replaced with animal skins (Genesis 3:7, 21). That is, an innocent one had to shed his blood and die to cover their nakedness. The fig leaves were not good enough, because they too, represented the work of man’s hands. Cain was not recognizing the seriousness of his condition as a sinner and the need for an innocent life to be sacrificed. Once again, if man is saved by “faith plus works,” then why didn’t God just ADD the animal skins to the fig leaves?
To Work or Not to Work...
CATHOLIC CLAIM – BUT WHAT ABOUT VERSES LIKE PHILIPPIANS 2:12, WHICH SAYS TO “WORK OUT YOUR OWN SALVATION WITH FEAR AND TREMBLING”? DOESN’T THIS MEAN THAT WE HAVE TO WORK TO BE JUSTIFIED?
No, Paul is talking about the outworking, or the “living out” of our salvation. Once again, the context is not “how to be saved,” but Paul is describing the glorious Second Person of the Trinity, what He gave up for us, and how we should live, in light of that. It’s not about doing works in order to obtain our salvation, but it’s about our time of growth, our sanctification. We are not saved “by good works,” we are saved “in order to do good works” (Ephesians 2:10).
Catholics speak of their works being done in a “state of grace.” That is, if one does good works in this state of grace, his works will then count toward his salvation. According to them, God still gets the credit, since HE gave them the ability to do the good works in the first place. Therefore, it is “all God,” they say. And since God does these grace-infused works through us, He is glorified when we are justified through those works, right? Well… not exactly.
It is true that God is glorified when we do good works. And yes, it is true that everything good comes from God, but that doesn’t mean that everything good is salvific, (i.e., has the power to save us). God is the One Who determines what saves and what doesn’t save… and He tells us in His Word that we are justified (in the “saving” sense) – not by works – but by faith APART FROM WORKS (Romans 3:28; 4:4-6; Titus 3:5). [See Part 2 of this series]
Someone once said that people who think that these ‘grace-infused works’ will save them, will either:
1) downplay God’s demand for PERFECTION, or
2) exaggerate on their OWN righteousness
I happen to agree with that. None of us are perfect in our good works, so we must trust in that perfect work of Jesus and HIS righteousness, not ours.
CATHOLIC CLAIM – WHAT ABOUT ALL THE “ENDURE-TO-THE-END” TYPE VERSES (MATTHEW 24:13; MARK 13:13)? DON’T THESE INDICATE THAT ENDURING HARDSHIP AND DOING GOOD WORKS TILL THE END, ARE THE KEY TO SALVATION?
No, the apostle Paul said:
“You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by HEARING WITH FAITH? Are you so foolish? Having BEGUN by the Spirit, are you now being PERFECTED by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:1-3 NASB)
Paul is saying that the thing which has “birthed” us into the body of Christ (faith / trust in Jesus), will be the SAME THING which will MAINTAIN us in our Christian walk. Yes, we will have to endure to the end, but it is the maintaining of our FAITH that brings this about, and works are just a natural by-product of that (true) faith. Remember, our good works do please God, and we will be rewarded for our good works, but they are the result, not the cause, of salvation. Faith is what “gets” us saved, and faith is what “keeps” us saved. Not works.
CATHOLIC CLAIM - BUT WHAT ABOUT OUR SUFFERINGS THAT WE EXPERIENCE FOR HIM? DOESN’T THAT CONTRIBUTE TO OUR SALVATION? (CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH, #1435) AFTER ALL, PAUL DOES TELL US THAT HE “…FILL[S] UP THAT WHICH IS BEHIND [LACKING] OF THE AFFLICTIONS OF CHRIST IN MY FLESH FOR HIS BODY’S SAKE, WHICH IS THE CHURCH.” (COLOSSIANS 1:24)
But there is absolutely nothing lacking in the afflictions of Christ, concerning His payment for sin. So, Paul is speaking of what is lacking in the church and is reminding us of his (Paul’s) suffering for them. But Paul never says that man’s suffering justifies anyone.
Jesus suffered for a DIFFERENT reason than we do. He suffered to pay for the sins of mankind, but we (the church) suffer in the sense of bearing each other’s burdens, and laboring to win souls.
Again, there is no “lack” in Christ’s work. Sadly, this verse is so often twisted by Catholics to say something that it doesn’t say.
CATHOLIC CLAIM – BUT SCRIPTURE TELLS US THAT FAITH, ITSELF, IS A “WORK”, ACCORDING TO JOHN 6:29: "JESUS ANSWERED AND SAID UNTO THEM, 'THIS IS THE WORK OF GOD, THAT YE BELIEVE ON HIM WHOM HE HATH SENT'.”
But those who say this miss Jesus’ whole point. Jesus was NOT defining faith as a “work” at all. The Jews were the ones who first brought up the subject of works. So Jesus just uses this as a springboard and responds to them on that topic. He is basically saying, “You’re asking what WORKS should be done to be right with God? This is the only so-called ‘work’ that God requires: You must BELIEVE IN ME. You’re looking for works, but God is requiring faith.” Jesus is actually re-directing their misguided view of works.
We believe that all of the verses that Catholics use when defending their “faith plus works” view, can be explained and reconciled with the Protestant understanding of "Faith Alone." However, we don’t believe that Catholics can reconcile their view of “faith plus works” with the context of Romans 3, 4, and 5, which clearly teaches the “Faith Alone” view.
Probably the most devastating argument in the Bible against the “faith plus works” concept can be found in the book of Galatians. The apostle Paul was dealing with the error of the Judaizers, who convinced the Galatian churches that one must not only believe in Jesus’ work on the cross to be saved, but must also be circumcised. (Galatians 6:12) We see these same Judaizers in Acts 15:1, also.
Paul’s whole point was that they were (wrongly) adding to the work of the cross. They were teaching salvation by their works IN ADDITION TO faith in the cross, just as the Catholic Church does today (and unfortunately, many Protestants, also).
So, what’s the big deal? Why was Paul so disturbed by this? Isn’t it enough that Jesus’ work is being recognized? And can’t WE get at least some credit for our salvation?
Absolutely not! It’s either ALL Jesus, or not Jesus AT ALL. It can never be “Jesus PLUS my works.”
Notice the phrases used by Paul in Galatians to describe those who would add any works to the cross:
1) They NULLIFY / FRUSTRATE God’s grace (Galatians 2:21)
2) They have been SEVERED FROM CHRIST and have FALLEN FROM GRACE (Galatians 5:4 NASV)
3) They have DESERTED JESUS for a DIFFERENT GOSPEL (Galatians 1:6)
4) They are ACCURSED (Galatians 1:8-9)
Does anyone STILL want to claim that he can add to the cross, or cause some type of “increase” in his justification, through his works? [as the Council of Trent, Session 6, Canon 24 teaches]
Finally, we have actual examples of people who were saved by faith, apart from their works.
Romans 4:2-3 tells us that Abraham (who lived before the Mosaic Law) was justified by faith alone, and just a few verses later (verse 6), we see that David (who lived under the Mosaic Law) was likewise saved.
Jesus also told the story of the Pharisee and the publican (tax collector) in Luke 18:9-14. In this short story, it is the unlikely (and usually hated) tax collector who goes home justified, simply because he humbled himself, knowing that he was an undeserving sinner, and he surrendered to God. The bragging Pharisee, who thought surely that God would be impressed with his works, made sure to tell God how great he (the Pharisee) was. The whole reason that Jesus presented this story is to caution against the attitude of those who “trusted in themselves” (verse 9).
And of course, we have the classic example of someone saved by faith alone: the thief on the cross (Luke 23:40-43). He was one of two thieves hanging on their own crosses on either side of Jesus. At first, the “good thief” (as he came to be known) was mocking and ridiculing Jesus, like everyone else was (Matthew 27:38-44), but a little later, had a change of heart, defended Jesus, and condemned the other thief for his attitude (Luke 23:39-40). Then, with repentance, he uttered those immortal words, “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom” (23:42). And of course, Jesus tells him, “Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with Me in paradise.” Jesus didn’t say, “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to come down from that cross, get baptized, participate in the Eucharist, and do this list of works I’ll give you…” No, He recognized the man’s change of heart (repentance and faith in Him) and accepted him on that basis. And He does the same for us today.
Unfortunately, the Catholic Church has a number of teachings that put too much emphasis on works. Teachings like Purgatory, the Treasury of Merit, Indulgences, the idea that man can atone for sin by almsgiving (giving money), and mixing / confusing justification with sanctification… these all detract from the work of Jesus on the cross. These teachings are telling us that His suffering and dying was just not quite enough to pay the penalty for sin. WE must ADD something to make salvation complete. Catholics may not say it in these words, but this is truly the bottom line in their logic. In other words, they are saying that Jesus’ words, “It is finished,” (John 19:30) were not true. He apparently needs our “help” (according to the Catholic Church). Can any honest person deny that this is blasphemy?
But to be fair, the Catholic Church is not the only church that teaches that works contribute to a person’s justification. Sadly, there are also some Protestant churches that believe this teaching. It is also a fact that most (if not all) other world religions believe this same concept, in one form or another. You see, man (because of his nature) wants to take credit for things that he shouldn’t.
I pray that no one reading this will ever think that on Judgment Day, he will be able to stand before Jesus Christ and say, “Yes, Lord, You did Your 99% and I did my 1%, so I helped to pay for my own salvation...” God forbid.
It is my sincere prayer that no one (Catholic or Protestant) would ever fall prey to the deception and half-truths of this “faith plus works” doctrine. And may God have mercy on those who teach it.