Perhaps the most important difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is known as sola fide, or “by faith alone.” Indeed, Martin Luther described it as “the article with and by which the church stands, without which it falls.” In essence, Protestants hold that one being saved “consists solely in the imputation of the alien righteousness of Jesus Christ… The person justified by faith in Christ remains intrinsically unrighteous, so that his own works can contribute nothing to his justification.” Some Protestants take it so far as to even say that “insisting that baptism is essential to salvation violates the principle of sola fide.” From Martin Luther to today, Protestants have suggested that the Church teaches “works based salvation… that is blasphemous to God, robs Him of His glory, and devalues the work of Christ on our behalf.” In other words, Protestants believe that the Church teaches something that runs contrary to the Word on something as fundamental as how the faithful are saved.
In defense of this belief, Protestants typically offer verses from the Epistles to the Romans and Galatians. For example, Romans 3:28—”For we account a man to be justified by faith, without the works of the law,” Romans 5:1—”Being justified therefore by faith, let us have peace with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ,” Galatians 2:16—”But knowing that man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ… because by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified,” and Galatians 3:2—”This only would I learn of you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?” At first blush, these certainly appear to support the Protestant position, at least when viewed in isolation.
And therein is the problem. If you place these verses in context, it quickly becomes clear that St. Paul was not discussing what divides Catholics and Protestants. For example, Romans 3 begins, “What advantage then hath the Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision?” And the isolated verse upon which Protestants rely is followed by, “Is he the God of the Jews only? Is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also. For it is one God, that justifieth circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith. Do we, then, destroy the law through faith? God forbid: but we establish the law.” Similarly, the verse from Galatians 2 is framed, “If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of the Gentiles, and not as the Jews do, how dost thou compel the Gentiles to live as do the Jews? We by nature are Jews, and not of the Gentiles sinners… I cast not away the grace of God. For if justice be by the law, then Christ died in vain.” And Galatians 3: “For as many as are of the works of the law, are under a curse. For it is written: Cursed is every one, that abideth not in all things, which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that in the law no man is justified with God, it is manifest: because the just man liveth by faith. But the law is not of faith: but, He that doth those things, shall live in them.” While Romans 5 differs, it says, “By whom also we have access through faith into this grace, wherein we stand, and glory in the hope of the glory of the sons of God.”
Thus, we can see that Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:16, and Galatians 3:2 must be viewed within the context of “works of the law,” meaning the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament. St. Paul was saying that the Hebrews should not think of themselves as being justified, or better than Christian gentiles, because they were circumcised, followed dietary rules, and so on. As he said, “For if justice be by the law, then Christ died in vain.” In other words, there must be something more than what already existed lest there have been no reason for Jesus’s sacrifice, but this does not contradict Catholic belief. Indeed, Romans 5 highlights Catholic teaching as it shows we “have access through faith into this grace” and “the hope,” not that faith alone is the end-all, be-all of justification. There is obviously more required of us than simply believing.
To understand this, we can look to the canons of the Council of Trent regarding justification. For example, Canon I said, “If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works… without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema.” This could not be more explicit, and it directly contradicts the notion that the Church teaches “works based salvation” wherein a person saves themselves through works. That does not mean that good works have no role to play, but it speaks to the fact that grace comes from God through Jesus. In comparison, Canon IX said, “If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.” Furthermore, the declarations of the Council elaborated on the position of the Church quite a bit regarding justification:
Though Jesus died for all, yet do not all receive the benefit of His death … that in adults, the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ… whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they… may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace,” and having “been thus justified… they are renewed, as the Apostle says, day by day; that is, by mortifying the members of their own flesh, and by presenting them as instruments of justice unto sanctification, they, through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith co-operating with good works, increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified, as it is written; He that is just, let him be justified still; and again, Be not afraid to be justified even to death; and also, Do you see that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.”
This, unlike the Protestant position of sola fide, fits with James 2:14-26:
What shall it profit, my brethren, if a man say he hath faith, but hath not works? Shall faith be able to save him? And if a brother or sister be naked, and want daily food: And one of you say to them: Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled; yet give them not those things that are necessary for the body, what shall it profit? So faith also, if it have not works, is dead in itself. But some man will say: Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without works; and I will shew thee, by works, my faith. Thou believest that there is one God. Thou dost well: the devils also believe and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, offering up Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou, that faith did co-operate with his works; and by works faith was made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled, saying: Abraham believed God, and it was reputed to him to justice, and he was called the friend of God. Do you see that by works a man is justified; and not by faith only? And in like manner also Rahab the harlot, was not she justified by works, receiving the messengers, and sending them out another way? For even as the body without the spirit is dead; so also faith without works is dead.”
And James 5:19-20:
My brethren, if any of you err from the truth, and one convert him: He must know that he who causeth a sinner to be converted from the error of his way, shall save his soul from death, and shall cover a multitude of sins.”
And Matthew 25:32-46:
And all nations shall be gathered together before him, and he shall separate them one from another, as the shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on his left. Then shall the king say to them that shall be on his right hand: Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess you the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in: Naked, and you covered me: sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came to me… Then he shall say to them also that shall be on his left hand: Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me not to eat: I was thirsty, and you gave me not to drink. I was a stranger, and you took me not in: naked, and you covered me not: sick and in prison, and you did not visit me… And these shall go into everlasting punishment: but the just, into life everlasting.”
And John 5:28-29:
Wonder not at this; for the hour cometh, wherein all that are in the graves shall hear the voice of the Son of God. And they that have done good things, shall come forth unto the resurrection of life; but they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of judgment.”
And 2 Timothy 4:2-5:
Preach the word: be instant in season, out of season: reprove, entreat, rebuke in all patience and doctrine. For there shall be a time, when they will not endure sound doctrine; but, according to their own desires, they will heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears: And will indeed turn away their hearing from the truth, but will be turned unto fables. But be thou vigilant, labour in all things, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill thy ministry. Be sober.
And Revelation 14:12-13:
Here is the patience of the saints, who keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus. And I heard a voice from heaven, saying to me: Write: Blessed are the dead, who die in the Lord. From henceforth now, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; for their works follow them.”
Protestants can say that those “who reject sola fide… hold to a Gospel based on works that differs from the teachings found in Scripture,” but how do they reconcile their belief with the myriad of verses that speak of one’s works, good or bad, leading one to salvation or damnation? As the Church teaches, in line with the above, “for towards the salvation of an adult not only Baptism and faith are required, but, furthermore, works in keeping with faith” as the “conditions necessary to obtain Heaven are the grace of God, the practice of good works, and perseverance until death in His holy love.” A person has the free will to believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but belief alone is not enough. After all, as James 2:19 says, “the devils also believe and tremble.” Faith cooperates with works, and, by works, faith is made perfect (James 2:22). God’s grace, freely given as a gift, allows us to be saved, but we must take the steps to embrace Him and to do what He calls us to do. Good works done freely to glorify God are signs of our faith. The works alone cannot save us, but neither can faith alone. We are called to labor in the name of the Lord, not to declare ourselves saved and to pretend that no cooperation is required beyond believing. If a man says he believes in the Lord yet refuses all calls for him to serve, then truly who is his master?