Is St. John the Key to Settling the Justification Debate?
By Joe Heschmeyer
In order to understand St. John’s teaching regarding justification by faith and works, we must begin by answering three questions.
**1) Can you go to Heaven without loving God and our neighbor? No. **
John tells us:
1 John 3:14-15
We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love remains in death. Any one who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.
John says virtually the same thing a chapter earlier, as well (1 John 2:9-11). We can see John’s continuity with Paul by asking the question in a slightly different way: is faith without love sufficient? Paul answers:
1 Corinthians 13:1-3
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
So spiritual gifts, theological brilliance, faith, good works, and even martyrdom: all these things are worthless, if you don’t have love. Love is necessary for salvation. If this weren’t the case, if faith without love were sufficient for justification and salvation, Paul couldn’t treat it as nothing, and James couldn’t say that such a man remains in death.
2) Can you love God without keeping His commandments? No.
John tells us what Jesus said repeatedly:
If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.
John continues these themes in his epistles. For example he writes:
2 John 1:5-6
And now I beg you, lady, not as though I were writing you a new commandment, but the one we have had from the beginning, that we love one another. And this is love, that we follow his commandments; this is the commandment, as you have heard from the beginning, that you follow love.
In his first epistle, John discusses the connections between faith, love (for God and for neighbor), and obedience to the commands of God:
1 John 5:1-5
Every one who believes that Jesus is the Christ is a child of God, and every one who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?
So to be saved, we must love God. And to love God, we must obey His commandments.
3) Can you keep God’s commandments without doing good works? No.
One of the things that Jesus commands His Church to witness to the Gospel through good works:
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
There’s no way to obey this without doing good works. This is also why Jesus can say things like:
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father.
Good works, understood in this way, flow from love, and from what Paul describes as “the obedience of faith” (cf. Rom. 1:5; Rom. 16:26). Here again, John’s epistles are illuminating:
1 John 3:17-18
But if any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth.
- In order to be saved, you must love God and neighbor.
- In order to love God, you must obey Him.
- In order to obey God, you must do good works.
- Therefore, in order to be saved, you must do good works.
If this argument is true, it leaves two possibilities for Protestants:
1. Disagree with one or more of the three points above.
Argue that loving God isn’t necessary for salvation, or that obeying God isn’t necessary to love Him, or that good works aren’t needed to obey God. In each case, holding this position would require some serious scriptural (and logical) contortions.
2. Agree with the above points.
If Protestants agree with these points, then both sides of the Catholic/Protestant debate agree on the core question: To be saved, you need faith and good works. Everything that we read in the writings of Paul or the epistle of James must be interpreted in a way consistent with this teaching. And any interpretation that says salvation is possible without good works must be dismissed as incompatible with Scripture.
Further, having agreed on the core question concerning the necessity of faith and works, additional peripheral debates seem almost purely academic with little impact on what we believe about God or how we behave as Christians. If that’s true, how is the doctrinal dispute over justification worth dividing the Church over?