I’ll begin my “deep dive” into the topic of faith and works in Sacred Scripture with the passage that Catholics are most likely to provide when presented with the Protestant theology that salvation is by “faith alone.” For you see, there is only one time in the Bible where the term “faith alone” is used, and that is James 2:24 – “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” This is one of the reasons Catholics can be quite puzzled when someone attempts to profess that the Bible teaches that salvation is by faith alone, and not by works.
To be fair, nobody should base their entire theology on a single Bible verse, no matter how clear it may seem to be. Sacred Scripture does have to be read as a unified whole, and sometimes within context a verse may not be as clear as it seems.
Martin Luther was not a fan of the book of James and it’s easy to see why. Bending it to fit his theology of salvation by “faith alone” was a pretty impossible task. For this reason, he considered it to be one of the “disputed” books of Scripture and placed it at the end of his canon. He was quoted as saying “St. John’s Gospel and his first Epistle, St. Paul’s Epistles, especially those to the Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and St. Peter’s Epistle—these are the books which show to thee Christ, and teach everything that is necessary and blessed for thee to know, even if you were never to see or hear any other book of doctrine. Therefore, St. James’ Epistle is a perfect straw-epistle compared with them, for it has in it nothing of an evangelic kind.” He also questioned whether the author of this book was really the apostle James. It seems his desire was that others would follow his lead and relegate the book to a position of irrelevance.
I can’t imagine from a Catholic perspective ever considering any inspired writing of Sacred Scripture to be “straw,” even in comparison to the others. Or to believe that any book contained within the Bible was not necessary for some reason. I am reminded of 2 Timothy 3:16 that tells us that “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Luther’s need to dismiss the book of James in order to fit his theology seems to be most problematic.
The full passage from St. James is a very Catholic position. James 2:14-26 – “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But some one will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you foolish fellow, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’; and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.
The most notable response that Martin Luther produced regarding this passage is that “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.” I for one have never been able to make sense of that, but perhaps others have.
Ron Rhodes, in his book “Reasoning from the Scriptures with Catholics” (an anti-Catholic work) offers an explanation of this passage. He claims that James was not speaking about justification before God, but rather before men. In his view, because in verse 18 St. James says “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith,” James is stressing that we should “show” our faith, and concludes he is speaking about justification before men, not God. When he speaks of Abraham’s “works,” he says James is speaking of what Abraham did that could be seen before men.
From the Catholic perspective, this explanation is more than a stretch. For one thing, the “work” referenced by St. James that Abraham did was to offer Isaac, and that work was performed alone (Genesis 22). There was no “showing” men at all in order to be justified before them. Aside from that, Sacred Scripture never speaks of justification as being anything other than our justification as related to our salvation, which has nothing to do with justification before men. And within the context of this passage, St. James is most certainly speaking of salvation. He specifically asks about someone who has faith but no works, “can his faith save him?” His implication is most certainly no, which leads to his statement that a person is justified by works and not by “faith alone.”
Francis Beckwith speaks of this passage in his book “Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic.” Beckwith was president of the Evangelical Theological Society, a position he resigned when he returned to the Catholic faith of his childhood. He has this perspective on the passage from James:
“It seems to me that James is indeed a problem if one maintains a forensic view of justification. But if one brackets that view and opens oneself to the Catholic view – that justification is the result of infused rather than imputed grace – then one need not think of ‘works’ as activities by which one earns heaven as if one were appeasing a creditor in a debtor’s prison. Rather, a Christian’s good works are performed in order that the grace that God has given us may be lived out so that we may become more like Christ. As I have said, the purpose of ‘good works’ for the Catholic is not to get you into heaven, but to get heaven into you. The Catholic already believes that he or she is an adopted child of God, wholly by God’s grace. For the practicing Catholic, good works, including participating in the sacraments, works of charity, and prayer, are not for the purpose of earning heaven. For good works are not meant to pay off a debt in the Catholic scheme of things. Rather, good works prepare us for heaven by shaping our character and keeping us in communion with God so that we may be ‘holy and blameless and irreproachable before him’ (Col. 1:22).”
In other words, good works are about “striving for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord,” (Hebrews 12:14) – our sanctification. Beckwith makes a reference to the Catholic view of justification being the result of “infused” grace, which was covered in this post.
It is also important to recognize the examples of “works” that St. James gives. Not all “works” are the same within Sacred Scripture. He speaks of feeding and clothing the poor, acts of love. That distinction is important going forward.