Apologize and Don't Be Sorry!

A site dedicated to thinking through the common objections to the Catholic Faith as well as questions of a general religious nature.

Location: Prague, Oklahoma, United States

Just your basic 21st century priest trying to bring the Gospel to everyone who will give it a fair hearing.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Salvation by Faith Alone

Anyone who has lived in Oklahoma or the Southern United States for any appreciable period of time has run afoul a most basic difference between Catholics and Protestants: how is one saved?  Protestant theology enshrines the notion that salvation is by faith alone.  Martin Luther and the other reformers made this, along with Scripture alone and Grace alone, the banner under which the call to reform was made.  As this issue, salvation by faith alone, forms one of the three pillars of the Protestant Reformation, it is important for Catholics to know how to speak to this matter.
The origin for this doctrine comes from Romans 3:28: “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.”  First, we should note that the context of this verse is conversion from Judaism to the Christian Faith.  Hence, the works in question are the observances tied to the Mosaic Law, i.e. circumscion.  With the coming of Christ, that law lost its power to save; the Law of Grace in Christ has supplanted it.  Second, notice that the verse says nothing about Faith alone or that there are no works which are connected to Faith.  All St. Paul is claiming is faith is necessary for salvation.  I think we would all agree to that.  Could anyone reasonably think that they could “buy off” God with a myriad of good works?  But, what if Faith has a series of consequent actions which demonstrate the presence and authenticity of said Faith?  It is this second sense that the Bible and the Church who wrote it endorses.
In many places in the Sacred Scriptures, the various writers pair faith with loving action.  In John 14:21, our Lord directs us that if we love Him, we will keep His commandments.  Matthew parallels this in his account of the rich, young man who comes seeking salvation and is told to “keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:16-17).  This is significant as St. Paul brings out how salvation comes by “faith working though love” (Galatians 5:6, cf. I Corinthians 13:2).  St. Paul confirms this line of reasoning in his letter to the Ephesians when he writes: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast.  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10; emphasis added).  Even though Faith is a gift and cannot be earned, you will notice that Faith does have obligations, namely to perform good works because these evince the presence of the Christian Faith.
Elsewhere in the Sacred Scriptures, along with Faith, we also see other requirements for salvation.  Matthew’s Gospel records the Last Judgment in the form of a parable of Jesus (Matthew 25:41-46).  What does Jesus use as the standard for salvation and damnation?  Jesus uses a series of good works like feeding the hungry.  There is no explicit mention of Faith, but there is an understanding that Faith places demands upon Christians which must be realized if one would be saved.  This is the same reasoning present in the Book of Revelation when Christ addresses the various churches to whom this revelation is addressed warning them against works which will lead them away from Him (Revelation 2:5, 3:2-5).  When it comes to a life of Faith, St. Paul lists the various actions and behaviors which show that the Faith of the person is inauthentic (cf.  Galatians 5:1-5, 19-21, I Corinthians 6:9-10).  St. Paul sees clearly that the one who has given himself to Christ, then sin cannot remain (Romans 6:1-3).  Well, what else is the avoidance of sin but a work which one performs; the Christian seeks the good action in opposition to the sinful former way of life.  In Romans 8:24, St. Paul records that hope is needed for salvation, hope in the Resurrection.
If the following hasn’t been convincing, here’s the coffin nail on the theory that one is saved by faith alone.  The only place in the whole Bible where the phrase “faith alone” appears, it appears in the negative.  St. James tells us this: “Do you want to be shown, you foolish fellow, that faith apart from works is barren?....You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone…. For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:20,24,26).  Scholars speculate that St. James is acting as a corrective to a potential misunderstanding of St. Paul’s comments from the Letter to the Romans.  Taken together as a whole, you see the real interesting nature of Faith – Faith brings us to serve God, not because we have a specific legal code, but because we are grateful to God for saving us.  Hence, if I am going to claim that I have the Faith, I have to put my money where mouth is, so to speak.  Faith and works go hand in hand to make a true life of Faith.
Faith is bigger than we suspect.  Perhaps that is the origin of the disagreement in modern times about this issue.  Faith is bigger than simply saying “I believe in Jesus;” it requires dedication and a public witness to that Faith.  In the end, we have to ask not do I have the Faith, but rather how big is my Faith and how does this Faith change the way of living my life.