Monday, February 15, 2016

The Sheep and the Goats: Faith and Works

Today, in both the Traditional and Novus Ordo calendars, the Gospel reading at Holy Mass was the parable of the sheep and the goats, taken from the Gospel of St. Matthew.  Here it is, in the English translation used in the Traditional Mass:

Matt. 25:31-46
At that time, Jesus said to His disciples: When the Son of Man shall come in His majesty, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory; and before Him will be gathered all the nations, and He will separate them one from another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the king will say to those on his right hand, ‘Come, blessed of My Father, take possession of the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave Me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave Me to drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; naked and you covered Me; sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ Then the just will answer Him, saying; ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You; or thirsty, and give you to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and take You in; or naked, and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And, answering, the king will say to them, ‘Amen I say to you, as long as you did it for one of these, the least of My brethren, you did it for Me.’ Then He will say to those on His left hand, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you did not give Me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ Then they also will and say, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Amen I say to you, as long as you did not do it for one of these least ones, you did not do it for Me.’ And these will go into everlasting punishment, but the just into everlasting life."
Shortly after my personal conversion experience nearly twelve years ago, converting to the Catholic Church from my Presbyterian heritage, I began my first extensive and serious reading of Sacred Scripture.  When I encountered this passage I found it to be a decisive refutation of the doctrine of "sola fide" advanced by Luther and others in the 16th Century.  If "faith alone" saves us, what is Jesus talking about here?  His words make it abundantly clear that we are required to act on our faith, not just profess and hold it, and that if we fail to act, by performing the corporal works of mercy, the result is "everlasting punishment."  He doesn't mention any exceptions.  In my further studies in preparation for becoming Catholic, I learned that while the Church absolutely does not teach that we can "earn" Heaven by works of mercy, it does teach, in harmony with the words of Jesus quoted above, that salvation can be lost if we fail to do them.

The parable also appears in today's Matins readings for the traditional Divine Office, as well as, somewhat to my surprise, an argument against "salvation by faith alone" in a homily given by St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo--in the Fourth Century!  I had always assumed Luther et al. had come up with "sola fide" themselves, but obviously there were others who were arguing that erroneous position even back in the time of Augustine.  So here is what that great Saint and Doctor of the Church had to say about it:

Homily by St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo.
On Faith and Works, xv. 4.
"If, without keeping the commandments, it be possible to attain unto life by faith only, and faith, if it hath not works, is dead, James ii. 17, how can it be true that the Lord will say to such as He shall have set on His left hand Depart from Me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels? He rebuketh them, not because they have not believed in Him, but because they have not wrought good works. ..."
The parable of the sheep and the goats is not, of course, the only Gospel passage refuting the notion of salvation by faith alone.  Recall the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus said:
"Not every one who says to me, `Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, `I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.' 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." Mt 7:21-27
The same message is conveyed in the Sermon on the Plain in St. Luke's Gospel (Lk 6:46-49), but I won't restate it here.  I think you get my drift.  Unless we follow the Second Great Commandment, to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, and act on that Commandment by coming to the aid of our neighbors in need, all the faith in the world will not be enough by itself to open the gates of Heaven to us.

Let us take the opportunity afforded by the discipline of Lent to convert our hearts to obedience to Christ's teachings, in all things, especially performing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.  The Savior's own words tell us that faith alone is not enough to attain our eternal goal.

Laudator Jesus Christus!


  1. Since you're a former Protestant and I'm not, I'm happy to be corrected, but my understanding is the sola fide position does not exempt someone from acting on his faith. In fact, action would be seen as an expression of living faith. Consider the Protestant Hospitals and universities and mission efforts in the Third World.

    Clearly Luther's sola fide was a reaction against abuses of indulgences and such during his him, but I wouldn't know what later reformers thought of it. Some residual bias against papism probably existed, but I've never researched where it went after that. Deacon Alex Jones also joined the Catholic Church after reacting against the extreme sola fide theology he was exposed to (and did a series in EWTN on the Epistle of James in response) so perhaps different denominations view it differently than others.

    I've always been amused by all the solas. Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia. It seems like there's a lot of things in the mix if each one of them acts alone. Add in the Anglican "Sola Bonum Saporem" (good taste alone) and it gets really confusing!

    1. Good points. There are many variations, and while I'm not aware of any Protestant group that eschews all good works, most hold firmly that they are not necessary for salvation. Many of these also hold to the "once saved, always saved" dogma. Yes, it's very confusing!