I had an encounter with a non Catholic friend. We had gone through a lengthy discussion on faith without ever coming to a consensus.
His claim was that we only need to believe in God and have faith to be saved. Deeds or actions are just an attempt in vain and was absolutely irrelevant. And they are nothing short of filthy before God as the prophet Isaiah wrote, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” Isaiah 64:6a [RSV-CE] He bombarded me with several verses from the New Testament. And it appeared that there were a selected army of verses which were his weapons of defense.
Now let us consider these passages from two books of the NT:
“We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, 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.” Galatians 2:15-16 [RSV-CE]
“You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.” James 2:24,26 [RSV-CE]
These passages seem to be in a sharp contrast with one another. However, the two authors were addressing a certain lack in the early Christians growth. So the setting and context is crucial to understand these points.
St. Paul was drawing the attention of the Galatians to be saved through faith in God and not in the Jewish observance of the law. These works of the law implied the law of Moses.
St. James placed emphasis on the necessity of faith to be coupled with good works. So far from the above verses contradicting, they rather complement one another. St. James was more or less continuing what St. Paul preached to the Galatians.
Indeed, if St. Paul actually claimed that faith in God alone was enough, he would not have continued to speak on the fruits of the Holy Spirit which “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control;…” Galatians 5:22-23a [RSV-CE]
One who proclaims with the lips, ‘I believe in God and in His Son Jesus Christ’ and convinces himself of being saved thereof declares an absurd stance which is no less diabolical. “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder.” James 2:19 [RSV-CE]
When Abraham believed in God and in his promises, the act of belief was not intangible. It was clearly visible. Abraham’s belief in God comprised of two important aspects:
- Faith: that He would do what He has promised.
- Obedience: to the will of God which was evident in his action.
Therefore, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God. James 2:23 [RSV-CE]
“Do you want to be shown, you foolish fellow, that faith apart from works is barren? 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 his works, and faith was completed by works, You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” James 2:20-22,24 [RSV-CE]
Back to Isaiah 64:6 which my friend raised, there was a reason why their deeds were displeasing to God. Just before the verse it reads: “Behold, thou wast angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved?” Isaiah 64:5b [RSV-CE]
Hence it makes sense when the prophet wrote that their good deeds had become filthy. Their sins had made their works unclean. What was needed was repentance and contrition. That was why Christ said in Matthew 5:23-24 thus:
“So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Obedience therefore is better than sacrifice.
The Scriptures does not claim faith alone. The only instance we see that statement and even disproved is in James 2:24b, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Our good works are fruits of our faith and not independent of it. Christ says in John 15:5, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” He gives us a charge, declaring in 15:8, “that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.”
Bearing fruit implies obedience to the will of God and keeping His commands:
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” John 14:15 [RSV-CE]
He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” John 14:21 [RSV-CE]
“Jesus answered him, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” John 14:23 [RSV-CE]
“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” John 15:10 [RSV-CE]
And His commandments are thus:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Luke 10:27 [RSV-CE]
It requires actions in loving God and neighbour. We are encouraged right from the Scriptures to persist in doing good works:
“For this very reason make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these things are yours and abound, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 1:5-8 [RSV-CE]
“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 5:16 [RSV-CE]
“Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” 1 Peter 2:12 [RSV-CE]
“The saying is sure. I desire you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to apply themselves to good deeds; these are excellent and profitable to men.” Titus 3:8 [RSV-CE]
“And let our people learn to apply themselves to Good deeds, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not to be unfruitful.” Titus 3:14 [RSV-CE]
“Show yourself in all respects a model of Good deeds, and in your teaching show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say of us.” Titus 2:7-8 [RSV-CE]
“Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for any honest work,” Titus 3:1 [RSV-CE]
“They are to do good, to be rich in Good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed.” 1 Timothy 6:18-19 [RSV-CE]
“to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;” Romans 2:7 [RSV-CE]
So now, being encouraged by the words of St. Paul in Philippians 2:12,13, let us work out our own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.