When I was Protestant, I knew just how I was going to respond to any Catholic who used what I thought was going to be his go-to verse on justification: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). My response: “St. James is not saying works actually contribute to justification in any way. He is merely saying works demonstrate that you have already been justified!”
Now I can admit how weak that argument was, because whatever you say about James 2:24, you really can’t say works do not contribute to justification constitutively in his teaching. In verse 21, he says works “perfect” faith. If that is not contributing to the essence of what makes faith faith, then nothing is. Moreover, in verse 26, James says, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead.” Would anybody say “the spirit” or “the soul” in man does not contribute constitutively to what makes a man a man? Of course not! That is St. James’s point. Works contribute to faith by keeping it alive. If works fail, the faith “dies.”
Arguments about James 2:24 aside, there are manifold other texts of Scripture that are just as clear as that one about the nature of works in relation to salvation. Perhaps more so. One example of this is found in the Gospel reading from today, the eleventh week of Ordinary Time.
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:43-45).
The inspired author here quotes Jesus Christ as using a purpose clause in Greek—hotos genesthe huioi tou patros humon to en ouranois—“in order that you may be made sons of your Father in heaven.” That means, in simple terms, you have to do this (love your enemies and pray for your persecutors) in order for that (being made sons of your Father) to become a reality. It really doesn’t get any plainer than that.
We believe that Jesus is speaking of being “sons of God” in a final sense, at the end of our lives, so we can go to heaven. That is clear from the entire context of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is basically giving his faithful his how to get to heaven discourse (see Matt. 5:1-12,19-20,21-26,27-30, etc.).
When Jesus spoke to the rich young man, he was equally clear that it is not enough to believe in him (Christ) to have eternal life. That is part of it (John 3:16). But Jesus says it is also necessary to “keep the commandments” and “sell what you possess . . . and follow” him.
And behold, one came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” And he said to him… If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which?” And Jesus said, “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions (Matt. 19:16-22).
Notice that after the young man walks away, this is the impetus for Jesus to clarify that his commandment to give everything and follow him is for everyone and necessary for salvation:
And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:23-26).
And in Matthew 5:48 and Revelation 3:1-5, Jesus makes it even more clear that this commandment to be perfect applies to everyone, not just this young man:
You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars. “‘I know your works; you have the name of being alive, and you are dead. Awake, and strengthen what remains and is on the point of death, for I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God. Remember then what you received and heard; keep that, and repent. If you will not awake, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you. Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy. He who conquers shall be clad thus in white garments, and I will not blot his name out of the book of life; I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.”
Not everyone is called to literally “sell everything” he possesses and follow Jesus, though we have a couple thousand years now of examples of folks who do just that—for example, members of various religious orders throughout the world. But everyone is called to recognize that everything he “owns” ultimately belongs to the Lord.
In conclusion, I suppose I should ask: what would Jesus and the New Testament have to say to get folks to believe “we are justified by works, and not by faith alone”; that we must “keep the commandments of God”; and that we must “love our enemies” in order to have eternal life . . . other than to speak and write the exact words he did?