Why Don’t Catholics Believe in Justification by Faith Alone?

At a General Audience on November 19, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI made a startling proclamation: “Luther’s phrase: “faith alone” [Latin: sola fide—ed.] is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love.” At first, this statement might seem to collide with Trent: “If anyone says that the godless are justified by faith alone … let him be anathema” (Trent, VI, canon 9). Again, “For faith, unless hope and charity are added thereto, neither unites one perfectly with Christ nor makes one a living member of his body” (Trent, VI, ch. 7).

There are differences of expression, emphasis, and insight here. But do the differences constitute contradictions? Not at all.

Catholic Doctrine

Let’s begin by establishing the bedrock: defined Catholic dogma. Then we will consider the unique insights and contributions of our Holy Father.

Justification is a mystery which cannot be exhaustively understood. We can only approach a mystery in receptive, vigorous wonder: “Come not nigh hither, put off the shoes from thy feet: for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.” Still, we can gather some understanding of this mystery. We can speak about what happens in justification; we can speak about who causes justification and through what means; and we can speak about the basis for justification. Let us start with a brief description touching on all these points.

Justification involves the free forgiveness of sins and the re-creation of the sinner through the infusion of justifying grace, otherwise known as sanctifying grace. This infusion makes us God’s truly just friends and adopted sons (CCC 1266, 1999, 2000, and 2010; Compendium of the Catechism 263 and 423). God alone causes justification, working through the sacraments of baptism and reconciliation. The basis for justification—the grounds on account of which God justifies—are the merits of Jesus Christ. Let us now explore these elements in greater detail.

Justification as Forgiveness of Sin

The personal sins forgiven in justification differ from person to person, but when we speak of “justification,” the sins forgiven must include mortal sin and original sin. When someone already in the state of grace is forgiven only venial sins, the subject is not, strictly speaking, justification (the first moment of Christian spiritual life) but rather ongoing sanctification (sometimes called “second justification”).

What is original sin?

Original sin is what we inherit from Adam: We are all conceived in a state of alienation from God (cf.Ps 50[51], Eph 2:3). We are deprived of sanctifying grace, which made us radiant like angels. Stripped of our royal robe, we inherit the rebellious state Adam chose. Also, we are ravaged interiorly by this loss, so we find acts of supernatural virtue impossible, acts of natural virtue difficult, and, often enough, acts of vice attractive. This is not all.

Upon birth, those begotten of Adam (except the Mother of God) also bear the stain of guilt before God, which cries out for eternal punishment. Since sin entails guilt before God; only God can remit sin. Indeed, only the one who is offended can reestablish a violated relationship. No matter how much I try to win back the friend I have wronged, I must await his free forgiveness. How much more is this the case with God!

What of mortal sin? An act of mortal sin is an offense of infinite proportion because instead of cleaving to God as I am commanded (Dt. 6:4), I choose another god. Whether money, fame, pleasure, or vain knowledge, it is not the living God. Against such sin, the wrath of God flares up (Rom 1:18). Yet, God does not consume the sinner immediately; he is slow to anger and rich in mercy (Rom 2:4, Eph 2:4). Often, he gently asks the shivering soul cloaked by shame, “Where are you?” (Gn. 3:9).

God can call dead bones to life and he does not quench the smoldering wick. Yet, God’s mercy does not come cheap. Preachers of “mercy” who do not call to mind the divine wrath misread Paul. In the face of God’s justice, one cannot but confess, no man can ransom himself.

Behold fallen man: Interiorly destitute of divine life, frequently inclined towards evil, soiled with guilt. The result: “by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified before him.” There is no human sinner who can make himself just. This is bad news but true. What doctor ever healed before a proper diagnosis? God, wanting man’s cooperation, shares with him this diagnosis, that he might come freely to the Light of life, drawn by the Father. God is not only just but merciful. As he created us without our assistance, so he redeemed us without the cooperation of sinners, putting forth his Son as an expiation for sin. The sole human person cooperating in our redemption was Mary. An expiation is a sacrifice lovingly offered in atonement. Our expiation is the self-offering of the Son made flesh. Instead of condemning us sinful humans, he became one of us yet without sin. This Redemption is radical. Such a gift can only be received; it cannot be earned, though its acceptance through faith is an act of free will.

Justification as Re-creation

We have covered the first aspect of justification, the forgiveness of sins, together with the Redemption in Christ and the prevenient love of God. The second aspect—inseparable from the first—is the infusion of sanctifying grace and the theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity) by which the human person becomes God’s acceptable child, his loving friend, an heir of eternal life.

As Catholic faith teaches, forgiveness is not isolated from this re-creation (Gal 6:15) but comes hand in hand with it (Trent, VI, ch. 7 and canons 10-11). It would be unintelligible for God to forgive the godless and call him godly if he remains godless in reality. Rather, God forgives the sins of the godless whom he makes godly (Eph 2:1-5), obedient from the heart (Rom 6:17). There is an internal difference of great magnitude between the unjustified and the justified. Whereas the former “[do] not submit to God’s law” (Rom 8:7), the latter do, for they are made lovers of God, and whoever loves God keeps his commandments (Jn 14:15) and no one who does not keep his commandments loves God (Jn 14:21). God alone replaces the heart of stone with a heart of flesh (Ez 36:26). This surgery is divinely wrought, not a work of human effort (Eph 2:8-10).

The foregoing remarks show us that on at least three counts our Redemption is not by works of law. First, no one can exact forgiveness, much less divine forgiveness. Second, no one can bring down grace, no matter how much he tries. Third, a rotten tree—which is what man is when born—cannot bear (supernaturally) good fruit. Similarly, justification, which is dependent on Christ’s redemptive act, is a free gift and not a work of law (Rom 3:20, 28; Gal 2:16; Eph 2:9) nor a product of human willing (Jn 1:13).

Addressing Further Scriptural References

One passage Fundamentalists often cite as a proof against the Catholic view of salvation is Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, for it is the gift of God; Not of works, that no man may glory.” Though this passage can often stymie Catholics in conversation, it is nothing to be threatened by.

Even if we assume that Paul is speaking of “good works” when he says we have not been saved by works, this in no way conflicts with Catholic theology. Notice that the passage speaks of salvation in the past tense—“you are saved.” In Greek this is the perfect tense, which denotes a past, completed action.

We know from other passages in Paul that salvation also has present and future.aspects, so the kind of salvation Paul is discussing in Ephesians 2:8-9 is initial salvation. It is the kind which we received when we first came to God and were justified, not the kind of salvation we are now receiving (cf. 1 Peter 1:8-9, Phil. 2:12) or the kind we will one day receive (cf. Rom. 13:11, 1 Cor. 3:15, 5:5).

But the Catholic Church does not teach that we receive initial justification by good works. You do not have to do good works in order to come to God and be justified.

The Council of Trent states, in the Decree on Justification 8: “We are said to be justified by grace because nothing that precedes justification, whether faith or works, merits the grace of justification. For ‘if it is by grace, it is no longer by works;’ otherwise, as the apostle says, ‘grace is no more grace’ [Rom. 11:6].”

So even if Paul were using “works” to mean “good works” in Ephesians 2:8-9, there is no conflict with Catholic theology. However, Paul probably does not mean “good works.” Normally when he says “works,” he means “works of the Law.” His point is to stress that we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the Mosaic Law. Jews have no ability to boast in front of Gentiles of having a privileged relationship with God because they keep the Mosaic Law and its requirement of circumcision (cf. Romans 2:6-11, 17-21, 25-29, 3:21-22, 27-30).

These same elements—works, boasting, circumcision, and the Jewish/Gentile distinction—are present in Ephesians 2. Paul discusses how Jew and Gentiles are united together in the body of Christ and mentions works in connection with boasting, before turning to the whole subject of circumcision and membership in Christ:

11 For which cause be mindful that you, being heretofore Gentiles in the flesh, who are called uncircumcision by that which is called circumcision in the flesh, made by hands; 12 That you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the conversation of Israel, and strangers to the testament, having no hope of the promise, and without God in this world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus, you, who some time were afar off, are made nigh by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and breaking down the middle wall of partition, the enmities in his flesh: 15 Making void the law of commandments contained in decrees; that he might make the two in himself into one new man, making peace; 16 And might reconcile both to God in one body by the cross, killing the enmities in himself. 17 And coming, he preached peace to you that were afar off, and peace to them that were nigh. 18 For by him we have access both in one Spirit to the Father. 19 Now therefore you are no more strangers and foreigners; but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and the domestics of God.
Eph. 2:11-19

Because of the common themes of both passages, Paul is using “works” and “boasting” here as he does in Romans, i.e., of Jews boasting before Gentiles of having privilege with God due to their keeping the Mosaic Law.

The apostle then turns our attention away from works of the Mosaic Law and toward the kind of works a Christian should be interested in—good works: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).

The sense of what Paul is saying is: God has raised up both of us—Jews and Gentiles—to sit in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, for we received initial salvation as a gift. We obtained it by faith in Christ (which itself is a gift from God), not by works of obedience to the Mosaic Law. So neither Jew or Gentile can boast over the other of having privilege with God. Ephesians 2:6-10 might then be paraphrased as, “Instead, we Christians are the result of God’s work, for he created us anew in the body of Christ so that we might do good works—the kind of works we should be concerned about—for God intended ahead of time for us to do them”

If Protestants try to put Catholics on the defensive using Ephesians 2:8-9, they themselves are put on the defensive when Catholics cite James 2:24. Protestants are known their slogan stating that we are justified by “faith alone,” but the expression “faith alone” only appears once in the Bible—in James 2:24—where it is rejected. This is a burr under the saddle of Protestants, for if they want to use terms the way the Bible does, they would have to give up their chief slogan.

When Catholics point this out, many Protestants attempt damage control by attacking the faith being discussed in James 2, saying it is an inferior or bad faith. Some do this by labeling it “dead faith.” They treat “faith without works is dead” (vv. 17, 26) as if it were a definition and say, “If faith does not produce works then it is dead faith. It is this dead faith that James says won’t save us.”

But reading the context shows that James is not using the phrase as a definition. He is not defining the term “dead faith.” That term does not appear in the text. He is stating a fact, not offering a definition. The interpretation flies apart at the seams when we test it by substituting “dead faith” wherever the text mentions faith.

On that reading, people would be boasting of having dead faith (v. 14). James would be making the redundant statement that dead faith without works is dead (vv. 17, 26) and offering to prove that dead faith is barren (v. 20). He would be offering to show people his dead faith by his works (v. 18) and commending people (“you do well”) for having dead faith (v. 19). Finally, he would be telling us that Abraham’s dead faith was active with his works (v. 22) and that Abraham believed God with dead faith and it was reckoned to him as righteousness (v. 23).

Another attempt to impugn the faith in this passage uses the statement “Even the demons believe—and tremble” (v. 19). People ask, “What kind of faith do demons have? Only mere intellectual assent. They intellectually assent to the truths of theology, but this is as far as their faith goes.”

This understanding of the faith in James 2 is closer to the truth, but it still creates problems—in fact, many of the same problems. People would be boasting of having mere intellectual assent (v. 14). James would be offering to show others his mere intellectual assent by his works (v. 18). He would be commending people for having mere intellectual assent (v. 19) and saying that Abraham’s mere intellectual assent was active along with his works (v. 22)—in which case it wouldn’t be “mere” any more. Finally, he would be saying that Abraham’s mere intellectual assent was reckoned to him as righteousness, contradicting verse 23, which would state that mere intellectual assent is barren.

The “mere intellectual assent” solution fails just as the “dead faith” one did. In fact, any solution that impugns the faith James is talking about as a bad or inferior faith will fail. This can be seen by going through the passage and substituting “bad faith” and “inferior faith” wherever faith is mentioned. Such solutions fail because James does not see anything wrong with the faith he is talking about. The faith isn’t the problem; the fact it is alone is the problem.

To understand what kind of faith James has in mind, one must avoid the temptation to read something bad into it. This is where the “mere intellectual assent” solution went wrong. Its advocates correctly identified verse 19 as the key to understanding the faith being discussed, which is intellectual assent. Adding the term “mere” to make it sound bad created the problems.

Leave “mere” off, and the problems vanish. Someone can go around boasting that he intellectually assents to God’s truth (v. 14), prompting James’s need to show that intellectual assent without works is dead and barren (vv. 17, 20, 26). He could offer to show his intellectual assent by his works (v. 18). And he could commend a person for having intellectual assent (the first part of verse 19), while saying that even the demons have it but it doesn’t stop them from trembling at the prospect of God’s wrath (the second half of the verse).

Finally, he can speak of how Abraham’s intellectual assent was active with and completed by his works (v. 22) and can conclude that man is not justified by intellectual assent alone (v. 24). James views intellectual assent as a good thing (“you do well,” v. 19a), but not as a thing that will save us by itself (vv. 14, 17, 20, 24, 26).

Thus if one uses the language of the Bible, one would say that “a man is justified by faith, without the works of the Law not by faith only … for faith without works is dead but faith that worketh by charity.”