A Closer Look at Faith and Work

Have Catholics and Protestants Resolved their Differences?

You could say that the Protestant Reformation officially ended in 1999. In that year Pope John Paul II and representatives of “subscribing Lutheran churches” signed a document titled, “The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” Emerging from the specific and technical language of this twenty some-odd page document is a humble admission: The essential dispute between Roman Catholics and the first Protestants was grounded in an inadequate understanding of Justification by Faith. This document is a milestone in the efforts of the Church to honor the will of Jesus “that all may be one.”

Faith alone or faith and works? 

The trouble all stems from a basic misunderstanding of two biblical verses on both sides. Paul’s letter to the Romans proclaims that all humanity has been justified – that is put right with God – through the risen Christ (Rom 5:1-2). Salvation, in other words, is God’s free will gift to humanity. It cannot be earned, altered or affected by human action but can only be received through Faith. Paul explains that although Israel had the Law – divinely revealed instructions for how to act in a manner pleasing to God – it ultimately did them no good because the chosen people were unable to follow it. “For ‘no human being will be justified in his (God’s) sight’ by deeds prescribed by the law, for through he law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20).

And then there’s the letter of James. “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that so faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (Jas 2:14-17). Martin Luther, the Catholic monk whose 95 Theses were the inspiration for the first phase of the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th Century despised these words of James. It is said he refused to recognize the letter of James as a divinely inspired book of the New Testament.

Luther’s reaction can now be seen much more clearly as a misinterpretation of James’ point. The letter of James was written some time – and possibly a generation after – Paul’s letter to the Roman’s. His point is not to negate Paul’s proclamation of God’s gift of salvation, but to develop it further. If a person has not been transformed by an encounter with God’s unconditional love through faith in the risen Christ in the way in which he or she acts towards those in need, then that person has not been in the presence of Christ at all. “Faith without works is dead,” in other words, because faith never existed in the first place.

Yet Luther’s reaction is quite understandable given Catholic abuses of the 16th century. The “vending machine” distortions of the high Middle Ages had left many of the faithful with the strong impression that while baptism may have spared them from the eternal damnation of Hell, there would still be much to atone for from the temporal punishment for their sin in Purgatory. In modern Catholic theology Purgatory is understood as a process that occurs outside of time and space; in Medieval theology it was understood much more as a place – with torments rivaling those of Hell! This primitive understanding of Purgatory coupled with a Church hierarchy generally fixated more on material wealth than on spiritual wealth created an unholy alliance manifested most scandalously in the buying and selling of Indulgences. Doing good deeds as a demonstration of Faith was increasingly replaced by paying large sums of money to Rome in order to shorten the time of punishment in Purgatory. “As a coin in the coffer sings,” so went the chant of a most notorious seller of indulgences, “a soul from Purgatory springs!”

Healing Words

“The present Joint Declaration has this intention: namely, to show that on the basis of their dialogue the subscribing Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ” (Joint Declaration, sect. 5). With these words the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification provides the healing balm on a wound in the Body of Christ that is five centuries old. The reason for this coming together is not a denial of history, but a recognition that both the Catholic and Lutheran churches have matured in their theology: “this Joint Declaration rests on the conviction that in overcoming the earlier controversial questions and doctrinal condemnations, the church neither takes the condemnations lightly nor do they disavow their own past. On the contrary, this Declaration is shaped by the conviction that in their respective histories our churches have come to new insights” (sect 7).

Having introduced its essential premise the document then goes on to in some detail the proper theological understanding on the relationship between Justification through Faith and demonstrations of faith through good works. “The foundation and presupposition of justification is the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. Together we confess: by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works” (Sect 15).

The document further goes on to point out that “In the (Lutheran) doctrine of ‘justification by faith alone,’ a distinction but not a separation(emphasis added) is made between justification itself and the renewal of one’s way of life that necessarily follows from justification and without which faith does not exist” (sect 26). Faith and works are, in the words of the old song, like love and marriage. You can’t have one without the other. “We confess together that in Baptism the Holy Spirit unites one with Christ, justifies, and truly renews the person. But the justified must all through life constantly look to God’s unconditional justifying grace” (sect 28).

Unfortunately, this groundbreaking Declaration has not been widely and enthusiastically embraced by the Church. The words of Abraham Lincoln reflecting on the reception of his memorable second Inaugural Address may help us understand why it takes so much time before our own agendas and those of God can coincide: “Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them.” Let our prayer be that this document will come to take its rightful place in the consciousness of the faithful as a fundamental building block of the Church of the third millennium.

Wow.. It’s like going back to university again. I believe it’s one of the longest post here.