Sunday, March 7, 2010

Faith Alone? What about our works?

An email conversation with a friend has caused me to think extend my remarks begun in this post and this post.

To quote Luther:
So, too, faith comes only through the word of God, the Gospel, that preaches Christ: how he is both Son of God and man, how he died and rose for our sake. Paul says all this in chapters 3, 4 and 10.
That is why faith alone makes someone just and fulfills the law; faith it is that brings the Holy Spirit through the merits of Christ. The Spirit, in turn, renders the heart glad and free, as the law demands. Then good works proceed from faith itself. That is what Paul means in chapter 3 when, after he has thrown out the works of the law, he sounds as though the wants to abolish the law by faith. No, he says, we uphold the law through faith, i.e. we fulfill it through faith.

And below, an interesting item from the Roman Catholic Pope Benedict. I don't think he is adopting the reformed doctrine of sola fide, but it is hard to escape the Apostle Paul's teaching in his clear words on salvation which is of faith in Christ alone and not of works, especially as found in Romans and Galatians. The Pope quotes an unlikely source:

Pope Benedict: "And to the Christians of Rome he [Paul] reasserts that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus" (Rm 3: 23-24). And he adds "we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law" (v. 28). At this point Luther translated: "justified by faith alone". I shall return to this point..."
"Further observances are no longer necessary. For this reason Luther's phrase: "faith alone" is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love. Faith is looking at Christ, entrusting oneself to Christ, being united to Christ, conformed to Christ, to his life."
from his General Audience of Nov. 19, 2008.

Me: a true and lively faith in Christ alone for our forgiveness and justification will show forth the fruit of good works born of thankfulness and charity... never perfect yet always acceptable by His grace.

and from another source:

Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 3:24-25). He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6). All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works and merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23-25). This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us ...

It is quite telling though how quickly as believers we want to immediately move on to law after hearing this good news.

"Yeah but don't we need to obey? We do need to do good works, you know! We can't just have faith!!"

As Michael Horton has pointed out, humans identify with law and works. It is our default position. Faith and trust in Christ alone, i.e. dependence on what Christ has done through the cross, is counter-intuitive and itself a gift of grace. Paul in Rom. 3:21, after showing how all are shut up in sin under the law, introduces the good news of justification by faith with the exclamation "But now!". We hear that good news and too often instinctively ask,"Yeah, but what do I need to do?" It's as if God has only started our justification through faith in Christ and now, in order to complete it and maintain it, we need to make sure we're holding up our end of the bargain.

There are good works. But they necessarily proceed from our justification in Christ. Trusting in Christ alone for one's salvation results in a new heart (a work of the Holy Spirit) that is now alive to God and inclined toward obedience. Thus works flow from faith and thankfulness in light of his wondrous gift of forgiveness and justification. But these works (being yet imperfect) are never, partially or whole, the basis of our right standing before God. That righteous standing is secured solely on the basis of Christ's death and resurrection. So to say "by faith alone" is to say "by faith in Christ's finished work of the cross alone", i.e. being declared righteous before God because of his perfect sacrifice for our sins and his perfect obedience on our behalf for our justification. Our motive then for obedience to him is one of thankfulness, not need or fear. Paul sums up at the end of Romans chapter 3:27-31,

"Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law."

Faith in Christ alone never obviates good works. Faith alone speaks of what (and Whom) the Christian depends on for his acceptance before God, for his redemption from the curse, and for 'the' - though I was lost, now I am found!


  1. This is really wonderful Jack. Thank you.

  2. I agree. You are working your thoughts well, and helping to open up my mind to stuff I haven't thought about too much. The exigencies of life have a way of shutting off "God thought." I thank you for sharing your explorations into grace, faith, obedience and justification. My mother, a devout Catholic raised in the Eastern Maronite tradition, prays several times a day and anxiously seeks union with God in heaven. I should pray 1/10th as much as her!

  3. Great! And thanks for the quote from Benedict XVI, which sounds wonderful. But it is hard to reconcile to what the CCC teaches about purgatory and indulgences.

  4. Fr. Wells,

    Benedict's quote is an example of the confusion that is in RC official teaching. All of it can't be reconciled. And that which was codified in Trent is at the heart of the problem. More than a few 16th century RC Bishops and clergy sought for a move toward the Reformers position before and during the Trent council... to no avail.

    Thanks for visiting.