This article is an excerpt from Chapter Four of my book More Christianity--a friendly introduction to the Catholic faith for Evangelical Christians.
I married my wife Alison about ten years ago. On that day we made a vow to remain married—for better, for worse, for richer for poorer, until death should part us. That vow was a once and for all mutual promise. It was a step of faith. I accepted Alison and she accepted me. We loved each other, but realised that our love would have to grow over the years. Our marriage vow took place in one moment in time, but you could say it is present in every moment of our married life. We took a step of faith to marry one another, but we have to live within that faith day by day and moment by moment for our vows to be real.
If we do not perform the faithful actions of love within our marriage and family life, then that promise of love eventually dies. However, if we lived together without having made the vows our life would not be the same as if we had married. A legal analyst might wish to study the purely formal aspect of our marriage, but that wouldn’t be the marriage. Likewise a psychologist or sociologist might like to study the day to day life of our relationship, but that wouldn’t be the marriage either. The vows and the daily life go together. The vows we made help us live in love day by day and our daily life of love is the fulfilment of the vows. Separating our marriage vows from our marriage is impossible. Separating the two would be like trying to separate the light from the sun, the scent from the flower or the music from the violin from which it comes.
One of the biggest areas of confusion and misunderstanding between Catholics and other Christians is in the area of salvation. How is a person saved? How does a person get to heaven? Is it by their works or by their faith? One of the classic Protestant doctrines is that we are saved by faith alone. In the sixteenth century Martin Luther and others felt their Catholic faith was legalistic and meaningless. It was just a set of rules and routine, formal prayers which meant nothing and which could never save a person. When Martin Luther read Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans he discovered for himself the wonderful Biblical doctrine that a person is saved by grace through faith–and not by any works they have done.
This was exciting and liberating news. No longer did they have to be good enough to please God by reciting endless liturgies, enduring gruelling asceticism and achieving an impossible standard of goodness. God had saved them through the work of Jesus Christ and all they had to do was trust in him through faith to be saved. Because they had discovered salvation by grace through faith some of them took the extreme position that a person is saved through faith alone. In their enthusiasm to embrace salvation by faith alone, and remembering how they felt helpless to do all the good works they thought were expected of them as Catholics, they couldn’t help drawing the conclusion that the Catholic church taught that a person was saved by good works.
It must have seemed like that was the teaching of the Catholic church at the time, and perhaps for a lot of ordinary people it felt like their salvation was won by endless prayer and good works. In fact the Catholic Church has never taught that salvation is through good works. The idea that we can work our way into heaven is a heresy called Pelagianism after a fourth century teacher named Pelagius. From that time, and down through the ages the Catholic Church has repudiated such teaching. That doesn’t mean the Catholic Church believes in salvation by faith alone though. We believe salvation is through faith, but we believe faith consists of more than an individual’s personal belief. For faith to be real it has to include the person’s whole life. Catholics agree that we are saved by grace alone, but not by faith alone. An exciting new document was signed in 1998 by Lutherans and Catholics at the highest level. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification included the statement, ‘By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.’
The zeal of Catholics for salvation by God’s grace alone is summed up in the words of one of the greatest saints of modern times. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote, ‘In the evening of this life I shall appear before you empty-handed, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justices have stains in your sight. So I want to be clad in your own justice and receive from your love the possession of yourself.’
One of the problems in this debate between the need for faith or works is that both sides have tended to pull out certain verses from the New Testament to use as proof texts. The Evangelicals use some verses from Saint Paul’s teaching that ‘a man is saved by faith, and not by any works of the law lest any man should boast.’ Catholics respond with verses from the epistle of James which say clearly that ‘faith without works is dead.’ But this is a bit like two cowboys in a shoot out–both of them pull out their six guns and shoot from the hip. The problem is, they’re arguing away, but nobody’s actually listening to each other, and the only people they convince are themselves.
Common sense tells us that faith and works are both important, and in practice most Catholics and Protestants actually agree that both are necessary to some extent. I think the best way to confront this whole issue is to avoid simple proof texts on their own, and to steer around the strong language and emotional experiences of the Reformation times by turning back to the Bible as a whole. The Bible shows that faith and works are one. The first part of this chapter is going to be a Biblical exploration of what the Bible says about faith and works. The second part explains in more detail how Catholics see the two operating together. This is a huge issue to which shelves of theological libraries devote yards of space. I should say that I’m neither a Biblical scholar or a theologian. I write this as a layman in hopes that what I say might help others to think through this issue.
Faith of our Fathers
The place to begin is the Old Testament, but in the Old Testament we don’t actually hear too much about faith as such. When the word ‘faith’ is used it usually means keeping one’s word– keeping a solemn agreement between two parties. Where it is used in a religious context, faith for the Jewish person means keeping his part of the solemn covenant between God and his people. The way the Jewish person kept his side of the covenant was by obeying the law. It almost sounds like the Old Testament definition for faith is actually good works because the basic meaning of ‘keeping faith’ in the
Old Testament means keeping the law, or obeying God’s commandments.
However, there are one or two other hints in the Old Testament that ‘having faith’ could mean something more. In 2 Chronicles 20:20 the good king Jehosophat calls on the people to ‘Have faith in the Lord your God and you will be upheld. Have faith in his prophets and you will have success.’ Then the prophet Habakkuk looks forward to the day when the Lord’s messenger will come and bring the revelation of God. In that day, says the prophet, ‘the righteous will live by faith.’ But in the context the word ‘faith’ also means ‘faithfulness’ so Habakkuk is saying that the one who is loyal, or faithful, or who keeps his part of the bargain will be considered righteous.
All through the Old Testament the person who has faith is also faithful, or loyal. The person who has faith obeys the covenant and keeps his side of the bargain. But what does this mean in action? Are there any illustrations of faith in the Old Testament? What does the person of faith look like? What does he believe and what does he do to keep his side of the bargain with God? The New Testament book of Hebrews helps us see the Old Testament through Christian eyes, and in chapter eleven it speaks at great length about the faith of the Old Testament characters. Hebrews sees that they were faithful because they had faith in God. In other words, they were able to be loyal and obedient because they trusted in God’s faithfulness. They were able to keep their end of the bargain because they knew God would keep his.
Hebrews eleven goes through a list of the Old Testament characters showing their faithfulness. It reads like an Old Testament Hall of Fame. First is Adam and Eve’s son Abel. He makes a better sacrifice than Cain because he has faith in God. By faith Noah believed God and built an ark to save himself and his family from destruction. By faith Abraham left the city of his fathers and set out to a country that God promised to him. By faith Abraham was able to become a father even though he was past the age because he considered God to be faithful. By faith Abraham offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice–believing that God could even raise the dead.
The interesting thing to note in this list from Hebrews is that each one of the Old Testament characters is considered to have faith, but as a result of this faith they perform faith-full actions–actions that are full of faith. Abel offers a sacrifice, Noah builds an ark, Abraham sets out on pilgrimage, fathers a son and then offers him as a sacrifice. Hebrews says by faith they performed these obedient and faith-full actions. The list from the Old Testament goes on, and in each case the Old Testament hero is able to perform acts of faith because he believes in God. So Hebrews chapter eleven continues–Isaac
blessed Jacob because he had faith. By faith Jacob blessed his sons, by faith Joseph prophesied the Exodus from Egypt. By faith Moses’ parents hid him in the river. By faith Moses led the people of Israel and instituted the Passover meal. By faith he led them through the Red Sea, conquered Jericho and entered the Promised Land. The writer to the Hebrews goes on to list the heroes from the book of Judges and beyond. By faith they
conquered kingdoms, administered justice, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, became powerful in battle, and went through terrible persecutions.
The list recounting the Old Testament heroes is dynamic, full of action and excitement. Faith enabled all these heroes to perform actions that were courageous and faithful to God’s commands. Those actions were not mindless and arbitrary acts of obedience. The actions themselves were meaningful. They taught the faithful ones lessons about themselves and God. They performed God’s will in the world and they helped bring the faithful ones to a higher perfection. The great chapter on faith in Hebrews shows that personal faith and faith-full actions together helped bring the believer into a deeper relationship with God. Their faith was not simply belief in God’s promises or a personal belief in certain truths about God. Instead their faith was inner belief lived out through their decisions and actions. [Read More]