Dear Father Angelo,
with reference to the verse: “you see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jm. 2:24), could you explain the relationship between faith and works?
It is clear that faith alone is not enough to make us good believers, unless it is accompanied by works. As a matter of fact, faith demands a conversion of the heart that is sure to bring about an attitude of openness towards others.
Following the Christian commandment to love one another implies a consistent attitude of practical attention and charity towards our neighbours. But what about works without faith? How should we interpret the behaviour of the philanthropist who carries out humanitarian action with no regard for faith in Christ?
What is the meaning of such a behaviour in a strictly Christian perspective?
Thank you for your reply
- The faith Saint James refers to is not just the theological virtue of faith, but rather it encompasses hope and charity. Here the word “faith” has the same meaning that it has in the Gospels. More precisely, it should be understood according to the meaning that it has when it is uttered by Jesus: “Go; your faith has made you well”. It is in Saint Paul that we find faith specified in the three attitudes typical of the three theological virtues: faith, hope and charity.
- Rightly so, Saint James reminds us that faith without works, namely without charity, is dead. It is not enough to know the Gospel or to be aware that God exists. In order to be saved it is necessary to apply the Gospel in our life according to the words of Jesus: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Lk 11:28).
- But you ask me: “what about works without faith”? Let’s get this right. You interpret works as acts of goodwill, good actions, just as those performed by a philanthropist who does not even believe in God. Whereas in Saint James’s and also in Saint Paul’s view “works” are synonyms of charity.
- Now, charity is that theological virtue that does not simply prompt man to do good, but rather it does good in order for God to be in man and man in God (cf. Quest. disp. de caritate, a. 4).
Good actions can be performed without charity and even without faith. But when they are carried out on account of faith and charity, they are performed for higher purposes, namely in order to give those premises or those fundamental goods that allow a person to enjoy not just material goods, but the greatest good, that is God Himself.
For this reason, charity is an act of love for God: because one loves God and wants Him to be in everyone’s heart.
- Coming to your specific question, we can find the answer in Saint Paul when he says: “if I give away all my possessions, and if I give my body to be burnt, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1Cor 13:3). The Italian Episcopal Conference has translated: “if I hand over my body so that I may boast”. But the Greek and Latin text says: “to be burnt”. “So that I may boast” is a variation and it does not keep the strong meaning that the original text was given by its author: there might be great philanthropy, but if those works are not made for God’s sake, they are not yet charity.
- In Vincenzo Jacono’s commentary to the First Epistle to the Corinthians we can read: “as Cornely points out, there are people who are inclined by nature to give their possessions, or even to risk their lives for the sake of others. Now, what some have by nature, others can receive – as a free gift – from the Holy Spirit. It is, therefore, heroic mercy towards one’s neighbour, but it is not inspired by the virtue of mercy and even less by the virtue of charity. In these cases, therefore, ‘there is no merit for eternal life, because God promises it only to those who love’. As Allo observes, ‘if sacrifices, even heroic ones, done for one’s community might not be accepted by God, despite of the benefit that people receive, then it is clear that the object of charity is not only man, but firstly God, and it surpasses the highest acts of philanthropy”. [T.N. : I was unable to find an official English version of this commentary, therefore this is just my own translation of the passage and, as such, it might be inaccurate. I apologize to the readers. Translator Alessandra]
- Hence, Saint Thomas highlights that charity is love, but love is not always charity. It is charity only when it is done directly or indirectly out of love for God. This is why Saint Paul says: “[if I] do not have love, I am nothing” (1Cor 13:2); and after a while he reaffirms: “[if I] do not have love, I gain nothing” (1Cor 13:3).
- Jesus said:“abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:4-5).
If one is in a state of mortal sin, good works, including greatly philanthropic ones, do not unite one to Christ. Therefore, in order for good works to bear fruit for eternal life, one should be united to Christ through grace that works through charity. As a matter of fact, “man, by his natural endowments, cannot produce meritorious works proportionate to everlasting life; and for this a higher force is needed, viz. the force of grace”. (Saint Thomas, Summa theologiae, I-II, 109, 5).
- Of course, we cannot rule out the possibility that God might donate His grace right when we open ourselves to love for our neighbours. In that case one does acts that are meritorious for eternal life without knowing it. But in themselves only what is done on account of charity, namely out of love for God, avails.
While wishing you to have an ever greater charity, for this is what matters the most, I remember you to the Lord in prayer and I bless you.