I would like to examine Faith and works. I must start off by saying that contrary to what most people think the Catholic Church teaches, the Church doesn’t teach that we are saved through just works alone. That is a common misconception. It, that we can be saved by our works alone, has actually been condemned by the church numerous times and counted as heresy. One example of this is the heresy called Pelagianism. It came about around the 4thcentury and denied that we needed grace for salvation. The Church teaches that we are saved by both Faith and works. I will explain the reasons for the Church teaches, which show the both are completed by each other .
We see clearly that we cannot be saved by works alone. “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” (Eph. 2:8-9). Other verses that show this are Rom. 3:24 and Gal. 2:16. These verses are important because they show that just because you follow the law, doesn’t necessarily mean you will be saved. A perfect example of this are the scribes and Pharisees (see Mt 23 and Lk 11:37-54). Our Lord warns us about this through his chastisement of the works of the Pharisees. They did their works out of obligation not out of love. We know that “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:16), thus if you do works without love, you do them without God, and thus they have no value! It is only when our works are united to Christ (who is God) that they have value. This is because we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus (Acts 15:11). We see that Faith is a gift/grace (the word grace comes from the Latin for gift-gratis) from God and is necessary for salvation. It is supported by many text in Scripture, thus we know it is true. So we know works alone can’t get us to heaven.
What about Faith? We know it is necessary, but is it all that is necessary? If we look at the verse from Ephesians that I quoted earlier, we read, “we have been saved through Faith…and not because of works” (Eph. 2:8-9). So it would seem that Faith alone is all we need. In actuality however, this also is wrong. If we look at the very next verse, we read:
For we are handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them (Eph. 2:10).
So if you read Eph 2:8-10 in context, you see it says we need Faith, but our Faith is for the good works that we should “live in.” Numerous other texts show that Faith alone isn’t enough to save us:
If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we endure, we shall also reign with him; If we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.” 2 Tim. 2:11-13
This text shows us that we must show our Faith through good works and not evil works like denying our good works. Again, St Paul tells us, “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). If faith alone were enough, after our Baptism (we are infused with Faith at Baptism and become part of the body of Christ), we could not sin. We know that there is clearly sin after Baptism as stated in Rom 3:23 “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God.” So Faith can’t be all we need to be saved. St Paul tells us this, we “must work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). St Paul was just encouraging the Philippians in Faith (1:27-30), so if Faith was all that was necessary, why would he tell them to work out their salvation with fear and trembling? St John also tells us that Faith in Christ is not enough, “If anyone says ‘I love God’ but hates his brother, he is a liar, for whoever does not love a brother [a work] whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1Jn. 4:20).
There is actually nowhere in scripture that says “Faith alone” is all we need for salvation (Martin Luther added “alone” at the end of Rom. 3:28, a historical fact, but Paul did not write it in his letter to the Romans originally). The only place in scripture that has the phrase, “Faith alone” is in James 2:24 which says, “See how a person is justified by works and not by Faith alone.”
Now, wait a second, doesn’t it seem like James is contradicting Paul? James seems to say we are justified by works. Paul seems to say we are justified by Faith (Eph. 2:8). If so, that would mean that scripture is contradicting itself. We know this is impossible because there is “one Lord, one Faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all” (Eph. 4:5). Thus, it seems that only one is right, either Paul or James; we are either justified by Faith or we are justified by works (If you really think this is getting confusing, Paul also says in Rom. 8:24, “For in hope we are saved.” So it seems like Faith alone, hope alone, and works alone are what’s needed for salvation). To clear up all this confusion, it is necessary to go to the source of truth, the source of salvation himself. Let’s look at the words of our Lord:
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord‘ will enter the kingdom
of heaven, but only the one who does the will on my Father in
heaven (Mt. 7:21).
Our Lord tells us that it is necessary to believe in Him, “No one comes to the Father but through me” (Jn. 14:16). We do need to believe and say, “Jesus is Lord.” He also tells us however that we must do the will of the Father. Doing is an action, a work. Scripture continually supports this teaching of Christ. St Paul tells us, “If I have the Faith to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1Cor. 13:2). Again he tells us this in Phil. 1:29, “For to you has been granted , for the sake of Christ, not only to believe in him but also to suffer for him.” Suffering is a work, but it must be a work united to Christ. St James brings this point home beautifully:
Indeed someone might say, “You have faith and I have works.’ Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works. You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble. You see that faith was active along with works, and faith was completed by works. See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone…For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26).
James reaffirms Christ teaching that we must have a faith animated by love, animated by works. “This is my commandment, love one another” (Jn. 14:34).
In summary, yes, our salvation is through Christ. Christ died on the cross for us so that all of us may live and be saved. He gained all the necessary graces for us to get to heaven and there is nothing we can do to add to those graces. However, the application of those graces are up to us. This is where works come in. It’s like Christ gave us a blank check to buy back our salvation. He signed it with His own blood, but it is up to each and every one of us however to cash it. A check is worthless unless someone takes action to deposit it. So too, our Faith without action, without works, is as St James reminds us, “is dead” (James 2:26).
Simply put, Paul, James, and John are all right because they all express the different perspectives of Christ (the Truth)’s teaching. Faith is necessary as Paul says in Eph 2:8; hope is too, as he says in Rom. 8:24. Works, or love are necessary too because it is what animates Faith and hope as James 2:14-26 tells us. Together, not alone, they reflect Christ, the way to salvation.