The Catholic Thing
Faith or Works? A Different Approach Print E-mail
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Sunday, 11 November 2012

The debate between Catholics and Protestants over the relationship between faith and works, as it typically plays out, is a losing one for Catholics because it occurs on Protestant turf. The Protestant asserts that we are saved by faith, not works. The Catholic agrees: we cannot earn our own salvation, which is a free gift from God that comes from our faith in Christ.

But, the Catholic adds, we have to perform good works to cooperate with God’s gratuitous grace of salvation. After all, St. James tells us, “faith without works is dead.” (2:17) The Protestant responds that he also does good works and keeps the commandments because of his faith, but doing these things does not bring about salvation. Only faith in Christ saves.

Here the Catholic reaches an impasse. He has articulated the doctrine of justification succinctly and correctly, but in order to move forward he has to explain the intricacies of works and cooperation to someone who rejects their premise.

Discussing works becomes a dead end. To avoid this trap, the Catholic can direct the argument towards faith. Only then can works become intelligible to someone who rejects them.

What is faith? The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that faith “is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him” (153) through the sacrament of baptism. Faith requires from us “a personal act – the free response of the human person to the initiative of God who reveals himself.” (166)

God acts first and stirs our hearts to respond to him, but we have the freedom to accept or reject his invitation. If we accept, we boast not of ourselves, but of the Lord. (1 Cor 1:31) Yet our response is our first exercise – work – of faith that grows and develops throughout our lives by acts of charity and piety.

For Luther and his descendants, following Romans 10:9, faith is the total entrustment of oneself to Christ: “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” This belief requires one thing: baptism. “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). Luther on this score agrees with the Church: baptism confers the gift of faith.

But here Luther permanently parts company with the Church, who teaches that baptism confers grace by the coming of the Holy Spirit through the pouring of water and the baptismal formula prayed by the priest. The sacrament works ex opere operato, by virtue of the work performed; it does not depend on the worthiness of the priest or recipient, but on the power of God acting through the Church.

Luther rejects this theology, claiming instead that, “the power of baptism depends not so much on the faith or use of the one who confers it as on the faith or use of the one who receives it.”

For Luther it is not the sacrament of baptism itself that justifies, but the recipient’s faith in the sacrament. In other words the sacrament functions ex opere operantis, by virtue of the work of the recipient. Luther asserts, “Thus it is not baptism that justifies or benefits anyone, but it is faith in that word of promise to which baptism is added. This faith justifies, and fulfills that which baptism signifies.”

A deep irony runs through this seemingly arcane debate within sacramental theology. Luther rejects the Church’s ex opere operato formulation because it seemingly makes faith secondary to and dependent on the performance of a work. But in Luther’s revised theology faith now depends entirely on the recipient and his belief – on his work. Luther argues that we cannot be justified by works, but it is the work of the individual that is the measure of the faith he possesses.

Martin Luther

To return to the faith or works discussion, the Catholic can show that the faith of the Protestant, be it in traditional Lutheran theology or in the contemporary altar calls of some evangelical sects, depends entirely on his work – on the effort he personally applies in the act of believing.

If faith depends on personal effort, then surely one can grow in faith over time; even when one returns to baptismal faith after sinning, as Luther holds, the measure of faith depends on the believer.

The discussion has now moved to Catholic terrain: “For all the baptized, children or adults, faith must grow after baptism. . . .Baptism is the source of that new life in Christ from which the entire Christian life springs forth.” (CCC 1254)

This is the basis of the Catholic teaching of justification, which is not brought about in a mere moment, as the Protestant, rejecting works, would hold. Rather, as the Council of Trent teaches, justification “is not only the remission of sins but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior person through the voluntary reception of grace and of the gifts. . .that one may be an heir in hope of eternal life.”

Interior sanctification and renewal – that is, growth in faith – occurs through works: of prayer, of charity, and of faith itself. It is God who sanctifies us, but we have to commit our freedom to his work. This is the Catholic doctrine of works and cooperation. And so we can say with St. James: “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.” (2:26)

David G. Bonagura, Jr. is an adjunct professor of theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, New York.

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Comments (12)Add Comment
written by G.K. Thursday, November 11, 2012
Hurrah for you, Dr. Bonagura, for returning to the sources in your thought. So much of the troubles of our present age can be traced back to that disobedient Augustinian friar, Luther. Brad Gregory's recent book, _The Unintended Reformation_, confirms this overwhelmingly.

But one can be something of a "fellow-traveler" on the theological path you outline, without being genuinely Roman Catholic. Witness a recent interview in the Catholic World Report with Kenneth Collins, professor of historical theology and Wesley Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. He tells them that,

"There are also Wesleyan Evangelicals, who are somewhat different from their Reformed cousins, and they are far closer to Catholicism, not simply in terms of social issues, but also in terms of theology. For example, they stress the importance of sanctification, the life of holiness, as Catholics clearly do. I teach a course on classics in Christian spirituality and I use, again and again, Catholic primary sources. And I eagerly do that, because we Wesleyan Evangelicals underscore the importance of holiness and being holy in our daily lives. Not just the forgiveness of sins, a forensic understanding of redemption as you find in the Reformed tradition and the Lutheran tradition, but we also stress—as do Catholics and Eastern Orthodox—the necessity of actually being holy, not just positionally or forensically. Real holiness in the warp and woof of life is vital. The contrast between those who love holiness and broader North American culture could hardly be greater. We live in an increasing vulgar society that has forgotten that God is beautiful."

In some ways this is a positive sign, that not all Protestants cling to Luther's problematic position. But in other ways it returns us to square one, since the move to move the argument to a Roman Catholic starting point is co-opted by these sorts of "holiness" Protestants. They have rejected Luther, but rather than return to the truth of the Roman Catholic position, they co-opt it and manipulate it to their own purposes. It is difficult to reason with Protestants, since they shift ground like this all the time.
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, November 11, 2012
This also involves the whole question of grace, as Père Garrigou-Lagrange explains

“St Thomas says in Ia, q. 20, a. 3: “Since the love of God is the cause of the goodness of things, no one would be better than another if God did not will a greater good to one than to another.” Likewise, in article 4 of the same question and also in Ia, q. 23, a. 4: “In God, love precedes election.” Already it is evident that the man who, in fact, observes the commandments is better than the one who is able to do so but actually does not. Therefore, he who keeps the commandments is more beloved and assisted. In short, God loves that man more to whom He grants that he keep the commandments than another in whom He permits sin.

This principle of predilection is valid for all created being, even free beings, and for all their acts, natural or supernatural, easy or difficult, initial or final; in other words, no created being would be in any respect better if it were not better loved by God. This truth is clear in the philosophical order, for it flows from the principle of causality and of the eminently universal causality of the will or love of God. In the order of grace, this principle is revealed by several scriptural texts, for instance: “I will have mercy on whom I will, and I will be merciful to whom it shall please Me” (Exod. 33:19); and “For who distinguisheth thee? Or what hast thou that thou hast not received?” (I Cor. 4:7.)

This principle of predilection presupposes, according to St. Thomas, a decree of the divine will rendering our salutary acts intrinsically efficacious (Ia, q. 19, a. 8). For, if they were efficacious on account of our foreseen consent, of two men equally loved and helped by God, one would be better in some respect. He would be better of himself alone and not on account of divine predilection”

This is why the doctrine of (merely) sufficient grace is a great mystery.
written by Other Joe, November 11, 2012
The Protestant position on works has drifted somewhat from Luther's day. Radio preachers propose that Christ died for sin and all that is required for salvation is to assent to Christ's sacrifice. Works are not needed and are described as self-justification of which we are not capable in God's view. I can contrast that with the Catholic Catechism that tells us we are here to know, love and serve God. Service is work. It is not self-justification (we can't buy our way into God's love with effort) but it can be seen as an expression of faith. If we really believe in what we say we do, why would we work counter to God's love? It is a question for Catholic politicians to consider. The causality issue makes sense philosophically, but seems close to the edge of pre-destination. It also seems to discount (to some extent) free will. God's favor sometimes puts us in a Roman prison, or stoned to death or upside down on a cross. However, that brings us back to works. St. Paul (and indeed the radio preachers) would not shut up and so the world did what the world will do when worldly privileges and comforts are brought into question.
written by Jack,CT, November 11, 2012
Dr Bonagura
Beatiful article,Faith;A gift from god,a supernatural apart from works is dead.
You really give wonderful perspective to our faith,

written by Ryan , November 11, 2012
You're onto something with this article, but fear that I could not articulate this position in a conversation with a Protestant. Can you strive to put the same thoughts in simpler terms?
written by Grump, November 11, 2012
It always amazes me to see how cherry-picking Scripture can be used to validate almost any position, proving again and again that "the Bible is an old fiddle on which you can play any tune."

Debates between Catholics and Protestants are fascinating because they often turn out to be an endless succession of quotations from the Bible as well as theologians, past and present.

In the end, those of us who stand afar wondering which side is "right" are left more confused than before.
written by senex, November 11, 2012
Mr. Bonagura’s approach has merit. It goes back to the old argument of Calvin and Luther: Do works save or do they really produce greater ‘sanctification’? Thus, the dichotomy between salvation /justification and sanctification. Will you be a private or a general in heaven? In either case you are saved!

The more I have thought about this issue, the more I lean to the conclusion that faith means embracing the objective teachings of the Church, because it is “only within the faith of the Church that each of the faithful can believe.” (CCC 1253). Faith is not the ‘me and Jesus’ approach that is so subjective, an approach that disregards, or permits the disregard of, the teachings of Christ which are made more explicit by the magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church. To state it a bit differently, real faith implies both an objective set of truths to be believed and moral conduct to be practiced and a subjective commitment of the individual to accept those truths and to practice those rules. And this, in my opinion, is the sense of St. James’ comment that faith without works is dead.
written by G.K. Thursday, November 11, 2012
The Scriptures become a mirror of whoever looks into them, if and only if the Protestant Principle of "private judgment" is allowed to rear its accursed head. This principle was adduced by Luther nearly from the beginning of his rebellion against the Roman Catholic Church (e.g., the Leipzig debate with Eck in 1519). Luther asserted that Scripture was self-interpreting ("scriptura scripturae interpres", was his catch-phrase), and those who read the Scriptures in faith would have the light of the Holy Spirit to guide their understanding. So according to Luther, everyone who has Christian faith will agree on ONE interpretation of Scripture (namely, his). Of course, the implication was that if you didn't agree with Luther, you simply weren't a Christian.

Well, we all know how this worked out in reality. Almost immediately all the other Reformers (Calvin, Zwingli, Socinus, etc.) broke with Luther over some aspect of Scripture. Luther was apoplectic that they should disagree with him. There never was agreement over how this "private judgement" principle was supposed to work in actual practice, but all the Reformers insisted that it did. The fact that none of them agreed in their "private judgement" didn't deter them in the least. They couldn't all be right, but they simply agreed not to put too fine a point on it as long as they all opposed the Roman Catholic Church and its 1500 year tradition of Scriptural interpretation. That these Reformers' position made no sense was pointed out again and again, but as I wrote above, reasoning with Protestants is difficult. Luther went so far as to assert that "reason is a whore" when he found himself caught in foolish, unreasonable positions. Rather than just admitting he was wrong (that couldn't happen by God) he impugned the nature of reason itself. Alas, a determined irrationalism can never be defeated.

Well, once such determined irrationalism became the accepted position for half of Christianity, could the quest to establish the foundations of Scriptural meaning outside of Christianity be far behind? And thus came about Reimarus and the origins of the historical-critical method. Followed by Schleiermacher and the rise of "ethical feelings" as the heart of Protestantism. The Protestant story of decline is a fascinating one ...
written by P. M., November 11, 2012
I guess I am missing something about the faith/works argument. It should be a given to any reader of the New Testament that both faith and works are essential to salvation. Matthew 25 couldn't be clearer. First, the parable of the talents in which the faithful servants made something of what they were given and, therefore, were rewarded for it. In the following verses, in the final judgment, the sheep are set on God's right hand and given eternal life because they performed corporal works of mercy. The goats who did not perform those acts, those works, are condemned.
written by David M, November 12, 2012
I agree with P.M. Linked to this is the Greatest Commandment(s) - to love the Lord. In order to do this one must believe in Him (Faith), but to prove our faith, we must love our neighbour (Works)- "love" being "an action". The two instructions given by Christ are inseparable.
written by Facile1, November 15, 2012
Faith or Works?

If one confuses faith with religion, the answer is "works".

If one confuses works with humanism, the answer is "FAITH".

Language is a human invention. The TRUTH is not.

Love God FIRST and act accordingly.
written by Isabel from Canada, March 19, 2014
I do find the question of salvation by Faith or Acts to be quite a conundrum when placed in the perspective of the contemporary catholic faith. as stated in the article "What is faith? The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that faith “is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him” (153) through the sacrament of baptism. Faith requires from us “a personal act – the free response of the human person to the initiative of God who reveals himself.” (166)

God acts first and stirs our hearts to respond to him, but we have the freedom to accept or reject his invitation. If we accept, we boast not of ourselves, but of the Lord. (1 Cor 1:31) Yet our response is our first exercise – work – of faith that grows and develops throughout our lives by acts of charity and piety." Catholicism teaches that salvation must begin with the sacrament of baptism. We all know that baptism does not necessarily lead to faith in Christ nor can it alone lead to salvation. A true life in Christ is not just the observance of sacraments and rituals, a true life in Christ is just that a life devoted to the will of Christ and God, which can only be achieved through a relationship with God in prayer and the study of the scriptures. The works including piety and charity are automatic behavioral responses to a Christ centered life. I feel that is where Catholicism falls short in comparison to Protestantism which focuses on a more spiritual life and direct relationship with God, one that flows beyond the walls and doctrine of the church. I hear a lot of catholics who say they have faith in the catholic church yet have very little understanding of the scriptures and especially the gospels and almost no relationship with God. A church cannot be a faith in and of itself - it must have Jesus and God as its main head and focus. You would be surprised the number of self proclaimed "catholics" who I have encountered that are also atheists and agnostics. To them Catholicism and a faith in Christ is no more than a culture or tradition passed down to them by family with little to no foundation. They are like a house built on sand. The catholic church should move their focus to the understanding of the scriptures, the encouragement of faith through the Holy Spirit and a relationship directly with the true and only Godhead of the catholic church - the Holy Trinity. I wont even get into the Catholic teaching of praying to the virgin Mary - who we know did not remain a virgin, and apart from being a good and faithful servant of God lived and died a normal life like most of the other historical figures of the Bible.

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