Works, Faith, and the Paradox of Grace

June 5, 2018

One of the most paradoxical aspects of the spiritual life is the tension between human effort and Divine generosity. That is, the question of whether we are saved by what we do or by what God does.

Confusion arises because we are quite clearly told in scripture that we must do certain things. We must forgive or we will not be forgiven. We must love our neighbor as ourselves. We must turn the other cheek. We must strive to enter the narrow gate. We must crucify the flesh and its lusts. The list goes on. And yet simultaneously, we are just as clearly told that salvation is a gift of Divine origin, one which we have done nothing and can do nothing to merit. The same St. Paul who tells us to mortify ourselves also declares that, “It is by grace that you are saved through faith, and not of yourselves, it is a gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).

So which is it? Are we saved by spiritual struggle and mortifying ourselves, or by an entirely unmerited gift? Are we saved by God’s action or our action?

The simple answer is both. Catholic truths are often found in the rather uncomfortable coming together of opposites. They are paradoxes—divine puns, if you will—that are ultimately shrouded in mystery. Simple either-or binaries would be much more accessible and amenable to our limited intellects, and yet our capacity for wonder at the works of God would shrink with our ability to comprehend them. Mystery is healthier for humility.

Ultimately, however, I believe our pitting of faith and works against each other is rooted in the misunderstanding of two key truths: First, that faith is not mere mental assent; and second, that a gift does not absolve us of responsibility.

The Act of Faith

The first reason many Christians place faith in opposition to works is because they misunderstand what faith is and means. They take it to mean a sort of mental assent—a sterile acknowledgement of an intellectually perceived fact. If one believes that one is a sinner and that Christ died to save sinners, then one goes to heaven. The belief need not be substantially different or more concrete than believing Mars exists millions of miles away. In such a paradigm, we are in essence saved by thinking the right thoughts; a sort soteriological nominalism.

Faith, in its truest meaning, is more a verb than a noun. It is action oriented, like love. You cannot truly love anyone, romantically or otherwise, in a purely abstract and conceptualized way. Love is not found in thinking sweet and sentimental thoughts about someone. It is found in the very concrete actions of sacrifice and self-gift. So too with faith.

We moderns far too often intellectualize virtues that can only be understood as inseparable from the actions that embody them. Words like faith and love have no meaning apart from the actions which incarnate them. Faith is not about thinking the right things. It is conviction that breaks forth into action. St. James makes this point in his usual forceful way:

What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, 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? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. (James 2:14-17)

Faith must incarnate itself into action, or it remains mere potentiality—ultimately unrealized and incomplete.

Using the Gift

Another mistake we often make when striving to understand faith and works is the tension between a gift and its responsible use. While grace is an unmerited gift, it still must be invested wisely to be of any benefit to our souls.

Christ told several parables illustrating this principle, including the parable of the Prodigal Son. But perhaps the clearest illustration he leaves us is the parable of the Talents. In this parable, Christ speaks of a master who goes on a journey. He leaves each of his servants with a certain amount of money, from one talent (a large amount of money at the time) up to five.

The first two servants use the money wisely, trading and investing it to compound and increase it. The last servant, however, essentially squanders his money, burying it in the ground out of misguided fear. When the master returns, he rewards the two servants who used their money wisely, but punishes the foolish servant who buried his severely.

It is important to note two things about this parable. First, the money all three of the servants received was unmerited. True, some received more than others based on their abilities, but none of them earned their talents in any way. They were simply a gift from the master. Second, the money was expected to be used. The master clearly expected his gift to be invested and even multiplied, as his rewards and punishments indicate.

Effort and Grace

It is Catholic teaching that each human being, like the servants in the parable of the Talents, receives the entirely unmerited gift of grace sufficient for their salvation. And it is even the teaching of the Church that, like the servants, some do receive more grace than others. But also like the servants, this gift of grace comes with responsibility—greater or lesser in proportion to what we have been given. While grace is freely given, we must activate it through our effort and works.

God desires to see grace increase in our souls. He desires our efforts, no matter how pitiful, and he delights to see us using the gifts of grace he has given us. The least amount of effort on our part is rewarded abundantly, far more than we deserve (see Luke 6:38). Likewise, it grieves his fatherly heart when we squander his graces, buying and neglecting them through our apathy.

So grace is a gift, but the gift must be employed. It is true, in God’s eyes, the greatest works on our parts are entirely insufficient. But we must remember that God is our Father, and like any parent, he rejoices in the loving response of his children. If one of my children colors me a picture, I am not going to critique its artistic merit or fuss about its imperfections. I will receive it with delight, no matter how poorly it is scribbled—because I love my child.

Salvation is of the Lord. He lovingly surrounds us with grace from the first moment of our existence, ensuring that we have everything that we need for abundant life and salvation. Yet, we also bear a responsibility to use what we have been given and not squander it. “To whom much has been given, much more will be required” (Luke 12:48).

Where does God’s grace end and our efforts begin? It is impossible to say. It is a great mystery, and the truth is that even our efforts are far more a gift of grace than we realize. Nevertheless, we know with certainty that we are called to act, not wallow in passive mediocrity, squandering the gifts we have been given.

So what is the conclusion of the matter? Let us reject complacency, and strive with all our hearts for holiness salvation. Let us show our gratitude for the gift of grace by laboring with joy for our salvation and that of others. Let us put to death the works of the flesh and fight to enter the narrow gate. Let us seek and we will find; let us knock and the door will be opened. For the least effort on our part will be rewarded beyond measure and all imagining.

Sam Guzman


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Reader Interactions


  1. Derek says

    Such a fantastic article. I’m the only Catholic in my family and this issue of, what is sadly misunderstood as ‘works-salvation’ has risen before in conversation. If our actions and works can condemn us by rejecting the same grace that saves us, then our actions and works can help put the grace given to good use, as the Lord intends. It’s a beautiful thing, our faith. God bless.

  2. Phil Brown says

    This is probably the best article I have read on this subject in a long time. I like the fact that you used the word “paradox” to describe this. I can’t tell you how many people I know who argue over this topic. It seems on one hand you have the grace camp, and on the other the works camp. The both of them vehemently fight for their lopsided perspective while creating confusion for those on the outside looking in, and we know God isn’t the author of confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). This is one of the most balanced explanations I have seen in a long time. I pray that God will continue to bless your efforts.


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