St. James and St. Paul on "Works of the Law"

In any discussion with Protestants about how we are saved, the Catholic who insists on the reality of merit and the efficacy of good works done in grace will inevitably be countered by biblical passages that seem to indicate that our salvation is not contingent upon anything we do. What are the relevant biblical passages in this debate, and what is their true meaning? In James 2:24, St. James clearly says, “Man is justified by works and not by faith alone" (the only time the phrase "faith alone" appears in the Bible). For a Catholic, this could not be more clear. Yet Protestants will typically counter by turning to St. Paul's discussion of justification in Romans, specifically Romans 3:28, where St. Paul says precisely the opposite of St. James: "We hold that man is justified by faith apart from works of law." What is the solution here?

Soteriology is the branch of theology which deals with our salvation and how it is affected by the grace of Christ. One of the central disagreements between Catholics and Protestants centers on this question of how we are saved. In any discussion with Protestants about how we are saved, the Catholic who insists on the reality of merit and the efficacy of good works done in grace will inevitably be countered by biblical passages that seem to indicate that our salvation is not contingent upon anything we do. What are the relevant biblical passages in this debate, and what is their true meaning? 

A Question of Harmony

The issue is more than just polemical, as the two major New Testament questions on the issue seem to be at variance. The Catholic will insist that one cannot simply ignore the words of St. James while insisting on a literal interpretation of St. Paul; a Protestant arguing for sola fide would of course make the same argument but in reverse. Obviously, a responsible exegesis of these passages cannot simply insist on one while ignoring the other; both passages are true in some sense, and it is the job of the exegete to discover how they harmonize.

In looking at the issue of justification, we thus run the risk of muddying the waters of discussion if we are unable to clear up what, on the surface, appears to be a confusing contradiction. As with most other troublesome issues that come up when reading the Scriptures, the problem here is one of context. In this case, the issue is resolved by looking at what context Paul and James are using the word "works."

"Works of the Law" in Romans

In Romans 3, what is St. Paul referring to when he says that Abraham was not saved by "works of law?" What "works of law" is he referencing? Reading a little further ahead throughout most of chapter 4, it is made clear that the works Paul is referring to are the ceremonial acts of the Old Testament: the washings, sacrifices, and feasts, but especially circumcision: 

"What does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness."  Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation.  However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:  "Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.  Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD will never count against him."

Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham's faith was credited to him as righteousness.  Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them.  And he is also the father of the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith" (Rom. 4:3-13).


Notice that "works of the law" are identified primarily with circumcision. In the context of Romans, St. Paul is telling the Christians of Rome that the ceremonial precepts of the Jewish law are not efficacious to salvation - that circumcision will not add anything to those who are in Christ, as he states in Galatians 5:6, "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love."

The phrase "works of law" occurs 74 a total of times in the writings of Paul. It is a technical phrase, erga nomou, which is commonly taken to refer to the ceremonial precepts of the Law, for example, circumcision (as we have seen in the prior quote), but also the ceremonial washings, dietary precepts, etc. It does not, however, refer to the moral imperatives to do good in general, as summarized in the Ten Commandments. Erga nomou is essentially the Levitical law, not the moral law.

The context of Romans clearly indicates that St. Paul is warning the Roman believers that the Judaizing "works of law" are incapable of saving them; he is certainly not making some kind of Lutheran assumption that all of our deeds are valueless and that mankind can in no way cooperate with God's saving grace in a meaningful way, much less that we need not keep the Ten Commandments, which even Jesus Christ Himself commanded us to obey (cf. Mark 10:19).

Works in the Epistle of St. James

What then is the context of James 2:24, "For you see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone"? To what "works" is St. James referring to? In the first place, though the same Greek root word is used for the English "work" (ergon), the familiar Pauline formula "works of law" is absent, suggesting that James is probably not using this word in the same manner. So what "works" is James referring to here? James himself tells us:

"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. But someone will say, "You have faith, and I have works." Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe; and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness." And he was called the friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also" (James 2:14-26).


Look at the examples James cites of "works": clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, the obedience of Abraham, the faithfulness of Rahab (note that Rahab's faith is a work: compare James 2:25 with Heb. 11:31). These works that James cites as salvific are the proverbial "good works" so derided by classical Protestantism. He does not cite circumcision and ceremonial laws as examples of works, as did St. Paul; rather, he is emphasizing adherence to the moral law.

St. James' point here is to stress that simple, intellectual adherence to the truths of the Faith is not sufficient for justification; good deeds must follow as well, or else one's faith is in vain. This is the traditional Catholic interpretation of these texts: that while the kind of ceremonial Jewish precepts written against by St. Paul are certainly not salvific or necessary for our salvation, it is absolutely essential to persist in charity and to cooperate with God's grace by doing "good works"; this is, after all, the meaning of our Lord's parable of the talent. Only those who put their master's money (grace) to "work" and reaped a profit were able to enter into their master's happiness. The servant who did nothing was cast out.

Church's Traditional Teaching on Jewish Ceremonial Law

The Catholic need never play St. Paul off against St. James. Both Apostles are correct in their statements, of course. The Church has always reiterated the fact that the ceremonies of the Jewish law are powerless to convey salvation; indeed, for those enlightened by Christian doctrine and educated in the truth, it actually becomes sinful to revert back to the practice of the external forms of Judaism, as taught by the Council of Florence and Pope Eugene IV:


"[The Church] firmly believes, professes, and teaches that the matter pertaining to the law of the Old Testament, of the Mosaic law, which are divided into ceremonies, sacred rites, sacrifices, and sacraments, because they were established to signify something in the future, although they were suited to the divine worship at that time, after our Lord's coming had been signified by them, ceased, and the sacraments of the New Testament began; and that whoever, even after the passion, placed hope in these matters of the law and submitted himself to them as necessary for salvation, as if faith in Christ could not save without them, sinned mortally. Yet it does not deny that after the passion of Christ up to the promulgation of the Gospel they could have been observed until they were believed to be in no way necessary for salvation; but after the promulgation of the Gospel it asserts that they cannot be observed without the loss of eternal salvation.  All, therefore, who after that time observe circumcision and the Sabbath and the other requirements of the law, it declares alien to the Christian faith and not in the least fit to participate in eternal salvation, unless someday they recover from these errors" (Pope Eugene IV, Papal Bull Cantate Domino).


St. Thomas Aquinas affirms this as well:

"All ceremonies are professions of faith, in which the interior worship of God consists. Now man can make profession of his inward faith, by deeds as well as by words: and in either profession, if he make a false declaration, he sins mortally. Now, though our faith in Christ is the same as that of the fathers of old; yet, since they came before Christ, whereas we come after Him, the same faith is expressed in different words, by us and by them. For by them was it said: "Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son," where the verbs are in the future tense: whereas we express the same by means of verbs in the past tense, and say that she "conceived and bore." In like manner the ceremonies of the Old Law betokened Christ as having yet to be born and to suffer: whereas our sacraments signify Him as already born and having suffered. Consequently, just as it would be a mortal sin now for anyone, in making a profession of faith, to say that Christ is yet to be born, which the fathers of old said devoutly and truthfully; so too it would be a mortal sin now to observe those ceremonies which the fathers of old fulfilled with devotion and fidelity
" (STh, I-II, Q. 103, Art. 4).


Furthermore, the Church unhesitatingly affirms the meaning of St. James in asserting that good deeds ("faith working through love") are essential for our salvation, as taught by the Council of Trent and Vatican II:


"Having, therefore, been thus justified and made the friends and domestics of God, advancing from virtue to virtue, they are renewed, as the Apostle says, day by day, that is, mortifying the members of their flesh, and presenting them as instruments of justice unto sanctification, they, through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith cooperating with good works, increase in that justice received through the grace of Christ and are further justified, as it is written: "He that is just, let him be justified still" and, "Be not afraid to be justified even to death;" and again, "Do you see that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only?" This increase Holy Church asks for when she prays, "Give unto us, O Lord, an increase of faith, hope and charity" (Council of Trent, Session VI, Chapter X).


From Vatican II:

"He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only in a "bodily" manner and not "in his heart"(Lumen Gentium 14).

That's the wonderful thing about being Catholic: not having to play Bible verses off against one another to fit certain theological presuppositions, like many Protestants who quote Romans 3:28 verbatim but would like to ignore James 2:24, or who stress a symbolic application of Christ's Hoc est enim corpus meum while conveniently ignoring the Bread of Life discourse in John 6, or who decry the sacrament of confession as clericalism and superstition whilst having no satisfactory answers for Christ's commission to forgive or retain sins in John 20. As usually happens, this "works of the law" debate is really an issue of Protestants reading their own theology into the words of the Scriptures rather than taking Scripture at its word.