Graham Osborne

Apostles taught salvation by faith and good works

Voices June 2, 2017

The Confession, a 19th Century painting by Giuseppe Molteni, depicts a woman confessing her sins and seeking repentance, just as commanded by Jesus in the Bible. (Fondazione Cariplo / Wikimedia Commons)

There are Christians who believe confessing Jesus as Lord is enough to achieve salvation. This belief stems in large part from verses like Romans 10:9: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Many interpret this passage to mean that someone is saved and going to heaven simply by confessing faith in Jesus alone, and that grace-inspired good works, among other things, are not necessary for salvation. How does a Catholic respond?

The problem is that Romans 10:9 is often taken out of context and its proper meaning misunderstood. Romans was written in part for Jewish converts to Christianity known as Judaizers. Judaizers held that salvation still came primarily through keeping the Old Covenant “works of the law” – the strict observance of the approximately 613 Jewish ceremonial laws delivered by Moses. These included things like circumcision, ceremonial washings, dietary restrictions and more (Acts 15:1,5).

In Romans, St. Paul was emphasizing that Judaizers, and all Christians for that matter, must rely primarily on their belief in Jesus to be saved, rather than on a righteousness achieved through keeping the Mosaic works of the law. If you read the verses just prior to Romans 10:9 you can see this context clearly (Rom 10:3-8).

These “works of the law” are not to be confused with the grace-inspired good works that Scripture clearly outlines as also necessary for salvation.

But an important distinction needs to be made here. These “works of the law” are not to be confused with the grace-inspired good works that Scripture clearly outlines as also necessary for salvation.

Early on in Romans 2, St. Paul confirms the necessity of good works for eternal life: “He will repay everyone according to his works: eternal life to those who seek glory, honour, and immortality through perseverance in good works, but wrath … to those who … obey wickedness.”

So in Romans 10:9 St. Paul is obviously not denying the need for good works. He is simply emphasizing the necessity of faith in Jesus in this portion of his letter, to correct a particular misunderstanding in the early Church.

St. James writes powerfully on this same point: “If someone says he has faith but does not have works … can that faith save him? So faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead ... a man is justified (made right with God and able to enter heaven) by works and not by faith alone … faith apart from works is dead” (Jas 2:14-26).

In Matthew 19:16-17, Jesus himself unequivocally confirms the necessity of good deeds/works for eternal life. When specifically asked, “what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus replies, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”

To “keep the commandments” essentially means to do good works. Every good work we could possibly do falls under one of the Ten Commandments – either love of God, or love of neighbour. Faith must have an element of love to make it a saving faith. We cannot be saved by our faith alone. We must both believe in God and love him – by keeping his commandments (1 Jn 5:3). And this all comes through the grace of God (Acts 15:11, Jn 15:5).

Jesus himself emphasizes that simply confessing him as Lord, while certainly good, is not sufficient for salvation: “Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father” (Mt 7:21). He is emphasizing not just the need to believe, but to act as well – to do the will of his Father.

Similarly, in Matthew 25, Jesus speaks of separating the sheep and goats. Both the sheep and the goats have faith and call him “Lord.” But only the sheep are saved – those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked ... the ones who do the good works.

Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

In fact some some of the harshest words in Scripture are reserved for the goats: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…”

There is a related misunderstanding that holds once you are saved by confessing Jesus as Lord, you cannot lose your salvation. But St. Paul states such a judgment is reserved solely for God: “I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment … before the Lord comes, who will … disclose the purposes of the heart” (1 Cor 4:3-5).

Jesus’ parable of the sower also clearly contradicts this “once saved, always saved” doctrine: “The ones on the rock … hear the word, receive it with joy … they believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away” (Lk 8:13).

Perhaps the clearest refutation of once-saved, always saved comes from 2 Peter 2:20-21: “It would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.” Can you lose your salvation? Unquestionably yes.

St. John beautifully summarizes the needed balance between a confession of faith and the necessity of good works. In 1 John 3:18-24: “Let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth. His commandment is this: We should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another.”

Loving one another and keeping the commandments are all actions – the grace-inspired good works of Catholic theology that unite to form a truly grace-filled saving faith.