This Sunday we hear a passage from the New Testament which helped to launch the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. It is taken from the Letter of James, perhaps written by the man named James who is identified as the “brother” of Jesus twice in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 6:3 and 13:55). James was the head of the early Church in Jerusalem and as such found himself at the heart of a controversy about faith and works—the classic theological dispute between Catholics and Protestants from the time of Martin Luther.
We read James’ rhetorical question: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14). He continues on to observe that “faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead” and adds sharply a bit later, “Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless?” (James 2:17, 20).
James explains his statements on faith and works by way of several examples, one of which refers to the great biblical patriarch Abraham. James writes: “You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called ‘the friend of God’” (James 2:22-23). It is the same person of Abraham and the same words, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” which we find in Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans, with both James and Paul quoting the Book of Genesis (Rom 4:3; Gen 15:6).
The fact that both of these great apostles refer back to the same passage of Genesis helps to show that old descriptions of James and Paul implying that their understandings of faith and the justification that arises from it were opposed to each other are overwrought. While in previous times Protestant and Catholic theologians tended to emphasize respectively the roles of faith in Christ and the works which stem from faith in discussions of justification, today, without changing our positions, we see how those positions can be understood in a more complementary way, with faith being the ultimate springboard of our justification before God, and righteous works “follow justification and are its fruits.”
In 1999 representatives of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, a statement affirming the common understanding and belief of Catholics and Lutherans on justification, faith, works, and other key points that were disputed at the time of the Reformation. Since 1999, worldwide bodies which represent the Anglican, Methodist, and Reformed communions have signed the JDDJ, bringing to peaceful resolution a long-standing dispute over Christian teaching regarding our salvation in the Lord Jesus.
I recently heard a preacher say: “When we live by faith we have nothing to prove, nothing to show off, and nothing to lose” — in other words, we can live freely in the Lord. Such freedom in Christ naturally leads one to live in a Christ-like manner, acting as he would and showing the virtues that he showed in their perfection. Let us join with our Protestant brothers and sisters as we rejoice in the justification and salvation that is ours through faith in Christ, and as the JDDJ states: “We give thanks to the Lord for this decisive step forward on the way to overcoming the division of the church. We ask the Holy Spirit to lead us further toward that visible unity which is Christ’s will” (JDDJ 44).
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.