A Meditation on Faith and Works

I’ve been thinking recently about how different Christians understand ‘faith’.  In particular it has struck me how for most Protestant denominations ‘faith’ is something that you have, a noun and object. You hear phrases along the lines of ‘I’m struggling with my faith’, or ‘I’m losing my faith’ or ‘I try to follow my faith’ or ‘God is helping me increase my faith’.  ‘Faith’ is almost always the object of the verb.

I think a better understanding of faith is that it is not just something you have but something that you do.  I expect that there isn’t much disagreement on this point but I think it does highlight  a key difference between Protestants and Catholics which, coming from the Protestant side of the spectrum I didn’t understand.

You often hear the criticism of Catholic faith that it is based on a ‘works righteousness’.  That in some sense the Catholic supposedly believes that their works can save them.  And there is plenty of language in Catholic theology that at first glance would give some credence to this criticism.  I certainly had this in the back of my mind when I first started looking at Catholicism.  I saw lots of Mass-going Catholics who didn’t seem to be having the kind of ‘faith’ experiences that I was used to.  I didn’t hear a lot of “Jesus” talk; I didn’t see a lot of public displays of ‘faith’; I only saw pre-written prayers used; I didn’t see the elements of ‘having faith’ that I was used to seeing.  So I made assumptions about many of the people around me (really they were judgments) that they were just going through the motions and didn’t really ‘have faith’.

As it turns out, I was wrong because I had too shallow an understanding of faith and I had too much pride in my own faith history and experiences.  It’s tough to admit that you have a lot to learn about being faithful when you’ve spoken words of prophecy, seen people healed through the power of the Holy Spirit, been to the mountaintop of faith, lead thousands in worship, lead retreats and youth groups, been chaplain for my class, etc.  (If any of that sounds familiar and foolish you might be thinking of 2 Corinthians 11:16-29.)

As I began to learn however, I realized that my understanding of faith, of my faith, saw faith as an object, something you either have or don’t have.  Catholics don’t see it that way at all.  Faith, for the Catholic, is something that you do.  Instead of having faith, the focus is on being faithful.  So we go to Mass every week and on Holy days of obligation; we do works of mercy; we consecrate ourselves (to the Sacred Heart, to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, etc.); we pray the rosary; we focus on the active doing of our discipleship – even before we are fully convinced in our minds about the content of our belief we try to act on those beliefs.

None of this should be seen as an anti-intellectualism or a screed against the work of theology and philosophy – those are very good things and are important.  The faithful life of the Catholic though is not primarily based on thinking about the content of our beliefs but on the acting on those beliefs – living out the Living Tradition of the Church in our daily lives.

I should also point out that most Protestants also act on their faith.  My point here is that the Catholic and the Protestant are coming from two different perspectives.  The Catholic and the Protestant would both agree that we are saved by Grace which comes through faith in Christ.  My point is that ‘faith in Christ’ is understood by Protestants as something you have whereas the Catholic would say that ‘faith in Christ’ is something that you do.

Paul writes in Romans 4:1-5 “What then can we say that Abraham found, our ancestor according to the flesh? Indeed, if Abraham was justified on the basis of his works, he has reason to boast; but this was not so in the sight of God. For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 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.

I think it is interesting that James uses the exact same passage to apparently make the exact opposite point.  From James 2:20-24 “Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called “the friend of God.” See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”

How then do we resolve these two passages?  The first part is to understand what exactly Paul is talking about when he says ‘works’ and what James is talking about when he says ‘works’.  Paul is clearly refering to ‘works of the law’ and in particular circumcision as you can see if you read deeper into Romans 4 where Paul makes explicit that his argument is that faith which God credits as righteousness is not dependent circumcision since Abraham was uncircumcised and only after being made righteous received the seal of circumcision as a sign of the covenant.  Paul goes on to say that Abraham “was to be the father of all the uncircumcised who believe, so that to them [also] righteousness might be credited, as well as the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised, but also follow the path of faith that our father Abraham walked while still uncircumcised.” (Romans 4:11b-12, emphasis mine).

What was the ‘path of faith’ that Abraham ‘walked’ (notice that faith is no longer something that Abraham has but something that he does (walks))?  Abraham received God’s promise that God would make him into a great nation  but it was another 25 years before Isaac was born.  Through all of those long years as Abraham is getting older and older, as his wife is getting older and older he still trusts God and walks blamelessly. I’m not sure that I would be able to be faithful for 25 years of what appears to be a broken or empty promise.  That is why Abraham is considered the ‘father of faith’ because he walked the path of faith for 25 years before he saw God’s promise fulfilled and then even after still trusted God enough to prepare his son for sacrifice.

Thus I say that Paul and James are making the exact same point not different points.  Both are after the idea that faith is a way of being, not something that you just have.  For Paul, works of the law is something you have – all male Jews were circumcised but that is not enough, the Jew still has to ‘believe God’ (i.e. live faithfully).  Paul is writing to make the point that what you have is not enough, you still have to live in faithfulness.  James is making essentially the same point against those who seemed to think that saying ‘I believe’ was enough.  ‘I believe’ is a lie unless it is demonstrated in your life.

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5 Responses to A Meditation on Faith and Works

  1. fr walter nagle says:

    Hi Dan…..I have often wondered if we could understand faith as “work”. Doesn’t Jesus say…. “this is the work of God, believe in the one he sent.”

  2. Dan F. says:

    Exactly! The problem comes with thinking that faith is an object (something you can have) rather than a state of being-towards (something that you do).

  3. Tom Perna says:

    Good reflection Dan! For us as Catholics, our “faith” does not need to be displayed with “Jesus talk.” You often see this with many pro-athletes that are “born again” Christians. Although I am glad that they might love God, it’s all about the “Jesus talk.” There are many Catholic athletes in professional sports but you never hear them say much on the field. However, many of them are very faithful and do good works, but they don’t have to talk about it all the time. Talking about loving God and giving him praise, but not doing any works or living your life as you did before you were “saved” has a Pharisitical (the actions of the Pharisees) way to it.

    As Catholics, praying the rosary, offering works of mercy and attending Mass, does not mean that we check our reason at the door. As Catholics, we must unite faith and reason.

    Will follow your blog more now.

  4. Pingback: And speaking of new blogs…

  5. Jessica says:

    I appreciate the way you wrestle honestly with the texts and your conclusion (as I understand it) that “Real faith, by definition, works out–” and “Works that count with God spring from, are generated by, faith.”

    I appreciate Tom’s comments above but I’d like to point out that God does tell us to “speak” our faith: “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,” and “As you go into the world, take the gospel to every created being.” And “How shall they know without one to tell them?”

    Faith as acting out is fine once you have come through the door into His life (He in you, you in Him) and Christ is the One doing those works through you. Otherwise, doing them in your own strength you will burn out and doing good as a means of pleasing or getting closer to God is ineffective. Everything from beginning to end–the motivation, the energy, the fruit, the credit–has to be His or it is worthless.


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