One of the oldest modern disputes in the church of the baptized is the question of how someone is saved. The Catholic Church has always taught, along with St. James (James 2:17), that "faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead."
The dispute between Catholics and what might be called sole fide Protestants, however, is not so quickly resolved without detailing precisely what one means by such terms as faith, saved, justified, and even works.
For example, the Church also says that we are not saved by works, per se. One of the more revealing paragraphs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) in this regard is ¶ 2005:
Since it belongs to the supernatural order, grace escapes our experience and cannot be known except by faith. We cannot therefore rely on our feelings or our works to conclude that we are justified and saved. However, according to the Lord's words "Thus you will know them by their fruits"- reflection on God's blessings in our life and in the lives of the saints offers us a guarantee that grace is at work in us and spurs us on to an ever greater faith and an attitude of trustful poverty.
The Catechism is a tad sketchy on the subject of actual grace, but here is what it says in ¶ 2000,
Sanctifying grace is an habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love. Habitual grace, the permanent disposition to live and act in keeping with God's call, is distinguished from actual graces which refer to God's interventions, whether at the beginning of conversion or in the course of the work of sanctification.
From this we see specifically that actual graces are God's interventions, which come in many forms and at any point in the process of sanctification. These interventions are to be distinguished from the gift of sanctifying grace, which, as "a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love," is what we also refer to as virtue.
Actual grace can come in ways like the following:
Undoubtedly there are many, perhaps infinitely many, other possible interventions to help us choose rightly. It should be noted that these interventions are not coercive. God does, from time to time, warn us of the consequences of sin. Although we may, in our ignorance, regard such warnings as coercive threats, they are simply God telling us how reality works so that we will be less likely to act purely out of ignorance. It is analogous to the mother warning a child not to touch the recently heated burner on a stove because it's still dangerously hot. It's not coercive in the sense that the threat of a spanking would be coercive1.
So, God does warn us of sin and its consequences. The typical way we receive that warning is in our conscience. Since this is actual grace, failure to heed our conscience is a failure to cooperate with God's grace. It is the most typical way we fail to cooperate with God's grace, but there are others.
God calls us to a vocation. That vocation may be marriage (as it is in the most typical case). It may be priesthood or the religious life. It may be focusing on a mission as a single, perhaps a mission to bring peace or a mission to bring healing. Discerning a vocation is partly a matter of learning about our talents and our interests, partly a matter of becoming aware of the needs of society and partly a matter of sensing an inner yearning. God may give us actual grace in any one of these parts of discerning a vocation.
It is primarily in preparing for and living a vocation that we develop virtue. Finding and living our vocation in cooperation with God's actual grace greatly enhances our receptivity to the divine infusion of the theological virtues, faith, hope and charity, particularly as we recognize God's active guidance. These virtues are called theological because they have God as their object. (Cf. CCC, ¶ 1812, 1814, 1817 and 1822.) The theological virtue of charity, while directed to God, predisposes us to charity toward others. In other words, we come to love others out of love for God. (Cf. CCC, ¶ 1822 and 1823.) It is these virtues that primarily constitute what we mean by sanctifying grace. They are the manifestation of God's own life within us. Sanctifying grace also involves purifying the soul of sin and vice to prepare it to receive the infusion of divine life.
In the development of the cardinal virtues, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, practice makes perfect. That practice is encouraged by God's actual graces of the informative type and the practice is facilitated by God's actual graces of infusion. The cardinal virtues are perfections of our normal human endowment.
One more type of actual grace rounds out our understanding of our relationship with God and the process of sanctification. This type is what we call the gifts of the Spirit. These charisms are gifts given to people to predispose them to receiving God's guidance and his gifts of divine grace. They are wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. (Cf. CCC, ¶ 1831.) In addition, the Church understands that these gifts round out and perfect our other virtues. So, for example, wisdom and knowledge perfect the virtue of love for our neighbor. Understanding and appreciating (wisdom and knowledge) who God is helps to round out and perfect the theological virtues.
In all of the above, faith in Jesus Christ plays a special role. By faith we mean not merely knowledge of who Christ is but also trust in Christ, the whole Christ, that is, both his divinity and his humanity. Faith and trust in Christ orients us to him in a way that is symbolized by God's instructions to Moses and the Israelites in Numbers 21:8-9. In being oriented to Christ, we are predisposed to receive the graces, the divine life, that Christ, himself, received in his humanity. In being oriented to Christ, we are predisposed to unite our suffering with his, to share his patience in suffering, and to shoulder the burdens of love. Faith, in the sense of knowledge and trust, is only the doorway to this path of growth in faith, hope and charity.
Then what of "works?" Again, if we define "works" to be our own acts of cooperation with God's grace, and if we understand that cooperation as the role we play in the process of sanctification, then we can say that works include the following:
Thus "works" are acts of the will that involve self-sacrifice. At the most basic level, that self-sacrifice consists in letting go of vain attachments, and this may lead us to give of our material goods, including time, talent and treasure. The evidence of sanctification, seen in this way, consists in the intensification of our self-sacrifice. In other words, the evidence of sanctification is seen in our works. As Jesus said [Matt 7:17-19],
So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit.
A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.
Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Why, then, do not "works," per se, sanctify one? "Works," as acts of the will that involve self-sacrifice must be properly oriented in order to be cooperative with God's grace. A religious person who fasts and undergoes acts of corporal punishment for the purpose of gaining spiritual power has not properly oriented his or her acts of self-sacrifice. On the contrary, these "works" can be counterproductive if they are aimed at feeding vanity. In the same way, it's not possible to truly love God without loving his children, our fellow human beings, so "works" that are "acts of devotion" are empty if we do not at least pray for others, not to mention find other ways to serve others2 Jesus made this connection between love of God and love of neighbor explicit when he taught us the parable of the sheep and the goats. [Matt 25:31-46]
Here's the kicker. It is not possible for us to properly orient our acts of self-sacrifice without God's infusion of faith. This is the meaning of St. Paul's statement in Galatians 2:15-16.
We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified.
Of course this raises a very important question. What do we mean by faith in Christ? At this point, I am not going to revisit the question of what faith means. On the contrary, we still have not yet fully grasped what we mean by faith in Christ. Why do I say this? Christ is a divine person, with both a human and a divine nature. Our faith in Christ is clearly conditioned by our understanding of Christ, his natures and his personhood. It is the imperfections in our knowledge of who and what Christ is that shape the character of our faith. When God infused faith in us, he may give us a more or less perfect understanding and appreciation of Christ as part of that gift of infusion. Consider ¶ 16 in Lumen Gentium.
Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related in various ways to the people of God.(18*) In the first place we must recall the people to whom the testament and the promises were given and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh3. On account of their fathers this people remains most dear to God, for God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues4. But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohammedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things,5 and as Saviour wills that all men be saved6. Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.(19*) Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.(20*) She knows that it is given by Him who enlightens all men so that they may finally have life. But often men, deceived by the Evil One, have become vain in their reasonings and have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, serving the creature rather than the Creator.7. Or some there are who, living and dying in this world without God, are exposed to final despair. Wherefore to promote the glory of God and procure the salvation of all of these, and mindful of the command of the Lord, "Preach the Gospel to every creature"8, the Church fosters the missions with care and attention.
We may well ask, how does one credit faith in Christ in "those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life." Here we are speaking of people who have not been vouchsafed explicit knowledge of the person of Christ. What knowledge might they have been given that partially orients them to Christ? The Church implicitly posed this question when it said, "Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel." That Gospel, that good news, is mainly knowledge of Christ. Thus there is some sense in which they are already oriented to Christ, however imperfectly. Why does this make sense? Christ, himself, told the woman at the well, "The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him." (Cf. John 4:23.) John's Gospel explains what this means in chapter 1. He summarizes the Incarnation in verse 14, "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father." The Church summarizes the theology of the Word as God expressing the fullness of himself in a single divine utterance. Jesus put it this way in John 14:6-7: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also; henceforth you know him and have seen him." We can summarize this for the purposes of this discussion by saying that the Word is Truth. Partial knowledge of transcendent Truth therefore constitutes partial knowledge, however imperfect, of Christ. Faith in transcendent Truth, however imperfect, is faith, however imperfect, in Christ.
Is this a stretch? Only if you think of Christ in his human identity. Clearly an atheist has no understanding or appreciation of who Christ is, even if he or she may know every word of Christ recorded in scripture, but through invincible ignorance, cannot conclude the divine nature of Christ. All of the words of Christ in scripture that are recorded as having issued from his human lips, and all of the acts of Christ that are recorded in scripture as having described what his human body did, constitute the knowledge of Christ of a typical atheist who has read, perhaps even studied, the New Testament. Indeed, since an atheist would not believe in the Resurrection, the words Christ spoke to St. Paul would not be credited by an atheist as authentic words of Christ, nor would the post-resurrection words of Christ recorded in the Gospels. Such a person would probably be very sympathetic to the arguments of the so-called Jesus Seminar, and believe that the so-called ipsissima verba (the authentic words of Christ) are few, indeed, and the rest is mere pious construction.
Such a person may or may not appreciate the transcendent nature of the teaching of Christ in, say, the Sermon on the Mount9. Who is to say that a person who does not accept the divinity of Christ, yet who accepts the power of Jesus' words, has no faith in Christ? Who is to say that someone who has never been exposed to the bible, yet who accepts the transcendent truth that good and evil are not identical and who accepts morally determinative character of the good, has no knowledge of or faith in Christ?
Clearly, this is a stretch. Clearly this belies the Protestant understanding of sole fide. Yet, is it wrong? I am confident that it is not wrong, and my confidence is based in part on the authority of the Church as given by Christ10, and in part on my understanding of Christ's divine, transcendent nature and his divine personhood. Furthermore, only God can decide who is cooperating with his grace and who isn't, who is justified and who isn't.
In returning to the words of St. Paul in Galatians 2:16, we should note that he said "a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ." He did not say here "a man is not justified by works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ." Yet, "by" is the typical understanding of sole fide, not "through." In other words, the typical understanding of sole fide is that by faith in Christ, justification is an accomplished fact. It is not merely that faith is the doorway to the path of justification. It is not merely that faith is what keeps us on the path of justification, it is that faith is justification. If we read Galatians, chapter 3, with care, in which St. Paul says,
Thus Abraham "believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness."
So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham.
And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith,
preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "In you shall all the nations be blessed."
So then, those who are men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith.
We recognize that it was not faith in Christ, in his human nature, that determined Abraham's righteousness, but Abraham's faith in the Word of God, a faith he ratified by responding to that Word, that justified Abraham. Similarly, we find in Hebrews, chapter 11:4-13,
By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain,
through which he received approval as righteous, God bearing witness by accepting his gifts;
he died, but through his faith he is still speaking.
By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death;
and he was not found, because God had taken him.
Now before he was taken he was attested as having pleased God.
And without faith it is impossible to please him.
For whoever would draw near to God must believe
that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.
By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen,
took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household;
by this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness which comes by faith.
By faith Abraham obeyed
when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance;
and he went out, not knowing where he was to go.
By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land,
living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise.
For he looked forward to the city which has foundations,
whose builder and maker is God.
By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive,
even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.
Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead,
were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven
and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.
These all died in faith, not having received what was promised,
but having seen it and greeted it from afar,
and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.
In each and every one of these cases, the believer's faith is ratified by works. God gives the faith, the child of God accepts the gift and responds with works. Indeed, not to respond with works is, in effect, to reject the gift of faith. Thus, even when scripture uses the expression "justified by faith" we see that works are essential to receiving the gift. Consider what Jesus said about receiving the gift of the word.
Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them
will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock;
and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house,
but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.
And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them
will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand;
and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house,
and it fell; and great was the fall of it.
To summarize, we can tentatively identify the following steps, or something like them.
In each instance of a response to God's gift of actual grace, we are presented with a choice. How we choose either opens us to further gifts or closes off, for the moment, the potentiality of further gifts. The objective is the indwelling of his Spirit and the transformation of our own spirit closer to himself. Not to respond with our newfound potentiality is essentially to leave the gift of divine life unopened, as if we never received it.