Justification by Faith Alone

Dear Catholic Exchange:

I found it difficult to explain the man-made doctrine of justification by faith alone to my Protestant friend. I told her that St. Paul says justification is by faith, apart from the works of law, but it doesn't mean that faith can stand alone. St. James says justification is not by faith alone. My Protestant friend asked me to look at what God and Jesus said about Abraham and the criminal on the cross:

1. Abraham believed in God and God declared him righteous. She asked me what else I see in Abraham if it's not through faith alone.

2. When one of the criminals was on the cross, he asked Jesus to remember him. Jesus said "Today you are in paradise with me." Again, she asked me what else I see in that criminal if it's not faith alone.

How should I reply to the above two incidents to tell Protestants that a sinner made right with God is not through faith alone?

God bless,

Lisa Lee


Dear Lisa,

This is a very good question. I think it illustrates well the point that Catholic teaching typically involves a "both/and," such as Scripture and Tradition, human and divine, grace and nature, faith and works, etc. It's easy to locate particular scriptural passages that discuss one side of the equation. We certainly affirm the necessity of faith as provided in the above passages, but those passages need to be understood in the larger context of the entire passage and indeed the context of the entire Bible. This principle is described in paragraph no. 112 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and should be accepted by Protestants and Catholics alike. Now of course as Catholics we have the added advantage of interpreting Scripture through the lens of the living Tradition of the Church (CCC, no. 113) assisted by the analogy of faith (CCC, no. 114), but we'll leave those tools aside for now in dealing with your friend. Your friend's private interpretation of Scripture, to be coherent (let alone true), can't contradict other passages of Scripture.

In the first example, your friend is probably referring to Romans 4, which in verse 3 quotes Genesis 15:6, referring to Abraham's faith and his having it "credited to him as righteousness." St. Paul's point here is that Abraham takes God at His word when he embraces the promise of descendents despite his advanced age. The Lord accepts his faith with an acknowledgment of his righteousness. Later in Romans 4, St. Paul shows that Abraham's journey of faith sheds light on the Christian understanding of justification. Abraham was justified by faith long before he was circumcised. St. Paul points this out to debunk a prevalent Jewish perception that circumcision and observance of the Mosaic Law in general were necessary in order to be in a covenantal relationship with God. See generally CCC, nos. 145-47. For more extensive treatment, see Richard White's chapter in Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God (www.emmausroad.org) entitled "Justification as Divine Sonship: Is 'Faith Alone' Justifiable?" 

As for Jesus welcoming into paradise the "good thief," clearly there's a time issue here. This in a sense is the prototypical "deathbed conversion." This episode gives us great hope when it comes to family members and friends who are non-believers. However, most of us when we accept Christ's mercy in our lives are not at the point of death, and we are not taken that day into paradise. Instead we are called to live our faith with hope and perseverance (which incidentally St. Paul brings up in Romans 5). In fact, there is clearly a "perseverance" element as we respond to the grace of justification in our lives. Read carefully CCC, no. 162 for verses that bring this element of faith into focus.

And I might add that the good thief was dealing with Christ Himself, and surely Christ has the absolute authority to determine who can be with Him that day in paradise. A few weeks after this episode, however, the risen Christ entrusted this authority to His Apostles and therefore His Church. He didn't command them to have altar calls or to tell people merely to accept Jesus Christ in their heart as their personal Savior (though the latter is important). Rather, they were commanded to make disciples, baptize, and teach people to observe all that Jesus commands (Mt. 28:16-20). In fact, elsewhere Jesus says that those who call upon Him but don't do what He says are "evildoers" who will be sent away (Mt. 7:21-23). Clearly here we see that there's a crucial distinction to be made between "works" as works of the Jewish law (e.g., circumcision) vs. "works" in the sense of human cooperation with divine grace. The latter certainly are necessary and are well attested in Scripture. 

I hope this information is helpful to you. When talking with your friend, take advantage of the opportunity to revisit assumptions concerning authority, tradition, and scripture. Also, the powerful witness is not so much in being able to provide all of the answers but in the faithful and loving way you address the needs of your neighbor. 

United in the Faith,

Leon Suprenant

Catholics United for the Faith
827 North Fourth Street
Steubenville, OH 43952
800-MY-FAITH (800-693-2484)

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  • Guest

    I agree, Deathbed conversions would be the exception, not the rule.  

    I've had similar experiences with my Protestant friends. I've pointed to the many, many passages that indicate performing charitable acts (Tobit, the Psalms, too many to name really) on behalf of God. I have then shown them the story of the judgment of the sheep and the goats.  Then I follow up with Jesus' statement "Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of Heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father."  That actually implies works performed in Faith. 

  • Guest

    If I had to talk to someone and I did something wrong what should I do?

    I know who I can Talk to but I just don't feel right talking about it right know?!

  • Guest

    An elderly–and, amazingly, Protestant!–minister settled this question for me about a thousand years ago.  In a sermon on the "faith vs works" argument, he summed up his thesis with the following statement (which, pun intended, works for me):

           "It isn't faith or works, but faith that works"!