Just for Catholics

What is Sola Fide (Faith Alone)?

Question: The heart of the matter is the difference in the protestant and catholic definition of faith. Catholics see good works as an integral part of faith and cannot be separated. Protestants see good works as a unrequired effort.

Answer: The Protestant doctrine of “Justification by Faith Alone” is often misunderstood and caricatured. When Protestants speak of "sola fide" (faith alone), we are not arguing in favour of a barren faith, nor are we saying that good works are optional or nonobligatory. Sola fide is definitely not:

Faith ® Justification minus Works

That is the kind of "faith alone" that historic Protestants, along with St James, refute and reject. It is a heretical doctrine called “antinomianism”. Some nominal Protestants and evangelicals misinterpret the Bible and ignore the historic Protestant teaching (see note 1) - supposing that they can be saved by faith and yet continue to live like the rest of the world, in sin, and devoid of good works. That is a travesty of the gospel; they are only fooling themselves. Protestants do not believe that solitary faith saves if the individual's life is lacking in good works.

We are convinced that the Biblical position on the relation between faith, works and justification can be represented thus:

Faith ® Justification plus Works

We assert that “a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:28). Positively, the believer is justified “by faith” because he relies completely on the merits of Christ. Negatively, justification is “apart from the deeds of the law”. The believer is not accounted as righteous because of personal obedience to the law. “We have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law” (Galatians 2:16) – that is sola fide!

Good works follow justification. The believer is released from guilt and condemnation -- freed to live righteously before God. Indeed, unless a person is first justified, he cannot do a single deed that is pleasing to God. Any action done by the hands of a rebellious and condemned sinner is stained with sin and is not acceptable to God.

So, faith produces much fruit in the Christians' life; yet we would not dream of relying on personal works for justification. Our faith rests on Christ alone.

On the other hand, the Roman Catholic teaching on this matter can be represented thus:

Faith plus Works ® Justification

Catholics are taught that faith is "the foundation and root of all justification" -- but evidently faith is not enough for justification in the Catholic religion. Faith must be followed by baptism, “the instrument of faith”, and thereafter by personal works to preserve and increase righteousness for final justification. The Catholic hopes to be accounted as having fully satisfied the law of God by the works he has done with God’s help, and to be rewarded with eternal life for those good works and merits (see note 2).

Both Protestants and Catholics have works as an essential part of their formula. But there is a crucial difference. Having been justified by faith, good works are the necessary fruit in evangelical teaching. There is no justification in the absence of good works for they are as natural to salvation as breath is to a living man. On the other hand, Catholics have works, added to faith, as the cause of salvation. In other words, the Protestant obeys God because he is saved, whereas the Catholic strives to gain eternal life by the merits of personal good works. The difference is colossal.

I must warn Catholics who say that they have faith, and yet continue to depend on their good works for salvation, that they do not really believe in Christ at all. Faith must be in Christ alone; and none in ourselves, our goodness or our works.

Please consider the following questions before God to see whether you truly believe in Christ.

  1. For your salvation, do you rely by faith on the Lord Jesus Christ alone? (Acts 16:31)

  2. Do you depend on yourself as well (your good life, prayers, going to church, and so on)? (Philippians 3:4-9)

  3. Do you rely by faith in someone else apart from Christ (e.g., Mary, the saints, the church)? (Acts 4:12)

  4. If you rely by faith in Christ alone, is there evidence that your faith is real? Is it the kind of "faith working through love" (Galatians 5:6) or is it dead, a mere profession devoid of good works? (James 2:17).

I hope that you answer, "Yes, I rely by faith in Christ alone for my justification; I do not trust in Mary or any other creature; I place no confidence in my own merits and works. Moreover, since I first believed in Christ, I have experienced the transforming power of the Holy Spirit who enables me to live a godly and fruitful life to the glory of God."


Notes:

[1] The Westminster Confession is representative of the historical Protestant teaching on justification. It teaches that believers are justified because of Christ's merits, which are received by faith as "the alone instrument", and not for anything "done by them". That is sola fide. Immediately sola fide is distinguished from dead, solitary faith: it is not alone in the person justified...is no dead faith, but worketh by love.

“Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God. Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love.”

Similarly, article 12 of the Anglican's Church's 39 Articles speak of the necessity of good works as the fruit and evidence of living faith:

"Albeit that good works, which are the fruits of faith, and follow after justification, cannot put away sins, and endure the severity of God's judgemnet; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively faith; insomuch that by them a lively faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit." [back]

[2] According to Catholic teaching, man is enabled to do good works, fulfill the divine law and merit eternal life.

"And, for this cause, life eternal is to be proposed to those working well unto the end, and hoping in God, both as a grace mercifully promised to the sons of God through Jesus Christ, and as a reward which is according to the promise of God Himself, to be faithfully rendered to their good works and merits. For this is that crown of justice which the Apostle declared was, after his fight and course, laid up for him, to be rendered to him by the just judge, and not only to him, but also to all that love his coming. For, whereas Jesus Christ Himself continually infuses his virtue into the said justified,-as the head into the members, and the vine into the branches,-and this virtue always precedes and accompanies and follows their good works, which without it could not in any wise be pleasing and meritorious before God, - we must believe that nothing further is wanting to the justified, to prevent their being accounted to have, by those very works which have been done in God, fully satisfied the divine law according to the state of this life, and to have truly merited eternal life, to be obtained also in its (due) time, if so be, however, that they depart in grace" (Trent Session VI, Chapter 16). [back]

Copyright Dr Joe Mizzi. Permission to copy and distribute this article without textual changes. < BACK TO Q&A