A Roman Catholic challenges sola fide

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

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Question: Why don't you think that Matthew 7:21-27 (or Luke 6:46-49) contradicts "sola fide"? If Jesus said explicitly that we have to act according to his words, then having faith in him implies that we have to act good and "love each other as he loved us." By these citations you can conclude that faith is more complex than a simple belief, it takes you to action, therefore, actions are also necessary to get salvation. I think it may be necessary to tell that I am a Roman Catholic so that you could answer my doubt in a better way.

Answer: Greetings my Roman Catholic friend. It will be my pleasure to respond to this question today… and perhaps I am the perfect one to do so. You see, although I am an Evangelical Protestant, I was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition — and Roman Catholicism still has a very large presence in my region (and in my family!) Furthermore, I agree with your assertions: faith is indeed more complex than just simple belief — and faith should take you to action.

However, I do not agree with your conclusion… because it does not follow from your premises. Just because “acting good” is inextricably bound to faith does not mean that godly actions cause faith — or that they are a necessary link in the chain of obtaining faith. So how are they bound? “Good works” are bound to faith as the expected result of faith. But events that occur “after” (which includes all things that are “results”) cannot impact elements prior (like faith). This is why it is said of those who believe that “good works” or “godly actions” are necessary to obtain salvation, that have put the cart before the horse… it’s just logic: a result cannot affect its own cause(s).

Furthermore, your conclusion militates against the Scripture because the Bible is clear that the only action necessary to get you to salvation is “receiving” God’s gift, Jesus Christ (John 1:12). Now, it is true that many godly actions may result from salvation, but it is not true that they are required to actuate it. In fact, teaching that one must perform any other act to obtain salvation is nothing short of installing stumbling-blocks to understanding… and ultimately, perhaps, to salvation itself! So consider today’s lesson carefully.

I assert “Sola Fide” because I also assert “Sola Scriptura.” Those of you who give weight to the traditions of a religion rather than to Scripture are listening to humans rather than to God… and that’s never a good idea with eternity in the balance. I, therefore, plead with you to prayerfully read your Bible, listen to the Holy Spirit… and submit to God’s word.

That being said, we are close in many aspects of our beliefs. You see, knowledgeable Catholics and congruent Protestants both understand that faith is indeed complex and that it is not designed to stand alone. Unfortunately, we have different understandings of God’s grace… and therefore, different understandings of how one obtains saving faith. This is one of our huge divisions — one that emphasizes an ongoing problem in comparative religion: we often use the same terms… but we mean different things by them.

Grace, biblically defined, is God’s pure gift (Ephesians 2:8)… it’s like an unsolicited email waiting in your inbox — you have that little control over grace. Those who insist that a “means of grace” is necessary to transfer grace put unnecessary human actions in the salvific flow (Romans 11:6). Grace is a gift… and purely so; it has no contingencies. But (one may counter), doesn’t the clear biblical assertion that “faith without works is dead” blow the “pure giftedness” of grace right out of the water? Let’s explore.

It was James who gave us the well-known phrase “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26) — and this is indeed strong language that seems to support your case. But it would only support your case if dead meant dead… which it doesn’t.

James taught that having a “dead” faith is incongruent for a believer… which means it is possible for a believer. By “dead” he means a faith that is impotent or lackluster… like a party that never got going. But by dead, James never meant that such faith was nonexistent. In fact, the real problem was that it did indeed exist!

The notion that a believer might have an impotent faith is shown in the many Bible passages where “believers” are being told to step up their game! Some of these believers have no apparent “good works”… and some are even sinning worse than pagans! (1 Corinthians 5:1). Now, since the objects of these corrections are believers — that alone tells us that salvation requires no overt godliness. But also, it shows us to expect some horrid-looking people in the Body of Christ.

Let’s look at the logic for a moment: What can we say about these people — those whose faith has no apparent attachment to any good works? One may say that such people have no evidence of a genuine faith — that’s not overstepping logic. But it is a step too far to say that such people cannot have genuine faith in the absence of works. Not only is that the counsel of Scripture, it is — and shamefully so — an all too common crime in Evangelical churches. We have many converted people who leave no fingerprints. As such, it’s hard to tell who-done-it… or who hasn’t done it… when it comes to being born again into God’s family.

If we examined the lives of such people we could present a cumulative case against their having genuine faith… but it would be circumstantial. As previously affirmed, it is also quite plausible that a legitimate faith might leave no trace… after all… the point of James’s letter is based on just that. He’s calling on believers to look like believers… because many believers are not producing fruit.

In my opinion, our discussion so far is sufficient to answer your objections. The fact that an entire biblical book largely exists to discuss the dead-faith syndrome, has — as a logical necessity — multiple people who are true Christians… but who are bereft of good works. This is a shame of course… but this is why they have been called on the carpet by the Lord’s own brother! So, if any good works were required to actuate salvation, the book of James would be absurd — and it would not sit peaceably in the canon. But it does exist; it’s a part of Scripture that reveals an empirical condition.

I wanted to cover James' book first because on the surface it seems to be at variance with Paul’s teaching that salvation is by grace alone and through faith alone. But now we know that they are talking about different aspects of faith: James is talking about an existing faith that may or may not show, and Paul is teaching about the nature of that faith — what it is and what it’s not. So let’s look at his quintessential teaching of how grace and faith work together in a believer’s life.

8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—9not by works, so that no one can boast. 10For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:8–10, NIV)

Now, I am not one of those Evangelicals who stops the citation at verse nine — because verse nine is not the conclusion. But I would like to start by doing that because those verses certainly deserve their own emphasis. In Ephesians 2:8-9, Paul is quintuply clear that salvation comes only through faith — and that even the notion of works would taint God’s perfect product.

First, Paul states the proposition plainly (“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith…”) — and this type of statement is categorically different from your verses in Matthew 7. In Ephesians 2:8-10, Paul is teaching specifically on the nature of grace, faith, works and salvation. He is thereby developing the doctrine. But in your other verses, Jesus is telling the Jews how to behave. He is not teaching doctrine. Now, we may certainly build a cumulative case for any doctrinal position with data from any portion of Scripture, but a passage that is purposed to develop doctrine will be stronger than any passage that is not purposed for doctrine-building… even if the speaker is Jesus!

We must remember that Paul was a Jew — and he knew very well that the Jews (and most nominal religionists) only understood salvation in terms of obedience-and-reward or disobedience-and-punishment… and that he should cover every contingency in explaining how this was no longer the case (“It is finishedJn. 19:30 [emphasis mine]). So, the second thing Paul did was to emphasize how wrong that thinking would be. “The self” has no part in obtaining salvation (“—and this is not from yourselves”).

Third, Paul uses the contrast between receiving something as a gift and receiving something because you have earned it (“it is the gift of God—not by works”). No person who receives a gift stands in a causal relationship to the giving. If he does, then it is not a gift. First, a gift requires two entities — a giver and a receiver. One cannot give himself a gift. Second, anything “earned” in the whole or in part is, by definition, not a gift… no matter what you call it. The receiver may refuse a gift, of course — because there is a contingent part of the giver/receiver handshake. But a gift is in no way compensation. Check your tax codes. The government understands the importance of differentiating between a gift and compensation.

Fourth, after telling us how salvation comes to us, he emphasizes how salvation does not come to us (“not by works”). Again, Paul is using a strong technique to qualify his proposition while not being redundant. A good way to understand what something is… is to understand what it is not.

Fifth (and perhaps my favorite), Paul examines this proposition counterfactually. A counterfactual is a thought-experiment by which we can analyze possible futures — but especially those with contingencies and responses to those contingencies… and we use these all the time. When I say, “If it rains on the 30th, we will move the party inside,” I am looking ahead at imaginary yet plausible scenarios that will help me make decisions today. You can see how this type of thought experiment allows us to explore a large range of possible worlds — future worlds that are bound to logic — but which may or may not exist.

Paul used this technique to show the vanity of inserting “good works” into the salvation process by asking us to imagine a world where a man could indeed obtain salvation by the works he has done. (That’s not a real world, of course; this is just a postulation.) But he is asking us, what could logically happen if such a world were to exist? In such a world, a man who was saved by his good works could boast of his worthiness before God!... and any valid understanding of the human condition should reveal that as folly. The proper response to salvation is thanksgiving, not boasting. Worshipping God should be the result of having our sins forgiven… not shining the lapel — which such an analysis postulates.

Ephesians 2:10 concludes the chapter by giving us an overview of God’s actions and our purpose for existence: he created us in Christ Jesus to do good works. So I agree with your premise that that salvation and good works are inseparable — and especially so by design. But note the category of persons who are supposed to do these good works: believers… people who are already in Christ Jesus. That puts the cart squarely behind the horse. Christians do good works because they are saved… they do not do them for future leverage in becoming saved.

Salvation comes to people as a result of being “born again” by the Spirit of God (John 3:3). Unless that happens, even an earnest seeker cannot so much as see the kingdom of God. So, if people have indeed been born again (regenerated) — but are failing to do their job in the Body of Christ — they will not look like Christians … but they will indeed be Christians. That is a matter of definition. That is, whether or not someone is a Christian is an ontological (intrinsic) distinctive.

However, there do exist people who are not born again — but who are out there doing many good-looking works… and the fact that they are doing things that the world perceives as “good deeds” makes them appear to be Christians. But they are not Christians… not any more than I would become an automobile by making honking noises and going, “Vroom, vroom….” So please note this well: good works reflect a chosen behavior — not a category of being. A quick look around reveals that even atheists serve society — but by doing things frequently associated with Christians — like feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, etc. But that same look will reveal that there are many Christians doing nothing! This paradox is our next topic.

Now, you cited Matthew 7:21 through 27 as passages that uphold a works-based faith… but did you read them… and especially verse 23?

““21 Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21–23, NIV)

The above passage is, in my opinion, the most chilling passage in the Bible… and it comes from the lips of Jesus himself. Jesus is teaching that there are people who will sidle up to him — and even call him Lord… but who will not go to heaven? Then what people will go to heaven? Just read verse 21: those who do the will of my Father. At this point, don’t you think it would be wise to understand just what that will is? Look at the following exchange between Jesus and his disciples.

“Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”” (John 6:28–29, NIV, emphasis mine)

Dear friend, believing that Jesus is the Christ — the Sent One — the Messiahthat is the work that God requires. The Jews were so focused on obeying the Law that they missed what was right in front of them — Jesus, the Christ. He would soon fulfill the Law with his death on the cross, reversing the salvific paradigm forever: where once God’s people had to obey the Law and perform sacrifices to atone for their sins, now they just had to believe… believe that Christ did indeed fulfill those requirements for them.

After the cross, God’s people could approach him without sacrifice because they were his children. So they obeyed the (non-sacerdotal) aspects of the Law as children who were trying to please their Father by obeying the house rules… not as outsiders who are trying to buy their way into the family. Those are the type of people highlighted in Matthew 7:23 — they are outsiders who think that by using God’s name and by offering some trinkets that they can buy their way into God’s kingdom… when God himself tells us that belief is the coin-of-the-realm.

Let’s look at Matthew 7:23 to see how God handles this “misunderstanding.” Since this is Jesus telling us what he will say to these people at that future moment of judgment, here’s what I surmise. At the judgment, it must be too late to correct behaviors performed under false notions… because the “marking period” is closed and school is over. Also, I don’t see Jesus giving people any options about paying for their own sins… because, if that were a possibility, a merciful God would certainly take a moment to do that… but I do not see him absolving anyone.

Also, I don’t even see Jesus thanking anybody for doing all those godly works… even though they were done in his very name! What I do see (and this is the chilling part) is Jesus sending these earnest-sounding people away from his eternal presence. I also see him calling these do-gooders evil-doers. But finally, I see him disavowing them… and the gravity of these observations cannot be overstated.

You can probably see why I was a little confused when you used this passage to refute sola fide. Because this is the story of people who were counting on their efforts to pay their way to heaven — a vain exercise in a world where faith-alone is the ticket. In Matthew 7:21-23 Jesus is effectively saying, “You guys know a lot of things for sure… they’re wrong things, though.” Don’t allow yourself to be on the wrong side of this misunderstanding.

Now, the remainder of the passages that you cited were parables — not passages that were purposed to teach doctrine... as was Ephesians 2:8-10. One of the “rules” of Bible interpretation is that literary structures such as poems and parables should not be the “go-to” sources for developing doctrine. However — (and to re-emphasize) all Scripture is important and useful for building a cumulative case (2 Timothy 3:16). But even common sense tells us that not all Scripture is equal in doctrinal density… I mean, we don’t need Th.Ds. to just read. Should something like a poem or an anecdote be given the power to topple Paul’s direct teaching on grace, faith and works? No. But that’s what your objection to sole fide presupposes — that a parabolic passage is weightier than direct teaching.

Finally, this parable of the house built on sand assumes that people will go ahead and perform religious works with or without Jesus. Its very point is that these works should not continue without the proper foundation of faith… but they do... thus the story.

A foundation has the right to exist independently of any other structures. Now, a house may be built on top of it… but the house is not a part of the foundation… it is not a cause of the foundation… and it is not built before the foundation. In like manner, Salvation in Christ exists foundationally for the believer. Faith has a right to exist whether or not the believer builds anything upon it. But when the believer does go ahead with his building (his godly works), they will be built upon the foundation of faith… they will not cause faith… and true works can only come after the foundation has been laid.

That concludes my answer. For more information about salvation — to see what it is, what it’s not… and what you have to do about it — please click here.

To see why a believer cannot earn… but also… why he cannot lose his salvation, please click here.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20160606 A Roman Catholic challenges Sola Fide).

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