Doing, Being, and the Function of Faith
This is going to sound very strange, but what if I told you that Catholics believe in Justification by faith alone while (Reformed) Protestants are actually the ones who believe in Justification by works? A statement that outrageous surely requires an explanation, so that’s what I want to provide. This post won’t be so much about exegesis as it is about simply helping people to understand where each side is coming from.
In the Protestant view, for man to enter Heaven he needs to have kept God’s Law perfectly. This means Salvation for the Protestant is purely based upon human “works,” the catch is that since sin has tainted all we do, it’s impossible for man to keep God’s Law perfectly. This is why Protestants say we need Jesus to keep God’s Law perfectly for us, and impute this “work” to us as if we did all this “work” ourselves. Hence why Protestants say our only hope to stand before God and be seen as “righteous” (i.e. a perfect keeper of the Law) is to trust in “Christ’s finished work” alone. So what does any of this have to do with faith alone? Protestants say the way we ‘receive’ this “work” that Christ did is through ‘the empty hand of faith,’ which reaches out and lays hold of and applies that work to our account.
In the Catholic view, for man to enter Heaven requires that he be in communion with God before he passes from this life. For Catholics, Salvation is not so much about ‘doing’ as it is about ‘being’. Communion with God is principally characterized by being “in a state of grace,” that means us possessing the divine gifts of faith, hope, and charity, as well as the Indwelling of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in our souls. In this view, faith implies the possession of all these other divine gifts for the Catholic. And the means by which a person first acquires all these is through “the washing of regeneration,” also known as Baptism.
Though this is a brief description of each side, I believe each summary to be true to the Reformed and Catholic positions. The views really are quite different, and hopefully it is clear the issue isn’t simply a matter of “faith versus works,” which never really was the issue. Given this overview, I hope it provides the casual reader with a ‘lens’ by which they can properly study and properly dialogue when it comes to the essence of Catholic-Protestant disagreements.
Knowing where each side is coming from can help prevent a lot of misunderstanding and wasted time. For example, a Catholic should be able to see why Baptism doesn’t save in the Protestant view, because it makes little sense to say Baptism is what passes on to us the “work” Christ did for us. On the flip side, a Protestant should be able to see the role that Baptism plays in the Catholic view, not as one of many “works” that must be done to get a perfect score on our Law keeping test, but as a door by which we enter into God’s family.
These two ‘world views’ should be kept in mind especially when reading Paul, because it will help explain why Protestants and Catholics have their own ‘favorite verses’ they like to quote. When a Protestant quotes a Pauline text which says we are saved by faith not by works, this is understood very differently when a Catholic reads it. The Protestant sees Paul as teaching that the “works” do in fact save us, but that we need Christ to keep it for us, and apply that “work” to us by faith. The Catholic sees Paul as teaching that one does not enter into communion through the Mosaic Law, but rather he enters (and stays) in communion with God by possessing the divine (not human) gifts, stated simply as ‘having faith’.