The letters of Paul make mention several times of salvation by faith. There are passages in Romans, Ephesians, Titus, and Galatians just to name a few. To some these passages might appear like a pretty open and shut case in favor of a teaching that says salvation is by faith alone and that “once saved, always saved.” Yet, the bible never says “alone.”
Furthermore, the bible actually says the opposite. “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” On the surface there appears to be a conflict between this passage in James 2:14-26 and the writings of the apostle Paul. However, the explanation is quite simple and very logical. Three of the passages read as follows.
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.
They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus,
…a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
What are works?
The proper context of the “works” referenced in the letters of Paul is seen in his audience and the historical context. Paul is contrasting the old covenant with the new covenant – the Law of Moses vs. faith in Jesus Christ. This is made explicit in Galatians 2:16 which is cited above and it is implicit in Paul’s other letters.
The Law of Moses is the covenant in which Jesus’ death on the cross fulfills and replaces. There are more than 600 laws which prescribe how one should live in accordance with God which comprised God’s covenant with Israel. These are the works that Paul is describing.
Paul letters are written to the Gentiles who, while desiring the salvation that only Jesus can offer, were attempting to obtain it by adhering to the Mosaic Law. Paul is instructing them that there is a new covenant with God open to all people; salvation is now through faith in Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all, not strict adherence to the Law of Moses which was for the Israelites. Paul never intends to say that one’s personal choices and actions have no effect on one’s salvation. James 2:14-26 appears to have been written to explain this.
The works of James
James uses strong language to condemn the non-biblical teaching of faith alone. His language is so strong that he declares that “faith without works is dead.” James, in verse 19, makes a compelling argument against faith alone by saying, “You believe that God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe that and tremble.”
Consider that for a moment. If even the demons believe in God, why aren’t they in heaven? Wouldn’t they be saved simply by their belief? It must mean that faith alone is not enough. Salvation must be dependent on more than just faith alone!
James gives us two concrete examples in the Old Testament of how someone’s works had salvific merit. The first is Abraham. James says,
Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called ‘the friend of God.’ See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Note that Abraham’s faith was completed by the works which demonstrates that faith is not enough. The key is not the specific action that Abraham did, but rather his ascent to the will of God, or rather his obedience to what God wanted him to do. This is exactly the teaching of the Catholic Church upon which its morality is rooted: to believe in God and to do his will brings eternal life in heaven with God.
Abraham ultimately did not sacrifice Isaac because God decided it was not necessary, but he was willing to be compliant with God’s demands.
The second example is of the prostitute Rahab. James says,
And in the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by a different route?
Rahab protected spies from the king of Jericho (Joshua 2:1-21); she saved their lives. Despite her status as a prostitute, even though she had faith, her works brought her and her family’s salvation.
“Works” in the letters of Paul are not the same “works” in James. Works in Paul can be more properly understood as works of the Mosaic Law. Works in James can be more properly understood as actions made through personal choices.
Salvation is dependent upon works
All of this demonstrates a simple truth: one can have faith and believe in God yet commit sins. If works can save us, then they can also send us to hell. Baptism and a profession of faith in God or an acceptance of Jesus Christ as personal Lord and savior does not remove free will or the ability to choose to do good or evil. Believers can commit sinful acts and they can commit tremendous acts of good. Our actions have bearing on our salvation and there is no such thing as “once saved, always saved.”
Thankfully Jesus provides a formal way for us to repair our relationship with God and get us back on the path to salvation. He instituted the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation in which we confess our sins to God and receive forgiveness (or absolution) for them.
Accepting Jesus is only the first step in a journey of faith in a Christian life. Living that faith is the rest of the journey. Paul understood this when he instructs the Philipians (2:12) to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. If he believed that salvation was a sure thing through faith alone he would not direct them to work out their salvation because he would be able to assure them of their place in heaven.