Updated: Sep 9, 2021
By Luke Lancaster
Non-Catholic preachers love to say in their fiery sermons that Catholics "earn" their way into Heaven, and that Catholics are distorting the Gospel message of Jesus. Of course, as with most things, there is an element of truth in that. Many Catholics are legalistic. However, that's a personal issue, not a doctrinal issue. Every Christian struggles with legalism at some point. The Catholic Church officially and definitively teaches that no person can merit eternal life by his own power. That is Pelagianism and was condemned by the Church. However, there is a sense to "earning" salvation through the help of Christ's Spirit that will become clear as this article goes on.
Catholic doctrine states that the grace of initially becoming a member of the Body of Christ is completely unmerited. Faith is a gift, as Scripture says, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9). The initial grace of salvation is received through faith and baptism (Romans 6:2-8). Baptism is not something that Christians can do to themselves ("I Luke, baptize Luke" isn't a thing!). Becoming "saved" from the muddy pit of sin on this earth and getting cleansed from the mud has nothing to do with good works. That is the moment a person becomes a Christian.
However, the "final salvation" from sin and hell when Christ judges souls after death does have something to do with good works/rewards. This is because Christianity is not about being spectators. Christians don't just watch Jesus do all the work. Rather, people become the Body of Christ! Christians get in the game! Regular humans no longer live their own lives, rather, Christ suddenly lives within them (Galatians 2:20). Consider the teachings of Jesus and St. Paul on this topic of "earning" salvation.
According to Jesus, entrance into the spiritual, Heavenly Kingdom is a "wage." He speaks about this rather plainly in His parable of the vineyard in Matthew's Gospel, "For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard" (Matt. 20:1-2). God is the landowner, and us Christians are His workers. We get paid at the end of the day, or the "last hour" (the end of the world) as Scripture says. Either Heaven or Hell will be our reward. Matthew 20:8 reads, "Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first." These words have the sense of "earning" our final salvation, don't ya think?
Jesus speaks about this concept of "earning" a few times in the Gospels. Consider Matthew 16:27, where Jesus says, "For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man for what he has done." How will they be repaid? Well, the good Christian workers will receive the payment of eternal life, "Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" (Matt. 25:34). Other people will receive the payment of eternal fire, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matt. 25:41). Salvation is a "payment" in a sense.
There is an economic flavor scattered throughout Jesus's teachings as we have seen, but particularly during the Sermon on the Mount. He says not to do good works for the sake of pridefully being seen by others (a bad motive), for such an action results in not receiving a "reward" from the Father (Matt. 6:1). This word for "reward" means "payment" or "wage." On the flip side, if we do our good deeds in secret, our Father will "reward" us (Matt. 6:4). He continues this train of thought in Matthew 6:19-20, where He emphasizes "storing up" treasure in Heaven, instead of earth. Or in the Beatitudes, He says that our "reward" will be great in Heaven if we are persecuted (Matthew 5:12). Economic terms are being used.
St. Paul adopts these words of Jesus Himself. He says in Romans 2, "God 'will repay each person according to what they have done.' To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life (NIV - Rom. 2:6-7). Those who do good works, God will "repay" with eternal life. Heaven is, in a way, a reward. Paul continues this language a few other times, but for brevity's sake, consider Philippians 4. Paul emphasizes the great act of almsgiving the people of Philippi gave to him, but he doesn't desire that earthly action so much. Rather, he desires the Heavenly treasure God will reward them with, "Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account" (NIV - Phil. 4:17). Our works will earn either Heaven or Hell.
According to Scripture, Heaven has the element of being a "reward" for good actions. Remember though, the initial grace of salvation (becoming a Christian on earth) is not a "reward." That would be the heresy known as Pelagianism. Catholicism definitively teaches that our initial grace of salvation (repentance and baptism) is unmerited, but our final salvation (entrance into Heaven) is merited.
Let us correct this false understanding of our faith by our non-Catholic brothers and sisters.
See the sections written by Catholic scholar Dr. Michael Barber in the book, "Four Views on the Role of Works at the Final Judgment" (2013).
See pages 77-80 in "Wages of Cross-Bearing and Debt of Sin: The Economy of Heaven in Matthew’s Gospel," by Nathan Eubank (2013).