When I was eight years old, with no means of getting a job, my father gave me a dollar to buy my mother a Christmas present. I searched through a discount store to find the nicest gift within that range - a small cross necklace. I could perform this good deed because my father had given me the means to do so. Had I chosen to be selfish, I could have bought something cheaper and spent the remainder on myself. Similarly, God gives us the unearned grace to perform good deeds, and accounts these deeds as meritorious, depending on how we cooperate with His gift. How does this tie into the faith and works debate? The Catholic Church teaches that we "are justified"-that we get right with God--by grace and not by good works. Way back in the 1500s, bishops at the Council of Trent said people are "justified gratuitously, because none of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification" (read source). However, nowhere does the Church say that humans are justified "by grace alone." Scripture never teaches that, either in the Old or New Testaments. The only Bible verse containing the words "justified by faith alone" adds the word "not:" James 2:24 says, "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone." Faith by itself is not sufficient for justification; hope and love are required to unite a person to Jesus Christ. In the same letter of James, we find the frequently quoted verse "faith without works is dead" (James 2:17, 20); Galatians 5:6 tells us that what "avails" for salvation is "faith working through love."
The ability to work out faith in love-for example, my freely-willed action to buy my mother the necklace--is itself a grace, though not grace alone. God offers His grace freely to human beings and they cooperate in accepting it, or they refuse to cooperate by rejecting it. As many Evangelical Protestants agree, a person has to make a "decision for Christ," which requires the use of the free will under God's grace. So we can't scrape by assuming faith is all we should focus on. The Council of Trent document (and common sense!) tell us that we cannot consider ourselves "exempt from the observance of the commandments," since Scripture teaches, "Labor the more, that by good works you may make sure your calling and election" (2 Pet. 1:10). Many Bible passages speak of the merit due good works: "Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord" (1 Cor. 15:58). "For God is not unjust, that he should forget your work, and the love which you have shown in his name" (Heb. 6:10). In Matthew 10:42, Jesus says "whoever gives even a cup of water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple-truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward." Matt. 16:27 says when Jesus comes again, "he will repay everyone for what has been done." God will judge us not only by our faith, but by what we do. The question often arises: how many works are enough? Trent's answer is that Christ is the Vine, and Christians are branches who receive their ability to do good works from Him (John 15:1-6).
Because Christ's strength helps us do good works, we "believe that nothing further is wanting" in them. We don't have to play the "how much is enough" game. What about the oft-cited verses from Romans chapter 3 about justification by faith? Well, let's look at what immediately precedes them. Romans 2:6 says God "will repay according to each one's deeds." Saint Paul never meant for us to think that ethical behavior has a lower order of merit. Christians can't afford to relegate good works to a second level of importance in their lives. When we cooperate with God's free grace to do good deeds, "our inner nature is being renewed every day" (2 Cor. 4:16). We must actively pursue works, and make good use of the unearned dollar Our Father gives us.
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