I was wary of tackling this topic because of the complexity regarding beliefs about salvation, justification, sanctification--what does it all mean? It wasn't until I started studying Catholicism that I even became aware that this is another big argument between Protestants and Catholics, but I think I have read enough now to comment, and it flows naturally from my previous article on "Sola Scriptura". The other predominant battle cry of the Protestant Reformation was "Sola Fide", the belief that we are saved by faith alone. For this article I will refer to Richard A. White's comments from Catholic for a Reason.
White discusses the Evangelical Christian view that we are saved, once and for all in a specific moment, by faith alone. I think this idea is where the term "born again Christian" comes from. Having been Christian from childhood, I always thought this was a redundant phrase. Was there a difference between born again Christians and plain old Christians? Aren't all Christians born again? In fact, isn't being born again what being a Christian means? In my Catholic studies I found out that some Protestants are under the impression that Catholics think justification comes by works rather than by faith, so Catholics aren't saved. What is the truth about that, and what does the Bible say?
Romans 3:28 is the verse cited to argue that justification is by faith alone. What I didn't know is that Martin Luther added the word alone to his translation. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt that he really thought that's what Paul was getting at and see if he was right.
The conflict Paul actually brings up is not between faith and good works, but between faith and "works of the law." He was combating a group of Jewish Christians called Judaizers who claimed that they were righteous because they obeyed certain religious obligations, especially circumcision, and that these rituals (what Paul called "works of the law") were necessary for salvation. Paul argued that we are justified by faith apart from these ceremonial observances and that the "righteousness of faith" applied to Gentiles, too. Physical descendants of Abraham who are circumcised have no special claim to the covenant promises. It is the one who is obedient to God, Jew or Gentile, who is justified. Paul never refers to justification by faith alone.
Romans 2 says, "For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life...There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil,...but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good...For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified." White concludes, "In short, according to Paul, works are the basis for God's judgment! This is a far cry from justification by faith alone." Understanding the historical context of Paul's letter and his opposition to the Judaizers is necessary to get what he is saying about faith vs. works of the law. It is dangerous to simply pull a Bible verse out of context to back up one's point, which is what Martin Luther did, and he even revised it. I don't think any Christian today would suggest that a man would be unable to get into heaven because he was not circumcised!
But in case the distinction from Paul between "good works" and "works of the law" is unclear, James states unequivocally, "faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead" (Jas. 2:17). In other words, the Christian who does not perform good works is lacking in faith. In James 2:20-26 he goes on to remind his readers that Abraham was justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the alter. He states, "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone." Not by faith alone! Could the Bible be more clear on this topic? The two pillars of the Protestant Reformation, sola scriptura, which I have previously covered, and sola fide, do not hold up!
What the Protestant Reformation view leaves out of the equation is that our faith is only possible through God's grace. Ultimately, we are saved by grace. White sums up the Catholic Church's teaching that justification is through grace alone by a living faith working in love, and this is fully supported by Paul and James. God is a merciful Father who, in declaring that our sins are forgiven, actually makes us his sons and daughters. Justification is based on what God has done in generating us anew through grace. We can't earn God's justifying grace through works, but we are expected to grow in maturity in our justification of becoming His children.
According to Catholic teaching, what we do is related to our salvation only because of who we become through divine adoption. We participate in our salvation not only in a single, "born again" moment of conversion, although this may occur, but over the course of our Christian lives, in an ongoing renewal of faith, guided in our works by the indwelling Holy Spirit. What we do with our faith does matter to God and to our salvation, and on this the Bible is clear.
It is telling to note that because he could find no way around the coupling of faith with good works, Martin Luther called the Book of James an "epistle of straw" and was prepared to remove it from the New Testament! It might surprise some fellow Christians to know, as it did me, that 7 books were actually removed by the reformers from the Old Testament. This will lead in to my next consideration, the truth about the Aprocrypha, at another time, on another day...