During the Protestant Reformation in the early 1500s, a familiar term regarding salvation was "sola fide," Latin for "by faith alone." The reformers, at that time, accused the Catholic Church of departing from the "simple purity of the Gospel" of Jesus Christ. They stated it was faith alone, without works of any kind, that brought a believer to eternal life. They defined this faith as "the confidence of man, associated with the certainty of salvation, because the merciful Father will forgive sins because of Christ's sake."
This view of salvation is a crucial issue because it strikes at the very heart of the Gospel message eternal life. Roman Catholicism teaches that we are not saved by faith alone. The Church has taught this since 30 A.D. as part of the Divine Revelation. The truth of the Catholic Church's teaching can be demonstrated from Sacred Scripture alone.
All who claim the title "Christian" will be able to agree on the following two truths: salvation is by grace alone (Ephesians 2:8) and salvation is through Christ alone (Acts 4:12). These biblical facts will be our foundation as we explain the teaching of the Catholic Church.
If we take a concordance and look up every occurrence of the word "faith," we come up with an undeniable fact the only time the phrase "faith alone" is used in the entire Bible is when it is condemned (James 2:24). The epistle of James only mentions it in the negative sense.
The Bible tells us we must have faith in order to be saved (Hebrews 11:6). Yet is faith nothing more than believing and trusting? Searching the Scriptures, we see faith also involves assent to God's truth (1 Thessalonians 2:13), obedience to Him (Romans 1:5, 16:26), and it must be working in love (Galatians 5:6). These points appeared to be missed by the reformers, yet they are just as crucial as believing and trusting. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3) should be heeded by all it's certainly an attention grabber.
Paul speaks of faith as a life-long process, never as a one-time experience (Philippians 2:12). He never assumes he has nothing to worry about. If he did, his words in (1 Corinthians 9:24-27) would be nonsensical. He reiterates the same point again in his second letter to Corinth (2 Corinthians 13:5). He takes nothing for granted, yet all would agree if anyone was "born again" it certainly was Paul. Our Lord and Savior spoke of the same thing by "remaining in Him" (John 15:1-11).
Paul tells us our faith is living and can go through many stages. It never stays permanently fixed after a single conversion experience no matter how genuine or sincere. Our faith can be shipwrecked (1 Timothy 1:19), departed from (1 Timothy 4:1), disowned (1 Timothy 5:8) wandered from (1 Timothy 6:10), and missed (1 Timothy 6:21). Christians do not have a "waiver" that exempts them from these verses.
Do our works mean anything? According to Jesus they do (Matthew 25:31-46). The people rewarded and punished are done so by their actions. And our thoughts (Matthew 15:18-20) and words (James 3:6-12) are accountable as well. These verses are just as much part of the Bible as Romans 10:8-13 and John 3:3-5.
Some will object by appealing to Romans 4:3 and stating Abraham was "declared righteous" before circumcision. Thus he was only saved by "believing" faith (Genesis 15:6), not by faith "working in love" (Galatians 5:6). Isn't this what Paul means when he says none will be justified by "works of law" (Romans 3:28)? No, this is not what he means. He's condemning the Old Covenant sacrifices and rituals which couldn't justify and pointing to better things now in Christ Jesus in the New Covenant (Hebrews 7-10). A close examination of Abraham's life revealed a man of God who did something. In Genesis 12-14 he makes two geographical moves, builds an altar and calls on the Lord, divides land with Lot to end quarrels, pays tithes, and refuses goods from the King of Sodom to rely instead on God's providence. He did all these works as an old man. It was certainly a struggle. After all these actions of faith, then he's "declared righteous" (Genesis 15:6). Did these works play a role in his justification? According to the Bible, yes.
The Catholic Church has never taught we "earn" our salvation. It is an inheritance (Galatians 5:21), freely given to anyone who becomes a child of God (1 John 3:1), so long as they remain that way (John 15:1-11). You can't earn it but you can lose the free gift given from the Father (James 1:17).
The reformer's position cannot be reconciled with the Bible. That is why the Catholic Church has taught otherwise for over 1,960 years.
Where does our assistance come from to reach our heavenly destination? Philippians 4:13 says it all, "I can do all things in Him who strengthens me."
(Sal Ciresi has lectured on apologetics in the diocese of Arlington, VA and has resided in Northern Virginia since his discharge from the Marine Corps in 1991.)
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For Further Study:
Grace, Faith, and Works