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Catholic-Lutheran Dialogue on Grace: Part I

Recently, I completed a series of articles on the Catholic understanding of grace (find parts one, two, and three at these links). At the same time, I was working on a series of articles documenting my journey to Catholicism. After the second installment of that series, I received excellent feedback from an individual named Michael. Although we did not know each other before this exchange, Conciliar Post provided a forum for us to connect, and to continue our conversation via email. Today’s post is the beginning of a dialogue that has arisen from this context. We dedicate this work to the possibility of Lutheran and Catholic reunion. We also recommend that you read a similar dialogue that took place among many Lutherans and Catholics here.


Part I: Lutheran Views on Grace and Faith

By Michael

“Sola fide” is one of the battle cries of the Reformation. But what exactly is faith? It is clear from the Lutheran Confessions that faith is not just belief. A Lutheran would say that one is not justified by belief alone, since Satan believes and is not justified. Lutherans do not define faith as merely belief. When Lutherans say “faith alone” we do not mean “belief alone.” James 2:19 says “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!”(1) Similarly, in the passage when James says faith without works is dead (Jas 2:14-26), he is saying that true justifying faith must have good works to be real faith. Faith without works is what Satan has—and Satan’s faith is not real faith.  

So, back to the question, what is faith? Apology to the Augsburg Confession (Apology) 4:48-50 says: “Faith that justifies is not merely  knowledge of history. It is to believe in God’s promise … it is to want and to receive the offered promise of forgiveness of sins and of justification … Faith is the divine service that receives the benefits offered by God … Faith means not only a knowledge of the history, but the kind of faith that believes in the promise.”(2) In the same vein, Apology 5:184 says: “Faith is not only knowledge in the intellect, but also confidence in the will.”(3) Later on, faith is described as an entire way of life, which is our entire relationship with Christ. Apology 5:130 says: “Since this faith is a new life, it necessarily produces new movements and works.” In addition, Solid Declaration (SD) III:13 says: “Faith justifies not because it is such a good work or because it is so beautiful a virtue. It justifies because it lays hold of and accepts Christ’s merit in the promise of the Holy Gospel.” So, faith properly understood is like an open hand that receives God’s promise, trusts in God’s forgiveness and salvation, and allows the Holy Spirit to work through them to have an entire life in Christ. Lutheran Pastor George Borquart describes faith in this way in this video.

Cardinal Dulles, a Roman Catholic, writes about Luther’s definition of faith as follows:

“Faith, for [Luther], is the means by which believers appropriate the saving work of Christ on their behalf. Faith lives off its object, which is Christ the redeemer. It is much more than an intellectual or theoretical assent. Luther called it the wedding ring that seals our mystical marriage with Christ, so that his righteousness now belongs to us. Through a wonderful exchange, Christ takes on our sins, and we allow ourselves to be drawn into Christ’s existence, so that we live in him and he in us. If faith is understood in this pregnant sense, it involves much more than imputation. It includes the indwelling of Christ and leads spontaneously to good works. Catholics can agree that faith, so understood, is sufficient for justification. Catholics, reading the Scriptures through the lens of Scholastic tradition, delight in making neat distinctions among the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Protestants, following Luther, often use the word ‘faith’ in a comprehensive sense that includes much of what Catholics would assign to the categories of hope and charity. By ‘faith alone’ Lutherans do not mean faith without hope and charity but faith that is not earned by prior good works. If this is meant, the formula ‘faith alone’ should not cause difficulties.”

Dulles is basically saying that Catholics and Lutherans do not define “faith” the same way. EWTN apologist Jimmy Akin says something similar here.

The next question, then, is where faith comes from. We are unable on our power to gain faith—faith is a gift from God that comes via the means of grace which are the Word and the Sacraments. Under “Apostles Creed” in Luther’s Small Catechism we find: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith” (Article III). Augsburg Confession (AC) XVIII says: “A person’s will has some freedom to choose civil righteousness and to do some things subject to reason. It has no power, without the Holy Spirit, to work the righteousness of God, that is, spiritual righteousness.” In other words, man on his own can do good civil works, but cannot have faith by his own effort. AC V states: “So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted.” SD III:16 says: “This righteousness is brought to us by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel and the Sacraments.” So, God gave us the Word and the Sacraments as means of grace, which give us faith. This is in accord with Romans 10:17: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” None of us would believe if nobody ever taught us whether that was parents, teachers, or clergy.  Titus 3:5 describes baptism in this way: “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.”

Now, it seems that all men have access to the means of grace—the Gospel has been proclaimed to every land. There are many who were baptized but have fallen away and lost their faith. Most people in our modern world today have heard the message, and many of them have rejected it of their own free will. So it seems to clear that God’s grace is not irresistible—Lutherans do not teach irresistible grace like Calvinists do. Article XI of SD discusses this subject at great length. XI:41 says: “The human will rejects or perverts the means and instrument of the Holy Spirit, which God offers it through the call. It resists the Holy Spirit, who wants to be effective, and who works through the word.”(4) So from a Lutheran perspective, it seems that our salvation through faith is God’s work alone, but our damnation is our own fault from our will that rejects the means of grace that God offers us.

On that same thought, Lutherans clearly reject the “once saved always saved” Calvinist mentality. Not only can we resist the means of grace, but we can even lose our salvation from the way we live our lives. Lutherans do believe that there is such a thing as mortal sin, which kills our faith and makes us again creatures worthy of damnation. Lutherans teach that we cannot keep sinning as much as we want, and still keep our faith and be saved. Lutherans do teach that contrition and purpose of amendment are necessary to have faith. Luther teaches us in Smalcald Articles (SA) III:43-45 that:

“I encountered some who held that those who had once received the Spirit of the forgiveness of sins or had become believers—even if they later sin—would still remain in the faith. Such sin, they think, would not harm then. They say ‘Do whatever you please. If you believe, it all amounts to nothing. Faith blots out all sins,’ and such. So it is necessary to know and to teach this: When holy people—still having and feeling original sin and daily repenting and striving against it—happen to fall into manifest sins (as David did into adultery, murder, and blasphemy), then faith and the Holy Spirit have left them. The Holy Spirit does not permit sin to have dominion, to gain the upper hand so it can be carried out, but represses and restrains it from doing what it wants. If sin does what it wants, the Holy Spirit and faith are not present.” (5)

Lutherans teach that, for faith to be genuine justifying faith, good works must follow and be part of that faith.  However, our good works cannot earn us our salvation. Our good works show that our faith is a genuine, justifying faith, and that our faith is not the kind of knowledge that the devil has. AC VI says: “Our churches teach that this faith is bound to bring forth good fruit. It is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will. We should not rely on those works to merit justification before God. The forgiveness of sins and justification is received through faith.” Apology 4:64 says that faith “liberates from death, and produces a new life in hearts. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. This does not coexist with mortal sin. As long as faith is present, it produces good fruits.” (6)Apology 5:98 says: “This passage of Paul requires love, We also require this. For we have said above that renewal and beginning to fulfill the Law must exist in us … If anyone should cast away love, even though he has great faith, he does not keep his faith. For he does not keep the Holy Spirit.”(7)

SD IV:9-12 says:

“Faith must be the mother and source of works that are truly good and well pleasing to God, which God will reward in the world to come. Luther says: ‘Faith is a divine work in us that changes us and makes us to be born anew of God. It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers; it brings with it the Holy Spirit. O, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. [Justifying] faith is a living, bold [firm] trust in God’s grace, so certain that a man would die a thousand times for it [rather than suffer this trust to be wrested from him]. And this trust and knowledge of divine grace renders [him] joyful, fearless, and cheerful towards God and all creatures, which [joy and cheerfulness] the Holy Ghost works through faith; and on account of this, man becomes ready and cheerful, without coercion, to do good to everyone, to serve every one, and to suffer everything for love and praise to God, who has conferred this grace on him, so that it is impossible to separate works from faith, yea, just as impossible as it is for heat and light to be separated from fire.”

Luther and Melanchthon are saying that there is no such thing as faith without works and charity. If faith is present, then good works and charity must be present as well.

Good spiritual works can only come as a part of faith. Civil good works can be done without faith, but not spiritual good works. Before we are justified and forgiven, we are only damned under the Law, and cannot love God because the Law only condemns us. Once we are forgiven and no longer condemned, then we can love God—and our faith and forgiveness give us the ability to do good spiritual works. Apology 5:20 says: “When forgiveness of sins has been received, then we are certain that we have a God that cares for us … we love Him because He gave his Son for us.” Apology 5:251 says: “Only justified people, who are led by the Spirit of Christ, can do good works. Without faith and Christ as mediator, good works do not please.”

While good works are necessary and are part of justifying faith, we do not earn our salvation by our good works, love, etc. Sin has placed an infinite gap between us and God, and no amount of good works is able to bridge that gap and earn our salvation. SD V:17 tells us that the Law “shows what the quality of a person should be in his nature, thoughts, words, and works, in order that he may be pleasing and acceptable to God. It also threatens its transgressors with God’s wrath and temporal and eternal punishment.” Romans 3:23 is clear that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” So none of us keeps the Law perfectly and none of us is free from God’s wrath. In order to be saved by the Law (doing good works and obeying God’s commands), it is necessary to keep the whole Law. Of course none of us can keep the whole Law, which is the entire reason why we needed a redeemer. If we are able to earn our salvation on our own, there is no need for a redeemer. Apology 4:12 says: “If we merit forgiveness of sins by these acts [good works], what need is there of Christ?” Apology 4:42 says: “If forgiveness of sins were from the Law, it would be useless, since we do not fulfill the law.” (8)

Furthermore, the Lutheran Confessions are clear that depending on our own works to merit forgiveness brings nothing but terror and despair to troubled consciences. Apology 4:48 says: “If the matter were to depend on our merits, the promise would be uncertain and useless. For we never could determine when we would have enough merit.” Apology 4:100 says: “If faith receives forgiveness of sins because of love, forgiveness of sins will always be uncertain, because we never love as much as we ought to.”(9)

So, let me sum up what I think is the correct understanding of justification by faith alone and grace alone. On our own we are unable to have faith—it is a gift. Faith comes from the means of grace, which are the word and sacraments. Faith is an open hand that receives the gifts of God, which permeate our entire life. God’s grace is not irresistible—we can reject God’s means of grace. Faith is not only knowledge but is our entire relationship with God—it is God giving us gifts through the Holy Spirit. Faith and salvation can be lost through deliberate mortal sin, and we cannot have faith and have the intention to keep sinning. For faith to be genuine, good works are necessary. Without works, there is no faith. However, our good works only proceed from our faith and show that our faith is genuine—they cannot earn our salvation. If salvation depends on our works, we can never know we are saved because we cannot perfectly keep the Law. The Law shows our sinfulness and our need of a savior, and the Gospel shows our salvation, which is a free gift from God. Once we are freed from the Law, then we are able to live by the Holy Spirit and do good works. The “ingredients” that make up faith are all totally God’s work in us and we are an open hand that receives these ingredients. The ingredients are belief, good works, love, contrition, purpose of amendment, perseverance to the end, and not committing deliberate mortal sin. We are guaranteed salvation if and only if we keep our faith. We are capable at any time to throw away our faith. If we lose our faith, we lose our salvation. However, we can be sure that if we have faith, God will be faithful to us and keep his promises and grant us eternal life.

Link to Part II

Link to Part III

Link to Part IV

Link to Part V

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Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Dr. Benjamin Winter is assistant professor of theology at Divine Word College. His research interests include scholasticism, Christian mysticism, science and religion, and philosophical theology. Before matriculating from Saint Louis University with a doctorate in Historical Theology, Ben completed a Master of Arts in Theology at Villanova University. His undergraduate degree comes from Truman State University, where he studied English and Philosophy. His interests outside the academy include creating electronic music, travel, swimming, science fiction, and podcasts of all sorts.

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