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Do good works justify?

OPINION | John Flader & Michael Jensen
Tuesday 2 June 2015

A couple of months ago, John Flader in The Catholic Weekly’s “question time” column clearly set out the Catholic view of justification by faith. It sounded very Protestant. So we asked Michael Jensen what he thought.

John Flader

Dear Father, I have a Protestant relative who is constantly trying to convince me that we Catholics are wrong in saying that we need good works in order to be saved. He says we are saved by faith alone. How can I answer him?

This is the well-known question of sola fide, the Protestant belief in salvation by faith alone. Protestants typically believe that mankind is inherently sinful and can do nothing to merit salvation by works, so that we are saved only through faith in Jesus Christ, who died on the cross for us. It is his merits that save us, not our own.

We should clarify that Protestants more often use the term justification by faith alone, and in this sense we have some common ground with them.

What is justification? The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us ‘the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ’ and through Baptism.” (Rom 3:22; CCC 1987) We see here that by justification we mean the passing of the soul from the state of sin, whether original or mortal, to the state of grace.

This takes place not only when we are baptised, but also when we commit mortal sin and are reconciled with God through contrition and confession.

It is the undeserved grace of God, won for us by Christ’s death and resurrection, that lifts us out of the state of sin. – Fr Flader

If we now ask the question, “Can good works bring about our justification?” the answer must be no. Only when we are in the state of grace can our good works be meritorious, that is deserving of an increase of grace and of storing up treasure in heaven.

When we are in the state of original sin before Baptism, or in the state of mortal sin after Baptism, our works have no merit. It is the undeserved grace of God, won for us by Christ’s death and resurrection, that lifts us out of the state of sin.

For this reason the Catechism says: “Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favour, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call …” (CCC 1996).

So in this sense, we can agree with Protestants.

But does this mean that our good works have no value at all in bringing about our justification?

No it doesn’t mean that.

While good works by themselves cannot merit justification, they do dispose us to receive God’s grace.

For example, an unbaptised adult or a person in the state of mortal sin, through his kindness, generosity and service to others along with prayer to God, prepares himself to receive God’s grace of conversion more easily.

And of course faith is fundamental, too, as Protestants teach.

In this sense the Catechism teaches: “Justification establishes co-operation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the co-operation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent” (CCC 1993).

This faith, as the Catechism says, leads to conversion and works of charity, so that the person is better prepared to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit.

When we pass from considering what is needed for justification to what is needed for salvation, that is eternal life in heaven, we find that good works are absolutely essential. – Fr Flader

When we pass from considering what is needed for justification to what is needed for salvation, that is eternal life in heaven, we find that good works are absolutely essential.

It is Jesus who says so. For example, in answer to the man who asked, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” he said, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Matt 19:16- 17). And in teaching about the final judgment, Jesus makes salvation dependent on works of charity: “Then he will say to those on his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food’.” (Matt 25:41-42)

Taking up these teachings, St James writes: “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” He goes on to say: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone …” (Jas 2:14-17, 24)

Summing up, to be saved we need faith but we also need works.

John Flader is a Catholic priest His Question Time column appears in The Catholic Weekly, Sydney, Catholic Leader, Brisbane and The Record, Perth.

Michael Jensen

“Must we bring that up again? Some of the best Christians I know are Roman Catholics. Why concentrate on what separates us, instead of what brings us together?”

I hear this sentiment a lot, and in part I agree with it. The new age of Islamic persecution of Christians in Africa and in the Middle East has also meant a new surge of unity between Christians from historically divided churches. Protestant evangelicals from the West have felt a solidarity with Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians who are facing dismemberment for owning the name of Christ.

Likewise, orthodox Christians of different denominations have found that they stand shoulder to shoulder in opposing theological liberalism and the rising tide of secularism.

Blood is certainly thicker than water.

Nevertheless, the difference remains between the Roman Catholic Church and classic Protestant on the central issue of how we are made right with God, and pussy-footing around the subject achieves nothing. What we need is a peaceable and yet honest discussion modelling serious Christian disagreement – affirming agreement where it stands and not demonising the other party out of hand, but ‘speaking the truth in love’.

That’s why I was delighted by the tone of the article by Fr John Flader I read recently in The Catholic Weekly.

But in the spirit in which that piece was written, I should like to offer a reply.

So, what’s the issue?

Fr Flader is trying to clarify the Roman Catholic position in response to the classic Protestant Reformation claim that justification is by faith alone. In many parts of his short piece, Flader sounds as if he is agreeing with Protestants.

But one of the problems that has beset this discussion for centuries is that Roman Catholics and Protestants mean different things by using the same words.

This is especially true with the three key words in the discussion: ‘justification’, ‘grace’ and ‘faith’.

‘Justification’, as the Council of Trent of 1546 says, is a “translation from that state in which a man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace and of the adoption of the sons of God through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Saviour”. A person is ‘justified’ when they are made holy, at the start of the Christian life.

On a Protestant account, justification is a legal term which indicates when a person is declared to be right (not made to be right). This matters not just for the beginning but also for the middle and end of the Christian life. It is not merely how we accept Christ, but how we continue in him. – Rev. Jensen

On a Protestant account, justification is a legal term which indicates when a person is declared to be right (not made to be right). This matters not just for the beginning but also for the middle and end of the Christian life. It is not merely how we accept Christ, but how we continue in him.

For Protestants, “grace” is God’s attitude of generosity and mercy to undeserving sinners. It is something you are shown. But in Roman Catholic teaching, “grace” is means something that an individual possesses. It is a thing inside a person, rather than an attitude of God.

And that’s not all. Roman Catholic teaching describes “faith” as an intellectual assent to the facts of the gospel. In the teaching of the Reformers of the sixteenth century, “faith” is more personal: it is trust in the promises of God declared in the gospel.

These are pretty big differences, as you can see. It means that even though sometimes Fr Flader sounds like he is saying that Protestants and Roman Catholics agree, in reality the differences are being obscured by using the same word to mean different things.

So how does Fr Flader explain ‘justification by faith’?

First, he says that he agrees with Protestants that ‘good works do not bring about justification’. For that, the grace of the Holy Spirit is needed “to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us ‘the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ’ and through Baptism”.

It’s important to notice how grace comes to a human being in this account. In the Roman Catholic account, the sacraments is inextricably linked to the way we receive grace. As Fr Flader put is, we move from a state of sin to a state of grace “not only when we are baptised, but also when we commit mortal sin and are reconciled with God through contrition and confession.”

Second, Fr Flader argues that though “good works by themselves cannot merit justification, they do dispose us to receive God’s grace.” As he explains it, that means that even though our good works don’t merit us receiving grace, they prepare us to receive it – like the ploughing of a field being prepared to receive the seed.

Third, Fr Flader distinguishes between justification, which for him means we are in the state of grace in the present, and future salvation. As he explains it, we are justified – brought into a state of grace – which means we are now inherently holy. The good works we do will then be the basis for our future salvation. As he puts it: “When we pass from considering what is needed for justification to what is needed for salvation, that is eternal life in heaven, we find that good works are absolutely essential”.

Fr Flader then cites a number of Scriptures which appear to support this contention, namely that at the last judgement we will be accounted saved because of our good works – James, for example, who says that “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone”. In this way, he says, “to be saved we need faith but we also need works.”

What is the Protestant reply?

First, to be justified by faith alone is not simply the beginning point of the Christian life but the whole of it. It is not simply a description of how you move from one state to another, but how you remain with Christ in God. How do we remain in Christ? By hearing afresh the gospel! That is Paul’s constant method of pastoring people in his epistles – by reminding them of the grace which teaches them to stay in Christ and to be filled with good works.

Secondly, the way in which we receive grace is strongly attached, in classic Roman Catholic fashion, to the sacraments, and in particular baptism. Baptism does not work as a stimulus to our faith, or as a sign of God’s work by the Holy Spirit, but as the actual means by which grace is to be received. The sacraments serve in this understanding as a kind of necessary conduit for grace.

Protestants have never – and could never – deny that Christians are called to do good works. That is the Bible’s teaching. – Rev. Jensen

A Protestant would point at this stage to the thief on the cross, to whom Jesus said ‘Today, you will be with me in paradise’. Surely, if anyone was justified, it was he; and yet, he was not the recipient of any sacrament. It was simply his faith that justified him.

This was true of the tax collector who was justified when he called out ‘have mercy on me, a sinner’ – in contrast to the pride of the Pharisee. There was no sacramental process in place for him either.

Thirdly: Protestants have never – and could never – deny that Christians are called to do good works. That is the Bible’s teaching. Indeed, Ephesians 2:8-10 says:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

To fit with the Catholic view, you would really have to say that Paul means something different by ‘works’ in vs 9 than he does by ‘good works’ in vs 10. If we a saved by our works, even partially, then we having something to boast about. But we don’t, according to Paul.

James famously says “faith without good works is dead”. Quite! No faith is worthy the name that does not result in good works overflowing in abundance. If you are a Christian without good works: rely on Christ, and you will be eager to do some!

But it is vital to clarify the relationship between faith and good works. Classily, Protestants have described faith as the ‘instrument’ of our justification, and good works as the ‘evidence’ for our justification.

What’s that mean? It means on the one hand that we are saved by faith alone, but that saving faith is never alone! On the other hand, it means that good works are the fruit of our justification, and of our final salvation.

That fits well with the words of Ephesians 2:8-10, and also with Paul’s account of Abraham’s justification in Romans 4, where Abraham ‘believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness’.

As you can see, on Fr Flader’s account of things, good works are part of the process of how we get saved. In other words, I think it is fair to say that they are not simply evidential for him – they are instrumental. Salvation is not simply evidenced by good works.

The difference between ‘evidence’ and ‘instrument’ helps us to understand how James can say “you see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone”, and for that to be coherent with Paul’s teaching that justification is only by faith. Justification is given freely to a sinner only by faith in the work of Jesus Christ, but that saving faith evidenced in a person by good works.

From the Protestant point of view, ascribing any role to good works in justification and salvation undermines the work of Jesus Christ on the cross for me. I will always be doubting whether I have done enough to merit God’s acceptance of me. – Rev. Jensen

This also makes sense of the passages that Fr Flader cites about the Sheep and the Goats and the rich young ruler. The exchange with the young ruler actually leads to the punchline, that without God, salvation is impossible! It actually undermines the possibility of good works playing a role in salvation. In Matthew 25, the ‘doing this to the least of these brothers and sisters’ is about how you receive the message of the disciples – that is, do you believe the gospel. It is not a description of salvation by the means of giving cups of water to the poor, but a picture of what happens when someone receives the gospel.

Does this sound like an obscure discussion? From the Protestant point of view, ascribing any role to good works in justification and salvation undermines the work of Jesus Christ on the cross for me. I will always be doubting whether I have done enough to merit God’s acceptance of me. It couldn’t get more central – and more personal – than that.

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