Justification by Faith Alone

by Jimmy Akin

Many Protestants today realize that Catholics adhere to the idea of salvation sola gratia (by grace alone), but fewer are aware that Catholics do not have to condemn the formula of justification sola fide (by faith alone), provided this phrase is properly understood.

The term pistis is used in the Bible in a number of different senses, ranging from intellectual belief (Romans 14:22, 23, James 2:19), to assurance (Acts 17:31), and even to trustworthiness or reliability (Romans 3:3, Titus 2:10). Of key importance is Galatians 5:6, which refers to “faith working by charity.” In Catholic theology, this is what is known as fides formata or “faith formed by charity.” The alternative to formed faith is fides informis or “faith unformed by charity.” This is the kind of faith described in James 2:19, for example.

Whether a Catholic rejects the idea of justification by faith alone depends on what sense the term “faith” is being used in. If it is being used to refer to unformed faith then a Catholic rejects the idea of justification by faith alone (which is the point James is making in James 2:19, as every non-antinomian Evangelical agrees; one is not justified by intellectual belief alone).

However, if the term “faith” is being used to refer to faith formed by charity then the Catholic does not have to condemn the idea of justification by faith alone. In fact, in traditional works of Catholic theology, one regularly encounters the statement that formed faith is justifying faith. If one has formed faith, one is justified. Period.

A Catholic would thus reject the idea of justification sola fide informi but wholeheartedly embrace the idea of justification sola fide formata. Adding the word “formed” to clarify the nature of the faith in “sola fide” renders the doctrine completely acceptable to a Catholic.

Why, then, do Catholics not use the ther in this regard, we would have to say, “Jesus is not God.” Obviously, the Church could not have people running around saying “Jesus is God” and “Jesus is not God,” though both would be perfectly consistent with the Trinity depending on how the term “God” is being used (i.e., as a noun or a proper name for the Father). Hopeless confusion (and charges of heresy, and bloodbaths) would have resulted in the early centuries if the Church did not specify the meaning of the term “God” when used in this context.

Of course, the Bible uses the term “God” in both senses, but to avoid confusion (and heretical misunderstandings on the part of the faithful, who could incline to either Arianism or Modalism if they misread the word “God” in the above statements) it later became necessary to adopt one usage over the other when discussing the identity of Jesus.

A similar phenomenon occurs in connection with the word “faith.” Evangelical leaders know this by personal experience since they have to continually fight against antinomian understandings of the term “faith” (and the corresponding antinomian evangelistic practices and false conversions that result). Because “faith” is such a key term, it is necessary that each theological school have a fixed usage of it in practice, even though there is more than one use of the term in the Bible. Evangelical leaders, in response to the antinomianism that has washed over the American church scene in the last hundred and fifty years, are attempting to impose a uniform usage to the term “faith” in their community to prevent these problems. (And may they have good luck in this, by the way.)

This leads me to why Catholics do not use the formula “faith alone.” Given the different usages of the term “faith” in the Bible, the early Church had to decide which meaning would be treated as normative. Would it be the Galatians 5 sense or the Romans 14/James 2 sense? The Church opted for the latter for several reasons:

First, the Romans 14 sense of the term pistis is frankly the more common in the New Testament. It is much harder to think of passages which demand that pistis mean “faith formed by charity” than it is to think of passages which demand that pistis mean “intellectual belief.” In fact, even in Galatians 5:6 itself, Paul has to specify that it is faith formed by charity that he is talking about, suggesting that this is not the normal use of the term in his day.

Second, the New Testament regularly (forty-two times in the KJV) speaks of “the faith,” meaning a body of theological beliefs (e.g. Jude 3). The connection between pistis and intellectual belief is clearly very strong in this usage.

Third, Catholic theology has focused on the triad of faith, hope, and charity, which Paul lays great stress on and which is found throughout his writings, not just in 1 Corinthians 13:13 (though that is the locus classicus for it), including places where it is not obvious because of the English translation or the division of verses. If in this triad “faith” is taken to mean “formed faith” then hope and charity are collapsed into faith and the triad is flattened. To preserve the distinctiveness of each member of the triad, the Church chose to use the term “faith” in a way that did not include within it the ideas of hope (trust) and charity (love). Only by doing this could the members of the triad be kept from collapsing into one another.

Thus the Catholic Church normally expresses the core essences of these virtues like this:

Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us . . . because he is truth itself. (CCC 1814)

Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit. (CCC 1817)

Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God. (CCC 1822)

In common Catholic usage, faith is thus unconditional belief in what God says, hope is unconditional trust in God, and charity is unconditional love for God. When we are justified, God places all three of these virtues in our hearts. These virtues are given to each of the justified, even though our outward actions do not always reflect them because of the fallen nature we still possess. Thus a person may still have the virtue of faith even if momentarily tempted by doubt, a person may still have the virtue of trust even if scared or tempted by despair, and a person may still have the virtue of charity even if he is often selfish. Only a direct, grave violation (mortal sin against) of one of the virtues destroys the virtue.

As our sanctification progresses, these virtues within us are strengthened by God and we are able to more easily exercise faith, more easily exercise trust, and more easily exercise love. Performing acts of faith, hope, and charity becomes easier as we grow in the Christian life (note the great difficulty new converts often experience in these areas compared to those who have attained a measure of spiritual maturity).

However, so long as one has any measure of faith, hope, and charity, one is in a state of justification. Thus Catholics often use the soteriological slogan that we are “saved by faith, hope, and charity.” This does not disagree with the Protestant soteriological slogan that we are “saved by faith alone” if the term “faith” is understood in the latter to be faith formed by charity or Galatians 5 faith.

One will note, in the definitions of the virtues offered above, the similarity between hope and the way Protestants normally define “faith”; that is, as an unconditional “placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.” The definition Protestants normally give to “faith” is the definition Catholics use for “hope.”

However, the Protestant idea of faith by no means excludes what Catholics refer to as faith, since every Evangelical would (or should) say that a person with saving faith will believe whatever God says because God is absolutely truthful and incapable of making an error. Thus the Protestant concept of faith normally includes both the Catholic concept of faith and the Catholic concept of hope.

Thus if a Protestant further specifies that saving faith is a faith which “works by charity” then the two soteriological slogans become equivalents. The reason is that a faith which works by charity is a faith which produces acts of love. But a faith which produces acts of love is a faith which includes the virtue of charity, the virtue of charity is the thing that enables us to perform acts of supernatural love in the first place. So a Protestant who says saving faith is a faith which works by charity, as per Galatians 5:6, is saying the same thing as a Catholic when a Catholic says that we are saved by faith, hope, and charity.

We may put the relationship between the two concepts as follows:

Protestant idea of faith = Catholic idea of faith + Catholic idea of hope + Catholic idea of charity

The three theological virtues of Catholic theology are thus summed up in the (good) Protestant’s idea of the virtue of faith. And the Protestant slogan “salvation by faith alone” becomes the Catholic slogan “salvation by faith, hope, and charity (alone).”

This was recognized a few years ago in The Church’s Confession of Faith: A Catholic Catechism for Adults, put out by the German Conference of Bishops, which stated:

Catholic doctrine . . . says that only a faith alive in graciously bestowed love can justify. Having “mere” faith without love, merely considering something true, does not justify us. But if one understands faith in the full and comprehensive biblical sense, then faith includes conversion, hope, and lovegood Catholic sense. According to Catholic doctrine, faith encompasses both trusting in God on the basis of his mercifulness proved in Jesus Christ and confessing the salvific work of God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. Yet this faith is never alone. It includes other acts

The same thing was recognized in a document written a few years ago under the auspices of the (Catholic) German Conference of Bishops and the bishops of the Council of the Evangelical Church in Germany (the Lutheran church). The purpose of the document, titled The Condemnations of the Reformation Era: Do They Still Divide?, was to determine which of the sixteenth-century Catholic and Protestant condemnations are still applicable to the other party. Thus the joint committee which drafted the document went over the condemnations from Trent and assessed which of them no longer applied to Lutherans and the condemnations of the Augsburg Confession and the Smalcald Articles, etc., and assesses which of them are not applicable to Catholics.

When it came to the issue of justification by faith alone, the document concluded:

“[T]oday the difference about our interpretation of faith is no longer a reason for mutual condemnation . . . even though in the Reformation period it was seen as a profound antithesis of ultimate and decisive force. By this we mean the confrontation between the formulas ‘by faith alone,’ on the one hand, and ‘faith, hope, and love,’ on the other.

“We may follow Cardinal Willebrand and say: ‘In Luther’s sense the word ‘faith’ by no means intends to exclude either works or love or even hope. We may quite justly say that Luther’s concept of faith, if we take it in its fullest sense, surely means nothing other than what we in the Catholic Church term love’ (1970, at the General Assembly of the World Lutheran Federation in Evian).

If we take all this to heart, we may say the following: If we translate from one language to another, then Protestant talk about justification through faith corresponds to Catholic talk about justification through grace; and on the other hand, Protestant doctrine understands substantially under the one word ‘faith’ what Catholic doctrine (following 1 Cor. 13:13) sums up in the triad of ‘faith, hope, and love.’ But in this case the mutual rejections in this question can be viewed as no longer applicable today

“According to [Lutheran] Protestant interpretation, the faith that clings unconditionally to God’s promise in Word and Sacrament is sufficient for righteousness before God, so that the renewal of the human being, without which there can be no faith, does not in itself make any contribution to justification. Catholic doctrine knows itself to be at one with the Protestant concern in emphasizing that the renewal of the human being does not ‘contribute’ to justification, and is certainly not a contribution to which he could make any appeal before God. Nevertheless it feels compelled to stress the renewal of the human being through justifying grace, for the sake of acknowledging God’s newly creating power; although this renewal in faith, hope, and love is certainly nothing but a response to God’s unfathomable grace. Only if we observe this distinction can we say

“In addition to concluding that canons 9 and 12 of the Decree on Justification did not apply to modern Protestants, the document also concluded that canons 1-13, 16, 24, and 32 do not apply to modern Protestants (or at least modern Lutherans).”

During the drafting of this document, the Protestant participants asked what kind of authority it would have in the Catholic Church, and the response given by Cardinal Ratzinger (who was the Catholic corresponding head of the joint commission) was that it would have considerable authority. The German Conference of Bishops is well-known in the Catholic Church for being very cautious and orthodox and thus the document would carry a great deal of weight even outside of Germany, where the Protestant Reformation started.

Furthermore, the Catholic head of the joint commission was Ratzinger himself, who is also the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, which is the body charged by the pope with protecting the purity of Catholic doctrine. Next to the pope himself, the head of the CDF is the man most responsible for protecting orthodox Catholic teaching, and the head of the CDF happened to be the Catholic official with ultimate oversight over the drafting of the document.

Before the joint commission met, Cardinal Ratzinger and Lutheran Bishop Eduard Lohse (head of the Lutheran church in Germany) issued a letter expressing the purpose of the document, stating:

“[O]ur common witness is counteracted by judgments passed by one church on the other during the sixteenth century, judgments which found their way into the Confession of the Lutheran and Reformed churches and into the doctrinal decisions of the Council of Trent. According to the general conviction, these so-called condemnations no longer apply to our partner today. But this must not remain a merely private persuasion. It must be established in binding form.”

I say this as a preface to noting that the commission concluded that canon 9 of Trent’s Decree on Justification is not applicable to modern Protestants (or at least those who say saving faith is Galatians 5 faith). This is important because canon 9 is the one dealing with the “faith alone” formula (and the one R.C. Sproul is continually hopping up and down about). It states:

“If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, so as to understand that nothing else is required to cooperate in the attainment of the grace of justification . . . let him be anathema.”

The reason this is not applicable to modern Protestants is that Protestants (at least the good ones) do not hold the view being condemned in this canon.

Like all Catholic documents of the period, it uses the term “faith” in the sense of intellectual belief in whatever God says. Thus the position being condemned is the idea that we are justified by intellectual assent alone (as per James 2). We might rephrase the canon:

“If anyone says that the sinner is justified by intellectual assent alone, so as to understand that nothing besides intellectual assent is required to cooperate in the attainment of the grace of justification . . . let him be anathema.”

And every non-antinomian Protestant would agree with this, since in addition to intellectual assent one must also repent, trust, etc.

So Trent does not condemn the (better) Protestant understanding of faith alone. In fact, the canon allows the formula to be used so long as it is not used so as to understand that nothing besides intellectual assent is required. The canon only condemns “sola fide” if it is used “so as to understand that nothing else [besides intellectual assent] is required” to attain justification. Thus Trent is only condemning one interpretation of the sola fide formula and not the formula itself.

I should mention at this point that I think Trent was absolutely right in what it did and that it phrased the canon in the perfect manner to be understood by the Catholic faithful of the time. The term “faith” had long been established as referring to intellectual assent, as per Romans 14:22-23, James 2:14-26, 1 Corinthians 13:13, etc., and thus everyday usage of the formula “faith alone” had to be squashed in the Catholic community because it would be understood to mean “intellectual assent alone”

The Church could no more allow people to run around indiscriminately using the faith alone formula than it could equall confusing formulas. This formula can be given an orthodox meaning, that is not how it will be understood by the masses. There must be continuity in the language of the faithful or massive confusion will result.

In fact, one can argue that the problem of antinomianism in Protestantism is a product of the attempt by the Reformers to change the established usage of the term “faith” to include more than intellectual assent. The English verb “believe” (derived from Old High German) and the English noun “faith” (derived from French and before that Latin) were both formed under the historic Christian usage of the term “faith” and thus they connote intellectual assent.

This is a deeply rooted aspect of the English language, which is why Protestant evangelists have to labor so hard at explaining to the unchurched why “faith alone” does not mean “intellectual assent alone.” They have to work so hard at this because they are bucking the existing use of the language; the Reformers effort to change the meanings of the terms “believe” and “faith” have not borne significant fruit outside of the Protestant community.

This is also the reason Evangelical preaching often tragically slips into antinomianism. The historic meaning of the terms “believe” and “faith,” which are still the established meanings outside the Protestant community, tend to reassert themselves in the Protestant community when people aren’t paying attention, and antinomianism results.

This reflects one of the tragedies of the Reformation. If the Reformers had not tried to overturn the existing usage of the term “faith” and had only specified it further to formed faith, if they had only adopted the slogan “iustificatio sola fide formata” instead of “iustificatio sola fide,” then all of this could have been avoided. The Church would have embraced the formula, the split in Christendom might possibly have been avoided, and we would not have a problem with antinomianism today.

So I agree a hundred percent with what Trent did. The existing usage of the term “faith” in connection with justification could not be overturned any more than the existing usage of the term “God” in connection with Jesus’ identity could be overturned.

What both communities need to do today, now that a different usage has been established in them, is learn to translate between each others languages. Protestants need to be taught that the Catholic formula “salvation by faith, hope, and charity” is equivalent to what they mean by “faith alone.” And Catholics need to be taught that (at least for the non-antinomians) the Protestant formula “faith alone” is equivalent to what they mean by “faith, hope, and charity.”

It would be nice if the two groups could reconverge on a single formula, but that would take centuries to develop, and only as a consequence of the two groups learning to translate each others’ theological vocabularies first. Before a reconvergence of language could take place, the knowledge that the two formulas mean the same thing would first need to be as common as the knowledge that English people drive on the left-hand side of the road instead of on the right-hand side as Americans do. That is not going to happen any time soon, but for now we must do what we can in helping others to understand what the two sides are saying.

(Needless to say, this whole issue of translating theological vocabularies is very important to me since I have been both a committed Evangelical and a committed Catholic and thus have had to learn to translate the two vocabularies through arduous effort in reading theological dictionaries, encyclopedias, systematic theologies, and Church documents. So I feel like banging my head against a wall whenever I hear R.C. Sproul and others representing canon 9 as a manifest and blatant condemnation of Protestant doctrine, or even all Protestants, on this point.)

The fact “faith” is normally used by Catholics to refer to intellectual assent (as in Romans 14:22-23, 1 Corinthians 13:13, and James 2:14-26) is one reason Catholics do not use the “faith alone” formula even though they agree with what (better) Protestants mean by it. The formula runs counter to the historic meaning of the term “faith.”

The other reason is that, frankly, the formula itself (though not what it is used to express) is flatly unbiblical. The phrase “faith alone” (Greek, pisteos monon), occurs exactly once in the Bible, and there it is rejected:

“You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. (Jas. 2:24)”

Without going into the subject of what kind of justification is being discussed here (which is misunderstood by most Evangelical commentators on Catholicism, see below), the phrase “faith alone” is itself rejected. Even though Protestants can give the phrase orthodox theological content, the phrase itself is unbiblical. If we wish to conform our theological language to the language of the Bible, we need to conform our usage of the phrase “faith alone” to the use of that phrase in the Bible.

Thus, if we are to conform our language to the language of the Bible, we need to reject usage of the formula “faith alone” while at the same time preaching that man is justified “by faith and not by works of the Law” (which Catholics can and should and must and do preach, as Protestants would know if they read Catholic literature). James 2:24 requires rejection of the first formula while Romans 3:28 requires the use of the second.

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