September 16, 2018 -Faith is Works is Faith

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

Readings / Lecturas


Preached at Immaculate Heart of Mary, Sedro-Woolley (5:00pm); St. Charles, Burlington (7:00pm, 7:45am); and Immaculate Conception, Mount Vernon (11:00am, 1:00pm)

This homily is related to another one of mine about salvation and justification.

NB: There is a rejected first-draft English version between the official English and Spanish versions of the homily.



Catholic apologists drool when this second reading comes up in the Sunday lectionary. St. James declares, “So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” We just want to stand up and yell, “Take that, Protestants!”

See, the core theological assertion of Martin Luther, the instigator of the Protestant Revolution, was that salvation comes through faith alone. Luther, according to his own account, had lived the life of a model monk, and yet he never felt good enough for God; he never felt fully forgiven or worthy of salvation. And then he began to reflect on what St. Paul says about faith in the Letter to the Romans, and Luther became convinced that faith was the only thing necessary for salvation. That is, once a person believes in Jesus Christ and accepts the atonement of the Cross, that person is saved. Salvation comes through faith alone.

Well, we Catholics would actually agree with Martin Luther for the most part. We would agree that faith is primary, it is first, and that nothing else in the Christian life matters without faith. If a person does not believe in Jesus Christ, their good works cannot win them salvation. Works without faith are meaningless.

But Luther took this idea too far, claiming that even works with faith are meaningless. Which is why this passage from St. James is so important for us Catholics: it shows clearly, in plain language, right there in the New Testament, that Luther was wrong. Faith without works is dead.


The fact that Luther made such a serious mistake should serve as a warning for us.

First, it should warn us against generalizing our personal experiences. Yes, Luther struggled to feel forgiven and worthy of salvation. Yes, Luther finally felt set free and loved by God when he started to believe that faith was all that is necessary for salvation. And yes, these were legitimate religious experiences which did provide a necessary correction to the overly moralistic and works-based Catholicism of his day. But Luther took things too far when he claimed that his personal experience and personal understanding should be true for all of Christianity, and that his experience was more valid and more true than the entire theological tradition of the Church.

I hear this attitude from Catholics all the time. “Well, Father, I just don’t see it that way.” or “Actually, Father, the God I believe in would never say something like that.” This attitude is the foundation of Cafeteria Catholicism, that type of Catholicism where we just pick and choose the parts that we like and ignore the rest. How prideful does one have to be to put oneself and one’s own opinions above the entirety of Christian history? Such an attitude is not Catholic, it is Protestant, and it rips the Body of Christ apart at the seams.

Second, Luther’s mistake should warn us against a selective reading of Scripture. When Luther came to believe that faith alone was necessary for salvation, he then judged Scripture according to that standard, accepting what upheld his opinion and rejecting the rest. He knew about this passage from St. James, which is why he said that “St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.”[1] Luther decided for himself what the message of the Gospel was, rather than allowing the Gospel to speak for itself.

We Catholics are guilty of this attitude, too. In previous generations, we paid attention only to the portions about sin and judgement, but in modern times we do the opposite. Today, it is incredibly common to hear people say that the Gospel is just about being nice and tolerant. Yes, there are certain Gospel passages that indicate this, but there are also so many more passages in the New Testament that talk about sin, judgement, living a moral life, baptism, discipleship, and, above all, salvation. When we simplify the Gospel down to values that we already hold, we do not allow the words of Scripture to surprise us, challenge us, and help us to grow closer to a God who defies one-sided categories.


Now, as much as I obviously side with the Catholics in the Reformation debates, we have allowed these debates to define our Christianity for five-hundred years. We have been yelling with Protestants about faith and works to no end, and it has done incredible damage to the Church. For the sake of the Body of Christ, we need to give up our desire to “win” and instead look for a way forward that both sides can support.

For me, this way forward is the realization that faith and works are the same thing.

One problem with this way forward is that we are tempted to treat faith as nothing more than intellectual assent, as nothing more than paying lip service to the fact that Jesus is our Savior. And certainly there are plenty of people who do simply pay lip service, who use the idea of salvation by faith alone to justify confessing Christianity while still sinning against humanity and the Lord himself. But I also know plenty of deeply faithful Protestants for whom faith takes on a far more profound meaning. For these brothers and sisters in the Lord, their profession of faith truly changes something in their life. Jesus absolutely becomes their center and foundation.

The same can be said of Catholics. There are certainly those of us who just check the boxes, as though these boxes will save us. “Went to Mass. Said a prayer. Gave some money. Wasn’t a jerk. Yep, that’s all I need for Heaven.” But these shallow works are no different that shallow faith. Instead, Catholicism really thrives when we live in relationship with the Lord, when we offer every work up to him, not as a box to be checked, but as a gift to be given.

To be honest with you, Protestants and Catholics who take their religion seriously look very similar, and this is what I mean when I say that faith and works are the same thing. When we, Catholic or Protestant, confess our faith in Jesus Christ, we are determining the unmovable center of our lives and are plotting a permanent course for our future. When we say that Jesus is the reason for our existence, we become a different person. But, as flawed human beings, our conversion fades over time, so we must constantly renew it. At every moment. With every action. With every work. In other words, every work we undertake is an act of faith, and every act of faith is expressed in some way, through a prayer, through a choice, or through an act of service.

We go through life faced with millions of choices, and every single choice is an opportunity to choose Jesus or to reject him. Faith and works are the same thing, because they are both responding to that choice. When we choose Jesus, we perform a work, and in that work, we once again profess our faith that Jesus is Lord and that we will follow him in all that we do.

The polemics of the past fade away when all Christians, be they Catholics, Protestants, or non-denominationals, choose to be disciples of the Lord at every moment of every day. If we just do that, we will all be saved.



Rejected English First Draft

Faith is one of the most complicated and debated words in the entire New Testament, sparking innumerable controversies amongst Christians which still remain unresolved. And this word sits at the very center of our reading from St. James today.

First, what are the different possible interpretations of the word “faith”? My Greek Lexicon lists quite a few. For the verb πιστεύω (“to have faith”) the two major interpretations are: “to consider something to be true and therefore worthy of one’s trust” and “to entrust oneself to an entity in complete confidence.” In the first interpretation, one gives only the assent of the mind; in the second interpretation, one gives one’s entire self. “I believe” as opposed to “I entrust.”

The noun form, πίστις, is similar. The three major interpretations here are:

  1. “that which evokes trust and faith” – this one does not make as much sense in English, where we usually use words like “fidelity” or “faithfulness” to describe a personal characteristic related to faith.
  2. “state of believing on the basis of the reliability of the one trusted,” – this is what we most often mean when we use the word “faith” in English, and
  3. “that which is believed” – this is like when we say “the Catholic faith” to mean the sum of all the doctrines of the Church.

It is the second meaning, “state of believing on the basis of the reliability of the one trusted” that becomes especially problematic. Does “believing” here imply only intellectual assent or does it imply something more? Does it mean only giving one’s mind, or does it mean giving one’s life?


This is the question that caused things to break apart in Christianity, because most Protestant churches favor the “intellectual assent” interpretation, while the Catholic Church believes that faith has to encompass more.

Let’s begin with Martin Luther, the first Protestant Reformer. Luther constantly struggled with feel unworthy of and unforgiven by God. To use his own words, “But I, blameless monk that I was, felt that before God I was a sinner with an extremely troubled conscience. I couldn’t be sure that God was appeased by my satisfaction.”[1] Luther only felt free when, in 1519, he determined that salvation was not our work that we undertake in spite of God’s judgement, but that salvation is God’s work in us. Luther then took this realization further and claimed that, because salvation was exclusively God’s work, our only role was to accept or reject salvation. Once salvation was accepted, one was saved.

We can see how this laid the foundation for the Protestant tendency to define faith as intellectual assent. We have one choice, and that is to accept salvation in Jesus Christ. After we have done so, our actions may be a response to that salvation, but ultimately have no effect on it.

Unfortunately, Luther took personal experience too far. He judged the entire New Testament according to his standard, a practice referred to as the canon without the canon; whatever agreed with his principle of salvation by faith alone was to be highlighted and emphasized, while whatever disagreed with his principle, including this section of the Letter of St. James, must be marginalized, ignored, or reinterpreted.


Our Church, the Catholic Church, actually agrees with Luther to an extent. The Council of Trent agreed that salvation is the work of God, that salvation must be accepted in faith, and that faith always comes first in the Christian life. But we also refused to abandon the principles articulated in the Letter of St. James. No, we cannot save ourselves through our works. No, our works do not matter apparent from our faith in Jesus Christ. But while faith is absolutely foundational, it must be more than intellectual assent; faith must be lived out in every action of our lives.

Allow me to provide an example: Sunday Mass. For a classical Protestant, worship is good. Every believer redeemed by Christ should want to praise God in communion with the Christian community. And every believer who has accepted salvation should have a longing to learn more about Jesus in preaching and in teaching. But if one has already accepted salvation, going to worship on Sunday is not strictly necessary. It can be skipped for a camping trip or a family vacation or just for being tired, because it ultimately does not impact salvation. Only one’s continued acceptance of Jesus’ salvation in one’s life matters.

For Catholics, however, our faith is not a one-time choice. We view faith as a virtue, as a habit of good behavior built up over time and lived out in every moment. For us, faith means giving ourselves over to God, completely and fully, in every moment. For us, it is this complete abandonment to God that brings about salvation. So for Catholics, Sunday Mass is not an optional activity. We not only prove our faith when we make the sacrifice to go to Mass on Sunday, but the act of going to Mass itself improves our faith and our unity with God. We do not go to Mass because we are trying to appease an unmerciful judge, but because our faith is expressed and increased by the sacrifices we make for it. Every time we choose to go to Mass, every time we choose to make the moral choice, every time we choose to take the harder path, we reconfirm our commitment to God and our desire for salvation.

These works are not the source of our salvation: that source is Jesus Christ and our unity with him in faith through baptism. But these works are part of our salvation, because they are part of our faith. We live lives of faith whenever we make sacrifices for God or strive to do his will in the world.




Los apologistas católicos babean cuando esta segunda lectura aparece en el leccionario dominical. Santiago declara, “Así pasa con la fe; si no se traduce en obras, está completamente muerta.” Sólo queremos levantarnos y gritar, “¡Tomen eso, protestantes!”

Mira, la afirmación teológica central de Martín Lutero, el instigador de la revolución protestante, fue que la salvación viene a través de la fe sola. Lutero, según su propia cuenta, había vivido la vida de un monje modelo, y sin embargo nunca se sintió lo suficientemente bueno para Dios; nunca se sintió completamente perdonado o digno de salvación. Y entonces él comenzó a reflexionar sobre lo que San Pablo dice acerca de la fe en la carta a los romanos, y Lutero se convenció de que la fe era lo único necesario para la salvación. Esto es, en el momento en que una persona cree en Jesucristo y acepte la expiación de la Cruz, esa persona es salvada. La salvación viene a través de la fe sola.

Bueno, nosotros los católicos estaríamos realmente de acuerdo con Martin Luther en su mayor parte. Estaríamos de acuerdo en que la fe es primaria y que nada más en la vida cristiana importa sin fe. Si una persona no cree en Jesucristo, sus buenas obras no pueden ganarles la salvación. Las obras sin fe no tienen sentido.

Pero Lutero llevó esta idea demasiado lejos, alegando que incluso las obras con fe no tienen sentido. Es por eso que este pasaje de Santiago es tan importante para nosotros los católicos: muestra claramente, en lenguaje sencillo, allí en el nuevo testamento, que Lutero estaba equivocado. La fe sin obras está muerta.


El hecho de que Lutero cometió un error tan grave debe servir como una advertencia para nosotros.

En primer lugar, nos debe advertir contra la generalización de nuestras experiencias personales. Sí, Lutero luchó por sentirse perdonado y digno de salvación. Sí, Lutero finalmente se sintió liberado y amado por Dios cuando empezó a creer que la fe era todo lo que era necesario para la salvación. Y sí, estas fueron experiencias religiosas legítimas que proporcionaron una corrección necesaria al catolicismo excesivamente moralista y basado en las obras de su época. Pero Lutero se llevó las cosas demasiado lejos cuando afirmó que su experiencia personal y su comprensión personal debían ser ciertas para todo el cristianismo, y que su experiencia era más válida y más verdadera que toda la tradición teológica de la Iglesia.

Oigo esta actitud de los católicos todo el tiempo. “Bueno, Padre, yo simplemente no lo veo de esa manera.” o “En realidad, Padre, el Dios en que yo creo nunca diría algo así.” Esta actitud es el fundamento del Catolicismo de la Cafetería, ese tipo de catolicismo donde solo escogemos y elegimos las partes que nos gustan e ignoramos el resto. ¿Cuán orgulloso tiene que ser para poner uno mismo y sus propias opiniones sobre la totalidad de la historia cristiana? Tal actitud no es católica, es protestante, y rasga el cuerpo de Cristo aparte en las costuras.

Segundo, el error de Lutero debe advertirnos contra una lectura selectiva de las escrituras. Cuando Lutero llegó a creer que la fe sola era necesaria para la salvación, entonces juzgó las escrituras según esa norma, aceptando lo que sostenía su opinión y rechazando el resto. Él sabía acerca de este pasaje de Santiago, por lo que dijo que “La epístola de Santiago es realmente una epístola de paja, comparada con estas otras, porque no tiene nada de la naturaleza del evangelio al respecto”.  Lutero decidió por sí mismo cuál era el mensaje del Evangelio, en lugar de permitir que el Evangelio hablara por sí mismo.

Nosotros, los católicos, también somos culpables de esta actitud. En generaciones anteriores, sólo prestamos atención a las porciones sobre el pecado y el juicio, pero en los tiempos modernos hacemos lo contrario. Hoy en día, es increíblemente común oír a la gente decir que el Evangelio es sólo acerca de ser agradable y tolerante. Sí, hay ciertos pasajes del evangelio que indican esto, pero también hay muchos más pasajes en el nuevo testamento que hablan sobre el pecado, el juicio, vivir una vida moral, el bautismo, el discipulado y, sobre todo, la salvación. Cuando simplificamos el Evangelio a valores que ya tenemos, no permitimos que las palabras de las escrituras nos sorprendan, nos desafíen, y nos ayuden a acercarnos a un Dios que desafía las categorías de un solo lado.


Entonces, por mucho que yo obviamente esté de parte con los católicos en los debates de reforma, hemos permitido que estos debates definan nuestro cristianismo durante quinientos años. Hemos estado gritando con los protestantes acerca de la fe y las obras sin fin, y ha hecho un daño increíble a la Iglesia. Por el bien del cuerpo de Cristo, necesitamos renunciar a nuestro deseo de “ganar” y en su lugar buscar una manera de avanzar que ambas partes puedan apoyar.

Para mí, esta manera de avanzar es la realización de que la fe y las obras son la misma cosa.

Un problema con esta manera de avanzar es que estamos tentados a tratar la fe como nada más que asentimiento intelectual, como nada más que prestar servicio de labios al hecho de que Jesús es nuestro Salvador. Y ciertamente hay un montón de gente que simplemente paga el servicio de labios, que utilizan la idea de la salvación sólo por la fe para justificar la confesión del cristianismo, mientras que aún pecan contra la humanidad y el Señor mismo. Pero también conozco a muchos protestantes profundamente fieles para los que la fe adquiere un significado mucho más profundo. Para estos hermanos y hermanas en el Señor, su profesión de fe realmente cambia algo en su vida. Jesús se convierte absolutamente en su centro y fundación.

Lo mismo puede decirse de los católicos. Ciertamente, aquellos de nosotros que acabamos de marcar la casilla, como si estas castillas nos salven. “Fue a Misa. Dijo una oración. Dio algo de dinero. No fue un idiota. Sí, eso es todo lo que necesito para el cielo.” Pero estas obras superficiales no son diferentes a la fe superficial. En cambio, el catolicismo realmente prospera cuando vivimos en relación con el Señor, cuando le ofrecemos cada obra a él, no como una casilla para ser marcado, sino como un regalo que debe ser dado.

Para ser honesto con usted, los protestantes y los católicos que toman su religión seriamente se ven muy similares, y esto es lo que quiero decir cuando digo que la fe y las obras son la misma cosa. Cuando nosotros, católicos o protestantes, confesamos nuestra fe en Jesucristo, estamos determinando el centro inamovible de nuestras vidas y estamos trazando un curso permanente para nuestro futuro. Cuando decimos que Jesús es la razón de nuestra existencia, nos convertimos en una persona diferente. Pero, como seres humanos defectuosos, nuestra conversión se desvanece con el tiempo, así que debemos renovarla constantemente. En cada momento. Con cada acción. Con cada obra. En otras palabras, cada obra que emprendemos es un acto de fe, y cada acto de fe se expresa de alguna manera, a través de una oración, a través de una elección, o a través de un acto de servicio.

Pasamos por la vida frente a millones de opciones, y cada elección única es una oportunidad para elegir a Jesús o para rechazarlo. La fe y las obras son lo mismo, porque ambos responden a esa elección. Cuando elegimos a Jesús, realizamos una obra, y en ese trabajo, una vez más profesamos nuestra fe en que Jesús es Señor y que lo seguiremos en todo lo que hacemos.

Las polémicas del pasado se desvanecen cuando todos los cristianos, ya sean católicos, protestantes, o no confesionales, eligen ser discípulos del Señor en cada momento de cada día. Si hacemos eso, seremos salvados.


End Notes

Featured image found here.

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