The two major doctrinal sticking points between Catholics and Protestants are "sola fide" and "sola scriptura". I have addressed sola scriptura a number of times on this blog, because I think it is more fundamental than is sola fide. But last month I wrote briefly here about justification by faith. Now I wish to say a bit more.
According to Scott Hahn, John Gerstner once said, [paraphrasing], "If we're wrong on sola fide, I'd be on my knees outside the Vatican in Rome tomorrow morning doing penance." What is encouraging about that statement is that he recognizes that if he is wrong about sola fide, he is not only in [material] heresy, but also in schism. It seems to me that fewer Protestants are aware of the truth of a conditional of that sort. I want to focus on "initial justification" by which I mean that initial translation from the state in which man is born in the first Adam to the state of grace through the second Adam, Jesus Christ. Is this initial justification by "faith alone"?
I think the answer to that question depends on what is meant by the term 'faith'. When we [Americans] hear the term 'faith', we tend immediately to think of something entirely individual, internal, private and subjective. But in the fathers, faith is something public. It is something we receive from God through the Church (cf. Romans 10:14-15). We come into the fullness of that life of faith through baptism, which is for that reason called the "sacrament of faith". It is through baptism that we are initially justified, because it is through baptism that we are washed, regenerated, brought into the community of faith and the fullness of the life of faith, and thus joined to the Body of Christ. Yes, of course, catechumens who died prior to baptism were considered by the Church to be justified. But that was not because baptism is not Christ's appointed means of initial justification. Rather, the Church taught that in His mercy Christ granted to these persons also the grace of baptism through their desire for it. Thus it was called "baptism of desire".
When we read passages like Ephesians 2:8, we tend not to recognize that the context has to do with baptism. Reading the fathers on baptism (and they are very clear on this subject) shows that baptism is the sacramental means by which we die with Christ and are raised with Him. And that is what Paul is talking about in Ephesians 2:1-7. So the faith of Ephesians 2:8 is not a private, entirely subjective, individual faith; it is an ecclesial faith, the faith of the Church in the Church with the Church. It is a baptismal faith.
Likewise, Romans 10:9 can only be understood in the context of Romans chapter 6. Romans chapter 6 is all about living in post-baptismal grace. So "confessing with one's mouth" and "believing in one's heart" is not teaching a private, individualistic, non-ecclesial act. Rather, Paul is talking about an act that is still practiced to this day in the Catholic Church. Catechumens confess to (and with) the Church the faith of the Church (i.e. now in the form of the Creed) just prior to their baptism. So the "confessing with one's mouth" Paul is talking about is a public, ecclesial confessing in the context of receiving the sacrament of baptism, and subsequently and regularly in public worship. He does not have to explain this to his readers, because they all know it, having all gone through it themselves. But in the non-sacramental context of contemporary evangelicalism, there is no such awareness of that implicitly understood ecclesial and sacramental context. And hence these verses are often interpreted in very individualistic, non-sacramental and non-ecclesial ways.
Is baptism a work? Yes and no. Yes, in that Christ is the baptizer. He is the one (through the minsters of the Church) who baptizes. He works; we receive baptism. But baptism is not a work of the Law, but a work of grace. With our hearts and mouths we do something. So in that sense we are doing a work in order to be justified. But this work is the result of grace. It is by grace that our eyes have been opened to understand and believe the gospel that was preached to us. It is by grace that we show ourselves to the Church as ready for baptism. It is by grace that we believe and confess before the Church the faith of the Church, and thus it is by grace that we do all those things that lead to our baptism. And so we cannot boast! And yet we were not passive or inactive; it was truly our will that carried out those acts. We were not puppets being pushed by divine will apart from or without our will. But our will was a will transformed and empowered and drawn forward to the Truth and the Mysteries by divine grace.
Are we initially justified by faith alone? If we are speaking about a faith that is sacramental and ecclesial in nature, and as such includes within itself works of all sort, i.e. believing the gospel, repenting, obeying the Commandments and precepts of the Church in the Catechumenate period, willing to be baptized, and in fact receiving baptism, then the answer is yes. Such a conception of faith includes within itself the sacrament of baptism by which we are regenerated and given the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. So in that broad sense of the term 'faith', we could be said to be initially justified by "faith alone". But we are not initially justified by "faith alone" if by 'faith' is meant something entirely individual, private and separate from the sacrament of baptism (and the preparation necessary for its reception) and from incorporation into the life of the Church, a life which includes the other sacraments and prayer and obeying the Commandments. So the debate hinges in part on our conception of 'faith', whether it is individualistic, non-sacramental, and private, or ecclesial, sacramental, and corporate. The more we recognize the connection between baptism and justification, the closer we will be to the Catholic Church's doctrine on the relation of faith and our initial justification.
"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)