One passage Fundamentalists often cite as a proof against the Catholic view of salvation is Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, for it is the gift of God; Not of works, that no man may glory.” Though this passage can often stymie Catholics in conversation, it is nothing to be threatened by.
Even if we assume that Paul is speaking of “good works” when he says we have not been saved by works, this in no way conflicts with Catholic theology. Notice that the passage speaks of salvation in the past tense—“you are saved.” In Greek this is the perfect tense, which denotes a past, completed action.
We know from other passages in Paul that salvation also has present and future.aspects, so the kind of salvation Paul is discussing in Ephesians 2:8-9 is initial salvation. It is the kind which we received when we first came to God and were justified, not the kind of salvation we are now receiving (cf. 1 Peter 1:8-9, Phil. 2:12) or the kind we will one day receive (cf. Rom. 13:11, 1 Cor. 3:15, 5:5).
But the Catholic Church does not teach that we receive initial justification by good works. You do not have to do good works in order to come to God and be justified.
The Council of Trent states, in the Decree on Justification 8: “We are said to be justified by grace because nothing that precedes justification, whether faith or works, merits the grace of justification. For ‘if it is by grace, it is no longer by works;’ otherwise, as the apostle says, ‘grace is no more grace’ [Rom. 11:6].”
So even if Paul were using “works” to mean “good works” in Ephesians 2:8-9, there is no conflict with Catholic theology. However, Paul probably does not mean “good works.” Normally when he says “works,” he means “works of the Law.” His point is to stress that we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the Mosaic Law. Jews have no ability to boast in front of Gentiles of having a privileged relationship with God because they keep the Mosaic Law and its requirement of circumcision (cf. Romans 2:6-11, 17-21, 25-29, 3:21-22, 27-30).
These same elements—works, boasting, circumcision, and the Jewish/Gentile distinction—are present in Ephesians 2. Paul discusses how Jew and Gentiles are united together in the body of Christ and mentions works in connection with boasting, before turning to the whole subject of circumcision and membership in Christ:
11 For which cause be mindful that you, being heretofore Gentiles in the flesh, who are called uncircumcision by that which is called circumcision in the flesh, made by hands; 12 That you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the conversation of Israel, and strangers to the testament, having no hope of the promise, and without God in this world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus, you, who some time were afar off, are made nigh by the blood of Christ. 14 For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and breaking down the middle wall of partition, the enmities in his flesh: 15 Making void the law of commandments contained in decrees; that he might make the two in himself into one new man, making peace; 16 And might reconcile both to God in one body by the cross, killing the enmities in himself. 17 And coming, he preached peace to you that were afar off, and peace to them that were nigh. 18 For by him we have access both in one Spirit to the Father. 19 Now therefore you are no more strangers and foreigners; but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and the domestics of God.
Because of the common themes of both passages, Paul is using “works” and “boasting” here as he does in Romans, i.e., of Jews boasting before Gentiles of having privilege with God due to their keeping the Mosaic Law.
The apostle then turns our attention away from works of the Mosaic Law and toward the kind of works a Christian should be interested in—good works: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).
The sense of what Paul is saying is: God has raised up both of us—Jews and Gentiles—to sit in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, for we received initial salvation as a gift. We obtained it by faith in Christ (which itself is a gift from God), not by works of obedience to the Mosaic Law. So neither Jew or Gentile can boast over the other of having privilege with God. Ephesians 2:6-10 might then be paraphrased as, “Instead, we Christians are the result of God’s work, for he created us anew in the body of Christ so that we might do good works—the kind of works we should be concerned about—for God intended ahead of time for us to do them”
If Protestants try to put Catholics on the defensive using Ephesians 2:8-9, they themselves are put on the defensive when Catholics cite James 2:24. Protestants are known their slogan stating that we are justified by “faith alone,” but the expression “faith alone” only appears once in the Bible—in James 2:24—where it is rejected. This is a burr under the saddle of Protestants, for if they want to use terms the way the Bible does, they would have to give up their chief slogan.
When Catholics point this out, many Protestants attempt damage control by attacking the faith being discussed in James 2, saying it is an inferior or bad faith. Some do this by labeling it “dead faith.” They treat “faith without works is dead” (vv. 17, 26) as if it were a definition and say, “If faith does not produce works then it is dead faith. It is this dead faith that James says won’t save us.”
But reading the context shows that James is not using the phrase as a definition. He is not defining the term “dead faith.” That term does not appear in the text. He is stating a fact, not offering a definition. The interpretation flies apart at the seams when we test it by substituting “dead faith” wherever the text mentions faith.
On that reading, people would be boasting of having dead faith (v. 14). James would be making the redundant statement that dead faith without works is dead (vv. 17, 26) and offering to prove that dead faith is barren (v. 20). He would be offering to show people his dead faith by his works (v. 18) and commending people (“you do well”) for having dead faith (v. 19). Finally, he would be telling us that Abraham’s dead faith was active with his works (v. 22) and that Abraham believed God with dead faith and it was reckoned to him as righteousness (v. 23).
Another attempt to impugn the faith in this passage uses the statement “Even the demons believe—and tremble” (v. 19). People ask, “What kind of faith do demons have? Only mere intellectual assent. They intellectually assent to the truths of theology, but this is as far as their faith goes.”
This understanding of the faith in James 2 is closer to the truth, but it still creates problems—in fact, many of the same problems. People would be boasting of having mere intellectual assent (v. 14). James would be offering to show others his mere intellectual assent by his works (v. 18). He would be commending people for having mere intellectual assent (v. 19) and saying that Abraham’s mere intellectual assent was active along with his works (v. 22)—in which case it wouldn’t be “mere” any more. Finally, he would be saying that Abraham’s mere intellectual assent was reckoned to him as righteousness, contradicting verse 23, which would state that mere intellectual assent is barren.
The “mere intellectual assent” solution fails just as the “dead faith” one did. In fact, any solution that impugns the faith James is talking about as a bad or inferior faith will fail. This can be seen by going through the passage and substituting “bad faith” and “inferior faith” wherever faith is mentioned. Such solutions fail because James does not see anything wrong with the faith he is talking about. The faith isn’t the problem; the fact it is alone is the problem.
To understand what kind of faith James has in mind, one must avoid the temptation to read something bad into it. This is where the “mere intellectual assent” solution went wrong. Its advocates correctly identified verse 19 as the key to understanding the faith being discussed, which is intellectual assent. Adding the term “mere” to make it sound bad created the problems.
Leave “mere” off, and the problems vanish. Someone can go around boasting that he intellectually assents to God’s truth (v. 14), prompting James’s need to show that intellectual assent without works is dead and barren (vv. 17, 20, 26). He could offer to show his intellectual assent by his works (v. 18). And he could commend a person for having intellectual assent (v. 19a), while saying that even the demons have it but it doesn’t stop them from trembling at the prospect of God’s wrath (v. 19b).
Finally, he can speak of how Abraham’s intellectual assent was active with and completed by his works (v. 22) and can conclude that man is not justified by intellectual assent alone (v. 24). James views intellectual assent as a good thing (“you do well,” v. 19a), but not as a thing that will save us by itself (vv. 14, 17, 20, 24, 26).
Thus if one uses the language of the Bible, one would say that “a man is justified by faith, without the works of the Law … not by faith only … for faith without works is dead … but faith that worketh by charity.”