A Catholic bishop and a Presbyterian preacher walk into a bar. Seeing that they were both teachers of Scripture, they began talking theology over drinks. The discussion soon got heated when they got to the topic of justification by faith. Before anyone knew what had happened, both men lay dead on the floor, beaten and bruised.
In an instant they found themselves before God. They were told by an angel to be patient while God prepares to declare their destinies. But they couldn’t control themselves and blurted out, “Who was right, Lord? Are we justified instantly by faith alone or progressively by faith and works?”
Immediately God responded, “Neither of you are justified by either faith or works, for in your dispute you’ve both proven not to be my children! Depart from me, you workers of iniquity, for I never knew you.”
Just-As-If-I’d Never Sinned
What is the point of this little story? Well, it doesn’t have much of one, I just wanted to start with a story, especially if I could use the classic bar setup. But it is related to the topic of this post, namely the relationship between faith, works, and justification.
From an average Protestant perspective, we have the doctrine of sola fide, aka justification by faith alone. In this account, while we start legally on the hook for our sin and guilty in God’s court, when we put our faith in Christ God immediately declares us righteous, giving us a not-guilty verdict and acquitting us of the charges against us. Thus we are saved from God’s wrath. From that point on our faith naturally produces works through the Spirit.
From a Catholic perspective (which I hope I am presenting accurately), justification is a state bound up with sanctification (becoming holy). When we become Christians, we start becoming sanctified and so also justified because God infuses us with grace that creates faith and works if we are willing to make use of it. As we make use of God’s grace provided through the Holy Spirit, we become more holy and therefore find ourselves increasingly in right standing before God. In most people, though, death comes before we are completely holy and completely justified, so we must undergo cleansing in Purgatory until the process is complete.
The Part Where I Define Stuff
What both of these positions have in common is underlying grace. For the usual Protestant view of sola fide, we can only be acquitted because Jesus takes our condemnation for us out of sheer, undeserved grace. We can’t earn His sacrifice, but merely say “yes” to it. Likewise for the Catholic, we can only be sanctified and justified by grace. All of our faith and works which justify us can be traced back to God’s grace provided through the Spirit.
Of course, it is important to consider what faith and works are to discuss this issue. We can’t think of faith as just plain belief, thinking something is true. After all, even the demons have that kind of faith, and they are doomed. Saving faith, according to James especially, is an active thing which demands to be made real through works. Without works, we are taught, faith is dead and useless, totally incapable of justifying anyone.
What are works, though? That depends what we’re talking about. Works can usually refer to three things: actions which are done in order to fulfill the Law, anything good anyone does at all, or the good things we do by the power of the Holy Spirit. The first kind is the mostly blatantly ruled out as having anything to do with justification. Paul goes on and on about how following the Law can’t fix anything. All Christians must categorically deny the possibility of being justified by keeping the Law to avoid falling under Paul’s stern condemnation of the Judaizers.
The other two kinds of works are where things get less clear cut. There is a difference between works we manufacture on our own to be good and works the Spirit creates in us. The former is clearly excluded from justification when Paul rules out all boasting in our own righteousness. If we are saved, we do not get credit. No one can say that he earned or performed his own way into a right standing with God, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
On the other hand, there are the good deeds done because of the Holy Spirit living in us. Most Protestants would still deny that these have any role in our justification, even though they come solely by God’s grace. Proponents of something called the New Perspective on Paul would generally argue that these works do play into our final justification, but that even then we are promised this end when we believe. Catholics would include all these good works in the process of becoming holy, which is what carries our justification.
Speaking Different Languages
Much of the divide between Protestants and Catholics, but not all of it, on justification can be traced back to miscommunication regarding these three kinds of works. When the average Protestant hears the Catholic say we are justified by both faith and works, he assumes the first and/or second kind of works, so they hear “We are justified by faith and keeping the Law” or “we are justified by faith and our own efforts to do good.” When Catholics hear us claim that justification comes apart from works, many hear that people who live fruitless lives of clearly dead faith will be saved as long as they agree with the facts of the Gospel.
So when we understand faith as a living, active, life-changing kind of belief, the kind of trust in Jesus which bears fruit through the Holy Spirit, there are indeed many Catholics who would more or less agree that this faith alone justifies. Likewise, if we understand the works Catholics say contribute to justification as the good we do because of the Holy Spirit in us, caused entirely by grace, then while not all Protestants would agree, most would drop the charge of a “work your way to heaven” heresy.
Neither position is without its weaknesses, though. Sola fide will never quite feel snuffly fitting with James 2 (especially verse 24), and it actually does lead and has led many people to think that fruitless “Christians” are assured of salvation, or that believing facts and praying a prayer are enough. The Catholic view I think sometimes stumbles through Paul and lends itself to many abuses, such as legalism, self-righteousness, performance-based spirituality, and even superstition in combination with any ambiguous form of their sacramental theology.
Resetting the Focus: Grace is a Person, Not a Thing
I, personally, take a step back from the standard Protestant and Catholic views to focus on what—actually who—they have in common. We all agree that Jesus is the true cause of our salvation and that we owe it all to Him. When it comes to the issue of justification, Jesus already lived a life of perfect faith and perfect works in our place. He trusted the Father, did good deeds, kept the Law, and made all around flawless performance on our behalf. When we meet Him in the Gospel through the Holy Spirit, all we do is nothing. By simply not resisting Him, we are spiritually united to Him, with His own faith coming into our hearts and His own works flowing out through our hands. Christ Himself is the grace behind all faith and works we do. Jesus’ life flows into us through faith and out of us through works.
In this way, we receive both justification and sanctification from Jesus’ own innocent status and perfect holiness. In one moment we are united to Christ in faith and so become right with God and set apart for Him, while we spend the rest of our lives being transformed to live Christ’s right life before God and become purely holy all the way through.
I think if we keep Jesus the main thing, looking at it all through the light of His own person and work instead of impersonal versions of grace, faith, justification, and holiness, then we’re in good shape. While I do think sola fide, when given proper nuance and focus, is a superior way to speak of our right standing before God over the Catholic articulation, that is secondary to saying our salvation is all of Christ. In the end what matters is if we agree that we are accepted not because we are worthy in ourselves, but because of what Christ has done and still does for us, in us, and through us. Amen?
All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
(I am aware, my more theologically minded readers, that I did not really interact with at least one other important view on justification, namely the New Perspective on Paul, especially as proposed by N. T. Wright. But this post is long enough as it is, and the NPP, while certainly important to this discussion, would not greatly affect what I have to say.)