God’s saving grace: a reward for our works?

I appreciated some of the points made by Fr. Salvador in his article last week (“The Catholic view of salvation: a response”), such as his exhortation that “accepting Jesus Christ is only the first step in our faith journey.” As the Bible confirms, we are not to stay immature in our faith, but instead “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

However, Fr. Salvador went on to quote Cardinal Cassidy’s statement that “eternal life is, at one and the same time, grace and the reward given by God for good works and merits.”

Some linguistic ‘categories’ overlap (for example, one could be both a chemistry major and an engineering major), while others do not (a married bachelor). Crucially, when describing how we guilty sinners can receive “justification” (righteous status allowing us to be in God’s presence), the Bible consistently contrasts “works” against “grace” and against “faith.” In this context, the categories are mutually exclusive. As Paul wrote: “In the same way then, there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God’s gracious choice. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.” (Romans 11:5-6)

Paul disagrees with Cardinal Cassidy – “grace” given as a reward for works “is no longer grace.” Paul likewise explains how God ‘credits’ righteousness to us:

“Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law. … if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works” (Rom. 3:27-28,4:2-6).

I understand that Fr. Salvador would likely emphasize that the “internal transformation” that (he would say) causes us to merit eternal life is itself a gift from God, and that this internal (infused) sanctification is accomplished by the Holy Spirit’s power. But I still respond that it is not Biblically accurate to say that eternal life is a “reward” from God for our good works, regardless of the source of the good works. This is why Eph. 2:8-10 says that our salvation (justification) is “not by works,” while also saying that we are created “to do good works” (sanctification).

As Fr. Salvador quoted, we are indeed to “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you” (Phil. 2:12-13). But this does not mean we are to work “for” our salvation (i.e. our justification), wondering whether our works will be sufficient to bring us into eternal life with God! Rather, we work “out” our salvation. That is, having already been justified through faith in Jesus Christ, we naturally evince the fruit of that new relationship with God. James emphasizes the same thing with his famous explanation “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26), speaking of the way we “justify” or make apparent our faith to other people who are watching our lives. True faith will always eventually produce fruit.

I thank Fr. Salvador again for his thoughtful article, despite this major disagreement. I wish him the best, and I would be glad to dialog further with him or others interested in this topic.