Christian TraditionsRoman CatholicSalvationTheology & Spirituality

Justification in Catholicism, Part I

It may come as a surprise to some that, Luther’s attempt to add the word “alone” into Romans 3:28 notwithstanding, the words “alone” or “only” are never paired with “faith” in all of the Sacred Text except when the phrase is condemned in James. As a Protestant, this was the first fact to give me pause about my theology of salvation. If the phrase “faith alone” was really, as so many Reformers claimed, the best and clearest way to communicate the Gospel, one has to wonder why the Holy Spirit never inspired St. Paul or any other biblical writer to use it. If the solitude of Faith in justification is the crux of the Gospel, why wouldn’t the Bible say exactly that?

This post will examine three issues in the Sola Fide controversy. First, Saint Paul’s condemnation of “works of the Law” as a means to justification will be contrasted with the Reformers’ view of “Faith Alone.” Second, the Pauline “works of the Law” will be compared to the Jamesian meaning of “works.” Third, James’ usage of the term “justification” will be examined.

To begin, I will re-ask the question posed in the previous paragraph: why does Paul not use the phrase “faith alone” if that is precisely what he means to communicate? It is not as if Saint Paul was unaware of the Greek word for “alone,” or that his writing style disfavored its use; on the contrary, the Apostle to the Gentiles uses the Greek word for “alone” or “only” (μόνον) more often than any other New Testament writer, and frequently uses the word in soteriological contexts. Given this, it is even more surprising that “faith” and “alone” are never paired, if that doctrine is in fact what he sought to teach.

But, one may respond, what about Saint Paul’s condemnation of those who rely on “works of the Law” (Romans 3:20, Romans 3:27, Romans 3:28, Galatians 2:16, Galatians 3:2, Galatians 3:5, Galatians 3:10) for justification? Let us begin with the obvious: “not by works of the law” does not mean “alone.” “Alone” means “without anything.” As long as “without” is applied to a specific item, it excludes only that item.

A slightly more sophisticated critique might admit that, while Saint Paul’s letters do not indicate per se that faith is alone in the justification process, the phrase “without works of the Law” still excludes the Catholic view of justification through works of love. After all, it is written that “one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these,” (Mark 12:28-31) and “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12) The Christian understanding of the Law, then (and, to my knowledge, the Jewish understanding as well) is that the Law is ultimately about love. Therefore, one fulfills the Law through love; “works of the Law” are “works of love,” and if one cannot be justified by the former, neither can the latter save him.

However, reasoning in this way would lead us to misunderstand Saint Paul. To fulfill the Law is to love, but fulfilling the Law and carrying out the duties prescribed by the Law are not identical. This is the difference between Jesus and his earthly rivals, the Pharisees. One cannot fulfill the Law without love, but one can perform “works of the Law” without love: “for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith” (Matthew 23:23). That is why Paul denies that man is justified by works of the Law but still writes that God “will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.[…] For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified (Romans 2:6-8,13)

After all, not all acts of love are commanded or included in the Law. Therefore, while there might be some overlap, the categories are not synonymous and must be dealt with separately. Imagine if I said, “soldiers are not what allows this country to retain its economic advantage; entrepreneurs are.” Now, some soldiers may also be entrepreneurs; there might be overlap between the categories. But this does not mean that we should use this overlap as evidence that entrepreneurs are the same thing as soldiers. In the same way, works of the Law may be works of love, and works of love might carry out a commandment of the Law, but this does not make a distinguishment between the two fallacious. It is perfectly legitimate to refer to two categories as distinct even if they have overlap; after all, a work of the Law is only a work of love insofar as it is done out of love, just as a soldier is only an entrepreneur insofar as he innovates economically.

I think this difference is well-illustrated by the particular examples that Saint Paul and Saint James use. Saint James points to feeding the poor, Saint Paul speaks of circumcision. This is not mere coincidence in terms of the two acts’ relationship to justification. I think we can conclude from Paul’s example that the “works of the law,” which he says cannot merit justification, do not include works of love. The Apostle is attempting to exclude outward facades of righteousness, not real, inward righteousness, from the justification process: for, as he writes in Romans 2, “For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God.” (Romans 2:28-29)

Paul is focused on how the Judaizer’s works of the Law distract from their inward bankruptcy, while James is focused on how real, genuine works of love lead to justification. These are two very different things. This goes to the heart of Catholic theology and exegesis of Paul and James: doing works of the law—especially ones merely “outward” in orientation—with the intent to indebt God does not lead to justification. Working out Christ’s love does. If Paul had separated feeding the poor from justification, or if James had linked circumcision to salvation, then the Catholic division would be impossible. But here, Paul is not undermining the claim that James makes; he is repeating our Savior’s teaching: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity.” (Matthew 23:25)

Nevertheless, many Protestant exegetes will repeat the claim that James only says that true faith produces works. Of course, if this was really what James meant, he must have been a very esoteric employer of terms. For, if he meant that true faith produces works, then he seems to be curiously incapable of stopping there. He says that, as it regards Abraham’s justification, “faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works,” not merely that works provided evidence of his justifying faith. He claims outright, and on multiple occasions, that we are “justified by works” (James 2:21, 24, and again in 25). In order to get out of this precise statement, Protestantism must redefine either “justified” or “works.” Even if one accepts that by “faith” James merely means “intellectual assent,” as opposed to “true faith” (a concept I critiqued here) the bald statement that we are “justified by works” remains unaffected.

To my knowledge, no scholar has attempted to claim that when James says “works,” he really means “faith”—after all, the Bishop of Jerusalem made it very clear what he meant by works, using the examples of Rahab hiding spies, Abraham offering Isaac, and feeding the poor. These are examples of what Catholics call “works of love:” acts undertaken for the love of God and, possibly, others.  

This leaves us with the possibility of redefining “justified.” For the Protestant synthesis to be tenable, James and Paul must have meant different things when using this word. Generally, the Protestant counterpoint is that James is really talking about something like sanctification here; they might say that works do not change one’s status in the eyes of God, but they are fruits of a new relationship with God. On the surface, this seems like a plausible claim; the English word for “justified” is a bit esoteric and we can easily imagine two authors understanding the term in different ways. Of course, the possibility seems to diminish when one considers that Christianity, now only a couple of decades old, had hardly had the time to develop multiple, competing religious vocabularies. It seems even more unlikely once one considers that James and Paul, having spent some time together, probably were at least familiar with one another’s religious terminologies, and would have at least clarified if they knew that they might be speaking heresies if interpreted by the other’s framework (which is essentially what the traditional Protestant position contends). Regardless, it is a possibility, however remote, that James does not mean “justified” in the same way Paul does. To settle this question, we must dive into the text.

Happily, the answer is staring right at us. There exists a link between Paul’s discourse on justification in Romans 4 and James’ teaching in this chapter: Genesis 15:6 (“Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”). In both cases, the writers appeal to this verse as an example of justification: Paul uses it to prove that justification is not by works of the law, but through faith; James uses it to prove justification is not by faith alone but by works of love. The fact that they both appeal to this verse as an example of justification makes it seem impossible that they are referring to two different things when they speak of justification. It seems that, as we would originally expect, the two men do not differ in their use of this term.

In fact, the Greek word used in Genesis 15 for “righteousness,” δικαιοσύνην (dikaiosuné), is the same root word as “justified,” (dikaioó, or δικαιόω) used by both Paul and James. Thus, claiming that Paul and James did not mean the same thing by the word “justified” is essentially tantamount to saying that one thinks that Paul and James have two contradictory opinions of the proper translation of Genesis 15:6. This verse acts as a bridge between Romans 4 and James 2, creating a link that assures the reader that all three passages are discussing the same kind of justification. There is no legitimate way to slice these texts apart and define justification differently in one of the three.

Thus far, we have established with some certainty that “justification (in the Pauline sense, which is identical to the Jamesian sense) by works (not of the law, but of love)” is a biblically valid concept. However, it remains to be seen if an equally coherent Scriptural argument can be made for the Catholic interpretation of “justification by faith:” ie, continual, infused righteousness, sacramentally transmitted, on the basis of faith that is ongoing and uninterrupted by mortal sin. That, God willing, is what my next essay will focus on.



Image provided by Reji and found here.

Christian McGuire

Christian McGuire

Christian was raised in an evangelical, Calvinist family with a deep love for Christ. However, his conversations with members of other Christian traditions gradually led him to question some of his preconceptions. After six years of research into Scripture, Church History, miracles, and philosophy, he was confirmed into the Catholic Church. His favorite Christian thinkers include G.K. Chesterton, John Henry Newman, and Saint Augustine, his confirmation saint.

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