Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Did the Council of Trent Teach That Man is Saved By His Own Works?

By Dave Armstrong (8-29-06)

[an early draft of a chapter originally intended for my book, The One-Minute Apologist (2007)]

Catholics believe that we are saved by our own works
After all, isn't that what the Council of Trent decreed?

Initial reply

In fact, Trent condemned both Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism: the doctrines that we can do something of our own power (apart from grace) to attain salvation.

Extensive reply

Here are some proclamations of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) on justification that expressly deny salvation by works:
Canon 1: If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema.

Canon 2: If any one saith, that the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, is given only for this, that man may be able more easily to live justly, and to merit eternal life, as if, by free will without grace, he were able to do both, though hardly indeed and with difficulty; let him be anathema.

Canon 3: If any one saith, that without the prevenient inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and without his help, man can believe, hope, love, or be penitent as he ought, so as that the grace of Justification may be bestowed upon him; let him be anathema.

Canon 10: If any one saith, that men are just without the justice of Christ, whereby He merited for us to be justified; or that it is by that justice itself that they are formally just; let him be anathema.

Chapter 5: On the necessity, in adults, of preparation for Justification, and whence it proceeds.

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. Whence, when it is said in the sacred writings: Turn ye to me, and I will turn to you, we are admonished of our liberty; and when we answer; Convert us, O Lord, to thee, and we shall be converted, we confess that we are prevented by the grace of God.

Chapter 8: In what manner it is to be understood, that the impious is justified by faith, and gratuitously.

And whereas the Apostle saith, that man is justified by faith and freely, those words are to be understood in that sense which the perpetual consent of the Catholic Church hath held and expressed; to wit, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and the root of all Justification; without which it is impossible to please God, and to come unto the fellowship of His sons: but we are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification-whether faith or works-merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle says, grace is no more grace.


But Catholics teach that good works are meritorious and help get one saved. That is no longer grace, but a works-salvation. Man can do nothing to achieve salvation. It is all from God, as a free gift of grace. This is what the Bible teaches.

Reply to Objection

The claim that works play no part whatsoever even in faith, contradicts James, chapter two, which teaches an organic connection (and also many passages of Paul). The Lutheran and Reformed Protestant traditions seek to closely connect faith and works, even though they place works in the category of sanctification rather than justification ("faith that works"). Cooperation with God's grace is not "works-salvation" and doesn't deny Grace Alone (sola gratia), as even prominent, respected Protestants such as John Wesley teach:
John Wesley (founder of Methodism):

With regard to the condition of salvation, it may be remembered that I allow, not only faith, but likewise holiness or universal obedience, to be the ordinary condition of final salvation.

(A Farther Appeal, 1745, Works, London: 1831, VIII, 68 ff.)

God works in us - therefore man can work. Prevenient grace is accorded to all. God works in you - therefore you must work. You must work together with Him, or He will cease working.

(Working Out Our Own Salvation, 1788, Works, VI, 511 ff.)


Gary said...

Why do Evangelicals teach a Doctrine of Works Righteousness?

Did I mean to say "Roman Catholics"? No. It is true that Roman Catholics do incorporate Works Righteousness into their theology but in a very different manner than Evangelicals. It is my opinion that the Evangelical Doctrine of Salvation relies more heavily on Works Righteousness than even that of the Roman Catholics! Let me explain:

Roman Catholics teach that Jesus alone saves you, but then the believer, the Christian, must do good works to complete or assist in his salvation. However, salvation itself was initially given without any merit of the sinner.
In the Roman Catholic Church, any infant (who is a sinner by way of Original Sin) brought to them with the consent of the parents or guardians, will be baptized and receive God's gift of salvation, even if the parents themselves are not believers. So what did this child do to merit salvation? Answer: he was breathing and present at the time and location that God chose to save him. That's it.

In Evangelical theology, the sinner must choose or decide that he wants to be saved. Now some evangelicals may nuance this position and state that this decision is only possible due to the work of the Holy Spirit creating faith in his heart, but bottom line, most evangelicals believe that the sinner must choose to believe. "We are not automatons or robots in the act of salvation: we have to choose to be saved!" they will say.

So who did more work to be saved in these two theologies: the Catholic baby at the baptismal font or the evangelical adult or older child who used his maturity, his intellect, and his decision-making capabilities to make a decision as a prerequisite for God to save him?


Dave Armstrong said...

Arminians reject Pelagianism, too. The proper theological understanding of their position is that men freely choose, yet the choice is fully enabled by prior grace from God.

It's a paradoxical free will / grace-enabled will, whereas Calvinists simply deny human free will and put it all on God, with irresistible grace, etc.

Adomnan said...

I agree with you, Gary, that Evangelicals teach "works righteousness." They do so in an even more fundamental way than you describe.

Paul said that righteousness was not a matter of the Law (i.e., the Jewish Law, the Torah, the Jewish religion). Nor was it a matter of "works of the Law" (rites and observances peculiar to Judaism).

The Evangelicals contradict Paul by claiming that Jesus merited righteousness for Himself and for us by perfectly carrying out the works of the Law.

Therefore, the Evangelical and classical Protestant view sees righteousness as based on Christ's adherence to the Jewish Law, a view that directly contradicts Paul, who insisted that righteousness is utterly apart from "works of the Law" -- for everybody, including Jesus.

It doesn't matter whether one claims that an ordinary Christian merits justification through works of the Law or that Christ merited justification through works of the Law. Both are wrong, and both teach "works righteousness."

Finally, just as a point of clarification, no one should confuse the "good work" that Paul does in fact see as justifying with "works of the Law."