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Catholic-Lutheran Dialogue on Grace: Part III (Sin and Holiness)

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. 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: Smalcald Articles III:43-45 states: “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.”(1)

Ben: This sounds a lot like the Catholic doctrine of mortal sin!

Michael: I think it is very similar to the Catholic doctrine of mortal sin; Lutherans simply define some terms differently. We define faith as something that is lost with mortal sin, while Catholics—in my understanding—say that mortal sin causes you to lose your salvation, but not necessarily your faith.(2) So it’s two ways of saying the same thing, I think. Also, I would recommend Thesis X of C.F.W. Walther’s Law and Gospel on this issue. I found an interesting Lutheran article here about the Lutheran view on mortal sin. It seems, from Thesis XIX of Law and Gospel, that Lutherans don’t distinguish between mortal and venial sin, but don’t know enough to say with certainty.

Ben: Interesting article; I like the section that discusses the ways in which a person can (and cannot) “out-sin” God. In the end, the contrast this author draws between Lutherans and Roman Catholics on the issue of mortal sin is that “grave matter” (he uses the term “objective magnitude of the sin”) is not a factor in the Lutheran conception. As he points out, though, we agree that mortal sin involves a deliberate free choice of the will “against better knowledge” (reason). Since reason and the will control the act, you are right that we basically agree about this doctrine. The main difference is that Catholics add a third criterion (“grave matter”), because we want to distinguish between sins that are serious but not damning (venial sins) and sins that draw condemnation (mortal sins).



Michael: The Roman Catholic teaching on holiness or sanctification, as I understand it, is an interpretation of Philippians 2:13: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” The Roman Church, it seems to me, is saying that God wants us to be constantly in terror for our salvation and does not want us to feel peace, or comfort, or security, since we can never know if we do enough good works to merit forgiveness of sins. Pastor McCain describes Catholic doctrine as follows:  “Such a teaching causes grave doubts in the heart of the believer, who may never be sure that he is truly justified. The Scriptures provide hope, comfort, peace, and joy in knowing that Christ has accomplished all of this through His life, death, and resurrection. The Roman Church’s teaching leads to doubt and despair.”(3)

Ben: Catholic doctrine is not saying that we should live in constant terror; rather, it’s saying that there’s something “at stake” in how we live our lives as Christians. Personally, I would not be inclined to confess my sins—and indeed, I never did so as a Lutheran—if I did not feel the urgency to live a better life, an urgency that is fostered by the Catholic doctrines you are critiquing here.

Michael: I totally agree that there is something at stake in how we live life as a Christian, since one can lose one’s salvation, as we agreed on in the previous section on sin. There is corporate confession and absolution in every Divine Service setting in the LSB (Lutheran Service Book), and there is also a rite of private confession and absolution—but you are right that it is not used as often as it should be. I think many Catholic parishes have the same issue of people not going to Confession. Luther did say: “When I urge you to go to Confession, I am simply asking you to be a Christian,” and AC XI says “private absolution ought to be retained in churches.” I think both Lutherans and Catholics need to do private confession and absolution more often. I also believe that the Lutheran Confessions teach us to lead a better life. Apology 5:15 says: “We profess that the work of the Law must be begun in us, and that it must be continually kept more and more.”

So, we agree that God’s commands instruct us to turn away from sin and to do good works. We discussed sin in the last section, and we agree that the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23), and that unrepented sin leads to eternal damnation. We also agreed, in Part II, that we must do good works—but we still disagree about good works meriting forgiveness of sins. My urgency to do good works primarily comes from thankfulness to God for everything he did for me, in saving me from my sins. I love him and want to be a better person, but that love is not due to a fear that I’m not doing enough good works to get to heaven. When I do good works, I do not worry about whether they are “good enough” to merit forgiveness of sins. I John 4:18-19 says: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.” I do not believe that my salvation depends on me doing enough good works to merit forgiveness of sins. 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.” Our main motivation for doing good should be because we love God and are thankful for his gifts, not fear that we are not doing enough to be saved.

Roman Catholic teaching, as I understand it, is that God uses the fear I mentioned above to make us strive to keep doing more and more good works, and to grow in holiness—since we can never really be holy enough.There are an endless number of devotions, fasts, indulgences, etc. that the Roman Catholic faithful are encouraged and/or required to do as to they continue to grow in holiness. Although growing in holiness is good and is part of our life as Christians, continually striving towards an impossible perfection can only lead to anxiety because the truth from Romans 3:23 is that we are all sinners, and we all fall short of the glory of God—no matter how many good works we do. The Council of Trent denies this, in my reading, with the statement: “If anyone says that the commandments of God are, even for one that is justified and constituted in grace, impossible to observe, let him be anathema.” Now in a way I agree with that statement, since anytime we are doing good works we are obeying God’s commands. I do not believe that we are sinning 24/7. I do, however, deny that it is possible for any human being (with the exception of Jesus, of course) in their entire life to perfectly obey God’s commands and never sin. So while it is possible to observe God’s commands—it is not possible to always observe God’s commands perfectly throughout one’s entire life and never sin. In Luke 5:32, Jesus tells us he came to call sinners, not the righteous. So Jesus, like Paul, is telling us all that we are all redeemed sinners in need of forgiveness, not perfectly holy and getting into heaven based on our living perfect lives.  

Ben: To your point “we can never be holy enough…”, well, the saints were holy enough! The Church in fact teaches that holiness is not an unattainable ideal, but something that can be instantiated across time and space in all sorts of different lives. We can be saints—but if we think of ourselves as saints then we aren’t saints, because of pride. With regard to fasting and devotions, I see these things as beautiful and encouraging expressions of our faith. What’s wrong with devotions and fasts? You state: “continually striving towards an impossible perfection can only lead to anxiety because the truth from Romans 3:23 is that we are all sinners.” If we take out the “only” in this sentence, then I agree with you. I don’t think everyone is like Luther. Some people don’t get as anxious about their salvation, because they know that they can confess their sins and be forgiven, and they know that they are not always sinning. If we think about sin and sinning too much—guess what?—we end up sinning in that dwelling on evil. Teresa of Avila is really good about describing this in her “Interior Castle.” Finally, with regard to your quotation of Trent, I affirm it to be true. God does expect us to observe the commandments! Jesus said “Be perfect” (Matt 5:48). That is the goal we are striving for, even if such a goal is not fully attainable in this life. But seeking after an unattainable ideal does not necessarily yield frustration, as in the experience of Luther. Catholics have the guidance of pastors and spiritual directors, and the help of the entire communion of saints—both those who live in this world and those who live in the next—for the journey toward perfection.

Michael: I think Luther found things frustrating because his understanding of Catholic doctrine was: “Be perfect, or else you go to Hell—either permanent Hell or if you’re lucky enough you go to Purgatory (temporary Hell).” I think that was also the understanding of many of the faithful during the time of the Reformation. There is nothing wrong with devotions such as prayer, fasting, etc. They are good and they bring us closer to God and make us grow in holiness. The danger, I think, is if we think we are earning our salvation with them—or if they lead to the sin of pride: “I’m so much better than everyone else because I go to Mass every day, and say 15 decades of the rosary every day, etc.” I do good works and devotions because I love God; I believe they all are part of my faith, and I want to become a better person. So, I think I can take the “only” out of the sentence and still agree with you. Yes, I do want to keep all of the commandments, and yes it is an unattainable ideal but one I and every non-antinomian Christian strives for. I don’t find it ultimately frustrating because I’m not scared that I’ll go to Hell for not being perfect, and I know that when I mess up I can always find forgiveness in God’s infinite mercy.

I would disagree that the saints were “holy enough” to get into heaven on their holiness and good works—since even the saints are redeemed and forgiven sinners like you and I. God commands us to be perfect throughout our entire life, and no saint I know of was perfect throughout their entire life. St. Peter in his pride boasted that he would follow Jesus to the cross and then denied him three times. St. Paul persecuted and killed Jesus’ followers before his conversion. In I Timothy 1:15, Paul acknowledges that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” Paul did not think he was holy enough to earn his way into heaven on his holiness. Note that Paul uses the present tense to describe himself as a sinner—he says “I am the foremost” not “I was the foremost.” So, Paul is saying he is still a sinner and still in constant need of God’s forgiveness. He is not saying he used to be a sinner and now he is perfect. In our day, we have the beautiful example of Bernard Nathanson, who turned away from being an abortionist to being an advocate of the unborn. I would also say that a saint is anyone who is saved from their sins and going to heaven, not just someone who has been canonized. At every Lutheran Baptism I’ve attended, the minister has always introduced the newly baptized as “God’s newest saint,” because baptism saves. This is also why Lutherans consider themselves to be both saints and sinners. We are saved because of our faith, but we are sinners because we all admit we are still always in need of forgiveness. Of course, there is the possibility of losing one’s salvation and the necessity of perseverance to the end, but we’ll save that for Part IV.

Ben: Agreeing with the general tenor of your remarks, the only thing I’d like to add is that—to be a saint in the Catholic Church—one does not have to be holy for one’s entire life (e.g. Saint Augustine). One only has to strive toward perfection. Perfection cannot be attained in this life, this is true, but the road to perfection can be walked. That road continues into the afterlife, and for Catholics, there is no artificial separation between the life we live here and the life we life in eternity. The other qualification I’d like to add is that purgatory is not anything like hell. It is a place of grace and purification where souls are made ready to view God face-to-face. Other than those two things, I appreciate your remarks and look forward to the continuation of our discussion next time!

Link to Part I

Link to Part II

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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