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Faith and Good Works

Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator

First of all, I wish to offer a word of explanation for my regular readers. The last four days have been marked by visits to four different doctors, two for me and two for the friar with whom I live. He recently underwent knee replacement surgery and is not yet able to drive. It was necessary for me, therefore, to drive him to his appointments. You all know about the time spent traveling to, waiting for, visiting with, and returning home from a visit to the doctor. Time was short, and the blog was the daily activity that suffered as a result.

The past week we have been reading from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans. The passages we have been reading are filled with words that occasion some quizzical looks, some anxiety, and not a little misunderstanding. The opening chapters of this letter set forth St. Paul's major thesis that we are "justified" by faith. In addition to the word "justification," we have read about "righteousness," "holiness," "salvation," etc. We all know that St. Paul's thesis is a point on which there has been more than a little discussion, rancor, and disagreement.

If you, like me, grew up with the Baltimore Catechism, you may remember an illustration that showed a person standing before the throne of God. To the side was a balance, a scale. On one side of the scale were heaped all the sins that this person had committed in his/her lifetime. On the other side of the scale were laid the effects of all the prayers and good works the person had accomplished during his/her time on earth. The notion conveyed was that we atoned for our sins by such good works, penances, and prayers. If the scale indicated that we had done enough to atone for our sins, we would be granted access to heaven. If not, then we would be consigned to purgatory until we had worked off the punishment due as a result of our sins.

There are no two ways about this notion. It is incorrect. Nothing we do, no amount of prayers and penances performed, can save us from our sins. That has already been accomplished through the death of Jesus. We are washed clean in the blood of Jesus IF we believe that Jesus is God Incarnate. The only condition for salvation is faith. We cannot earn, buy or in any other way effect our own salvation. We are saved by faith, and by faith alone.

However, St. James writes that faith without works is useless. Is he contradicting St. Paul? It certainly seems as if he is. However, St. James is NOT saying that we can be saved through our good works. He is simply asserting that the one who has placed faith in Jesus responds to that gift of salvation, a gift of inestimable love, by loving in return – loving God and loving our neighbor. Our good works are simply a way to demonstrate our faith. We profess to be the "Body of Christ." Christ offered his body for the sake of our sins. We continue the work of the incarnation by continuing the work of Christ.

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