What do Catholics really believe about grace and works?

Over the years, I’ve talked to a disconcerting number of people who have an unbelievably over-simplified view of the Catholic doctrine of salvation. Basically, it boils down to this: “well, Catholics think you’re saved by good works, and Protestants think you’re saved by grace.” I’ve heard it from Protestants. I’ve heard it from Catholics. And even people who don’t consider themselves religious jump on the bandwagon. Unfortunately, the whole notion is hogwash.

Hog in Washing Machine


So, I could try to explain it all to you… but, since I’m not a theologian, I don’t think I’m qualified. Instead, we’re going to do a quiz! Yay!

The Quiz

Here’s ten quotes about grace and works (with some baptism thrown in for good measure) that come from several different authoritative documents in various Catholic and Protestant churches. See if you can tell which ones are Protestant and which are Catholic. (Mouse over the black boxes to see the answers… no cheating!)

  1. “If any one says that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ, he is a heretic.” Catholic – Council of Trent
  2. “Men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins.” Protestant – Augsburg Confession (Lutheran)
  3. “If any one says that without the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and without His help, man can believe, hope, love, or repent as he ought, so that the grace of Justification may be bestowed upon him, he is a heretic.” Catholic – Council of Trent
  4. “We can have merit in God’s sight only because of God’s free plan to associate man with the work of his grace.” Catholic – Catechism
  5. “It is not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone that they are justified.” Protestant – Westminster Confession (Presbyterian)
  6. “Faith is bound to bring forth good fruits, and it is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will, but we should not rely on those works to merit justification before God.” Protestant – Augsburg Confession (Lutheran)
  7. “The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness.” Catholic – Catechism
  8. “Their ability to do good works is not at all from themselves, but entirely from the Spirit of Christ.” Protestant – Westminster Confession (Presbyterian)
  9. “[Baptism] is necessary to salvation, and through Baptism is offered the grace of God.” Protestant – Augsburg Confession (Lutheran)
  10. “Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith.” Catholic – Catechism

The Point

Surprised by how difficult it was to tell these quotes apart? You’re probably not alone. That’s because the teachings of the various Christian traditions have been vastly over-simplified in popular culture. (In case you didn’t catch it, Catholic teaching says “salvation by works” is a heresy.) It’s just not as cut and dry as we’ve been told.

With that being said, please don’t leave thinking that Catholics and Protestants think exactly the same things about grace, faith, and works. There are important and meaningful doctrinal differences between the various churches. I’ve just cherry picked some quotes in order to prove a point.

St Peter's Basilica

Differences between the churches include the fact that the Roman Catholics own a whole country and Protestants don’t…

If you’d like to learn more, I suggest reading the documents referenced above. They’re short, they’re relatively easy reading, and they’re very informative (and hopefully edifying). It’ll be worth your time.


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