May 16, 2012

Why Do Catholics Believe Faith and Good Works are Necessary for Salvation? (Book of James)

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?  Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’  but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?  So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
-James 2: 14-17

One of the biggest differences in Catholic and Protestant beliefs is salvation through faith alone versus salvation through faith and works.  This was also the major dividing issue during the Reformation.  Both Catholics and Protestants believe that we are saved by God’s grace.  However, Catholics believe that justification involves the initial action of baptism, followed by an ongoing process where we are sanctified through our works.  On the other hand, Protestants believe that people are saved by faith alone (sola fide).  When Luther divided from the Catholic church, Jeff Cavins said there were two verses in the Bible that Luther really struggled with understanding.  It is easy to see why because when you simply read these two quotes by themselves they seem to be in direct opposition:

See how a person is justified by works, and not by faith alone.” 
– James 2:24

For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” 
- Romans 3:28

However, there’s a little bit more to them when you look at them in context.  By saying “works,” James was referring to the moral law, in other words the 10 commandments and works of mercy.  On the other hand, in the Romans quote when Paul says “works of the law,” he is not referring to the moral law, but to the mosaic or ceremonial law, which encompassed the Jewish laws of the time, such as circumcision.  He was not saying that people are justified through faith apart from good works.  He was telling the Jews and Gentiles that even if they obeyed all of the ceremonial laws at the time and properly performed all of the rituals, they still could not be justified without faith.  

In fact, because he didn't look at them in context, these quotes caused Luther to struggle so much that he wanted to take the book of James entirely out of the Bible.  He moved it into the appendix until his colleagues told him that he could not do that with God's word.  He misunderstood the context of the quotes in the Bible and could not reconcile the two of them, so he ended up inserting the word “alone” into the Bible quote in Romans to make it say “For we consider that a person is justified by faith alone apart from works of the law."  From then on, he established the belief for Protestants that people are saved through faith alone.

Also, we can actually see in many other parts of the Bible that Paul did indeed believe that faith and works are necessary.  For example, in Galatians 5:1 he says "For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love."  Love is an action we extend to other people that shows God's grace, and we must have those actions/good works with our faith.  Not only this, but now you can really see the way he refers to the ceremonial laws (like he did in Romans 3:28) because of the time period and the audience to whom he was speaking.  Then, in Romans 5:6 and 16:26, Paul mentions "obedience of faith." 

It's not enough for us to simply have faith in believe in God and his teachings.  If we believe one of the ten commandments and have faith in God, but we do not obey it and act in accordance with it it is useless.  

As I mentioned, Protestants believe that justification is a one time thing through faith, whereas Catholics believe justification is an ongoing process.  A great example of the ongoing process of justification is seen in the the history of Abraham's life.  Some say that Abraham was justified one time when it says in Genesis 15:6 that "Abraham put his faith in the Lord, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness."  Now, Chapter 11 of Hebrews talks all about saving faith, and in Hebrews 11:8 it says "By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; he went out, not knowing where he was to go."  Yet, this even occurred years before the event in Genesis 15:6.  Abraham believed in the Lord with saving faith, and he acted on it by obeying him to leave for another land. 

Then, James tells us in 2:20-24: "Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?  You see that faith was active along with works, and faith was completed by the works.  Thus Scripture was fulfilled that says 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as an act of righteousness,' and he was called 'the friend of God.' "  Abraham's justification was continuous process, and his faith was completed through his works.  We must have both.

Finally, I don't want to make it seem like Catholics believe that you can work your way to heaven because that is certainly not the case.  It is by God’s grace that we are given the ability to be saved, but it is necessary for us to both have faith and do good works.  As James says in 2:26, “For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”  Without a spirit in our body, it is completely useless, nothing but a corpse.  The same holds true for our faith - faith is no good if we don't complete it through good works. 

Jeff Cavins said in the video that when someone asks us whether or not we are saved, we should respond with “I was saved, I am being saved, and I hope to be saved.”  There is nothing at all in the Bible that says once we are saved, we are always saved. Trust me, I would much rather believe that justification is a one time deal and that because I was baptized I am saved.  It would be a comfortable place to be in to know that heaven is definitely ahead for me.  However, I really believe in the doctrine of Catholicism, and I can clearly see that the Bible shows the necessity of having faith and works for justification.  God will absolutely come again one day to judge our lives, faith, and our works.

This blog post is based on the Bible Study James: Pearls for Wise Living by Jeff Cavins. Here are my previous posts based on this study:



  1. Caitlin, thank you so much for sharing this wisdom! This has stumped me for a long time! The distinction between ceremonial and moral "works" is exactly the understanding I have been missing! Thank you so much! I love our Protestant brothers and sisters, and my faith has been often reignited by their zeal, BUT now I have a missing slice of knowledge that kept me from fully understanding the differences here.

    1. I also love all of my Protestant friends! :) The distinction between ceremonial and moral "works" has really cleared things up for me. There were definitely parts of Bible that confused me with the faith vs. faith and works debate, but it all makes a lot more sense to me now. I always believed in the Catholic church's teaching on faith and works, but now certain quotes in the Bible make much more sense! :)

  2. Thank you for the insights. Protestant doctrine of being saved "by faith alone" and "once saved, always saved" never made sense to me. It would be waaaay to easy to just say "I believe" and have eternal paradise guaranteed to you. Even Satan believes in God.

    We are all called to holiness but we must work, struggle, suffer, along with believing and trusting, to get us there!

    Thanks again for sharing your insights. :-)

    1. Your comment made me remember that I forgot to write about another quote at the end! - "You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble." - James 2:19. You are very right, we have a lot to do to get there!

      I hope you are having a good week! :)

  3. As a lifelong Protestant (who has admittedly not studied Luther), I just wanted to offer my view. Of course, there are many Protestant denominations that might explain things differently. But my understanding is that, as you said, Protestants believe in justification through faith alone. However, Protestants also believe that faith without works is dead. As a Protestant, my understanding of the scripture you point to in James 2:20-24 is more along the lines of Abraham’s works are evidence of his faith. I think for Protestants, the works comes in at a different point: they are a result/evidence of the salvation, rather than part of the means to salvation. In Paul’s letter to Titus, Paul instructs Titus to tell the people to devote themselves to doing good works, after saying that we have been justified by God’s mercy and grace (Titus 3:3-8).
    As you said, for Protestants, justification is not an ongoing process. However, there is the process of sanctification, which is an ongoing process of resisting sin and striving to be righteous. We can strive to live this way, but we will continue to make mistakes and sin. However, we are still justified through God’s grace. At the same time, I don’t think anyone would agree that it would be right for one to say that he has faith in God, and then continue to knowingly live a sinful life because he believes he is already justified. But God knows the heart. And if one truly has faith in God, then that individual will strive to live according to God’s will.
    Just my thoughts. :)

    1. Thank you so much for commenting! :) It is really enlightening to hear more from that perspective. It kind of seems to me like the Catholic and Protestant views are more similar than people think. While there is still technically a huge difference between justification through faith and justification through faith and works, both believe that faith and works go hand in hand. I think that we could all agree that we should strive to act according to God's will because our actions reflect our faith and we want others to see God's goodness and love.

      I would say that what Paul says in Titus is in line with the Catholic teaching. I agree that in Titus 3:3-8 Paul is saying that God's grace is what enables us to be justified. When it says "not because of any righteous deeds we have done," it is saying what both faiths believe - nothing we have done could ever cause us to deserve salvation. We have the free gift of salvation only because of God's grace and mercy. However, it is up to us to have faith in him and, as Paul said, to devote ourselves to doing good works.

  4. Great explanation. I have always thought it should be a given that faith requires you to DO good things. You aren't changed are constantly changing. It doesn't make sense to get baptized and then live however you want to live. Nor does it make sense to do whatever you want just because you think you can be forgiven in confession. True change of heart and turning away from the sin is absolutely necessary. I am growing and learning every single day.

    "I was saved, I am being saved, and I hope to be saved." I read this in a blog post today, but I can't remember where. It sums the idea up perfectly. In order to be continue to be in God's SAVING GRACE we MUST be worthy of it.

    1. *Slaps head* Read it here. Ugh. Ignore me. Been one of THOSE weeks!!!!!

    2. Haha I just assumed that another person was doing this study and posted about it! We are definitely constantly changing, which is a good thing for me because I have a lot of room for improvement in my life! :) Really we all do because we're all sinful.