When I ask my sister where in the Bible it says that man is saved by faith alone, she will point me to Romans 3:28: “for we hold that man is justified by faith apart from works of law”. This seems to support her belief in faith alone, but I know that isn’t right. I’m confused. Please explain.
It is important to remember that Paul was speaking to Jews and he was telling them that no one is justified by works of the Law. Jews, and everyone, are justified by faith, not faith alone, but faith working through love: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).
Some say that only faith is necessary for salvation. But it is necessary to explain what we mean by “faith”. Do we mean merely an intellectual acknowledgement that something is true? If so, how does that play out in our lives? What if I believed that a doctor had the means to save my life? Would acknowledging that be enough to save me, or do I have to do something with that knowledge? Would I not have to do what he tells me to do, like take certain tests, submit to certain procedures or take certain medicines? I might have to follow a certain diet, and come see him on a regular basis for check-ups. All these things I would be doing because I not only believe in my doctor but follow the doctor’s orders. Just repeating over and over again that I believe in him would not be enough.
It is the same with our faith in Jesus. I believe that he is God and that he has done what is necessary to save me, but now I have to do something with that knowledge. I have to listen to the Divine Physician, and the Church he established. I have to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38). I have to keep his commandments (Mt. 19:16-17). I have to love my neighbor by taking care of him (Mt 25:34-40). These are all works of love: love of God and love of neighbor. Those are not the same as the works of the Law that Paul was speaking of. The works that save are works of love. Faith encompasses hope and love.
For an excellent treatment on this topic, I recommend Jimmy Akin’s book The Salvation Controversy, available through Catholic Answers.