Faith in Action

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

What is the relationship between faith and works? This question has divided Christians since the time of the Protestant Reformation. One of the foundational principles of the Reformation was sola fide or “faith alone.” Martin Luther believed that only faith in Christ could bring salvation, apart from any works of man. The Catholic Church has always taught that both faith and works have a part to play in our salvation. So where does the truth lie?

Justified by Faith

Martin Luther based his teaching that we are justified by faith alone on the writings of St. Paul. For example, in Romans 3:27-28, Paul writes, “What occasion is there then for boasting? It is ruled out. On what principle, that of works? No, rather on the principle of faith. For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”

In other words, no human work can merit our salvation. And that is correct. The Catholic Church teaches that it is impossible for man to achieve salvation on his own. Considering the infinite divide between God and creation, this should come as no surprise. It would take an infinite power to bridge that infinite gap. We simply cannot get to heaven on our own steam. But God can reach down to us and raise us to heaven with him, which is why God’s grace is absolutely necessary for eternal life.

This is important to note because Catholics are sometimes accused of preaching a “works-based salvation” because we disagree with Luther’s doctrine of sola fide. The Church does not teach that we can earn our way to heaven with good works. But we do teach that good works play a role.

Justified by Works

One reason why the Church rejected Luther’s teaching that we are justified by faith alone is that it is directly contradicted in James 2:24: “See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

St. James writes of how works are necessary to bring faith to fruition.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead (Jas 2:14-17).

St. James has a very practical way of looking at Christian life. It’s not enough to desire your neighbor be well fed or well clothed. Love requires us to put that desire into action. The good intention must be actualized by providing the food and clothing that they need.

Feeding the hungry and clothing the naked belong to what the Church calls the corporal works of mercy. These are charitable acts that directly tend to the bodily (hence “corporal”) needs of others. The Church also teaches us to practice spiritual works of mercy that tend to the spiritual needs of others (forgiving injuries and comforting the sorrowful, for example). The Church has always upheld these works of mercy as more than recommended practices — they are necessary for salvation.

Consider how Jesus describes the final judgement in Matthew 25:31-46. All peoples are gathered before him at the end of time and separated into sheep and goats. The sheep go to his right and are told, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt 25:35). Whereas the goats go to his left and are told, “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25:41).

What’s the difference between the sheep and the goats? The sheep performed works of mercy, whereas the goats did not.

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him and say, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?” And the king will say to them in reply, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:36-40).

It’s not that the goats didn’t have faith in Christ. But it was an empty faith. Their faith did not move them to show mercy to their neighbors. It was sterile and lifeless, and ultimately of no use to them.

Works of the Law

So is Paul wrong when he writes that we shouldn’t boast of our works and that we are justified by faith and not by works of the law? Not at all.

The fact that there is harmony between Paul and James is illustrated by the fact that they both invoke the same example to illustrate their point — the faith of Abraham. Both Paul and James, immediately after the passages quoted above, quote in support of their statement Gen 15:6, that Abraham “put his faith in the Lord, who credited it to him as righteousness.” Abraham demonstrated his faith in God not just by believing in his heart, but by putting that faith into action in his life.

When Paul and James refer to “works” they are talking about two different things. Notice that Paul uses a curious phrase, “works of the law.” This refers not to good works, generally, but specifically to the Law of Moses. St. Paul teaches that obedience to the Law of Moses is not sufficient to save us. If that were the case, then we wouldn’t need Jesus to suffer and die for us. All we’d have to do is follow the Mosaic Law. (And Abraham, who lived before Moses, could not have been judged righteous).

Paul’s message is simple. The old law cannot save. Faith in Christ is what’s necessary. St. James would agree — and he reminds us that faith in Christ must be put into action. Paul teaches the necessity of faith. James cautions that faith alone is not sufficient.

Hope for Unity

In my own conversations with Protestant friends over the years, I’ve discovered that what separates Protestants and Catholics in this issue is more a matter of semantics than belief. To summarize how one Protestant friend put it to me, “We believe that true faith will always manifest itself through good works. So if you don’t have good works, you don’t really have faith. So when we say we are saved by faith alone, what we mean by faith includes good works.”

In 1995, the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation issued a joint statement on the issue of justification that said, “We confess together that all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation.” (Read the whole statement here).

Love = Faith in Action

In a General Audience on November 19, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI got to the heart of the matter. “Luther’s phrase ‘faith alone’ is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love. Faith is looking at Christ, entrusting oneself to Christ, being united to Christ, conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence to believe is to conform to Christ and to enter into his love.

Love, properly understood, is not a passive emotion or a good feeling towards another. Love is an act of the will. It is something which must be put into action. Faith in Christ means being united to Christ, and since Christ is Love, faith must be expressed in loving acts. Love not put into action is not love at all, and that’s why faith without works — as St. James put it — is dead.