Perhaps the most important question that could ever be asked is, “How can a person be made right in the sight of God, that is, how can he be eligible for Heaven?” Or, as the Philippian jailer asked, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30)
Thankfully, the apostle Paul gave the Philippian jailer a very simple and direct answer… “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved” (v. 31). No complicated formulas, no list of good works, no sacraments to observe, no prayers or Bible verses to memorize, no Jewish laws to maintain… Just believe on (trust in) the Lord Jesus, i.e., on the work that He accomplished on the cross. This is the biblical answer to that most important question, and it reflects a teaching called “Sola Fide” (faith alone), that many (if not most) Protestants believe in. Of course, Catholics will strongly deny this teaching, and will insist that one is saved by faith PLUS WORKS, and not by “faith alone.”
First off, we want to say that the term “faith alone” is not a perfectly accurate term, in the sense that faith is not the only thing present at the moment of conversion. Along with faith, there will certainly be joy, thankfulness, sorrow for one’s sins, a love for God and a willingness to serve Him, etc. A similar (imperfect) expression would be the Catechism of the Catholic Church saying that “Christ alone” teaches us (CCC #427), yet the Catholic Church (as well as every other church) also has human teachers. Another example is the phrase “salvation comes from God alone” (CCC #169), yet Catholics will argue that the Church certainly has a part in it. Just as these Catholic phrases are not precise, so it is with the phrase “faith alone.”
The focus of the term “faith alone” is on the ABSENCE OF WORK done in attempting to make Heaven. As the Scripture says, it is by faith APART FROM WORKS (Romans 3:28). It doesn’t mean that you never do any good works, it just means that none of your works contribute to your salvation. Justification is a trusting, a changed attitude of the heart (repentance), a surrender toward God, not a work which deserves a reward. Justification is always seen as a GIFT in Scripture, not a reward. Attempting to achieve justification (even partially) through works only disqualifies a person from receiving it (Romans 4:4-5).
Secondly, we are not against Christians doing good works. We should be anxious to do good works, and should do them out of love and thankfulness. However, good works are not the cause of justification, but the result; they are not the root, but the fruit of our salvation; we don’t do good works to be saved, we do them because we are saved. We do get heavenly rewards for our works, but justification itself is purely a GIFT.
The Catholic View
But what is the stance of the Catholic Church on the role of works in the believer’s life? To their credit, the Catechism says that a person is justified by grace (CCC #1996), through faith in Jesus Christ (CCC #1987). So far, so good. But we need to note some other things, as well. Here are a few quotes from official Catholic sources:
“Of this justification the causes are these… the instrumental cause is the sacrament of baptism…” (Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Decree on Justification, Chapter 7)
“From the most ancient times in the Church good works were also offered to God for the salvation of sinners… indeed, the prayers and good works of holy people were regarded as of such great value that it could be asserted that the penitent was washed, cleansed and redeemed with the help of the entire Christian people.” (Second Vatican Council, Apostolic Constitution on the Revision of Indulgences)
“The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation…” (CCC #1129)
“If anyone saith that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.” (Council of Trent, Sixth Session, Canon 24)
“If anyone saith that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary unto salvation… Let him be anathema.” (Council of Trent, Session 7, Canon 4)
There is no doubt or mystery here. The Catholic Church is telling us plainly and openly that one’s works are the CAUSE of his salvation. According to these sources, we discover that a person is justified (at least partially) by good works, prayer, and sacraments (especially baptism). Faith plus works.
But if we are indeed justified by “faith plus works,” we must ask, “How many good works does it take to save someone? When does a person know that he has accumulated enough of them to make it to Heaven?” As for as anyone can tell, we don’t know.
But, there is another problem. According to the Bible, if we are going to follow the law (any law of works) to be saved, we had better follow it PERFECTLY:
For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for “The just shall live by faith.” And the law is not of faith: but, “The man that doeth them shall live in them.” (Galatians 3:10-12)
For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. (Galatians 5:3)
For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. (James 2:10)
If anyone is trusting in good works to be justified, then he must do them completely and perfectly. But it’s too late for that. Every one of us has already defiled his own “record,” since we have all sinned (Romans 3:23). God demands moral perfection, but there is only One Who is perfect and able to follow the Law flawlessly. There is only One Who was ever able to pay the debt for our sins… Jesus Christ. And He already paid this penalty 2000 years ago on the cross to make us eligible for Heaven, that is, IF we trust in that work alone.
This is one of the reasons that it is called “the gospel.” The Greek word for “gospel” means good news. It is good news because we don’t have to wonder and fret about whether we have done enough good deeds to make it into Heaven. This is a foretaste of that Christian “rest” that God has for us. (Hebrews 4:1-11)
Two Kinds of Righteousness
No one is “good enough” to be saved on his own. We all need the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Remember, there are two kinds of righteousness in Scripture:
1) Our Personal Righteousness
A. It is imperfect (I John 1:8)
B. It can grow (John 15:2,5; 2 Corinthians 9:10)
C. We all have unequal “amounts” of it (I Samuel 24:17)
D. It is part of our Sanctification (Philippians 2:12-13; Titus 3:5)
E. It is inherent (since the new birth) (I John 2:29)
F. It is a result of Salvation (Ephesians 2:8-10)
2) The Righteousness of Jesus Christ
A. It is absolutely perfect (Ephesians 5:27; 2 Corinthians 5:21)
B. It cannot grow (Hebrews 13:8)
C. We all have the same “amount” (Romans 5:18)
D. It is for our Justification (Romans 10:3)
E. It is imputed (from outside) (Romans 4:6, 11, 22-24)
F. It is the cause of Salvation (Romans 5:18-19)
The Christian possesses both. Number 1 above (what people see in us) is a direct result of Number 2 (what happens in our heart).
One final thing: The Catholic Church sees essentially no distinction between “sanctification” and “justification” (CCC #1989; CCC #2019), but the Bible shows that justification is a one-time event (Romans chap. 3, 4, and 5), while sanctification is a process which begins at the new birth, and continues throughout the life of the believer (2 Timothy 2:21). There are no human works to do in justification, rather our works are used by God during the process of sanctification, which is our time of growth. The two terms are closely related, but still distinct.
In Part 2, we will look at some Catholic arguments against Sola Fide and see if they are valid. Until then…