|Anonymous, The Last Supper (17th c.)|
Are we saved by faith and works, or by faith alone? This question is, from a traditional Protestant perspective, the single biggest issue dividing Catholics and Protestants. R.C. Sproul has pointed out the historical importance of the question:
Luther made his famous comment that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is the article upon which the church stands or falls. John Calvin added a different metaphor, saying that justification is the hinge upon which everything turns. In the twentieth century, J.I. Packer used a metaphor indicating that justification by faith alone is the “Atlas upon whose shoulder every other doctrine stands.”
In the intervening half-millenium, there’s been no shortage of debate on what precisely St. Paul means when he says “that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Romans 3:28), or what James means by saying “that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). There have been interminable terminological debates: over what Paul meant by “justification,” “sanctification,” and “works,” and what James means by “justified” and “faith.”
That’s not to deny the development that has occurred, even in recent history (for example, the Joint Declaration on Justification, and the “New Perspective on Paul). Nevertheless, the justification debate often goes stale: Catholics and Protestants are reading the same verses, but bringing with them different understandings of what James and Paul mean by some of the theological terminology.
Given this, I thought it might be refreshing to try to approach the question from a different direction from the usual one. To understand what Paul and James are saying, let’s listen to what John has to say. I think it would be instructive to consider the following three questions (and ask them to your Protestant friends). In each case, I believe there’s a clear Biblical answer:
No. As 1 John 3:14-15 says,
We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love remains in death. Any one who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.
John says virtually the same thing a chapter earlier, as well (1 John 2:9-11). We can see John’s continuity with Paul by asking the question in a slightly different way: is faith without love sufficient? St. Paul answers that in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3,
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
So spiritual gifts, theological brilliance, faith, good works, and even martyrdom: all these things are worthless, if you don’t have love. Love is necessary for salvation. If this weren’t the case, if faith without love were sufficient for justification and salvation, Paul couldn’t treat it as nothing, and James couldn’t say that such a man remains in death.
No, as Jesus says several times n John 14-15:
- John 14:15: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
- John 14:21: “He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”
- John 15:10, “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.”
And now I beg you, lady, not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning, that we love one another. And this is love, that we follow his commandments; this is the commandment, as you have heard from the beginning, that you follow love.
In 1 John 5:1-5, he discusses the connections between faith, love (for God and for neighbor), and obedience to the commands of God:
Every one who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God, and every one who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
So to be saved, we must love God. And to love God, we must obey His commandments.
No. One of the things that Jesus commands His Church to witness to the Gospel through good works (Matthew 7:14-16):
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
There’s no way to obey this without doing good works. This is also why Jesus can say things like “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father” (John 14:12). Good works, understood in this way, flow from love, and from what Paul describes as “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5; Rom. 16:26).
Here again, John’s epistles are illuminating (1 John 3:17-18):
But if any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth.
We must love God to be saved. If we love God, we’ll obey Him. Obedience to God includes performing good works. If each of these three statements are true, then we must perform good works to be saved.
This leaves two possibilities for Protestants:
- Disagree with one or more of the three points above: Argue that loving God isn’t necessary for salvation, or that obeying God isn’t necessary to love Him, or that good works aren’t needed to obey God. In each case, holding this position would require some serious Scriptural (and logical) contortions.
- Agree with the above points: In the case, it seems to me that both sides of the debate agree on the core question. To be saved, you need faith and good works. Everything that we read in the writings of Paul or the epistle of James must be interpreted in a way consistent with this teaching. And any interpretation that says salvation is possible without good works must be dismissed as incompatible with Scripture.
This still leaves lingering questions about how faith, good works and justification operate in the salvation of the believer, and the precise relationship between them. But having agreed on the core question, these peripheral debates seem almost purely academic. More specifically peripheral questions don’t seem to have any impact on what we believe about God, or how we behave as Christians. If that’s true, how is this a doctrinal dispute worth dividing the Church over?
I don’t imagine that this change in approach will immediately resolve the justification debate, or all of the various lingering exegetical and theological questions. But hopefully, this helps to put things in a fresh light. It lets us arise at a clear understanding of why good works are necessary for salvation in a way that doesn’t diminish the centrality of grace, and which doesn’t require pages worth of definitions of theological jargon.