September 13, 2015
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?”
There are those who want to divide faith and works; there are those who want to claim that we are saved by faith alone. But, is this claim Biblical? Is this claim based on the firm foundation of Holy Scripture?
The very fact that this is addressed so directly in the Bible is evidence that this is not a new claim. If it had not been an issue in Biblical times, it would not have made it into the Biblical narrative. And so we all should ask, can a person be saved by faith alone?
James doesn’t seem to think so, and so we would do well to pay careful heed to what this author of Scripture has written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
James follows his first question with a second: Can that faith save him?
It would be nice if the answer to that question was a simple, “Yes.” But the next question James asks of his readers makes it clear that the answer is not so simple: “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?”
What good is it? Absolutely none at all. Absolutely none. To merely wish someone well, or even to have a genuine concern for their well-being if you do nothing to help them is no good whatsoever. No real love of Jesus allows room for denying someone with a genuine need when you have the means to help.
And James tells us so when he writes, “So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
Faith without works is dead. We are not saved by faith alone. We are saved by Christ alone. We are saved by Christ, and Him crucified for our sins. Faith doesn’t get us into heaven. Jesus does. We are able to attain heaven only because Jesus loves us and we love Him in return. And the love of Christ compels us to good works in His Holy Name.
No amount of faith can compel God to allow us into heaven. It is impossible to have faith enough to make God beholding to us.
Now, to be certain, it is equally impossible to merit heaven through our works. It doesn’t matter how much of a social justice crusader a person is — it doesn’t matter if a person seeks to right every wrong and eliminate every injustice — no one earns his way into heaven. That is simply not possible.
We are not saved by faith. We are not saved by works. We are saved by Jesus Christ, and in Jesus Christ faith and works are united into one reality to which each one of us is called.
True faith demands the love of Christ and the love of Christ demands good works. If we lack works, we lack love… and no amount of faith can fill that void. If we lack faith, we lack Christ… and no amount of good works can fill that void.
There was a photograph that made the social media rounds recently that showed a billboard paid for by an atheist group that claimed you don’t have to believe in God to be good. It encouraged people to “be good for goodness’ sake.” And I suppose they are right, as far as it goes. You don’t have to believe in God to do good. Even a blind pig gets an acorn once in a while.
But — and this is very important — without a firm belief in God you can do good all day long, and there will still be an emptiness at the core of your being. This is unavoidable. We’re human, and as such we are made in the likeness and image of God. We long for God. We can deny that; we can avoid it. We can try to mask that need with drugs or diversions. We can chase after endless false gods. But in the end, all of that will disappoint. Without a true love of God, there is an emptiness in us that cannot be filled.
The Catechism tells us that, “Faith is both a theological virtue given by God as grace, and an obligation which flows from the first commandment of God.” Faith is both a gift from God and a human act. However, faith does not originate in us; it originates from God and from us responding to His call. Works also come from responding to His call. The two are inseparable.
James makes this clear when he writes, “Indeed someone might say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.”
You can’t have one without the other. Faith without works is like trying to hold red. You can’t. You can certainly hold a red object, but it is impossible to have a handful of red.
On the other hand, good works without true faith become a quagmire of relativism and misguided intention. Certainly, no human being is equipped to be the ultimate arbiter of what is right and what is wrong… what is bad and what is good. The wrong belief that we are somehow capable of that is at the core of Original Sin… and yet in our hubris it is a mistake we keep on making. Without God as the ultimate authority, humans are quite capable of calling evil good and good evil. We see that all the time in the world around us.
Finally — let’s be completely honest —good works can (and should!) sometimes take us out of our comfort zone. It can be downright frightening to work on behalf of the poor, the marginalized, the sick, the refugee, those suffering from mental illness, those suffering from addiction, and others in true need. There is a reason they are pushed to the margins, and that reason is they scare people. It is very human to fear what we do not understand, and yet faith calls us to the realization that those on the margin of society are really very much like us: children of God made in His image, just like us. They simply have needs that we do not have, and once we see them with the eyes of faith, we are very capable of helping them to meet those needs.
If true faith was easy, everyone would be doing it. Let us all pray for ample opportunities to demonstrate our faith by our works and to meet those in need, with hands and hearts open in friendship to our brothers and sisters.