Is the faith without deeds enough to be saved?

In Saint James, 2, 14, 17 it is said:“What will it profit, my brothers, if a man says has faith, but does not have works?.. So faith too, unless it has works is dead in itself”.

And there we can also read (Saint James 2, 19-22):“Thou believest that there is one God? Thou dost well. The devils also believe, and tremble. But don’t thou want to know, O senseless man, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up Isaac his son upon the altar? Don’t thou see that faith worked along with his works and by the works the faith was made perfect?And it concludes (Saint James 2, 26):“For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith also without works is dead”.

Luther, one of the founders of  Protestantism, sustained so tenaciously that faith without works was enough in order to be saved, that since Saint James’s Epistle is clear refuting such assert, he even decided to suppress the mentioned Epistle from the canon (from the books of the Bible), refusing to accept it as a book inspired by God, as it had been accepted by the century old tradition of the Church.

Nowadays, the position of the Evangelicals, followers of Luther, is quite different, since they accept the Epistle of Saint James as inspired by God and they admit that man can be saved if he has a living faith and if this faith is ratified by works. Therefore, their point of view is remarkably close to the position of Catholics in that matter. Some theologians are searching to approach each other in the mentioned subject.

The Protestant objection is mainly founded in Saint Paul’s texts (Galatians 2, 16-17 and 3, 2-7). In the first one, we can read:“…But we know that man is not justified by the works of the Law, but by the faith in Jesus Christ…”It refers to the works of the law, all those passages of Moses’ law which were not everlasting.

On the other hand, to clearly see that it is not faith without deeds what saves us, we can read on the same passage of Saint Paul (Galatians 5,6):“For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision nor foreskin (uncircumcision) are of any avail, but faith which works through charity”:that is the same as saying that faith which is not activated by charity  is not of any value. But charity transforms faith in works, since charity, love is demonstrated by working, as the refrain reminds us “deeds, not words”. Therefore, it is a different way to say that a faith without works, without real charity is a dead faith: It is impossible to believe with love, with charity, except doing what the Lord commands, doing good works.[17]

Faith and works in Saint Thomas of Aquinas

Saint Thomas  of Aquinas doesn’t see any opposition between Saint Paul’s assert “we judge that man is justified  by the faith without works of the law” (Rom 2, 28) and Saint James’s one, “faith without works  is dead” (James 2, 26). He sustains that man is saved

by the faith and this without the works of the Law (…) without the works of moral precepts; in such a way, nevertheless, that we must understand without works which precede justice; but not without those which follow justice, because as it is said in James 2, “Faith without works”, referring to works following justice, is dead” (In Epistolam Pauli ad Romanos expositio, III, lec. IV, Nº 317)

“It is necessary that heart of man be at first justified by God  in order that man  does works according to the divine glory” (In Epistolam Pauli ad Romanos expositio, IV, lec. I, Nº 325); or that “after man has been justified by faith, it is necessary that faith works by charity in order to reach salvation” (In Epistolam Pauli ad Romanos expositio, X, lec. II, Nº 831)[18].

Remark: Works without love of God and of our neighbour are vain, they are not worthy of the eyes of God: For instance, if a man does big charity works just to be flattered, his deeds are just a manifestation of egoism and not of real love. (The Evangel says that if you give in order to be flattered, “you already have your prize” (Mt 6, 2-4) which means that God will not reward you, it isn’t worthy of His eyes but perhaps something to be punished about).

Nevertheless, in order to have in our heart a true disposition of love to God and to our neighbours, we need God’s grace (God doesn’t deny such grace to anybody). We need at least a spark of faith as well as an initial free consent to this starting of faith, because it is possible to refuse to cooperate with grace, for God never imposes but respects our freedom. (Some people, even if they don’t explicitly know Jesus Christ, but just as an initial movement of charity towards God and to their neighbours that supposes a beginning of faith in Jesus Christ, who, without knowing it, they see in their neighbours) 

In that sense, faith is necessary in order that our deeds are liked by God. But even having this first consent of faith, if it is not followed by the good deeds which make that faith a living faith, it would be worth nothing, it would be a dead faith.  


[18]Pg 145, “Go to Thomas” by Eudaldo Forment, Pamplona, 2005