The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Father MacEvily’s Commentary on James 2:14-18

Posted by Dim Bulb on September 11, 2012

I’ve included in this post the Bishop’s own paraphrasing of the text he is commenting on. The paraphrases are in purple text and follow immediately after the scripture passage and before his comments.

Jas 2:14  What shall it profit, my brethren, if a man say he hath faith, but hath not works? Shall faith be able to save him?

But of what avail will it be for a man, my brethren, to have faith, and to place reliance on his faith, if he have not works corresponding with it? Will his faith, without works, be sufficient for salvation? By no means.

The Apostle now enters on one of the principal subjects of this Epistle, viz., the refutation of the errors of the followers of Simon Magus, regarding the sufficiency of faith alone for justification. As this erroneous doctrine, so ably and clearly refuted here by St. James, is one of the fundamental errors revived by modern Reformers, it may not be amiss to explain, in a few words, the doctrine of the Catholic Church on this subject; this doctrine has been so clearly laid down by the Council of Trent (Session VI., de justificatione).

Every Catholic admits the absolute, indispensable necessity of faith for justification. “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews, xi.) ; without it, no man was ever justified, sine qua (fide) nulli unquam contigit justificatio (Council of Trent, Sess VI, 7). Although, not absolutely the first grace (the proposition,  fides est prima gratia, put forward in the Schismatical Council of Pistoia, was condemned in the Bull, Auctorem fidei); still, it is the first grace in the order of justification, of which it is “the root and foundation,” in the language of the Council of Trent (Sess VI., , 8). But every Catholic denies the sufficiency of this faith, for justification or salvation. It is necessary, not sufficient. Besides faith. Catholics require other dispositions, viz., hope, fear, penance, initial charity. All these are required, as previous dispositions, before God infuses the grace of justification. These may all exist in the soul; but they do not, by any means, constitute this grace, nor do they establish any claim to it, that either on the grounds of justice or fidelity, God might not refuse. It is quite certain, however, that whenever they exist in the soul, God will, of his own goodness, gratuitously infuse the grace of justification, which is a grace inhering in the soul—this is a point of faith—and it is theologically certain, that it inheres, permanently, by wayof habit. It cleanses the soul from the stains of sin whereby it is defiled, in a manner analogous to the defilement caused
the body by leprosy; and according as this grace is increased, the soul becomes brighter and fairer in the sight of God; in the language of the Psalmist, “whiter than snow.” This grace of justification is accompanied with the virtues of faith, hope, and charity, and the several gifts of the Holy Ghost, The same good works, the same acts, which, performed under the influence of divine grace and faith by a sinner before he is justified, serve only as dipositions for justification, will, when performed by the same man, after he is justified, and in a state of sanctifying grace, give him a claim, and a strict right, grounded on God’s gratuituous and liberal promise, to an increase of
sanctifying grace, to eternal life, and its attainment, if he die in grace, and to an increase of glory. This is what Catholics call merit, grounded, however, on God’s grace, and his gratuitous promise, through the merits of Christ (Council of Trent, Sess., VI., Can XXXII).

Modern sectaries, on the other hand, maintain, that in order to be justified and saved, faith alone is sufficient; this justifying faith, according to them, consists in a firm and undoubted confidence, which each one has, that, although in sin, God does not impute to him his sins, in consideration of the merits of Christ. As for good works, they deny them a share in justifying man, they require them merely as the fruits of faith, signs of its presence; since without them, true faith, according to their notions, cannot exist.

Now, that their idea of justifying faith is wholly erroneous, will appear quite evident to any person who reads the 11th chapter of St. Paul to the Hebrews, wherein he describes this justifying faith to be the “evidence of things that appear not,” and in applying it to the several examples, he always supposes it to consist in a firm belief in the truth of God’s revelation.

Again, that, besides faith, good works are required for justification and salvation, is so evident from the following part of this chapter, that it only requires to be read over attentively, to be convinced of it. In truth, the words bear no other meaning, and on this account it was, that some of the early Reformers rejected the Epistle altogether. Finally, that true faith may exist without good works or charity, is clear from several passages of Sacred Scripture. St. John 12:42 says, “many of the chief men believed in him, but did not confess him, for they loved the glory of man more than of God,” The word, “believe” here has reference to real, true faith, as is evident from the use of the word, in the entire chapter. St. Paul tells us, that “if he had faith strong enough to remove mountains, &c.,'” and had not charity, it would profit him nothing (1 Cor 13), and that this faith can be separated from charity, is clear from St Matthew 7, wherein, we are told, that many will say,
“Lord have we not performed many wonders in thy name,”and shall receive for answer—”I neverknew you.”

Objection.—St. James does not deny the sufficiency of real faith, because he is referring to mere putative faith, “if a man say, he has faith.”

Answer.—He speaks of real faith; for, he adds, “shall faith be able to save him?” He therefore, supposes the person in question to have real, genuine faith.

Jas 2:15  And if a brother or sister be naked and want daily food:

Suppose a Christian of either sex to be naked or hungry, and in want of common necessaries of life,

The Apostle illustrates the inutility of faith and the knowledge it gives us, unless accompanied with good works, by an example of the inutility, to a distressed neighbour, of our knowledge of his wants, and of our sterile sympathy, unless it be accompanied by acts of benevolence administering to his wants. “If a brother or sister,” i.e., a Christian of either sex, “be naked,” &c, i.e., in want of the common necessaries of life.

Jas 2:16  And one of you say to them: Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled; yet give them not those things that are necessary for the body, what shall it profit?

And that any of you, aware of this want, dismiss them with the cold expression of your sympathy and good wishes for their relief, without, at the same time administering to their wants, of what avail will your knowledge of their wants be to them?

“And one of you,” without relieving them, merely wishes them well, “be you
warmed,” &c., “what will it profit?” which is equivalent to saying—it shall be of no profit whatever to them.

Jas 2:17  So faith also, if it have not works, is dead in itself.

As, then, fine professions of regard will nowise profit the distressed, with whose wants we are acquainted, unless we administer relief; so neither will the knowledge we have from faith avail us without works, without complying with what it points out. Unaccompanied with works, it is dead in itself; for, it is destitute of the vivifying principle of sanctifying grace, whereby, we are perfectly connected with the head of which we are members, and his grace and mercy communicated to us.

“So faith also, if it have not works, is dead in itself.” In the Greek, καθ εαυτην,
by itself. This is the application of the foregoing example. As kind words, and fine professions of regard, even accompanied by good wishes, will prove of no avail to the distressed; so, neither will faith profit the believer; “it is dead in itself;” because, the person who only has faith, although he be a member, is still but a dead member of the body of Christ; his faith is altogether dead, as to justification. The Apostle explains this more fully in verse 26, “as the body without the spirit is dead,” &c.

From this, it by no means follows, that faith without good works is not real faith. St. James looks upon faith in this verse, as destitute of the vivifying principle of charity, or good works, by which it is enlivened or roused to action (Gal 5:6); he compares it to a human body, destitute of the soul that animates it, which, although dead, is still a real body. So, charity is the soul or form of faith, which, although proceeding from the principle of divine grace, is, still, dead as to justification without charity, which alone perfectly unites us with Christ, our head. “Faith” says the Council of Trent (Sess VI., c. 7), “unless hope and charity be added to it, does not perfectly unite one with Christ, nor render him a living member of his body.” Faith, even without charity, really subsists in its subject, viz., the soul of man; in its object, God and eternal glory; in its motive, revelation; but, it is dead as to justification. From this very example, it is clear, that faith can be without good works; because, as we can have a knowledge of our neighbour’s wants without actually relieving them; so, also, can we have the knowledge imparted by faith, without acting up to it by good works.

Jas 2:18  But some man will say: Thou hast faith, and I have works. Shew me thy faith without works; and I will shew thee, by works, my faith.

(Another argument of the inutility of faith without works, grounded on the impossibility of externally professing our faith otherwise than by good works). Suppose two Christians, one having works and faith, the other having no works; and that the former calls upon the latter to profess his faith, can he do this? By no means. Since it is by works alone it can be manifested; whereas, the other can, from his works, give a proof of his faith, from which his works have emanated.

This is a new argument of the inutility of faith alone, without good works.— Faith cannot be manifested without them; now, this external profession is obligatory on all, both for the sake of example, and for holding that communion of saints, in which we all believe.

Query.—How can a man show his faith from his works, since an unbeliever can perform many good works?

Answer.—St. James, in the present instance, supposes both the persons in question to have faith, and that the man having works, recurs to them as a proof and manifestation of his faith. Hence, he does not infer faith from works; for, he supposes faith to have existed previously. Moreover, from works we can infer the existence of faith; because, there are certain good works, or a continued performance of them, which only a person having faith could accomplish. For, although an unbeliever may, aided by actual divine grace, perform certain good works; still, he could not persevere in performing a continued series of good works, without sin; and there are certain heroic deeds of virtue, which he could not perform at all.

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