Author Greg Koukl
Published on 03/07/2022
Tactics and Tools

How to Confront a Works-Based Salvation Theology

Many believe in a mixed gospel of grace plus works. Greg explains why this does not line up with the good news of the Bible and offers two ways to approach friends who hold a mistaken view of salvation.


Caller: I am an ex-Catholic and still have a lot of cousins who are Catholic. How can I start a conversation about true salvation?

Greg: A person may be Catholic, but that doesn’t mean they’re Christian. We’re not saying they aren’t a nice person. We aren’t saying that they aren’t part of a Christian denomination. There are Baptists that aren’t Christians. There are Lutherans that aren’t Christians. There’s a whole bunch of people in all kinds of denominations. It all depends on what you understand about the person and the work of Christ. Now, all the Christian denominations agree, pretty much, on the person of Christ. He’s the God-man. He’s the God who came down to earth. He’s Emmanuel, God with us. But there is confusion, I think, on what he came to do, and this is where, across the board, you have denominations that preach a kind of mixed gospel.

When I say that it’s “mixed,” I mean that this is a gospel that has the grace of God in it, but it’s an amalgam of other things, and it’s usually an amalgam of grace and works. God’s grace is there, but you’ve got to be good, and if you’re good enough, you get into Heaven. And this is why, for a Christian in the tradition that you and I represent, if we say we know we’re going to Heaven, they consider that an arrogant claim, because, on their view, going to Heaven means being good enough and having the grace of God—or having the grace of God to be good enough—but in any event, it’s a reflection on personal virtue, and if we think we’re going to Heaven, that means we’re personally virtuous enough to go there, and that sounds arrogant. Notice that this depends on a certain understanding of what salvation is all about.

Many years ago, I was on a radio program called Religion on the Line, and this is a program that had a Roman Catholic priest, a rabbi, and a protestant—myself, in the cases when I was on that program. Dennis Prager was the host of that radio show in the Los Angeles market. I remember having a conversation in which I was promoting the concept of salvation by grace, and that I was confident that I was going to go to Heaven because of what Jesus did. The others were work based—the Jew and the Roman Catholic—and when I made my own comment, they said, “Well, you’re being self-righteous.” And I said, “The irony of that comment is that I am the only person on this show that is not claiming that my righteousness gets me into Heaven. The rest of you are saying your righteousness gets you into Heaven, but I’m not. I’m saying the opposite. It’s the righteousness of Christ.” But I was accused of being self-righteous in that environment.

Now, being raised a Roman Catholic, myself, I am aware of something that is true of all Catholics, almost without exception—because of the way the doctrine of salvation is characterized in Roman Catholic environments—and that is, there is no confidence that a person is going to Heaven. There might be brief moments, like on Saturday evening, when you go to church, and you go in the confessional, and you confess your sins to the priest, and he gives you absolution along with a penance you have to do with some prayers or whatever. You go out, and you kneel there, and you pray those prayers. Once you’ve covered those bases, for that split second, you are clean before God, according to that theology, and if you died right then, you’d be on your way to Heaven. You have to make a stopover in purgatory and get cleaned up a bit. That’s not much fun. But you’re on your way. I don’t mean to be making fun of this. I’m just simply saying, that’s the way it works.

I’m going to move now into characterizing ways you might approach this with your Roman Catholic friends.

I’d ask them, “Do you know what the word ‘gospel’ means?” The word “gospel” means good news. “Tell me, with regards to salvation, what the Roman Catholic understanding of salvation—attaining salvation—amounts to.” Now, I want them to talk. I want them to tell me. I suspect most of them will say something like, “Well, you know, we have to believe in Jesus, of course.” They might just talk about being a good person, and following the rules of the church, and going to mass, and taking the eucharist, and going to the holy days—all the things that are required of the Roman church for righteousness—not committing mortal sins and going to confession. Those are all the things that will help ensure that when you die you go to Heaven.

Here’s the next question: “Can you know that when you die you’re going to Heaven?” And what do you think they’re going to say? I think most of them are going to say, “No. You can’t know that.” I say, “Let me understand something. Basically, what you’re describing is, you’re standing before two doors. Both are shut. You are going to go through one or the other door when you die. We’ll just set aside the side trip to purgatory. One door is everlasting bliss, and the other door is eternal torment, but you don’t know which one you’re going to go through. Right?” That’s right, on that view.

Here’s my last question: “How is that good news? How is it good news that you can’t know, when you walk through one of those doors at death, whether it’s going to be eternal bliss or everlasting torment? How is that good news?” Now, I think that’s an entirely fair question, and the answer is, their gospel is not good news. No gospel that leaves open the question of your eternal destiny is good news.

Paul said [that] for me to live is Christ, and to die is...what? To die is gain. Better to be absent from the body and at home with the Lord. There was no question in Paul’s mind, and he wasn’t just talking for himself. He was talking as a Christian saved by grace. There was no question in his mind which door he was going to go through, but not because of his own merit. Christians were willing to be martyred for their faith, not because they were promised paradise for martyrdom, but because of what Jesus did dying on the cross and rising from the dead. That secured their eternal destiny. This is why Jesus could say eternal life essentially doesn’t start when you die. “For this is eternal life, that they might know you, Father, and your son, whom you’ve sent” (John 17:3).

So, the general perspective of our first approach is trading on the idea that the gospel is good news. Now, let’s just go to the other side. This is a scriptural thing, and I wrote about this in a mentoring letter titled “The Gospel for Believers.” There are a lot of people that are within the broader company of Christians, but they don’t understand the grace of God so as to take advantage of it or benefit from it. What we want to do is give them the gospel in a way that is appropriate to their need. They agree that the Bible is the Word of God in some significant sense. They agree that Jesus is savior, and he died for sins, but the change hasn’t all fallen into the meter. So, here’s what I do. I just use a couple of Bible passages.

Ephesians 2:8–9. For somebody who is a former Roman Catholic, this was a big deal to me because here’s what Paul writes. He says, “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, not works, that no one should boast.” That’s trust in Jesus. Not by works. That is a verse that flies directly in the face of what I understood, and I think most people understand, as Roman Catholic theology of salvation. There are Roman Catholics, I think, that may nuance the gospel, Rome’s gospel, in such a way as to characterize it as a grace, not works, enterprise, but that is not the way most people understand it, and that’s because it’s not the way it’s characterized by those who are communicating Roman Catholicism to the ordinary person. This verse says, first of all, it’s by grace you are saved through faith, not of yourselves, not of works, that anyone should boast, and so, the point is, our salvation is not based on our capability.

So, that’s the first verse I go to. The second one is in John 1. There, it says, “As many as have received Christ, to them he gave the right to become the children of God.” The idea here is that salvation is not by ourselves. It’s a gift of God’s grace, and our faith is what receives that. Now, if we receive Christ, we have Christ. If we receive him, we have him, and that concept is going to be really important for the last verse. This is in 1 John 5, starting in verse 11. Here’s what John says: “And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life.” Notice, “God has given us.” He’s not going to give us. He already has given it. “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” Verse 12: “He who has the Son has the life. He who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.” Now, that’s very straightforward.

If you receive Christ by faith, then you have the Son. What else do you have according to these verses I just read? You have life. You have what kind of life? You have eternal life. According to what John says, here, if you have the Son, by receiving him, then you also have, at this time, eternal life. But it gets better. Keep reading verse 13: “These things I’ve written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.”

So, on the one hand, I’m saying the gospel is good news, but is your gospel good news? Doesn’t sound like it. The real gospel is good news. Let me explain it to you. Would you be interested in knowing if you could be confident and certain that, no matter what happened, you were going to Heaven? Would that be important to you? Yes? Okay. Let me show you Ephesians 2:8–9, John 1:12, then 1 John 5. There it is. There’s the promise. So then, it’s just a matter of saying, “Have you received Christ? Have you put your life completely in his hands, taken him as your own by putting your faith and confidence in him?” If they simply respond by putting their trust in Christ and receiving him, asking him into their heart and trusting in him, from that moment on, they can know that they have eternal life.

Then you may go, just to cap it off, to Romans 8. Romans 8 is such a great passage because it captures a wonderful promise. Paul says, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any”—have you left anything out here, Paul?—“nor any other created thing”—that’s a very strong statement—“will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” It’s all inclusive. You are not being separated from God in Christ Jesus, because you’re secure in him. You have him. He has you. That’s it. Then you know you have eternal life.

Notice how I trade on the notion of confidence of salvation, which is called good news. You trade on the notion of the gospel being good news, and then you let the Scripture do its work. You don’t have to say anything about Roman Catholicism. Just ask them about the confidence of their salvation and what the good news is.