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Michael wrote:

Hi guys,

I'm not sure that I understand the difference between faith and works verse faith alone, nor do I really understand what justification by faith means. I realize some of these are Protestant terms.

  • Can you help me better understand the difference between faith and works and faith alone?



  { Can you help me better understand the difference between (faith and works) verse faith alone? }

Eric replied:

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the question.

Well, they all pertain to how we are saved. Justification is the process by which we are made righteous, that is, it is the process by which we acquire salvation.

The banner of the Reformation was that we are saved by faith alone, that is to say, merely by believing the Gospel and putting our trust in God to save us. This was in contrast to what they perceived as a works-based righteousness on the part of Catholics, i.e., that you get into Heaven by doing good deeds.

While there were certainly abuses and errors practiced at the time, this is not a wholly fair representation of the Catholic view but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Before I articulate the Catholic view, let me say that Catholics and Protestants agree on one thing:

  • That we are saved by the grace of God through the merits of the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross and His Resurrection.

Now, the best way to express the Catholic view is that we are saved by faith working through love (Galatians 5:6). A faith that does not manifest itself in love — mere intellectual assent — cannot save, as James chapter 2 tells us. As Jesus says in the Gospels, any tree that does not bear fruit will be cut down and cast into the fire.

A special case is the inception of faith. God's grace is the cause of our faith; it moves the unrighteous (unsaved) person toward faith, and from faith toward Baptism, which effects the justification of the unrighteous. (In other words, it saves us, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Zechariah 13:1, Ephesians 5:26, Acts 2:28, Acts 22:16.) Now, at the point of this justification, it is clear that we have done nothing to deserve it.

This is plainly illustrated by our practice of baptizing infants: No person could be less capable of doing anything meritorious than an infant, yet we believe that they are saved after their Baptism.
Consequently, in Catholicism, the justification of the unrighteous does not depend on the good works that a person has done.

Beyond this, things get complicated really quickly.

  • First of all, how do you define works?
  • It is plain that St. Paul says that we are justified by faith apart from works
    (Galatians 2:16), but what does he mean?

Here are three possibilities:

  1. Works means good deeds: feeding the poor, taking care of the sick, helping a little lady across the street.
  2. Works means any acts we do, including good deeds, plus rituals:
    • Baptism,
    • Confirmation,
    • Eucharist, etc.
  3. Works means Jewish ceremonial laws.

In the case of Paul, I would argue, for #3. Paul specifically uses the term works of law in Romans, and you can see that he is chiefly referring to circumcision. Evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls shows that works of law was a technical term for Jewish ceremonial laws, first among which was circumcision. Now, Romans is the primary book the Reformers used to — ahem — justify their doctrine and opposition to Catholicism. You will find that Paul never once discusses:

  • feeding the poor
  • clothing the naked
  • taking care of the sick, or
  • any good deed in Romans.

He is strictly arguing about circumcision, because he is refuting the Jewish Christians that are compelling the Gentile Christians to be circumcised, claiming it is necessary for salvation.

To summarize, Paul's point in Romans (and Galatians) is that salvation is not found in circumcision or other Jewish ritual laws, not that one cannot be justified by doing acts of charity. If you believe that, you have a contradiction with James, who says that a man is justified by what he does and not by faith alone (James 2:24), — if you understand works here to be what makes sense in context: acts of charity. If you believe that Paul is referring to Jewish ceremonial laws, then there is absolutely no conflict with James.

So we've seen that for both Catholics and Protestants, salvation depends wholly on the grace of God, and the justification of the unrighteous depends, not on any good deeds the person has done, but strictly on the faith of the person (or, in the case of those unable to make a personal commitment to faith, their parents). But things get complicated after that.

Catholics believe that we can lose our salvation by committing sin after Baptism. (cf. Romans 11:21, Matthew 5:22-29, 1 Corinthians 9:24, 1 Timothy 4:15ff, Hebrews 10:38, 2 Peter 2:20)
Some argue that making our salvation, after-the-fact, conditional on not sinning, means we effectively earn our salvation. That is, if you "work" to avoid sin, you will be saved, but if you don't, you won't. If one insists on viewing it this way, I suppose there is only one conclusion, but it seems somewhat contorted to me. I see it as a choice to use or not use a gift. Someone who sins seriously implicitly rejects salvation. That is their choice.

Some Christians take this to the level that once you are saved, you are always saved, and can never lose your salvation. This is not a universal view among Protestants, however. While it is not (in my judgment) scriptural, it does solve some of the aforementioned problems.

One additional point deserves mentioning.

Unlike Protestants, Catholics believe that a person can grow in righteousness throughout their Christian walk. In other words, a righteous person can be justified. We do believe that one can grow in righteousness by what one does, for example, by doing deeds of charity. So in this sense, we believe we can be justified by good deeds (and indeed James says as much), but as the discussion with Protestants centers on the initial justification, to compare apples to apples, you have to examine that scenario.

Sorry for the length but this is a complicated subject!

Here are some good resources on the topic:


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