Aren’t We Saved by Faith Alone?

OBJECTOR: The other day I was reading the book of Galatians, and it struck me how much emphasis Paul places on faith as the means of salvation. Then I asked myself how Catholics can believe in justification by works. If the Catholic Church really believes the Bible, as it claims, how can it continue to teach that we have to earn our salvation? The Bible seems pretty clear that justification is by faith alone.

CATHOLIC: There are several.aspects to this question. The most important is to realize that the Catholic Church does not teach that we earn our salvation by our own efforts, although it does teach that we have to work on our salvation. The same apostle who wrote Galatians also wrote Philippians, wherein Paul says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).

OBJECTOR: Yes, but don’t you think that statement has to be understood in light of the teaching in Galatians? In Galatians 2:15–16, Paul says, “We ourselves . . .who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Christ Jesus, 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.”

CATHOLIC: I don’t see these two verses as contradicting each another or even in tension. But first let me make clear the official teachings of the Catholic Church: It teaches that we can do nothing to merit the grace that comes to us in baptism, which is the normal beginning of the Christian life. In fact, the Council of Trent condemned anyone who taught that we can save ourselves or who taught even that God helps us do what we could do for ourselves. The Church teaches that we can be saved only by God’s grace.

OBJECTOR: Well, if the Catholic Church really teaches salvation by grace, that’s wonderful. But it’s hard for me to believe because Catholics place so much emphasis on doing good works. Paul’s letters stress again and again that salvation comes through faith alone. In addition to Galatians 2:15–16, consider Romans 4:2: “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.” Then three verses later, in 4:5, Paul puts it another way: “And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.”

CATHOLIC: We don’t disagree about the primary role that faith plays. Following Paul, the Catholic Church teaches that justification comes by faith. Only it says that it doesn’t come through faith alone. If you look carefully at Paul’s writings, you will notice that he never says that our righteousness comes from faith alone—only that it comes from faith apart from works.

OBJECTOR: Well, there you have it. That was almost a direct quote from Romans 3:28: “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” That phrase by faith apart from works of the law sounds to me like Paul is saying that justification comes through faith alone.

CATHOLIC: Romans 3:28 is a key verse in the differences between traditional Protestants and Catholics. You will notice that Paul says a man is justified by faith (pistei in Greek). When Martin Luther translated the letter to the Romans into German in the sixteenth century, he added the word alone —but alone is not in the original Greek text. The phrase “faith alone” does occur in the New Testament: one time, in James 2:24. There the inspired apostle denies that justification is from faith alone. Let me quote it: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

OBJECTOR: The classic text in James 2:14–26 is a difficult one. Let’s come back to that one. I just want to point out that Luther was completely justified—pun intended—in translating Romans 3:28 with the words faith alone because that is another way of saying that justification is “apart from works of the law.” You see, when Paul says in Romans 4:2 that Abraham could boast if his salvation were from works, he is explaining what he said in 3:27 when he asked, “Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On the principle of works? No, but on the principle of faith.” Boasting before God is possible if any works are involved in our salvation, but no boasting is possible if it is by faith alone.

CATHOLIC: Agreed—Paul categorically excludes works from our salvation. But what kind of works is Paul talking about? If we believe the entire Bible, we need to see how Paul’s words fit together with James’s words, because James clearly says that “a man is justified by works.” If Paul and James mean the same thing by works, then they contradict one another. Since you and I both believe that the Bible cannot contradict itself, we must agree that Paul and James mean two different things by the word works.

OBJECTOR: I agree, but this is a tough problem of interpretation.

CATHOLIC: The Catholic Church believes that we should interpret Scripture by using Scripture. You will note that sometimes Paul expands his phrase from worksby adding the phrase of the law, as in Romans 3:20 and 28 and Galatians 2:16. Further, sometimes Paul substitutes the phrase through the law to describe the same reality. For example, in Romans 3:20, he says, “Through the law comes knowledge of sin.” In other words, when Paul uses the word works he is talking about the Old Testament law.

A careful reading of Galatians will show that Paul is using works of the law to refer especially to the law of circumcision. He is so strong about this that he says in Galatians 5:2, “Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.” Paul’s opponents in Galatia wanted to bring the Gentile Christians back into the Old Testament law. These are the works of the law that Paul is fighting against, and they have no place in our justification. Paul is saying in essence that Gentile Christians do not have to be circumcised and live like Jewish Christians in order to be saved.

OBJECTOR: I can agree with your interpretation of Galatians, but I think also we can generalize Paul’s words so that any work that we put before God as a reason for him to accept us is the kind of work he condemns.

CATHOLIC: I might agree if that’s all there was to it. But Paul speaks about Christians fulfilling the law by following the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:14). He then explains that we must show the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:16–26) and bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:1ff) as a way of fulfilling the “law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). All Paul’s teaching comes down to this: Our own works can never justify us, but works that grow out of faith in Christ are part of our justification. That’s why Paul says in Philippians 2:12 you must “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” And that squares with James’s teaching that works that grow from faith justify.

OBJECTOR: Okay, I’ll agree that James is teaching that we must add works to our faith. But notice that these works are only evidence of true faith as opposed to a false faith. Read James 2:14 carefully: “What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?” James is dealing with the problem of those who claim faith but who don’t show it by their works. In verse 17 James says this kind of faith, “if it has no works, is dead.” James’s message is this: If you have true faith, then you will have works to follow. But that does not mean that James sees works as having to do with our salvation.

CATHOLIC: Okay, James is teaching that works show true faith. But we Catholics insist that James 2:14–26 shows that works are more than mere evidence of faith. Works actually justify. James is speaking about works growing out of faith. If works of faith are not a part of our justification, then it is hard to understand why James would say, as he does, that “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar?” (Jas. 2:21). You may remember how Paul said that Abraham was not justified by works but by faith. Paul means that Abraham was not justified by keeping the Old Testament law, while James means that Abraham was justified by doing a work that grew out of his faith in God.

OBJECTOR: Maybe all James means is that Abraham’s actions showed that his faith was real.

CATHOLIC: You could argue that if James did not say explicitly, “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works” (Jas. 2:22). And then in verse 24 James concludes again, “A man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

OBJECTOR: I must admit that I’ve never heard a Catholic give the explanation you gave, but I am still not convinced that the Catholic Church is right on this point.

CATHOLIC: Well, these are difficult points of theology and interpretation. I encourage you to pray and think about the Catholic understanding of justification. In sum, the Church teaches that salvation is a process of becoming holier and holier through time. All of this is a work of grace that God performs in our hearts through faith. Works done in faith are the natural completion of believing in Christ. As we trust and do God’s work, he instills within us more grace so that we may become holier and so be ready to meet him at the end of our life.

By Kenneth Howell



  1. Peter Aiello Reply

    How can God not help us in what we can do for ourselves? The Holy Spirit is the (parakletos) who is there alongside to help. See John 14:16,26: 15:26; 16:7. It is not for us to quantify the help that is given to us, but it is there. If all things work together for good to them that love God, how can God be absent from that. He affects and guides everything that we do.
    The sealing of the Holy Spirit is the evidence of our inheritance (Ephesians 1:12-14). Without that, all the quibbling about faith and works is meaningless.

  2. Patrick Gannon Reply

    Interesting debate. Since I see no evidence that we need salvation, how it is obtained isn’t important to me, but if I was voting on a winner to this debate, I would go with Objector. I suspect that we aren’t seeing the entire debate, because Objector certainly had good reason within that debate to question “Catholic’s” response or lack thereof. I wonder how Objector would have summarized the debate.
    “Catholic” responds by saying the Church relies on scripture and at one point “Catholic” refers to “original” Greek manuscripts – but there are no originals for any part of the bible. Christians like to say the bible was “inspired by God,” but Yahweh-Jesus didn’t “inspire” it enough to ensure that original scripture would remain so we’d know what it really said. What’s the good of an inspired scripture if you don’t know what the original said? Everything was hand-copied in those days, with countless errors, and occasionally by self-interested scribes with their own theological axes to grind. All we know is that we can’t fully trust what we have to work with, given that there are so many contradictory manuscripts. (See Bart Ehrman)
    It’s all so confusing. They say Jesus came to save us, but that’s not true. We have to believe, say and do the right things according to some religious authority that disagrees with other religious authorities. Jesus can’t even save us from original sin unless we get water splashed on our heads – though in 1854 it was revealed that Yahweh-Jesus did have this ability – as he permitted Mary to be born without original sin, indicating that he is capable of doing this if he wants to. Apparently would prefer that billions of us go to Hell rather than do the same for everyone. Why didn’t he let his alter ego Jesus actually do some saving! Who was saved? As a kid, I remember the priests telling us that Jesus saved us, but in the next breath we were going to Hell for doing natural, healthy things with our genitalia. It’s all so insanely ridiculous. Saving someone means throwing them a life buoy and hauling them aboard, not trying to hit them in the head with it.

    How has our condition improved as a result of all this “saving?” Before Jesus, everyone went to Sheol a place of permanent unconsciousness, and not a place of punishment (although the Church translated Sheol and three other words to the pagan word “Hell” later). Many Jews believed that at the end of time, those in Sheol would be wakened, judged, and rewarded with a new paradise, or simply destroyed. Fair enough. Along comes Jesus and now we are judged immediately upon death, and if found wanting, instead of being destroyed, we are to be tortured in hellfire for all of eternity. Not a big improvement in our condition if you ask me. I would not have a second thought about selecting Sheol and simply being destroyed if an all-powerful being was somehow hurt by my words and actions here. To sentence a mere human to eternal torment, though we live but a handful of decades, and given that this supposedly all-knowing god knows the outcome in advance? Good grief! Only the most evil god imaginable could do such a thing, so why is he worshipped? Obviously the answer is fear. He’s so fearsome he has to command that we love him. Who among us has to command that our children love us? Who among us would send innocent souls that were aborted, miscarried or stillborn to Hell, as the RCC catechism indicates? Now either you worship an evil god, or religious organizations have misrepresented this god…. or there are no gods. What makes the most sense?

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