10. Saved by Grace “Alone”
One of the arguments against temporal merit and demerit (and in turn Purgatory) is the protestant belief of “saved by grace alone”. The basis of this argument is from Ephesians 2:8–10:
For by grace you are saved through faith: and that not of yourselves, for it is the gift of God. Not of works, that no man may glory. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus in good works, which God hath prepared that we should walk in them.
What that means exactly depends on who one asks, but the argument can be phrased as the following: Salvation is a “gift of God” and “not of works”, therefore works are unnecessary or that works are not counted.
Firstly, the word “alone” is not used in the text. Some argue that it is implied. How can such a modifier be implied? Consider the following two statements.
A: Your house is nice.
B: Your house alone is nice.
The meaning between A and B is very different.
One also needs to consider what “saved” means. Is it the act of saving? Or is it to be saved? The two meanings are very different.
If the former, then it is the “narrower” definition, referring only to God’s initiative and action in saving us. That is obviously a grace, so in that sense it can be said that we are “saved by grace alone”. But “alone” is then redundant since the narrower definition is already being adopted.
If the latter, then it is the “wider” definition, referring to “saved” as an end state; that is, a person in Heaven. By this definition, everything that contributes to getting one to that end, including what happens in one’s lifetime, is a factor so it is not “saved by grace alone”.
It is probably for this reason that “alone” is not in the text. Given the way it reads, it is adopting the first definition since it emphasizes that our salvation is “not of [our] works”.
Secondly, Christ’s infinite merits is needed to save us, and no amount of temporal (finite) is going to get us into Heaven. In that sense, we are not saved by our works but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. As mentioned in section 3, Objection 7, insufficiency does not imply non-existence or non-necessity.
Thirdly, God created us and “prepared” us to do good works, thereby emphasizing its importance. Some argue that since it is God working in us, therefore it doesn’t count. This is over-simplistic but this will be addressed in section 12.
In addition to all the passages mentioned so far that tell of the importance of our actions, consider James 2:16–20:
And one of you say to them: Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled; yet give them not those things that are necessary for the body, what shall it profit? So faith also, if it have not works, is dead in itself.
But some man will say: Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without works; and I will shew thee, by works, my faith. Thou believest that there is one God. Thou dost well: the devils also believe and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
Some argue that works are merely an expression of faith. And somehow it logically follows that it doesn’t count? Works are used as a measure of faith precisely because it is an (external) expression of something that is internal.
11. Justified by Faith “Alone”
Another argument against temporal merit and demerit (and in turn Purgatory) is the protestant belief of “justified by faith alone”. The basis of this argument is from Romans 3:28:
For we account a man to be justified by faith, without the works of the law.
When one does something with good reason, then the good reason is justification. If one does something with bad intentions, then there is no good reason. If one is then to be justified, then they better do something good to make up for it. (Although the value of the act itself, one’s intentions and the circumstances must be accounted for, and in theology there is more to justification than the above, I am trying to keep it simple for the sake of brevity.)
Thus, the argument can be phrased as the following: Since we are justified by faith in Christ, nothing else needs to be done in terms of our Salvation.
Firstly, similar to the previous argument, the word “alone” is not found in the text. It also conveniently ignores every other passage which instructs that what we do will be accounted for. (Matthew 12:36–37 etc)
Secondly, consider the verses that come before the above. St Paul, the writer of this letter, mentions the law in verses 20 to 26:
Because by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified before him. For by the law is the knowledge of sin.
But now without the law the justice of God is made manifest, being witnessed by the law and the prophets. Even the justice of God, by faith of Jesus Christ, unto all and upon all them that believe in him: for there is no distinction: For all have sinned, and do need the glory of God. Being justified freely by his grace, through the redemption, that is in Christ Jesus, Whom God hath proposed to be a propitiation, through faith in his blood, to the shewing of his justice, for the remission of former sins, through the forbearance of God, for the shewing of his justice in this time; that he himself may be just, and the justifier of him, who is of the faith of Jesus Christ.
Basically, nobody is perfect and nobody can fulfill the law perfectly. Although the law guides us, it points out that we “all have sinned, and do need the glory of God”. Sometimes, that is translated as “fall short the glory of God”. St Paul does not state that what we do doesn’t count, he is emphasizing the need for Christ and that what we do is insufficient. Again, insufficiency is not the same as non-existence or non-necessity.
Only Jesus Christ can pay for the infinite price and we either accept it in faith or not. If one places their faith in Christ, then they are justified by faith because they are trusting that Christ has paid for the infinite price of their sin. None of this excludes temporal (finite) merits.
Thirdly, St Paul interestingly also points out that Abraham was justified by faith. From 4:1–3 of the same book:
What shall we say then that Abraham hath found, who is our father according to the flesh. For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory, but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was reputed to him unto justice.
Back to the book of James, immediately after the passage quoted previously. From 2:21–24:
Was not Abraham our father justified by works, offering up Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou, that faith did co-operate with his works; and by works faith was made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled, saying: Abraham believed God, and it was reputed to him to justice, and he was called the friend of God. Do you see that by works a man is justified; and not by faith only?
Either St Paul and St James the Lesser contradict each other, or we can make the commonsensical distinction between the infinite merits of Christ and the finite merits of man, that faith and works “co-operate” as St James states.
For both grace and faith, one can argue that the text is ambiguous without the word “alone” but at least it isn’t pretending to be otherwise. By adding the word “alone”, it is pretending to be more specific without actually being more specific and is even more misleading than before.
12. “Predestination” and Related Matters
What “predestination” means depends on who one asks. Even if taken to the extreme, predestination does not necessarily exclude Purgatory; after all, if God can predestine someone to a particular end, then there is no reason that God cannot predestine every other point before then, which may or may not include Purgatory. But since predestination is related to free will and grace, it therefore is related to what we do and its associated temporal merit or demerit.
From Romans 8:29–30:
For whom he foreknew, he also predestinated to be made conformable to the image of his Son; that he might be the firstborn amongst many brethren. And whom he predestinated, them he also called. And whom he called, them he also justified. And whom he justified, them he also glorified.
Also, from Ephesians 1:3–6:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with spiritual blessings in heavenly places, in Christ: As he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and unspotted in his sight in charity. Who hath predestinated us unto the adoption of children through Jesus Christ unto himself: according to the purpose of his will: Unto the praise of the glory of his grace, in which he hath graced us in his beloved Son.
And Romans 9:10–15, where St Paul quotes Exodus 33:19:
And not only she. But when Rebecca also had conceived at once, of Isaac our father. For when the children were not yet born, nor had done any good or evil (that the purpose of God, according to election, might stand), not of works, but of him that calleth, it was said to her: The elder shall serve the younger. As it is written: Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated. What shall we say then? Is there injustice with God? God forbid. For he saith to Moses: I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy; and I will shew mercy to whom I will shew mercy.
The above passages indicate some sort of predestination and election (not the same thing) in salvation. There are others but this is a sufficient sample.
Some argue that we are so bad that we are unable to do any good (without implying that we are as bad as we possibly can be). For example: “For behold I was conceived in iniquities; and in sins did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 50:7) And the following which St Paul quotes in Romans 3, “The fool hath said in his heart: There is no God. They are corrupt, and are become abominable in their ways: there is none that doth good, no not one.” (Psalm 13:1) And similar to the previous, “All have gone aside, they are become unprofitable together, there is none that doth good, no not one.” (Psalm 52:4)
In addition, “Being confident of this very thing, that he, who hath begun a good work in you, will perfect it unto the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6) And similarly, “For it is God who worketh in you, both to will and to accomplish, according to his good will.” (Philippians 2:13)
Collating the above, the argument can be formulated as the following: (1) People cannot do any good (2) nor save themselves and require God’s grace (3) which He provides to those He chooses, and (4) since people can’t do any good, it is God’s grace doing all the work (5) which He will complete so what people do doesn’t really count. Free will and merit do not enter the equation.
Not every believer, protestant or otherwise, explicitly adopts this. In any case, this version is the one I aim to disprove because, when taken to the extreme like this, it is wrong and dangerous.
(1) and (2): Although we are fallen, it is a leap to state we cannot do any good. In a quantitative sense, this goes against common experience and observation. Psalm 13 and Psalm 52 above can be generalizations about those times. Also consider a similar case in Genesis 6:9, when God was not happy about Noah’s generation but Noah “was a just and perfect man in his generations, he walked with God.”
St Paul, in Romans 7:15–20, describes the internal struggle, as if there are two sides, between the side that has a natural desire for good (as God intended) and the sinful side:
For that which I work, I understand not. For I do not that good which I will; but the evil which I hate, that I do. If then I do that which I will not, I consent to the law, that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that there dwelleth not in me, that is to say, in my flesh, that which is good. For to will, is present with me; but to accomplish that which is good, I find not. For the good which I will, I do not; but the evil which I will not, that I do. Now if I do that which I will not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.
Even in our fallen state, there is some degree of good in human nature. However, this issue can again be clarified by recognizing the qualitative distinction between Christ’s infinite merits and man’s temporal (finite) merits. No amount of finite merit can achieve Salvation but that does not mean it is bad or that it is nothing.
There is an additional qualitative distinction. Death is the general punishment announced in Genesis 3, which St Paul affirms, “For the wages of sin is death. But the grace of God, life everlasting, in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)
Although it is not explicit in Genesis, we know in hindsight that it means spiritual death (invisible) which eventually leads to physical death (visible and therefore verifiable). Jesus said to Nicodemus that “unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5)
In other words, in our fallen state, we are by default spiritually or supernaturally dead. This is probably what Psalm 50 and like passages are referring to. It is for this reason that some argue what we do is worthless but that is a gross over-simplification.
Suppose Person A kills Person B and is subsequently arrested and charged with homicide. I doubt the following defense from Person A will work: “I didn’t really kill him because the Bible says he was already dead.” (I also doubt people who do get away with murder use that defense.)
If we make the distinction between a person’s supernatural life and natural life, then we must consistently apply it to a person’s merits as well. Therefore, if one is supernaturally dead, then any good they do have no supernatural merit—but as they are naturally alive, it has natural merit. No amount of natural merit can achieve Salvation but, again, insufficiency does not imply non-existence or non-necessity.
Our finite and natural merits need to be supernaturalized and gain infinite value. Christ’s infinite sacrifice has made this possible via the Sacraments. This is another discussion but “through Christ” is the short answer.
(2): It is true our free will on its own cannot save us. Even the desire to be saved in itself cannot save us. We need Christ to save us and we even need God’s grace to properly recognize Christ as the Savior. But again, insufficiency does not imply non-existence or non-necessity.
(3): Just because God enables us to do good and works in us does not exclude free will and its associated merit. Obviously, the more help He gives, the easier it is and therefore, in terms of personal merit, is worth less. No doubt there are varying degrees according to each individual and circumstance and God, who is just, judges us according to our circumstances. “And unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required: and to whom they have committed much, of him they will demand the more.” (Luke 12:48)
To address the above from Philippians 2, consider as well the verse directly before it:
Wherefore, my dearly beloved, (as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but much more now in my absence) with fear and trembling work out your salvation. For it is God who worketh in you, both to will and to accomplish, according to his good will.
Oh wait, we are told to “work out your salvation” as if what we do matters. On a related note, consider the below passage from 1 Corinthians 3:6–8:
I have planted, Apollo watered, but God gave the increase. Therefore, neither he that planteth is anything, nor he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase. Now he that planteth, and he that watereth, are one. And every man shall receive his own reward, according to his own labor.
According to St Paul, God gives the “increase” (growth). In that regard, it is delusional to think any of us can save anyone. God initiates and does the saving. All that being true does not mean there is no personal merit or that we can’t be an instrument to help others, for “every man shall receive his own reward, according to his own labor.”
(3), (4) and (5): Although the argument correctly states that we need God’s grace, the implications are not always clear. To illustrate the point, I will rephrase: “We can’t be saved without the grace of God.”
As a general description of our fallen state, that is true. But if it includes the implication, “And therefore we cannot do anything until we receive grace, and once received salvation is guaranteed” (Philippians 1:6), then there is a problem.
We are warned that there are those who are not saved (Matthew 7:21), Judas is referred to as the “son of perdition” (John 17:12) and, although a parable, we are warned people are in Hell. (John 16:19–31) According to that argument, it follows that some did not receive God’s grace to be saved, because if they did, they would be saved. That is no longer “predestination” but “double predestination”, the latter meaning some people are predestined to be saved and others are predestined to be damned. Again, free will does not enter the equation.
This contradicts commonsensical justice (see section 2, Option 2) and that God wants “all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4) If God is just, and this includes being consistent, and He knows we can’t do it without His grace, then He must give sufficient grace to all. Consider what St Paul said regarding his “sting of my flesh” in 2 Corinthians 12:9:
And He [Christ] said to me: My grace is sufficient for thee; for power is made perfect in infirmity. Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
It is true that Christ was speaking to Paul at that point in his life. But if God wants all to be saved, and “all” presumably includes Paul, then why only give him sufficient grace at that point in his life? On balance, one would need sufficient grace throughout one’s entire life. In other words, there is always sufficient grace.
And yet, some are damned anyway. But no one ever said sufficient grace automatically achieves the intended end of Salvation. It sounds trite, but there is free will. Consider the parable from Matthew 25:14–30 where the master hands out talents to his servants.
For even as a man going into a far country, called his servants, and delivered to them his goods; And to one he gave five talents, and to another two, and to another one, to every one according to his proper ability: and immediately he took his journey.
And he that had received the five talents, went his way, and traded with the same, and gained other five. And in like manner he that had received the two, gained other two. But he that had received the one, going his way digged into the earth, and hid his lord’s money. But after a long time the lord of those servants came, and reckoned with them. And he that had received the five talents coming, brought other five talents, saying: Lord, thou didst deliver to me five talents, behold I have gained other five over and above.
His lord said to him: Well done, good and faithful servant, because thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will place thee over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. And he also that had received the two talents came and said: Lord, thou deliveredst two talents to me: behold I have gained other two. His lord said to him: Well done, good and faithful servant: because thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will place thee over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord. But he that had received the one talent, came and said: Lord, I know that thou art a hard man; thou reapest where thou hast not sown, and gatherest where thou hast not strewed. And being afraid I went and hid thy talent in the earth: behold here thou hast that which is thine.
And his lord answering, said to him: Wicked and slothful servant, thou knewest that I reap where I sow not, and gather where I have not strewed: Thou oughtest therefore to have committed my money to the bankers, and at my coming I should have received my own with usury. Take ye away therefore the talent from him, and give it to him that hath ten talents. For to every one that hath shall be given, and he shall abound: but from him that hath not, that also which he seemeth to have shall be taken away. And the unprofitable servant cast ye out into the exterior darkness. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
It is clear that without sufficient grace (talents), none of us will be able to do much, let alone be saved. But it is not a simple case of God handing out graces and then all is sweet. The exercise of one’s free will then enters the equation, and to the extent one corresponds to sufficient grace, it becomes efficacious grace—that is, having the effect God intends—and God, being just, gives more. And of course, for those who are given more, more is expected. (Luke 12:48) Also keep in mind the warning from 1 Corinthians 10:12: “Wherefore he that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall.”
This does not contradict predestination, election and the like since these terms refer to God’s preferred end (intent) and the means which help achieve said end (providence). Whether said end occurs is another matter. In a way, everyone is “predestined” to be saved since God wants all to be saved, and God chooses every individual for something, to provide them with something for the purpose/end of saving them. Nobody asks to be born and nobody controls the circumstances into which they are born. No doubt some are chosen for very particular and/or special things, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:14)
The above parable reads like the servants did not ask for the talents, let alone the specific number. Maybe they didn’t even deserve it. God can and does provide without any action on our part (Romans 9:10–15) and helps us to the point of doing what needs to be done on our behalf (Romans 9:26–27) but there are times when He may consider our actions. (Ezechiel 18:21–25, 2 Samuel 12 etc)
The point is that God provides something to all and what we do with it must be accounted for. In the above parable, Christ kept it simple and it reads like this one transaction represents one’s entire life. Justice demands that one who was given five talents has to return five. The one who buried his share got thrown out.
There are more complexities to this parable but consider one as a thought exercise: What if an individual was given ten talents and returned eight? How is the shortfall of two talents accounted for? If the transaction represents a particular moment in life, then as long as one has time, there is the opportunity to make up for it. But what if one is short at the time of death but had no intention of burying it? This is where something like Purgatory can make sense of these grey areas.
A few comments regarding the parable of the vineyard laborers as recorded in Matthew 20:1–16 may be appropriate. In this parable, the householder hires some laborers early in the morning at an agreed wage. During the day, he hires more. In the end, he pays them all the same wage. Obviously, the laborers that started the earliest are not happy.
Some use this parable to justify the argument that since everyone is paid the same, then it doesn’t matter what one does. Well, according to the parable, one still needs to do something.
But anyway, Christ concludes the parable with the statement, “So shall the last be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.” So, the parable seems to be about God’s faithfulness to His promise of salvation rather than what we do, and a warning about our perception rather than the reward, that those who “sign up” early shouldn’t assume anything regarding those who sign up later.
Nevertheless, the householder paying the same wage for the different hours of work is interesting and I would be dismissive if I don’t explore that aspect in more detail. I don’t know why Christ said what He said so I can only speculate.
Firstly, the pay to the earliest group is by agreement and nothing is denied them. If this parable is used to justify some form of (spiritual) communism, then it doesn’t really work. There is agreement between the parties so free will is respected.
Secondly, the householder does not give the same pay to just anyone, only those who actually go to the vineyard to work. In other words, one’s response is important, regardless of timing.
Thirdly, the householder’s response when confronted by the earliest group reads like God can do whatever He wants. Well, He can for He is sovereign but it would be over-simplistic to think of His actions as arbitrary.
When the householder asked the group late in the day, “Why stand you here all the day idle?”, they replied, “Because no man hath hired us.” It may be objectively true that those who started later presumably did less than those who started earlier. But that is strictly for within the vineyard. That should not be ignored but neither should people’s circumstances. It reads like this group is unemployed not because they are lazy or as if they don’t want work. So, the householder’s generosity (without it ceasing to be generosity) is perhaps recognition and compensation for bad circumstances beyond one’s control provided one at least tries.
In addition to everything covered so far, I add the following quotation from Luke 13:23–24 to finish off this section:
And a certain man said to him: Lord, are they few that are saved? But he said to them: Strive to enter by the narrow gate; for many, I say to you, shall seek to enter, and shall not be able.
One doesn’t tell another to “strive” to do something if the effort didn’t matter or count. After all, Christ tells us to “lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven”. (Matthew 6:20)
Although it is good to never forget divine mercy and providence (which needs to come first), any argument that ultimately ignores or downplays free will with its associated responsibilities is nonsensical.
Click here for Part IV.
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