The great debate between Protestants and Catholics is whether justification is by works or not by works. Protestants adamantly deny that works have anything to do with justification. They maintain that justification is by faith alone.
Who is right? Well, I’m Catholic. So, whom do you think I believe? The Catholics.
But, before Luther some very prominent and influential Catholics also said that justification was by faith alone.
I know. You don’t believe me. Ok, let me provide a some examples:
Basil of Caesarea (329-379)
“Let him who boasts boast in the Lord, that Christ has been made by God for us righteousness, wisdom, justification, redemption. This is perfect and pure boasting in God, when one is not proud on account of his own righteousness but knows that he is indeed unworthy of the true righteousness and is (or has been) justified solely by faith in Christ.”
Ambrose (c. 339-97)
“Therefore let no one boast of his works, because no one can be justified by his works; but he who is just receives it as a gift, because he is justified by the washing of regeneration. It is faith, therefore, which delivers us by the blood of Christ, because blessed is he whose sins are forgiven, and to whom pardon is granted.”
Jerome (347-420) on Romans 10:3
“God justifies by faith alone.” (Deus ex sola fide justificat).
Ok, I think I’ve muddied the waters enough. The question that is probably going through your mind is, "What is it then? Is it by works or not by works?
My answer is, “Yes!” They can both be true.
At this point, I expect Protestant and Catholic alike will quote me the old adage, “Two contradicting statements can not both be true at the same time!” “Therefore, you are wrong!”
Yes, at first glance, the statements are contradictory.
Now, I would like you to ask this question, “How can it be both by works and not by works? How can it be both by faith alone and by faith and works?”
How can justification be by works?
Justification is by works, because God does not justify those who do not do His Works. Only those who do the works of God will enter the Kingdom of heaven:
21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.
3 And thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God?4 Or despisest thou the riches of his goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?5 But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God;6 Who will render to every man according to his deeds:7 To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life:8 But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath,9 Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile;10 But glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile:11 For there is no respect of persons with God.12 For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law;13 (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.
I hope it is clear to all that God does not justify those who do not do His will. God does not justify those who do not keep His Commandments. God justifies only those who do good works.
In that sense, justification is by works.
How can justification not be by works?
Justification is not literally, by our works. We do not stand before the Just Judge and say to God, “No need for you to do anything. I’ve washed myself of all sins and become righteous without any need for your interference.”
No sir! That is what the Pharisee did and Jesus said:
9 And he spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:10 Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.11 The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.12 I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.13 And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.
This is what the Catholic Church teaches:
1994 Justification is the most excellent work of God’s love made manifest in Christ Jesus and granted by the Holy Spirit. It is the opinion of St. Augustine that “the justification of the wicked is a greater work than the creation of heaven and earth,” because “heaven and earth will pass away but the salvation and justification of the elect . . . will not pass away.” He holds also that the justification of sinners surpasses the creation of the angels in justice, in that it bears witness to a greater mercy.
Therefore, in this sense, justification is not by our works. We do not justify ourselves. We do not wash ourselves of our sins. Justification is God’s work.
So far so good? Have I lost anyone? Better yet, has anyone begun to understand what I’m saying?
So, let’s move on to the next question.