"Faith alone" is a way of saying "Christ alone." The Christian life is in the end not about me and my righteousness. That I, my good works do not stand in the center. Neither on my own nor with God's help do I become better in isolation. The Christian life is about life in Christ. Jesus says: "I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5).
At the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, the question was, how can sinners come to stand justified-forgiven--before the righteousness of God. The answer of the Reformers was that any appeal to our good works undercuts true Christianity. I need not worry whether my good works are enough; Christ's righteousness- his life and death in perfect loyalty to God and love of humanity --is sufficient.
The relation between faith and good works is no longer a matter that divides Catholics and Protestants. In 1999, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, representing the vast majority of Lutheran churches, signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, in which the churches declared they had reached a "consensus in basic truths" of the doctrine of justification.
A summary sentence states: "Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works" (paragraph 15 of the Declaration). We are called to good works, not because God requires them as a precondition of acceptance, but because by faith we have been accepted and taken into what God is doing in Christ and the Spirit.
How do I receive Christ's saving work? Simply (or not so simply) by trusting in it as it comes to me in the proclamation of the gospel and the celebration of the sacraments. Faith is a living trust in Christ. It does involve holding certain beliefs: I couldn't trust in Christ if I didn't believe that he existed, that he rose, etc. But faith is dead unless it is a person's fundamental orientation, a trust that shapes who one is and what one does. That orientation is more fundamental than good works.
The question is: Are good works to be done so that one is accepted by God or because one has been accepted by God? The central question is thus not whether good works--the love of neighbor in action--is a necessary part of Christian life. Everyone agrees that they are. But what role do they play? They cannot be the basis of our confidence that we are accepted by God; that basis is always and only Christ. Good works are the fruit that comes from staying in a relationship with faith in Christ.
But faith is then more than just trust. Protestant reformer Martin Luther compared faith in Christ to a marriage in which two people share all things. The connection between faith and good works is not just psychological; it is not simply that because God has done so much for me I should then do good works for the neighbor out of gratitude. The connection is deeper -- because through faith the spirit of Christ dwells in me I am now moved to be, in my own small way, a Christ for my neighbor.
Faith is not the easy path given to us because we are not capable of the hard path of good works. Good works are, in a sense, too easy. I can do good works without being truly transformed. Faith-which involves turning myself inside out, toward God and away from myself--is far more difficult. It is so difficult, in fact, that it cannot be my work. Faith must be a gift from God.
"Faith alone" is not an excuse to evade the hard work ofbeing Christian. Jesus accepts the woman caught in adultery and saves her from being stoned, but he then tells her "Go, and sin no more" (John 8:11). We are accepted into life in Christ and then must struggle to let Christ shape our existence. We can enter into that struggle confidently, however, "for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:12).