Protestant Concerns: Don’t Catholics think you ‘earn your way into heaven’?


Catholicism does not and has never taught that we ‘earn our own way into heaven,’ but Catholic teaching does recognize that one must become good and just (which can only occur through God’s grace) to enter heaven, as the Bible teaches in many places:

  • Revelation 21:27: “But nothing unclean shall enter it [heaven], nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood…”
  • Hebrews 12:14: “strive… for the holiness without which one cannot see God.”
  • Romans 2:6-8: “For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.”
  • 1 Corinthians 6:9-10:  “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor sexual perverts, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.
  • Ephesians 5:5:  “Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.”
  • John 15:6,10:  “If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned . . . If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”

With the Bible, the Catholic Church teaches that justification and salvation are not just matters of believing in what Christ has done for you, but also matters of what Christ works within you.  St. Augustine sums this all up very nicely:

“…our every good merit is produced in us only by grace, and, when God, crowning our merits, crowns nothing else but His own gifts to us…” (St. Augustine, Letters 194:5:19)

Official Magisterial teaching agrees.  The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

“With regard to God, we of ourselves are not able to merit anything, having received everything freely from him. However, God gives us the possibility of acquiring merit through union with the love of Christ, who is the source of our merits before God. The merits for good works, therefore must be attributed in the first place to the grace of God and then to the free will of man.” -question #426

The Council of Orange (529 A.D.):

“CANON 18. That grace is not preceded by merit. Recompense is due to good works if they are performed; but grace, to which we have no claim, precedes them, to enable them to be done.

CANON 19. That a man can be saved only when God shows mercy. Human nature, even though it remained in that sound state in which it was created, could be no means save itself, without the assistance of the Creator; hence since man cannot safe- guard his salvation without the grace of God, which is a gift, how will he be able to restore what he has lost without the grace of God?

CANON 20. That a man can do no good without God. God does much that is good in a man that the man does not do; but a man does nothing good for which God is not responsible, so as to let him do it.”

“CANON 25. Concerning the love with which we love God. It is wholly a gift of God to love God. He who loves, even though he is not loved, allowed himself to be loved. We are loved, even when we displease him, so that we might have means to please him. For the Spirit, whom we love with the Father and the Son, has poured into our hearts the love of the Father and the Son (Rom. 5:5).”

“…We also believe and confess to our benefit that in every good work it is not we who take the initiative and are then assisted through the mercy of God, but God himself first inspires in us both faith in him and love for him without any previous good works of our own that deserve reward, so that we may both faithfully seek the sacrament of baptism, and after baptism be able by his help to do what is pleasing to him…”

After the Reformation, The Ecumenical Council of Trent (1545-64 A.D.), Session 6, Chapter 5 affirmed that which was defined in the council of Orange:

“The Synod furthermore declares, that in adults, the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace: in such sort that, while God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, neither is man himself utterly without doing anything while he receives that inspiration, forasmuch as he is also able to reject it; yet is he not able, by his own free will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in His sight.”

The Ecumenical Council of Trent, Session 6, Chapter 7:

“Of this Justification the causes are these: the final cause indeed is the glory of God and of Jesus Christ, and life everlasting; while the efficient cause is a merciful God who washes and sanctifies gratuitously, signing, and anointing with the holy Spirit of promise, who is the pledge of our inheritance; but the meritorious cause is His most beloved only-begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when we were enemies, for the exceeding charity wherewith he loved us, merited Justification for us by His most holy Passion on the wood of the cross, and made satisfaction for us unto God the Father; the instrumental cause is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which (faith) no man was ever justified; lastly, the alone formal cause is the justice of God, not that whereby He Himself is just, but that whereby He maketh us just, that, to wit, with which we being endowed by Him, are renewed in the spirit of our mind, and we are not only reputed, but are truly called, and are, just, receiving justice within us, each one according to his own measure, which the Holy Ghost distributes to every one as He wills, and according to each one’s proper disposition and co-operation.”

The Ecumenical Council of Trent, Session 6, Chapter 16:

For since Christ Jesus Himself, as the head into the members and the vine into the branches [John 15:1 ff], continually infuses strength into those justified, which strength always precedes, accompanies and follows their good works, and without which they could not in any manner be pleasing and meritorious before God, we must believe that nothing further is wanting to those justified to prevent them from being considered to have, by those very works which have been done in God, fully satisfied the divine law according to the state of this life and to have truly merited eternal life, to be obtained in its [due] time, provided they depart [this life] in grace [Rev 14:13]. . .  Thus, neither is our own justice established, as our own from ourselves [Rom 10:3; 2 Cor 3:5], nor is the justice of God ignored or repudiated, for that justice which is called ours, because we are justified by its inherence in us, that same is [the justice] of God, because it is infused into us by God through the merit of Christ.

As these passages clearly teach, we must become truly righteous to enter into Heaven, but we cannot even make any progress toward this goal without the grace of God, which is merited by Christ and at work in us through the Holy Spirit.  When a simple-minded Catholic is asked ‘what do you have to do to get to heaven?’ and he or she responds that ‘you must be good,’ he or she is not wrong.  Of course, a more comprehensive response would describe how the only way to ‘be good’ is to cooperate with the grace of God that has been merited for us by Christ, who is at work within us:

  • Philipians 2:12-13: ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.’
  • John 15:5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

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