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Michael Miller wrote:

Hi, guys —

  • What is the Catholic understanding of Legalism: the belief that one must do things to earn God's love?
  • Has the Church faced any specific heresies relating to Legalism?


  { What is the Catholic view of Legalism: the belief that we must do things to earn God's Love? }

Mike replied:

Hi Michael,

We do not believe in earning our own way into Heaven. Everything and anything a Catholic does is solely by grace from the beginning to the end. As Catholic Christians we do believe in merit but any merit is done solely by the grace of Jesus Christ working in us by our choice.

Our choice is where the merit kicks in as God will not force His Will on us.

John may have more to add seeing both of you come from Pentecostal backgrounds.


John replied:

Hi Mike and Mike,

Michael has a point that from the very beginning, the Church has had to deal with heresy being promoted by different groups. Some of these groups promoted salvation by works or took a very legalistic approach to the faith. Sadly, we see this still today in various forms but this has never been the Teaching of the Church.

We start with God's Endless Self-Giving Love for each of us. Our obedience is a response to that love. God is Father first and foremost in His Relationship to us but God is also Judge.

  • But how does He judge?
    • Does He judge from the bench in a courtroom, or
    • does He judge from an Easy Boy chair in the family room?

The Church says the latter. He judges us as Father so God is both equipping us and training us to be His Heirs. Just as a child earns privileges by showing responsibility so too the Christian obeys in order to grow and mature.

We use terms like Merit and this often confuses Protestants. They think we mean we are earning our salvation but that's not what we mean at all so let me give you a human example.

A father tells his son on his 16th birthday: If over the next 6 months:

  • you get good grades
  • do your chores
  • show me that you can handle yourself as responsible young man

I will buy you a used car when you get license at 161/2. So the son does what is required and merits the reward.

  • Now did the kid really earn the car?

Well in a sense, yes but:

  • Who paid for it?
  • Who spent the previous 16 years loving and training the son to mold him into the responsible young man?

It was the father! So in truth every aspect is a gift of the Father to the son. In fact, the greater gift is the training the son received.

And the same holds with regard to punishment. God does punish His sons for disobedience but not in the name of justice but in the name of love — to help the son grown and mature.

Now there are some that turn this into a very legalistic approach. The misunderstand why God requires certain obedience from us. They misunderstand God's punishments and they view God as someone just waiting to pour out his wrath.

A lot of this came out of the Middle Ages and the way people in the West developed the way we think. Everything became centered around law so legal paradigms became they way some in the Church would explain the Mysteries of Faith.

I hope this helps,


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