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Catholic-Lutheran Dialogue on Grace: Part IV (Salvation)

“What must I do to be saved” (Acts 16:30)? It all comes down to this. In the end, this is the primary question upon which Lutherans and Catholics are (perceived to be?) in disagreement. In this final “question-and-answer” section of the dialogue between Michael (Lutheran) and Benjamin (Catholic), we address various concerns that arise over salvation. To get caught up, read Michael’s opening statement, along with parts II, III. As always, we 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: CCC 2010 says: “Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.” This quote appears to say that we can’t earn our “initial justification,” but that we can earn our “continued justification and attainment of eternal life.” So it’s saying that God starts the good work in us, but then it’s up to us to finish the job and earn our attainment of eternal life. Since our salvation depends on our holiness, then with Catholic doctrine, it seems we are always terrified that we are not doing enough to earn our salvation.

What makes Lutheran theology unique, by contrast, is that it gives comfort to troubled consciences. This was the central issue for Luther. As a monk, he had a very troubled conscience while he was fasting, praying, and trying to make himself right with God. Roland Bainton writes of Luther that he “probed every resource of contemporary Catholicism for assuaging the anguish of a spirit alienated from God. He tried the way of good works and discovered that he could never do enough to save himself.”(1) Luther’s realization was that we are saved by grace, through faith, and that salvation is a gift, not something we earn. Romans 11:6 says of our salvation that “if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” So once we say our salvation depends on our good works, then it is no longer a gift, but rather something we earn. Salvation must be either a gift or something we earn, it cannot be both. If it is earned by our good works, then it is no longer a gift. That is the point of this Lutheran Satire video. My understanding of Catholic doctrine is that there is no comfort to troubled consciences because our forgiveness of sins and our very salvation is merited/earned by our goodness/holiness. Augsburg Confession (AC) article 20 says: “Our works cannot reconcile God or merit forgiveness of sins, grace, and justification.” The official Catholic response (Confutation) to the AC article 20 says: “Concerning good works, that they do not merit the remission of sins … as it has been rejected and disapproved before, is also rejected and disapproved now.” The Catholic church clearly rejects the Lutheran position that our good works do not merit the forgiveness of sins.

Since we all know that we are not perfect, how can our consciences ever have peace in the Catholic understanding of faith and works? How can a Catholic, even when he or she hears the words of absolution from a priest in the Confessional, really feel and know absolution, since forgiveness is dependent on our good works? We all fall short of God’s perfection so there is always doubt, never comfort, if forgiveness is not fully a free gift from God (i.e. if it is also merited by our goodness). Apology 20:85 responds to the Catholic rebuttal as follows:

The consciences of the pious will have no sufficiently sure consolation against the terrors of sin and of death, and against the devil soliciting to despair … if they do not know that they ought to be confident that they have the remission of sins freely for Christ’s sake. This faith sustains and quickens hearts in that most violent conflict with despair in the great agony of death.

This quote from Apology tells us that, unless our salvation is completely a free gift and not merited by our works, there is no comfort for troubled consciences. Lutherans know that if we have faith, we are assured of our salvation. Romans 8:1 tells us there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. As long we we are in Christ Jesus by faith through grace, we are saved. We also recognize, however, that we do not have an absolute guarantee of salvation. We can lose our faith and lose our salvation, but if we don’t lose our faith, then we are saved. Perseverance to the end means we don’t lose our faith, and when we die and meet God. Thus we are saved because we have faith and are in Christ Jesus.


Ben: You state that “salvation must be either a gift or something we earn, it cannot be both.” Catholic Tradition has consistently sought to avoid dualisms (such as those between faith and works, law and gospel, or grace and merit) when describing the journey of the human person toward God. The entire process of being saved is an holistic unity. God begins the good work in us, yet we must bear it out. God’s will is the primary cause, but human wills cooperate to advance that cause secondarily. This is what it means for individuals—acting with true free will through love—to serve as “lights” in the darkness of the world, to perform meritorious actions that can be attributed to them as well as to God. Hence the Catechism: “Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God (which invites him to conversion), and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit, who precedes and preserves his assent” (1993). In the Catholic view, salvation is both a gift and something we earn.

Now let’s move to the implications of this view. You emphasize the potential for crippling fear and uncertainty when it comes to works and their merit with respect to salvation. As you mention, viewpoint was articulated by Luther. I believe that Luther misunderstood Catholic spirituality. He treated the journey of faith as if it were only a matter of checking off certain boxes, or receiving certain graces through an institution. Such a standpoint is decidedly not Catholic; in other words, Luther was the recipient of a distorted tradition that overemphasized the merits due to human work. However, as one of my former teachers used to say, “Dualism is in the eye of the dualist.” It is no surprise to me that Luther left the Church, instead of staying within its fold and hoping for clarification or change. Luther’s disposition led him toward extreme “either/or” views about salvation.(2) Simply put, he desired certainty where we are not meant to have it.

Take absolution as an example. In the Catholic view, the absolved person may not feel any different after he or she receives the sacrament of reconciliation. Absolution is mystical and ontological; it does not depend on human experience for its validity. When I hear the words of absolution, my conscience is at peace because I have faith in God’s promises and trust in the institutional authority of the priest (as a representative of the Church, Christ’s Body) to extend grace to me. I go forward and complete my penance, which helps set me on the path toward living in accord with God’s commands (i.e. towards doing good works). Letting go of fear about whether I do “enough” good works is all about control. Ultimately is is God who saves. Human beings do not cause their own salvation, and hence Catholics acknowledge that we can never be absolutely certain of whether we are saved. Lutherans believe this as well, of course, but with the caveat that works cannot (in any way) serve as a gauge for where we stand salvifically. Thus for Lutherans the doctrine of uncertainty about salvation does not have quite the same existential import as it does for Catholics, who emphasize works and the cooperation of the human will with the will of God. Although we cannot trust in our works, works (like fruit on a tree) reveal something about our interior state. The Catholic doctrine that faith and works are of a piece is meant to hold us accountable for being Christians in this life. It is not abstract, but “on the ground.” Here and now, we must avoid committing mortal sin. Here and now, conversion is the ground of our life in Christ. Here and now, we are called to grow in grace and to make progress toward our divine End. I’m an abysmal failure at all of this, and I ask you to forgive me for speaking in this way when I am well aware of my own sins.


Michael: To further clarify what I meant about fear, what is scary is that you never know that you did enough. I totally agree with you that conversion is our constant calling in Christian life. It’s the first of Luther’s 95 Theses. We discussed good works and sin previously and we agree that Christians must do good works, repent of our sins, etc. here and now. I quoted in previous installments, from the Book of Concord, that Lutherans believe we are accountable for being Christians in this life and that our works do reveal something about our interior state. Apology 5:15: “We profess that the work of the Law must be begun in us, and that it must be kept continually more and more.” Apology 5:23: “Faith does not dwell with mortal sin.” Apology 5:153: “Works are required because certainly a new life is required.” Apology 5:155: “If good fruits do not follow, the repentance is hypocritical and fake.” I think we totally agree on everything except that good works merit forgiveness of sins.  Up until that point, we agree on the necessity of good works, contrition, love, not committing mortal sin, etc. Lutheran doctrine also teaches that our works reveal something about our interior state. Without faith, we are not able to do good works at all; so the fact that we do good works shows that we are regenerate Christians (given grace by God through the Word and Sacraments) with the Holy Spirit living in us. John 15:5 says apart from Jesus we can do nothing and Hebrews 11:6 says without faith it’s impossible to please God. In SD 4:11, Luther says whoever does not do works has no faith. Our ability to do good works is itself a gift of the God, so even our good works are all grace.

We will have to agree to disagree about salvation being both a gift and something you earn. I still see the two as contradictory. For example, let’s say I donate food to a homeless shelter and say it’s a gift. If it is a gift I do it freely and the homeless shelter does nothing for me. On the other hand, if I say I’ll only donate food if the homeless shelter sends people to do a work for me (like clean my house for me), then it’s not a gift anymore. So if God says he gives us salvation in return for us doing good works, then it’s not a gift anymore. That was the point of the Lutheran satire video.

My understanding of Luther “leaving” the Church (a whole other big subject beyond the scope of this) is that Luther had no desire to start a new Church and never really wanted to leave the Catholic Church—he only wanted to reform what he saw as wrong—at first only with indulgences, then with medieval teachings. Luther was kicked out of the Catholic Church (excommunicated), which I think is different from him deciding to leave.

Also with Luther my understanding is not that he was seeking “certainty where it was not meant to be had,” but rather that he was trying to find out how we are saved. His understanding of medieval Catholicism was “all Law” and no Gospel—he only saw God as a tyrant that demanded an impossible perfection and damned him to Hell for not being perfect. It was only when he discovered salvation apart from the Law (cf. Romans 3:21) i.e. “the Gospel” that he realized he has a God who loves him and saves him as a gift by grace through faith. Bainton quotes Luther saying:

I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience …. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated him … I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which, through grace and sheer mercy, God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise … before the “justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love.(3)

Bainton further describes Luther’s insight as “forgiveness of sins through the utterly unmerited grace of God made possible by the cross of Christ, which reconciled wrath and mercy.”(4) This video series (also linked part 2) gives a good insight into Luther. Luther was not seeking an absolute guarantee of salvation. He was seeking a sure promise from God that if (and only if) we maintain our faith, we are saved. I actually agree that letting go of the fear of doing “enough good works” is about control. In Lutheran teaching, God is the cause of our salvation, so if we maintain our faith and trust God, we are saved. Our faith is what Luther called a “wonderful exchange,” where we are joined to Jesus and he takes away our sins and fills us with his righteousness, thus we are saved.

My understanding of the Catholic doctrine of meriting salvation is that it seems we each have some “invisible point system” with God. God gives us merit points for our good works, and takes away points for our sins. We need a perfect score to go to heaven; if we fall short, there is a lower number of points to go to purgatory, and if you don’t have enough points to go to purgatory then you go to Hell. What is terrifying is that you never know how many “merit points” you have with God, so you never know that you have enough points not to go to Hell. What is terrifying is that we all realize that we are sinners and that we are not perfect. If we know ourselves and compare ourselves to God we can never be as perfect as he wants us to be, and we can never have the “perfect score” that God demands of us.


Ben: You state that “our ability to do good works is itself a gift of the God, so even our good works are all grace.” I would submit that they cannot be “all” grace if they are also “our good works.” To avoid a contradiction in terms, one must ascribe human agency, on some level, to good works—unless we are under total divine control when we do good things. There are many ways to parse this out: perhaps we can agree that “humans must not place an obstacle against the Holy Spirit working within us?” But you are correct that we will have to agree to disagree on salvation being both a gift and something we earn. To follow your example of the homeless shelter, I would say you are right that we cannot do a good thing expecting a reward; but I would disagree that “the homeless shelter does nothing for me.” Something good does come out of service to others. Such service has a positive effect on the interior being of the servant—it makes him or her more like Christ. Conforming to Christ is one aspect of what Catholics mean by “earning” salvation. But of course as an individual I am not qualified to judge the interior being of another person doing a good work. I can only account for my own actions, and do so within a relationship with the Church, from whom I receive what I know about my own status as a child of God.

About perseverance to the end: you said that we “never know [if we] have enough points not to go to Hell.” With regard to hell, the only way to get there is to die rejecting God, i.e. to die in mortal sin. As the CCC states (1034): “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell.'” In addition it also states that “God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end” (1037) Repentance is always possible, up until the last moment of life. So, to me, it doesn’t look like “points” matter here; there is a black and white distinction between remaining in a state of willful sin on the one hand, and desiring to be washed clean by the blood of Christ on the other.(5)

In this life, the Church’s teachings on hell, purgatory, and heaven encourage us to confess our sins regularly. We must seek out confession immediately after we commit a mortal sin, i.e. we must begin the process of repentance as soon as possible—rather than continuing in deliberate sin. If we commit a mortal sin, intend to go to confession, and then die suddenly, this does not bar us from heaven. That is because, in order to go to hell, we must “persist” in mortal sin until the end. Still, I can see where you’re coming from with regard to fear as a motivation; after I commit mortal sin I do feel strongly that I must go to confession, and that feeling is fearful. In addition, one can contemplate the question: “What if I die while I’m committing a mortal sin?” It’s an extremely terrifying thought, and one that should curb our minds and wills against taking that step of descending into wickedness. In fact, I have woken upin the middle of the night—sweating and afraid of death. I think that this fear was justified because at that point I was in a state of wilful, mortal sin. Needless to say, I went to confession soon thereafter!

Finally, I can see where you’re coming from about the “points system.” Describing the Christian life in this way is an over-application of the legal metaphor when it comes to our relationship with the divine. If something like “points” is happening in the background, it’s certainly not a process that we as humans can get a firm grasp on, or associate “one for one” with certain actions—as happened during the abuses of the system of indulgences (i.e. pray this much, then this much “time” in purgatory is released).(6) See my comments above about not judging other individuals, and about the mediation of the Church in my own walk of faith.


Michael: I understand what you say about black and white—that either you reject God or don’t reject God—and that is my understanding as well. My understanding of Catholic doctrine is that there is always this uncertainty about whether you did enough to be saved. I would like to reiterate that even with all of our differences, I see very little difference in how actual Christians—whether Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Evangelical, etc.—actually live our their lives as Christians. We all go to church, pray, sin and repent of our sins, read our Bibles, teach our children,  and do our best to live by the Holy Spirit and do good works. To conclude, Dr. Craig writes:  “What I find in talking to my Catholic friends is that … They don’t think they earn salvation. The way they interpret it is that God by his grace gives me the power to live a good life … I go to heaven and it is wholly by grace alone ... I think in many cases practicing Catholics may not be much different than Protestants.”(7)

Thoughts? Stay tuned for our concluding statement of agreement, next time!

Link to Part I

Link to Part II

Link to Part III

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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