I would like to return today to the second reading in last Sunday’s Mass, taken from the letter of Saint James the Apostle. Listen again to that reading: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? . . . If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
What Saint James is saying here is only good, common sense; we must practice what we preach. However, if you know a little Church history, you will know that Martin Luther found this passage so offensive to his theories that he seriously considered dropping this epistle from his German version of the New Testament. What did he find offensive about it? Martin Luther was a complicated, tortured man who had been an Augustinian priest but came to the conclusion that because he found abuses in the Catholic Church, he was justified in leaving the Catholic Church and setting up his own church by which he would “reform” Catholicism. Thus we have what history calls the Protestant Reformation. He was never too comfortable with his own spirituality, and worried a lot about his salvation. But then, he came across the passage in one of Saint Paul’s letters where the Apostle of the Gentiles says, “The just man lives by faith.” In that statement, Luther thought that he had found the answer to his scruples and worries. It doesn’t matter what one does, or does not do, he concluded; it only matters that one BELIEVE. He is often quoted as having said, “Sin bravely, but believe more strongly.” I’m not sure he actually said that, but he certainly took “faith” to mean an intellectual assent to the Kingship of Christ, without requiring good works as well. And since the epistle of Saint James contradicts that idea, Luther wanted to remove it from the New Testament.
This basic idea of Luther has come into Protestantism with their idea of salvation. If you talk to some of them, they will ask you, “Are you saved?” My answer to that question is always, “Yes and no.” Our Divine Lord has certainly saved me by his death on the cross and his resurrection, but now I must live a life of faith AND WORKS and thus apply his divine merits to my own soul. To “accept Jesus as our personal Savior,” but then not to live according to the moral law given in the Old Testament and refined and elevated by Christ, is not going to save us, that is, to bring us into eternal union with God in heaven. When Saint Paul speaks of faith, he means a faith that includes the commandments, virtues, and the beauty of the moral law. Our Lord makes that quite clear when he tells us that at the last judgment, those who have fed the hungry, visited the sick, etc., will be welcomed into heaven. Those who did not feed the hungry, clothe those without clothing, etc., would be relegated to an eternal existence without God.
So let us not be simplistic and assume that just because we give lip service to Jesus as our Savior, we are pleasing to him. “It is not he who says to me: ‘Lord, Lord’ who will be saved, but he who does the will of my father in heaven.” Our Divine Lord has done his part in our salvation. Now it is up to us to use his grace and do our part in that greatest of all our opportunities. Thank you for seeking God’s truth. God Bless you. Father Victor Brown, O.P.
Note: This message was composed some years ago.