Have you ever heard someone object to the Catholic Church’s teaching on justification? In a nutshell, the Church believes that a working faith justifies, not just “faith alone” which is the legacy of the Protestant Reformation.
The person then supports their objection with Romans 4 in which St. Paul says, “Now to one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a gift but as his due. And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned to him as righteousness.”
You know the Church’s teachings do not contradict St. Paul’s words, but you do not remember how to reconcile his words with these teachings. This article will provide the full Catholic answer by briefly discussing St. Paul’s words on justification, Abraham’s justifying faith, and St. James’ seemingly contradictory teaching.
St. Paul’s Insights
Paul first introduces his teaching on faith’s salvific effects in Romans 1:17 in which he says, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” In the rest of the chapter, he rebukes the wicked, not only because of their evil actions, but also because they refuse to believe God exists despite ample evidence.
Paul continues his admonitions in Romans 2 and in verses 6 and 7 says, “For He 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.” As a side note, Protestantism is the very type of factionalism that Paul condemns in this verse.
Paul subsequently discusses the natural law in verses 12-16 in which he says, “When the gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the [Old Covenant] law.”
Paul then calls out the Jews because they boast of the law and their relation to God. After speaking about circumcision, he says, “So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision?” (v.26) “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” (vv. 28-29).
For Paul, the natural law of doing what is morally right and the Old Covenant law are distinct but overlapping, and real circumcision pertains to the one who keeps the moral law regardless of his connection to the Old Covenant rituals.
In Romans 3:20 Paul introduces the key to understanding his words in the following chapter 4. Here, he says, “For no human being will be justified in His sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Paul goes on to talk about justification through faith in Jesus Christ, who redeemed us with his life-giving Blood. Then, in verse 28 (the clincher), Paul says, “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
Therefore, when Paul talks about works in the next chapter, he is talking about works of the law (e.g., circumcision, ritual washing, etc.). He is not talking about good works in general. This will become evident when we look at Abraham’s justification in Romans 4.
In Romans 4, Paul says, “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (v. 30). We should pause here and look at Abraham’s justification in Genesis 12-15.
Abraham as Model
In Genesis 12:2, God makes his first promise to Abraham (Abram at that point) that He will bless him and make of him a great nation. Then Abraham does as God tells him to do and leaves the region of Haran (v. 4) for another land. In verse 7, God again promises Abraham that he will give his descendants the land of Canaan. Abraham then continues his journey toward the Negeb (v. 9).
In Genesis 13:14, God promises Abraham the land of Canaan a third time and Abraham builds an altar to the Lord (v. 18). In 14:22, Abraham tells the king of Sodom that he made an oath to God that he would not take anything from him. At this point, Abraham’s working faith should be clear. He believes God’s promises, journeys to the land of Canaan at God’s command, builds an altar, and keeps a promise he made to God.
This background sets up nicely the issue of Abraham’s justification in the next chapter. In Genesis, chapter 15, God promises Abraham that he will give him a son to be his heir (v. 4) and make of him a great nation (v. 5). “And [Abraham] believed the Lord and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (v. 6).
Abraham’s faith in God’s promise had been working for three chapters before God credited it to him as righteousness. Yet, he did not “work” his way to God. Instead, God came to Abraham, Abraham followed God’s instructions faithfully, and God reckoned his working faith as righteousness.
God did not one day promise something out of the blue that Abraham believed in the intellect only. It wasn’t intellectual faith that justified him. Rather, a working, active, grace-caused, faith justified him.
St. James Clarifies Faith and Works
Abraham’s working faith is why St. James can explicitly state that works justified Abraham (2:21), and that faith was active along with works; it was a faith that completed his works (v. 22). James then says, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (v. 24). For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead” (v. 26). Therefore, our faith must be working; it must be alive.
Bringing It All Together
So, Paul’s explanation of justifying faith does not exclude good works at all. Rather, it excludes works of the law without faith. Paul was merely helping the Church in Rome, which consisted of gentile and Jewish converts, to understand that works of the law do not save. He uses Abraham, to whom God had not yet commanded circumcision, to show that the law in and of itself does not save.
Both Paul and James use Abraham as their example because both acknowledge Abraham’s working faith. Paul knew the Old Testament better than most and, therefore, knew that Abraham had a working faith, a faith that journeyed with God until his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness.
Accordingly, working one’s way to God does not justify a person, nor does a dead faith. Rather, grace-initiated faith, alive with good works (according to the age and ability of that person), that trusts in God, justifies. And this justification begins at baptism.