This is not an attempt at a thorough explanation of the doctrine of justification. Nor is this an attempt to bridge gaps and build understanding between parties who disagree. It is simply a few observations that I have been considering.
In our parish's mid-week Bible study we have begun considering St. Paul's letter to the Romans. Along with his letter to the Galatian Church, these two epistles have been the bedrock of Protestant claims that justification is by faith alone. However, Catholics have long argued that this teaching must be balanced by St. James' teaching that justification is not by faith alone, but also by works. Jesus Christ himself seems to lay some emphasis on this also by claiming eternal life belongs not to those who call on the name of the Lord, but who do the will of the Father.
What has struck me recently, however, is how full the Epistle to Rome is with references to the need for good works. "For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified." (Rom. 2:13) Anyone arguing for justification by Faith alone hits a serious wall in this verse. In fact, read all of chapter 2 and you will find a number of references to God "rendering unto man according to his deeds." V. 6. It must be noted that good works avail nothing without faith. But it is of equal note that faith without good works means nothing.
This all seems well and good until you read chapter 3 and discover that St. Paul also wrote this: "Therefore we conclude that a man is justifed by faith, without the deeds of the law." Whoa! Where did Paul get this? Isn't that the polar opposite of what he said in chapter 2? Not quite. Actually, not at all. What chapter 3 is teaching, is that no prior deeds of charity, no prior act of obedience, is necessary or counts for anything, until the individual has Faith. The act of believing in Christ and his life and death's work is what brings justification. But it must be noted that justification is something in which we must continue. Rom. 2:13, James chapter 2, and a host of other passages speak to the necessity of obedience, charity, and virtue for the believer. They are not optional!
While Jesus himself makes little mention of justification in the Gospels, I've been considering whether or not he takes this controversy head on in the Parable of the Sower. You may recall that the Sower (Christ) sowed the seeds that landed among thorns. (Some also fell by the wayside, some on rock, and some of good soil.) But of the seed that fell in thorns, this is written: "and the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness or riches, and the lusts of other things entering in, choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful." (Mark 4:19) In order for something to become unfruitful, it must have produced some fruit at some point, or have had the potential to produce fruit. As anyone who has ever observed the natural world knows, a plant can grow amidst the thorns and weeds, but it is eventually choked. Is this not a corrolary to those who have initial faith, but do not proceed in charity and obedience? Did they have the faith that receives justification, but fail because of greed and lust to persevere in that justification? If it is true, the parable teaches that justification has two sides. 1.) What Christ imputes to the sinner-that which needs no prior act of obedience or love (Rom. 3:28). 2.) What is required of each man as a result of that justification-doing the deeds of the law to be justified (Rom. 2:13) For those who refuse the law of God are the ones who are choked out by the lusts, greed, and cares of this world.
What is the end of all this? Though I've never liked the musical setting, there is a hymn which says it well.
"When we walk with the Lord, in the light of his Word,
What a glory he sheds on our way.
When we do his good will, he abides with us still,
And with all who will trust and obey."