So far we’ve knocked out six of the the “Big Ten” objections that non-Catholics have against Catholicism:
1. Papal Universal Jurisdiction & Infallibility
2. Prohibition on Contraception
3. Indulgences and the Treasury of Merit
4. Purgatory and Prayers for the Dead
5. The Immaculate Conception of Mary
6. The Bodily Assumption of Mary
7. Justification not by Faith Alone
8. Prayer to Saints
10. Veneration of Images and Relics
Are we justified by faith or by works? They say there is no such thing as a bad question. But the “faith or works” question proves that bad questions do exist. This question is fundamentally misleading. It pulls the hearer into a false dichotomy that Scripture never allows. All heresies begin by forcing false dichotomies on Scripture. Is the human person a physical body or a spiritual soul? Is Christ only God or only man? Ultimately, justification by faith alone (here on referred to as solafideism) is an attempt to reduce the complex nuances of Scripture.
St Paul speaks frequently of “justification by faith,” but never does he refer to “justification by faith alone.” Neither does Christ. In fact, not one book of the Bible speaks of it. If it is so fundamental to orthodox soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), why doesn’t anyone in the first century mention it?
But in fact, Scripture does contain the phrase “faith alone,” but only in one place:
James 2:24 “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
James explicitly states that man is NOT justified by faith alone. As a Protestant I solved this problem by stating that St James was not referring to the initial justification of an individual but rather as the later public justification of a believer. Abraham was justified in Genesis 15 and then again in Genesis 22. St James, I thought, was referring to the public manifestation of Abraham’s justification in Genesis 22. The only problem is that St James quotes Genesis 15 in the context of what happens in Genesis 22. The events reveal a unified reality, and it is the unified reality of faith and works that St James is setting forth. St James is referring not only to Genesis 22, but Genesis 15 and Genesis 22 together. Belief and works are united in his justification before God, so much so that St James says that works “completed” Abraham’s faith. “Completed” implies that something was incomplete.
St James is actually indicating that faith and works always go together. It is impossible to speak of “faith alone.”
James 2:26 “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.”
Faith is compared to the body. The spirit is compared to works. Works are therefore the animating force of faith.
But what about St Paul? Does he contradict St James? Of course not. The Holy Spirit cannot contradict Himself in Sacred Scripture. A rule of hermeneutics is that clearer passages should interpret less clear passages. There is only one passage in Scripture that directly examines justification, faith, and works – and that passage is chapter 2 of St James.
St Paul speaks of the power and importance of faith, though he never speaks of “faith alone.” Luther added the word “alone” to his German “translation” of Galatians, but it’s not there in the Greek. St Paul’s railing against “works” is almost always against “works of the Law.” If you read Galatians or Romans you will be struck that he is almost always speaking in the context of “works of the Law.” This “works of the Law” are not good Christian deeds like loving your wife, helping old ladies cross the street, or attending church. “Works of the Law” are exactly what St Paul refers to: circumcision, new moons, kosher laws, etc. Galatians might as well be titled “A Treatise on Circumcision,” because the whole book deals with the subject of circumcision. St Paul’s target is the Judaizing party of the first century Church, not folks trying to live virtuous lives for Christ. This is why St Paul speaks of “faith working through love.” (Gal 5:6)
Surprisingly, solafideism is perhaps one of the easiest Protestant doctrines to debunk. It has virtually no Scriptural support and it is explicitly denied in Scripture. I think it is held because it is a comfortable doctrine. It is the root of liberalism because it teaches that good intentions are all that really count. To believe that we are justified by faith and works leads us to fear and trembling and that is just the state in which we are called to work out our salvation.
Philippians 2:12 “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”
And yet we have the comfort to know that the origin of our faith is the same as the origin of our works – the grace of God. Neither originates in us. We have faith because the Holy Spirit grants it. We have works because the Holy Spirit grants it.