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Sola Fide - is justification by faith alone?

What Does the Catholic Church Teach about Sola Fide and Justification?

Today we want to look at the doctrine of Sola Fide, otherwise referred to as Faith Alone! It is the collapse of our belief in this doctrine that was the beginning of our exit out of the Wesleyan Church, and into the searching that led us into the Catholic faith. Therefore we want to give a simple description of just how justification is defined by both the Protestant and Catholic Church. We will then explain ourselves in why we came to a disbelief of this Protestant understanding of Justification.

How is justification understood by Protestants and Catholics?

P – Justification as understood by the Protestant faith: A legal or forensic term that says that a person is righteous in the sight of God. That God declares the guilty and polluted sinner to be righteous in Christ. It is the legal and declarative act on God’s part as the Supreme Judge that he is. Denying that it is in any sense a moral transformation or inner renewal. Furthermore, it is denied to be a grace given at conversion which then allows the sinner to perform the law due to their justification. It is a legal adoption into the family of God.

C – Justification as understood by the Catholic faith: One receives not a legal acquittal only, but the full gift of divine sonship and nothing less. It is living, active and powerful, and is given to us at the same moment we are justified. It is the sanctification and the renewal of the whole being, of the interior man. While justification involves a legal decree, a divine word that we are just, it also infuses us with Christ’s life and grace as the divine son, so that we become living breathing sons of God. Not just in a legalistic adoptive way, but actually as sons of God.

While these descriptions are easily seen for their differences, it may not be what most are used to hearing. Usually we hear that the difference between Protestantism and Catholicism is that the Protestant believes in justification by faith alone, while Catholics believe in justification by faith and works. That through faith and their own merit, the Catholic achieves justification. We ourselves have always been taught this distinction. This is one of the beliefs that kept us from ever considering the Catholic church as legitimate or even Christian, because how can one say that they are justified by their own works? How can one believe, that they can perform by their own merit, a life that obtains justification? If this were true, then why the sacrifice. If it were true then why were the Jews not able to achieve their own justification prior to Christ? Surprisingly, we found as we researched that this was a common misconception of the Catholic church. A grave error that has helped in creating an uncrossable chasm between the two faiths. Because of this we want to explain just what the Catholic church believes, in regards to their view on justification that includes both faith and works, and not just faith alone.

What does James 2 say about justification?

 It is common to hear the Protestant view stated as “justification by faith alone, and not by works, lest any man should boast.” It appears to correlate with what Paul must be meaning when he very clearly states “not of works, lest any man should boast.” However, we found this view to create an issue when we looked at the book of James. Should we understand Paul in this passage to be saying that justification is by faith alone? What then were we to do about James chapter 2, verses 14-26? Where James says:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. Likewise, was not Rahab the prostitute also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by another road? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.(NRSV)

So what do we do with this? How do we understand these two different passages when they so clearly seem to contradict each other. We learned that when we tried to view Paul’s statement of works with an understanding that he is talking about works-righteousness, we saw that Paul and James were speaking about justification in the same sense. They are in harmony with each other. This allowed us to finally understand why the Protestant view of faith alone, appears to have Paul explicitly contradicting James when he says that we are not justified by faith alone? It is because Paul is talking about meritorious works. He is saying that salvation is a free gift by faith, and not by those that use works in the sense of a wage or salary. Lest any man should boast of his meritorious works.

We are brought into the family of God by this gift of salvation when we are justified. However, let us ask this question? Who can buy their way into a family? They cannot, it is a gift that is pure and without any merits earned by the person coming into the family. Also, who can actually say that any father would tell their child that they will become the leader of the family and obtain their full inheritance no matter what they do? No, a parent teaching their child what they should be doing according to the life and truth that they are handing on to them – is a gift. The gift is straight from the heart and life of the parent into the heart and soul of the child. As in the Father to the Son of God, and through our sonship, to the Christian. This is what is taught in the Bible, this is James’ teaching, it is also Paul’s teaching, and shockingly it is also what the Catholic Church teaches.

Catholics and Meritorious Works

Now wait, how can this be? Don’t Catholics believe in meritorious works? We certainly always believed that they do. They declare that justification is by faith and works, so how can they also say that justification is by faith and not by any sort of merit? After looking through the churches beliefs on justification, grace, merit, and holy living we saw that we had been wrong all along. They did not believe in merit that could be earned. What they did believe was this:

 From Christ alone, through grace alone, by faith and works done in love, only and always by the Holy Spirit.

Since we could see that they did not believe in works of merit, we were able to look further into what the Catholic church believes in regards to works and found that we also believe this teaching. They teach that Jesus offers himself as a free gift, but that we are wrong to say that we “only” have to accept. Jesus himself declares that there will be those in that last day that will say “Lord, Lord” and that he will tell them to depart as workers of lawlessness. Paul himself says to do what with fear and trembling? To work out our faith! But what about Paul saying “not by works lest any man should boast?” Again, he is talking about works that are not part of the family, separated from sonship, and void of grace. He is talking about people who are not sons of God, but think and act as employees who are trying to earn a wage. So why does Paul say to work out our faith? Well, what father would want their children to not be learning, maturing, working, growing, and becoming like their father. We used to always see Catholics doing good works and thought this meant that they were trying to earn the Grace of the Father. But that was not the case. They were not doing these works in order that they would be saved? No, they did these works because they were are already saved, and they were working out their salvation by God’s grace and the Spirits work in them.

What do “works” mean in Catholicism?

So what are some of these works that Catholics are doing? Works covers a multitude of areas. When we pray and ask Christ into our heart as our personal Lord and Savior, we are doing something. When we show love and compassion to our brothers and sisters in Christ, we are doing something. When we pray for someone, sing in church, study Scripture, or share the Gospel with others we are in fact doing something. We are performing works. Not works as in earning our salvation, but works that are done in love because of our faith. Again, we want to state that the Catholic Church believes in faith and works done in love, only and always by the Holy Spirit. Catholics do not believe in legalism, they do not believe in works-righteousness, you cannot bargain with God in order to be justified. We are changed from children of Satan into children of God. We are filled with his love, life, and wondrous power. Not only because of a legal decree, but because we are given Christ in his sonship. This means that the Catholic believes that every deed that is done, that is found pleasing to God, is merely the work of Christ, active in a Christian through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is not ourselves that make us competent to do good works, but the Holy Spirit that enables us to cooperate and operate according to God’s will. This is why we are justified and made holy by God’s grace alone.

Do Catholics believe in “Faith Alone?”

So even though it was clear to us that the Catholic church do not believe in meritorious works, what about faith “alone?” This led us to research into the reformation and why such controversy over this one word. Why is it that the Catholics were absolutely dead set against this single word. It is in this searching that we learned it was Martin Luther who had added the word “alone” to Romans 3:8 when he was translating the Bible into the German tongue. We also learned that the belief of faith “alone” was a creation of Luther as well. We struggled with this concept until we learned the truth into how he dissected the Bible in order to make his theological recreations work. Anytime you have to add words to Scripture, remove 7 books of the Old Testament used by the church, parts of two other Old Testament books (Daniel and Esther), and 4 of the New Testament books (James, Hebrews, Jude, Revelation) in order to make your belief work – you lose all basis of legitimacy. Especially if you are going to claim to believe in Sola Scriptura (Bible alone) as the only authority. How can this be the sole authority of teaching if it can be altered. If there was no church tradition already being protected by God’s faithful, the Bible would have changed at that time into something it was never intended to be. This was a great eye opener to us. Now yes, we understand that the Protestant church later put back the 4 New Testament books, (Though all of the Old Testament that was removed went to the index of the Bible and eventually through time, removed altogether) but the fact they had to even be put back should say something about the theology that was created from the attempt at its removal. We learned that the Catholic church however, continues to use all of the accepted readings since the Bible was established in the Synod of Hippo Regius in AD.393 and again affirmed by St. Augustine at the Councils of Carthage in AD.397.

Scriptural Support for Faith and Works

So if this is the case, and we were to consider that it was faith and works through love, we still needed some Scriptural support for such a claim. Here are a few of what we found: (all quotes from NRSV)

Romans 2:6 – For he will repay according to each one’s deeds:

Matthew 19:17 – “…If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”

Romans 2:13 – For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law that will be justified.

Ephesians 2:10 – For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Matthew 5:16 – In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Revelation 22:12 – “See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work.”

Revelation 20:12 – And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books.

John 5:10 – “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.”

Hebrews 5:9 – and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.

Matthew 25:31-46 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

1 John 3:24 – All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

We would like to point out something in this last one. It says that those who Christ abides in, will obey his commandments by the Spirit that he has given that abides in us. This was shocking to us because it is the Catholic understanding of justification. Lets look at that once more.

“By faith and works done in love, only and always by the Holy Spirit”

We point all of this out because we wish to clarify exactly what it is that the Catholic Church teaches. We want to make clear that it is not a meritorious works-righteousness as many in the Protestant faith believe it is. We also wanted to make clear why we do not believe anymore in Martin Luther’s created idea of faith ”alone.” We hope that this topic has helped those reading to gain a clearer understanding on what exactly the Catholic Church teaches regarding justification when they say by faith and works and not by faith alone. Thank You.

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