Protestants will often say that we are saved by faith alone, and that works have nothing to do with it. For, they will say, Paul tells us in Romans 3:28 “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” (For the record, Martin Luther added to the Bible here, the single word “alone.)
Let’s look at a little context here, and see what St. Paul is trying to say. Back up to the verse 19, Paul says that scripture is addressed to those who submit to it, but that God already knows that, even if we’re subject to scripture, we will not be able to follow it completely, that the consequences of knowing scripture is that we recognize our own sin. Later on, he asks if we are better off for knowing our own sin, for we’re still sinners. What Paul is saying overall is that knowledge of the law does nothing for us, that it’s God that gives us everything.
Catholics believe that our faith is strictly a gift of God as well. But what are we to do with our gifts? In John 6, Jesus does not say “Believe this”, but “do this in memory of Me.” In the parable of the talents, Matt 25:14-30, the third servant is punished for hiding his one talent and not distributing it. James 2:24 says “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (Some believe that Catholics believe that works are required to gain eternal life, but this is just not true…)
The simple answer is that we are saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8), and not by works. However, one has to remember that it is not enough to simply say “I believe”, and then do nothing. The bible says, “Not everyone who says Lord, Lord, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but rather he who does the will of my Father” (Matthew 7:21) Therefore, it must be assumed that works are indeed a necessary component of one’s faith. Too many people think that faith means giving God lip service only (“This generation honors me with their lips, while their heart is far from me”, Matthew 15:18), rather than actually doing good deeds for others. Another thing to remember is that the Jews of Paul’s day had many observances of the law that they had to keep, like not eating pork, ritual hand-washing, not eating meat with blood in it, etc. Paul may have been referring to these ritualistic works when he used the term “dead works” (Hebrews 9:14). In fact, in Romans 3:20, Paul says, “Because by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified before him. For by the law is the knowledge of sin”, a very clear distinction between works of the law and doing good deeds as a result of your faith.
Why is this important? In the story about Judgment Day, (Matthew 25:31-46) where Jesus separates the sheep from the goats, the only questions that Jesus asks the multitude concern works:
1. Did you feed the hungry?
2. Did you clothe the naked?
3. Did you give a drink to the thirsty, etc.
If they answered “no” to these works in Matthew 25, then Jesus said that they were going to hell. Nowhere does Jesus ask, “Did you accept me as your personal Lord and Savior?” So, you can infer from all of this that just confessing with your lips that Jesus is your personal Lord and Savior is NOT ENOUGH (deathbed conversions are a different standard), although it is a great start on your salvation journey!! The Book of James, in the Bible, says that your faith must be justified by works (James 2:24), which is much different from what Paul says in Galatians 2:16 about “We may be justified by the faith of Christ and not by the works of the law (In the former, James refers to faith being justified by works; In the latter, Paul says that we are justified by faith. So, once you have the faith and are justified by it, then your faith in turn must then be justified by works).”
Just as it’s not enough to tell your wife that you love her, and never do anything for her, it’s also true of your faith relationship with Jesus. Faith and performing good works for your fellow man go together like body and soul. You simply aren’t alive unless both body and soul are united (James 2:26). It’s the same for being alive in Christ – You need faith in Christ first, and then good works (not works of the law) to justify that faith. Neither one on its own will get you into Heaven (once again, deathbed conversions are a different standard), but both in tandem have a symbiotic relationship that results in eternal salvation and heaven. Remember, when all is said and done, we are nothing more that servants of God (Romans 6:22). Any servant has a LOT of work to do.