What is necessary for salvation? Is it “faith and works” as Catholics teach? Or is it “faith alone” as many Protestants teach? Or do they mean the same thing? They might. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. Let’s try to clarify at the chance of a tiny ecumenical revival.
Here is the kind of belief in “faith alone” that is not consistent with Catholic teaching:
“If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, so that thus he understands nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema.” – Canon 9, Trent’s Decree on Justification
(FYI – Anathema is a solemn declaration declaring that something contradicts Catholic faith and doctrine)
The key here depends on what the person defines “faith alone” as. Do they literally mean that no other cooperation on their part is required to receive the grace of justification other than faith? Or do they include some other things inherent to that “faith?”
It they are talking about a kind of faith that is naturally accompanied by the other two theological virtues – hope and charity – then it can be reconciled with the Catholic view of justification. If the person means by “faith alone” that hope and charity are not required, then it is not consistent with Catholic teaching.
Some protestants include in their definition of faith a natural overflowing of hope and charity that accompanies it. They might call this a “justifying faith” or a “living faith.” Catholics call it a “formed faith.” We recognize that a real faith is naturally accompanied by hope and charity – and therefore good works.
Many protestants who insist on believing in “faith alone” seem to do so by saying that faith is all that is required, but of course works naturally flow from that. But I think this is a bit confusing and I’ll tell you why.
First, their definition of faith here includes a natural outpouring of good works. They say that if it doesn’t include good works, then it’s not a real, justifying faith. In other words, what they are saying is that it is necessary for their faith to include good works in order to be justified. So it’s the same exact thing as saying that the requirements for justification (i.e. what is necessary) is both faith and works.
“But no, no, no,” they protest, “faith is all that is necessary…but good works are a consequence of it.”
“But what if someone’s faith doesn’t result in good works?” I ask.
“Well then they aren’t justified,” they say.
“So good works are required and necessary then?” I ask.
“Uhm, yes. No, wait,” they stumble, “if there are no works, then it’s not real faith,” they continue.
So we can see how the confusion comes about. I believe they are saying that their definition of a justifying faith includes good works. Because as soon as good works are taken away, they no longer believe that faith is justifying. Perhaps they no longer believe it is faith? I’m not sure. Either way, for the protestant in this conversation it seems that good works are required and necessary to at least turn faith into a justifying faith. Therefore, good works are required for justification. You can’t separate it.
And it is not a one then the other kind of thing. We can’t have justifying faith and then good works as a result. Because unless you have good works then it is not a justifying faith. You can’t say that justifying faith is all that is required (and good works are just a natural consequence) when good works are necessary for the justifying faith in the first place! So a belief in “faith and works” is equivalent to a belief in some kind of “justifying faith” that includes good works. Trying to separate them is just confusing. This is why the Catholic Church insists on clarifying and recognizing that it is both “faith and works” not simply “faith alone.” It’s not one then the other (faith and then works). They are all caught up together by definition – faith and works.
The point here, however, is it’s worth recognizing that some protestants actually mean “faith, hope, and charity” when they say “faith alone.” That belief is reconcilable with Catholic teaching because some types of faith are naturally accompanied by hope and charity. That is biblical. So if a protestant actually means that kind of faith, then we all agree.
But it is also biblical that some types of faith are not necessarily accompanied by hope and charity – like in James 2:24 where it says “that man is NOT justified by faith alone.” For this reason, the Church avoids using language of simply “faith alone” because it is confusing and incomplete.
On the flip side, it is true that some also misunderstand the terms “faith and works” to mean that we can somehow earn heaven by the merit of our works. And the Catholic Church condemns such beliefs outright (let them be anathema too!). So please stop with the false accusations (I’m talking to all of you with the false accusations). Yes, scripture says we are justified by faith and not by works of the Law (of Moses). But, as I’ve explained above, this does not mean we are justified by faith alone.
If we want to use biblical language on the matter we certainly do not want to speak in terms of “faith alone” when the only place “faith alone” appears in scripture is to say that we are “not justified by faith alone.” So it is entirely not the language of the Bible to speak in those terms. And it’s confusing. That’s why the Church doesn’t speak in those terms.
But at the very least, if someone insists on still speaking in terms of “faith alone,” we can at least agree that we might mean the same thing…which is the most important part.
Here is a statement from the German Conference of Bishops who work actively with the Lutherans for reconciliation:
“Catholic doctrine…says that only a faith alive in graciously bestowed love can justify. Having “mere” faith without love, merely considering something true, does not justify us. But if one understands faith in the full and comprehensive biblical sense, then faith includes conversion, hope, and love – and the Lutheran [“faith alone”] formula can have a good Catholic sense.”
And here is a snippet from a Joint Declaration between the Lutherans and the Catholic Church for reconciliation on this issue:
According to Catholic understanding, good works, made possible by grace and the working of the Holy Spirit, contribute to growth in grace, so that the righteousness that comes from God is preserved and communion with Christ is deepened. When Catholics affirm the “meritorious” character of good works, they wish to say that, according to the biblical witness, a reward in heaven is promised to these works. Their intention is to emphasize the responsibility of persons for their actions, not to contest the character of those works as gifts, or far less to deny that justification always remains the unmerited gift of grace.
Protestants and Catholics…can we agree on that?
For more clarification and an outstanding read for both Protestants and Catholics, check out “The Salvation Controversy” by James Akin.