The Catholic Church: justification by works
The catholic church traditionally took the side of justification by works. They believe that justification comes first from baptism but that it can then be lost by the committing of mortal sins. Justification can then be regained by confession, reconciliation and penance, which involves confessing sins and doing good works to make up for them.
Purgatory is a place Catholics believed existed for Christians who hadn’t done enough penance for their sins before dying. In medieval times, penance involved the sale of indulgences, which were certificates authorized by the pope granting a sinner freedom from penance. These were sold for money, which the Vatican used to pay for buildings. It was even claimed that money could be given to save souls from purgatory.
The Epistle of James appears to suggest that justification is by works, not faith alone. James points out that if someone is in need of food, just having faith won’t actually solve that problem, works are needed.
James points out that even the demons believe in God, so mere faith that God exists can’t mean much, since demons are clearly not saved. James claims that Abraham was justified by his works – his willingness to sacrifice his son due to his devotion to God. He had faith in God, but the faith was “active along with his works, and faith was completed by works … you see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone … faith without works is dead” James 2:14-26)
The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats also suggests that works are important for justification/salvation. During the second coming of Jesus he will divide all the people of the world into the good – the sheep – and the bad – the goats. To those on his right he welcomes into the kingdom of God because they were good to other people and, Jesus says, thereby good to him. Jesus then casts those on his left into ‘the eternal fire’ as they were not good to others when alive and so by extension not good to him. (Matthew 25:31-36)
Martin Luther: justification by faith
Luther, the protestant reformer, was influenced by St Paul, especially Romans 1:16-17 where Paul claimed that salvation comes to “everyone who has faith” which Paul based on the old Testament passage “He who through faith is righteous shall live”. St Paul claims that God’s grace is not something humans are good enough to earn, because we all sin. We cannot do good enough works to be deserving of God’s grace, therefore justification by faith must be more important. St Paul illustrates with Abraham, pointing out that Abraham had faith in God which made him “righteous” (Romans 4:3).
Luther proposed Sola fide, which means justification by faith alone. Luther was also influenced in this by Augustine’s teaching on original sin. As mankind is fallen and sinful, humans are incapable of saving themselves. Therefore, it is by faith alone that humans can be saved, not works. Justification is received by humans passively, meaning that it is not because of any effort that they make.
Luther’s theology was also partly a reaction to what he saw as corruption in the Catholic Church. The focus on good works became a vehicle for corruption because it enabled the Church to claim that giving the good work of giving them money could lead to salvation or at least freedom from purgatory.
Luther claimed that doing good works are the result of being a faithful Christian, but it is the faith that is relevant to salvation. So, Luther does manage to incorporate works as having great value in Christianity, but only as a symptom of faith. He used an analogy; faith and works are like fire and heat, the latter flows inevitably from the former. This is how he can explain the parable of the sheep and the goats in which Jesus suggests the works of people are what saves them. Luther can claim those works were salvific only because they were the symptom of faith, which is what was truly salvific.
Luther rejected the Epistle of James as ‘straw’ and even tried to get it removed from the Bible.
The council of Trent’s response to Luther. This council took place from 1545-1563. It claimed that both faith and works were required for justification because works were an essential part of faith. Their argument is that if you consider what the function of faith is, you should see that good works are required in combination with it for it to perform that function and thus have value, without which, as James says, faith would be ‘dead’.
The council held that the function of faith was to bring a person into “fellowship” with Jesus. However they then argued that faith could not achieve that function unless it were combined with hope and charity. This is a reference to Aquinas and St Paul, who characterised Faith, hope and charity as the three Christian virtues. Hope and especially charity/love is a kind of work. The council claimed that faith alone “neither unites man perfectly with Christ nor makes him a living member of His body.
The council invoked an argument based on an interpretation of James to justify this view.
James points out that even the Demons believe in God. This suggests that James was distinguishing between two types of faith. There is the faith that demons have, which must be what James refers to as ‘dead’ and it seems that the reason it is dead is because it involves evil works. The other kind of faith which is not dead must therefore be a faith that is combined with and bolstered by good works. There is a kind of faith which is dead and valueless because it cannot perform its function of uniting a being with Christ, as can be seen in the case of demons. Only faith combined with good works is the living kind which unites a being with Christ.
The council was very clear, in direct opposition to Luther, that good works are not “merely the fruits and signs of justification” but are part of the “cause” and “preservation” of justification.
Justification is therefore by faith and works, because a faith disconnected from the works of hope and charity is dead.
Protestants respond that Trent’s proclamation contradicts the bible teaching that good works do not merit grace because grace is a “gift” from God. The point is that a gift cannot be something earned or worked for, so grace cannot be ‘earned’ by good works’.
“God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God.” (Ephesians 2:8).
However, Catholics respond that they are not saying works ‘earn’ justification. The Catholic view is that justification works in two phases:
1, righteousness is enabled through baptism.
2, righteousness is preserved and regained (if lost) by participation in the Eucharist and by penance which includes doing good works.
This relative certainty of justification is a middle position between assurance of salvation and the despair of views like predestination. Neither faith nor works can be said to merit justification, but both count as progress towards it, which humans can make as their part in a cooperation with God wherein they can ultimately be justified.
E.P. Sanders’ critique of Luther’s interpretation of Paul
Sanders claims that if we understand Paul’s historical context, we will see that although he seemed to speak against works, actually it was the particular works that Jews regarded as distinguishing them from Gentles (e.g. circumcision) that Paul was speaking of when he wrote about the unimportance of works for salvation.
So, Paul was actually remarking on the shift in the nature of God’s covenant from the Jewish to the Christian version. Christians think the covenant expanded to all people, so there was no more need for some works to distinguish those inside it from those outside.
The protestant reformers thought that justification involved grace being imparted to a sinner by God through God’s declaration that they are righteous, because Christ died for our sins, which in this legalistic framework means that he suffered the punishment, so we are acquitted. All we need to do is accept Christ and his sacrifice by faith and we will be saved
Sanders thinks the reformers misunderstood the Judaism of Paul’s time. He points out that in Paul’s day, the covenant was not legalistic, but characterised by Covenantal nomism, meaning Jews are born into the covenant and maintain their place in it through works – such as by obeying the commandments about circumcision. This status itself was a gift from God not a reward for obedience – Jews entered the covenant by grace and stayed by works. Sanders points out that “Paul loved good deeds” and recommends them “all the time”.
So Sanders claims people are justified through the cross of Jesus- the justification that Jesus achieves for men and women was an act of God’s grace- not earned by humans. Christians receive this grace and enter the new convent by baptism but must thereafter keep themselves in it by good works.
Even if Sanders is correct that Paul wasn’t discounting justification by works, protestants claim that there is plenty of other biblical evidence for Sola Fide. E.g.:
“Whoever believes in [Jesus] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” – John 3:17.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
Some Catholics respond that in the historical context of ancient Judaism, the word “believe” meant more than a mere intellectual assent, it also meant to obey. So, while the Bible is clear that it is those who believe in Jesus that are saved, Catholics point out that it means more than only having faith in Jesus, it also involves following his teachings which involves doing good works.
Predestination is the view that our ultimate fate, that of heaven or hell, has already been predestined by God. If true, this would mean that good works are not what save us.
Predestination is typically a variant of the view that salvation is by faith, however theologians like Augustine claim that faith is only possible for those who God has predestined.
St Paul’s justification of predestination. Romans 8 & 9 contain an exposition by St Paul on predestination and how it links with God’s justice in judging us. In Romans 8, Paul writes that “God works for the good of those who love him … For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son … And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified”. Paul seems to be saying that God has predestined some people to be saved.
In Romans 9, Paul remarks on the prophecy God made to Rebekah when pregnant with twins, that “The older will serve the younger”. God said he loved the younger (Jacob, whose descendants became Israel) and hated the older (Esau, whose descendants became an opposing tribe). Paul remarks that what is striking is that this prophecy was made before the twins were born or had done anything “good or bad”. This looks like Paul is saying that God predestines some to be loved by him and others to be hated.
Additionally, Paul references the example of the Pharaoh to whom God sent ten plagues in an attempt to free the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Pharaoh wanted to free the Jews before the final plague, but God hardened his heart, making the Pharaoh refuse to let the Jews go, upon which God sent the final plague which killed the first born son of all Egyptian families.
Paul acknowledges that, given such examples, some might find it strange and unjust for God to hold us accountable for our actions if we are simply controlled in this way. Paul then responds: “But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘why did you make me like this?’ Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?” Paul also points to something God said to Moses: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy”. Paul seems to be suggesting that predestination is not unjust because God has the right to do what he wants.
N. T. Wright argued for an alternative interpretation of Paul. Wright claims that from Augustine onwards the Church has used terms like ‘justification’ in a way different from the specific meaning it has in Paul.
Wright argues that Romans 8 is a ‘compressed telling of the story of Israel as the chosen people whose identity and destiny is then brought into sharp focus on Jesus and in a sense Jesus is the one chosen one … that identity is then shared with all those who are in Christ … he isn’t surprisingly talking primarily there about salvation, he’s talking primarily about the way God is healing the whole creation … [theologians] romans 8:18 to around 27 which is about the renewing of creation when humans are glorified, i.e. put in charge. That’s the actual subject of the passage.
Regarding Romans 9, Paul does describe God electing people in relation to individuals – but Wright claims that Paul is not talking about election for salvation, but election to having a significant role in God’s plan to redeem the world after the fall. It’s not about election in the sense of being saved but election to God’s purpose. We should understand Paul as claiming that some of Abraham’s family, like Jacob, are predestined to play an important role in God’s plan, and others like Esau are not.
Wright concludes that Paul simply “does not address … the ultimate predestinarian question: does God actually before all time determine that certain persons will be elected, chosen, predestined for salvation. He seems determined to stick with his question that he’s much more interested in which is how God’s redemptive historical plan is being carried forward through the people of Israel.”
Augustine on Original sin, Grace & Predestination
Original Sin is the idea that the first sin of Adam and Eve disobeying God’s command resulted in a corruption in all humanity. Original sin is a corruption in human nature which makes people want to sin. All humans have inherited Original Sin from Adam and Eve according to Augustine as we were all ‘seminally present in the loins of Adam’. Augustine thought that the biological basis for procreation was “some sort of invisible and intangible power … located in the secrets of nature” yet then goes on to argue that all future generations of people are “in the loins of the father”. Augustine claims “We were all in [Adam] … we all were that one man who fell into sin” We existed in merely a “seminal nature from which we were to be begotten” but when that became “vitiated through sin” it became impossible for anyone to be born without original sin.
Augustine’s exclusivism holds that we are so corrupted by original sin that genuine persevering faith in Jesus is only possible with God’s help: his gift of grace, which predestines some people to have and keep faith in Christ and thus be one of the ‘elect’ who will be saved.
Grace is what saves humans and thereby allows them into heaven. Election refers to God’s choosing to grant grace. St Paul calls grace a “gift” which we cannot ‘take credit’ for earning (Ephesians 2:8). That suggests that getting into heaven is not something that human beings have the power to achieve. Augustine thinks this is because of original sin. We are so corrupted by it that we are unable by ourselves to be good enough to deserve salvation. Only with God’s granting of undeserved grace can we possibly be saved.
In Romans 8, St Paul seems to hold to predestination, which is the view that our fate in the afterlife, i.e. whether we will go to heaven or hell, is already unalterably fixed. Augustine thought this view of election followed logically from the doctrine of original sin and grace. If we cannot get ourselves into heaven then God has either predestined us for heaven, or he hasn’t and our original sin damns us to hell. This view is called double predestination: that heaven is predestined for some and hell for others.
Pelagius and Augustine were contemporaries who had a significant disagreement over the issue of original sin and free will. In the end Augustine managed to persuade the Pope to declare Pelagius’ ideas heretical but the debate continues to this day. Pelagius claimed that the doctrine of original sin was false. He claims humans are born “without virtue or vice”, with no innate morally good nor bad inclinations in our nature, which means that we have free will.
Pelagius: God’s commanding of moral action presupposes free will. The bible is full of cases of God commanding humans to do morally good actions and avoid morally bad actions. It’s difficult to see why God would make these demands if original sin meant that humans did not have the ability to obey those commands. Furthermore, it’s hard to see what the point of even trying to be good is, if we are so corrupted that we are unable, which Pelagius thought led to a fatalistic and lazy attitude towards morality. Pelagius said that to claim that we cannot follow God’s commands due to our fallen nature amounts to accusing God of ignorance as if God were “unmindful of human frailty” such that he “imposed commands upon man which man is not able to bear”. The fact that God commands moral action therefore presupposes that we have the free will to do them, which means that original sin does not inhibit us.
Pelagius says, “That we are able to do good is of God, but that we actually do it is of ourselves”. God gave us free will and thereby gave us the ability to do good, but our actual doing of a good action is thus the result of our free choice. Pelagius concludes that humans are “to be praised for their willing and doing a good work”.
Pelagius: predestination and Augustinian original sin makes punishment unjust. Pelagius argued that if we have original sin and are thus completely unable to avoid doing evil, it would surely be unjust for God to punish us for our sinful behaviour. It’s not ethical for all humanity to be blamed for the actions of Adam and Eve. This suggests an indefensible view of moral responsibility – that people can be responsible for actions committed by others which is of special absurdity in this case since the action occurred before they were even born. Pelagius concludes that only our having free will and thus being without coercion from original sin makes sense of the prevalent biblical theme of God’s judgement and punishment.
Punishment is just for sinful beings: Augustine is not actually arguing that God himself blamed all humanity for Adam’s sin, he’s merely pointing out that it was a factual consequence of Adam’s sin that all future humanity, in Adam’s loins, became infected with original sin. It’s not God’s fault, it’s Adams’. So, Augustine argues that predestination is not unjust of God, since we are corrupted by original sin and so if we go to hell it is deserved.
This might seem unfair, but Augustine puts it down to the “secret yet just judgement of God”, indicating that it is inscrutable – impossible for us to understand – but we should have faith it is just. Augustine points to Psalm 25:10: ‘All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth,’ and concludes: neither can his grace be unjust, nor his justice cruel”.
It’s not our fault that we have original sin, so it still seems unfair and thus incompatible with omnibenevolence to suggest that we deserve punishment for it. Especially when considering cases like a child with cancer, it’s difficult to maintain that a child deserves cancer because it has original sin. Augustine would have to say that it is God’s justice for a child to get cancer and that God is still omnibenevolent despite allowing it. That seems to contradict the idea that God is omnibenevolent.
Augustine could be defended on the grounds that it would only seem a contradiction to those who have a 21st century hippie interpretation of love.
Alternatively, Augustine insists that God’s reasons and justice are beyond our understanding. We should not try to use our limited human minds to judge God.
Pelagius: Augustine’s observations reflect his society, not human nature.
“The long habit of doing wrong which has infected us from childhood and corrupted us little by little over may years and ever after holds us in bondage and slavery to itself, so that it seems somehow to have acquired the force of nature”. – Pelagius
Although it might appear that we have strong forces within us that incline us toward evil, Pelagius argues that could simply be because of the way we are raised and it only appears to be our nature because of how thoroughly corrupted we are by our upbringing, which Pelagius refers to as being “educated in evil”.
We could add contemporary historical and sociological evidence to Pelagius’ point. Humans have progressed since Augustine’s time. Martin Luther King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”. Steven Pinker attributes to the power of human reason that violence has decreased, even considering the 20th century. The average human life seems more secure than at any prior point in history. If Augustine were correct that original sin caused an irresistible temptation to sin that predestined us to Hell (unless we recieved undeserved grace), then human behaviour could not have improved, yet it has.
Defence of Augustine: Although violence and crime has decreased in modern times compared to Augustine’s time, it could still be that we still have just as sinful a nature as he thought we did. The explanation for the decline in sinful actions could be that it’s so much harder to get away with crime in modern times. We could just be much better at controlling ourselves.
Nonetheless, Augustine thought that concupiscence meant that we couldn’t control ourselves. So even if he was right that we have a natural desire to sin, it still looks like he was wrong that we couldn’t control that desire.
Augustine: biblical evidence against Pelagian free will. Augustine responds that humans can desire and accomplish good actions, but not without the help of God’s grace. Augustine points to Paul: “for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfil his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). Paul seems clear that human ability to will and do good acts are the result of God’s power working in us, not our own.
Pelagius praises humans for their good actions and praises God for the help of divine grace to the granting of free will. Augustine responds that good acts come from love, which Paul claims is greater than knowledge (1 Corinthians 8:1). Knowledge is associated with free will. So, love is greater than free will, but then the consequence of Pelagius’ view is that the praise due to humans for their good actions is greater than is due to God for giving us free will, which lacks theological credibility. Augustine points out that Paul states: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the holy spirit” (Romans 5:5). So, it seems that love is a gift from God, so our good actions made out of love are really thanks to God. In that case, Pelagius is giving praise to humans which is due to God.
If we receive love by divine grace, that suggests our good loving actions resulted from that gift of the ability to love, not from human free will. Without love we cannot do good, and with love we cannot help but do good. There is no room for Pelagian free will.
Pelagius responded to such arguments in a letter to the Pope, where he explained that it was his view that all humans had free will but that when choosing good works, human will was “always assisted by divine help”.
Augustine responded that Pelagius’ explanation was “inadequate” to solve the criticisms made against him, because he did not explain exactly what God’s help consists of. Pelagius could have meant that divine help was merely the God’s revelation of the Bible, which ‘always’ assists good human actions merely because all Christians are somewhat familiar with the commands in the Bible. Augustine’s point is that the biblical evidence clearly shows that ‘divine help’ explicitly involves God directly intervening in our will, providing us with the love required for us to do good works without which we would be unable to do.
Pelagius responds that there were good people that did good actions in the old testament, such as Noah and Lot, who existed before Jesus came and dispensed God’s grace. Pelagius also points to the example of ancient ‘pagan philosophers’ who were commendable in their personal virtue and were “lovers of justice no less than knowledge”. “When, I ask you, do these good qualities pleasing to God come to men who are strangers to him … unless it be from the good of nature”. Our nature is thus not corrupted with original sin but contains the gift of free will from God.