One Saving Action
by Dwight Longenecker
(This is an edited version of a radio script written for Dwight Longenecker's apologetics series to be broadcast on London's Premier Radio)
One of the biggest areas of confusion and misunderstanding between Catholics and Evangelicals
is in the area of salvation.How is a person saved? How does a person get to heaven? A classicview of Evangelicalism
is that a person is saved by faith alone. In the sixteenth century reformers like Martin Luther felt their Catholic
faith was legalistic and meaningless. It was just a set of rules and routine, formal prayers which meant nothing
and which could never save a person. With great excitement they rediscovered the Biblical doctrine that a person
is saved by grace through faith--and not by any works they have done. This was exciting and liberating news. No
longer did they have to be good enough to please God by reciting endless liturgies and enduring gruelling good
works. God had saved them through the
It must have seemed like that was the teaching of the Catholic church at the time, and probably
for a lot of ordinary people it felt like their salvation was won by endless prayers and good works, but in fact
the Catholic church has never taught that
One of the problems in this debate between the need for faith or works is that both sides have tended to pull out certain verses from the New Testament to use as proof texts. The Evangelicals use some verses from St Paul's teaching that 'a man is saved by faith, and not by any works of the law lest any man should boast.' Catholics respond with verses from the epistle of James which say clearly that 'faith without works is dead.' But this is a bit like two cowboys in a shoot out - both of them pull out their six guns and shoot from the hip. But there's not much listening going on and the only person they convince is themselves.
I think the best way to confront this whole issue is to avoid simple proof texts on their own,
and to avoid the strong language and emotional experiences of the Reformation times and to turn back to the Bible
as a whole. So this programme of Catholic Answers is going to be a Biblical exploration of what the Bible says
about faith and how we are saved. This is a huge issue to which shelves of theological libraries devote yards of
space. I can't hope to say it all in one programme, but I hope a simple overveiw will help to make the Catholic
position clearer to both
The place to begin is the Old Testament, but in the Old Testament we don't actually hear too much about faith as such. When the word 'faith' is used it usually means the keeping of one's word, keeping a solemn agreement between two parties. Where it is used in a religious context faith for the Jewish person means keeping his part of the solemn covenant between God and his people, and of course the Jewis person's part of keeping the covenant was obeying the law. So the basic meaning of 'keeping faith' in the Old Testament means keeping the law, or obeying God's commandments.
But there are one or two other hints in the Old Testament that 'having faith' could mean something more. In 2 Chronicles 20.20 the good king of Israel called Jehosophat calls on the people to 'Have faith in the Lord your God and you will be upheld. Have faith in his prophets and you will have success.' Then the prophet Habakkuk looks forward to the day when the Lord's messenger will come and bring the revelation of God. In that day, says the prophet, 'the righteous will live by faith.' But in the context the word 'faith' also means 'faithfulness' so Habakkuk is saying that the one who is loyal, or faithful, or who keeps his word or his part of the bargain will be considered righteous.
So all through the Old Testament the person who has faith is also faithful, or loyal. The person
who has faith keeps his side of the bargain. But what does this mean in action? Are there any illustrations of
faith in the Old Testament? What does the person of faith look like? What does he believe and what does he do to
keep his side of the bargain with God? The New Testament book of Hebrews helps us see the Old Testament through
Christian eyes, and in chapter eleven it speaks at great length about the faith of the Old Testament characters.
Hebrews looks back at the Old
So Hebrews eleven goes through a list of the Old Testament characters showing their faithfulness.
It reads like an Old Testament Hall of Fame. First is Adam and Eve's son Abel. He makes a better sacrifice than
Cain because he has faith in God.
Now the interesting thing to note in this list from Hebrews is that each one of the Old Testament
characters is considered to have faith, but as a result of this faith they perform faith-full actions--actions
that are full of faith. Abel offers a sacrifice,
The list from the Old Testament goes on, and in each case the Old Testament hero is able to perform
acts of faith because he believes in God. So Hebrews chapter eleven continues - Isaac blessed Jacob because he
had faith. By faith Jacob blessed his
The list recounting the Old Testament heroes is dynamic, full of action and excitement. Faith
enabled all these heroes to perform actions which were courageous and faithful to God's commands. But those actions
were not mindless and arbitrary acts of obedience. The actions themselves were meaningful. They taught the faithful
So in the Old Testament the righteous person lives by faith, and his faith or trust in God is
always shown through his obedience to God - through his faith-full actions. The Old Testament therefore doesn't
say too much abotu faith as such, but when
But Jesus doesn't say who or what they are to have faith in. As Jews, his disciples would have
put their faith in God alone - the ultimate faithful one; and for them having faith meant obeying God's commands.
But in John 2.11 we read that the disciples put
Then in John 14.12 Jesus says something even more stupendous. Just before he promises the Holy Spirit he says, 'I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these because I am going to the Father.' We must remember that all through the gospels Jesus fulfills the Old Testament. So it is that here he fulfills the incomplete Old Testament idea of faith. In the Old Testament faith was the obedienct response to believing in a God who was trustworthy and good. But now faith is linked to a real person in place and time--Jesus. Furthermore, faith now includes a personal relationship and it empowers the disciples to do what Jesus does.
In the next passage in John chapter fourteen Jesus speaks further about the person who has faith
in him. He will receive the Holy Spirit, and he will also have a certain new responsibility. In verse fifteen he
says, 'If you love me you will obey what I
The fact that this passage is intertwined with his promise of the Holy Spirit shows us that the
faith and the good works which flow from faith both have their ultimate origin from God the Holy Spirit. In other
words, both faith in Jesus and the actions of
But what does this person of faith have to do? Must they still obey the Old Testament law? Well, in one passage Jesus tells the disciples that they must actually be more righteous than the Scribes and Pharisees--those respectable religious people who obeyed every detail of the law. But what he meant by this was not so much that they had to obey the Old Testament law, but that their new kind of righteousness was to outstrip the Old Testament obedience. It was to be a fresh kind of goodness--as different to the old legalistic way as a colour photo is to a black and white picture. Obeying his commands actually becomes not an action of pure obedience as it was in the Old Testament. Now obeying Christ's commands is the way to enter more fully into unity with him. Obeying his commands in faith now becomes the way his disciples will become like him, and be made perfect.
And here is the important crunch between some Evangelicals and Catholics. The more extreme Evangelicals proclaim that our good works are not worth anything, and that we do not need any good works at all to enter heaven. We are saved purely and only by an act of faith in Jesus Christ and nothing else matters. But can this be so? How can faith take root in our lives unless it is acted on? A good parallel is Jesus himself. He was the Word of God made flesh. Just as the Word had to take flesh in Jesus, so our faith has to take flesh in our physical actions.
The book of Hebrews always shows that the heroes of faith in the Old Testament did certain actions
by faith. Likewise in the gospels, Jesus the man of Faith, is always acting out that faith with his life, his teachings,
his death and his resurrection. So
We should also stop for a moment and ask what happens when we do a good work. Lets say we pay
a visit to a person in prison. The visit helps that person, but it also helps us. It is not a meaningless act of
obedience to God, the action itself is worth
But how does this keep from becoming a religion in which we rely on good works to get us to heaven?
The early church struggled with the relationship between faith and the Old Testament law. The early Christians
were Jews and many of them thought that they had to continue obeying all the Old Testament Rules and regulations.
But St.Paul tried to make it clear that it was not by obeying the rules of the Old Testament law that we are saved.
In a famous passage from Ephesians two St.Paul says, 'For it is by grace that you are saved through faith. It is
the gift of God - not of works, lest any man should boast.' Paul reminds the early church that they are saved not
by obeying the Jewish law, but through faith. So he says in Romans 4.9-15, and he summarises it in Romans 3.28
when he says, 'For we maintain that a man is
In these passages St.Paul is not saying that faithful good works are un-necessary for salvation.
He is saying that salvation does not come by obeying the Jewish law. In fact Paul, like the rest of the New TEstament
writers says clearly that we are destined
It is the epistle of James which ties all the strands from the gospels, from St.Paul's letters
and from the Old Testament together. In chapter two James writes, 'What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims
to have faith, but has no works?...Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. 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
In fact there are not many Evangelicals who say that faith completely on its own can save a person.
Evangelicals also recognise the need for good works to be present. They usually take the view that if the person
is really united with Christ then good works will be the fruit of that faith. The famous reformer John Calvin put
it this way...'Salvation is by faith alone, but true faith is never alone.' Evangelicals admit that
Catholics and Evangelicals both affirm that our faith and our good works are initiated and empowered by God's grace alone. But Catholics can't accept that the good works are worth nothing at all. That doesn't fit with common sense. Neither does it fit with the many passages of Scripture which show us being judged according to our works. So Catholics admit that our good works can only be done through the power of God, but we also say the good works which we do in this way help to contribute to our final eternal life.
This is a little bit complicated, but it is vital to think it through. Catholics fully accept
that our salvation was won for us by Christ's work on the cross and by his mighty resurrection. We accept his saving
work through faith in him, and we can only take the step of faith through God's Grace which empowers us. But our
good works are worth something becauase it is through them that our faith is worked out in our lives and in our
world. Our faith is vital because through our works our faith lives, so
You can think of it like this. Lets say a child is extremely gifted musically. She has perfect
pitch, she has an instinctive ear for melody and understands music with an amazing God-given talent. It is extraordinary
and wonderful and it will take her
So Catholics believe about the relationship between faith and works. Grace gives us the power
to both have faith and put the faith into action. But if the faith is never put into action it remains like that
undeveloped musical talent. The good works that
Because of this Catholics believe that good works are necessary. They are not necessary to earn our way into heaven, they are necessary to equip us for heaven. They are not necessary to please God, but to make us more like God. When we do something good it actually accomplishes a real benefit in the world and in ourselves, and so it is through our good works that we work with God to become more like his son whose Spirit dwells within us. The good works are therefore necessary because this process cannot be done in any other way.
The good works are also necessary because by doing the good works we engage our will. We get
involved. God has given us free will and through our good works we use it to keep our side of the bargain. The
good works are also vital because as human beings we have physical bodies. We are not angels or spiritual beings.
Because we have physical bodies we have to work out our salvation with our physical bodies. This truth takes us
to the heart of the incarnation because it was in a physical body that Jesus Christ, God's son worked out the salvation
for all mankind through his
So Catholics believe that good works are necessary - not to earn our salvation, but to put it
into practice. Good works are necessary because if our faith isn't put into practice it isn't faith at all. The
good works can't earn us a place in heaven, but the lack of good works can keep us out of heaven. But there is
still a difference of opinion about the worth of those good works. Some Evangelicals -wary of falling back into
a religion which teaches that we are saved by our works - says that the good works are not strictly necessary,
and they are certainly not worth anything eternally. Catholics, on the other hand, say the good works are worth
something. They admit that the good works do not get the person into heaven, but insist that the good works are
necessary for faith to be real. The good works are empowered
All through the Scripture the heroes of faith are refined and purified by their actions of obedience.
Through their obedience, pain and sacrifice they are brought to the perfection that God wills for them. Remembering
that Jesus says in Mt. 5.48 that we
This purification can only be done through God's power at work in us, but his power is enacted
through the circumstances of life. We have to co-operate with his power at work in us. So through our choices,
our good works, and especially through our
What do I mean by this? Well, Let's say we have stolen five hundred pounds from a neighbour.
If we go to the neighbour and confess what we've done he may very well forgive us, but he will quite rightly still
expect us to pay back the five hundred
Suffering is another way this process of purification can take place. Through suffering we identify
with the painful consequences of sin and by accepting suffering we can counter balance its deadly effect in our
life. Jesus did this perfectly
Suffering helps to purify us, but in a mysterious and exciting way the Scripture says our suffering may also help other people spiritually. So St.Paul writes to the Colossians, 'Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body which is the church.' In some way the mystery of human good works, self denial and suffering help to complete the work of Christ in the world.
So good works and suffering are not just the empty fruit of our faith. As Hebrews says, they are the substance of our faith, the evidence of things unseen. Furthermore, good works and suffering have value in themselves. They change the world and they change us. They don't save us, but they make our faith real and through God's grace they can help to transform and purify us.
But what happens if we die and we haven't allowed God to completely purify us? In other words, what if we haven't yet become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect? Through the death of Jesus we are given the power to become whole, but if we haven't learned all the lessons of love before death, we'll need to continue learning and growing toward that final perfection before we can see God - remembering that Jesus said it is only the pure in heart who can see God.
Catholics believe we have an opportunity after death to continue that learning and growing process. We believe in a section of heaven where we our final purification takes place, a place where the fire of God's love can burn away all the wood, hay and straw with which we have built our lives. The traditional name for this section of heaven is purgatory. Purgatory simply means place of purification.
In I Corinthians 3.10-15 St.Paul teaches about the final judgement. He says, 'By the grace God
has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder... But each one should be careful how he builds. For no
one can lay any foundation other than the
So there must be a time and place after death where God's purification process continues. As
such purgatory is not a third place other than heaven and hell, instead it is like a waiting room for heaven. Everybody
in purgatory will enter the fullness
Finally, we also believe, as St.Paul taught, that we are able to help one another in the body
of Christ. Just like we can help people here by praying for them, so those who are in purgatory can be helped by
our prayers and good works here on earth. Catholics offer prayers - especially the prayer of the Eucharist for
the benefit of their loved ones who may still be going through a time of purification before they get to heaven.
This practice is based on the Old Testament verse in 2 Maccabees 12
Underlying it all is a belief in God's boundless mercy and forgiveness. He gives the grace so we can have faith, then he gives the grace for us to put that faith into action. So faith and works are not separate, but one whole action of God with which we co-operate day by day. As we do the faith becomes real and we are finally brought to that perfection and wholeness which God has prepared for us in Christ Jesus from before the dawn of time.
This version: 8th December 2001