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As far as I can understand it, Paul directly contradicts the Roman Catholic doctrine of salvation in Romans 3 & 4 (see verses 3:21-22, 3:28, 4:4-6 in particular, but I'm referring to the broad argument of the whole section).

How do Roman Catholics interpret what Paul is saying here?

For clarification, I understand that Catholic doctrine is nothing if not nuanced, and it's not accurate to just dismiss it as "works salvation". Salvation on that view is "by grace alone", but (as far as I understand) not "by faith alone" - rather, God gives us grace to perform the meritorious works that earn our salvation. It's the "faith alone" part that I think Paul is hammering home here.

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I am confused. What "Roman Catholic doctrine of salvation" is not consistent with Romans? –  tomjedrz Oct 2 '11 at 21:08

4 Answers 4

Essentially it boils down to that we are saved by grace alone, but that salvation results in such a change of heart that good works must result.

From the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Salvation (all emphasis mine):

27.The Catholic understanding also sees faith as fundamental in justification. For without faith, no justification can take place. Persons are justified through baptism as hearers of the word and believers in it. The justification of sinners is forgiveness of sins and being made righteous by justifying grace, which makes us children of God. In justification the righteous receive from Christ faith, hope, and love and are thereby taken into communion with him. This new personal relation to God is grounded totally on God's graciousness and remains constantly dependent on the salvific and creative working of this gracious God, who remains true to himself, so that one can rely upon him. Thus justifying grace never becomes a human possession to which one could appeal over against God. While Catholic teaching emphasizes the renewal of life by justifying grace, this renewal in faith, hope, and love is always dependent on God's unfathomable grace and contributes nothing to justification about which one could boast before God (Rom 3:27).

and later in the same document:

37.We confess together that good works - a Christian life lived in faith, hope and love - follow justification and are its fruits. When the justified live in Christ and act in the grace they receive, they bring forth, in biblical terms, good fruit. Since Christians struggle against sin their entire lives, this consequence of justification is also for them an obligation they must fulfill. Thus both Jesus and the apostolic Scriptures admonish Christians to bring forth the works of love.

38.According to Catholic understanding, good works, made possible by grace and the working of the Holy Spirit, contribute to growth in grace, so that the righteousness that comes from God is preserved and communion with Christ is deepened. When Catholics affirm the "meritorious" character of good works, they wish to say that, according to the biblical witness, a reward in heaven is promised to these works. Their intention is to emphasize the responsibility of persons for their actions, not to contest the character of those works as gifts, or far less to deny that justification always remains the unmerited gift of grace.

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Indeed. Good works are an evidence of a heart turned towards God. If one says that they are saved but their actions do not reflect the love of God in their heart, then one must question whether they are saved in the first place. (Ideally, this would be a good yardstick to measure oneself against, in my opinion.) –  Ben Richards Sep 8 '11 at 17:42
Romans has to be balanced with James. –  Lawrence Dol Sep 8 '11 at 18:17
but are we saved by faith alone? If not, what else is involved and how do you reconcile that with Romans 3&4? –  gmoothart Sep 8 '11 at 18:48
@gmotthart: "In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead" (Jam 2:17) –  Lawrence Dol Sep 8 '11 at 20:36
@Monkey Certainly, and most protestant wouldn't deny that a true faith is necessarily accompanied by works. If you want to press protestants on how they interpret James, I'm sure that would make a good question. But this question is a very specific one about how to interpret a particular passage, which you have not even mentioned. –  gmoothart Sep 8 '11 at 22:03

You might want to have the New American Bible sourced, that's our defacto bible, although it's not always as flowery and scholars don't really use it, it contains what we believe. It could give you a concise answer without me elaborating.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, though testified to by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God.

(Romans 3:21-22 - NABRE)

For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

(Romans 3:28 - NABRE)

A worker’s wage is credited not as a gift, but as something due. But when one does not work, yet believes in the one who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness. So also David declares the blessedness of the person to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:

(Romans 4:4-6 - NABRE)

The people Paul was admonishing were those who those who felt justified by works of the law, he's echoing Jesus's lament about the Pharisees who felt that washing their hands was more important than taking care of their parents.

I believe there is a distinction, and correct me if I'm wrong, but Protestant bibles don't mention works of the law just works right? I think that's one of the fundamental differences between our confessions.

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I should preface this answer by pointing out that Catholics and non-Catholic Christians may not mean the same thing at all when they each say the word "faith". When a Catholic says "faith" in a context like this, he means free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed (CCC 150). This is not a complete definition of faith but it's an essential part. I'm not sure that it coincides with a typical non-Catholic understanding of the fides in sola fides.

At any rate the other answers so far are helpful in distinguishing between faith and works generally, but it sounds like the original question is focused more on the distinction between faith and grace.

Your question seems to hinge on one particular aspect of Catholic doctrine:

God gives us grace to perform the meritorious works that earn our salvation.

Strictly speaking this is an accurate statement from the Catholic viewpoint; cf. for example the Catholic Catechism on "Merit" (emphasis in original):

Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life

But this is is a difficult and somewhat mysterious concept, because anyone who is able to perform "meritorious works" of this sort is by definition already justified (in more typically Catholic language, is already in a state of sanctifying grace).

Or, to put it more succinctly: only the just are able to perform meritorious works. So in one sense there is no question of earning one's salvation by meritorious works.

On the other hand the Church teaches very clearly, as quoted above, that the just can "merit ... the attainment of eternal life". What this means precisely (to the extent that it can be understood at all) might best be explored in a separate question.

And all of that still leaves the question "how is one justified?" (Catholic translation: how does one attain a state of sanctifying grace?). The simple, externally visible answer in the normal course of most people's lives is "by being baptized".

But that's not a complete answer by any means, because the Church teaches that there is a lot going on within the believer prior to baptism, and that after baptism one could in fact lose one's justification (Catholic translation: sin mortally) and would then need to be justified again (be restored to sanctifying grace), which God normally achieves in the context of sacramental confession.

In any event, the supernatural virtue of faith, which is a gift from God, is foundational to the process of justification, but in typically careful fashion the Church notes that faith is a virtue of the intellect, whereas the will must also be prepared for justification. From the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on "Sanctifying Grace":

The Council of Trent (Sess. VI, can. ix) decrees that over and above the faith which formally dwells in the intellect, other acts of predisposition, arising from the will, such as fear, hope, love, contrition, and good resolution (loc. cit., cap. vi), are necessary for the reception of the grace of justification.

How then do we read Romans 3 & 4? I'm not sure if there's an official Catholic answer to that, but it does seem that any interpretation must also be compatible with, on the one hand, the 'work' of Philippians 2:12 and the 'crown ... which the Lord ... will award' of 2 Timothy 4:7-8 -- not to mention the necessity of baptism* as expressed in John 3:5.

*Bearing in mind that besides sacramental baptism there is also the baptism of blood and the baptism of desire

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I see no contradiction.

Through the Grace of God we learn of God, and receive faith in God. This faith is our path to salvation.

When one is blessed with faith, one seeks to live according to that faith. Living according to the faith is what we refer to as "works." Salvation is not earned by living a good life; it is given to us by God, is forfeited through sin, and given back to us through redemption and forgiveness.

God tells us what it means for us to live according to our faith. For some it means a consecrated life as a priest, monk or nun. For some it means charitable works. For some it means other kinds of ministry. For some it means "standard" family and community life. And so on ...

Temptation abounds, and when we stray we seek forgiveness and seek to return to life according to the faith.

One note: Catholics (and most other Christians??) believe that Scripture is internally consistent. Any apparent inconsistency is because we do not fully understand, not because the Scripture is inconsistent or incorrect. Individual verses or passages, while often powerful and illustrative, don't stand alone.

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