The Protestant says to the Catholic, “St. Paul says in Romans 3:28, ‘For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law,’ therefore we are saved by faith alone.
The Catholic says to the Protestant, unsure of exactly where the passage is in the Bible, “somewhere in Scripture it says, ‘…a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,’ therefore we are not saved by faith alone.” Then the Catholic goes to a priest to find out that the passage is found in James 2:24.
Of course, at this point, any good Catholic or Protestant realizes that if Scripture is inspired by God, then there can be no true contradiction between what St. Paul says and what St. James says. If there is a true contradiction, then Scripture is not the inerrant Word of God. Obviously, ignoring one or the other is not really an option.
The matter at stake in this battle of Bible verses is extremely important and involves nothing less than a proper understanding of justification and salvation.
How do we understand this seeming contradiction between St. Paul and St. James? We must first ask what did St. Paul mean by “works of the law” and what did St. James mean by “works.” The larger context of Romans and James makes this clear.
St. Paul’s “works of the law” is a reference to the Old Testament ritual laws. In the immediate context, he speaks of circumcision in particular. He leads up to 3:28 by speaking of circumcision in 2:25-3:8. Right after 3:28, in 4:9-12, he mentions circumcision no less than nine times. We will look at more of the context of Romans below.
Is St. James speaking about the same kind of works? The answer is no. Before 2:24 he says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained” (1:27). In 2:1-7 he speaks about how we are not to dishonor the poor. He then uses the words of Christ when he says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (2:8). In 2:14-17 he says, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
Therefore, there is no contradiction between St. Paul and St. James. One speaks of circumcision, and the other speaks of the moral law and works of charity.
Now let’s go back to Romans itself to see how it is quite impossible that St. Paul is teaching that we are saved by a simple act of faith, such as accepting Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior and reciting the “sinner’s prayer.” Though this may be necessary, St. Paul himself will show us from the larger context of Romans that this is not sufficient.
First, we notice that the first and last time the word “faith” is used in Romans he used the phrase “obedience of faith” (cf. 1:5, 16:26). So from start to finish, St. Paul will be dealing with how we must have an obedient faith. Obedience must spring from faith, or there is not faith at all. St. Paul’s whole mission from Christ was to bring about this obedience. He says, “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ…through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith…” (1:1, 5).
Second, in 2:5-7, where he is speaking to Christians who have faith but aren’t living it, we also have this clear passage: “By your stubbornness and impenitent heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself for the day of wrath and revelation of the just judgment of God, who will repay everyone according to his works: eternal life to those who seek glory, honor, and immortality through perseverance in good works, but wrath and fury to those who selfishly disobey the truth and obey wickedness” We obviously have here a unambiguous reference to the importance of good works for salvation, i.e. eternal life. As well, we have here a contrast between the obedience of faith of 1:5 and those who have faith but disobey the truth and obey wickedness.
Third, St. Paul goes on to give the example of Abraham who “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (4:3). Some of our Protestant brothers and sisters would say, “See, he is justified by faith alone; he has no righteous deeds.” On the contrary, Paul is rather giving us an example of the “obedience of faith.”
The passage quoted by St. Paul is Genesis 15:6. Abraham is not justified by his work, namely circumcision, because that doesn’t happen until Genesis 17:23. However, he cannot be said to be justified by faith alone in 15:6. This would be to ignore the larger context of Abram/Abraham’s life. Long before 15:6 in Genesis 12 God tells Abram, “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you…Abram went as the Lord directed him…” (v. 1, 4). The Letter to the Hebrews makes it obvious that Abraham believed God in Genesis 12, and that “By faith Abraham obeyed…” (11:8).
Forth, in 6:15-23 St. Paul brings up the topic of obedience once again. He speaks about how we are slaves to the one we obey, “…either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness” (v. 16b). He says that in being obedient slaves of God, we receive the gift of God, which is “…eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 23).
Last, St. Paul also says in Romans, “For in hope we were saved” (8:24). So, we are saved by faith, we are saved by hope, and, as St. Paul says to the Galatians, “For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (5:6).
St. Paul will also say definitively that “faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Next month we will explore what it means, according to St. Paul, to live a life in Christ.
Printed with permission from the Northern Cross, newspaper for the Diocese of Duluth.
Brian writes a monthly column, “Veritatis Splendor,” for The Northern Cross of the Diocese of Duluth and his 33-part series on the sacraments for The Northern Cross have also been posted on Catholic News Agency's website, where he also authors a weekly column, “Road to Emmaus,” on the Sunday Readings, (which are translated into Romanian and posted on www.profamilia.ro).
Pizzalato is currently authoring the regular series, "Catechesis and Contemporary Culture," in The Sower, published by the Maryvale Institute. He is also author of the Philosophy of Religion course book for the B.A. in Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition at the Maryvale Institute.
Brian holds an M.A. in Theology and Christian Ministry with a Catechetics specialization and an M.A. in Philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. Brian currently pursuing an M.A. in Biblical Studies at the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO as well as being a Ph.D. candidate at the Maryvale Institute. Brian is married and has six children.