Justification by faith alone (Sola Fide) is the sine qua non (the essential thing without which it cannot be) of the Protestant Reformation. It is this doctrine upon which the Reformation stands or falls. However, there is sharp disagreement with the Roman Catholic church on this topic. What does the Bible say? Who is more faithful to Scripture on this matter, the Reformers or Rome?
According to Scripture, justification (how a sinner is made in right standing before God) is a free, unmerited gift. It is not earned. Believers are justified by God “as a gift by His grace” (Romans 3:24). If our justification is done by God by grace then “it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise, grace is no longer grace” (Romans 11:6). As we can see, God doesn’t ask sinners to work for justification, but rather, to believe. God justifies “the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).
However, the Roman Catholic church teaches that justification by faith without works is heresy:
If anyone says that the faith which justifies is nothing else but trust in the divine mercy, which pardons sins because of Christ’ or that it is that trust alone by which we are justified: let him be anathema.Council of Trent
An anathema means one is damned and it outside the Body of Christ.
Rome says faith alone is insufficient grounds for justification [CCC 1815-1816]:
If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning thereby that no other cooperation is required for him to obtain the grace of justification, and that in no sense it is necessary for him to make preparation and be disposed by a movement of his own will: let him be anathema.Council of Trent
Rome is keenly aware that the Apostle Paul explicitly lists faith as the only necessary response for justification (Romans 3:26, 3:28; 4:3; 5:1). It recognizes that its condemnation of justification by faith as a gift requires some further explanation:
When the Apostle says that a person is justified by faith and as a gift, those words are to be understood in the sense which the perennial consent of the catholic church has maintained and expressed, namely, that we are said to be justified by faith because faith is the first stage of human salvation, the foundation and root of all justification, without which it is impossible to please God and come to the fellowship of His children.Council of Trent
It should be noted that nowhere in the apostle Paul’s writings, nor anywhere else in the New Testament, does it say that faith is merely the “first stage” leading to ultimate justification. When Rome calls the first stage of salvation faith, and good works the second stage, it ignores the fact that the Scriptures explicitly and emphatically say that good works have no role in justification. This is a huge problem of textual interpretation. It is clear that concerning the justification of a believer Rome engages in eisegesis of the related texts and imposes her own manmade interpretation upon the Scriptures. This is wrongly handling the Word of God.
But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousnessRomans 4:5
So, as we have seen, according to the Scriptures, the sole requirement for justification is faith which Rome denies.
Now let’s look at a Scripture that Rome uses to refute the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone:
You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.James 2:24
At first sight, this verse might seem to support Rome’s claim that faith and works must precede justification in adult believers. [CCC 161-162, 1248, 1815]. However, as we shall see, when this verse is interpreted in its proper context, Rome’s claim is without support.
James was not writing to a group of unbelievers or catechumens. His audience was people already professing to be Christians. He knew that some of them were living in wanton sin and that their actions didn’t match up with the faith they espoused. He reminds them that living and mature faith will be accompanied by good works, which God has prepared for us. James hoped that these hypocrites would re-evaluate how they are living, and would start living in a moral way, consistent with the faith they claim.
Let’s step back and look at the larger context of James 2:24. It is a vital component of a 13 verse long discussion viz. James 2:14-26. The passage opens with 2 questions James wants his readers to consider.
What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?James 2:14
In other words, if a person claims to have faith, but you don’t see good works evident in his life, is that person truly saved? Do they have genuine faith?
In the subsequent verses, James shows that true faith will be accompanied by good works. A faith that is only all words, and no actions, is “dead” (James 2:17) and “useless” (James 2:20). James uses Abraham as an example of a person who had genuine faith accompanied by good works. This brings us to the second question James wanted us to consider:
Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar?James 2:21
James’ answer to the question is yes. In Genesis 22 Abraham, being obedient to God, went to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac on the altar. His actions demonstrated Abraham to be a righteous man of real and active faith. It is in this context that James declares “You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only” (James 2:24).
A very important point to note here is that this verse did not describe how Abraham was justified by God. We see in Genesis 15 that when God promised Abraham his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in heaven, Abraham believed in God.
And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.Genesis 15:6
It’s clear from Scripture that Abraham was justified before God before he demonstrated good works (sacrificing Isaac). The ground of God’s justification of Abraham was his belief. Responding to Abraham’s faith, the Lord credited righteousness to Abraham’s account. God declared him to be righteous simply because he believed, and for no other reason. The apostle Paul confirms this point:
For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”Romans 4:2,3
Despite Rome’s claims, James 2:14-26 does not establish works righteousness, nor does it describe how to prepare oneself for baptismal regeneration (justification), which is itself another fallacious doctrine. The subject of these verses is the type of faith that saves, of living faith as opposed to dead faith (James 2:17). It’s about a faith demonstrated by good works. He challenges us “Show me your faith.” just as Abraham did (James 2:18).
In summation, we see that works play no role whatsoever in our justification (a juridical act), but they do play a role in our sanctification. Sadly, Rome conflates justification with sanctification. Scripture makes it clear that they are two distinct processes.