The story has been told of a high wire expert who walked over Niagara Falls in front of a large crowd watching. To the amazement of all, he walked easily across the high wire to the next side. He then asked the crowd if they believed he can walk across the wire with a wheelbarrow filled with 150 pounds of potatoes. Everyone yelled, “We believe!” The man then walked across the line pushing the wheelbarrow with relative ease. He then asked the crowd, “How many of you believe that I can place a person in the wheelbarrow and walk that person safely to the other side?” Everyone yelled, “We believe!” He then said. “Who will volunteer to get in the wheelbarrow?” Then, no one raised their hands and utter silence fell upon the crowd. In this scenario, did the crowd really believe in the high wire expert? No, they didn’t because if they believed in him, they would have done the very thing he asked them to do. In other words, their belief and faith in the high wire expert would be confirmed by their action to his instructions – to get into the wheelbarrow. If there was no action or no work, there is no belief in his instructions. Therefore, we can see that belief and faith need to have an action associated with it. So, faith and works are a package deal. To have faith in someone you need to do the works of that persons instructions, and to do the instructions that someone told you, you must have faith in them. Now, let’s suppose instead of a high wire expert we are hearing from God himself. To simply state we need to have faith alone – and no action or no work is required is not going to suffice.
Plato taught that in order to know what is true, you first have to drop what is not true. In this article I will zoom in closer to the idea of faith, so you can understand which teaching of faith is false and which is true. I suspect a big reason people are attracted to the Protestant idea of faith alone is because it requires much less work. Let’s be honest the idea of faith alone is a lot easier way to salvation than the Catholic idea of faith + doing the Sacraments + doing the corporal works of mercy (although no one can do the corporal works of mercy perfectly so to recognize this in the Sacrament of Reconciliation heals one when they fail in this area).
However, there is a major flaw in the faith alone idea when we see what faith means. Most typical Protestants will affirm that we don’t need to follow Sacraments for salvation. They will instead say all we need to do is have faith, or believe, or love, and we’ll then be granted salvation. I’ve come to the conclusion people will often say words without referencing what these words actually mean. If you look up the word “believe” and “love” in an etymology you will see it is a verb. So, these words are rooted in an action; in doing. Indeed, love in someone and belief in someone has to be followed by an action in order for these words to make any sense.
Imagine a husband repeatedly tells his wife he loves her. But, imagine he does absolutely nothing to show her he loves her. If he merely sits on the couch and chants “I love you” to his wife does he really love his wife? No. In this example, he loves himself; not his wife. He needs to do something to show his wife he loves her. And the instructions of what he needs to do to love his wife would come from his wife and not come from him. If he “showed” his wife that he loves her by taking her to a NASCAR race (his favorite) rather than a ballet (her favorite), all he would have demonstrated is that he loves himself; not his wife. Well, all of salvation can be described as a nuptial relationship in which God wants to wed himself to mankind. Indeed, there was a wedding in Genesis and a wedding in Revelation to show this. To enter into a marriage and sustain a marriage naturally takes work. Would a marriage survive if one person told the other “all I need to do is have faith in you – no works required.”
Next, let’s envision a parent tells their child certain things the child needs to do – like do your homework, clean your room, brush your teeth, etc. What would the parent think if the child responded by saying, “But mom, all I need to do is love you and believe in you.” The parent would see this as nothing more than a clever way in which the child tries to duck out of the instructions their parent gives them. Indeed, in this example, all we would see is the child loves himself more than the parent. It is the same scenario with God’s instructions in the Sacraments. By just responding “all we need to do is believe/love/have faith in Jesus,” the person is doing the same thing as the self-absorbed child and the lazy husband. In the faith alone teaching, inserting the word “alone” is very revealing. Using the word “alone” is a tricky way in which the person tries to dismiss the necessary action associated with faith. This faith alone idea is nothing more than our flawed, prideful, self-absorbed sin kicking in so we can avoid God’s instructions and instead follow our selfish directives.
In fact, to have faith in someone is meaningless unless you do that person’s instructions. Having faith in someone implies responding by doing something in which we affirm their very words. It would be meaningless for me to say I have faith in my doctor and yet do nothing to reference this faith. If I say I have faith in my doctor that would require me to do something to demonstrate this faith – to follow his medical instructions. Therefore, for a person to have faith in someone requires that person to do the very thing that the person they have faith in tells them to do. This is how their faith in that person is validated. When the Protestant inserts the word alone after faith, they are taking the element of doing something out of the equation that faith requires. You can’t do this. It is a logical contradiction because faith requires an action just like a triangle requires three sides. The whole point of faith is a response to data. You can’t take out the response aspect of faith and still have faith. What would follow isn’t faith, but rather what follows is merely a clever way in which someone tries to get out of the action of response. In this case, the person only shows faith in himself, not God. So, faith requires an action, and that action comes not from you, but from the instructions of that person you have faith in.
Jesus’ entire ministry is built around specific instructions much like a parent gives a child. Jesus famously said, “Whoever does the will of my Father is my brother and sister” (Matthew 12:50, see also Matthew 7:21, 19:21, Luke 10:28). Notice the words “does the will”or “do this” is an action to do something, and this something to do must be rooted in faith in Jesus’s instructions. Jesus is even more obvious when he says “everyone who hears my words and does them is like a man building a house upon a rock. . . but he who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house with no foundation” (Luke 6:47-49). The man who does Jesus words represents the wise man of faith & works, while the man who does not do them represents the fool that does nothing and sits on faith alone. In another example, a man comes up to Jesus and asks, “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Did Jesus respond by saying, “You have it wrong my friend, you don’t need to do anything to have eternal life – just have faith alone.” No, Jesus didn’t say this. When asked point blank what one must do to have eternal life Jesus said, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:16-17). By saying “keep the commandments,” and later telling the man to “sell everything to the poor and follow me” Jesus is saying you have to do something – and that something is an act of doing the commandments – and following my instructions (see also John 14:15).
There are numerous other Scripture passage that talk about faith associated with doing something. Paul talks about”remembering before our God your work of faith” and “that our God may make you worthy of his call, and may fulfill every good resolve and effort of faith“(see 1Thessalonians 1:3, 2Thessalonians 1:11). The words “work” and “effort” next to the word “faith” imply faith is rooted in doing something. Yet, in the faith alone theory there is no work involved. Rather, it’s just an obscure state of mind that has nothing to do with doing anything. What does this even mean? You don’t just faith – the whole point of faith is rooted in doing something. By all these passages, we see how faith and works are intrinsically connected. Thus, faith and works are a package deal and when one tries to separate this package one will notice a problem.
One such problem occurs in that the faith alone logic implies that Jesus is contradicting himself as he gives us specific instructions – but really these instructions are not important because all we need to do is have a vague faith without any action associated with that faith. It would be like a child saying he has faith in his father one second, and the other second saying he does not need to do the things his father tells him. Now, we can see that this logic is just meaningless double talk. The faith alone reason is expected given humanity’s fallen nature. The one thought we would expect from flawed human beings is to manufacture the idea “we don’t need to do anything for salvation – all we need to do is have a vague faith with no action required.” Let’s be honest, defective human beings will always take the easy way out. But, Jesus directs people to do the exact opposite of of taking the selfish easy way out of doing nothing (see Luke 9:23).
When people assert that the only thing we have to do is have faith and believe in Jesus, I think they assume that the word “believe” means a state of mind – like I believe 2+2=4. However, this is not what the word believe means. The word believe is a verb that describes a willingness to do certain things, not an adjective describing a state of mind. The Bible suggests this in all these verses where Jesus gives out instructions. If Jesus had not given any instructions, then maybe we can say that belief and faith is simply a state of mind. But this state of mind idea gets washed away from the many instructions Jesus declares. This idea can be clearly seen in John 3:36. Notice in this verse the opposite of the word believe is not disbelief in a state of mind. Rather, the opposite of believe is disobedience – and the word obedience is rooted in doing an action. “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life” (John 3:36). If this passage shows that the to not believe means you does not obey, that means belief must be associated with obeying – with an action to do. The point of this passage is that if you belief in Jesus, you will obey Him – meaning you’ll carry out and do His instructions. Thus, when a person does math, their “belief” that 2+2=4 goes from a state of mind to then putting this state of mind into action.
Think of it like this: Having a state of mind of belief and faith in Jesus is step 1. You need to first believe Jesus if you are going to do his instructions. But, you don’t just stay here at step 1 and refuse to move on to step 2. He uses step 1 (belief in him) precisely to move you to step 2 – to do what he tells you so he can fix your soul. The faith alone theory is like a person saying I will only stay in step 1 and don’t need to move beyond this step. Now, step 1 is necessary, but not sufficient on its own. The whole point of belief in step 1 is to move you to do the instructions of that person you believe in – this would be step 2. A person wouldn’t get healed simply because they believed in their doctor. They need to take the medicine the doctor made for them to get healed. And from Jesus perspective, his medicine is the Sacraments. Which is precisely why he wants us to do the Sacraments.
In fact, it is necessary for Jesus first to establish belief and faith with his people before he gives them his difficult instructions to “do this.” As a parent, I know for my children to listen to my instructions I first need them to believe and trust in me. If they don’t believe me, they won’t listen to my instructions. So, it is a prerequisite to establish belief first, then, they will do my important instructions. In fact, I basically sum up my entire parental philosophy to my kids by saying, “believe me.” When I say “believe me,” I am simultaneously saying do my instructions. Belief in a person is meaningless without doing the instructions of the person we claim to believe. This idea is true of a parent, and it is true of God.
I saw this played out very plainly for me as a dad. My 4-year-old (Jack) was recently learning to ride a bike. While riding he fell off his bike and badly cut his leg. I had to take him to the medical clinic so they could clean up his wound and potentially stitch it if necessary. During this whole time, Jack was crying and becoming overly clingy to me. However, I had to hand Jack over to the nurse so she could clean up his wounds, give him stitches if necessary, and bandage up his cut. I had about 30 seconds to explain to Jack what was going to happen. Given the situation and Jack’s level of comprehension, the only way I could communicate to Jack was to say “You need to believe me and trust me.” I obviously had to say this because to his level of thinking what was happening didn’t make sense to him. From Jack’s perspective, he is thinking: “I just had a bad accident, and my leg hurts. I want to cling to my loving father. But, my father is giving me up to a stranger (the nurse) and this stranger is going to inject a painful shot into me and put ointment on my wound that will really hurt.” We don’t expect the child to know anything about proper medical attention and procedure so saying “believe me” is necessary in this situation. Well, when it comes to God’s instructions we are in the position of the child. We are not at God’s level just like the child is not at the parent’s level so of course we are not going to understand God’s instructions in salvation. This is precisely why Jesus has to say “believe me.”
It is no wonder Jesus repeatedly told his followers to believe him – because they don’t know how to obtain salvation. If they did know how to attain salvation, then they wouldn’t need him anyway. Obviously, Jesus needs to establish belief and faith in him first so they know they can listen to him, and to do what sounds to them like bizarre instructions. We can see this precisely played out in John chapter 6. In this scene, the crowd that followed Jesus asked what they can do to accomplish the works of God. Jesus then launched into the bread of life discourse. And the first thing he needed to do before he was going to communicate this difficult teaching is what all good parents need to do before they teach their children something they won’t fully understand – establish belief and trust in them. Jesus first says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent” (John 6:29). Notice that he is associated the word “believe” with the word “work”. Also, now that we know belief requires action and to act upon a difficult teaching requires a lot of belief in that person, we can better understand what Jesus is doing and why he said this. A few verses after Jesus said to believe in him (John 6:47), he then told them: “I am the bread of life” (6:48). Then, he said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” (6:51). Now, these statements would have sounded extremely bizarre to the Jews. In fact, we see that the crowd very much revolted against Jesus’ teaching (John 6: 42,52,60,66). Given their revolt to this hard to understand teaching, no wonder Jesus first had to establish belief in him.
Paul also used this method of first establishing belief and faith. The Gentiles that Paul was communicating with are like spiritual babies. They don’t know anything about the old covenants. So, of course, he first has to say believe in Jesus just like I first have to say believe me to my 4-year-old. However, when Paul writes to established churches (Ephesians, Corinthians, etc.) we notice he goes more specific on his instructions. How you talk to a toddler is going to be different than how you talk to a teen. The Gentiles are like toddlers and the Jewish community are like teenagers. You need to be more generic with toddlers than with teenagers simply because toddlers don’t know as much as teens do.
Additionally, Paul famously tells us that love is greater than faith. (1 Corinthians 13:13). If love is greater than faith, than how can anyone say that all we need if faith alone? We know that love is a verb. In fact, love is the ultimate verb – the total action of doing something geared toward the good of the other. The cross is the greatest act of love. And the cross is ALL action – it didn’t happen willy-nilly without Jesus’ immense act of will. There are many other instances where Paul highlights that faith is embedded in works, for example, “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). Notice that the word working implies an action to do something (see also Romans 2: 6-7, Ephesians 2: 10).
Finally, the faith alone idea is exposed in the book of James when James declares rather plainly: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). Then, two verses later James sums up, “faith apart from works is dead” (2:26). Isn’t it highly ironic that the only place in the Bible we see the phrase “faith alone” there is the word not in front of it?
I think we’ve thoroughly shown that the faith alone idea is bunk. This idea keeps a person in step 1 and refuses to move him to the highly important step 2. When we add everything up the totality of Jesus’ instructions are in the Sacraments of the Catholic Church (see evidence in: Luke 22: 19-20, John 3:5, 20:22-23, Matthew 16:18, 18:17, 1Timothy 3:15). When we don’t do the Sacraments all we do is demonstrate our lack of faith in Jesus all the while saying we have faith in him. This is nothing more than demonstrating the great human cop out. We love ourselves more than we love God. Protestantism may have good intentions, but it does not offer us the solution. Protestantism simply demonstrates the human problem. Protestantism is like a well-meaning but inept personal trainer. The personal trainer gives you some good advice here and there but at the end of the day all they give you is a twinkie. They give you the very problem you want to avoid – your selfish desires played out in this “faith alone” idea. Protestantism gives you what you want, but not what you need. The problem is our wants are messed up. The want is the last thing we need. We must be given what we need.
I think it is great that people proclaim to have all this faith and embrace step 1 – believing and having faith. Most people in today’s culture don’t even make it to step 1 so good job for getting to step 1. However, you don’t stay in step 1 forever because step 1 naturally points you to step 2 – to do the instructions of the person you have faith in. Eventually, a person needs to graduate from step 1 – faith in Jesus to step 2 – doing the instructions of Jesus. So, will you listen to Jesus and the Church he established or will you sit on the sidelines and chant faith alone without doing what Jesus tells you to do?