The relationship between faith and works has been a topic of debate and theological divergence between Catholics and Protestants. In the Protestant Reformation, the doctrine of “sola fide” affirmed that salvation is obtained solely through faith in Jesus Christ, apart from any human merit or works.
However, from the Catholic perspective, justification is a process that involves both faith and works, understanding that both are fundamental in the relationship with God. In this article, we will explore the Catholic teaching on justification and the importance of faith and works in the path of salvation.
What do Catholics believe about justification by faith?
To begin, it is essential to have a clear understanding of the teaching of the Catholic Church on justification. For us Catholics, justification is a process by which a person, who is separated from God’s grace due to sin, is reconciled and restored to a right relationship with God.
Justification is a free gift of God, based on the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), justification is the initial step toward sanctification and participation in divine life. Faith is necessary for justification, but it is not sufficient on its own. The Catholic Church teaches that justification is a process that includes divine grace, faith, hope, and charity.
The Holy Scripture in the book of James 2:24 says, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Magisterial documents, such as Pope Francis’ encyclical “Lumen Fidei,” which explores the theme of faith and justification, can also be mentioned.
Pope Francis’ encyclical “Lumen Fidei,” published in 2013, addresses the meaning and importance of faith in the lives of believers. It highlights that faith is a light that guides our existence, allowing us to establish a personal relationship with God and receive His love. The encyclical emphasizes the relationship between faith and reason, underscoring that faith is not opposed to reason but complements and enriches it. It also emphasizes the communal dimension of faith, highlighting the importance of the Church as a place of encounter and communion for believers. Pope Francis encourages living the faith authentically and sharing it with others, being witnesses of the light of faith in the midst of the challenges of the contemporary world.
How do Catholics differ from Protestants regarding justification by faith alone?
“Sola fide” is one of the five solas of the Protestant Reformation, asserting that salvation is obtained solely through faith in Jesus Christ, apart from any human merit or works.
Calvinists, for example, believe that salvation is a purely God’s work and that human beings cannot contribute at all to their own justification before God. According to Calvinist teaching, faith is a gift from God, and it is through that faith that we are justified and saved.
This faith is an active and confident response to God’s call and the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. For Calvinists, “sola fide” implies that our works and merits have no role in our justification before God. We cannot earn salvation through our good works or deserve it in any way. Salvation is entirely by the grace of God and is received only through faith in Jesus Christ.
Protestants who believe in “sola fide” maintain that salvation is attained solely through faith in Jesus Christ, apart from any human merit or work. They argue that there are several biblical verses that support this doctrine, such as the following:
- Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Protestants interpret this passage as a clear affirmation that salvation is a free gift of God received through faith, not through works.
- The Catholic interpretation of Ephesians 2:8-9 maintains that faith and works should not be seen as opposed or contradictory but as complementary elements. We are not saved by works apart from faith, but our works are the authentic expression of a living faith in action. Salvation is a continuous process of cooperation with God’s grace, which transforms us and enables us to do good works.
- Romans 3:28: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Protestants understand this verse as a statement that justification before God is achieved solely through faith, apart from any work or adherence to the law.
- When Paul speaks of “faith apart from works of the law,” he specifically refers to the works of the Jewish law, such as circumcision or specific rituals. The apostle is not denying the importance of works in general but emphasizing that salvation is not obtained through the mere external observance of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.
- Galatians 2:16: “Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” This passage is interpreted by Protestants as an affirmation that justification comes through faith in Jesus Christ and not through the fulfillment of the law.
- Catholic teaching emphasizes that saving faith is not merely an intellectual belief but must be accompanied by an active response of love and obedience to God’s commandments. Works are not considered means to earn justification in themselves but are the fruit of God’s grace and a visible expression of a living faith.
Not all Protestants interpret the doctrine of “sola fide” (faith alone) in the same way. However, in general, Protestants who hold to this doctrine emphasize that salvation and justification before God are obtained exclusively through faith in Jesus Christ, apart from any human work.
Some Protestants interpret “sola fide” extremely, arguing that works have no role in salvation and are entirely irrelevant to justification before God. From this perspective, faith in Christ is sufficient, and any emphasis on works is considered a form of legalism or relying on human effort rather than divine grace.
However, it is important to note that this extreme interpretation does not represent the view of all Protestants. Many Protestants recognize that works are the natural and necessary result of a living faith in Christ. Although they are not the basis of our salvation, works are seen as an appropriate response and the fruit of God’s grace working within us. These works are viewed as visible and tangible evidence of genuine and living faith.
In general, Protestants who believe in “sola fide” emphasize that salvation is a free gift of God received through faith in Jesus Christ, but they also recognize that living faith is expressed through works of love and obedience to God. It is worth noting that the diversity of interpretations within Protestantism can lead to different emphases on the relationship between faith and works.
It is essential for a Catholic to understand and accept that salvation is not restricted solely to faith, but also involves an active response through works of charity and obedience to God. Both faith and works are intrinsically united in the life of the believer, and both play an important role in the process of justification before our Lord. Catholic teaching recognizes the centrality of faith, but also highlights the need to lead an authentic and committed Christian life characterized by love, obedience to God, and assistance to others.