Faith or Works? A Different Approach

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. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary and is the 2023-2024 Cardinal Newman Society Fellow for Eucharistic Education. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church, and the translator of Jerome’s Tears: Letters to Friends in Mourning.