I have led Bible studies for—ohhhh, decades!  As a Protestant Bible Study leader, I taught this equation of salvation:

FAITH + NOTHING = SALVATION + GOOD WORKS

This, of course, was the battle cry of the Reformation—“faith alone.”  I taught that Martin Luther had rediscovered the lost and true Gospel.  Good works are not necessary for salvation, but are acts of obedience, a response of gratitude and a proof that, in fact, I possessed true saving faith.  It all made perfect sense, I had some Scripture to support it, and it distinguished me from those Catholics who think Christ’s atonement was not enough, and therefore, like the Jews, have to work for their salvation.

When I taught this equation, my definition of “WORKS” included the seven corporal works of mercy and the seven spiritual works of mercy, as listed in the previous article. In other words, good works are the loving things that Christians are expected to do because we are Christians.  Good works were not acts like church rituals, Sunday attendance, or praying on my knees as I go up a long flight of stairs. 
When, as a Protestant, I taught the Catholic equation of salvation, it was the following:

FAITH + WORKS = SALVATION

Now here, my definition of “WORKS” in the equation subtly changed from “good works”—those acts of love that Christians are commanded to do—into “legalistic works”, like baptism, church attendance or penance such as self-flagellation. If a Catholic did any good works, it was out of a legalistic endeavor to earn   salvation.  I viewed these works as the Catholic equivalent of the Jewish “works of the law.”  Remember Paul opposed requiring Gentile converts to be circumcised. These legalistic rituals (in my understanding) were acts that man had invented to earn salvation.  Again, this supported my understanding that Catholics did not find Christ’s atonement enough, and they needed to DO all kinds of other things in order to be saved.

Unfortunately, when teaching the Catholic equation of salvation, I was just plain wrong.

This is how a Catholic would describe salvation:

  • GRACE produces FAITH and GOOD WORKS which lead to SALVATION.
  • By God’s free gift of grace, I am enabled to have faith—necessary for salvation.
  • By God’s free gift of grace, I am enabled to do His works of love—necessary for salvation.

As a Protestant, I said I was saved by FAITH ALONE.

Now, as a Catholic, I say I am being saved by GRACE ALONE. I do not separate faith and good works into two separate categories, but view them like two vines that are inextricable intertwined, just as Paul described it in Galatians 5:6,  For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

How does this formula play out in Scripture?  Here are three examples of my journey.

My first example is the “big guns verse” I used to prove that salvation is by faith alone, dividing faith from works, and forever putting works at the caboose of the salvation equation.  It is Ephesians 2:8-9—For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.

When using this proof-text, I had always interpreted the “it” of “it is the gift of God” as salvation; that is, salvation is the gift of God, not of works—see?  Faith + nothing = salvation + good works.

The only problem is: “it” does not refer to salvation.  Carefully look at the entire passage—Ephesians 2:4-10:

But God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ (by grace you have been saved), raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.  For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them. (Boldface is mine).

In the Catholic mind, salvation is by grace alone. Grace is the free gift. Grace is not earned by works. Faith without good works is dead.  They are both necessary for salvation, and they are both possible only through grace.

The second example is John 5:27-29.  And he gave him power to exercise judgment, because he is the Son of Man.  Do not be amazed at this because the hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and will come out, those who have done good deeds to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked deeds to the resurrection of condemnation.  (Underlining is mine).

As a Protestant, I have to confess I did not even know this passage was there. My reading always ended with verse 24.  Why? Because in a straightforward, basic reading, this passage sounds like actions are the basis of eternal salvation.  Since this interpretation absolutely did not fit the Protestant faith alone salvation equation, it had been relegated to the “problem passage” list, to be interpreted based on “clearer” passages, or to be “rewritten” with a new meaning (well, it sounds like this but it really means fill in the blank), or to be simply ignored altogether, as my teachers and many commentaries did.

These solutions were not satisfying to me.  I grew tired of how a straightforward reading of the text had to be rejected or changed because it didn’t fit the doctrine.  My husband and I call this “hermeneutical gymnastics,” and it’s done all the time with passages like this one.

My third example is one of the main experiences that brought me into the Catholic Church.  I was reading a book on evangelism, and the author used Jesus’ answer to the rich young ruler about how to inherit eternal life as an example of what NOT to say in evangelizing.  Jesus answered that the man should go, sell all he had, give to the poor, and come and follow Him, and he would have treasure in heaven. The author said that Jesus was giving the wrong answer!

No, I said to myself. Something is very wrong here.  I don’t believe God flunked basic evangelism!  It must be that good works are NECESSARY for salvation and not just a RESULT of salvation.  I realized that I needed to change my preconceived ideas of what I thought Scripture said and read it for what it actually says!  Jesus said in order to inherit eternal life, the man needed to provide for the poor.

Jesus did not give a wrong answer. But did he give a complete answer?  No. We know there is more.  Jesus said more. Go back to John 5:24, just before the passage I quoted in my second example,  Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life and will not come to condemnation, but has passed from death to life.

Faith and good works—both in the same passage!  Where do they come from?  I am not saved by faith alone.  I am not saved by good works alone.  I am saved by grace alone.  It is by grace that I can believe.  It is by grace that I can do good works.  For the Catholic, it all depends on the treasure of grace.

Melanie Frei was an evangelical Protestant missionary to Hong Kong with her husband Tom, pastor and seminary professor. But when they studied Scripture and Church history, the two of them decided to leave their ministry and enter the Roman Catholic Church. Melanie is the mother of three incredible young adults and three awesome grandchildren and is also a substitute teacher in the Tomah Area School District. Her favorite ministries are leading Bible studies, music and pro-life work. For fun, Melanie is a total fan of BBC dramas and Regency romance.