October 22, 2019

The Faith vs Works Controversy

St. Paul claimed that we are saved by faith alone (Romans, 4:2,3,13); St. James claimed that faith must be joined by good works (2:21-24). Interestingly, both men used the biblical story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac to support their conclusions. Fifteen hundred years later the argument arose again in a less brotherly manner when Martin Luther sided with St. Paul by proclaiming that salvation is by faith alone (sola fide) and adding Scripture alone and grace alone. This perspective became central to the Reformation.

Today, as before, Catholics side with St. James, while Protestants generally remain loyal to St. Paul and Martin Luther. As Protestant theologian R. C Sproul explains:

What Paul was speaking of here was a righteousness that God in His grace was making available to those who would receive it passively, not those who would achieve it actively, but that would receive it by faith, and by which a person could be reconciled to a holy and righteous God.

The firmness of Sproul’s conviction is shown in his comment that “If an angel from heaven came in here and said [that works are also necessary] . . . I would take him by the seat of his celestial pants and kick him out of here! . . . Without sola fide, you’re without the gospel. And without the gospel, you’re without hope.”

That the controversy remains an obstacle to Christian unity despite scholarly efforts at resolution is well understood. What is not so clear is the way it affects Christian witness in contemporary culture.

In the above passage, Sproul argues that righteousness comes to those who await it passively, not to those who pursue it actively. In Luther’s time that perspective was occasioned, in large part, by the scandalous sale of indulgences prevalent in the Church. As a result of that scandal, many people embraced the lie that Salvation can be bought. Sola fide was a way of saying it cannot be. (This is not to say that Paul’s view of salvation was more accurate than James’, only that it proved helpful in overcoming an institutional sin.) For the moment, let us set aside the question of which view is more accurate.

In modern culture, I submit, the greater danger is not actively seeking righteousness—it is being overly passive about it, even to the point of ignoring it.

The single greatest shaper of the modern perspective on the human person has been Humanistic Psychology. Its influence is not always evident because it has seeped into education, government, journalism, entertainment, the family, and even religion, for more than fifty years. Central to its message are these tenets, as I explain in Corrupted Culture.

Every person is by nature wise and good.

The locus of morality and wisdom lies within the person rather than in some external code. In other words, what a person decides is right or wrong, wise or unwise, is so for that person.

One’s feelings are a reliable guide to behavior and much more reliable than reason.

High self-esteem is everyone’s right, and is necessary for mental and spiritual health.

Each of these ideas is incompatible with Christianity. Here’s why:

Christianity teaches that all human beings are tainted by Original Sin and therefore are afflicted with clouded intellects and weakened wills. The idea of innate wisdom and goodness contradicts that teaching. It also renders meaningless the biblical story of salvation—if we are wise and wonderful to begin with, sin doesn’t exist, salvation is unnecessary, and Christ therefore died for nothing.

Christianity teaches that God gave us the Ten Commandments and the Gospels as guides to living our lives. The idea that we create our own guide to truth and goodness suggests that we don’t need God’s guidance.

Christianity teaches that evil can be alluring and feelings are especially vulnerable to its attraction. The idea that feelings are more reliable than reason denies both the allure of evil and the vulnerability of feelings.

Christianity teaches that humility is pleasing to God and, in contrast, pride is the root of all evil and the father of all sins. The idea that high self-esteem is conducive to mental and spiritual health encourages pride and thus is the exact opposite of Christian teaching.

Taken together, these tenets have fostered a dismissive attitude toward righteousness. This attitude may be unconscious and unarticulated, but it is no less real for that fact. It inclines people to think, “I am wise and good and have good reason to esteem myself. I am therefore already righteous according to the only test that matters—my feelings. Those who say I am not righteous are not only violating my rights but also undermining my mental health.”

People who have this attitude, and their number seems legion, are not likely to have the slightest interest in the debate about the role of faith and/or works in salvation. Those who have rejected Christianity believe that the concept of salvation from sin is meaningless, and those who remain nominally Christian consider themselves already saved by their wonderful nature.

Catholics and Protestants would do well to heal their historic division over faith and works so that they can better combat the delusions created by Humanistic Psychology. (A subsequent essay will discuss how the division might be healed.)

Copyright © 2016 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Written by
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America's Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.

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Written by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero
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