My exploration of the “faith alone” controversy began in a discussion with a non-Catholic coworker. One morning, this friend asked me to go to his church the following Sunday, since his church was “far easier” than what he perceived the Catholic Church to be or require. He indicated that all that was required to get to Heaven with his church was to be baptized and accept the Lord Jesus as your personal savior.
I asked him to confirm that by restating it. He again indicated that there were no significant items to being saved, at least in his church; all you needed was a baptism, an acceptance of Christ, and a relationship with him. He emphasized this to contrast it with the Catholic teaching that belief alone, if it does not lead to a life of obedience to God, does not assure one of salvation.
My immediate response was that I could not attend his church, since that would give the impression that I found it to be totally acceptable, might cause scandal if people who knew me to be a Catholic saw me, and would not be in keeping with my views.
Faith and Works in the Epistles
Regarding the issue of justification, I asked him to give me a couple of minutes to check the references I needed, so I would not give him an incorrect verse. He told me we could meet at lunch to go over it and then we could arrange a time to meet at his church on Sunday.
We met in the cafeteria, bought our lunch and found a clean, empty table. Then I began my response to his theological challenge. I explained that the Bible translation I had used for the research was the Catholic translation of the New American Bible Revised Edition, which has a few more books than the KJV, but these were not needed for my research.
I told him that, while we both agreed that faith was necessary, the Catholic view holds that faith alone is insufficient. I mentioned that there were several places in Scripture where the concept of faith PLUS works was explained. He seemed a little uncertain about my last statement, so I continued.
“I stopped looking after I found 5 or 6 references, so, start with James 2:24, which reads, ‘…a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.'” I continued, “Just a bit farther along is James 2:26, ‘…faith without works is dead.’
“O.K., let’s leave James and go to a fellow who had some difficulty staying on his horse from time to time. Paul wrote in Galatians 5:6, ‘Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working in love.’ Paul also wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:2: ‘If I have all faith, so as to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.'”
The Gospels and Practical Implications
We paused for a moment as we explored what the implications of that statement might be. If you love someone, you will undertake some actions for them, like working as many hours each week as we did to provide for our families, or making a cup of tea for your spouse at night. Each of these “tasks” was prompted by love, as was caring for the poor, the homeless, the underemployed, the sick, etc., and the various other works of mercy.
I said, “O.K., let’s suppose that Paul hit his head when he fell from the horse and he didn’t get it 100% correct; let’s presume that James had a poor memory and didn’t recall what Christ had said. Let’s look at what Christ said that was recorded by men who were there when He said it.”
In the Gospel of John, the phrase I was looking for was in 14:15, “…if you love me, keep my commandments.” Clearly, there is an element of work in this principle, since it takes some effort to keep the commandments. It may be easier to lie, cheat and steal than to be honest, work hard, and go the extra mile when a friend needs help.
“Do you agree that keeping the commandments may involve a bit of ‘work’?”, I asked. He responded that yes, the case could be made that some degree of effort was required to keep the commandments.
“O.K. how about one last one for good measure? Matthew 19:17, ‘if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.'”
I mentioned to him that faith alone would certainly be easier than faith plus works, but I reminded him of his own “faith plus works.” He asked me to explain. I told him that the summer before, he and a group of men from his church had gone to Croatia as part of a mission trip. I reminded him that while he was there, the group had met a young woman who desperately wanted a keyboard to practice with and to use at various events. The group left for her the one that they had brought for their services when they were preparing to leave. I mentioned that his actions the previous year seemed to be much more than simply faith alone, and he agreed.
He said, “Point well taken, and I will agree that works as well as faith have their place in a well-rounded Christian’s life.”
The Confusion about Catholic Belief
Of course, most of our Protestant brethren would say the same as my friend, that it matters how we live our lives as well as what we believe, and that the two are closely connected. So why the dispute on “faith alone” versus “faith and works”?
Ultimately, at the root of the controversy lies a widespread misunderstanding. Protestants tend to assume that Catholics believe in a “works righteousness,” in which souls earn the right to their own salvation by performing various actions. In fact, the Church teaches, as she always has, that salvation is God’s free gift of grace to us. The Catechism states, “Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ” (1992), and goes on to explain:
“Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent.” (CCC, 1993)
This, then, is how Catholics understand our part in our salvation: an assent to God’s invitation (that is, faith), and cooperation with the grace He gives us (that is, charity, as described in 1 Corinthians 13). Our actions, or works, are essential not because we earn our salvation with them, but because the “cooperation of charity,” the decision to accept the grace God wants to give us, is a matter of free choice that has to be made throughout our lives.
May God bring about an increase of dialogue and understanding among all followers of Christ, and may He lead us all to holiness and, in the end, salvation.