Monday, March 17, 2008

Works may not Justify me, but perhaps I can Justify Works…

That catchy little title above hit me a little while ago and I just had to put some words to it! That in itself is rather funny. A phrase just popped in my mind – rather like the first phrase of the Hobbit that popped into the mind of Tolkien. Just out of the blue. So I’m giving all this up as the work of the Holy Spirit.

The whole topic I’m getting at in the title is the role that good works play in justification and salvation.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the controversy: "Anti-biblical" Catholics believe in “earning” their salvation through good works while Bible Christians say that salvation is a gift of God’s grace through faith alone. After all, St. Paul himself said that “we believe that we are justified by faith, apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28).

Well there are two obvious problems in that oft-used Bible passage. First off, the “works of law” refer to Jewish ritual laws and not to the works of love. Most importantly, St. Paul is talking about justification, NOT salvation.

Here’s the catch: salvation is like a coin with two sides. On one side is justification and on the other side is sanctification. At baptism we are both justified (we have a right relationship with God) and we are sanctified (made holy). Venial sin, while not taking away our justification, will damage our relationship with God, making us less holy, less saintly (i.e. our sanctification). This damage is healed or purified through good works, penance, and the sacraments.

So what’s important to remember is that we cannot “earn” justification through good works but we can purify our souls through good works. The end of all this is our salvation. Faith is to justification what works are to sanctification. Salvation in the broader sense thus comes from faith and works.

And if you don’t believe I’ve justified good works, maybe St. Paul can help us: “For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).

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