In the last post we examined merit, as understood in Catholic theology. In this post we need to examine a related issue. When I discuss the idea of merit with Protestants, I am often confronted with the same question.
“If good works are necessary for salvation, then how many good works do we have to do to obtain salvation?”
The first few times I was presented with this question as a teenager, I didn’t know how to respond. Catholics often don’t think in the same terms as Protestants. It never occurred to me, for instance, to think of good works in a quantitative sense. I never wondered how many good works must be performed to obtain salvation. Instead, I always focused on the quality of the works. So now I wondered, “What really matters when it comes to good works? Is God concerned with quality, quantity, or both?”
God is concerned with both the quantity and quality of our works; but He isn’t equally concerned with both. The quality of our works is more important than the quantity.
God places us all here for a limited period of time. We have until the moment of death to make our choice for God or against Him. Once we’re dead our decision has been made. So it behooves us to perform as many good works as we can during life. The more good works we perform the holier we become. We also are able to earn more graces and indulgences for others on Earth, or for the souls in Purgatory. We also should perform as many good works as possible so that we might spend less time in Purgatory (should such be required of us).
But what about those who perform many good works during life, but they have no faith? What about those who perform many good works, but they do so with a less than pleasant demeanor? What about those who live very sinful lives, only to repent at the moment of death?
I make no attempt to judge anyone. Judgement is a right that belongs to God alone. Only God can read the heart. No matter how sinful our lives have been, God is always willing to forgive. But we also know that certain sins, should we die with their guilt on our soul, will condemn us to Hell. Atheism, if not repented of before death, is such a sin.
The Catholic Church teaches (and has always taught) that no unrepentant atheist may enter Heaven. Yet, we can not adequately judge which atheist dies unrepentant. Only God could ever know that. So we make no decision about individuals. We simply point out that unrepentant atheists can not enter Heaven.
If, however, at the moment of death, an atheist should sincerely repent, he will be welcomed to Heaven. He will probably, however, have to at least pass through the flames of Purgatory. Any other person who sincerely repents of mortal sin before death will also be admitted to Heaven…eventually.
There are many people who perform many good works during life, but they do so only grudgingly. In such cases the person may be admitted to Heaven-provided they died with sanctifying grace on their soul-, but they will have to spend some time in Purgatory. Here a Protestant may ask us, “Why would a Christian who committed no serious sins during life, and who obviously died with the love of Christ on his soul, have to go to Purgatory? Might not the number of good works be sufficient to allow the soul immediate entrance into Heaven? After all, he performed a significant number of good works.”
It is well and good that such a person performed a large quantity of good works; but one can not deny that the individual in question had not the proper disposition. They performed the works only grudgingly, or half-heartedly. They did the good works out of a sense of duty, instead of performing the works out of a sense of love for God, and their fellow man. This certainly would require a stop in Purgatory, though it would prevent damnation.
As for those who repent at death after living a life full of serious sins, one must entrust such a person to God. One might question the sincerity of a great sinner who only repents at the moment of death, but history is replete with such examples. This is a dangerous and foolish practice, but again, we can not judge the heart. As death approaches even the most hardened sinner can become frightened at his impending judgement.
Actually, Scripture is not silent on this point. There is an example of a “deathbed repentance”. In Luke 23:39-43 we see one of the criminals crucified with Jesus mock Our Lord. The other criminal rebukes the first and begs Jesus’ forgiveness. Does Jesus say to him, “Sorry, dude, but you lived a sinful life. No way I let you into Heaven! You can’t just repent at the last minute. That’s not how it works!”
No, Our Lord is far more merciful than that. He sees the second criminal’s sincerity, and accepts His repentance. In fact, Jesus promises the criminal He will enter Heaven that very day!
Basically, it benefits us to perform as many good works as we can during life. A “deathbed repentance” (if it is sincere) might allow us to avoid Hell, but we run the risk of spending quite a lengthy amount of time in Purgatory. Good works performed out of a sense of duty, and not out of love; or good works performed with a poor disposition might help us obtain salvation. Yet again, however, we might also spend some time in Purgatory. So we see that, while the quantity of good works is important, the quality of those works is far more important.
In any case, should one die a hardened, unrepentant sinner, or should one perform a number of good works, but die an unrepentant atheist; such a person has reason to fear for his salvation. We must follow the truth-as God has given the ability and grace to understand it-to the best if our ability. Atheism denies our innate knowledge of something greater than ourselves, or what we can detect with our senses. Such a one who dies in this denial has much to fear. So let us believe and live the truth as God has given us grace to do so. Then we can respond as Paul did in

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