The story has been told of a high wire expert who walked over Niagara Falls in front of a large crowd watching. To the amazement of all, he walked easily across the high wire to the next side. He then asked the crowd if they believed he can walk across the wire with a wheelbarrow filled with 150 pounds of potatoes. Everyone yelled, “We believe!” The man then walked across the line pushing the wheelbarrow with relative ease. He then asked the crowd, “How many of you believe that I can place a person in the wheelbarrow and walk that person safely to the other side?” Everyone yelled, “We believe!” He then said. “Who will volunteer to get in the wheelbarrow?” Then, no one raised their hands and utter silence fell upon the crowd.
In this scenario, did the crowd really believe in the high wire expert? No, they didn’t because if they believed in him, they would have done the very thing he asked them to do. In other words, their belief and faith in the high wire expert would be confirmed by their action to his instructions – to get into the wheelbarrow. If there was no action or no work, there is no belief in his instructions. Therefore, we can see that belief and faith need to have an action associated with it. So, faith and works are a package deal. To have faith in someone you need to do the works of that person’s instructions, and to do the instructions that someone told you, you must have faith in them. Now, let’s suppose instead of a high wire expert we are hearing from God himself. To simply state we need to have faith alone – and no action or no work is required is not going to suffice.
I suspect a big reason people are attracted to the Protestant idea of faith alone is that it requires much less work than the Catholic teaching. Let’s be honest the teaching that faith alone is your entrance into heaven is more attractive than the Catholic idea of faith + works. That is in Catholicism, the route to becoming our perfected self in heaven requires faith and works. And the works in Catholicism is doing the Sacraments – along with doing the works of mercy.
These works associated with faith are rather simple to understand. Doing the Sacraments make us adopted into the Trinity family. Once we are adopted into God’s family, we then participate in the Family business of saving souls by doing the works of mercy. The Sacraments and corporal works of mercy go hand and hand. Doing the Sacraments help us do the works of mercy and doing the works of mercy point people to the Sacraments. The concept of doing works (along with faith) to reach your perfected state is matched in the physical realm. For example, a person can only reach a near-perfect body by doing works – whether through an intense workout or by following a structured diet. Also, notice that to reach a flawless body, one needs to have faith in their trainer and do the works their trainer instructs them. The same concept applies to the soul but on a much larger level.
However, the idea that faith alone is the route to our perfected self has a major flaw in it when we see what the word “faith” means. Most Protestants will affirm that we don’t need to do Sacraments to reach the perfected state. They will instead say all we need to do is have faith, or believe, or love Jesus, and we’ll then be granted salvation. I’ve come to the conclusion people will often say words without referencing what these words actually mean. If you look up the word “believe” and “love” in an etymology you will see it is a verb. So, these words are rooted in an action; in doing. Love in someone and belief in someone has to be followed by an action in order for these words to make any sense.
Imagine a husband repeatedly tells his wife he loves her. But, imagine he does absolutely nothing to show her he loves her. If he merely sits on the couch and chants “I love you” to his wife does he really love his wife? No. In this example, he loves himself; not his wife. He needs to do something to show his wife he loves her. And the instructions of what he needs to do to love his wife would come from his wife and not come from him. If he “showed” his wife that he loves her by taking her to a NASCAR race (his favorite) rather than a ballet (her favorite), all he would have demonstrated is that he loves himself; not his wife.
All of salvation can be described as a nuptial relationship in which God wants to wed himself to mankind. Indeed, there was a wedding in Genesis and a wedding in Revelation to show this. To enter into a marriage and sustain a marriage naturally takes work. Would a marriage survive if one person told the other “all I need to do is have faith in you – no works required.” No, a marriage or any relationship for that matter would fail if people had a “no works required” concept. The same holds true of the human relationship to God through faith. Faith means you actually have to do something to make that relationship (whether human or divine) work.
Next, let’s envision a parent tells their child certain things the child needs to do – like do your homework, clean your room, brush your teeth, etc. What would the parent think if the child responded by saying, “But mom, all I need to do is love you and believe in you.” The parent would see this as nothing more than a clever way in which the child tries to duck out of the instructions their parent gives them. Indeed, in this example, all we would see is the child loves himself more than the parent. It is the same scenario with God’s instructions in the Sacraments. By just responding “all we need to do is believe/love/have faith in Jesus,” the person is doing the same thing as the self-absorbed child and the lazy husband.
In the faith alone teaching, inserting the word “alone” is very revealing. Using the word “alone” is a tricky way in which the person tries to dismiss the necessary action associated with faith. This faith alone idea is nothing more than our flawed, prideful, self-absorbed sin kicking in so we can avoid God’s instructions and instead follow our selfish directives.
In fact, to have faith in someone is meaningless unless you do that person’s instructions. Having faith in someone implies responding by doing something in which we affirm their very words. It would be meaningless for me to say I have faith in my doctor and yet do nothing to reference this faith. If I say I have faith in my doctor that would require me to do something to demonstrate this faith – to follow his medical instructions. Therefore, for a person to have faith in someone requires that person to do the very thing that the person they have faith in tells them to do. This is how their faith in that person is validated. When the Protestant inserts the word “alone” after faith, they are taking the element of doing something out of the equation that faith requires. However, you can’t do this. It is a logical contradiction because faith requires an action just like a triangle requires three sides. The whole point of faith is a response to data. You can’t take out the response aspect of faith and still have faith. What would follow isn’t faith, but rather what follows is merely a clever way in which someone tries to get out of the action of response. In this case, the person only shows faith in himself, not God. Therefore, faith requires an action, and that action comes not from you, but from the instructions of that person you have faith in.
Jesus’ entire ministry is built around specific instructions much like a parent gives a child. Jesus famously said, “Whoever does the will of my Father is my brother and sister” (Matthew 12:50, see also Matthew 7:21, 19:21, Luke 10:28). Notice the words “does the will” or “do this” is an action to do something, and this something to do must be rooted in faith in Jesus’s instructions. Jesus is even more obvious when he says “everyone who hears my words and does them is like a man building a house upon a rock. . . but he who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house with no foundation” (Luke 6:47-49).
The man who does Jesus words represents the wise man of faith & works, while the man who does not do them represents the fool that sits on the faith alone theory. In another example, a man comes up to Jesus and asks, “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Did Jesus respond by saying, “You have it wrong my friend, you don’t need to do anything to have eternal life – just have faith alone.” No, Jesus didn’t say this. When asked point blank what one must do to have eternal life Jesus said, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:16-17). By saying “keep the commandments,” and later telling the man to “sell everything to the poor and follow me” Jesus is saying you have to do something – and that something is an act of doing the commandments – and following my instructions (see also John 14:15).
There is numerous other Scripture passage that talk about faith associated with doing something. Paul talks about”remembering before our God your work of faith” and “that our God may make you worthy of his call, and may fulfill every good resolve and effort of faith“(see 1Thessalonians 1:3, 2Thessalonians 1:11). The words “work” and “effort” next to the word “faith” imply faith is rooted in doing something – performing an action. Also, notice that the first time Paul writes the word “faith” in Romans he associates faith with the word “obedience” (see Romans 1:5 and Romans 16:26, cf: 1 John 5: 1-3). And the word “obedience” connected to faith implies that faith requires an act or work.
Also, in Romans 13: 8-10 Paul associates loving one another with an action – to do the ten commandments. Yet, in the faith alone theory, there is no action involved. Rather, it’s just an obscure state of mind that has nothing to do with doing anything. What does this even mean? You don’t just faith – the whole point of faith is rooted in doing something. By all these passages, we see how faith and works are intrinsically connected. Therefore, faith and works are a package deal and when you try to separate this package you will notice a problem.
One such problem occurs in that the faith alone logic implies that Jesus is contradicting himself as he gives us specific instructions – but really these instructions are not important because all we need to do is have a vague faith without any action associated with that faith. It would be like a child saying he has faith in his father one second, and the other second saying he does not need to do the things his father tells him. Now, we can see that this logic is just meaningless double talk. The faith alone reason is expected given humanity’s fallen nature. The one thought we would expect from flawed human beings is to manufacture the idea “We don’t need to do anything for salvation – all we need to do is have a vague faith with no action required.” Let’s be honest, defective human beings will always take the easy way out. But, Jesus directs people to do the exact opposite of taking the selfish easy way out of doing nothing (see Luke 9:23).
When people assert that the only thing we have to do is have faith and believe in Jesus, I suspect they assume that the word “believe” means a state of mind – like I believe 2+2=4. However, this is not what the word believe means. The word believe is a verb that describes a willingness to do certain things, not an adjective describing a state of mind. The Bible suggests this in all these verses where Jesus gives out instructions. If Jesus had not given any instructions, then maybe we can say that belief and faith is simply a state of mind. But this state of mind concept gets washed away from the many instructions Jesus declares. This idea can be clearly seen in John 3:36. Notice in this verse the opposite of the word believe is not disbelief in a state of mind. Rather, the opposite of belief is disobedience – and the word obedience is rooted in doing an action. “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life” (John 3:36). If this passage shows that to not believe means you do not obey, that means belief must be associated with obeying – with an action to do something. The point of this passage is that if you believe in Jesus, you will obey him – meaning you’ll do his instructions. Thus, when a person does math, their “belief” that 2+2=4 goes from a state of mind to then putting this state of mind into action.
Even Jesus statement “be faithful unto death” (Rev. 2:10) implies that faith is a verb in which one is constantly doing something and not merely a passive state of mind that requires no effort.
Think of it like this: Having a state of mind of belief and faith in Jesus is step 1. You need to first believe Jesus if you are going to do his instructions. But, you don’t just stay here at step 1 and refuse to move on to step 2. He uses step 1 (belief in him) precisely to move you to step 2 – to do what he tells you so he can fix your soul. The faith alone theory is like a person saying I will only stay in step 1 and don’t need to move beyond this step. Now, step 1 is necessary, but not sufficient on its own. The whole point of belief in step 1 is to move you to do the instructions of that person you believe in – this would be step 2. A person wouldn’t get healed simply because they believed in their doctor. They need to take the medicine the doctor made for them to get healed. And from Jesus perspective, his medicine is the Sacraments. Which is precisely why he wants us to do the Sacraments (see Mt. 28:19, Mt. 26:26-29, John 20: 21-23, etc.).
In fact, it is necessary for Jesus first to establish belief and faith with his people before he gives them his difficult instructions to “do this.” As a parent, I know for my children to listen to my instructions I first need them to believe and trust in me. If they don’t believe me, they won’t listen to my instructions. So, it is a prerequisite to establish belief first, then, they will do my important instructions. In fact, I basically sum up my entire parental philosophy to my kids by saying, “believe me.” When I say “believe me,” I am simultaneously saying do my instructions. Belief in a person is meaningless without doing the instructions of the person we claim to believe. This idea is true of a parent, and it is true of God.
It is no wonder Jesus constantly told his followers to believe him – because they don’t know how to obtain salvation. If they did know how to attain salvation, then they wouldn’t need him anyway. Obviously, Jesus needs to establish belief and faith in him first so they know they can listen to him and to do what sounds to them like bizarre instructions. We can see this precisely played out in John chapter 6. In this scene, the crowd that followed Jesus asked what they can do to accomplish the works of God. Jesus then launched into the bread of life discourse. And the first thing he needed to do before he was going to communicate this difficult teaching is what all good parents need to do before they teach their children something they won’t fully understand – establish belief and trust in them. Jesus first says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent” (John 6:29). Notice that Jesus associated the word “believe” with the word “work.” Also, now that we know belief requires action and to act upon a difficult teaching requires a lot of belief in that person, we can better understand what Jesus is doing and why he said this. A few verses after Jesus said to believe in him (John 6:47), he then told them: “I am the bread of life” (6:48). Then, he said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” (6:51). Now, these statements would have sounded extremely bizarre to the Jews. In fact, we see that the crowd very much revolted against Jesus’ teaching (John 6: 42,52,60,66). Given their revolt to this hard to understand teaching, no wonder Jesus first had to establish belief in him.
Paul also used this method of first establishing belief and faith. The Gentiles that Paul was communicating with are like spiritual babies. They don’t know anything about the old covenants. So, of course, he first has to say believe in Jesus just like I first have to say “believe me” to my 4-year-old. However, when Paul writes to established churches (Ephesians, Corinthians, etc.) we notice he goes more specific in his instructions. How you talk to a toddler is going to be different than how you talk to a teen. The Gentiles are like toddlers and the Jewish/Christian community are like teenagers. You need to be more generic with toddlers than with teenagers simply because toddlers don’t know as much as teens do.
Additionally, Paul famously tells us that love is greater than faith. (1 Corinthians 13:13). If love is greater than faith than how can anyone say that all we need if faith alone? We know that love is a verb. In fact, love is the ultimate verb – the total action of doing something geared toward the good of the other. The cross is the greatest act of love. And the cross is ALL action – it didn’t happen willy-nilly without Jesus’ immense act of will.
There are many other instances where Paul highlights that faith is embedded in works, for example, “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). Notice that the word working implies an action to do something (see also Romans 2: 6-7, 10, Ephesians 2: 10). Finally, after speaking a lot about faith and belief, Paul confirms that the second part of salvation has to do with works when he affirms, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). Notice that Paul is associating salvation with the word “work” – an action to do something.
The final nail in the coffin of the faith alone theory is when James declares: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). Then, two verses later James sums up, “faith apart from works is dead” (2:26). Isn’t it highly ironic that the only place in the Bible we see the phrase “faith alone” there is the word “not” in front of it?
In order to salvage the faith alone concept, a Protestant will complain that the Catholic method requires works by your self without God. This idea doesn’t add up. God doesn’t give us instructions to do and then removes himself so we go it alone. This is merely the Protestants failure to understand that Sacraments are what God does for us, not what we do for God. Any parent that gives their child important instructions to do will help them do it along the way. God doesn’t leave us to do his instructions on our own. Indeed, Jesus told his disciples, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14: 18).
I think we’ve thoroughly shown that the faith alone idea is bunk. This idea keeps a person in step 1 and refuses to move him to the highly important step 2. When we add everything up the totality of Jesus’ instructions are in the Sacraments of the Catholic Church (see evidence in: Luke 22: 19-20, John 3:5, 20:22-23, Matthew 16:18, 18:17, 1 Timothy 3:15). When we don’t do the Sacraments all we do is demonstrate our lack of faith in Jesus all the while saying we have faith in him. This is nothing more than demonstrating the great human cop out. We love ourselves more than we love God.
Protestantism may have good intentions, but it does not offer us the solution. Protestantism simply demonstrates the human problem. Protestantism is like a well-meaning but inept personal trainer. The personal trainer gives you some good advice here and there but at the end of the day, all they give you is a twinkie. They give you the very problem you want to avoid – your selfish desires played out in this “faith alone” idea. Protestantism gives you what you want, but not what you need.
I think it is great that people proclaim to have all this faith and embrace step 1 – believing and having faith. However, you don’t stay in step 1 forever because step 1 naturally points you to step 2 – to do the instructions of the person you have faith in.
Jesus plainly said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15), and said, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (John 15: 10). Notice this implies if you don’t keep his commandments – or alter his commandments by inserting the word “alone” this implies you don’t love him. In fact, in the scenario of changing his commandments to fit your liking, you show that you love yourself, not God.
At some point, a person needs to dump the cheap teaching of faith “alone.” When they do this, they’ll begin to see what the word faith really means.