Wednesday, August 28, 2013

St. Augustine on the role of works at the final judgment

I like to tell my students that, after the authors of Scripture, there are three towering figures who have most influenced Catholic thought. I refer to them as the "Triple A Club": Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas.

(My colleague John Kincaid calls them the "A-Team". However, I'm not sure who Mr. T would be in his schema.)

Today we celebrate the feast day of the second, St. Augustine.

I've been reading Augustine a lot lately. Here I'd like to focus on one work of his in particular, entitled, On Faith and Works. Of course, the issue of the role of works in salvation has been mind.
As readers of this blog are probably aware, I recently contributed to a book entitled, Four Views on the Role of Works at the Final Judgment (with James Dunn, Thomas Schreiner, and Robert Wilkin; edited by Alan Stanley). The book is the latest installment in Zondervan Academic's "Counterpoints" series.

As you would expect, Dunn, Schreiner, Wilkin, and I disagree with one another on the precise role works play in salvation. However, while we have serious disagreements, the discussion is, I believe, irenic in tone. 

I hope it is illuminative for readers who are trying to get their minds around the different perspectives on the topic. I've been pleased to see it get some attention online (e.g., Michael Bird, Scot McKnight, Nijay Gupta). 

The Catholic View of Works 

My view, in brief, is as follows.

As a Catholic, I believe that grace empowers our works so that they have salvific value. Having received grace, we are able to do works that--because of grace--"count" towards our salvation. This is not Pelagianism--one is not saved by works and not by grace. The works have meritorious value precisely because they are the result of Christ living within us (Gal. 2:20).

This stands in stark contrast to the traditional Protestant view, which holds that one is saved by grace through faith alone (sola fide). Indeed, Protestants would affirm that good works are important, but (generally speaking) they would hold that they are not themselves rewarded with salvation. Good works are the necessary result of saving faith. Faith alone justifies, but saving faith is never alone.

As I explain in the book, I simply cannot accept this view. The Protestant view is correct that initial justification is received apart from works. However, after one has received God's gift of salvation, it seems to me grace is powerful enough to render our works salvific.

This, I believe, is what Paul means when he says,
"Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure" (Philippians 2:12–13).
Of course, traditionally, the biggest problem text for the standard Protestant view is found in James:
Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:21-24)
James does not say that one is justified by works because they are simply evidence of one's faith. Abraham's works themselves had justifying power. Indeed, James explains that it was specifically Rahab's works that justified her (James 2:25).

Martin Luther famously understood that James contradicted sola fide. He wrote:
… in direct opposition to St. Paul and all the rest of the Bible it [the epistle of James] ascribes justification to works, and declares that Abraham was justified by his works when he offered up his son. . . This defect proves that the epistle is not of apostolic provenance.—Martin Luther*
In my view, the traditional Protestant position is inconsistent. Protestants take Paul at his word when he says that one is justified "by faith [ek pist eōs]" (Rom 5:1)--faith is the means by which one is justified. However, when James says one is justified "by works [ex ergōn]" (Jas 2:21, 24-25) the use of a preposition means something entirely different. For Paul, faith plays an instrumental role in justification; for James, it does not.

In short, I think grace is truly amazing--it can render our imperfect works salvific. Protestants say grace just isn't that amazing.

If my view (the Catholic view) is wrong it is therefore not because I attribute to little to God's grace; rather, it would be because I give it too much credit.

St. Augustine on the role of works

Back to Augustine. 

How did Augustine understand the role of works in salvation? 

Notably, Augustine wrote an entire treatise, entitled, On Faith and Works**. Here he warns about a dangerous heretical view that promised some a "false assurance":
In the first place, we feel that we should advise the faithful that they would endanger the salvation of their souls if they acted on the false assurance that faith alone is sufficient for salvation or that they need not perform good works in order to be saved. (no. 21) 
Notice that Augustine highlights two problems:
  1. The "false assurance" that "faith alone" without good works is sufficient for salvation. 
  2. That one need not perform good works to be saved at the final judgment.

Where did some get this dangerous view? Through a misunderstanding of St. Paul's teaching:
This, in fact, is what some had thought even in the time of the apostles. for at that time there were some who did not understand certain rather obscure passages of St. Paul, and who thought therefore that he had said: Let us do evil that there may come good [Rom 3:8]. They thought that this was what St. Paul meant when he said: The law entered in that sin might abound. And where sin abounded, grace did more abound [Rom 5:20]. (no. 21)  
What did St. Paul really teach?
When St. Paul says, therefore, that man is justified by faith and not by the observance of the law, he does not mean that good works are not necessary or that it is enough to receive and to profess the faith and no more. What he means rather and what he wants us to understand is that man can be justified by faith, even though he has not previously performed any works of the law. (no. 21)
Paul isn't condemning works or suggesting that only faith is a necessary condition for salvation. On the contrary, he writes that that it is not enough to profess faith and not have good works. Still, good works are preceded by faith.

This, Augustine argues, was the teaching of Jesus.
. . . I do not see why the Lord said: If you will enter into life, keep the commandments [Matt 19:17], or why, after He had said this, He listed those which one must keep in order to live a good life [Matt 19:18-19], if one can obtain eternal life without keeping the commandments, by faith alone, which without works is dead [Jas 2:14]. And then, too, how will the Lord be able to say to those whom He will place on His left hand: Go you into the everlasting fire, which was prepared for the devil and his angels [Matt 25:41]? For it is evident that He rebukes them, not because they did not believe in Him, but because they did not perform good works. [Matt 25:44] (no. 25)
Is Augustine Pelagian (i.e., affirming that one can be saved by works and not by grace)? Of course, not!

Augustine believes that good works are salvific precisely because they are performed by grace. When God rewards our works, he is ultimately acknowledging the work he has accomplished in us: Then God will crown not so much thy merits, as his own gifts."***

It seems to me, Augustine's view is the Catholic view. Salvation is the result of God's grace. It is first received as a gift, not on the basis of works. However, once we have received the initial grace of justification, grace empowers us to do works that are truly salvific / meritorious in value.

For more, check out my essay in the new book.

*Cited from John Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings (New York: Doubleday, 1962), 19.

  **St. Augustine, On Faith and Works 21 [CSEL 41.61-62; FC 27:246-48]. Translation taken from St. Augustine, On Faith and Works, trans. by Gregory J. Lombardo, C.S.C., S.T.D. (Ancient Christian Writers 48; New York: Mahwah, 1988).

***St. Augustine, Sermon 120, 10. Cited from St. Augustine, Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament, Vol. 2 (Oxford / London / Cambridge: James Parker & Co., 1845), 879.


James McGrath said...

Mr. T would be the Thomas who is already on your A-Team...obviously! :-)

De Maria said...

It seems to me that St. Paul made two related points when he was speaking about justification.

One point which he makes, when he says, "we are saved by faith apart from the works of the law", he is comparing the Christian Sacramental schema to the Mosaic schema.

It is in the Sacraments that we present ourselves before the fountain of grace, and without any works on our part, but only a firm belief that God can accomplish in us that which He promised, we are washed of our sins while calling on His name.

This is what Luther misunderstood. He assumed that by "works of the law", St. Paul meant "good deeds and actions." But, in my opinion, St. Paul was comparing the New Testament law of faith to the Old Testament law of works.

However, in the second point, he also compares justification by the Sacraments to our justification according to the keeping of the Commandments. This is what he does when he says, "Doers of the law will be justified." And again, "circumcision and uncircumcision are nothing but the keeping of the Commandments of God."

God is not fooled. The Sacraments are mini judgments and any man who presents himself for the Sacraments who does not have the proper attitude of faith which has been demonstrated in repentance and good works, this person will not be justified. In fact, as he says about the Eucharist, many have fallen asleep because they did not have the proper attitude of faith.

He also recognizes that unless we continue in good works throughout our life, we will not be saved. it doesn't matter how many times we are justified in the Sacraments. The Sacraments are helps to salvation. But they are not salvation itself. As the Scripture says clearly and often:

Revelation 22:12-15
King James Version (KJV)
12 And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be. 13 I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. 14 Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city. 15 For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.

There is another point. St. Paul did not believe that we could judge our own merit nor the merit of other people's works. He taught that God alone is our Judge and He determines the merit or demerit of our works. Therefore, he said, "do not judge before time, God will reveal and appraise the works of men."


De Maria

Michael Barber said...


Very funny! I should have thought of that!

De Maria:

Obviously, you are right that the sacraments play a pivotal role. I couldn't get into that here.

I do think that there are times when "works of the law" is primarily a reference to circumcision. However, works in Romans 4:3-6 clearly have a broader meaning, as Aquinas, for example, acknowledges. Either way, the Catholic point stands: the initial grace of justification is not merited by works (CCC 2010).

De Maria said...

Michael Barber said:
De Maria:

Obviously, you are right that the sacraments play a pivotal role. I couldn't get into that here.

I was simply adding to the point where you mentioned the Protestant misunderstanding.

I do think that there are times when "works of the law" is primarily a reference to circumcision. However, works in Romans 4:3-6 clearly have a broader meaning, as Aquinas, for example, acknowledges. Either way, the Catholic point stands: the initial grace of justification is not merited by works (CCC 2010).

This is also true. But I think is also misunderstood by Protestants. If I may mention, Protestant frequently say to me that "Salvation is a grace which is freely given to us by God. We can't merit salvation."

And without a doubt, they are correct. But not completely.

In my opinion, when St. Paul says, "Titus 2:11
For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men,"

He is not referring to salvation as an action of God's. He is speaking of Jesus Christ and referring to Him as Salvation. And it is absolutely true that God gave us His only begotten Son and that this gift is without merit on our part.

But salvation itself, the act of God's, is given to a select few who keep the Commandments and obey the Word of God:
Hebrews 5:9
And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him;

Salvation is merited.
John 14:21
He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.

It is also true that strictly speaking, we can't merit it. Nothing we do has the intrinsic worth to allow us to claim salvation. But for God's mercy and love whereby He imbues our dirty rags and accepts them as a mother accepts the ugly scribbles of her little child and proudly posts on the refrigerator for all to see.
Hebrews 6:10
For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister.


De Maria

Anonymous said...

Bergsma needs to comment here about what the Dead Sea Scrolls show about the meaning of "works of the law" at that time. Cue Bergsma!

Anonymous said...

If it's not too blasphemous, may I suggest that Mr. T is our Lord Jesus Christ Who died for our sins on a cross: "T"