“For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God. This is not the result of works” (Ephesians 2:8).
For centuries, the Christian Church has been split over a mis-perception- namely, that Catholics believe we are saved by our “works,” and Protestants believe we are saved by our “faith.” In fact, this has never been the position of the Catholic Church, but you will still find lots of Protestants who believe it to be the truth. The Catholic faith has never been about “either-or”, but about “both-and.” So, for Catholics, it is not a case of either faith or works, but faith and works. (Just as it has never been a case of either Scripture or Tradition, but Scripture and Tradition. Nor has it ever been a case of either Grace or Sacraments but Grace and Sacraments).
Since 1999, that perceived feud has been overcome by a Joint Declaration on Justification between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church, in which both Churches agreed that we are not saved primarily by faith or works, but by grace. “By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God.” (Joint Declaration, 15). The word “grace ” from the Latin “gratia” shares a common root with the words “gratis” (free) and “gratuity” (free gift or tip). So grace is a freely given gift by God, by which we share in the life and blessings of God. “Grace is a participation in the life of God” (Catechism, no.1997).
That grace has to be appropriated by us by “faith.” Recent popes, as well as the Catholic Catechism have emphasized that faith here does not mean merely an intellectual adherence to some doctrinal propositions, but a commitment of one’s whole self to the Person of Jesus Christ. “Evangelization will always contain – as the foundation, center and at the same time summit of its dynamism- a clear proclamation that, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, who died and rose from the dead, salvation is offered to all men, as a gift of God’s grace and mercy” (Pope Paul VI, On Evangelization, 1976, art 27).
What becomes of our works, then? Works are still necessary for salvation, but they are not the works of the Jewish Law, which St Paul was attacking in his letters, but the “good works, which God has prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10). Have you ever asked God what are the works he has specifically assigned to you so you can “work out your salvation” (Philippians 2:13)?
God will not save us on His own; we cannot save ourselves on our own. God calls us to respond and co-operate with his saving work in Christ Jesus, first by receiving his offer of salvation as a free gift, that we could never possibly earn, appropriating it by an act of commitment to the Person of Jesus Christ, Lord and Saviour, and then by living out that faith relationship in a life of good deeds.