01 December 2009

Theological Interlude: meriting grace

Question: Over the holidays I got in to an argument with a Protestant friend about how the Catholic Church teaches that we can earn our salvation. I didn't know how to explain the teaching. How would you do it? 

Not the easiest teaching to explain, but I'll give it a try. This is a highly non-technical explanation, btw. . .

First thing to understand:  NEVER has the Church taught that salvation is earned.  Anyone who claims that the Church teaches that Catholics can buy their salvation with money or works has no idea what they are talking about.  Period.  End of discussion.  

Second:  Christ died and rose again in order that everyone might be saved.  Everyone.  All of us.  Buddhists, Muslims, raving materialist atheists.  ALL.  Now, to effect (to put into action) God's salvific will, we must accept His saving grace through Christ.   God will not force us to  accept His will. Catholics enter the Body of Christ through Baptism.  Nourish body and soul in the Eucharist.  And maintain a thriving state of God's grace by Confession.  However, even after Baptism, we can reject God's grace and live apart from Him forever if we so choose.* 

Third:   We do not merit grace in the sense that we earn credit for good works.  Our salvation is freely given.  Grace = gift.  A "gift" cannot be a gift if it is earned.  We call that wages.  What the Church means by "merited grace" is the additional blessing we receive when we do good works in response to God's freely given grace.

An analogy:  My mom and dad give me a $100.  No reason.  No occasion.  They love me and know I need it, so they just hand it over.  No strings.  No expectations.  When next I visit them, I decide the mow our rather large and unruly yard.  In my mind, I do this principally b/c I love my parents and want to make them happy.  But I also have in mind their generosity in giving me the much-needed cash.  By mowing the yard, I merit the $100.

Note well:  the $100 comes first.  I receive the $100 as a gift.  Later, I do some good work to merit the money.  Nothing has been bought.  Everyone is happy.  

If I had mowed the yard and then received the $100, it could have been seen as payment.  It could have been a bribe or a way of guilting me into doing the work.  But the money came first.  My work came second.   

God freely gave us His Son as a gift.  We receive His Son as a gift at baptism.  The work we do after this merits the grace. . .the grace is NOT purchased.  It is impossible to purchase a gift that has been given and received as a gift.  Gifts (graces), by definition, are freely given and freely received, i.e., not earned, purchased, extorted, or borrowed/loaned.

Hope this helps!  

*Keep in mind here that the sacraments are given to us for our use.  God is not limited by the sacraments.  He can work His grace anyway He chooses.  For Catholics, the ordinary means of grace is through the sacraments.


  1. I look upon the gift of grace and our response to it as a "relationship."

    That is, when we know that someone loves us, we tend to respond to that love. This goes for our human relationships, as well as our relationship with God.

    Those persons who experience and know God's love, respond with acts and prayers that attempt to "merit" that love.

  2. POst di una Chiarezza cristallina. Complimenti.

  3. Fr Philip:

    I just happen to have posted a pair of videos on YouTube addressing this question -- supported with lots of Scripture and Catechism quotes.

    Part I - covers salvation through faith and good works done in grace.

    Part II - covers the possibility of losing salvation through sin and the sacraments as necessary means of grace.

    Check them out, and pass them along if you think they would be helpful. If not, just delete this comment.

  4. What a wonderful, clear illustration. Thank you!

  5. Dear Father,

    What Luca said! (Well, only in English. Or in Spanish, by request.)

    I think your calling is to write the Cliffs Notes on the Catechism of the Catholic Church. No, seriously... :-)


  6. "Now, to effect (to put into action) God's salvific will, we must accept His saving grace through Christ. God will not force us to accept His will. Catholics enter the Body of Christ through Baptism. Nourish body and soul in the Eucharist. And maintain a thriving state of God's grace by Confession. However, even after Baptism, we can reject God's grace and live apart from Him forever if we so choose.* "
    At what point is man saved? If man accepts the gift of grace and is baptised, is he then saved completely? Or does his salvation depend on "top-ups" of grace received through the Sacraments?

  7. Fragrance,

    Salvation can be lost. Once you are saved, the additional graces "top up" your holiness.

    All the baptized who are in a state of grace are equally saved. However, b/c of merited grace some are holier than others.

  8. I wonder, too, whether we allow an unexamined ambiguity of the word "saved" to cause confusion. One is saved solely by the gracious and loving choice of God. As a result of that choosing, made ultimately apart from our merits or any other considerations apart from God's generous love, God also chooses the means by which this salvation will come about. He does so principally through the economy of salvation (the work of the Incarnate Word, the Law and Prophets before him, the application of the saving work of the Word to us through the sacraments), but he does so in each and every person "counted among those he has chosen" in varied ways. One of those ways is through meritorious action. We can never strictly merit eternal life with God, which is disproportionately (infinitely) more than the finite good of our acts. We can, however, act in ways which are congruent to a reward of grace. Such grace is not strictly merited, but fittingly given as reward nonetheless.

    (To extend the analogy above, consider a child who has been given $20 by his father to buy a gift for his mother. The mother rightly thanks the child for the gift. The fact that she knows the money came from her husband, and so in fundamental ways the gift is his, does not undo the fact that the gift is also, truly, without reservation, the child's, and so he is rightly praised for his act.)

    All of this happens, however, because of God's prior, efficacious, infallible choosing from all eternity. Even so, as in the case above, if God has willed that we come to him through being rewarded for good works, then our good works really do merit reward, even if they do so because of the prior and altogether unmerited will on God's part to bring this person to eternal life with him.

    My two Thomist cents.

  9. Steve Muise10:31 PM

    The best explanation I've heard about the Church's teaching on salvation is:

    Catholics believe that there's nothing we can do to earn heaven but there's plenty we can do to deserve H*ll.

  10. I, too, have come up against this topic of grace and works with non-Catholics. I appreciate your explanation. It makes perfect sense to me. When I find myself in these discussions, I wish I were so articulate!

  11. gonna tuck that away in my pile of simple explanations.....tis quite useful.

  12. Anonymous6:50 PM

    I once read an internet discussion about when we are saved that used the analogy of Noah and the ark. This is how I remember it.

    When was Noah saved from the flood? Was he saved when he first listened to God? Was he saved when he started building the ark? Was he saved when he finished the ark? Was he saved when the ark door closed behind the last animal? Was he saved when the ark touched ground again? Yes to all. At any point, Noah could have turned his back on God and stopped listening. He could have jumped off the ark and drowned. The more we try to do God's will and not our own, the more we take advantage of the graces we are offered, the less likely we are to become the kind of person who turns his back on God.