Monthly Archives: October 2012

I’ve thought more about James 2 in relation to the Protestant/Catholic differences on justification, and I have come to the conclusion that the Protestant summary—that we are saved by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone—is the best interpretation of that passage. Consider:

1) James 2 says that works are necessary for faith to be genuine because a) faith works with works (2:22); b) as a result of works, faith is perfected (2:22); and c) faith without works is dead (James 2:26).

2) Thus, works are necessary—not in a saving sense, but only because without them faith is dead, being by itself. Now when we say that something is not by itself, what else do we mean than that something else accompanies it? Thus it is apparent that works are the necessary accompaniment (complement) of faith. Without them, whatever faith one claims to have is counterfeit. Think of a cheeseburger: Without cheese, it ends up being just a plain burger. The cheese doesn’t have a causative role, that is, it doesn’t make anything happen. It is necessary, though, only in this sense: Without it, the cheeseburger ceases to be a real cheeseburger. If someone were to serve you a plain burger and tell you it is a cheeseburger, all you would have to do to find out is lift the bun and see if cheese accompanies the burger, and then you would know for certain whether you have a cheeseburger. Similarly, works are necessary—not to bring about salvation, but rather because without them faith is not genuine, but when they are present the faith is shown to be genuine.

So James seems to be making two major points about works: 1) They accompany true faith, and 2) they show faith to be genuine. What must be noted, though, is that he never says that works have any saving efficacy or have a causative role in salvation.

Thus, works are not necessary in a saving sense, i.e., they don’t purchase salvation for us. For that matter, neither does faith. Christ alone is the purchaser of salvation, hence the Reformed teaching of sola fide.

So, referring again to the Protestant summary I have heard before, I would break it down as follows:

  • We are saved by faith alone (because only the blood of Christ purchases salvation, and our works have no saving efficacy)
  • but not by a faith that is alone (because works are the necessary accompaniment [complement] of faith)

“Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10, ESV)

As my recent posts have shown, my ongoing exploration of the Catholic Church has had me thinking more about the Protestant/Catholic division over the doctrine of justification. Recently the above words from Acts popped into my head seemingly out of nowhere, prompting me to give a closer look at that passage. What I read there gave me doubts about the Catholic Church’s position on salvation. The passage reads as follows, with the most relevant portions emphasized:

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. 3 So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. 4 When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. 5 But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”

6 The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. 7 And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. 8 And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, 9 and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10 Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (ESV)

Unless I’m mistaken, Catholics generally interpret Paul’s words that we are “justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28) as not meaning that we are justified by faith apart from all works of the law (as Protestants generally maintain) but rather as saying that we are justified by faith apart from the ceremonial works of the law. In their view, then, Paul was not referring to the whole law when he wrote of justification by faith but rather only to its ritualistic aspects, such as circumcision, and although we are justified by faith apart from the ceremonies of the Mosaic law, we are not justified by faith apart from keeping its moral precepts.

This passage seems to work against that interpretation, for the following reasons:

1. The Pharisees demanded adherence to the whole law, both ceremonial and moral (v. 5).
2. The Council decided against that position (v. 10).

Verse 5 does not limit the issue to merely cirumcision but also to the “law of Moses”: “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” It seems, then, that the Pharisees who said this wanted the Gentiles to keep both the ceremonial as well as the moral requirements of the law. Otherwise, why would they have mentioned circumcision separately from the law of Moses? Why mention both? If the phrase law of Moses really meant all the ceremonial laws, then there would have been no need to mention circumcision at all, as it, too, is a ceremonial law.

Equally important is the fact that the apostles took a stand against the Pharisees’ demands. This is vital to consider, since it sheds much needed light on the council’s final declaration. If the Pharisees put forward a view of salvation by keeping the law—both ceremonial and moral—then the Council’s decision must have been that of sola fide, since its final decision was clearly against the Pharisees. Note Peter’s comments in v. 11: “But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” Peter emphasizes salvation by grace directly in opposition to the Pharisees’ demand for obedience to the law. In other words, Peter uses the notion of grace to oppose the Pharisees’ emphasis on obedience to the law of Moses. Therefore, he and the other apostles must have seen the Pharisees’ demands as being in opposition to grace. This is made even clearer by Peter’s accusation: “why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” He opposes an unbearable yoke with grace.