One of the intuitions which those of us who were/are heirs of the Reformation have inherited from Martin Luther is a suspicion of any talk about human works in the context of discussion topics like justification or salvation. Understandably, many folks want to steer well clear of the idea that we can merit salvation by our works.
This idea that we can ascend to the heights of heavenly virtue by our own works, that Christ's sacrifice on the Cross was only an instructive example of divine love rather than an efficacious atonement for the sins of many, is a very old heresy well known to the Catholic Church. We call it Pelagianism, named after a personally very nice but doctrinally very off-base fellow named Pelagius who was a well-educated monk from the British Isles.
Like Pelagius, Martin Luther took some good points a bit too far and ended up in schism and heresy himself. Perhaps the key point in all of Luther's theological expositions was that God's grace is a divine gift bestowed on us freely, a gift we accept through faith in Christ. Luther thought that the Catholic Church's use of indulgences stood in contradiction to this truth of the faith. And, in fairness, some people definitely did abuse indulgences offered by the Church.
Where Luther was wrong was in the nature of the connection between works and justification (or salvation). He believes that the Catholic Church teaches that we can earn our way to Heaven by means of indulgences. But that's not even what indulgences are as defined by the Church.
Indulgences just remit some of the temporal punishment for sin. And no matter how much of the temporal punishment is remitted, from a Catholic perspective we could still choose against God and find ourselves in eternal punishment. No matter how virtuous we are or how many indulgences we might gain, there is no ticket to Heaven according to the Church.
The Church teaches that our good works do not merit the grace of salvation in any sense whatsoever. She teaches that our merits are far too little to accomplish such a thing, and it is only through the divine gift of the superabundant merits of Christ which are vicariously applied to the satisfaction of our debt of sin that we have any hope of salvation.
At the same time, the Church teaches that good works are a necessary part of the journey to salvation. She does not seek to remove the Epistle of James from the canon of Scripture, which teaches us that:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
But someone 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. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works.
Where I think some folks (like Martin Luther and those of us who inherited his thought) get hung up in reading James is on the idea that we need to perform certain good works as part of the salvific process. And I think I might be able to address those concerns by way of analogy.
Let's consider the gifts we might get from our parents. Maybe we are given a teddy bear when we're young, or a book, or a video game console. These require only minimal responsibility from us to take care of, but they do require some responsibility.
On the other hand, the greatest gifts which parents give to their children, such as a pet, or a car, or a trust fund for college, these require a large responsibility to take care of them as part of accepting the gift. If the greater gifts often have the greater responsibility associated with them, how much more the responsibility for the gift of salvation?
We don't suggest that the parent's child has earned the gift of the pet dog, or new car, or trust fund for college just because they're responsible for taking care of these gifts, do we? Would we suggest that they're even trying to earn these things if they do in fact take very good care of the gift they've been given?
Of course not. And neither should we think that the Christian who proposes that we have a responsibility to do the works needed to take care of the gift of salvation is trying to earn their salvation or that it's possible to earn their salvation by those works.
Related: The Protestant Intuition: Church and Empire
Note: Above is a picture of Martin Luther's edited Bible translated into German.
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