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Justification by faith alone (G.G.)

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This is an opinion article from a user of WikiChristian.

By Graham Llewellyn Grove, December 2003, Original article


The famous author of Christian literature, C.S. Lewis, was once asked by two men what the difference was between Christianity and other religions. He thought about the question and gave an answer that surprised his friends... Grace.

One of the most famous song in the world is Amazing Grace. The words to the first verse are

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see

And the second verse continues

Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed

I still remember the hour I first began to understand the meaning of grace. I was 13 years old and at a youth group camp. My small-group leader was explaining our separation from God using an analogy. She said that we were all like a man who was standing on the edge of a chasm. He could see God on the other side, but there was nothing he could do to reach God. Seeing the man, God built a bridge and the man could cross and be with God. There was nothing about the man that made him deserve that bridge, but God built it any way. And this free gift was grace. Like all analogies it's an imperfect one, but it served its purpose, and I began to understand what grace meant.

The Bible has a lot to say about grace. Whilst studying this topic, I searched for "grace" in the Bible on the internet. I found that these 5 letters "grace" abounded everywhere. The thing that struck me most was that in the Old Testament the word "grace" was rare, but "disgrace" was extremely common with almost 100 citations. Conversely, in the New Testament, "grace" was plentiful with over 100 references, and "disgrace" hardly rated a mention. Clearly grace comes with Jesus Christ. John 1:17 says, "For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ"

But what is this grace that comes through Jesus Christ?

This question of grace is at the heart of Christianity. It is closely related to other questions

What is sin?
Who is Jesus? Why did he die?
What is justification? What is salvation?

There are two very sad aspects about the answers to these questions. Firstly, many Christians do not know the answer. Secondly, of those have an answer, there is no unity in belief.

The gulf between beliefs is most apparent between the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church and the teaching of most Protestant churches.

Justification by faith alone

Most Protestant and Pentecostal churches teach justification by faith alone. A few short statements can summarize the teachings of salvation and grace in the Protestant churches:

Every person has sinned, and broken God's law. Each person has turned away from God. The outcome of our sin is death - eternal separation from God.
Because we have turned away from God, there is nothing we can do to bring us back to him. No amount of good works will ever be enough to undo the sin we have done.
On the Cross, Jesus took our sin upon himself, and died for us. This was the only way that our sin could ever be taken away from us.
We can be made righteous in God's eyes (that is, justified) by our faith - when we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and believe that he died for us. This belief wipes away all our sins - past, present and future. We are no longer eternally separated from God, but are now his children!
This faith is all that is needed for our salvation. There is nothing we can or need to do to earn our salvation - faith alone is sufficient.
Grace is this free, unmerited gift of salvation from God.
Good works are not required for our salvation. However, faith in Christ will lead to good works.

John 3:16 is probably the most well known Bible verse in the world. During the 2000 Cricket World Cup I remember seeing a large banner displaying "John 3:16". The person who wrote the banner knew that he didn't have enough room to write the Gospel message. I image him lying in bed each night wondering how he could get the crowds to think about Jesus Christ - how he could remind the people of God's love and their only hope. And then the thought came to him. He only needed to write "John 3:16". Most people, including non-Christians would know the majestic verse

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life

Whoever believes in God's son will not die, but will have everlasting life. John did not write, "whoever believes and ..."! For us to have eternal life, he simply wrote that we must believe in Christ.

Luke wrote in Acts 13:38-39

Paul said, "Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything that could not be justified from the law of Moses."

Paul wrote in Romans 3:28

For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.

Again Paul wrote in Galatians 2:16

We know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no-one will be justified.

Throughout the New Testament the theme is clear. There is nothing we can do to gain everlasting life with God. There is no way to ever earn this because we have sinned and turned from God. But because of Christ there is nothing we need to do. We can be cleaned from our sin (justified) and can have everlasting life with God freely, as a gift. This is grace.

To be able to define and understand justification by faith and grace as concepts is perhaps much easier than being able to accept and believe them as true. How can God forgive me of my sin? Surely I have to do something in return?

Justification by faith plus works?

What surprises many Christians, many Catholics included is that the official teaching of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches is that justification is not by faith alone, but is however, by faith and works.

The Catholic Catechism states that, "No one can merit the initial grace which is at the origin of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods."

The Council of Trent also affirmed that justification is by faith and works with "If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, let him be cursed"

It was in fact this very issue of justification by faith alone that lead to the division of the Catholic Church in the Reformation. At that time, the Roman Church was selling forgiveness for money. This was based on the principles that Christians are not assured of their salvation and require works for their justification. The reformers believed that a Christian was saved by placing his faith in Christ, and therefore had no need to earn or buy forgiveness because he already has it!

Although their are many Catholic and Orthodox Christians who are ignorant of the teaching of justification by faith and works, their are also many who are not. Often they tend to see the Protestant viewpoint as shallow and argue that if faith was enough then people would not endeavour to perform good works.

One reason why Catholic teaching on justification is so different from Protestant teaching is that in Catholicism justification is seen as a process that spans time, whereas in Protestant teaching justification reflects an event, not a process. By explaining justification as a process, Catholicism teaches that justification must begin with faith and be finished with works.

So how can the Catholic Church teach justification by faith and works? Is this a biblical view? Before answering the second question, it is important to realize that this does not need to be answered by the Catholic Church. Catholic doctrine is not based solely on scripture, but also on tradition and papal authority. If a teaching is not supported by the Bible, it does not follow that the Catholic Church abandons the teaching.

There is certainly one passage in the Bible that cannot be ignored by those who believe that faith alone is sufficient for justification. James 2:14-20 states:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed, but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, You have faith; I have deeds. Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that and shudder. You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness, and he was called God's friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

This passage on initial examination appears to contradict every other passage about justification by faith. How can this be?

In Romans, Paul asks - How can a sinner be justified by God? And he answers that a sinner is justified by faith in Jesus Christ alone, and not by the merit of his good works. In his letter, however, I believe James is asking a very different question. He is not asking if a person is saved by faith plus good works. Instead, he is questioning the kind of faith that justifies. There is real faith, and then there is counterfeit faith. Real faith is living and will be manifest by good works. Counterfeit faith is dead. So when James says, "You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone", he is saying that the person's works show that his faith is for real. A announcement of faith is insufficient. A person needs a living faith, and a living faith is manifest by good works. His good works announce that his faith is real.

The Roman Catholic Jerome Biblical Commentary also has a comment to make about James 2:14-20

As is clear from the context, this does not mean that genuine faith is insufficient for justification, but that faith unaccompanied by works is not genuine.

Concluding remarks

The first words of the well known book called, "What's so amazing about grace" are

There is nothing we can do to make God love us more
There is nothing we can do to make God love us less.

I think that's pretty amazing too.

Is justification by faith alone? What do different officially denominations teach

Roman Catholic - Faith plus works

Orthodox - Faith plus works

Protestant - Faith alone

Pentecostal - Faith alone

Return to Justification by faith | Justification | Grace

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