How does faith work exactly? How do I live a life of faith?
Galatians 5:6 has tremendously important answer to this question: “For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.”
Here it is clear that faith is conjoined with love—that the two virtues together are essential to life in Christ. As Catholics this point cannot be emphasized enough: we do not believe in salvation by ‘faith alone,’ but by faith working through love. This is at the heart of just about everything the Church teaches and does.
Intriguingly, the Greek very translated as working is energeō, whose root is also the source of our word energy. In ancient Greek, the word could be translated as made effective or made operative.
In the light of the original Greek, then, we could read the verse as ‘faith becomes effective through love,’ which is in line with other New Testament verses, such as James 2:17 (which talks about faith as ‘dead’ without works) and 1 Corinthians 13:13 (which declares love as the ‘greatest’ of the three theological virtues).
Using the modern analogy of energy we could, perhaps, think of faith as the filament in a light bulb. Love then could be compared to the electricity which runs through the filament, lighting it up. Faith is solid, essential, and initial like the filament. But love is what makes it work.
But there is a wrinkle stemming from a dispute over exactly how to translate the verb. It hinges on the voice of the verb. Now this may seem like a triviality, but it really does matter.
First, a quick grammar refresher: voice determines the relationship of a subject to the action of a sentence. Active voice: I hammer away at the wood. Passive voice: The falling tool hammered away at my hand. Here’s the twist. Greek has a third voice called the middle voice, which is kind of in between active and passive. In the middle voice, the subject acts on himself. I hammer at my own hand. So I am being both active and passive in the sense that I am on the receiving end of my own activity.
Now, the argument of some interpreters is that the verb in the phrase faith working through love is in the middle voice. So faith is still active and directing everything and love is more of an instrument of faith, so the argument goes.
But this argument misses the interpretative forest for the grammatical trees.
In other words, even granting the alternative view of the verb’s voice, this text still strongly argues for the distinctively Catholic understanding of the relationship between faith and love for the following reasons:
An effective faith: First, faith is making itself operative or effective through love. Ergo, faith without love—as in faith alone—is not operative, effective, or energized.
Perhaps, then instead of the light bulb, a better analogy would be the car engine. Faith would be the ignition system, the vital spark that lights the fuel. Love then would be the engine itself. You can’t get anywhere without that. Running the engine, in turn, recharges the battery for the ignition system. You need both: the ignition system and the engine. So also we need both faith and love. We can’t get to where we are going without either one.
Not faith alone. Regardless of how one conceives the relationship, both faith and love are necessary. Galatians 5:6 puts both on the scale and weighs them against the old system of works under the law.
Faith and love. Notice also that it’s not faith and works. It’s faith and love. This is a common, fundamental misunderstanding. Works do matter, but they matter because they are an expression of the interior love we have for God and neighbor. Faith produces good works in us through love.
Faith is active. Faith works. Faith itself is a kind of work. It is the work of God, of course, working in us, but it is still a ‘work’ of sorts. That’s why you might see some more traditional prayers labeled as ‘An Act of Faith.’
Faith is continuous. Faith is working. Faith is not a one-time event. Our initial moment of faith is lived out through time. It grows and is nurtured through love.