So, this last week's Gospel from Mark, (Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23) really struck me as the key to the "Saved by Grace versus Saved by Works" debate that has gone on for almost five hundred years. It also reminded me of James' command in chapter two of his epistle that faith without works is dead.
I think that in both of these contradicting instances, a distinction is being raised that the Church has tried to follow.
Jesus reprimands the Pharisees saying:
"'Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: 'This people honors me with their
lips, but their hearts are far from me; In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human
precepts.' You disregard God's commandment but cling to human tradition.' He went on to say, 'How
well you have set aside the commandment of God in order to uphold your tradition!" (Mk. 7: 6-9).
I firmly believe that this is the heart of Jesus' message to us Christians. He's calling us to unify ourselves -- our desires -- to be one, complete person. Here, He emphasizes the connection between our desires and words with our actions and works. God does not want any partiality; He wants everything that we have -- our bodies, minds and spirits.
As human beings, we have the ability to wear many hats depending on the people that we are surrounded with. We are this type of person with this friend, and that type of person with that friend -- we are compassionate and vicious to whomever we want to be; we are generous and selfish; we are pure and lust-filled; etc... The list can go on and on.
But, both God the Father and Christ Himself are searching for wholeness within us -- for what is good, holy, and pure. We may reap many rewards here in this life from our compassionate, generous, "good" actions. But, if they are not pure, if we have some other hidden agenda (whether we know it or not), then they are fruitless.
Similarly, St. James places his emphasis on the unification of our works with our words. He writes:
"My brothers, show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.... If you
show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the
whole law, but falls short in one particular, has become guilty in respect to all of it.... What good is it, my
brothers, if someone says he has faith by does not have works? Can that faith save him?.... faith of itself, if
it does not have works, is dead. Indeed someone might say, 'You have faith and I have works.'
Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works. Do
you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless? See how a person is justified by
works and not by faith alone.... For just as the body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is
dead." (James 2: 1, 9, 13-14, 17-18, 20, 26).
St. James accurately shows that an active, lively faith demands good works in order for that faith to flourish and be known. Likewise, Christ declares that paying lip service without the proper mindset and motivation, is not pleasing to God. I think St. Francis of Assisi restates the Apostle James' notion by saying, "Preach the Gospel always, and when necessary use words." St. James is not raising the status of his works above his faith. He is saying that they MATTER. We must act like Christians to be known as Christians.
I think the point that matters the most for the Protestant/Catholic debate is the position and manner in which these fruitful works are committed. However much Protestants want to contest the Catholic position on faith and works, it is actually almost identical to the Reformation mantra. As a Catholic, I believe that I am saved by my faith alone. But, I also know that what I do matters. I cannot claim to be a Catholic and then sin openly and egregiously. Just as St. Francis de Sales wrote: "The work of purging the soul neither can nor should end except with our life itself. We must not be disturbed by our imperfections, since for us perfection consists in fighting against them." Now, if I can claim Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior and then have a sure-fire ticket into heaven -- regardless of what I do or don't do -- how is that not a great deal? Because, what we do and think and say all MATTERS.
IF you believe that you're saved by faith alone, then the obvious conclusion is that what you do in your own personal life won't effect your salvation. (I know I'm over-simplifying here...) See, I think one of the RCC's greatest strengths is Her ability to use logic as a defense against our selfishness.