In examining the difference between the Catholic understanding of James 2:24, and the Protestant understanding, I am going to begin by asserting that the Scriptures contain no true contradictions. We may see apparent contradictions (which atheists love to point out without sharing how those apparent contradictions are resolved), but if God is the author of Scripture (which both Protestants and Catholics affirm), then God does not contradict himself. If we think there is a contradiction, then the error is with us, not God. We also must admit that all of Scripture must be considered and we cannot pull one verse out and have it stand on its own. We must consider not only the immediate context but the context of all of Scripture.
Some people think they see a contradiction between Paul’s teachings and James’. They say Paul teaches salvation by faith alone whereas James says saving faith requires works. Who’s right? If we begin with our earlier assumption, that Scripture contains no contradictions, then we must dig deeper if we are to resolve this apparent contraction.
In Ephesians, Paul writes:
“8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10 NASB emphasis added)
Here, Paul clearly states that we are “saved through faith”, and to further clarify salvation is by faith alone, Paul adds “not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” His words are very clear as is his meaning. Salvation is by faith alone. Yet, in verse 10, Paul concludes that we (those saved) are God’s workmanship “created in Christ Jesus for good works.” Why does Paul add this right on the heels of saying salvation is by faith alone? Why mention works at all? Paul does so to show that good works are something God “prepared beforehand” so that we would “walk in them.” In other words, God has prepared good works for us to do once we are saved. God does not save us and then leave us as we were. He gives us a new heart, a new nature, no longer slaves to sin but slaves to righteousness.
“Having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:18)
As the saying goes, salvation is by faith alone but faith is never alone. In order for us to walk in those good works God prepared beforehand for us, we must first be saved and changed. God must swap our old heart dead in sin, for a new heart that is a slave to righteousness. Then, and only then, can we walk in those good works prepared beforehand for us.
In Romans, Paul spends a lot of time contrasting the Jewish understanding of salvation with true salvation. The Jews thought that works made them righteous. God gave them the law and they thought by keeping the law they would make themselves righteous. Yet none of them (or us) could perfectly keep the law. James writes:
“For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” (James 2:10)
You don’t have to break every law. If you break even one, you are guilty of breaking all. It’s interesting that James (who some think is arguing for works salvation) would say this. If our works are necessary for salvation, what happens when we stumble on one point? We become guilty of breaking all the Law. Since none of us (save Christ) can keep the whole Law perfectly, how can we hope to be righteous on our own when even one failure makes us guilty of breaking the entire Law? Obviously, we can’t be righteous on our own.
Back in Romans, Paul anticipates the person who heard his words thinks that if salvation is by faith alone, by God’s grace, then why not go on sinning? After all, our sins are forgiven and covered by God’s grace! Paul answers that thought with an emphatic negative when he writes:
“Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!” (Romans 6:15)
So, we are saved by faith, not works, and we are now slaves to righteousness but if we stumble in even one point of the Law, we are guilty of breaking the whole Law. Thankfully, Paul adds that we are now under grace and no longer under the Law. Therefore, we do not have to keep the whole Law perfectly. Does that mean the Law was pointless and of no importance? Paul answers this:
“So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” (Romans 7:12)
The problem, Paul writes, is not the Law but rather sin which dwells in us. The Law itself is holy and righteous and good. Jesus said He came to fulfill the Law:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17)
Jesus perfectly kept the Law and thus fulfilled it. When we believe, we receive the righteousness of Christ. We are justified. It is “just as if” we never sinned.
We already saw that Paul says that once we are saved, we are no longer slaves to sin. We are slaves to righteousness instead. He goes on to say:
“But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.” (Romans 6:22)
After having been freed from sin (a result of salvation) we derive a benefit namely sanctification (that change and the walking in the good works God prepared beforehand). The ultimate outcome is eternal life.
Given that, how are we to understand Jame’s writing?
If we return to our assumption that Scripture does not contradict itself, then there is only one possible way to understand James. He is writing to warn us, that true saving faith will produce good works. This should not surprise us, as early we read that we were to walk in the good works prepared beforehand for us by God. So works are a necessary and guaranteed outcome of saving faith. Only God can see the heart. Anyone can claim to have been saved based on a confession of faith. Faith though is not just a matter of saying certain words. You have to mean what you say and truly put your faith and trust in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savoir.
People have all kinds of mistaken ideas about salvation. They think if you were baptized or if you attend church or if you “lead a good life” you will go to heaven. Other ideas abound. Yet none of these things save you. In multiple places in the NT, we are told to test or examine ourselves to see if our faith is genuine. There could be nothing worse than thinking you are saved when in fact you are not. Scripture does not give a list of required characteristics of someone who is saved, but by studying Scripture you can arrive at a pretty good idea of the kinds of that ought to be true of a believer, and if you see these things in your life, and you’ve put your faith and trust in Jesus Christ, you can know you are saved.
“Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?” (2 Corinthians 13:5)
“Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble; 11 for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you. ” (2 Peter 1:10-11)
Much of what James writes is about those marks of a true believer. James contrasts for us the true believer from the false believer. To quote John MacArthur “The error James assails is faith without works; justification without sanctification; salvation without new life.” (https://www.gty.org/library/questions/QA81/does-james-2-contradict-romans-4)
Someone who thinks they are saved because they prayed a prayer, walked an aisle, or did some other religious act, will have to examine themselves by James’ words. They say they are saved. James said, show me your salvation by your works. James point is that faith without works is a dead faith because true saving faith will always produce good works as we saw earlier. God has prepared “beforehand” good works for the believer to walk in. If we are not walking in good works, then we have a problem and better be questioning our faith to make sure we have not deluded ourselves into thinking we are saved when we aren’t.
The issue between Protestants and Catholics is that Catholics say salvation requires sanctification and thus is not by faith alone. Yet if we make sanctification a requirement for salvation then salvation requires works and Paul clearly wrote that salvation is a free gift of God based on faith alone (not on works that no man should boast…). At times I almost think Protestants and Catholics are saying the same thing but differently. Protestants affirm a saved person will show the fruit of sanctification by good works. If not, they presumably were not ever saved. The exception, of course, would be someone whose salvation happened immediately before death or some severe health crisis (a coma for example) and thus is not able to show the fruit of sanctification. Such a person is still saved. The thief on the cross is the classic example given. Thus, from the Protestant perspective, a saved person will be sanctified. It’s just that sanctification is a process that begins after salvation. Catholics say you have to have sanctification in order to be saved. They allow the exception of the thief on the cross saying he lacked the opportunity to become sanctified (sounds like he was saved by faith alone…). For them, sanctification must happen before salvation. So both say faith is required for salvation. Both say sanctification is a mark of a believer. The difference is when sanctification occurs. Does it come after salvation (Protestant view), or before (and a requirement for) salvation?
If Scripture contains no contradictions, then the answer must be after salvation or Paul’s statement that salvation is by faith alone, not by works, could not be true. To take the Catholic view, you must conclude Paul is wrong in saying salvation is by faith alone.
I don’t know why the Catholic church wants to add sanctification to faith (presumably their understanding of Scripture though to my mind it requires the belief in a contradiction in Scripture). I can see some human reasons why someone might want to add sanctification. One reason is that salvation by faith alone leaves man out of the equation. Since we are told that our faith is a gift of God, then man has nothing to boast about. He can’t say “I did my part.” He can’t say “my salvation is 99% God and 1% me.” No it’s 100% God. Human pride wants to believe we played some part in our salvation. In the Catholic view, you get this. Even though they say faith is from God and sanctification is from God, yet they believe that a single “mortal” sin is sufficient to completely kill all of the grace you possess and send you to hell. They believe you have free will to choose whether or not to commit a mortal sin so in the end, you could always say “I chose not to commit a mortal sin” and therefore I played a small part in my salvation.
I also think we like the idea because we want a way to measure ourselves. We want to make examining ourselves easier. If we can say, I’ve done good works and never committed a mortal sin, then we can feel good about ourselves. From the church’s perspective, it is a good way to keep the faithful in line. If you feel like you better have good works and need to avoid mortal sins, then you’ll tend to do as you’re told. Fear can be a powerful motive. That’s one thing I found sad about my Catholic mother and other Catholics I have known. While they all felt they would go to heaven, they were never totally sure. There was that fear that after leading a good and faithful life they might lose it all with a mortal sin or get to heaven and find out they did not have enough good works. The Apostle John wrote:
“Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16And we have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17By this, love is perfected with us, that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. 18There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.” (1 John 4:15-18)
Notice John says that “we may have confidence in the day of judgment.” He also says that perfect love casts out fear. We don’t need to be fearful about our eternal state. Or, as Paul puts it:
“These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 John 5:13)
The word translated “know”, is in the perfect tense in Greek. That means it speaks of a permanent knowledge and the Greek word means to know with absolute certainty without a doubt. Therefore, if we can know with a permanent, absolute knowledge that we are saved, then there is no reason to fear and no chance we can lose that salvation which is an issue for the Catholic belief in a class of sins known as mortal sins.
So, in conclusion, if we can know now that we have eternal life, and have no reason to fear, then our salvation is sure. We cannot lose it. We are saved by faith alone, a faith that is a gift of God. That faith is followed by a lifetime of sanctification as we walk in the good works prepared beforehand for us. There is so much more than could be said, but I will stop here.
Why is this important? Paul said if anyone gives you another gospel, other than the one he delivered, such a person should be anathema (cursed or excommunicated). If we love the truth then we cannot tolerate a lie. A salvation that includes works as a requirement, is a lie. Some Catholics will say, they do not believe in works salvation but rather faith plus sanctification. They try to say sanctification is not a work. What is sanctification then? It is a process in which we live according to our new nature and walk in good works. What Catholics are saying, is that your faith must be accompanied by a sanctified life that produces righteousness. Not as a result of salvation but as a requirement of it. That is by works. If you read the anathemas of the Catholic Council of Trent, anyone believing salvation is by faith alone is to be anathema. According to the Catholic church, this is a grievous error. If so, then we must say their misunderstanding of salvation, and teaching others the same, is also most grievous. You cannot have it both ways. You are either saved by faith alone or faith plus works. Paul answered the question for us; salvation is by faith alone.
I grew up Roman Catholic. My Mom was a devout Catholic so I did it all from infant baptism to first communion and confirmation plus catechism classes every Sunday until I graduated from high school.
There was a kid at my high school who was in my class but I did not know him well. He approached me in the spring of my freshman year and asked if he could share the “Four Spiritual Laws” with me (Campus Crusade for Christ pamphlet). I said he could but would not have time after school until track season ended. With about 2 weeks left in the school year we met in a classroom after school. I can still picture the room. He went through the booklet and asked me if I wanted to pray to receive Christ into my heart.
Now after all those years of Catholic education you would think I would have told him I already had Christ in my heart. After all I had been baptized and confirmed. I had committed no mortal sins. Yet I wanted to pray that prayer. I felt no pressure. It was just him and me and God. I didn’t care what this kid thought of me. I knew, by the grace of God, that I needed to give my life to him. Those things I had done as a Catholic were just a matter of following the plan. You did those things because it was time and expected. I don’t recall the nuns ever saying confirmation, for example, was optional and we shouldn’t participate if we weren’t sure. I imagine my mom would have been perplexed had I announced I didn’t want to get confirmed and the nuns would have been talking to me… It’s not that I didn’t want to get confirmed when that time came but I did it because it was expected. I didn’t really feel like I was making a commitment or a decision. It wasn’t being done on my initiative. Now I was deciding on my initiative that I wanted to give my life to Christ. No one knew what was happening that afternoon except me, this boy, and God. So I prayed.
The heavens didn’t open and I felt no different, though I felt at peace. Yet what a change started in me! We had an over sized, soft covered, gold edged, Catholic Bible sitting on our coffee table at home collecting dust. My Mom had filled out the section at the front with birth dates and such but otherwise that Bible was never opened. No one told me to read the Bible. Not the kid at school, not the nuns or priests, not my parents. The Holy Spirit led me to pick that Bible up and start reading. I started in Genesis and over several months read to the end of Revelation. I became the first person in my family to read the entire Bible. Over the remaining three years of high school I read that Bible completely three more times. Not normal reading for most high school kids especially kids who went to the Catholic Church and had no one encouraging them to read the Scriptures. I learned so much. I quickly learned far more than I ever learned at church or in those Catechism classes. As I read, I encountered truths that did not agree with doctrine taught by the Catholic Church. Once you read the Bible for yourself, you realize it’s not that complicated or difficult to understand. A few things are, but not the Gospel and many, many other things. I didn’t need a priest to tell me what those passages meant. No priest or Pope could be a better teacher than the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God.
My faith was now in Christ. He was my mediator. Not a church, not a priest or Pope. In time I left the Catholic Church after sharing the Gospel with a priest at the church. He believed that people were leaving the Catholic Church because they wanted something nicely laid out for them in black and white whereas in the Catholic faith you had to think for yourself and wrestle with the gray. I will grant there are some Protestant churches that overstep Scripture and try to run people’s lives, but most just teach the Word of God and let us pray and decide how to respond to it. Scripture is usually pretty clear. In the Catholic Church everything has to be approved and blessed. Priests read everything when saying the Mass. Other then their homily (mini sermon) the rest is all scripted. Altar boys and girls hold open books for them to read their prayers from. That seems a lot more black and white to me.
I have Catholic friends and it always strikes me how they talk a lot in terms of their church. It’s the church this and the church that. When they have questions, they don’t turn to Scripture, they go ask a priest. I was talking to a Catholic lady friend the other night, and she shared how she went to her priest to ask him about sex before marriage because a friend had asked her and she wanted to know for her and her friend. At first I was shocked she didn’t know the answer. She’s in her 50’s and been a lifelong Catholic. How could she not know? Then I was sad because she’s probably never read the Bible because if she had she’d know the answer. I asked her what answer the priest gave her. This was an 89 yr old man who had been a priest since his 20’s. Not someone you would expect to hesitate to answer such a question. His answer was not an answer at all but merely an irrelevant observation. He said that people today have a lot more sex than they used to. I asked her if he said anything else and she said no. She then added that “he didn’t say it was wrong.” True, but really he didn’t say anything. Perhaps she made that remark because that’s the answer she was looking for? I can understand her thinking that he is an ordained priest charged with shepherding the faithful so he would be obligated to tell her if something was sin even if he knew that wasn’t the answer she wanted to hear. Therefore, it was (in her mind) reasonable to assume his lack of prohibition against premarital sex was implied permission. Sad that a supposed minister of God could not give a straight answer or quote a single Scripture. Maybe that is what my old priest meant when he said people liked these Protestant churches because they made everything so black and white. What he should have said, is that they use the Bible to answer questions, and if the Bible clearly addresses the issue then there’s the answer. My friend’s priest left her with a non-answer, total murky gray.
When we stand before God, the question won’t be “did you believe in the church and put your faith and trust in her?” No! It will be “did you believe in Jesus Christ and put your faith and trust in Him?” Yet millions of Catholics are trusting in their church for their salvation. They don’t know the Gospel. I never heard it in the Catholic Church. Yes there are some Catholics who have come to know the Gospel and accepted it. Praise God! Some say they have stayed in the church hoping to reform it. How did that workout for Martin Luther? They will never grow if they stay in a church that won’t teach the Word. If I were to ask my friend why she didn’t just open a Bible and find the answer I am sure she would say it was quicker to ask her priest as after-all he has already studied these things. If she is depending on her church to teach her all she needs to know for life and salvation then her faith is in her church and not in
the Lord. Church teaching is all well and good but we are called to be like the believers in Berea who did not just take the Apostle Paul’s word but searched the Scriptures to see if he was teaching the truth. Do Catholics think their priests or even the Pope is greater than the Apostles? If Paul commended them to search and check the Scriptures for themselves would he not say the same to us today?
I am so thankful, God is His grace, gave me faith and led me to read His Word. What a treasure so many miss out on. How can we hope to obey and serve God if we don’t even read His words to us?
Image: Statue of Pope Paul II falls and crushes a man to death just 2 days before John Paul II is declared a Saint. Where was his intercession on behalf of this man?
Yesterday Pope Francis honored John XXIII and John Paul II declaring them saints. Sainthood is a uniquely Roman Catholic practice that is not well understood by non-Catholics and perhaps even some Catholics. I’ve read where some Catholic commentators liken a saint to a hero of the faith. Someone to look up to and celebrate.The Roman Catholic Church teaches that saints are to be venerated which means to revere or hold in deep respect. Nothing wrong with having heroes or great examples of faith. However, in Roman Catholic theology a saint is more than a hero.
The Catholic Church has redefined the Biblical term “saint” or added a new class of saints. Biblically anyone who is a believer in Jesus Christ is a saint. Saints are not a special class of believers set apart by especially noteworthy lives or supposed miracles attributed to them nor subject to any earthy inquiry and ceremony. All who are in Christ are saints. So the Roman Catholic use of the term saint and declaring certain people saints is not using the term in its Biblical sense.
More than that though their belief about what sainthood means is also non-Biblical. Among other requirements, candidates for sainthood must have two miracles attributed to them. One while living and another after death.The purpose of there being a miracle after death is to prove the candidate is in heaven, receiving our prayers, and interceding before God on behalf. Yet nowhere in the Bible are we instructed to pray to anyone other than God! There is not one example of Jesus, the Apostles, or any of Christ’s followers praying to anyone but God alone. 1 Timothy 2:5 says there is “one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.” The Catholic Church tries to side step this verse by claiming it does not preclude “lesser mediators.” Therefore Christ is our “one mediator” when it comes to salvation but other mediators are possible in lesser matters. They cite the Apostle Paul exhorting men to make intercessory prayers. Yet Paul was writing to living men. There is nothing in Scripture to suggest there is any possibility of someone in this life communicating with someone in heaven other than God Himself. In fact, prayer, but it’s very definition is communication with God! To use the word prayer to cover communication with someone who has died and believed to be in heaven is a misuse of the word. Christ is the one who intercedes on our behalf before the Father and it is to Him alone we pray.
Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died–more than that, who was raised to life–is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. (Romans 8:34 NIV)
If we have Christ interceding for us why would we need anyone else? Do we imagine a sovereign God is persuaded in His actions by the intercession of a “saint?” No! We pray not to persuade God but to be changed by our prayers into trusting God, His mercy, His goodness, and His will. Prayer changes us not God. God does not change His mind because of our prayers or anyone else’s. So why do we ask other people to pray for us? It gives us comfort, it reminds us that we are all one in Christ, it teaches us all to look to God, trust in Him, and accept His will. God though is sovereign. His will is not moved by our prayers nor swayed by the sheer volume of prayers. To suggest a “saint” or Mary “has God’s ear” and can intercede on our behalf is not only un-Biblical but robs Christ of His role as our sole mediator.
What about the miracles attributed to the intercession of these former Popes or other past saints? Certainly God has and can perform miracles but Biblical miracles are always done for the glory of God. In the Book of Acts we find in chapter 14 an account of Paul healing a lame man. After the healing the crowds became excited exclaiming “The gods have become like men and have come down to us.” (Acts 14:11). What was Paul’s response?
“But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their robes and rushed out into the crowd, crying out and saying, “Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you…” (Acts 14:15)
Paul was desperate to open their eyes that this man was healed by God and not be some “god” as they supposed he was. The focus of all the Biblical miracles was God never the servant through who attended over the miracle. The disciples of Paul did not venerate him because he healed people nor any of the other Apostles. They attributed the miracle to God and God alone. If someone would have tried to honor Paul because it was his intercession that brought about the miracle I can imagine Paul tearing his shirt and demanding that he was nothing and it was by the hand of God the man was healed and not due to Paul in any way. Yet the Roman Catholic Church goes to great lengths to attribute these miracles to the intercession of some saint and the focus quickly becomes the saint and not the Lord.Suddenly everyone is praying to that Saint. One woman was said to have been cured by holding a picture of the late Pope to the tumor on her neck and leaving it there overnight while praying to him. I have a very hard time with that. Biblical miracles never drew attention to the hands through which God worked but to God Himself. While Jesus once used spit and mud He never gave someone a piece of his clothing and told them to wrap their lame leg in it or sleep with it on their eyes. The whole focus is wrong in the case of the Catholic sainthood “miracles.”
I would even suggest it’s possible these were not true miracles. While only God knows it would not be unlike Satan to cure someone if it put the focus on a man and not on God. Now we have a billion Catholics world wide praying to “saints” and venerating them rather than focusing all their attention on the Lord.
Many have also suggested that the choice of these two Popes is to politically be inclusive by making saints of two different styles of Pope. While I cannot read the mind of Pope Francis the mere suggestion makes the whole thing more laughable. Should “saints” be chosen for political considerations?
Sadly sainthood, like so many other uniquely Catholic traditions, is not Biblical. The Catholic faithful don’t seem to mind though. They have bought into the authority of the church and its traditions and do not test by Scripture what they are taught. The Book of Acts highlights the Berean Christians:
Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (Acts 17:11)
The examined the Scriptures to test what Paul was teaching them! Even the great Apostle Paul with all the miraculous things God did through him was checked up on by the very people he was teaching. This is mentioned to their credit. That meant opening, reading, and knowing their Scripture. It was not enough that Paul said it. Yet in my 24 years as a Catholic and in the lives of almost every Catholic I know no one questions the priest, the bishop, the cardinal, or the Pope. No one learns their Bible and checks for themselves. If pressed they run to Catholic Answers or some Catholic site to look up a response incapable of searching the Scriptures for themselves.
I hope these two past Popes are in heaven but if they are I guarantee they are not hearing our prayers. Do I question their salvation? Possibly as the Catholic Church does not preach the Gospel as they add works to faith thus preaching a false Gospel and Paul sternly said that if anyone preaches a false Gospel they shall be damned to hell. I will let God decide that though as He is judge.
Let us celebrate all who follow Jesus Christ. They are the saints. They don’t need a ceremony, the blessing of a living Pope, or any man made process. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus and not on men.