If you ask the average Catholic, "When you die, do you think you'll go to Heaven?" more often than not the answer is something like this: I'm not sure but I'm a pretty good person. I mean I haven't killed anybody. I'm no Mother Theresa, but nobody's perfect, right? But I'm a pretty good person and I think God is OK with that.

If your questioner happens to be an Evangelical with a good knowledge of the Bible, they will immediately pounce on the Catholic: "So, you think you can earn your own salvation? That's not what the Bible says! Look at this passage here:"

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by men and hating one another; but when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3-7)

The Catholic looks confused, and starts to stammer, "I've never really read the Bible before..." The Evangelical unfolds the story of God's free gift of salvation to any who admit they are sinners and ask for forgiveness. The Catholic Church, he explains, teaches the false doctrine of "works righteousness" - that you can earn your salvation by being good.

Many Catholics leave the church because of an exchange like this. There's just one little problem: this isn't what the Catholic Church actually teaches.

What does the Catholic Church actually teach about salvation?

Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life. (CCC #1996)

CCC is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It's an official book that carefully explains all the important church teachings. What does it tell us about salvation? "Free and undeserved help" means that salvation is a gift from God. Then why are Catholics not sure they are going to heaven? We understand "getting saved" as a three-part process: Justification, Sanctification, and Salvation.

Justification happens when we return to a relationship with God. It can happen in a big way at Baptism or with a major conversion, like the Prodigal Son returning to his father. But even a Mortal sin breaks our relationship with God, so we get justified when we return and confess our sins and receive the free gift of forgiveness that puts us back into a relationship with God.

Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. 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. (CCC #2010)

Sanctification is the daily process of growing closer to God. As we live in that relationship by our daily prayer and works, we become more like God. This is holiness and the path to sainthood. For most of us, sanctification will take the rest of our lives.

Salvation is sometimes used to refer to the whole process. The only truly "saved" are the saints in Heaven who have made it home to the Father. This is Heaven, Union with God, the goal and purpose of the whole Christian live. Salvation isn't finished until we achieve this goal. So Catholics are only "assured of salvation" when we walk into the pearly gates. This is why we pray for the "grace of final perseverance," meaning that we say Yes to God every day, until our final breath.

What About Works?

Justification is a free gift from God. But what would happen if you got a wonderful gift for your birthday but never opened the package or used it? It wouldn't do you any good. In the same way, we have to accept the gift of Justification and live in the good works that God's grace prepares for us. God sets us on the path through no merit of our own, helps us along the way, and welcomes us home. It is grace. Yet we respond, walk with God, and strive for home: It is also works. The book of James explains it this way:

14 What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

18 But some one will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish fellow, that faith apart from works is barren? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, 23 and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead. (James 2:14-26)

So it's not Faith OR Works, but rather Faith AND works. The Council of Trent says:

"If anyone says that man can be justified before God by his own works, whether done by his own natural powers or by the teaching of the Law, without divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema" (Session 6; can. 1).... "If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema" (Session 6: can. 9).

Just-if-I'd Become a Child of God

I find it really helpful to think in terms of adoption. Let's imagine that we are orphans out on the streets and homeless. This is a result of sin which broke our relationship with God. We are filthy and poor, but most importantly have no sense of home or love. Along comes John D. Rockefeller and chooses to adopt you. He already has one son, but he has a big home and wants more children. Can you earn that adoption by your own hard work? Of course not. His willingness to adopt you is a free gift. He could even adopt you as an infant without your permission (infant baptism). But if you are older, obviously you must consent. Adoption is like Justification.

Once adopted, he has every right to expect you to begin to act like a Rockefeller. You would follow the example of the older Son and begin to be worthy of the gift you have received. This is Sanctification. We can always still wander off, just like the prodigal son. But God continues to call, encourage, and sometimes punish us because He loves us. God is preparing for us to come home to the great mansion in Heaven where we can live with Him forever. When we finally make it safely home and see God face to face, this is Salvation. You can't earn it, it's a free gift. But you must open the gift and use it.

Further reading:

Catholic Answers: Why does the Church teach that works can obtain salvation?

Catechism of the Catholic Church on Justification, Grace, Merit, and Christian Holiness, (Paragraphs 1987-2029)

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