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Catholic-Lutheran Dialogue on Grace: Part II (Faith and Works)

In Part I of this exchange between myself (Catholic) and Michael (Lutheran), Michael outlined Lutheran views on grace and faith. Parts II, III, and IV are “question-and-answer” sessions where Michael and I debate the exact implications of his statements from Part I. Although such a format is new to Conciliar Post, Michael and I hope that others will find the information helpful, and that our dialogue can serve as a model for inquiry into the issues that, sadly, divide Christians across denominations. Whether or not we agree fully in the end, it can certainly be said that we learned much from this process—and that our level of respect for each other and for our respective traditions has grown.



Michael: Many Catholics would mistakenly say: “Lutherans think you can sin as much as you want and still go to heaven,” and “Lutherans think all you have to do is believe and just belief alone is justifying faith so you don’t need good works or contrition.” But the Lutheran Confessions are clear that this is not Lutheran teaching. 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 the same vein, Apology 5:184 says: “Faith is not only knowledge in the intellect, but also confidence in the will.” 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.

Lutherans teach that, for faith to be genuine justifying faith, good works must follow and be part of that faith. So, faith is not only belief.

Ben: Agreed. Also, the clearest articulation of what faith means for Catholic can be found here.

Michael: Correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that Catholics define faith as belief. So if we define faith that way, we could say that Satan has faith, since Satan believes. A Lutheran would even agree that if we define faith as belief, we are not justified by faith alone since Satan believes and is not justified.

Ben: Catholics do not define faith as belief. The most concise definition is provided in CCC 150: “Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed.” The Catechism refers to Abraham and Mary as exemplars that show obedience to be the first principle of faith. In addition, faith is a grace given by God that cooperates with human reason and intellect. So mere “belief” is not enough, faith requires submission of one’s being to God.

Michael: Since faith is submission to God, then we actually agree that not only belief but also good works, contrition, charity, etc. are part of faith. Could we even agree that the phrase “faith alone” is an oxymoron, since faith by its very nature cannot exist “alone?”

Ben: Agreed.



Michael: The Lutheran Confessions are clear that depending on our own works to merit forgiveness brings nothing but terror and despair to troubled consciences. I gave several quotes about this in my first essay, one of which is Apology 5:66: “If forgiveness of sins depends on our works, it is completely uncertain.”

Ben: There’s a fine line between “depending” on good works and “knowing that good works are necessary.” I agree with you that this is an area where Catholics stress doing good far more than Lutherans do, and that this emphasis can be dangerous insofar as it leads toward the sin of pride. It may lead some to think that they can work out their own salvation without Christ, and without “fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). But the danger here concerns inner dispositions—dispositions that cannot be judged based on outward attitudes alone. For instance, you’d never tell someone “Stop doing good works!” You would, however, instruct them to do good works.

The way I see it, there are a couple of options for how we parse out these pitfalls:

Doctrine A: We’re basically good, but we can (and do) do bad things

Dangers: Focusing too much on our good actions, or, not caring enough about our bad actions

Doctrine B: We’re basically bad, but we can (and do) do good things

Dangers: Focusing too much on our bad actions, or, not caring enough about our good actions

Clearly in a Christian life we need to balance “Doctrine A” with “Doctrine B.” It think that, on a very practical level, I’d rather run the risk of having folks focus too much on the good things they can do (i.e. focus on doing good), rather than focusing too much on the bad things they do.

The core assertion of Luther and the Reformers is correct: we cannot earn our way into heaven. I think the issue is how we speak about this inability or human weakness. Before the Reformation, the Church Fathers and Medieval Schoolmen (and, even more than these, the Monastics) were insistent upon a stance of intellectual humility before God. Human work avails nothing without divine grace assisting. This is a maxim common to all of the great theological works in Catholic Tradition. Where we run into difficulty, it seems, is when our propensity for sin is described in terms of moral ineptitude—and this is the danger I see in Lutheran theology broadly speaking. It’s all good and well to acknowledge our helplessness before God. But if such acknowledgment causes us to doubt our ability to do good in the world, to change lives (our own, and those of others) for the better, then it reduces to a decadent “faith without works.”

Michael: I actually agree with you that with God, we can do good works. John 15:5 says that Christ is the vine and we are the branches—without him we can do nothing, but with him we can do good.(1) The Lutheran Confessions claim that all of our good works come from faith. I would even say that good works and charity are part of faith. I quoted this statement from Luther about 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.” I think our difference is that Catholics believe good works “merit” forgiveness of sins, while Lutherans believe good works are the result of our new life after we receive forgiveness of sins. I think this is a topic where our doctrines are different, but as far as how we actually live it really makes no practical difference. Whether you believe in “justification by faith, works, and love” or “justification by faith alone but faith has to have works and love otherwise it’s not real faith,” I think you’ll act the same way in trying to live in the Spirit, do good works, love your neighbor, etc.(2) What Catholics call “cooperating with God’s grace” and Lutherans call “not resisting God’s grace” are theoretically different, but practically equivalent. The most important thing, or at least something we both on, is that all good works and everything that is good are gifts from God. John 3:27 tells us that “a person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven.”

Ben: Nicely put. Yes, that is a crucial distinction and the core of Christianity: we are insufficient of ourselves to effect our salvation. As Augustine says: “Indeed we also work, but we are only collaborating with God who works, for his mercy has gone before us. It has gone before us so that we may be healed, and follows us so that once healed, we may be given life; it goes before us so that we may be called, and follows us so that we may be glorified; it goes before us so that we may live devoutly, and follows us so that we may always live with God: for without him we can do nothing.”

Link to Part I

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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