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Teachings of the Early Church Fathers: How Catholics Embrace “Faith Alone”

Though Christ never intended for His Body of believers to be divided, in the 495 years since the initiation of Protestantism, the battle lines have been drawn on a myriad of theological fronts, both Catholic vs. Protestant and Protestant vs. Protestant. One of the biggest, most controversial of these is found in Martin Luther’s five solas of the reformation: “sola fide”—justification by faith alone.

As an evangelical Protestant who served on both foreign and domestic mission trips, I was very devoted to this teaching. I would preach to both children and adults, “Once you receive Jesus into your heart and make a sincere promise to live for him, you will become a Christian. From that moment on, what you do or do not do will not affect your salvation; once saved, always saved.” This theology was so instilled in me that as God began to reveal to me the Truth that the Catholic Church is the one Church ordained and established by Him, divinely guided in all her Teachings on faith and morals, I found myself wrestling with my upbringing of faith alone versus the Catholic Teaching of justification through faith and works. I was even told by one of my spiritual advisers in my non-denominational faith community, to whom I confided my findings and revelations, “You do not want to be Catholic; Catholics believe that works get you to Heaven, and you know that’s not true.”

Indeed I knew it was not true that one can simply work their way into Heaven through their own merit; everything I had ever read in Scripture made this plain. However, I also knew from everything I had studied about the Catholic Church that she does not claim this either. Events in history such as the Protestant Reformation and the evolution of evangelical Protestantism have claimed the phrase “faith alone” and given it a new assumed meaning, causing the Catholic Church to use alternate terms such as “justification by faith and works” to differentiate. The fact remains, however, that Catholics believe in faith alone, but not the way modern evangelical Protestantism defines it. We subscribe to faith alone the way the early Church understood it, and the way the Church fathers taught it.

Though many of our evangelical Protestant brethren will deny the writings from the earliest Christians on the grounds that their writings are not Sacred Scripture, exceptions are often made to point out to Catholics that the Church fathers believed in faith alone. They have a point; the emphasis that the early Church fathers put on salvation by faith is abundant:

And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (Clement of Rome AD 30–100)

I know that through grace you are saved, not of works, but by the will of God, through Jesus Christ. (Polycarp AD. 69–155)

No longer by the blood of goats and of sheep, or by the ashes of a heifer . . . are sins purged, but by faith, through the blood of Christ and his death, who died on this very account. (Justin Martyr AD 165)

And let us not forget St. Paul’s many inspired writings on faith as the key to our salvation:

God justifies by faith alone. Romans 10:3

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.Ephesians 2:8-9

“and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ
, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.” Philippians 3:9

Take note that in all of these early writings and Scriptures, the only time faith is compared against works is when the author is referring to works performed separate from a faith in Jesus Christ: works pertaining to the law of the Old Covenant or works performed with faith in man’s own effort and personal righteousness rather than works performed with a focus on Christ’s glory and man’s relationship with Him. Such actions are included in “faith”, the word used so frequently in early Christian writings. Faith, in order for it to be true saving faith, is not merely a state of the mind or heart but a verb—a word that entails action.

St. James reaffirms this early definition of faith in His own inspired writings.

What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him?  If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.James 2:14-17

Martin Luther claimed St. James’ writings should not be included in Sacred Scripture because he felt they negated St. Paul’s emphasis on salvation by faith. However, with the understanding in place that the faith St. Paul, St. James, and the other Church fathers taught about encompasses works by its very definition, then one can see how the two letters harmonize with one another. St. Paul emphasized that works not motivated by the glory of Christ are meaningless in terms of salvation, and likewise St. James emphasized that an alleged faith in Christ marked by a professed belief will not produce saving graces if it is not accompanied by works for Christ.

The early Church fathers were the original teachers of “sola fide”, faith alone, long before the emergence of evangelical Protestantism attached an alternate connotation to the phrase. As Catholics, we follow the example of the Church’s earliest leaders and proudly embrace salvation by faith alone as Christ defined it. Faith is active participation in His mission: charity done in His name, worshiping Him in thanksgiving, and obedience to His spoken commands.

 

“If you love me, you will obey what I command.” –Jesus Christ (John 14:15)

  • Melissa Buttry - I like how you broke this down. I do understand what the church teaches and accept it. My problem comes when confronted with it. I have trouble defending the church. I was in a “mom’s group” bible study at a prots church. We are the only catholic church in our town ad we are outnumbered big time. I was taking my daughter to this play group and the mom’s had a study going on. Anyway, I had a women argue this point with me. I tried to politely tell her that we believe in faith and works together and she argued and insisted that I didn’t know what I was talking about. I ended it with I do know what the church teaches but moved on because I didn’t want it to become an argument. I wish I had something to pull out and make my point with besides I know. I need time to prepare and don’t do well with on the spot. Long story short, after many other things I didn’t agree with and it was getting too hard to keep quiet, I left the group.November 12, 2012 – 5:26 amReplyCancel

  • Martina - Melissa,

    I understand your frustration! One thing I’ve found to work is to let them know you fully trust in the Church’s teachings, but you don’t quite have the immediate answer. You can always keep the discussion going {if that’s what you want} by letting them know you’ll get back to them OR you can always refer them to sites like http://www.catholic.com or http://www.catholic.org. There’s nothing wrong with letting them do a little investigating on their own and it may just open their eyes to other things the Church teaches as well.

    One other thing to consider is that you do *not have* to have all the answers to be able to reach others. Simply living the life Christ intends you to through the Church can be witness enough. I think we often forget the power of example to others, ya know? 🙂November 12, 2012 – 8:31 amReplyCancel

  • Jason Hauser - Tiffany,

    I find it odd you would write this article because it pinpoints the exact problem of what Roman Catholicism teaches. To sum up Rome’s teachings I’ll quote a canon from the council of trent,

    “On Justification Canon 9: “If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.”

    If you look throughout scripture, even in some of the verses you quoted like Ephesians 2:8-9, Paul is crystal clear that salvation is by faith alone and NOT of works. You cannot earn your salvation. If you could you get the glory and not God. God gives salvation, no man. A criminal on trial for murder can’t earn his way off trial, guilty is guilty, and justice must be served. A good God cannot let us sinners work our way out of our guilty sentence, He must intervene and His Son had to make FULL satisfaction for our sins (not partial only for us to make up the rest in purgatory).

    Your quotes from the church fathers show that the early church and a small remnant throughout history did understand and embrace what scripture teaches. However the institution of Roman Catholicism has long distorted and missed the gospel. You are right, the reformers did not invent sole fide, it is in scripture and they themselves cited the church fathers often to show that Rome NEEDED to return to this biblical teaching.

    The biggest misunderstanding of Catholics is that James is in opposition to Paul or that he redefines sola fide. That is not what is going on, read the end of James 2:14, “…can THAT faith save him.” James is not denying that faith alone saves and going against the rest of scripture rather he is saying that true faith (which alone saves) is legitimized by good fruit that pours out. I’m not sure about the church you grew up in, it sounds pretty watered down and soft, but no born again Christian believes they simply need to nod their head to the gospel and then “once saved always saved.” A true born again Christian knows that true genuine faith alone has saved them and the Father keeps and the Holy Spirit seals and brings to completion all that they do a work in and that such examples of God’s mercy by His grace will go on to bear good fruit. The fruit (good works) does’t save them, it comes after their saving faith (declared justification) and is evidence that their justification is real. Rome has misunderstood and rearranged salvation that you can be de-justified and reverse the born again work that God does in true believers.

    I hope and pray that some of this has bridged the gap of misunderstanding here. Read through Romans slowly and chapter by chapter you will see the 3 elements of salvation (a single justification as a result of true faith alone, a growing sanctification where God is working and refining new believers and they do good works as fruit of their saved nature which can’t be lost, and a one day glorification (made perfect before God, salvation completed) not a pending purgatorial fire to do what Jesus supposedly didn’t accomplish on the cross for sin.)

    My heart breaks that you have written off biblical Christianity and joined the Roman church because your church likely had a soft view of the gospel. It’s clear from your story and current decision to embrace the Roman false gospel that you have always been convicted by biblical truth but yet to be justified and born again. For scripture is clear that those who are of us, will not depart from us and those that depart reveal that they were never of us.

    The good news, is wherever you are at, there is always the opportunity to turn to the one and only biblical gospel that saves and find true salvation from God in Jesus Christ and what He ALONE has done received by faith ALONE for the glory of God ALONE. Religion feels good because you get lots of credit for all that you do, but you will never find true rest when you are trusting in your own efforts and not those of Christ.November 12, 2012 – 10:32 amReplyCancel

  • Jason Hauser - To try to make this even simpler as you look at the issues, please study the distinction between justification and sanctification. When Christians talk about salvation they are most often referring to the justifying act (first part of 3 elements of salvation) which when that happens the other two always follow (Romans 8). Catholics assume they control justification by infant baptism and then think they all must go on to work out their sanctification, but the problem is they have never truly been justified. Study the two, justification and sanctification and you will gain clarity on what Christians are talking about and why they are so concern and against the Roman Catholic false gospel of works that justify.November 12, 2012 – 10:44 amReplyCancel

    • Martina - Jason,

      I believe you have missed not only the point of her post, but the spirit as well. You sure claim to know a lot about Catholicism for someone who is not. You might want to consider what you are saying given what you believe.November 12, 2012 – 10:49 amReplyCancel

  • Tiffany P - Jason,

    First of all, I want to sincerely thank you for stopping by our site and taking the time to read what we have to say. I know how valuable time is, especially on Mondays ;), and it is much appreciated.

    College classes await me this morning, and I am headed out the door now and I promise to come back later and respond in more length. In the meantime, I just want to encourage you to meditate on what the word “faith” means and what such a word entails. I think you may have missed my point in this post, which leads you to still hold onto the misconception that Catholics ignore those Scriptures and those early writings and assume works get us to Heaven.

    In summary, my post was explaining that when Paul, and the other early Church fathers (both Scriptural writings and otherwise) used the word “faith” the word had a much different meaning that what it is associated with today. Faith, by its definition, encompasses works. Actions toward Christ are included in the definition of “faith”.

    We’ll talk more later. Have a blessed day! 🙂November 12, 2012 – 10:50 amReplyCancel

  • Jason Hauser - Martina, I speak with confidence about what Catholicism teaches because I trusted in it for 23 years before my eyes were opened by actually reading the scriptures. I have since gone on to study Catholicism on a much greater level by reading Catholic theological books like that of Ludwig Ott, attending adult night classes taught by priests, and reading and regularly referencing official councils like that of Trent and II Vatican and of course referencing the CCC. Make no mistake, I understand exactly what Catholicism teaches and am greatly concerned because I also have spent many years both on my own and in graduate school studying the Bible.

    Tiffany,

    You are redefining faith. Let God’s word define faith as it does in Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” James simply supplements this definition by saying that if such faith doesn’t result in bearing good fruit, then such faith is not truly faith. In other words, if I claim to love my wife but in reality don’t care for her in my actions that shows my claim to love her is not valid. But make no mistake, one can do a lot of actions for their spouse and not truly love them. This is the problem with Catholicism. By trying to do good works (denial of Eph 2:8-9) to get right with God and supplement one’s faith, they are in fact denying that salvation can’t be earned and is a GIFT to be received not a wage to be earned, not even 1%. Read Rom 11:6, when you try to add works you negate God’s grace. Works follow saving faith and are the fruit of saving faith. When they are added to faith to save a person, as Rome teaches, they negate any saving power.

    I know you ladies are well meaning and sincere as I once was too in my Roman Catholic upbringing. You are approaching all of this with a bias towards Catholicism and defending and supporting it. What would it look like if you simply approached God’s Word and sought to understand it simply for what it says, in it’s proper context?November 12, 2012 – 12:22 pmReplyCancel

  • Adrienne - Jason,
    Welcome to Catholic Sistas. I see you are very interested in God’s Truth, as are we, so thank you for giving us your time.
    You wrote a lot, so I naturally won’t be responding line per line, but instead want to address three topics you raised.

    1) I find that those who ascribe to Faith Alone in the modern Evangelical sense always compare it to works righteousness, but in the time of Christ, this wouldn’t have been the obvious comparison. Prior to the advent of our Savior, the only persons that could be saved were the Jews. Yet, Christ came along and opened up Justification to the Gentiles, who were now able to find salvation for their souls by God’s grace through faith in Christ. It was a huge deal that now non-Jews could be saved, and this was through faith. But just as pedigree alone didn’t save all Jews, a dead faith doesn’t save Christians either. We still must allow God to transform our souls to be strong enough to be in the presence of God’s blinding Light, Truth and Love. We are gravely weak without God’s Grace infused into our souls and have no hope of Heaven without it.

    2) Justification through faith and works is, simply put, not as you say. As Tiffany explained, justification from works is not works apart from the Grace of God. The *only* works that contribute to our justification are those through which God is working in us to accomplish His Will. Thus, it is taught to us, that when God crowns our faith-filled works, He is purely crowning His own work accomplished through us. Please, consider reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church to learn properly what Holy Mother Church teaches us. We must allow Him to transform our souls with His Grace, which is done through obedient faith-filled works.

    3) You referred to the small remnant theory, that perhaps there have always been Christians who believe as modern Evangelicals, and cited the quotes above as demonstrating the Early Church Fathers believed as you do. However, if you were to read all of what the Early Church Fathers wrote, you’d see that while they do believe (as Catholics do) that justification is only brought about through a faith filled life, they taught in complete solidarity that God’s grace, that salvation itself, comes to us through Baptism (Infant Baptism, at that), Confession and especially in the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. I would be happy to quote you many passages on these topics.

    Peace to you, as we approach the advent season.
    AdrienneNovember 12, 2012 – 12:57 pmReplyCancel

  • Adrienne - Jason,

    I missed a response from you. Just wanted to add that you have not properly expressed Catholic teaching on Justification yet, even with your background and all of the study you purport. I happily read the Written Word of God and see zero conflict in it with true Catholic teaching.

    Perhaps you could take some of your own advice, in all of your studying of Catholicism, maybe you shouldn’t be doing so with your anti-Catholic bias in order to learn what it actually teaches?

    May we try to understand each other in Truth,
    AdrienneNovember 12, 2012 – 1:05 pmReplyCancel

  • Tiffany P - Jason,

    Before anything else I want to say that I think it’s fair of you to say that you do have knowledge of the Catholic Church, having been raised in it, and your choice to separate from the Church was based on personal study and research and where you felt that has lead you. I do not accuse of you of being unread or uneducated, but I want to request that you extend me and the others here the same courtesy. As I mentioned, I was raised evangelical Protestant, and chose the Catholic faith as an adult after immersing myself in the study of history and other writings from the Church. I am no stranger to evangelical Protestant theology, or the Scriptures that such faith communities often use to try to disprove the Catholic Church. At one time in my life, I served on mission trips in which I also fought against the Catholic Church, telling young Catholics much of the same that you are telling me. I was not lead away from evangelical Protestantism because of an anger I had with the people, but because after a deeper study of Scripture and history separate from my previous Protestant bias, I saw that everything pointed directly at her. Though I know you will disagree, I say with confidence that one will not find a faith community more Biblical or more “Bible-believing” than the Catholic Church.

    That being said, historical evidence from the early Church shows us that indeed, the apostles and their successors and faithful Christians who lived long before the emergence of evangelical Protestantism defined faith as an action word. Not merely having faith as in believing or acknowledging with the heart or mind (for Scripture tells us even Satan’s demons do this much!), but living a life of faith. That took part in the Eucharist and the other sacraments Christ instituted, and they served His Church diligently. With that in mind, do you think it’s possible that it is modern, evangelical Protestantism that has redefined faith?

    I can see where Ephesians 2 seems to say that works are meaningless in terms of salvation when you look at faith through the how evangelical Protestants have come to define it. But if you will notice in all of the Scriptures that compares faith against works, as well as in all the writings from the early Church fathers who compared faith against works, they only did so when they were speaking of works separate from Christ. They speak of works associated with the Old Covenant, works man does for his own righteousness or personal gain. As Romans 11:6 emphasizes, works that are separate from Christ and His grace are meaningless.

    The Catholic Church will maintain that we do not get to Heaven on our own merit, but through the grace of God. Such grace gifts us with faith that, by its definition, urges us to obey Christ’s commands and to do good works for His Kingdom. By grace, through faith, not from ourselves.

    St. Paul understood that works separate from Christ’s grace and the faith that grace gifts us with lead nowhere, but he also understood, like St. James, that faith is an action word:

    “In the same way continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” –Philippians 2:12November 12, 2012 – 1:11 pmReplyCancel

  • Misty - With all due respect, Jason, you would not have the very Bible you use to refute the position of the Catholic Church without the authority of the Catholic Church, which decided on the canon of Scripture FOUR CENTURIES after Christ. Prior to that, the Christian church was content to rely on the Holy Spirit to preserve the oral teachings passed on from Jesus to the apostles and their successors—teachings which miraculously were maintained for those centuries, and which enabled the church to decide which of the nearly 150 manuscripts floating around were actually inspired.

    I challenge you to read the lecture series I gave a few years ago about sola scriptura, which thoroughly discusses the historical, Scriptural, and rational reasons why sola scriptura cannot be the foundation Our Lord intended for his church. You can find it here:
    Lecture 1–https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Hwm_EQ_-dZJ7AnjZ8UVMFkFUk4dWRdjTdBhsO9tEyP0/edit?authkey=CK3Jq4cI

    Lecture 2–https://docs.google.com/document/d/19YUOSdhD9DHnseWQmDCZnJ_wdemlQl98ZefyllrhPL4/edit?authkey=CMCb86sL

    It’s truly pointless to debate what individual scriptures mean, when the foundational issue is not interpretation, but AUTHORITY. Until you can establish why Martin Luther and the other Protestant reformers had the authority from God to take the canon that had been accepted by Christendom for more than a thousand years at that point, and arbitrarily decide which books THEY believed were inspired, then arguing the interpretation of Scripture is putting the cart before the horse. As I said, there were more than 150 manuscripts floating around prior to the establishment of the New Testament canon, that were used by the Christian churches, with many of the most popular ones being rejected by the Church and many of the controversial ones being accepted, when the Church formally established the canon. Why doesn’t every Christian have the right, as Luther et al did, to go through those manuscripts and decide for himself which books are inspired and which are not? After all, Luther took the limited right of interpretation under Catholicism and expanded it to make “every man his own Pope.” The resulting theological chaos unleashed by sola scriptura is exactly why Luther and the other reformers ultimately denied other Christians the right of private intepretation they’d claimed in the beginning. As Luther said, “He who does not accept my interpretation of the Gospel cannot be saved.” Even he understood, in the end, that you can’t have a unified Christian church (that Our Lord prayed fervently for just prior to his death) without a more reliable authority than the individual’s personal interpretation of Scripture.November 12, 2012 – 1:24 pmReplyCancel

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