Today’s readings give us a look at an age-old argument over the concept of justification by faith alone. Not only does James have to deal with it in his community, but during the protestant reformation, this concept was a major stumbling block which has only recently been healed – somewhat. As tends to be the case with arguments like this, the quibble is largely over semantics. I think we agree with the basic concept.
The quibble was that some people felt that they could earn their salvation by doing enough works. This degenerated particularly in the years prior to the reformation to a feeling that one could literally buy salvation by giving money to the Church. The corruption that was bred in that atmosphere is largely what caused the rift in the Church.
The truth is this: nobody can ever work hard enough to earn his or her salvation. There is no way we can ever even begin to atone for the enormity of our many sins, or get to heaven by our paltry human efforts. Only God can give us salvation, and it is just that: a gift. Completely undeserved, totally unearned; it is only by the will of God that we are saved. But we have to be receptive to the gift, and the way that we get there is by faith. People of faith have a relationship with God and the Church which makes it possible for them to receive the gift that God wants to give them.
But there is also a certain amount of truth that says that faith spurs us on to action. Indeed, any kind of so-called faith that allows a person to sit idle and not respond to the needs of others is a fraud. A faith that says I don’t have to gather with others to worship because I can do that just as well on my own is no faith at all. Faith spurs us on to action in charity and worship, because that is what faith does. So, as Saint James well says today, faith without works is useless.
Jesus was pretty clear on that point, and we see it in today’s Gospel: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Denial, taking up the cross, following after Jesus – which really means doing what Jesus did, all of these are works that a person does because he or she has been moved by faith.
We need both faith and works, but only those works that are genuinely spawned by our lively faith. When we have embraced both aspects of salvation, we will be very near to the kingdom of God!