The Illusion of ‘Faith alone’

Since the time of the Reformation the diverse branches of Protestantism have generally agreed on two general principles: ‘Scripture alone’ and ‘Faith alone’. I have spent some time the past few weeks writing of the contradictions contained in the doctrine of ‘Scripture alone’. Today, I turn my attention to ‘Faith alone’.

Two passages from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans have served as the foundation of the Protestant understanding of ‘justification by faith’.  First: I am not ashamed of the Gospel. It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: Jew first, and then Greek. For in it is revealed the justice of God from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just man shall live by faith.’” (Rm 1:16-17) And then: We consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Rm 3:28)

It is not my intention here to enter into all the complexities of the doctrine of justification among Catholics and Protestants. Rather, what I want to highlight is that Protestantism moved the focus of faith from the realm of objective truth to the realm of subjective experience.

This is partly a consequence of moving Scripture out of the Church and into the realm of private interpretation and it is partly the consequence of reading St. Paul’s teaching on faith as declaring that no ‘good work’ done by a human being, even after being justified by God, has any value in the sight of God.

In the simplest terms the doctrine is that Jesus Christ died for our sins and that we are justified by believing that we have indeed been forgiven, apart from anything we do, now or ever. To doubt that I have been forgiven is to allow my faith to waver; my faith is revealed by my absolute confidence that God has forgiven me in Jesus Christ. Inevitably Protestant ‘faith’ begins to revolve around a person’s subjective experience of certainty about having been forgiven by God. In the most extreme form it leads to idea that once a person believes and accepts Jesus Christ as his ‘personal savior’, he is, and always will be, most surely ‘saved’, whatever he does.

Martin Luther once wrote to his friend Melancthon, “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world.” Sometimes this passage has been twisted out of context to say that Luther was promoting sin; in context, though, its meaning is that whatever you do, you will sin, so don’t worry about it, just do your best and believe in Christ. Underlying Luther’s statement is the belief that all human action is utterly worthless in God’s sight.

In fairness, Protestants will generally hold that the faithful Christian, the one who is ‘justified by faith’, will live a life of joy-filled good works, out of gratitude for the gift of salvation. Still, when push comes to shove, those ‘good works’ have no value in the sight of God and are merely signs of having been justified.

Catholic teaching makes an important distinction between sinful action, action that is good on a natural human level, but does not merit eternal life, and action that is meritorious before God precisely because the Holy Spirit is working in us through grace.

We can learn about how grace works in us and how we collaborate with grace from Jesus’ parable of the talents in which the good and faithful servant works with the gift of God, gains an increase, gives an account to his Lord, and receives both praise and a reward, Well done, good and faithful servant … enter into the joy of your Lord. (Mt 25:21) The talent comes from God, even the work that brings the increase is possible only by collaborating with God’s grace, but the work truly belongs to the servant and merits the reward. So also we have from St. Paul to the Romans, Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured forth in our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Rm 5:5) It is we who love and it is the Holy Spirit who moves us to love.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us: “The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.” (CCC 2008)

When we realize that Christ first chose us first so that our lives might bear fruit to the glory of his Father (cf. Jn 15:,8,16) then we begin to focus less on our subjective experience and more on the objective conformity of our acts with God’s will. That requires that we let the content of our faith be measured by the teaching of the Catholic Church. This by no means excludes our personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but keeping that relationship in the Church keeps us from getting lost in the illusions of our own emotion and imagination.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.