The problem with the idea of faith alone
The story has been told of a high wire expert who walked over Niagara Falls in front of a large crowd watching. To the amazement of all, he walked easily across the high wire to the next side. He then asked the crowd if they believed he can walk across the wire with a wheelbarrow filled with 150 pounds of potatoes. Everyone yelled, “We believe!” The man then walked across the line pushing the wheelbarrow with relative ease. He then asked the crowd, “How many of you believe that I can place a person in the wheelbarrow and walk that person safely to the other side?” Everyone yelled, “We believe!” He then said. “Who will volunteer to get in the wheelbarrow?” Then, no one raised their hands and utter silence fell upon the crowd. In this scenario, did the crowd really believe in the high wire expert? No, they didn’t because if they believed in him, they would have done the very thing he asked them to do. In other words, their belief and faith in the high wire expert would be confirmed by their action to his instructions – to get into the wheelbarrow. If there was no action or no work, there is no belief in his instructions. Therefore, we can see that belief and faith need to have an action associated with it. So, faith and works are a package deal. To have faith in someone you need to do the works to confirm this faith, and to do the actions that someone told you, you must have faith in them. Now, let’s suppose instead of a high wire expert we are hearing from God himself. To simply state we need to have faith alone – and no action or no work is required is not going to suffice.
I suspect a big reason people are attracted to the Protestant idea of faith alone is because it requires much less work. Let’s be honest the idea of faith alone is a lot easier way to salvation then the Catholic teaching of faith + doing the Sacraments. However, there is a major flaw in the faith alone idea that we can see when we further zoom in on what faith means. Most typical Protestants will affirm that we don’t need to follow Sacraments for salvation. They will instead say all we need to do is have faith, or believe, or love, and we’ll then be granted salvation. I’ve come to the conclusion people will very often say words without referencing what these words actually mean. So, in this article, I will take a close look at what the words faith, belief, and love actually mean. If you look up the word believe and love in an online etymology you will see it is a verb. So, these words are rooted in an action; in doing. Indeed, love in someone and belief in someone has to be followed by an action in order for these words to make any sense.
Imagine a husband repeatedly tells his wife he loves her. But, imagine he does absolutely nothing to show her he loves her. If he merely sits on the couch and chants “I love you” to his wife does he really love his wife? No. In this example, he loves himself; not his wife. He needs to do something to show his wife he loves her. And the instructions of what he needs to do to love his wife would come from his wife and not come from him. If he “showed” his wife that he loves her by taking her to a NASCAR race (his favorite) rather than a ballet (her favorite), all is he demonstrating is that he loves himself; not his wife.
Next, let’s envision a parent tells their child certain things the child needs to do – like do your homework, clean your room, brush your teeth, etc. What would the parent think if the child responded by saying, “But mom, all I need to do is love you and believe in you.” The parent would see this as nothing more than a clever way in which the child tries to duck out of the instructions their parent gives them. Indeed, in this example, all we would see is the child loves himself more than the parent. It is the same scenario with God’s instructions in the Sacraments. By just responding “all we need to do is believe/love/have faith in Jesus,” the person is doing the same thing as the self-absorbed child and the lazy husband. In the faith alone teaching, inserting the word “alone” is actually very revealing. The word alone is a tricky way in which the person tries to dismiss the necessary action associated with faith. This faith alone idea is nothing more than our flawed, prideful, self-absorbed sin kicking in so we can avoid God’s instructions and instead follow our selfish directives.
In fact, to have faith in someone is meaningless unless you follow that person’s directions. Having faith in someone implies responding by doing something in which we affirm their very words. It would be meaningless for me to say I have faith in my doctor and yet do nothing to reference this faith. If I say I have faith in my doctor that would require me to do something to demonstrate this faith - to follow his medical instructions. Therefore, for a person to have faith in someone requires that person to do something in order to validate that faith. When the Protestant inserts the word alone after faith, they are taking the element of doing something out of the equation that faith requires. You can’t do this. It is a logical contradiction because faith requires an action just like a triangle requires three sides. The whole point of faith is a response to data. You can’t take out the response aspect of faith and still have faith. What would follow isn’t faith, but rather what follows is merely a clever way in which someone tries to get out of the action of response. In this case, the person only shows faith in himself, not God. By saying I have faith in my financial advisor means I would have to put his advice into action, and his advice would take precedence over and above my thoughts. So, faith requires an action, and that action comes not from you, but from the instructions of that person you have faith in.
Jesus’ entire ministry is built around specific instructions much like a parent gives a child. Jesus famously said, “Whoever does the will of my Father is my brother and sister” (Matthew 12:50, see also Matthew 7:21, 19:21). Notice the words “does the will” is an action to do something and this something to do must be rooted in faith on the Father’s instructions. By these passages, we see how faith and works are intrinsically connected.
The faith alone logic also implies that Jesus is contradicting himself as he gives us specific instructions – but really these instructions are not important because all we need to do is have faith without any action associated with that faith. It would be like a child saying he has faith in his father one second, and the other second saying he does not need to do anything his father tells him. Now, we can see that this logic is just meaningless double talk. The faith alone reason is expected given humanity’s fallen nature. The one thought we would expect from flawed human beings is to manufacture the idea “we don’t need to do anything for salvation – all we need to do is have a vague faith with no action required.” Let’s be honest, defective human beings will always take the easy way out. But, Jesus directs people to do the exact opposite of of taking the selfish easy way out of doing nothing (see Luke 9:23).
In fact, it is necessary for Jesus first to establish belief and faith with his people before he gives them his difficult instructions to “do this.” As a parent, I know for my children to listen to my instructions I first need them to believe and trust in me. If they don’t believe me, they won’t listen to my instructions. So, it is a pre-requisite to establish belief first, then, they will listen to my important instructions. In fact, I basically sum up my entire parental philosophy to my 4-year-old by saying, “believe me.” When I say “believe me,” I am simultaneously saying follow my instructions. Belief in a person is meaningless without following the instructions of the person we claim to believe. This idea is true of a parent, and it is true of God.
I saw this played out very plainly for me as a dad. My 4-year-old was recently learning to ride his bike. While riding he fell off his bike and badly cut his leg. I had to take him to the medical clinic so they could clean up his wound and potentially stitch it if necessary. During this whole time, my child was crying and becoming overly clingy to me. However, I had to fill out some medical forms before we could proceed in healing Jack’s wounds. So, I had to hand over my child to the doctor so he can clean up Jack’s wounds, give him a shot, and bandage up his bad cut. I had about 30 seconds to explain to Jack what was going to happen. Given the situation and Jack’s level of comprehension, the only way I could communicate to Jack was to say “You need to believe me and trust me.” I obviously had to say this because to his level of thinking what was happening didn’t make sense to him. From Jack’s perspective, he is thinking: “I just had a bad accident, and my leg hurts. I want to cling to my loving father. But, my father is giving me up to a stranger (the doctor) and this stranger is going to inject a painful shot into me and put ointment on my wound that will really hurt.” Again, the child does not understand the situation. We don’t expect the child to know anything about proper medical attention and procedure. Well, when it comes to God’s instructions we are in the position of the child. We are not at God’s level just like the child is not at the parent’s level so of course we are not going to understand God’s instructions in salvation.
It is no wonder Jesus repeatedly told his followers to believe him – because they don’t know how to obtain salvation. If they did know how to attain salvation, then they wouldn’t need him anyway. Obviously, Jesus needs to establish belief and faith in him first so they know they can listen to him, and to do what sounds to them like bizarre instructions. We can see this precisely played out in John chapter 6. In this scene, the crowd that followed Jesus asked what they can do to accomplish the works of God. Jesus then launched into the bread of life discourse. And the first thing he needed to do before he was going to communicate this difficult teaching is what all good parents need to do before they teach their children something they won’t fully understand – establish trust. Notice Jesus first says, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent” (John 6:29). Now that we know belief requires action and to act upon a difficult teaching requires a lot of belief in that person, we can better understand what Jesus is doing. A few verses after Jesus said to believe in him (John 6:47), he then told them: “I am the bread of life” (6:48). Then, he said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” (6:51). Now, these statements would have sounded extremely bizarre to the Jews. In fact, we see that the crowd very much revolted against Jesus’ teaching (6: 42,52,60,66). Given their revolt to this hard to understand teaching, no wonder Jesus first had to establish belief in him.
Paul also used this method of first establishing belief and faith. The Gentiles that Paul was communicating with are like spiritual babies. They don’t know anything about the Old Covenants. So, of course, he first has to say believe in Jesus just like I first have to say to my 4-year-old believe in me. However, when Paul writes to established churches (Ephesians, Corinthians, etc.) we notice he goes more specific on his instructions. How you talk to a toddler is going to be different than how you talk to a teen. The Gentiles are like toddlers and the Jewish community are like teenagers. You need to be more specific with teens than with toddlers simply because toddlers don’t know as much as teens do.
When Paul says to have faith and believe in Jesus, he is implying you need to do Jesus’ instructions to have faith in him. Additionally, Paul famously tells us that love is greater than faith. (1 Corinthians 13:13). If love is greater than faith, than how can anyone say that all we need if faith alone? Also, we know that love is a verb. In fact, love is the ultimate verb - the total action of doing something geared toward the good of the other. The cross is the greatest act of love. And the cross is ALL action – it didn’t happen willy-nilly without Jesus’ immense act of will.
Finally, the faith alone idea is exposed in the book of James when James declares rather plainly: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). Then, two verses later James sums up, “faith apart from works is dead” (2:26). So, ironically when we see the phrase faith alone in the Bible it has a not in front of it – “not by faith alone.” Can Scripture be any more obvious on this matter?
I think we’ve shown that the faith alone idea is highly problematic. When we add everything up, the totality of Jesus’ instructions are in the Sacraments of the Catholic Church (see evidence in: Luke 22: 19-20, John 3:5, 20:22-23, Matthew 16:18, 18:17, 1Timothy 3:15). When we don’t do the Sacraments all we do is demonstrate our lack of faith in Jesus all the while saying we have faith in him. This is nothing more than demonstrating the great human cop out. We love ourselves more than we love God. Protestantism may have good intentions, but it does not offer us the solution. Protestantism simply demonstrates the human problem. Protestantism is like a well-meaning but inept personal trainer. The personal trainer gives you some good advice here and there but at the end of the day all they give you is a twinkie. They give you the very problem you want to avoid – your selfish desires. They give you what you want, but not what you need. The problem is our wants are messed up. The want is the last thing we need. We must be given what we need.
Faith is rooted in action and for faith to make sense you need to listen to the person you have faith in. So, will you listen to Jesus and his Church he established or will you sit on the sidelines and recite faith alone without doing what Jesus tells you to do?
The choice is yours.