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Faith and Works

Jimmy Akin

One passage Fundamentalists often cite as a proof against the Catholic view of salvation is Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.”

Though this passage can often stymie Catholics in conversation, it is nothing to be threatened by.

Even if we assume that Paul is speaking of “good works” when he says we have not been saved by works, this in no way conflicts with Catholic theology. Notice that the passage speaks of salvation in the past tense — “you have been saved.” In Greek this is the perfect tense, which denotes a past, completed action. 

We know from other passages in Paul that salvation also has present and future aspects, so the kind of salvation Paul is discussing in Ephesians 2:8-9 is initial salvation. It is the kind which we received when we first came to God and were justified, not the kind of salvation we are now receiving (cf. 1 Peter 1:8-9, Phil. 2:12) or the kind we will one day receive (cf. Rom. 13:11, 1 Cor. 3:15, 5:5).

But the Catholic Church does not teach that we receive initial justification by good works. You do not have to do good works in order to come to God and be justified. 

The Council of Trent states: “We are said to be justified by grace because nothing that precedes justification, whether faith or works, merits the grace of justification. For ‘if it is by grace, it is no longer by works; otherwise,’ as the apostle says, ‘grace is no more grace’ [Rom. 11:6]” (Decree on Justification 8). 

So even if Paul were using “works” to mean “good works” in Ephesians 2:8-9, there is no conflict with Catholic theology. However, Paul probably does not mean “good works.” Normally when he says “works,” he means “works of the Law.” His point is to stress that we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the Mosaic Law. Jews have no ability to boast in front of Gentiles of having a privileged relationship with God because they keep the Mosaic Law and its requirement of circumcision (cf. Romans 2:6-11, 17-21, 25-29, 3:21-22, 27-30).

These same elements — works, boasting, circumcision, and the Jewish/Gentile distinction — are present in Ephesians 2. Paul discusses how Jew and Gentiles are united together in the body of Christ and mentions works in connection with boasting, before turning to the whole subject of circumcision and membership in Christ: 

“Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called the uncircumcision by what is called the circumcision . . . remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel . . . But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the Law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two . . . and might reconcile us both to God in one body. . . . So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:11-19).

Because of the common themes of both passages, Paul is probably using “works” and “boasting” here as he does in Romans, i.e., of Jews boasting before Gentiles of having privilege with God due to their keeping the Mosaic Law.

The apostle then turns our attention away from works of the Mosaic Law and toward the kind of works a Christian should be interested in-good works: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). 

The sense of what Paul is saying is: “God has raised up both of us-Jews and Gentiles-to sit in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, for we received initial salvation as a gift. We obtained it by faith in Christ (which itself is a gift from God), not by works of obedience to the Mosaic Law. So neither Jew or Gentile can boast over the other of having privilege with God. “Instead, we Christians are the result of God’s work, for he created us anew in the body of Christ so that we might do good works-the kind of works we should be concerned about-for God intended ahead of time for us to do them” (paraphrase of Eph. 2:6-10). 

If Protestants try to put Catholics on the defensive using Ephesians 2:8-9, they themselves are put on the defensive when Catholics cite James 2:24. Protestants are known their slogan stating that we are justified by “faith alone,” but the expression “faith alone” only appears once in the Bible-in James 2:24-where it is rejected. This is a burr under the saddle of Protestants, for if they want to use terms the way the Bible does, they would have to give up their chief slogan.

When Catholics point this out, many Protestants attempt damage control by attacking the faith being discussed in James 2, saying it is an inferior or bad faith. Some do this by labeling it “dead faith.” They treat “faith without works is dead” (vv. 17, 26) as if it were a definition and say, “If faith does not produce works then it is dead faith. It is this dead faith that James says won’t save us.”

But reading the context shows that James is not using the phrase as a definition. He is not defining the term “dead faith.” That term does not appear in the text. He is stating a fact, not offering a definition. The interpretation flies apart at the seams when we test it by substituting “dead faith” wherever the text mentions faith.

On that reading, people would be boasting of having dead faith (vv. 14). James would be making the redundant statement that dead faith without works is dead (vv. 17, 26) and offering to prove that dead faith is barren (v. 20). He would be offering to show people hisdead faith by his works (v. 18) and commending people (“you do well”) for having dead faith (v. 19).

Finally, he would be telling us that Abraham’s dead faith was active with his works (v. 22) and that Abraham believed God with dead faith and it was reckoned to him as righteousness (v. 23).

Another attempt to impugn the faith in this passage uses the statement “Even the demons believe-and shudder” (v. 19). People ask, “What kind of faith do demons have? Only mere intellectual assent. They intellectually assent to the truths of theology, but this is as far as their faith goes.”

This understanding of the faith in James 2 is closer to the truth, but it still creates problems-in fact, many of the same problems. People would be boasting of having mere intellectual assent (v. 14). James would be offering to show others his mere intellectual assent by his works (v. 18). He would be commending people for having mere intellectual assent (v. 19) and saying that Abraham’s mereintellectual assent was active along with his works (v. 22)-in which case it wouldn’t be “mere” any more. 

Finally, he would be saying that Abraham’s mere intellectual assent was reckoned to him as righteousness, contradicting verse 23, which would state that mere intellectual assent is barren.

The “mere intellectual assent” solution fails just as the “dead faith” one did. In fact, any solution that impugns the faith James is talking about as a bad or inferior faith will fail. This can be seen by going through the passage and substituting “bad faith” and “inferior faith” wherever faith is mentioned.

Such solutions fail because James does not see anything wrong with the faith he is talking about. The faith isn’t the problem; the fact it is alone is the problem. 

To understand what kind of faith James has in mind, one must avoid the temptation to read something bad into it. This is where the “mere intellectual assent” solution went wrong. Its advocatescorrectly identified verse 19 as the key to understanding the faith being discussed, which is intellectual assent. Adding the term “mere” to make it sound bad created the problems. 

Leave “mere” off, and the problems vanish. Someone can go around boasting that he intellectually assents to God’s truth (v. 14), prompting James’s need to show that intellectual assent without works is dead and barren (vv. 17, 20, 26). He could offer to show his intellectual assent by his works (v. 18). And he could commend a person for having intellectual assent (v. 19a), while saying that even the demons have it but it doesn’t stop them from shuddering at the prospect of God’s wrath (v. 19b).

Finally, he can speak of how Abraham’s intellectual assent was active with and completed by his works (v. 22) and can conclusion that man is not justified by intellectual assent alone (v. 24).

James views intellectual assent as good thing (“you do well,” v. 19a), but not as a thing that will save us by itself (vv. 14, 17, 20, 24, 26).

Thus if one uses the language of the Bible, one would say that “a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law . . . not by faith alone . . . for faith apart from works is dead . . . but faith working through love” (Rom. 3:28, Jas. 2:24, 26, Gal. 5:6).

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