Q&A: On Faith Alone

What do we mean when we say "Faith"? What do you mean then when we say "Faith Alone" or "Not by Faith Alone". One of the bedrock doctrines of Protestants is that of "Faith Alone". All doctrine is intertwined. You cannot establish beliefs on one particular doctrine without affecting others. For instance, if "Faith Alone" then what does that say about the predestination of man? Of baptism? Of communion? Of the necessity or reality of the sacraments? What does it say about why Jesus came or what the purpose of His New Covenant and sole mediatorship is?

Pop apologetics in the Catholic Church as well as the fast and loose evangelization in Protestant Churches sows little discussion of cognitive value and much confusion. Catholics and Protestants come from two very different worldviews and there is often little room for valuable ecumenical dialogue in the short term, simply because Catholics and Protestants often speak past each other.

What then can we accomplish in this article since doctrines easily overlap, and it is so easy to misunderstand each other as Catholics and Protestants? We will only be able to lay the very foundation to the discussion. To do this we first recognize that like doctrine, scripture has an organic unity, that is, the whole of scripture comes together to tell in essence one story. We start in the Old Testament. It is commonly understood by both Catholics and Protestants that God created all that there is, and that nothing exists that was not created by God. God in his act of creation and love made man in His image and likeness. As man was in God's image, man was good. Without original sin, man for a brief time enjoyed a relationship with God in original innocence. This was interrupted when sin entered the world and man along with his partner woman, were cast out of Eden and their relationship with God. Nothing unclean can be before God and because of man's sin, he incurred the penalty for sin, death. God however loves man, and does not leave mankind without hope. In the Old Testament God establishes a covenant relationship with man in order to save man. There are three types of covenants established in the Old Testament called Vassal Treaties which reach back to the 15th century BC.

Kinship - - Superior and inferior takes oath.
Vassal - - Inferior takes the oath.
Grant - - Superior takes the oath.

A covenant for our purposes should be defined as follows: A solemn agreement between human beings or between God and a human being involving mutual commitments or guarantees. The Bible refers to God's covenants with Noah, Abraham, and Moses as leader of the chosen people, Israel. (CCC, Covenant). In each of the covenants that God established with His chosen people there was a promise and commitment from God, and a promise and commitment from His people. The people would be God's people and would follow the laws that He laid down for them. The reason that we consider these agreements covenants is because they establish a family bond between God and man. Unfortunately these covenants that God made with man end up failing, not because God does not keep His promises, but because man does not keep his.

Each time God raises up a leader and establishes a covenant both the leader and the people have a fall - they fail to trust in God's promises and choose their own way rather than God's way. The first time a covenant is established between God and His people it is on Mount Sinai and there is a promise of land. The last time a covenant is established in the Old Testament it is established in a valley between Moses and those he is leading. We go from a strong relationship with God in these covenants to a relationship where God is not as present to His people. This system of covenants is ultimately set up for failure as God knows it cannot save His beloved children. This is called "planned obsolescence". At the end of Deuteronomy the final covenant promises (for fulfilling the covenant laws) and curses (for breaking them) are laid out. Then in Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:1-6 we hear many key phrases that we will hear again in the New Testament. "Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn." Then after Moses states the possible promises and curses it is said "When all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse..." There is no doubt about this - God knows that the people will fail again and fall under the curses which will include exile from the Promised Land. "...which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord you God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you this day, with all your heart and with all your soul; then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes, and have compassion upon you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. If you outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will fetch you; and the Lord your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed, that you may possess it; and he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live." (Deut 30:1-6, RSV-CE Ed. 2).

We have gone from Adam and Eve to the old covenants that God established with His people. In these old covenants there were men who would mediate the covenant, and men would have to keep the covenant and pay for their sins through their own sacrifice. This promise we read about in Deuteronomy is a promise that will be fulfilled in Christ. In Acts 2, after the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, the first holy pontiff, St. Peter evangelizes a group of God's first children who have been exiled to many lands, and now return to hear God's chosen leader. "Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brethren, what shall we do?" We know that God has brought forth his promise. God's people have been re-gathered and circumcised by the heart. It is in the New Covenant, that of Jesus, which man can be saved!

How then does this new covenant operate differently from the Old Covenant, and why can it save man when the old covenants could not save man?

In the covenant God established with Moses there was a "Passover meal". In this Passover meal the Israelites would have to slaughter an unblemished lamb. When they did this, the angel God sent would pass over their houses and not kill their first born sons. However, the angel in the 10th plague did destroy the first born of every other house. So horrific was this plague that the Egyptians released the Israelites from captivity and let them go. This was the salvation of the people by their God. Salvation required a sacrifice of blood. Yet because of the peoples hardened hearts, even after the establishment of a covenant, they continued to turn away from God. In the New Covenant then, Jesus comes as Emmanuel - God with us. Jesus becomes the Lamb of God who is slain. Jesus appears as the lamb that is slain in John's Revelation (Rev 5,7:13-14). This is important to understand Jesus as the lamb who was slain for our salvation. We first see the establishment of the Passover for salvation in the book of Exodus. Then we see Jesus' discourse in John 6 about the bread of life and that we must eat his body and drink his blood in order to have eternal life. This is a direct correlation to Jesus as a type of Melchizedek. Hebrews 7 talks about Jesus as a priest most high in the order of Melchizedek. Melchizedek made an offering of bread and wine (Genesis 14:17-20). Knowing all of this we then look at the Passover meal Jesus celebrates with His disciples. In Luke 22, it is recorded that Jesus said "I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God." Instead of celebrating the Passover with a slain lamb, Jesus celebrates the Passover with bread and wine. This is an act of sacrifice, this is an covenantal act (Luke 22:20), and this is an act of salvation. Jesus references here in this unbloody sacrifice that it is the same sacrifice which He is to suffer on Calvary for the salvation of the world. Christ tells us to continue the Passover in this unbloody sacrifice after He is gone (ascended into Heaven). We will not divulge directly into the meaning of "remembrance" here because it is beyond the scope of our purpose, but John 6 truly answers any question about the intent of Christ in the establishment of this ritual. He states three times with great force in John 6:52-58 that the disciples must consume the Eucharistic meal in order to be saved. This teaching was hard on his followers and many of them at that time left Him.

How then does this affect faith? We have firmly established here that we have, in the New Testament a covenant which Christ established once and for all, to which He is the sole mediator. This mediatorship means that Christ is our leader. It is not Moses, not Abraham, not any other person that we rely on. Both the leadership and the sacrifice for our sins and its eternal penalty, death (Romans 3-6) belong to Christ. We must be made sharers in this sacrifice. When we are made sharers in this sacrifice we are able to attain eternal life. It is because our salvation is on the basis of a covenant; we become adopted sons and daughters of God. Since the sacrifice is Christ's, faith comes into play. Faith then is defined as both "a gift of God and a human act by which the believer gives personal adherence to God who invites his response, and freely assents to the whole truth that God has revealed," (CCC, Faith). The scriptures tell us that Abraham was saved by faith. This faith however is an excellent example for us because this faith must be an active faith. To have faith, in a covenant, means more than giving lip service to God. This is what Faith Alone, at its very core, practices. In an "altar call" someone is called to pray in order to be saved. This prayer is important in the life of a Christian. It is known as "metanoia" or repentance and conversion. This prayer is the beginning of conversion and the attainment of eternal life though. Since Christ established a covenant relationship for man to share in, faith means fulfilling not works of the law, and not sacrifice, but to obey and carry out the will of God through faithfulness. In this faithfulness we must, like Abraham carry out God's will. This means being baptized, receiving the Eucharist, and so on. It means that if we fail, even fail to the point of choosing freely to leave God's covenant, that we cannot make a sacrifice to come back to God, but we can only come home as the Prodigal Son did. We reenter the covenant in faith, by asking for and humbly receiving forgiveness. Salvation is a process that we work out. We have been saved by our faith, we are being saved, and we will be saved. Salvation "is the forgiveness of sins and restoration of friendship with God, which can be done by God alone," (CCC, Salvation). This means that there is nothing that we can do, but only willingly cooperate with the plan of God.

Why then are Protestants so often confused into believing that Catholics believe in a "works salvation". It is first a lack of understanding in the covenant salvation that we are heirs of, and secondly as we mentioned because we come from two different worldviews. Scripture says without any doubt at all that we are not saved by faith alone. We are not justified by faith alone (James 2:24). There is just no working around this biblical passage though many Protestants scholars have tried. We are told both in the Gospels, Epistles, and in Revelation that in the final judgment we are judged by that which we do. Jesus tells us that when we do not do to the "least of these" we have not done so to Jesus, and therefore we cannot be saved and are cast into hell (Matthew 25:31-46). Through the Holy Spirit then, we are called to bear good fruits. This is the act of faith to cooperate with God's salvation and carry out His will. It is again that Jesus warns that those who do not do the will of the Father will not be saved. So please understand - Catholics have confessed and will always confess just as the apostles preached that the works of the law (the old covenants) cannot save us (Ephesians 2:8-9), and our own sacrifices cannot save us because there is only one sacrifice and only one mediator of this new covenant (Hebrews 8,10). It is only through faith, living and active, that we are saved. And if we fall it is only by faith and the forgiveness of God through faith that we are made whole again. Any time someone asserts that Catholics believe in a works salvation it is utterly baseless because Catholics believe we are saved, justified by our faith, but that faith cannot be dead. Catholics affirm the salvation that is recorded in the Bible. Not by faith alone, and most certainly not by faith and works, but by a living and obedient faith (Romans 1:5).

There is much, much more which could be said and dwelled upon. If you have questions, comments or want to know more please email us or join us in the forums for discussion.

Adam Janke studies theology and catechetics at Franciscan University of Steubenville where he is the president of the St. John Bosco Society and serves on the RCIA core team. He lives in Steubenville with his wife and they are expecting their first child.