The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (1545-1563) remain authoritative in the Catholic Church. As the Catholic Encyclopedia indicates the Council of Trent’s “main object was the definitive determination of the doctrines of the Church in answer to the heresies of the Protestants.” We get a taste of this Catholic teaching under the heading of Justification. “If any one saith, that the good works of one that is justified are in such manner the gifts of God, as that they are not also the good merits of him that is justified…let him be anathema” (Session 6, Canon 32). In other words, good works are meritorious. A person obtains right standing before God by grace through faith plus their works. This is part of the divide between Catholicism and Protestantism.
The Protestant position is simple. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. Ephesians 2:8-9 supports this view. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” God does not grant salvation on the basis of our works. Justification by faith therefore excludes all boasting. So much so is this the case that even the faith we exercise when we believe in Christ for salvation comes from God.
Aren’t good works necessary? Good works are necessary; they are never meritorious. Good works vindicate our faith; they display the validity of our faith. “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). This is what Paul means when he speaks of “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).
But James 2:21 asks, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?” And James 2:24 concludes, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” The word justified may be translated vindicated. Matthew 11:19 is a good example. “Wisdom is justified by her children (NKJV),” or “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds (NASB).” We may read James 2:24, “You see that a man is vindicated by works and not by faith alone.”
What about Paul’s warning in 2 Corinthians 5:10? “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” Any good works we may perform while still in our mortal bodies come from God. They are gifts God gives us based upon the work of Christ. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Any good works Christ may observe in us serve to vindicate His work on our behalf.
All of this is the opposite of the teaching of the Council of Trent. “If any one saith, that the good works of one that is justified are in such manner the gifts of God, as that they are not also the good merits of him that is justified…let him be anathema.” This is one of the historic differences between Catholicism and Protestantism. The protestant position is that God will save. He will do it. We do not do it and we do not contribute to it. “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faithful is He who calls you, and He also will bring it to pass” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).