Two of the five solae (only’s) of the Protestant Reformation are those of sola fide or “faith alone,” and sola gratia or “grace alone”. With that in mind, a dispute often arises among Christians over the role (or even necessity) of good works in the life of the believer. Many believers claim that faith alone is enough – even the word “believer” connotes images of faith and belief, whereas the word “disciple” brings to mind negative connotations of hardship and discipline undertaken at another’s command. Is it any wonder that many tend to call themselves believers and not disciples?
For the faith alone folks, let me just say – we don’t disagree. In fact I will go one better and claim grace alone. After all, faith itself is a work. It’s something that you have to do. It is an action. If you don’t put your faith in Christ, then you aren’t saved. In fact, as a Catholic, I believe in grace alone so thoroughly, that I am more than willing to forgo the “work of faith” and baptize babies who aren’t even able to put their faith in anyone or anything. And, as a bible believing Christian, I thoroughly believe the Scriptures when they tell me that, “Baptism, …now saves you.”1 In fact you can read all about my views on the subject in an article I wrote on that very topic: Baptism, Babies, and Being Born-Again
And incidentally, this grace alone stuff isn’t just for babies. I would also extend it to all of those who through no fault of their own are unable to place their faith in Christ prior to their death, such as small children and the mentally handicapped. I think that we could all agree that those without the capacity for faith don’t need to perform the “work of faith” in order to be saved right?
The lynchpin verse for the faith alone crowd is frequently taken from St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans where he writes, “For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”2 Many will read the passage unconsciously adding the word “alone” even though it is strangely absent. Although the word alone doesn’t appear there (unless you are reading one of Luther’s translations – he added the word to the text), I have to admit that the bible does indeed use the term “faith alone” although it can only be found in a single passage in all of Scripture. In St. James’ epistle we read, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.”3
Also, it is worth mentioning that contextually St. Paul is actually referring to the ceremonial works of the Torah – not the moral or natural law. Of course as Christians we are to keep the moral law! In fact, just three chapters later, St. Paul encourages us to become, “slaves to righteousness” though our obediance! ((Romans 6:15:23))
St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians is another passage that is often used when trying to prove faith and grace alone. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.” ((Ephesians 2:8-9)) Many believers stop here, well pleased with their faith – a gift given to them by God’s grace with no strings attached. St. Paul however continues, “For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.”4 What?! God expects us to do good works?! Hasn’t He heard of faith and grace alone?! Certainly He doesn’t want us trying to work our way to heaven does He?!
Sorry true believers, but it’s just possible that Christ actually wants disciples 😉
Here’s the thing. Yes we are saved by grace alone – through faith when the capacity for faith exists – but it is for something that God saves us, and that something is good works! Specifically the good works that we can do through,5 with,6 and in7 Christ Jesus! Outside of Christ our works can have no merit, but having been created in Christ Jesus for good works, it is now incumbent on us to perform the works for which we were created!
To summarize the above, there is nothing we can do to “earn” salvation. We come to baptism by grace alone and are washed clean solely by Christ’s sacrifice. But that is only the beginning. Justification begins a process called sanctification that ultimately will result in our salvation – if we continue to remain in Christ. Remember His parable of the vine and the branches?8 Here’s a little illustration that seems to somewhat aptly illustrate the point.
According to the catechism, Catholics believe that, “Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself. By faith ‘man freely commits his entire self to God.’9 For this reason the believer seeks to know and do God’s will. ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ Living faith ‘work[s] through charity.’10 The gift of faith remains in one who has not sinned against it. But ‘faith apart from works is dead’11 : when it is deprived of hope and love, faith does not fully unite the believer to Christ and does not make him a living member of his Body.”12
So faith is not mere intellectual assent. After all, as St. James reminds us, “You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble.”13
Faith works itself out in love.
So what does the parable of the talents have to do with faith and works? Lets read the parable below.
“For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”14
There are many who point to the passage in Ephesians and say that salvation is a free gift. That if you do anything to earn it it isn’t free. And they are right. But, let’s examine the parable of the talents. The talents were free gifts – grace and faith leading to salvation. The servants did nothing to earn them. Two of the servants used their talents – faith working in love. One of the servants did not. He buried his talent – he had faith alone. And what was his master’s response?
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1 Peter 3:21a ↩
Romans 3:28 ↩
James 2:24 ↩
Ephesians 2:10 ↩
‘I am the way. No one can come to the Father except through/by me’ John 14.6, ‘Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand’ Romans 5:1-2 ↩
‘But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him’ Romans 6:8 ↩
“May they all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, I pray that they also may be in us” John 17:21, There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28 ↩
John 15:1-10 ↩
Dei Verbum 5 ↩
Romans 1:17, Galatians 5:6 ↩
James 2:24 ↩
CCC 814-815 ↩
James 2:19 ↩
Matthew 25:14-30 ↩