In this post, I’m turning to an issue that is, in my opinion, one of the most unfortunate theological misunderstandings of all time: the Catholic/Protestant fight over the relationship between faith and works in making it to heaven. On this one, I think there’s actually more agreement between the two camps than a lot of people realize. There are, nevertheless, some practical implications of the Protestant use of the shorthand “faith alone saves” which prevent the Church from consenting to this proposition that was one of the rallying cries of the Protestant Reformation and that you’ll still hear from Protestant pulpits of many stripes to this day.
Here’s what I’ve taken as the standard Protestant position, at least in the more Reformed tradition, on faith and works: true, saving faith naturally results in good works, but it’s the “faith alone” that will get the Christian to heaven. This position, to my mind, is simply using the word “faith” to swallow up the word “works,” thereby rendering both words unclear and ambiguous. This, in and of itself, renders the Protestant position suspect to me. God is not a God of confusion, see I Cor. 14:33, and the Protestant position is nothing if not confusing—at least to this former Protestant who heard it and the various defenses for it all of his life.
The Protestant approach to the faith/works issue also tends to lead the individual believer to feel that, any time he doesn’t want to do good works, he must not have gotten the “real” faith back ten years ago when he “got saved.” If one of the primary purposes of the “faith alone” doctrine is to give individual believers certainty that they’re saved (which, from my reading of Luther and the other Reformers, was certainly one such purpose), the doctrine fails to meet even its own test. I’ve known too many Protestants over the years who are plagued by this very issue.
Lastly, before turning to the Catholic position, the Protestant approach seemed to me utterly inconsistent with Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25, which makes quite clear that what will divide the sheep from the goats is what they did and didn’t do (as Keith Green would put it). Both the sheep and the goats, according to the parable, believed in Jesus, i.e., they “had faith.”
What is the Catholic response to all this? I think it’s pretty simple: “faith” is “faith,” and “works” are “works,” and the two words signify different things. One can have “saving” faith but not do good works, for all sorts of reasons, such as laziness, just don’t feel like it, having a bad day, etc. Not doing good works doesn’t mean you don’t have “saving faith,” but it does mean to the Catholic that the person not doing good works is doing something that’s bad. But then, unlike the Protestant in the same position who might then have a tendency to begin to doubt the efficacy of that one moment in time he “accepted” Jesus back in the past, the Catholic can take some very simple steps to get back on the right path: go to Confession, receive the grace imparted thereby, and go out and do better.
At bottom, though, I think the main issue here is largely semantic, with Protestants and Catholics (in substance) saying similar things. It’s rare to meet a Protestant who would say that how one lives one’s life doesn’t mean anything to where he’ll spend eternity, although then they’ve got to do a tap-dance to defend “faith alone.” Indeed, I once heard a fellow Catholic convert say that, when he was considering Catholicism, he met with a Lutheran professor, and the professor told him that the whole faith/works issue from the Reformation was just an unfortunate misunderstanding that has been resolved so that the only significant divide between Lutherans and Catholics now relates to the nature of the Church.
If the Lutheran professor was right, then why does the Church continue to make a big deal about the use of the phrase “faith alone”? I can think of at least two reasons.
The first reason is the one I’ve already indicated above. Stating that “faith alone saves” and meaning, by that, that “saving faith” will naturally result in “good works,” can cause Christians great misery because, if they don’t feel like doing good works, they begin to question whether they were ever really “saved.”
Second, if you just hear the statement, “faith alone saves,” it has the tendency to make you think that all that matters in getting to heaven is what you believe so it becomes vitally important to be “right” about everything (or you may think that, as long as you prayed a prayer and walked an aisle at one point, you’re set). You don’t normally wait around to hear the rest of the Protestant explanation of how “faith” really includes “works.” This has a tendency to turn the whole Christian life into a headgame that never ends, which is exactly the impact it had on me. Also, because I don’t believe anyone wants to believe in a system that so apparently consigns vast numbers of our fellow creatures to Hell (for not having exactly the “right” faith), Protestants begin the exercise, discussed in my last post, of creating ever-shrinking lists of “essentials.”
Now here, I have to issue a warning. The next part of this was hard to write, and it may be hard for some of my readers to read: due to the shrinking of the Protestant “essentials” list, the standard evangelical answers to some of the hard questions of life are becoming increasingly vague, all the while sounding ultra-spiritual. Want to know whether it’s important to insist on a literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2? “Just love Jesus.” Want to know whether you should be a Calvinist or an Arminian on issues of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will? “Just love Jesus.” Want to know whether it’s a good idea to use IVF? “Just love Jesus.” Want to know whether you can get remarried after a divorce? “Just love Jesus.” I could go on, but I’ll stop now.
I understand some of the subjects I’ve raised here are provocative. That’s the point. These are issues that hit all of us (including me and others I’ve known throughout my life who’ve struggled with these very issues) exactly where we live. For myself, I got to the point where I concluded that, if my “faith” didn’t give me meaningful answers to these (at least to me) obviously important questions so that my “works” could match what I believed, what good was it? And, if it isn’t apparent, “Just love Jesus” as an answer here is simply a cop-out. I’ll even go further than that: it’s taking Our Lord’s name in vain because it’s making His name meaningless.
Is it hard “work” to research the reasons for the Church’s answers to the questions I’ve posed above and others? Yes—so was getting through college and law school. The following is the question I ultimately asked myself on this issue: what makes me think it would be easier to get meaningful answers to these significant questions about how I live in this world, which I know in my bones somehow bear on the question of where I’ll spend eternity, than it is to get the hang of something as insignificant (in comparison) as the American legal system? I also increasingly came to the belief that God has given me the gift of literacy, and, like all the other gifts He has given me, He expects me to use it. See the Parable of the Talents, Matt. 25:14-30. Easy, high-level answers, while very attractive, didn’t seem to be His way of operating throughout the entirety of Scripture. And God certainly didn’t take the easy way out in dealing with Man’s sin when He came down from Heaven to die for us on the Cross.
Our Savior took the hardest way imaginable to save us. And that was the ultimate fact that tipped the scales for me in accepting that the Church was right, and those who disagreed with Her wrong, in making a big deal about such a little phrase as “faith alone.”
 I do recognize that there are Protestant denominations that do not take a “faith alone” approach. For the most part, the churches I’ve been in, however, with the exception of the instrumental Church of Christ, did subscribe to this.
 I do understand the Biblical interpretation issue here is more complicated than simply referring to the sheep and goats passage. There is, of course, all that Paul had to say about “faith” and “works” in Romans and in places like Ephesians 2:8-9, and no Catholic worth his salt would suggest it is possible to be saved by works “alone.” On this issue, the Catholic Church also affirms the role of God’s grace in coming to faith: “Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him.” Catechism of the Catholic Church (“CCC”) No. 153. It is also clear in some of the Pauline passages, such as Romans 3:28, that Paul is talking about the “works of the [Old Testament] Law.” For more on this, see here. The “works of the Law” seem to me to be quite different than plain old “good works,” and it also seems clear to me that the works that James spoke of in chapter 2 of his epistle were of the latter variety. Without those kind of works, “faith . . . is dead.” James 2:17.
 Add to “faith alone” Luther’s admonition to “sin boldly,” and you’ve got a real mess. More reckless words than these have never been spoken. And, yes, I recognize Luther expanded on what he meant by this. His expansion, however, suffers from the same incoherence and confusion I identified above when the word “faith” is taken to include both “faith” and “good works.”
 It is important to note here that I do not want even to suggest that simply having the Catholic faith and participating in the sacramental life of the Church, in and of itself, is a sure-fire ticket to Heaven. I also don’t want to suggest that Heaven is necessarily unavailable to non-Catholics. That is not the Church’s teaching. For more on this subject, see CCC 813-848. Indeed, one of the prayers said in the Rosary is, “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell, and lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of Thy Mercy.”
 In this concentration on the “spiritual” at the expense of the physical here and now, Protestantism tends to be at least somewhat Gnostic. I may expand on this thought in a later post.