The necessity of faith and works

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1533), by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

A little flash that just occurred to me:

Protestants argue sola fide, that we are justified by faith alone. The Catholic position is often presented as fide et operis, by faith and works. But Catholics and Protestants agree that it is not our action or operation, either in having faith or doing works, that saves us, but entirely the grace of God (sola gratia).

The Apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-10:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Protestants get very hung up on the Catholic insistence on works, that works are necessary for salvation. But most Protestants admit this, if the question is posed the right way. As Saint James writes (James 2:14-17):

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in 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 good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

As this makes evident, works are necessary. Faith without works is dead. Protestants argue from this that works follow faith — that true faith necessarily produces the fruit of good works; that if a brother does not produce good works, then he never had true faith to begin with. But the result is exactly the same: Good works are a necessary consequence of faith.

This is exactly what Catholics argue — only in affirming free will, Catholics present that it is incumbent upon the believer to choose to do good works, given the gift of God’s grace which enables the believer both to will and to work (Philippians 2:12-13).

Catholics affirm that our initial justification is by faith alone, as a gift of God’s grace, not because of any work or merit on our own. Protestants affirm that works are necessary for salvation — a necessary consequence of true faith. That puts the two parties on the same page regarding the necessity of both faith and works for salvation — and much closer to agreement than either would like to admit.

7 thoughts on “The necessity of faith and works

  1. Interesting summary.

    Back in the days when I had my head on backwards and was very anti-Christian, one of the things that irked me was that “Christians think all you have to do is have faith and then you will be saved.”

    It really bothered me. “Ok sure – I have faith. Now I am all holy and enlightened and a master of my own being…I don’t think so.”

    When I began to understand that this is a huge misunderstanding, I began to realize that the Christian position is not so trivial. The true Christian position, as found in the Catholic Church, is that faith without works is dead. It was not just a matter of saying “I believe” and being saved – it was a matter of a faith that changed who you were fundamentally. A living faith.

    I am older now, but I think that much of the Protestant position has done massive damage to Christianity as a whole. This is the sort of thing that makes Christianity look ignorant to outsiders, who get this idea that Christianity is shallow from such ideas. It makes it look ignorant and stupid. As though we can all just shout out some worship songs and it will all be ok.

    If the Protestant position had never gained any ground, I imagine Christianity would not look as “cheesy” as it can sometimes in our world today. The Catholic version, before Protestantism, was always so deep – but it is the Protestant version that much of our world mistakes for Christianity.

    Sorry for the ramble πŸ™‚

    • Heh. You are speaking to the master rambler. πŸ˜‰

      It’s not just the Protestant position, but especially the evangelical Protestant position that seems “cheesy.” And you’re right; it’s so often harmful. I suffered so much for so long as a Protestant, trapped in sin and expecting this faith in Christ to automatically change me and make me holy. Being told again and again that I was a sinner and “totally depraved” and finally believing it; rolling over and saying, “Jesus, you know I’m just a sinner. You know I can’t help myself.” Resigning myself to being stuck. Trying to believe that every time I sinned, I was already forgiven — only I could feel the loss of grace in my life. It was such a terrible place to be.

      Then one day I attended my first Mass as a seeker, on Ash Wednesday. The lay minister gave me the ashes and blessed me and said, “Turn from sin, and be faithful to the Gospel.” And I was blown away. You mean I can turn from sin? You mean I can get up and take my mat and walk? I am sure I had heard repentance preached before; surely I had. But I had gotten it into my Protestant head that it was all faith and no works and everything else was just supposed to happen. Realizing that it was not only within my power, but also my obligation as a Christian who had been bought with a price, to obey Christ, made all the difference in my life.

      • Wow that is really enlightening, especially as you can explain what it was like.

        I always wondered how Protestants claimed they just say “I believe” and then their world was all sunshine and light. It is interesting to hear your side of what it was like.

        Thank you for sharing – from one rambler to another πŸ˜‰

        • I think many Protestants walk in Christ despite Protestant doctrine. They realize nascently, whether they admit it or not, that works are important and that they are empowered to carry them out. I just got trapped in some things and believed lies and there was no help for me at all in Protestant teaching. A Protestant church is not a good place for a wounded sinner. That kind of thing needs a doctor, not to be covered up and left to fester. There is a reason why the Church calls Confession and Reconciliation a Sacrament of Healing. The Protestants threw away so much that was essential.

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