As I mentioned in the last post, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding St. Paul’s doctrine of justification. Perhaps St. Peter was referring to this when he identified an issue with Paul’s letters: “In [Paul’s letters] there are some things hard to understand that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction, just as they do the other scriptures” (2 Pt 3:16, NABRE). Of course, I don’t know that this was what Peter had in mind, but his description fits—to some extent—with the misunderstandings concerning Christian justification which still arise today.
Since the rise of Protestantism, many over the years have believed that justification is entirely separated from works. Many such people believe that, while the Commandments are certainly good things which should be followed, not following them would have no real bearing on their eternal livelihoods. I recall hearing recently—granted, I’m not sure where, though it may have been a video on Paul’s Letters by Fr. John Coropi or a recording on them by Fr. Ray Collins—that the only thing such people believed could affect their eternal livelihood after a profession of faith was the deliberate, specific intention to turn away from God.
The Letter of James seems to disagree—strongly—with the notion that works are separate from faith:
“Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works” (Jas 2:20-22).
There are a couple of things in particular that should be noted in this quote, as it pertains to my last post in this series.
The first is that James brings Abraham into the argument to defend the importance of works. Isn’t that interesting, in light of the fact that Paul used him as an example of the primacy of faith (see, as I referenced in my last posting on St. Paul, Rom 4:13-25)? Yet, James doesn’t mention Abraham to defend the legitimacy of just works, but the fact that “faith [is] completed by [ ] works” (emphasis mine). This in itself is the second thing I wanted to make note of.
The fact that faith is “completed by” works ties in with what I had before: basically, that both faith and works are necessary in that order for a person to ultimately be justified. A person has to be justified originally by faith, but if they do nothing to maintain that justification through good works—if they do nothing to complete their faith, to show their belief rather than just telling it—the justification will be lost.
This brings me to another important point: justification can be lost. As I briefly noted above, this seems to be misunderstood by a lot of Christians, who go by the doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” But they are refuted by the Letter of James, which gets across that faith is “dead” (Jas 2:17) if it isn’t “completed by” works. Note again that key word: completed. James doesn’t say that faith is different from works; rather, he says that faith reaches its fullness through works.
I’ve discussed previously the difference between “believing in God” and “believing God” (see “Follow the Leader” and “The Many Facets of Faith”), and I think what I’m getting into in this post summarizes it well. Good works are really all part of truly having faith in God; not just believing in Him and in His deeds, but in actually believing Him, such as in acknowledging His wisdom in giving us moral instruction. Following this instruction could very well be said to be the completion of faith James speaks about.
And, of course, justification can be entirely lost through evil works; but that isn’t to say that it’s gone for good. As the Church teaches, “Mortal sin, by attacking the vital principle within us – that is, charity – necessitates a new initiative of God’s mercy and a conversion of heart which is normally accomplished within the setting of the sacrament of reconciliation” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1856). In other words, a sin so bad that it’s “of its nature incompatible with the charity that orients man toward his ultimate end” (CCC, 1856, qtg. St. Thomas Aquinas) turns us fully away from God and His grace, meaning that we choose leave justification behind through such an action.
Of course, you can feel free to go beyond even the teaching of the Church established by God and the Letter of James to those books which have “a special preeminence” “among all the Scriptures, even those of the New Testament” (Dei Verbum, 18). In other words, see for yourself in the Gospels themselves, which is the take on justification we’ll be examining in part four of this series.
“Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth” (1 Jn 3:18).