Voce mea ad Dominum

Random thoughts from an amateur theologist.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Faith and corporal acts of mercy

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. - Ephesians 2:8-9

This verse is typically one that I hear about whenever I am discussing the role of works in the greater picture of salvation with Protestants. For Protestants we are saved by faith alone, or as Luther called it sola fide. The problem is that this position doesn't really jive with the Letter of St. James which says that faith without works is dead. How is it that the scriptures appear to contradict each other? How do we reconcile this passage from the letter of St. Paul to the Church at Ephesus and the catholic letter of St. James?

We have to keep in mind one essential thing. The Church has its origin in Jesus Christ, a Jew ("salvation comes from the Jews"). His teachings were revealed in the context of the Jewish synagogue. As a matter of fact, St. Paul's letters were written at a time when Christians still worshipped in the synagogue, worship which was ultimately oriented toward the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple in Jerusalem was the sign of unity for all the Jews.

In the Temple, animal sacrifices were offered to God for atonement in accordance with the Law of Moses. The Christians believed that Christ's sacrifice on the cross was the ultimate and eternal (everlasting) sacrifice which made the Temple in Jerusalem obsolete. His sacrifice became the center of the Christian's worship, and this sacrifice was made present again in the Eucharistic sacrifice which was instituted in the Upper Room on the night before Christ's passion. (Notice, Christ is not resacrificed, rather his eternal, i.e. timeless, sacrifice is brought forward in time for all Christians to participate in it.) Through this sacrifice, Christ's body became the new Temple (which was raised in 3 days).

So Christians would participate in the Jewish liturgy of the word, which consisted of readings from the Torah and Prophets as well as Psalms and prayers, but when the sacrifice was offered, they would leave because the animal sacrifice was irrelevant and unnecessary for them since Christ had fulfilled the Law and the need for animal sacrifice was gone. To celebrate the eternal and life giving sacrifice of Christ, on the first day of the week, they would gather as a community and celebrate the Eucharist (or "the breaking of the bread" as it is called in Acts). So St. Paul is speaking to people who prayed with Israel, but then participated in the Eucharistic sacrifice of Christ's body and blood (remember the new Temple...our worship is oriented to Christ's body) as a sign of their unity.

This is significant because the Jews who had not accepted the faith were still following the ceremonial Law of Moses. For them, salvation was wrapped up in works of the Law as outlined in the books of Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus, so that it was through these works that they believed they found favor with God. Christ fulfilled that Law in his body which was sacrificed on the cross, so therefore, Christians were no longer bound to "works of the Law" because of their faith in the saving power of Christ. This is what St. Paul is talking about. He is not talking about corporal acts of mercy which we nowadays call "good works."

Good works are the fruits of faith, they are not a way to gain salvation. The Catholic Church has consistently taught this since the beginning. However, as St. James has pointed out, to proclaim your faith without putting it in action is not really having faith. That faith must bear fruit in order to be living. Good works must accompany faith and the two are as inseperable as the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Now we get to the question of how to reconcile St. Paul with St. James. I give you the next verse from the letter to the Ephesians: "For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them." Here we have St. Paul saying that we are created in Christ for good works, works that make our faith in Christ alive. That is how we reconcile the two Apostles, because in reality they taught and believed the same thing. Faith without good works is totally lifeless.

In nomine Patris, et filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.


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