Ask a Franciscan

Justification by Faith Alone 

What is the Catholic Church’s position on justification by faith alone? 

This was initially Martin Luther’s strongest complaint regarding the Catholic Church’s teaching about salvation. In effect, he denied that good works guarantee a person’s salvation. No argument there. 

In Romans 1:17, St. Paul wrote, “The one who is righteous by faith will live.” He was quoting Habakkuk 2:4a: “See, the rash have no integrity; but the just one who is righteous because of faith shall live.” Notice that neither verse contains the word alone

In Galatians 3:11, St. Paul reaffirms both of these quotes, but he later writes in the same letter, “For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love” (5:6). 

Genuine faith is not simply an idea, a state of mind alone; it must be reflected in action, as Jesus noted when he said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21). The people represented as sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31–46 are not divided according to their ideas but according to their deeds. 

Good deeds do not guarantee salvation, but genuine faith is always reflected in generous, loving actions. 

The Catholic Church’s most recent and extensive teaching on this issue is contained in the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” signed on October 31, 1999, by official representatives of the Catholic Church and Lutheran World Federation (representing most but not all Lutherans worldwide). Since that time, several other Christian groups have officially accepted that teaching. 

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