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The “informed” Protestant will challenge a Catholic with some of St. Paul’s writings such as “A worker’s wage is credited not as a gift, but as something due. But when one does not work, yet believes in the one who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness apart from works: Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not record” (Romans 4:4-8).
The Catholic will respond back with James 2:24, “See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone”.
Often times Philippians 2:12, “So then, my beloved, obedient as you have always been, not only when I am present but all the more now when I am absent, work out your salvation with fear and trembling” is presented by Catholics.
I think that what is happening is that both sides are simply shooting from a simple misunderstanding that Protestants are having about works.
Going back to Romans 4:4-8, what was St. Paul speaking too? The verse following Romans 4:8 says, “Does this blessedness apply only to the circumcised, or to the uncircumcised as well? Now we assert that faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was he circumcised or not? He was not circumcised, but uncircumcised. And he received the sign of circumcision as a seal on the righteousness received through faith while he was uncircumcised”.
What is St. Paul talking about here?
The works of the law was a shadow to the Covenant Christ would eventually establish through the law of grace. St. Paul was an important figure at the Council of Jerusalem.
For St. Paul, he argued “For the law produces wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation” (Romans 4:15).
The works of the law could not save a person. This is exactly how Protestants view Catholic teachings on the Sacraments. They see the Sacraments as a product of works.
In truth, if Protestants understood correctly what St. Paul was addressing concerning the works of the law, there would be no argument. They would have no argument.
The Catholic Church made it’s ruling on the works of the law at the Council of Jerusalem. The law of grace took center stage. All Christians can agree to this understanding because of the importance of grace.
It is a free gift. However, for the Catholic, we must co-operate with God’s will in our lives. We must grow spiritually in our faith which demands faithfulness to God’s law. Not from the Old Testament, but God’s law from the light of the New Covenant. The new law of grace.
We must be obedient to God’s will. St. John brings this message home writing, “The way we may be sure that we know him is to keep his commandments. Whoever says, I know him, but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:3-4).
The real issue ultimately, goes back to authority. This age old problem between Catholics and Protestants always go back to the issue of authority. This includes obedience to the Church, faithfulness to the Church, cooperating with the Church working together in love with the graces dispensed by Christ through his Church.
Protestants contend that Jesus Christ established an invisible church, that there is no true church. That there are true Christians in every denomination.
Luther knew full well that St. Paul never added the word alone anywhere in any of his letters. Only James speaks of “faith alone” and he is clear that salvation is not by faith alone.
Luther regarded the book of James as a “Gospel of straw”, that it had “no backbone”.
The Catholic position clearly stands, but it is important to understand that when Protestants talk about works, St. Paul is referring to the works of the law from a covenant that has been superseded.
Obviously, we are not saved by the works of the law because those works have been completed in Jesus Christ.
Jesus established a New Covenant giving us a new law based from grace that nobody can boast. The works that we do are a completion of faith.
We cannot take the free grace of God and the faith built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, the Catholic Church, and live in vain.
We cannot bury our faith in the back yard and expect God’s grace to be fruitful in us. We must be obedient in faith working out our salvation utilizing the grace God gives us.