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:
- Works means good deeds: feeding the poor,
taking care of the sick, helping a little lady across the street.
- Works means any acts we do, including good deeds,
- Eucharist, etc.
- 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
- 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.
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
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: