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What Catholics Believe About Faith and Works

It is problematic to frame the Protestant-Catholic discussion of justification simply in terms of “faith alone” versus “faith and works.”

“Protestants believe in faith alone, while Catholics believe in faith and works.” You hear both Protestants and Catholics say this all the time.

But it’s a misleading oversimplification. If you tell a typical Evangelical, “You believe in faith alone, but we Catholics believe in faith and works,” you will cause him to think that the Catholic Church teaches something that, in fact, it says is false.

Here’s why . . .

The justification connection

The discussion of faith and works doesn’t take place in a vacuum. It occurs in a specific context—the doctrine of justification.

The New Testament uses the word justification to refer to one of the things that God does for us by his grace. Unfortunately, there is considerable disagreement about what justification involves.

The way typical American Evangelicals use the term, when God justifies someone, he declares that person’s sins forgiven and proclaims the person righteous. This is occurs at the beginning of the Christian life, when a person first turns to God.

As far as it goes, this description is accurate. Catholic theology would say that there is more to justification than that, but it is true that at the beginning of the Christian life God forgives a person’s sins and declares him righteous.

Faith alone

When Protestants use the phrase “faith alone,” they are describing how we are justified. The idea is that in order to come to God, be forgiven, and be declared righteous, you don’t need to do anything to earn your place before God except have faith in Jesus Christ.

In practice, Protestants give different meanings to the “faith alone” formula. Lutherans, for example, don’t see the idea that baptism grants salvation as conflicting with this.

In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther asks, “What does baptism give? What good is it?” His answer: “It gives the forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, just as God’s words and promises declare.”

Various Protestants—including some Calvinists, Anglicans, Methodists, and others—believe baptism plays a role in salvation, but others sharply disagree. Some—particularly Baptists—claim that if baptism were to play a role in salvation it would violate the “faith alone” formula. They thus understand this formula in a way that excludes baptism. This is the most common position in American Evangelicalism.

Regardless of how they interpret the “faith alone” formula, there is one thing that Protestants agree would violate this formula: works. “Works”—whatever they may be—are precisely the thing that the “faith alone” formula is meant to exclude.

Much can be said about what “works” are in the Bible, but, for reasons of space, we won’t be going into that here. It will do for our purposes to note that most Evangelicals understand the term to mean “good works” (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.). Some understand it even more broadly to mean anything that you do.

Both groups commonly envision works as somehow earning our place before God.

Faith and works?

If a Catholic tells a Protestant, “We believe in justification by faith and works,” it will cause the Protestant to believe something about Catholic doctrine that is not true.

Remember: Protestants use the term justification to refer to an event at the beginning of the Christian life where God forgives us and declares us righteous. As a result, a Protestant will think that the Catholic is saying that we need to do works in order to come to God and be forgiven.

This will confirm his biases against the Church and play into all those stereotypes left over from the Reformation—the ones where Catholics are depicted as holding a false gospel according to which we need to earn our place before God by our own efforts. But the Catholic Church does not teach this.

The Council of Trent on Justification

Following the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church held an ecumenical council in the Italian city of Trent to deal with the theological questions that were being debated. The Council of Trent issued the Decree on Justification (DJ), which set forth the Catholic position on the subject.

In the heat of the times, Protestant leaders painted the Council of Trent as a great villain that simply reiterated the Church’s false teachings and its false gospel. That characterization is still found today in a lot of Protestant literature on the subject.

But if you read what Trent says, you find it actually denies much of what is attributed to it. This is the case with the idea that we need to earn our place before God by doing works—particularly at the beginning of the Christian life when we are first justified.

According to Trent, “none of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification. ‘For, if by grace, it is not now by works, otherwise,’ as the Apostle says, ‘grace is no more grace’” (DJ 8, quoting Rom. 11:6).

When we come to God and are justified, it happens without any merit on our part. Neither our faith nor our works—nor anything else—merits justification. Trent thus denies the very thing our Protestant brethren fear it asserts—and that we lead them to believe if we tell them simply that we believe in “justification by faith and works.”

Isn’t that our language?

Given how common the “justified by faith and works” language is in some Catholic circles, the idea that we should be careful using it with Protestants may seem unfamiliar. “Isn’t the language we use when summarizing our beliefs about justification?” one might ask.

It depends on whom you mean by “we.” Many Catholics use this as a kind of top-level summary of justification, but you don’t find the magisterium—the Church’s teaching authority—using it that way.

If you go through Trent’s Decree on Justification, or the section on justification in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1987-1995), you won’t find the phrase “faith and works.” And you won’t find the word works at all in the Catechism’s section on justification.

This may be surprising, but the fact that the magisterium does not express its teaching in this way is a signal that we need to look more closely at what it says.

What about James 2:24?

A key question at this point is how the magisterium handles James 2:24, which says that we are “justified by works and not by faith alone.”

In popular discussions, this verse is often presented to Protestants as if it proves that we are justified by faith and works, with nothing more to be said. Confronted with this claim, the Protestant may respond, “But that’s not the kind of justification that James is talking about.”

Before dismissing this claim, a Catholic should be aware of one thing: The magisterium agrees with it. At least, the magisterium doesn’t quote James 2:24 in connection with the justification that occurs at the beginning of the Christian life. Instead, it refers it to something else.

Growth in righteousness

Earlier we mentioned that Protestants tend to conceive of justification as an event that occurs at the beginning of the Christian life where we are forgiven and declared righteous by God, and we said that this understanding is true as far as it goes.

But in the Catholic view, there is more to justification than this.

In the first place, God doesn’t simply declare us righteous. He also makes us righteous in justification. Thus the Council of Trent defined justification as “not only a remission of sins but also the sanctification and renewal of the inner man” (DJ 7).

So at the beginning of the Christian life, God forgives our sins and gives us the gift of righteousness.

But he’s not done with us. He wants us to grow in righteousness over the course of the Christian life, and, if we cooperate with his grace, we will.

Catholic theology refers to this growth in righteousness using the term justification, so, in Catholic language, justification isn’t something that happens just at the beginning of the Christian life. It happens over the course of the Christian life.

The righteousness connection

The reason the Church refers to this growth in righteousness as a form of justification is a little unclear in English. This is because the English vocabulary draws on both German and Latin roots. As a result, the same underlying concept can appear under more than one English term.

That’s the case with righteousness and justice. They are two different words in English, but they both represent the same underlying term in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, etc. As a result, you sometimes see Catholic works in English translated so that they speak of God giving us the gift of “justice” (i.e., righteousness), of us growing in justice, and thus of us being further justified.

This sounds unusual in English, and both Protestant and Catholic scholars have lamented that we don’t have the vocabulary to say things like “God gives us the gift of righteousness, we grow in righteousness, and thus we are further righteoused.”

As a result, we have to keep in mind the way that righteousness and justification are related.

Trent on James

This leads us to what the Council of Trent had to say about James 2:24.

After discussing the justification that occurs at the beginning of the Christian life, Trent quotes several passages from St. Paul on how Christians grow in virtue by yielding our bodies to righteousness for sanctification. It states that by good works we “increase in that justice received through the grace of Christ and are further justified” (DJ 10).

It is in the context of this growth in righteousness—and in this context only—that Trent quotes James 2:24: “Do you see that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only?”

Trent thus relates James’s statement not to the initial justification that occurs when we first come to God but to the growth in righteousness that occurs over the course of the Christian life.

Thus, a Protestant objecting that James is talking about a different kind of justification than the one the Protestant has in mind would be correct. James isn’t saying that you need to do good works in order to be forgiven. And neither is the Catholic Church.

From a Protestant point of view

If this were explained to many Protestants, they would likely be somewhat relieved and somewhat perplexed.

They would be relieved to hear that the Catholic Church doesn’t teach that we need to do good works to come to God and be justified, and they would be relieved to hear that the Catholic Church relates James 2:24 to later events in the Christian life.

On the other hand, they’d likely still have some differences, at least on the level of terminology. Though Protestants acknowledge that God sanctifies and renews the inner man when one is initially justified, they don’t tend to include this under the term justification. Instead, they treat it as a separate but simultaneous event.

And, although they acknowledge that by cooperating with God’s grace and doing good works we grow in righteousness as Christians, they don’t use the term justification for this process, either.

An open-minded Protestant might say, “Well, we don’t use the term justification that way, and we might not agree about the interpretation of particular verses, but we can acknowledge that what Catholics are saying here is true, even if they express it differently.”

Still, such a Protestant might wonder how far we can agree. He might ask: “Didn’t Trent condemn ‘faith alone’ with an anathema?”

The anathema

Canon 9 from Trent’s Decree on Justification states: “If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, so that he understands that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema.”

This is widely misunderstood.

One reason is that the term anathema is often glossed in Protestant circles to mean something like “damned by God,” and the canon is represented as condemning Protestants to hell.

It isn’t. At that time in history, the term anathema referred to a form of excommunication that could be imposed by a Church court for certain serious offenses. It was performed with a special ceremony, and its purpose was to motivate people to repent. When they did repent, it was also lifted with a special ceremony. It was seldom imposed and was eventually abolished.

The anathema did not sentence people to hell, it did not take effect automatically, it was never applied to all Protestants as a group, and it doesn’t apply to anyone today. The use of the term does, though, imply an authoritative rejection of the “faith alone” formula—when it is used to mean a specific thing.

The canon doesn’t say, “If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, let him be anathema.” Instead, it rejects a particular use of the formula, whereby someone “understands that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will.”

Trent is therefore concerned to reject “faith alone” when it’s used to say that you don’t need to in any way cooperate with God’s grace, that a merely intellectual faith would save you.

And that’s correct. Merely agreeing with the truths of the theology is not enough to be saved. As James puts it: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder” (James 2:17).

A Catholic “faith alone”?

If Trent didn’t reject all uses of “faith alone,” could the formula have an acceptable use from a Catholic point of view?

It might come as a surprise, but quite a number of the Church Fathers used it (see Joseph Fitzmyer, Romans, 360). Even Thomas Aquinas used it(Commentary on 1 Timothy, ch. 1, lect. 3, Commentary on Galatians, ch. 2, lect. 4).

The fathers of the Council may have known that some Catholics sources used the formula, and this may have been one reason why they only rejected certain interpretations of it.

Since the time of the Council, Catholic theologians have explored the senses in which the formula might be compatible with Catholic teaching. Specifically, they have pointed out that the theological virtue of charity (the supernatural love of God) unites us to God, and so, if one has faith combined with charity, then one has “faith working through love,” which is what Paul says counts in Christ (Gal. 5:6).

That kind of faith, which Catholic theologians refer to as “faith formed by charity,” wouldof itself—unite one to God spiritually.

Benedict XVI on “faith alone”

This understanding has been endorsed by the papal magisterium.

Pope Benedict XVI taught: “Luther’s phrase ‘faith alone’ is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love. Faith is looking at Christ, entrusting oneself to Christ, being united to Christ, conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence to believe is to conform to Christ and to enter into his love. So it is that in the Letter to the Galatians in which he primarily developed his teaching on justification St. Paul speaks of faith that works through love” (General Audience, Nov. 19, 2008).

It thus seems that the “faith alone” formula can have an acceptable meaning.

Does this mean that Catholics should start using it?

Reasons for caution

There is a big difference between it being possible for a formula to be given an acceptable meaning and it being prudent to use it in common practice.

There are several reasons why Catholics should not do the latter.

First, the formula is not the language that Scripture uses to describe how we are justified. The phrase “by faith alone” (Greek, ek pisteos monon) appears only once in the New Testament, in James 2:24, where it is rejected. Using this formula, whatever meaning it is given, creates an automatic tension with the language that Scripture itself uses, and that’s bound to cause confusion.

Second, the formula is inherently open to confusion. In common speech, the term faith is a synonym for belief. When coupled with the word alone and used to describe the method of our justification, it communicates to most people the erroneous idea that we can be saved by intellectual belief alone—the view that Trent rejected.

Third, though there are precedents for its use in Catholic history, it is not the primary or even a common way that Catholic theology expresses itself on justification.

Fourth, the magisterium does not use the expression on a regular basis. If you look in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, you will not find it. Neither will you find it used regularly in other magisterial documents. There are a handful of such documents that acknowledge that the formula can have a Catholic sense, but there are none that use it regularly or recommend that Catholics use it.

Speaking the truth in love

There are many points on which Catholic and Protestant thought differs, including on the subject of justification, but we should be precise about these and not create additional confusion.

A careful look shows that it is problematic to frame the Protestant-Catholic discussion of justification simply in terms of “faith alone” versus “faith and works.” This is an oversimplification that will lead Protestants to think that the Catholic Church teaches things that it does not.

The way that the Church approaches the issue is more careful and more sophisticated. Communicating it is therefore more difficult. It’s always easier to reduce two positions to a pair of slogans and pit them against each other, but the Church doesn’t call us to do what’s rhetorically easy.

It calls us to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15), and that means taking the care to explain what the Church teaches with both accuracy and charity.

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