This, for those who may be unaware of it, was a major issue during the 16th Century Reformation. Broadly speaking, the view of the Catholic Church at the time was that we are saved by both faith and good works (‘faith without works is dead’ – James 2:17). On the other hand, the Protestant Reformers taught that good works, while important, are not part of our salvation (which they interpreted to mean the question of whether or not we will go to heaven when we die); thus they were ‘faith alone’ churches (‘For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law’ – Romans 3:28).
Now, I personally have a sneaking suspicion that both the Catholic Church and the Reformers may have misunderstood what Paul and James were on about (and I think Tom Wright has done a great job in explaining what the NT authors actually meant by faith and works). But there’s another, very practical reason why I’m bored by the debate about faith and works. Here it is.
I don’t know a single Protestant or Evangelical theologian who doesn’t think it’s important for Christians to obey God’s commands and live a Christlike life. They all agree with that. The slogan I learned in college was ‘We are justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone’. Huh? What sort of sophistry is that? Are Christians called to obey Jesus, or not? Apparently he thought we were! “Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matthew 7:24). If you believe and trust in your doctor then you put her instructions into practice. If you don’t you obviously don’t believe in her. So – whatever they say they believe about faith and works, all evangelical and Protestant theologians actually agree that it is important for us to keep God’s commandments, and that if we don’t, our faith is probably not real. So – isn’t this ‘salvation by faith and works?’
On the other hand, when push comes to shove, I don’t know a single Catholic theologian who would deny the idea that God’s love for us is unconditional – that is to say, when we turn to God in repentance and faith and ask for forgiveness, he doesn’t ask “Do you deserve it?” or ‘Have you earned it?”, but simply pours out his love and forgiveness on us as a free gift, not because we are loveable but because God is love. Furthermore, I’m absolutely sure that every major Catholic theologian today would agree that when we stand before the face of God, we will do so as sinners needing God’s forgiveness; none of us will be able to say “I deserve eternal life, Lord: just look at all the good deeds I’ve done!”
No: Catholics and Protestants alike agree that God’s grace (his unconditional love and generosity, continually poured out on the world and seen above all in the Cross of Jesus) is the source of all genuine Christian experience. Catholics and Protestants alike would agree that we are called to turn from our previous allegiances, put our faith in Jesus as our Saviour and Lord, and learn to follow him in our daily lives. Catholics and Protestants alike would agree that all who profess faith in Christ are called to learn to obey God’s commands and become more and more Christ-like, as the Holy Spirit works in them to transform them into the likeness of Jesus.
So isn’t this enough? Why are people still arguing about faith and works? Ordinary Christians, I think, understand instinctively that they go together. That’s what I believe, and that’s why I’ve lost interest in the whole argument. In an increasingly secular world where there is so much suffering and so much unbelief, it seems to me that we’ve got more important fish to fry.