Another post drawn from Facebook conversation. Recently, a friend posted a wry comment about reading James 2:17 for the first time, that is, re-evaluating the traditional Protestant argument that Catholic tradition had replaced “faith” with “works” in teaching the Gospel. But the conversation soon swerved, as one poster observed in Protestant shorthand, “Read James 2:17–still believe Ephesians 2:8-9.” Now, of course, we believe both. However, the conversation somehow turned to Baptism, with some arguing that the teaching that Baptism is necessary for salvation proves that our works are essential to our being saved, others arguing that such a proof turned on a false theology of God’s saving work and a misunderstanding of Baptism. I respectfully asked to put my oar in after it seemed that some of my Catholic friends were confusing themselves on the matter.
This is my response:
1) Baptism doesn’t save “as a work” anyway. People, even Catholics, frequently confuse ex opere operato efficacy of sacraments with “God has to like me because I did the right work.” But that’s a misunderstanding. Salvation is always a work of God, through and through. Our cooperation in our salvation is part of our being saved; it doesn’t make being saved “my job,” at least not in the sense that some rightly fear would contradict Ephesians 2.
2) Baptism is a work of God’s grace. That work does not begin when someone pours water on me, or when I decide I want to be baptized; it begins at least as far back as when Jesus came to John to be baptized (we say He, who was perfectly Holy and God Himself, “made clean the waters of baptism”) so as to “fulfill all righteousness.”
That work continues when Jesus instructs His Apostles to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” as they go and teach. And that work continues at every Baptism, whether it is understood fully or partially, and even if it is conducted by a heretic or wicked person, provided that a real Baptism in the Triune Name is actually performed. So when I receive Baptism, I am the recipient of a work of God in Christ Jesus that was performed by God through all those baptized and baptizing faithful, and pre-eminently by the Holy Spirit who bound all of us together and sealed us as Christ’s own People.
3) Then what does it mean that “faith wrought with his works”? Well, when Jesus Christ committed to His Church all that has been written and all that was given to the Apostles to decide for His People, pre-eminently including the text of Scripture and the faithful performance of Baptism and Communion, and certainly including their fidelity to His teaching about marriage, about the authority given to the Apostles, and about other matters clearly spoken of in the Gospels, He committed to them a body of understandings and teachings to be taken as part and parcel of their trust in Him and their loving fidelity to Him. Part of what it means to “abide in Me, and I in thee.” And so when the grace of God makes us able to respond faithfully to that teaching, a work accomplished through all the means God has at His disposal (not least faithful families, faithful teaching at Church, and His Presence in the Eucharist and other sacraments), then His work has reached the point where the mystery of our cooperation begins.
Abraham was not saved because Abraham was the sort of person who traveled across Mesopotamia to a distant land, or the sort of person who thought having a child would be possible at 100yrs old, or the sort of person who sacrificed a child. But Abraham, by the grace of God working in him and upon him, was indeed saved by following the divine Promise out to a new land, covenanting with God concerning the son Abraham was naturally unable to have, and imitating in advance the Father’s sacrifice and the Son’s substitution.
So Abraham, as Hebrews 11 clearly indicates in conjunction with Romans 4 and James 2, was saved by faith, and that faith worked in Abraham’s actual behavior, that is, in the “obedience of faith.”
4) So why do Catholics teach that “condign merit” actually does exist and contributes to our salvation? Not because we think something we do apart from God’s grace might be just as good as God’s gracious working in us! Certainly not! This view is condemned repeatedly–during the Pelagian controversy, at the Council of Orange, and with ringing clarity at Trent:
The holy Synod declares first, that, for the correct and sound understanding of the doctrine of Justification, it is necessary that each one recognise and confess, that, whereas all men had lost their innocence in the prevarication of Adam-having become unclean, and, as the apostle says, by nature children of wrath, as (this Synod) has set forth in the decree on original sin,-they were so far the servants of sin, and under the power of the devil and of death, that not the Gentiles only by the force of nature, but not even the Jews by the very letter itself of the law of Moses, were able to be liberated, or to arise, therefrom; although free will, attenuated as it was in its powers, and bent down, was by no means extinguished in them.
No, we teach this because it is the evidence that God’s work of salvation actually succeeds in His chosen People. God, by His very effective grace and power, by the work of the Cross and the favor He shows us through His Son, by the stirring within us of the Holy Spirit, is actually able to succeed in making us able, by the time we finally behold Him, to gaze at His face without shame or grief or loss (much less terror or fear). How does He do this? By actually changing our hearts, with our cooperation, so that our habits are wholly right, our actual relationships entirely purged of the effects of sin, our consciences not only cleansed of guilt but free of concern and uncertainty over our potential misjudgments.
And when someone actually is able, with no additional help, to “be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect,” then God’s work of salvation has fully worked. Now, we do not generally achieve this degree of sanctification before death, but all the faithful will achieve it before The End. And so, rather than say that God’s work is like a speedboat circling out at sea, working mightily with us so that we move but can never reach our original goal, we say that God’s work is like a boat that actually takes us home, where we can get out of the boat and stand on the shore.
“My works” only save me *because* God’s work has saved me. Any other works would be dead, dead, dead, like Hebrews says.