Faith and works


For AO1 you need to know:

  • Arguments for Justification by works
  • Luther’s argument for justification by faith alone.
  • The Council of Trent’s response to Luther
  • P. Sanders’ critique of the protestant reformer’s view of Paul.

For AO2 you need to be able to debate:

  • Whether it is by faith alone or also by works that people are justified.
  • Whether justification by faith or by works is supported the New Testament letters (Paul and James)

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.