Do Catholics believe they can ‘work’ their way into Heaven?
The question of the relationship between grace and works dates back to the 5th century controversy between the Catholic Church and a priest named Pelagius. Pelagius held that God, through creation and the example of Christ, gave humanity all the tools necessary to gain salvation, and, if they, of their own effort, followed Christ’s examples they could merit salvation. The Catholic Church, championed by the great doctor, St. Augustine, wholeheartedly rejected this position and professed that it is only by the transformative grace of God that humanity can be saved. Salvation, according to the Church is only possible by grace.
So why then do Catholics put so much emphasis on works? Simply put, because God teaches us the need for works. Through the apostle James he tells us: “Faith without works is dead,” through Paul: “I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions,” and Jesus himself: “Whatever you did for the least of my brothers you did for me” and “Take up your cross daily and follow me.” Clearly then, there must be some interaction between grace and work, and it is through this interaction that salvation is achieved.
To understand the relationship between grace and works, it is necessary to understand what it means to be saved. St. John tells us, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” From the very beginning the Church recognized that salvation in its essences was a fundamental elevation of human nature that it might come to share in the divine nature. As St. Augustine puts it, “If then we have been made sons of God, we have also been made gods.”In the East this is called Theosis and in the West it is called Deification– to be made like God. This transformation is, by definition, super-natural, that is to say, above our nature. As such, no matter how perfectly one acts in this life, apart from grace, salvation is quite literally impossible.
Grace transforms our nature, raising it to be like God’s, but does so in a way that is congruent with the original nature that God gave humanity. What does this mean? If I want to move a rock from one place to another, I pick it up and move, or perhaps throw, it. I could do the same with my dog, but a better way would be for me to train it and command it. With a human being, theoretically I could pick him up and move him, or command him as I would a dog, but a better way would be to ask and convince the person that they are better off in the other location. These examples show that there are different proper ways of interacting with things of different natures. Further, a rock, no matter how amazing will never be able to love you, a dog may be affectionate, but a dog’s affection is of a different nature than a human’s love, and a human cannot be forced to love. God wishes for us to participate in the communion of love that exists between the divine persons. As such, he has to woo us, that we might choose to love him, and having decided to love him, he has to teach us how to properly love, because we cannot love as he loves on our own.
So this is grace: that which leads, transforms, and moves us, through our free will, to love as God loves. This grace is freely given in an instant and fulfilled through a lifetime of hard work as we come to ever greater perfection in Christ. The commandments guide us in responding to that grace- “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Further, Christ leads us, having walked the way of the cross, he shows us the path to follow, and the Spirit moves us, burning within our hearts that we might seek the Father in all things. In grace, then, we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.”