Do "positive" good works merit eternal life?


Trent, Session 6, Canon 32 states:
If anyone says that the good works of the one justified are in such manner the gifts of God that they are not also the good merits of him justified; or that the one justified by the good works that he performs by the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit an increase of grace, eternal life, and in case he dies in grace, the attainment of eternal life itself and also an increase of glory, let him be anathema.

On pages 267-268 of Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, the author summarizes the dogma as follows:

  1. Object of Mertium de Condigno

A just man merits for himself through each good work an increase of sanctifying grace, eternal life (if he dies in a state of grace) and an increase of heavenly glory (De fide).

. . .

According to this declaration three objects of true and proper merit are to be distinguished:

. . .

b) Eternal life, more exactly the claim to eternal life and, if one is in the state of grace in the moment of death, the real achieving of eternal life. According to the teaching of Holy Writ, eternal life is the reward for the good deeds performed in this world.

Ott cites Matthew 19:29 in support of the dogma. Thus, it appears that he understands the dogma to indicate that each “positive” good work such as feeding the hungry (while done in a state of grace) merits eternal life. (“Negative good works” would be simply works of obedience in not committing a mortal sin).


  1. Has Ott correctly stated the dogma?

Ott’s summary seems slightly different than what Canon 32 states. That is, Canon 32 states that the “one justified by the good works” merits eternal life, but it does not state that “through each good work” the man merits eternal life. Can the dogma be understood to mean that the justification the man receives through his initial baptism merits eternal life, but that his good works while performed in a state of grace “increase” the justification of his soul?

  1. If Ott has correctly stated the dogma, in what senses can each positive good work merit eternal life, if positive good works are not strictly required to enter into eternal life?

Another way of stating the question is, if the grace received at baptism (and not lost through mortal sin) is sufficient to obtain eternal life, for what reason should good works performed after baptism merit eternal life?

I say that positive good works are not strictly required for these reasons:

  1. Baptized infants and baptized people who are mentally incapacitated are incapable of performing positive good works. Yet, if they die in a state of grace, they presumably would enter eternal life.
  2. My understanding is that any amount of grace is sufficient to enter into eternal life. If a baptized person does not commit any mortal sins, he should expect to enter into eternal life. Strictly speaking, sanctifying grace does not need to be increased to enter into eternal life (although from a practical standpoint I would think that one would fall into mortal sin without performing positive good works throughout his life).

If you could shed any light on the above questions, or point out any errors in my assumptions or thinking, I would appreciate it a lot.

Thank you.

These links should give you the answers that you need. If you have any further questions or concerns that are not answered by this, please contact Catholic Answers directly.
**Recommended Reading:
*]Reward and Merit
*]The Meaning of “Merit”
*]Born Again - The Bible Way
*]Faith or Works or Both?
*]Are Good Works Necessary for Salvation?
*]“Not by Works”

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