We are Not Saved by Faith Alone
Friday February 20, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Sixth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading (James 2:14-24, 26) Gospel (St. Mark 8:34-9:1)
In the first reading today, Saint James tells us that faith without works is dead and if we are going to claim that we believe, we have to act upon what it is that we believe. He tells us further that we are justified by works, not by faith alone. Now this is an exceedingly important passage because it is the only place in the Bible where the words “faith alone” come up. Martin Luther, when he broke away from the Church, changed Scripture; in fact, in Romans 8, he put the word “alone” after faith so that he made Scripture to say: “You are saved by faith alone.” Well, the Lutherans of course have removed that from the Bible because it is not in there. But the only place in the Bible where the words “faith alone” are ever mentioned are in Saint James 2:24, which we just heard, and it says: You are saved by works and not by faith alone.
We see the same exact thing in the Gospel reading today. Jesus tells us that anyone who is ashamed of Him and of His works, He will be ashamed of that person before His heavenly Father and before the angels in heaven. In other words, if we want to sit back and say, “Well, I believe in Jesus but I just need to keep this to myself. I don’t want to act on it because people might think badly of me or I might get persecuted a little bit; they’ll give me trouble. I have faith – I believe in Jesus – but I can’t act on it because I need to be just like everyone else.” Are we not ashamed of Him? Are we not, in essence, rejecting His words and His person? In private, we are going to say that we believe, but in our actions we deny Him. The same will happen then when we stand before God: He will deny us, which is exactly what He has told us is going to happen. If we deny Him before men, He will deny us before His heavenly Father.
This is something that is exceedingly important for us to consider because if we do not act upon the faith that we profess, it is worthless. If all we want to say is “I believe that Jesus is the Messiah” or “I believe that God exists” or “I believe that Jesus founded the Church” or “I believe that the fullness of truth subsists in the Catholic Church” or any other thing that we want to say generically that we believe, Saint James will say to us, The demons believe also and they tremble. Satan knows that Jesus is the Messiah. Satan knows that God is a trinity and that He exists. Satan knows that Jesus founded one church and the fullness of truth subsists in it. He believes all of those things too. What good is it doing him? He is in hell for eternity. And so to say that we believe is not enough. The Lord is telling us very clearly that unless we act upon that belief, it is useless.
We sit around in our society today and we want to say, “But they were sincere.” That is the way that everybody gets into heaven these days in the popular mind of America: They are sincere. So what? If they are sincerely wrong in what they believe, they are still wrong. If they believe but they sincerely refuse to act upon it, they are still refusing to act upon it. If we refuse to take up our cross, if we refuse to die to self, if we refuse to act in charity towards other people, what good does professing faith in Jesus Christ do for us? In fact, what it does for us is bring us a greater condemnation because we are going to say that we believe in Jesus, Who commanded us to take up our cross, Who commanded us to die to self, Who commanded us to love God and to love neighbor. So if we are going to say that we believe, we are actually setting ourselves up for a far more severe judgment if we refuse to act upon what it is that we profess.
A pagan who at least says, “I don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and therefore I don’t believe in his words,” may well be judged and sent to hell for eternity, but it is not because they did not act upon what they believed. For a Christian person to say, “I believe,” and then refuse to act, we are digging ourselves a much deeper place for eternity because we knew better and we will be held responsible for what it is that we profess. As Catholics, we have been affected by what can only be called a Protestant idea that it is enough to have this generic, nice, gushy-feeling faith about the fact that “Jesus died for my sins and therefore I’m going to heaven. I can do whatever I want and I’m still going to heaven because God just loves me and that is all that’s necessary.” That is heresy. It has been condemned, and yet we continue to fall into it.
If we are
going to say that we believe in Jesus, we have to act upon it, we have to live
it, we have to bring it out into the world and it has to change our lives. Yes,
we are going to be persecuted and ridiculed, but what did He say? If you do not take up your cross and follow Me… if
you do not lay down your life… if you are not willing to die to self…
That is what we have to be willing to do. We have to be willing to put aside
these false ideas. And do not bank on the idea that as long as you believe in
Jesus you are going to heaven because, as I pointed out and as Saint James
points out, Satan believes the same thing and he is not in heaven and he never
will be. It is not enough and it never has been enough. So we need to see this
for what it is. It is absolutely essential that we profess our faith in Jesus,
but it is also essential that we must believe in every single word that He has
taught; and that is to believe in every single thing that the Church teaches.
But even that is not enough. Once we can say that we believe, we need to act.
We need to put our faith into action. The only way we are going to save our
souls is to live the faith that we profess.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.