Christ never intended for His Church to be divided. He prayed that we would be one as He and the Father were one (John 17:21). Sadly, today, that is not so. There are many things that divide us. One of the most controversial and often misunderstood teachings are whether we are saved by “faith alone” or “faith and works.”
Martin Luther introduced as one of his five solas of the reformation: “sola fide”—the idea of justification by faith alone. The confusion of Luther’s idea that we are saved by “faith alone” is that it’s only part of the story. As with many of the reformer’s teachings, the concept sounds as if it’s a one time thing that just happens and then blam, we are justified forever. Nothing more needed. (See my post yesterday: The Early Church believed in Once Saved, Always… oh, Wait, No They Didn’t!) In reality, I truly think there are many protestants who really believe that their actions must follow their faith, which is also what the Catholic Church teaches, even if they say “faith alone.” Sadly, I also believe that there are many Christians, protestant and Catholic, who believe it is enough to just be called “Christian.” To just go to church on Sunday and for the rest of the week to not BE Christian. Saint Ignatius of Antioch said it this way:
“It is fitting, then, not only to merely be called Christians, but to be so in our actions and deeds. For it is not the being called so, but the being really so, that renders a man justified.” (Letter to the Magnesians, 4:1 [A.D. 110])
In other words, our actions must be in response to our free gift of faith. That it is not enough to just profess to have faith in Jesus and not live out that faith by doing works of love. This is the teaching of the Bible, the Early Church and the Catholic Church today.
The Catholic Church teaching on Faith and Works
Many, many protestants mistakenly just repeat what they have heard the Catholic Church teaches from anti-Catholic source (websites, friends, their pastors) without reading what the Catholic Church actually teaches from the Church herself. Many people “believe” that the Catholic Church teaches a doctrine that says we have to “work our way to heaven.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The Catholic Church has always taught that…
“Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section 1, Chapter 3, Line 1996)
I really want you to read the ENTIRE section on Justification in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It’s not that long, and as with everything else in the Catechism if gives many cross references to Scripture, Early Church Fathers and Church Councils. Click here to READ it for YOURSELF.
The Catholic Church Teaches that Faith is FREE Gift from God!
Our faith is always a free and unmerited gift from God. We can do nothing to save ourselves. The Church doesn’t teach that, and it never has. However, as Christians we have a responsibility once we receive that free gift. We respond. We respond out of love for God, we respond by showing that love to others and we respond by “works of love”. The “Be” attitudes; the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.
- Feed the hungry
- Give drink to the thirsty
- Clothe the naked
- Harbour the harbourless
- Visit the sick
- Ransom the captive
- Bury the dead
- Instruct the ignorant
- Counsel the doubtful
- Admonish sinners
- Bear wrongs patiently
- Forgive offenses willingly
- Comfort the afflicted
- Pray for the living and the dead
Our “works of love” must always be a response to our love for God. Works never ever come first, but always in response. (See my post: How Much Do You Really Love God?)
This Has ALWAYS Been the Teaching of the Catholic Church
The Church teaches that it’s God’s grace from beginning to end which justifies, sanctifies, and saves us. As Paul explains in Philippians 2:13, “God is the one, who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work.”
Notice that Paul’s words presuppose that the faithful Christian is not just desiring to be righteous, but is actively working toward it.
James 2:17 reminds us that “faith of itself, if it does not have work, is dead.” In verse 24 James says, “See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” And later: “For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (2:26).
What about the Council of Trent?
This is another case of people just repeating what they have heard without actually reading what the Church actually said. The Council of Trent never said that man can work his way to heaven. Let me repeat, The Council of Trent NEVER said that man can work his way to heaven.
The Council of Trent actually taught the complete opposite:
“If anyone says that man can be justified before God by his own works, whether done by his own natural powers or by the teaching of the Law, without divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema” (Session 6; can. 1).
The Council fathers, in response to the heretical teachings of Luther and the other reformers, continued by saying,
“If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema” (Session 6: can. 9).
This is the quote that is most often thrown out and misquoted. But if you actually read it, you can see it’s saying that just professing to believe by only having faith, without responding to that faith in deeds and works of love is to be in error. We must respond!
By the way, many will also say that the Church is damning people to hell by saying “let him be anathema.” Actually,”let him be anathema” means “let him be excommunicated,” not “let him be cursed to hell.” The phrase was used in conciliar documents in a technical, theological sense, not in the same sense as the word “anathema” is found in Scripture.
So, far from teaching a doctrine of “works righteousness” (that would be Pelagianism, which was condemned at the Council of Carthage in A.D. 418), the Catholic Church teaches the true, biblical doctrine of justification.
This is Confirmed by the Early Church
From the very beginning the Church taught that we are justified by faith which is manifested through works or a faith that responds in love for God. As James tells us: “faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). While the meaning of the text is plain some still deny it. They contend that salvation cannot be achieved by human works, and they are correct, I completely agree with them. But the works spoken of by James are accomplished by the grace of God and not on the strength of the individual person.
Sometimes Protestants may point out times where early Christians, like St. Augustine or St. John Chrysostom, for example, may speak about faith without works, of the fact that a person can’t earn salvation, or that works are condemned in Scripture. However, what they don’t usually realize, either because they haven’t actually read them, or don’t read them in context, is that the Early Church Fathers are referring to those Gnostics, Pagans or Jews who believed they could save themselves by their works (which the Catholic Church condemns too). They are also condemning the Jewish works of the law, the outdated rituals which have no power to save. Many of their writings are addressed to people like the Pelagians, who the Catholic Church condemns too. They only condemned works alone, or works done apart from the grace of Christ, never works in conjunction with faith or done by God’s grace.
Let us read what the Early Church had to say about this:
Saint Clement of Rome
Let us therefore join with those to whom grace is given by God. Let us clothe ourselves in concord, being humble and self- controlled, keeping ourselves far from all backbiting and slander, being justified by works and not by words. . . . Why was our Father Abraham blessed? Was it not because of his deeds of justice and truth, wrought in faith? . . . So we, having been called through his will in Christ Jesus, were not justified through ourselves or through our own wisdom or understanding or piety or works which we wrought in holiness of heart, but through faith, whereby the almighty God justified all men. (Letter to the Corinthians 30:3, 31:2, 32:3-4 [A.D. 95]).
Theophilus of Antioch
Give studious attention to the prophetic writings, and they will lead you on a clearer path to escape the eternal punishments and to obtain the eternal good things of God. He who gave the mouth for speech and formed the ears for hearing and made eyes for seeing will examine everything and will judge justly, granting recompense to each according to merit. To those who seek immortality by the patient exercise of good works, he will give everlasting life, joy, peace, rest, and all good things, which neither has eye seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man. For the unbelievers and for the contemptuous, and for those who do not submit to the truth but assent to iniquity, when they have been involved in adulteries and fornications and homosexuality and avarice and in lawless idolatries, there will be wrath and indignation, tribulation and anguish, and in the end such men as these will be detained in everlasting fire (To Autolycas 1:14 [ca. A.D. 181]).
For God at the first, indeed, warning them by means of natural precepts, which from the beginning He had implanted in mankind, that is, by means of the Decalogue (which, if any one does not observe, he has no salvation), did then demand nothing more of them. … while at the same time He issued His own exhortations, in order that those who do not obey Him should be righteously judged (condemned) because they have not obeyed Him; and that those who have obeyed and believed on Him should be honoured with immortality (Against Heresies, IV, 15 [A.D. 189])
Clement of Alexandria
When we hear, ‘Your faith has saved you,’ we do not understand the Lord to say simply that they will be saved who have believed in whatever manner, even if works have not followed. To begin with, it was to the Jews alone that he spoke this phrase, who had lived in accord with the law and blamelessly and who had lacked only faith in the Lord (Stromateis or Miscellanies 6:14:108:4 [post A.D. 202]).
Whoever dies in his sins, even if he profess to believe in Christ, does not truly believe in him; and even if that which exists without works be called faith, such faith is dead in itself, as we read in the epistle bearing the name of James (Commentaries on John 19:6 [A.D. 226-232]).
You, then, who are rich and wealthy, buy for yourself from Christ gold purified in fire, for with your filth, as if burned away in the fire; you can be like pure gold, if you are cleansed by almsgiving and by works of justice. Buy yourself a white garment so that, although you had been naked like Adam and were formerly frightful and deformed, you may be clothed in the white garment of Christ. You who are a matron rich and wealthy, anoint not your eyes with the antimony of the devil, but with the salve of Christ, so that you may at last come to see God, when you have merited before God both by your works and by your manner of living (Works and Almsgiving 14 [A.D. 252]).
Great is the gift which he that is good has given to us. While not forcing us, and in spite of our sins he wants us to be justified. While he is in no way aided by our good works, he heals us that we may be pleasing in his sight. When we do not wish to ask of him, he is angry with us. He calls out to all of us constantly; “Ask and receive, and when you seek, you shall find” (Treatises 23:48 [A.D. 336-345]).
Saint Gregory of Nyssa
Paul, joining righteousness to faith and weaving them together, constructs of them the breastplates for the infantryman, armoring the soldier properly and safely on both sides. A soldier cannot be considered safely armored when either shield is disjoined from the other. Faith without works of justice is not sufficient for salvation; neither is righteous living secure in itself of salvation, if it is disjoined from faith (Homilies on Ecclesiastes 8 [ca. A.D. 335- 394]).
Saint John Chrysostom
He that believes in the Son has everlasting life.” Is it enough, then, to believe in the Son,’ someone will say, ‘in order to have everlasting life?’ By no means! Listen to Christ declare this himself when he says, ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord! Lord!” shall enter into the kingdom of heaven’; and the blasphemy against the Spirit is alone sufficient to cast him into hell. But why should I speak of a part of our teaching? For if a man believe rightly in the Father and in the Son and in the Holy Spirit, but does not live rightly, his faith will avail him nothing toward salvation (Homilies on the Gospel of John 31:1[circa A.D. 391]).
But since in the Law no one is justified before God, it is evident that the just man lives by faith.’ It should be noted that he does not say that a man, a person, lives by faith, lest it be thought that he is condemning good works. Rather, he says the ‘just’ man lives by faith. He implies thereby that whoever would be faithful and would conduct his life according to the faith can in no other way arrive at the faith or live in it except first he be a just man of pure life, coming up to the faith by certain degrees (Commentaries on Galatians 2:3:11 [A.D. 386]).
“He was handed over for our offenses, and he rose again for our justification.” What does this mean, “for our justification?” So that he might justify us, so that he might make us just. You will be a work of God, not only because you are a man, but also because you are just. For it is better that you be just than that you are a man. If God made you a man, and you made your-self just, something you were doing would be better than what God did. But God made you without any cooperation on your part. You did not lend your consent so that God could make you. How could you have consented, when you did not exist? But he who made you without your consent does not justify you without your consent. He made you without your knowledge, but he does not justify you without your willing it (Sermons 169:13 [inter A.D. 391-430]).
But we know that God does not hear sinners: but if any man is a worshiper of God and does his will, that man God will hear. He still speaks as one only anointed. For God does listen to sinners too. If God did not listen to sinners, it would have been all in vain for the publican to cast down his eyes to the ground and strike his breast saying: “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And that confession merited justification, just as the blind man merited enlightenment (Homilies on the Gospel of John 44:13 [A.D. 416]).
A Protestant Response to Me
After I share what the Catholic Church teaches on this doctrine, I will sometimes get “Oh, well that’s what you believe, but that may not be what all Catholics believe.” I think there is this protestant mindset that says well maybe this guy’s just a protestantised Catholic and he’s not really following the teaching of “the Church” because he doesn’t believe in a “works righteousness.” I can assure you, What I have written here IS THE TEACHING OF THE CHURCH!!! The Catholic Church does not teach that man has to work his way to heaven. Never has, never will. If you think you have proof to the contrary, please show me.
As I said above, you can read the official teaching of the Church here in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
You may want to also read this Article by Catholic Theologian James Akin: JUSTIFICATION: “BY FAITH ALONE”?
Scriptural References that teach Faith Justifies Initially, but Works Perfect and Complete Justification
James 2:24 – the phrase “faith alone” (the Greek “pisteos monon”) only occurs once in the Bible. “Man is justified by works and NOT faith alone.” Unlike what many Protestant churches teach, nowhere in Scripture does it say that man is justified or saved by “faith alone.” To the contrary, man is not justified by faith alone. In Catholic theology, a person is justified by faith and works acting together, which comes solely from God’s divine grace. Faith alone never obtains the grace of justification (Council of Trent, chapter 8, canon 9). Also, the word “justified” (dikaiow) is the same word Paul uses for justification in Rom. 4:3 in regard to Abraham (so Protestants cannot argue James is not referring to “justification” in James 2:24 unless they argue Paul wasn’t in Rom. 4:3 either).
Heb. 11:6 – faith is indeed the minimum requirement without which we cannot please God. But this is just the beginning of the process leading toward justification. Faith alone does not justify a person. Justification is only achieved by faith and works, as we see below. Also, this gratuitous gift of faith from God also includes the grace of hope and love the moment the person is justified.
Eph. 2:8-9 – Paul teaches us that faith is the root of justification, and that faith excludes “works of law.” But Paul does not teach that faith excludes other kinds of works, as we will see below. The verse also does not say we are justified by “faith alone.” It only indicates that faith comes first. This, of course, must be true, because those who do works outside of faith are in a system of debt, not of grace (more on that later). But faith alone does not justify. A man is justified by works, and not by faith alone. James 2:24.
Luke 24:47; Acts 2:38, 3:19, 17:30 – the faith we have must be a repentant faith, not just an intellectual faith that believes in God. Repentance is not just a thought process (faith), but an act (work) by which we ask God for His mercy and forgiveness.
Psalm 51:17 – this means we need a “broken and contrite heart,” not just an intellectual assent of faith. Faith in God is only the beginning.
John 3:36; Rom. 1:5, 6:17; 15:18; 16:26; 2 Cor. 9:13; 1 Thess. 1:3; 2 Thess. 1:11; 1 Peter 2:7-8; Heb. 5:9; cf. Rev. 3:10; Ex. 19:5 – this faith must also be an “obedient faith” and a “work of faith.” Obedience means persevering in good works to the end.
2 Cor. 10:15 – this faith must also increase as a result of our obedience, as Paul hopes for in this verse. Obedience is achieved not by faith alone, but by doing good works.
2 Cor. 13:5 – Paul also admonishes us to examine ourselves, to see whether we are holding to our faith. This examination of conscience is a pious Catholic practice. Our faith, which is a gift from God, must be nurtured. Faith is not a one-time event that God bestows upon us.
Gal. 5:6 – thus, the faith that justifies us is “faith working through love,” not faith alone. This is one of the best summaries of Catholic teaching. Faith and love (manifested by works) are always connected. Faith (a process of thought) and love (an action) are never separated in the Scriptures. Cf. Eph. 3:17; 1 Thess. 3:6,12-13; 2 Thess. 1:3; 1 John 3:23; Rev. 2:4-5,19. Further, all faith (initial and perfected) are gratuitous gifts from God, and not earned or merited by any human action. God effects everything, both the willing and the achievement. But God also requires human action, which is necessary to perfect our faith.
James 1:22-25 – it’s the “doers” who are justified, not the hearers. Justification is based on what we do, which means “works.” Notice that there is nothing about “false faith.” The hearers may have faith, but they need to accompany their faith by works, or they will not be justified. See also Rom. 2:13.
James 2:17,26 – James clearly teaches that faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. Works are a cause, not just an effect, of our justification because good works achieve and increase our justification before God. Scripture never says anything about “saving faith.” Protestants cannot show us from the Scriptures that “works” qualify the “faith” into saving faith. Instead, here and elsewhere, the Scriptures teach that justification is achieved only when “faith and works” act together. Scripture puts no qualifier on faith. Scripture also never says that faith “leads to works.” Faith is faith and works are works (James 2:18). They are distinct (mind and action), and yet must act together in order to receive God’s unmerited gift of justification.
James 2:19 – even the demons believe that Jesus is Lord. But they tremble. Faith is not enough. Works are also required.
James 2:20 – do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? Good works in God’s grace are required for justification. But there is nothing in the Scriptures about “saving faith.”
James 2:22 – faith is active with works and is completed by works. It does not stand alone. Faith needs works to effect our justification.
James 4:17 – in fact, James writes that the failure to do works is a sin! So works are absolutely necessary for our justification.
James 2:15-17 – here are the examples of the “works” to which James is referring – corporal works of mercy (giving food and shelter to those in need).
James 1:27 – another example of “works” is visiting orphans and widows in their affliction. Otherwise, if they do not perform these good works, their religion is in vain.
James 2:25 – another example of “works” is when Rahab assisted the spies in their escape. Good works increase our justification and perfect our faith.
Joshua 2:9-11 – Rahab’s fellow citizens had faith in God, but in Joshua 6:22-25, Rahab alone acted and was saved. This is faith in action.
James 2:18 – to avoid the truth of the Catholic position that we are justified by both faith and works, Protestants argue the justification that James is referring to in James 2 is “before men” and not “before God.” Scripture disproves their claim.
James 2:14 – James asks, “Can faith save him?” Salvation comes from God. This proves the justification James is referring to is before God, not men.
James 2:19 – also, James reminds us that even the demons believe and tremble. This refers to our relationship with God, not with men. Thus, our justification that requires works and not faith alone relates to our status before God, not men.
James 2:21 – James also appeals to the example of Abraham. Abraham’s justification refers to his position before God, not men. This proves justification is before God, not men.
Acts. 10:35 – Peter teaches that anyone who fears the Lord and does what is right is acceptable to Him. It is both fear and works, not fear alone.
Rom. 2:7,10 – to those who by patience and good works will be granted glory and honor and peace from the Lord.
Rom. 2:13 – for it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. Paul is referring to the “law of Christ” in Gal.6:2, not “works of the law” in Rom. 3:20,28; Gal. 2:16; 3:2,5,10; and Eph. 2:8-9. The “law of Christ” is faith in Christ and works based on grace (God owes us nothing) and “works of the law” mean no faith in Christ, and legal works based on debt (God owes us something).
Rom. 4:5-6 – to him who does not work but believes, his faith is accounted to him as righteousness, like David, who was righteous apart from works. Here, Paul is emphasizing that works must be done in faith, not outside of faith. If they are done outside of faith, we are in a system of debt (God owes us). If they are done in faith (as James requires), we are in a system of grace (God rewards us). Hence, Paul accepts the works performed under God’s forbearance (grace) in Rom. 2:7,10,13 (see also Rom. 14:10-12; 1 Cor. 3:12-17; and 2 Corinthians 5:10) which lead to justification and eternal life. These verses have nothing to do with “faith alone.” Paul uses the word “alone” three times in Rom. 4:12,16,23, but never uses it with “faith.” Certainly, if he wanted to teach “faith alone,” he would have done so.
Rom. 6:16 – obedience leads to righteousness. Obedience is a good “work,” an act of the will, which leads to righteousness before God.
2 Cor. 9:8 – Paul teaches that God will bless us so that we may provide in abundance for “every good work.” Good works are encouraged to complete our faith.
Eph. 6:8 – whatever good anyone does will receive the same again from the Lord. God rewards good works done in grace.
Phil. 4:17 – Paul says “I seek the fruit which increases to your credit.” Fruits (good works) increase our justification. Paul says these works increase our “credit,” which is also called “merit.” These merits bring forth more graces from God, furthering increasing our justification as we are so disposed. But the fruits, works, and merits are all borne from God’s unmerited and undeserved mercy won for us by Jesus Christ.
Titus 3:8 – good deeds are excellent and profitable to men (just like the Old Testament Scriptures in 2 Tim. 3:16). Good deeds further justify us before God. This verse should be contrasted with Titus 3:5, where we are not saved by works of righteousness “we have done.” As further discussed below, in this verse what “we have done” refers to a work of law or obligation for which we seek payment. But verse 5 also says the “washing of regeneration” in reference to baptism saves, which is a work of grace, for which we are rewarded by God in Christ. There is a distinction between “works of law or obligation” and “works of grace.”
1 Peter 2:7-8; John 3:36 – shows that belief in Jesus means obeying Jesus. Having faith means being faithful, which requires good works as well. Hence, obeying Jesus means doing works of love, not just having faith alone.