What began nearly six months ago is finally coming to a close. For some of you this may have been five columns too many, and for others it may have barely satiated your desire to know the truth which has set you free! For the former I sincerely apologize if the reading has not been compelling enough or has come across too polemical for someone who values ecumenism. My next column will offer a “behind the scenes” look at why I recently decided to spend so much time on apologetics and the paramount importance it offers for the cultivation of genuine friendships with our non-Catholic brothers and sisters. For those who have been barely satiated, I simply invite you to contact me for more information on this and other topics that may be close to your mind and heart.
In the past five columns we have covered a number of angles to the doctrine of Justification: It’s overall importance among Catholics and Protestants, the distinction between “once saved, always saved” and salvation as a process, the difference between imputed and infused righteousness, the teachings of Christ regarding faith and works, and St. Paul’s perspective on faith and works. We are now at a point to examine a couple passages outside the Gospels and the Pauline corpus with the intention to show the integrity of Scripture as it pertains to justification as expressed and defended by the Catholic Church.
It is a curious fact that while Luther believed justification by “faith alone” would be the pillar by which the Church stood or fell, the phrase “faith alone” is itself only used once in Scripture and it is preceded by ‘not.’ The Epistle of James states, “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jms. 2.24). With all due respect to our separated brothers and sisters, a belief in a doctrine that is explicitly condemned in Scripture can be a puzzling thing to the Catholic. The strong undercurrent, which forces the non-Catholic Christian to “re-interpret” such a lucid and self-interpreting passage, lies hidden in the phrase “competitive causality.” For the Evangelical, what man causes, God cannot simultaneously cause and what God causes, man cannot simultaneously cause. Such a belief makes sense out of most of life. After all, if ‘X’ is the murderer then that means all of ‘not X’ is not the murderer.
In light of this particular interpretive lens, one may be able to see why many Evangelicals are gravely opposed to a justification that includes works. If works are something the person does, that means the person has exclusive rights to those works and that God has absolutely no role in their causation. All that being said, the inferred conclusion is that a works included justification means a salvation that is earned because he/she brought its own causation without God through good works. By “reinterpreting” James they are in fact pruning a difficult passage in the name of a greater cause: That God is our salvation, not man!
For the Catholic there is no need to re-interpret James since we see no conflict with what St. James has to say and the fact that God is the exclusive cause of our salvation. The reason why there is no conflict for the Catholic is because we do not believe there is any competition between God and the human person regarding causality. In fact, the more God is actively in our life, the freer we actually become! Thus, while it is true that God causes every good work in us, it does not take away from our own causation of the good work. In truth, it is precisely because of God’s causing of the good work that we can freely cause that good work in ourselves. Thus, James need not be dismissed, ignored, or twisted for a “greater cause.” Yes, it is Christ and only Christ who saves me, and no amount of good works threatens that reality as those good works are as much His as they are mine. For more information on particular Protestant interpretations of James and for a Catholic response, see my second column on this series.
One would think the majority of Christians would exhaustively comb through the Book of Revelation searching for clues to the mystery of justification. After all, the concept of personal judgment saturates the Book of Revelation so why not turn to it as well for doctrinal assistance particularly in the area of salvation?
While the Book of Revelation has been the source of many fanciful and downright silly interpretations, there is at least one particularly cogent section that we will turn to so as not to stake a theological claim on an exegetically complicated passage. Chapters two and three consist of seven short letters to the seven distinct Churches in the region of Ephesus. Each letter consists of a particular judgment on the Church addressed, and it is Jesus Christ, while being penned by John, who personally addresses each Church. These judgments are useful as they speak explicitly for the need of good works for salvation, but with a strong implicit recognition for heart-felt faith. The first Church in Ephesus is prized for the patient endurance in suffering and persecution for the faith, but they are quickly admonished for abandoning their first love (cf. Rev. 2.1-7). Christ then encourages them to do the works they committed to at the beginning of their faith journey or else Christ would remove himself from them. Christ never says, “I know your faith” to any of these Churches but rather, “I know your works.” As I said many times in many different ways, to deny works as part of justification is to deny—or be ignorant of at best—a very large body of Scripture.
As Catholics, we are called to live a life of faith, but we are also called to live a life of service in love to our Lord. Our salvation rests on this Truth. May we continue to love and serve our Lord through faith and works, but may we do it not to gain an eternal reward but simply because God is God! May God be Praised!