“In the same way, faith, if good deeds do not go with it, is quite dead. But someone may say: So you have faith and I have good deeds? Show me this faith of yours without deeds, then! It is by my deeds that I will show you my faith. You believe in the one God- that is creditable enough, but even the demons have the same belief, and they tremble with fear. Fool! Would you not like to know that faith without deeds is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by his deed, because he offered his son Isaac on the altar? So you can see that his faith was working together with his deeds; his faith became perfect by what he did. In this way the scripture was fulfilled: Abraham put his faith in God, and this was considered as making him upright; and he received the name ‘friend of God.’ You see now that it is by deeds, and not only believing, that someone is justified. There is another example of the same kind: Rahab the prostitute, was she not justified by her deeds because she welcomed the messengers and showed them a different way to leave? As a body without a spirit is dead, so is faith without deeds.”
James 2: 17-26
At the top of the list of contentious and misunderstood Catholic teachings is the issue of faith and works, which along with misunderstandings about intercessory prayer, Mary, the Eucharist and papal authority, is frequently twisted about until the reality and the truth, which form the basis for the teaching, are completely unrecognizable.
The twisted un-truth, usually goes something like this: “Catholics believe that they are saved through their own good works, not through the grace of God.” This is false. And it sets two aspects of the Christian life at odds, when they need not be.
Here is the basic problem with this particular falsehood: faith and works are not, in reality, set up in opposition to one another. We are not given a scenario where we must decide between faith or works. They go hand and hand as true faith brings forth good actions.
Church teaching has preserved this truth for us. Like many of Christ’s teachings, it is not the easiest thing in the world to implement in our everyday lives. It would be far easier to say a combination of words in a certain way, and then no longer be held responsible for our actions. Yet Saint Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians:
“So, my dear friends, you have always been obedient; your obedience must not be limited to times when I am present. Now that I am absent it must be more in evidence, so work out your salvation in fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12)
This indicates that our faith must be lived, for while our salvation surely comes from Christ, we were born with free will and we use that free will to choose Heaven or Hell. Our thoughts and actions lead us in one direction or the other. Through the Grace of God we may choose Heaven. But still we must be the ones who make the choice and we make the choice over and over again, when we choose to either turn towards God and embrace His will in our lives, or when we choose sin, which is death.
We certainly struggle, mired down in the world, with our shortcomings and temptations and we know that we’ll frequently fall short. Yet Jesus’ words in Matthew clearly tell us that we must still strive to do what is right and live out God’s will for our lives:
“Jesus said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is one alone who is good. But if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”” (Matthew 19:17)
Saint Paul’s words in his letter to the Church in Ephesus do not contradict this balance of faith and works, when he says:
"For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Maybe if our society prized humility a bit more, this verse would make more sense to us. If we thought like Saint Ignatius of Loyola who said:
“Few souls understand what God would accomplish in them if they were to abandon themselves unreservedly to Him and if they were to allow His grace to mold them accordingly.”
or Saint Isaac Iogues who said:
“My confidence is placed in God who does not need our help for accomplishing his designs. Our single endeavor should be to give ourselves to the work and to be faithful to him, and not to spoil his work by our shortcomings.”
then Saint Paul’s words to the Ephesians would be easier for us to comprehend. For our good deeds are not our own, they are God’s, and so we shouldn’t boast. More than that, we shouldn’t boast of doing the things that we should be doing anyways. We are made to serve and love God. Yet we often find ourselves expecting praise when we do the bare minimum, like going to Mass on Sunday to fulfill our obligation.
Over and over again we see in the Bible that our actions do in fact matter. In Romans we read:
"For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury." (Romans 2: 6-8)