"And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing" 1 Corinthians 13:2
Sola Fide, also historically known as the doctrine of justification by faith alone, is a theological belief introduced by Martin Luther that distinguishes most but not all Protestant denominations from Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. Sola Fide asserts that God's pardon for sinners is granted and received by faith and by faith alone, and is independent of any and all "works." Mankind is fallen and sinful; incapable of saving itself from the curse of God's wrath, but God, through the life, death, and resurrection of His Son, grants these sinners justification. This justification is received solely by faith, and it is a gift freely given by God based on nothing but Christ's merit.
Christ's righteousness, according to the doctrine of Sola Fide, is imputed by God to the believing sinner, so that the divine pardon of the sinner is not based upon anything personal to the believer. It is all based in Jesus Christ and His righteousness, which is received through faith alone, that gift from God, and it is through this faith that good works are carried out. Faith, and the works flowing whence, are seen as being impossible to separate, such as separating the light and the heat of a fire. The two flow together. Good works can not come if Faith is not already present. (“An Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” Luther’s German Bible of 1522 by Martin Luther pp.124-125).
Martin Luther, in his 'Smalcald Articles' of Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, states this about Sola Fide:
"The first and chief article is this: Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 3:24–25). He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6). All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works and merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23–25). This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us. [...] Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls (Mark 13:31)." (289, Part Two, Article 1)
One common objection to the Catholic faith is the charge that Catholics believe that their works, and not their faith, are what justify them and save them. This is an incorrect understanding and does not reflect what the Church actually teaches. While we do believe that we can participate in the infinite merit of Christ with our actions, and thus our works/actions accompany our faith by the grace of God, we do not believe that we can "earn" our way into Heaven, nor earn our way to the initial seed of righteousness, nor the forgiveness of our sins. Our actions towards the Good will have merit only if they are united to the infinite merit of Christ's work, namely His sacrifice on the Cross. Our works, in and of themselves, do not constitute means sufficient to overcome our sins.
This misconception of the Catholic position stems from our rejection of certain formulas of Sola Fide, as well as the differences between Catholic and Protestant views of justification and sanctification. Protestants often hear the slogan "Faith and Works" in response to their doctrine of 'Faith Alone' by defensive Catholics. They then perceive that the Church over-emphasizes the works of men in the spiritual life and that it supports the heresy of Pelagianism. This is an understandable assumption based upon responses from many Catholics acting in good faith trying to defend the Church, however, it is an inaccurate understanding of the Catholic teaching, seeing how it was the Church which condemned Pelagius.
Justification, as defined by the Council of Trent (1545-1564), is “not only a remission of sins but also the sanctification and renewal of the inner man” (Decree of Justification); whereas the Protestant view would be: an event that occurs at the beginning of the Christian life, when we are forgiven, and righteousness is imputed by God because of the faith fused into the Man by Him, as faith is seen as God's work within the sinner (“An Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans", Luther).
In order to understand the significance of justification and sanctification, we must first understand sin. Sin is what demands justification and sanctification in the first place. So what is sin? Sin, as we see going back to original sin, through which we lost the Divine life, is when we choose finite "goods" in opposition to Infinite Good; disorder is unleashed upon our body and our soul, as God said to Adam of the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, “...on the day that you eat of it, you will die” (Genesis 2:17). This is a deliberate act of the will. St. James reveals the difference between faith and the movement of the will toward God: "You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder." (James 2:19). If the demons profess God in His divinity, what do they not do? They clearly believe, yet they turn their wills away, acting contrary to the Will of God. When we sin, we turn from God, the Creator, and misunderstand our end, our purpose, as being in and towards temporal goods. In doing so we profess, "My end is in these created things and not in God" and thus we willfully reject who God is.
After we turn our lives to God and are initially justified—i.e., when we first come into relationship with Jesus Christ—which is a completely unwarranted divine gift (John 15:16; CCC 1989-92), it is then neither by our faith alone nor by our works alone that we receive salvation thereafter. Through Him, however, we have a path to restoration. Faith, by grace, and through love, allows us to perform works which aid in our growth in righteousness and sanctification through the grace of justification (state of grace). So we see here a bridge between Catholics and Protestants over a fissure that was crafted by bad catechesis. There are still differences but it can not be completely and efficiently simplified down to slogan v. slogan, "faith alone" v. "faith and works". It is not that simple. That simplification continues to cause rifts between Christians and solidifies misconceptions left by the Reformation when left unexplained. If the Catholic teaching were to be simplified all the way down to a simple slogan in like to Sola Fide, it would most likely be "Gratia Prima“ (“Grace First”) or perhaps "Faith and Love, through Grace" but explanation is still needed. Pope Benedict XVI's had this to say on Martin Luther's teachings of Sola Fide:
“Luther’s phrase ‘faith alone’ is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love. Faith is looking at Christ, entrusting oneself to Christ, being united to Christ, conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence to believe is to conform to Christ and to enter into his love. So it is that in the Letter to the Galatians in which he primarily developed his teaching on justification St. Paul speaks of faith that works through love” (General Audience, Nov. 19, 2008).65
Faith and works do not justify us in and of themselves, our growth in our faith, and our works through love by that faith, merely aid in our growth of righteousness by our cooperation with the Spirit. Our justification is entirely dependent upon our response to the grace that God bestows on us and His Will, whether we cooperate with the grace or act in contrary. Our salvation is determined by if we die with the grace of justification (state of sanctifying grace).
Canon 9 from the Council of Trent’s Decree on Justification states:
“If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, so that he understands that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema.”
The Catholic teaching is that God calls us to grow in righteousness throughout our life, rather than being infused with all righteousness that covers all future sin in one instant. By cooperating with the graces He offers, He bestows more grace and righteousness upon us, in which we are then justified by being in this state of grace. We can lose the grace of justification by being in a state of mortal sin, which is why we have the sacrament of Reconciliation. Through this sacrament the merits of the Cross, by the authority given the Apostles by Christ, can be applied to us and bring us back into a state of justification - as it were at our baptism - in the eyes of the Lord by reconciling us with Him.
In short, for Protestants, justification is a single instant of being declared righteous by their faith, where God looks at the person, in spite of how they actually are, and chooses to see the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Sins aren't forgiven as much as they are merely covered up or ignored and pushed to the background in the light of Christ by the view of Sola Fide adherents. For Catholics, on the other hand, justification and sanctification is an active process throughout life by which the person is made righteous by cooperation with His Will and grace. There is always potential for more righteousness within our lives.
A common Catholic gut reaction to discourse with our Protestant brothers and sisters about Sola Fide is to quote James 2:24-26:
"You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead."
The Council of Trent connects this passage by St. James to the continuous growth a believer is called to throughout their life; the growth in sanctification by cooperation. The righteousness bestowed at baptism is a great seed called to grow and blossom. God isn't done with us after our submersion in the water and the Spirit.
So, St. James isn't saying you need to do good works in order to come to God and be forgiven, and neither is the Catholic Church. When we go to the confessional, we don't first try to do good works that counter our sins in a 1:1 fashion in order to be worthy of absolution. We must be contrite in heart, yes, but the absolution given by the priest through Christ is not offered on account of any of our own merit. We go to the confessional because we know that God's forgiveness is there for us and is offered solely through the merit of Jesus Christ's Passion on the Cross. We do in fact undergo penance after the fact and throughout our lives, but that is not in order to receive forgiveness. It is to grow in righteousness, to strengthen and discipline our wills, and to tend to that seed bestowed at our baptism through the graces we've been given. We enact those penances through the grace and the growth in faith we receive through the sacrament of Reconciliation and the Eucharist. Reception of graces is prime opportunity to grow towards God by our lives and align our wills in Him. Not because our finite acts have merit in themselves, but because through good actions, by grace and the gift of faith, our wills more closely reflect the Divine Will which is our supernatural end.
God calls us to do actions out of love for Him and love for others, and, for lack of any elegant phrasing, simply because He says to do so. For instance, in baptism it is not the act of submersion alone which saves, but God's grace working through our actions and the material. Again, we cooperate with God's Will to be baptized, we receive His grace, and are made justified because we aligned our actions to His Will. It is not the water itself which saves (1 Peter 3:21), but being submerged in the Spirit by our cooperation with the Will and grace of God. Though many Protestants do not hold to this belief around baptism, Luther did believe that it was at our baptism where justification took place, and in fact supported infant baptism (Martin Luther, The Large Catechism, “Holy Baptism,” nos. 41–46, 83). Infants still receive grace because the Will of God is being carried out and actions are aligned to His Will. They are justified, and the seed of righteousness is bestowed on them in order for them to grow throughout their life, and they are in a state of sanctifying grace by this alignment.
Some Protestants believe that the grace bestowed by God is irresistible. To an extent, yes. We can't stop God from loving us and offering us Grace, but by our lives we can act contrary to Him in spite of this. Our mere existence is by the grace of God, for it is by God's love that we are held in existence. Our sin takes nothing from God, but it is an offense against His Being. So by being contrary to Him by our actions, we are then unjustified, for He is fully Just.
So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor 13: 13)
With this verse, in unison with the second verse of the same chapter, quoted at the beginning of this article, we see that faith, understood as synonymous with belief or allegiance, is possible to have on its own. But again, belief in and of itself is not sufficient to be saved.
”‘He that believes in the Son has everlasting life. Is it enough, then, to believe in the Son,’ someone will say, ‘in order to have everlasting life?’ By no means! Listen to Christ declare this himself when he says, ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord! Lord!” shall enter into the kingdom of heaven’; and the blasphemy against the Spirit is alone sufficient to cast him into hell. But why should I speak of a part of our teaching? For if a man believe rightly in the Father and in the Son and in the Holy Spirit, but does not live rightly, his faith will avail him nothing toward salvation” (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, 31:1 [circa A.D. 391]).”
So let us not forget that it is therefore faith through love, for love is the greatest of the theological virtues (1 Cor 13:13). Belief is not all that is necessary, for if demons believe and yet are eternally doomed, what does this belief merit them? Nothing but more spite for the Truth because their wills are contrary to the Good. It is this version of the "faith alone" formula which the Catholic Church rejects.
“Let us therefore join with those to whom grace is given by God. Let us clothe ourselves in concord, being humble and self-controlled, keeping ourselves far from all backbiting and slander, being justified by works and not by words [...] Why was our Father Abraham blessed? Was it not because of his deeds of justice and truth, wrought in faith? […] They all therefore were glorified and magnified, not through themselves or their own works or the righteous doing which they wrought, but through His will. And so we, having been called through His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves or through our own wisdom or understanding or piety or works which we wrought in holiness of heart, but through faith, whereby the Almighty God justified all men that have been from the beginning; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (St. Pope Clement I of Rome, Letter to the Corinthians 30:3, 31:2, 32:3-4, circa 90AD, emphasis added).
In short, God offers us goodness by offering union with Him. This goodness is the end for which we were created. If we place our end in anything else, we sin by turning away from God, who is Goodness Himself.
Though it is rejected, this view should be seen as understandable on part of Luther. It cannot be refuted that in his time there were a few Nominalists theologians who over emphasized the value of finite works relating to justification. The effectiveness of Divine grace was pushed to the background in their soteriology. Martin Luther was acquainted almost in particularity with the theology of these wayward Nominalists, which he rightly and justly found repulsive. Sadly, the “Summa” of St. Thomas Aquinas, among works of other good standing theologians were practically unknown to him (Catholic Encyclopedia 1907-1912 Justification p. 574). It should be known and repeated that the Catholic Church, in her official teaching, nor the majority of her theologians and thinkers ever agreed with, much less ratified, Nominalist views. Though it was not a prudent reaction against Nominalism, Luther’s own state of conscience and rejection of these misled theologians is what caused his formulation of Sola Fide.
Even though there are still differences between Catholic and Protestant Christians, let us not think it is an uncrossable chasm between us. There was a time in history where we had unity. Let us find charitable ways to connect and start from grounds which we share, namely the love of Our Lord Jesus Christ and His Passion on the Cross; and be ready to defend the Church against all misconceptions that have been spread either from malice or ignorance, by using clarity and accuracy, for the Church is neither Pelagian nor semi-Pelagian. Let us not confuse ourselves by overemphasizing our own actions, but only emphasizing what Christ can do through us when we turn ourselves to Him and cooperate by our faith through the grace of God.