Protestant theology of salvation by “faith alone” is heavily dependent upon the writings of St. Paul. In many ways he seems to contradict both the words of Christ and the other apostles that I’ve reviewed in my last few posts. They indicate that “works,” especially works of sacrificial love for others are necessary for salvation. St. James even boldly declares that “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone,” and he specifically mentions works of charity toward others. (James 2:14-26)
Most Protestants would hold to the view that such good works are the “fruit” of our salvation and not the cause of it. If you are really saved, these works will come naturally. Catholics would agree that they are not the cause of our salvation – that belongs solely to God’s grace. Even our faith is only possible because of God’s grace and not the cause of our salvation. The question from a Catholic perspective is are these good works, like faith, a necessary response to God’s grace – will you be saved if you have no “fruit”? The Scriptures we have reviewed so far strongly indicate that without such fruit we will not obtain eternal life in Christ.
But then we come to St. Paul. There are countless verses in the writings of St. Paul that seem to support the Protestant view that salvation is by “faith alone” apart from any “works” we may do. Probably one of the most famous is Ephesians 2:8-9 – “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.”
From the Catholic perspective there are a couple of “keys” to understanding St. Paul that are necessary to align him with the words of Christ and the other apostles. Without these “keys,” St. Paul will seem to be in conflict not only with Christ and the other apostles, but often even with himself. Yet when we apply these key principles to understanding St. Paul, we will find complete harmony within Sacred Scripture.
One of the keys is to understand that St. Paul is facing the first major heresy to threaten the Church. The cause of this conflict is the belief held by some that in order to become Christian, his Gentile converts had to first be circumcised and follow the Mosaic law. After all, Christ, the apostles and the original Christians were all Jews, had followed the Mosaic law all of their lives, and still followed it. For them, the Christian faith did not replace the faith of their forefathers. So at least some apostles, especially St. James was an advocate that the path to Christianity for Gentile converts was through Judaism. This was not what St. Paul was teaching the Gentiles, and that conflict threatened the early Church with its first test of unity. It was ultimately resolved in Acts 15 when Church leadership met in council to resolve the issue and determined that Gentile converts to Christ were not required to follow the Mosaic law.
You will see St. Paul address this controversy in almost every letter he writes in some fashion. He is adamant to those Gentile converts in his charge that they understand that circumcision and following the Mosaic law is not required of them. But does he say that nothing is required of them besides faith alone? That would not be a consistent reading of St. Paul. So here’s the second “key” to interpreting St. Paul’s writing without causing internal conflict. When St. Paul uses the terms “works” or “works of the law” he is consistently speaking of the Mosaic law. But he also uses the terms “doing good” and “good works,” and these terms are in reference to the kind of works identified by Christ and the other apostles as being necessary. And he agrees with them.
So for example, in Romans 3:28-30 he writes “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith.” This passage is the one that Martin Luther added the word “alone” to his translation to read “a man is justified by faith alone,” even though “alone” was not in the original text. In this passage though, is St. Paul advocating that justification requires no works in contradiction to St. James (James 2:14-26)? Catholics would say no, for what St. Paul intends by “works of the law” is clearly speaking about the Mosaic law followed by the Jews that is not necessary for Christians. We would contend that throughout his writings when he speaks to “works” or “works of the law” he is speaking about the Mosaic law. This is why his writings so often will speak about circumcision or contrast Jewish and Gentile believers. Another example can be found in Galatians 2:15-16 when he says “We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified.” Again a clear contrast between Gentile and Jewish believers, and how even the Jewish believers who have come to Christ know that their justification did not come from keeping the Mosaic law, but rather by faith in Christ.
So let’s go back to the famous verse from Ephesians – “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.” (Ephesians 2:8-9). This passage is perhaps less clear that when St. Paul refers to “works” he is referring to the Mosaic law. But look at what happens when we add the next verse, verse 10:
“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. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
The question here – when St. Paul refers to “works” and “good works” – are they the same thing? If so, why qualify one with the adjective “good”? And does the reading really make sense if they are the same thing? Why would St. Paul say we are saved not because of works, but then turn right around and say “for we are created for works”?
In the Catholic view this passage only makes sense if we understand that St. Paul is contrasting two things here – “works” versus “good works.” It is the only reason to qualify the second with the adjective “good,” and it’s the only thing that makes sense when St. Paul says we’re not saved by “works” for we were created for “good works.” It’s a contrast between the two – the old law and the new law. And what is the new law? According to St. Paul, it is love of God and neighbor, just as Christ said. “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14). “Love” is the fulfillment of the “law.” (Romans 13:8-10). For Christ came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17).
This can bring us to another question that can often be posed of Catholics, and that is “how many works” does it take to be saved? To ask this question highlights the fundamental difference between the way Catholics and many Protestants view salvation. For the Catholic, salvation is not a “transaction” that occurs but rather a transformation that takes place. For the Catholic, it’s never a question of “how many.” It is rather a question of how much God’s grace has changed us, and how much change is still needed until we too are “righteous men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23). To reach this state of perfection, it is indeed necessary for us to do the good works that “God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” God’s preparation of these works does indeed account for those times we will fail, but is ultimately based on his foreknowledge that we will complete the race set before us (2 Timothy 4:7).
So in the Catholic view of things, when St. Paul writes of “works” and “works of the law” he is speaking about the Mosaic law, and “doing good” and “good works” are speaking of those kinds of works that are part of a “saving faith” as identified in the Gospels and by St. James. And we can see evidence of St. Paul’s alignment with that view in his writings. My next post will work our way through those Scriptures that clearly show that St. Paul was not an advocate of salvation by faith alone, but rather views these “good works” as an integral part of a saving faith.