It is an interesting exercise to compare the writings of Saint Paul—particularly his epistle to the Romans—with what we find in this epistle of Saint James, which we have been reading since last Sunday (at least those of us who have been following the reading outline in the Parish Bulletin). If you are not careful in your reading, you can come away with the mistaken idea that the two Apostles were in disagreement about the fundamental doctrine of what is necessary for us to do to achieve our salvation. The careless reader may come away thinking the Saint Paul was a sort of Lutheran, who thought that salvation came through faith alone—or that Saint James subscribed to the more obscure heresy of Pelagius, who taught that salvation came through good works alone, even without faith. In reality, there is no conflict between the two Apostles, for they are addressing two different things, and salvation requires both faith and good works, rather than either one without the other.
In his epistle to the Romans, Saint Paul wrote about “justification,” which is the process by which the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve are raised up from the natural state in which they are born with original sin to the state of sanctifying grace. Saint Paul rightly points out that this processes is initiated by faith—which is the same as saying that we are first raised to sanctifying grace by believing what God has revealed to us through His Church.
For those of us who were baptized in our infancy, this faith and the accompanying sanctifying grace were infused together by the Sacrament of Baptism. For those who came to the Catholic Church as adults, their belief in God’s revelation—which is to say their faith—led them to receive Baptism shortly thereafter. We find this very specifically in the words of our Lord in Saint Mark’s Gospel: “Preach the Gospel to every creature; He who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does not believe shall be condemned.” It is abundantly clear from the Gospels that, like Saint Paul, our Lord was also speaking here about justification—the beginning of the process of salvation—and, that He was not guaranteeing salvation to each and every person who did nothing more than believe and receive Baptism.
In the Gospels there is an almost constant reminder that we are also required to keep the Commandments, to love God—and not only to love our neighbor, but to look out for him as well. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all recount a certain young man approaching Jesus and asking what he must do to gain eternal life. Our Lord tells this man that he must keep the Commandments—the man says that he keeps them—to which Jesus responds that he must also give whatever he has to the poor, and then spend his life in the following of Christ.
If there is any doubt about the seriousness of this obligation to our neighbor, it is completely dispelled in Matthew xxv, wherein our Lord describes the day of judgment, on which God will separate “the sheep from the goats.” Our Lord puts it in very personal terms: “I was hungry and you gave Me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave Me to drink ... you took Me in ... you covered Me ... you visited Me” and so forth. When did we do these things for Jesus Christ? He answers that you did these things for Me when you did them for the least of My brethren; the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the poor. The concluding verse of the chapter is of enormous significance, for it tells us that those who did not do for Him by doing for His poor will “depart into everlasting punishment.” Clearly, then, He is saying that there is more for us to do beyond our initial act of faith and our Baptism. In addition to faith, we must have charity—we must love God, and we must love our neighbor for he is our brother in God.
Those who understand these passages correctly realize that faith and Baptism raise us up to the state of sanctifying grace— faith and Baptism make us the adopted sons and daughters of God, as Saint John and Saint Paul tell us, rather than mere hired hands. And that state of adoption makes every good thing we do pleasing to God as our loving Father, and not as a critical employer. As children pleasing our parents, every little act of charity we perform on earth lays up merit for us in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Still, we know that even the best children sometimes do things which they should not. In the case of God’s children who were adopted through faith and Baptism, we sometimes do things which cause us to fall from sanctifying grace, and to lose that “justification” that we received at Baptism. Our merciful Lord and loving Father understood this as well, and gave His Apostles and their successors the power to forgive sins in Sacramental Confession, and to restore us to the state of grace. As Baptism is the Sacrament of faith, Penance is the Sacrament of repentance for those who are already of the Faith—both Sacraments raise the soul to sanctifying grace, and win us the favor of God as our Father.
If Saint Paul was considering faith as necessary for “justification,” he was doing so in the sense of stating what is necessary to start out on the spiritual journey that we hope will one day take us to heaven. Saint James, on the other hand, was stating what we must do along the journey. James agrees with Paul that the spiritual life begins with faith, but James also reminds us that “even the devils believe in God, yet they tremble.” It is not enough to believe—“show me thy faith without works, and I from my works will show thee my faith!” he exclaims.”
Saint Paul and Saint James are in accord with each other, for they are both in accord with Jesus Christ. One speaks of the beginning of the spiritual life, while the other speaks of its ongoing development. Our Lord requires our belief and our obedience to His Commandments, including love of neighbor for the love of God. It is simply not possible for the Christian on this earth to have faith without charity, any more than it is possible for him to have charity without faith. As James says, we must not be merely forgetful hearers of the word, but, rather, we must be doers of the work, and we shall be blessed in our deeds.