It is often said by evangelicals that the Catholic Church teaches “salvation by works.” Most Catholics would deny this very strongly. If evangelicals are to interact with those in the Catholic Church and share the gospel with them, it is important to properly understand Catholic doctrine, including their view of meritorious works.
In Catholic doctrine, there are two kinds of merit. The first is condign merit, that is, merit that carries with it an obligation. If condign merit is not recognized and rewarded, there is a violation of justice. For example, if you go into a restaurant and enjoy a good meal, you are obligated to pay for it. If it is a horrible meal, you may be justified in refusing to pay; but, if it is a great meal, justice requires you to pay.
Congruous merit is that which carries no obligation but is fitting or appropriate to recognize and reward. For example, if the waiter at the above restaurant gives you great service, it is fitting that you leave a good tip. However, even if you leave no tip at all, you have not violated justice (though the waiter might disagree). Any tip you leave is at your discretion. If a waiter gives good service, it is certainly fitting (congruous) that you leave a good tip, and, if he gives bad service, it is appropriate to leave a small tip or no tip at all.
The Catholic Church teaches that humans cannot perform works of condign merit—that is, we can never put God in our debt so that God would “owe” us eternal life. However, according to Catholic doctrine, we can perform works of congruous merit—that is, we can do good works appropriate for God to reward. Penance is one of the works of congruous merit that will “make up for” sinful actions, but anything that would be considered a “good work” may have this kind of merit.
According to Catholic teaching, the sacrament of baptism removes original sin and returns one to a state of innocence, enabling him to perform works of congruous merit. Without these works of congruous merit, it would be incongruous (inappropriate) for God to allow entrance into heaven. If a person dies “in a state of grace”—that is, in a proper relationship with the Catholic Church, having been baptized and not having committed any mortal sin (a sin that destroys the state of grace)—but does not have enough works of congruous merit to cover his sins and to make it appropriate for God to allow him into the glories of heaven, then that person must suffer in purgatory until he has paid the temporal penalties for his sins.
Most Catholics would be quick to emphasize that this whole arrangement is one of grace. God did not have to send His Son to die on the cross so that we could have original sin removed, allowing us to perform works of congruous merit. Likewise, they would emphasize that we can never truly earn salvation in that God is never in our debt. We are like the waiter who has given good service but knows he is not legally “owed” a tip—the tip is at the discretion of the customer. (A tip is also called a “gratuity,” from the Latin word gratis, which means “favor” or “free,” implying a lack of obligation.) But God has promised that He will leave big tips any time He gets good service. God “owes” a reward for congruous merit because He has promised to reward it, not because it is owed in any absolute sense.
Given this configuration, it is possible to understand how Catholicism can maintain that we are saved by grace and by the death of Christ. Catholics and evangelicals would both agree that Christ paid for our sins on the cross. However, Catholics affirm (and evangelicals deny) that we can make satisfaction for some of our sins as well. Evangelicals and Catholics also disagree about how we attain the positive righteousness necessary to allow us entrance to heaven. In Catholicism, this positive righteousness comes through works of congruous merit, which are the result of personal exertion and cooperation with grace. If one’s efforts are not enough, the remainder will be taken care of in purgatory. (In Catholic theology, purgatory is a part of heaven. If you make it into purgatory, it is only a matter of time before you are purified, and it will be appropriate for God to let you enjoy the glories of heaven. It may take millions or billions of years, but it will happen.) Therefore, it seems impossible to escape the conclusion that ultimate salvation as taught in Roman Catholicism is based upon a person’s works.
Evangelicals argue that, not only did Christ pay the penalty for our sins, but He is also the source of all the righteousness that we need to enter into the presence of God. The righteousness we have is not our own congruous righteousness but the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Paul emphasizes that he wants to “be found in Him, not having my own righteousness from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God on the basis of faith” (Philippians 3:9). Evangelicals would argue that the “righteousness from the Law” that Paul speaks of equates to the concept of congruous righteousness. In Christ, we are fully justified, not just returned to a “break even” point from which we are given the opportunity to work our way to the top.
In the final analysis, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that, ultimately, entrance into heaven is based upon a person’s cooperation with grace and their own efforts—people can extinguish the grace imparted at baptism by committing mortal sins, and their entrance into the glories of heaven is based on the merit they supply. The Bible teaches that grace and works are contrary methods of salvation and that we can only be saved when we abandon all attempts at our own righteousness and accept the righteousness of Christ that comes through faith. Luther declared that good works are mortal sins if they are done in an attempt to earn God’s favor.
Romans 4:4–8: “Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness. David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
‘Blessed are those
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord will never count against them.’”
In this passage, not only are sins freely forgiven, but righteousness is bestowed solely on the basis of faith.
According to the New Testament gospel, forgiveness of sins and positive righteousness are provided by Christ and granted to the believer as a gift. Regardless of the intricacies of official Catholic doctrine, there are far too many Catholics (as well as Protestants, if we are honest about it) who operate under the assumption that, if they are good enough or try hard enough, God will accept them. Ultimately, this belief removes Christ as Savior in favor of the individual attempting to save himself.