From ‘Catholic Answers’, March 2003
PROTESTANT: The other day I was reading the book of Galatians, and it struck me how much emphasis Paul places on faith as the means of salvation. Then I asked myself how Catholics can believe in justification by works. If the Catholic Church really believes the Bible, as it claims, how can it continue to teach that we have to earn our salvation? The Bible seems pretty clear that justification is by faith alone.
CATHOLIC: There are several aspects to this question. The most important is to realize that the Catholic Church does not teach that we earn our salvation by our own efforts, although it does teach that we have to work on our salvation. The same apostle who wrote Galatians also wrote Philippians, wherein Paul says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).
PROTESTANT: Yes, but don’t you think that statement has to be understood in light of the teaching in Galatians? In Galatians 2:15–16, Paul says, “We ourselves… who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we 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 shall no one be justified.”
CATHOLIC: I don’t see these two verses as contradicting each another or even in tension. But first let me make clear the official teachings of the Catholic Church: It teaches that we can do nothing to merit the grace that comes to us in baptism, which is the normal beginning of the Christian life. In fact, the Council of Trent condemned anyone who taught that we can save ourselves or who taught even that God helps us do what we could do for ourselves. The Church teaches that we can be saved only by God’s grace.
PROTESTANT: Well, if the Catholic Church really teaches salvation by grace, that’s wonderful. But it’s hard for me to believe because Catholics place so much emphasis on doing good works. Paul’s letters stress again and again that salvation comes through faith alone. In addition to Galatians 2:15–16, consider Romans 4:2: “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.” Then three verses later, in 4:5, Paul puts it another way: “And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.”
CATHOLIC: We don’t disagree about the primary role that faith plays. Following Paul, the Catholic Church teaches that justification comes by faith. Only it says that it doesn’t come through faith alone. If you look carefully at Paul’s writings, you will notice that he never says that our righteousness comes from faith alone—only that it comes from faith apart from works.
PROTESTANT: Well, there you have it. That was almost a direct quote from Romans 3:28: “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” That phrase by faith apart from works of the law sounds to me like Paul is saying that justification comes through faith alone.
CATHOLIC: Romans 3:28 is a key verse in the differences between traditional Protestants and Catholics. You will notice that Paul says a man is justified by faith (pistei in Greek). When Martin Luther translated the letter to the Romans into German in the sixteenth century, he added the word alone —but alone is not in the original Greek text. The phrase “faith alone” does occur in the New Testament: one time, in James 2:24. There the inspired apostle denies that justification is from faith alone. Let me quote it: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
PROTESTANT: The classic text in James 2:14–26 is a difficult one. Let’s come back to that one. I just want to point out that Luther was completely justified—pun intended—in translating Romans 3:28 with the words faith alone because that is another way of saying that justification is “apart from works of the law.” You see, when Paul says in Romans 4:2 that Abraham could boast if his salvation were from works, he is explaining what he said in 3:27 when he asked, “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On the principle of works? No, but on the principle of faith.” Boasting before God is possible if any works are involved in our salvation, but no boasting is possible if it is by faith alone.
CATHOLIC: Agreed—Paul categorically excludes works from our salvation. But what kind of works is Paul talking about? If we believe the entire Bible, we need to see how Paul’s words fit together with James’s words, because James clearly says that “a man is justified by works.” If Paul and James mean the same thing by works, then they contradict one another. Since you and I both believe that the Bible cannot contradict itself, we must agree that Paul and James mean two different things by the word works.
PROTESTANT: I agree, but this is a tough problem of interpretation.
CATHOLIC: The Catholic Church believes that we should interpret Scripture by using Scripture. You will note that sometimes Paul expands his phrase from works by adding the phrase of the law, as in Romans 3:20 and 28 and Galatians 2:16. Further, sometimes Paul substitutes the phrase through the law to describe the same reality. For example, in Romans 3:20, he says, “Through the law comes knowledge of sin.” In other words, when Paul uses the word works he is talking about the Old Testament law.
A careful reading of Galatians will show that Paul is using works of the law to refer especially to the law of circumcision. He is so strong about this that he says in Galatians 5:2, “Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.” Paul’s opponents in Galatia wanted to bring the Gentile Christians back into the Old Testament law. These are the works of the law that Paul is fighting against, and they have no place in our justification. Paul is saying in essence that Gentile Christians do not have to be circumcised and live like Jewish Christians in order to be saved.
PROTESTANT: Agreed—we should interpret Scripture by using Scripture. I can agree with your interpretation of Galatians, but I think also we can generalize Paul’s words so that any work that we put before God as a reason for him to accept us is the kind of work he condemns.
CATHOLIC: I might agree if that’s all there was to it. But Paul speaks about Christians fulfilling the law by following the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:14). He then explains that we must show the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:16–26) and bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:1) as a way of fulfilling the “law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). All Paul’s teaching comes down to this: Our own works can never justify us, but works that grow out of faith in Christ are part of our justification. That’s why Paul says in Philippians 2:12 you must “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” And that squares with James’s teaching that works that grow from faith justify.
PROTESTANT: Okay, I’ll agree that James is teaching that we must add works to our faith. But notice that these works are only evidence of true faith as opposed to a false faith. Read James 2:14 carefully: “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?” James is dealing with the problem of those who claim faith but who don’t show it by their works. In verse 17 James says this kind of faith, “if it has no works, is dead.” James’s message is this: If you have true faith, then you will have works to follow. But that does not mean that James sees works as having to do with our salvation.
CATHOLIC: Okay, James is teaching that works show true faith. But we Catholics insist that James 2:14–26 shows that works are more than mere evidence of faith. Works actually justify. James is speaking about works growing out of faith. If works of faith are not a part of our justification, then it is hard to understand why James would say, as he does, that “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?” (Jas. 2:21). You may remember how Paul said that Abraham was not justified by works but by faith. Paul means that Abraham was not justified by keeping the Old Testament law, while James means that Abraham was justified by doing a work that grew out of his faith in God.
PROTESTANT: Maybe all James means is that Abraham’s actions showed that his faith was real.
CATHOLIC: You could argue that if James did not say explicitly, “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works” (Jas. 2:22). And then in verse 24 James concludes again, “A man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
PROTESTANT: I must admit that I’ve never heard a Catholic give the explanation you gave, but I am still not convinced that the Catholic Church is right on this point.
CATHOLIC: Well, these are difficult points of theology and interpretation. I encourage you to pray and think about the Catholic understanding of justification. In sum, the Church teaches that salvation is a process of becoming holier and holier through time. All of this is a work of grace that God performs in our hearts through faith. Works done in faith are the natural completion of believing in Christ. As we trust and do God’s work, he instills within us more grace so that we may become holier and so be ready to meet him at the end of our life.