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Catholic-Lutheran Dialogue on Grace: Part V (Statement of Agreement)

Thank you for persevering with us to the end of this conversation. This is the final and fifth part of a dialogue between Michael Hwang (LCMS Lutheran) and Benjamin Winter (Roman Catholic) on the subjects of faith and works, sin and holiness, and salvation. To get caught up, read Michael’s opening statement, along with parts II, III, and IV. In this last part, we have decided to revisit the major points of the topics we have discussed, and to put forward a brief statement of agreement.(1) This statement will encapsulate the shared conclusions we came to about God’s grace, and the human response to that grace We have chosen to call this response “justifying faith.” More specifically, “justifying faith” is defined as “faith that makes us able to enter heaven—to experience the visio dei [vision of God] in beatitude.”(2)

We would like to add a small disclaimer: Neither of us is in any official theological position within the LCMS or the Roman Catholic Church, and this is not an official LCMS/Catholic statement of any kind. It is simply the result of personal correspondence and dialogue. This is a conversation between two fellow Christians that we decided to share because it may encourage others. Michael specifically states that his writings here and in previous installments are derived from his own personal study and reflection, and that they are not an officially-sanctioned statement of the LCMS, or of any LCMS pastor or congregation.(3)

We would also like to state that, in addition to the following statement of agreement, we agree (as fellow Christians) on much more than we disagree in all areas—including but not limited to the existence and character of the God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the full humanity and divinity of Jesus Christ, and the symbol (creed) of the Nicene Council.

 

Statement of Agreement

  • Justifying faith cannot exist without good works and charity—the exercise of which can be defined as a “good work.”
  • Justifying faith also cannot exist without contrition for sins and the accompanying desire to amend one’s sinful life. Justifying faith is incompatible with “mortal sin.”
  • God, in his grace, has chosen to reward our good works with treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:20).
  • Good works do not cause us to “earn” salvation; we cannot reach heaven (beatitude) on our own.
  • Ultimately, God is the cause of our salvation. God freely shares the righteousness of Christ with us, sanctifying us, renewing the image of God in us, and making us a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17).

 

Further Explication

The following are primary source quotations—mainly from Lutheran dogmatic works—which back up the assertions above. Thanks are owed to Michael for compiling this exhaustive list. For reflections on this subject from a Catholic perspective, Ben points readers to the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (particularly section 4: “Explicating the Common Understanding of Justification”), and to the Catholic Catechism’s article on Grace and Justification. He has inserted some relevant quotations from these documents, below, as well. 

 

On Good Works:

Epitome IV:6.8 says: “Good works certainly and without doubt follow true faith, if it is not a dead, but a living faith … those who are born again … are obligated to do good works.”

Luther says of faith in SD IV: “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.” On Earth, we are the body of Christ. We are the ones that do Jesus’ work. Jesus told us that he is with us always, to the end of the world (Matthew 28:20). He is the vine that continually feeds us (the branches) so we can do his work on earth. Paul says, in Ephesians 2:10, that we are “his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.”

Luther continues: “Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever.” Luther is telling us that faith cannot exist without works, just as it is impossible for branches to be grafted onto Jesus the vine and yet not produce fruit. If we do not produce fruit, we are not grafted onto Jesus.

Apology 5:73 says: “We teach that rewards have been offered and promised to the works of believers …. Paul says in 1 Cor. 3:8: ‘Every man shall receive his own reward, according to his own labor.’ There will, therefore be different rewards according to different labors. But the remission of sins is alike and equal to all.”

Apology 4:219 says: “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.”

 

On Contrition and the Purpose of Amendment:

Apology 12b:34 states: “Neither can there be true conversion or true contrition where the putting to death of the flesh and the bearing of good fruit do not follow … true terrors, true griefs of mind, do not allow the body to satisfy itself in sensual pleasures, and true faith is not ungrateful to God. Neither does true faith hate God’s commandments.”

CFW Walther (a nineteenth-century Lutheran pastor, and the first president of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) also tells us that without purpose of amendment, there is no justifying faith. Here is a quote from his sermon on The Restoration of the Divine Image Through Christ: “The moment, therefore, a person accepts Christ’s grace, sin also loses dominion in him. Hatred against sin is, as it were, the first impulse of the divine image which Christ restores in man. …Thus [the man] unceasingly strives against sin, including his dearest pet sins. He tries to be rid of every sin with all his might … he who does not thus yearn and strive to be completely freed from his sins certainly does not stand in Christ’s grace. For to whom Christ gives grace, to him He also gives power. To whom He grants forgiveness of sins, to him He also gives hatred of sin and zeal to fight against it. However, he who wants only forgiveness of sins from Christ, yet wants to cling to many sins, not wanting to be completely healed of sin by Christ, makes Christ a servant of sin. He does not believe in the true Christ at all. He has a false Christ, and will perish with his self-made “sin-Christ.”(4)

Tracking with these reflections, paragraph 1989 of the Catholic Catechism: “The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification in accordance with Jesus’ proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high.”

 

On Mortal Sin:

Walther says (citing Luther, in italics): “Once faith is lost through some mortal sin, the grace of God is also lost, and that person becomes a child of death and condemnation. He may return to grace and ultimately be saved, but in the meantime he is not blessed, but rather a completely miserable, lost creature. If righteous people knowingly and intentionally fall into sin, they are no longer justified. The Church has always taught unanimously that when saints knowingly and deliberately act contrary to God’s command, they are no longer saints. Rather, they have lost the true faith and cast away the Holy Spirit. But if they turn again, for Christ’s sake God once again takes back into His grace those people who turn to Him. Whoever perseveres to the end in repentance and faith is certainly elect and will be saved, as Christ says, ‘Blessed are those who persevere to the end.’”(5)

Again (Walther, citing Luther in italics): “When a person sins against his conscience, that is, when he knowingly and intentionally acts contrary to God, he is without repentance and faith and does not please God as long as he consciously persists in this intent. When a man keeps the wife of another man, it is obvious that he lacks repentance, faith, and sanctification. For the faith by which we are made righteous must be associated with a good conscience. How dare I come before God with an even conscience and say, ‘Oh dear God. You have forgiven me my sins, Praise be to you eternally!’ No, God will reject you if you say that. Suppose someone who has treated you shamefully came to you and said, ‘I treated you in a disgraceful manner. I beg you, forgive me. But I intend to keep on doing it.’ Would you forgive him? No! only a madman would say ‘Pardon me, but I am just going to keep on doing it. Furthermore, every time I see you, I will insult you. Yet I still want you to forgive me.’ People who want to be comforted by His mercy yet keep sinning treat God in just this manner. It is absolutely impossible for these two things to coexist in a person, that is, to have faith in God while at the same time having a wicked intent.”(6)

Our misguided wills separate us from Jesus the vine. It is not Jesus pushing us off, it is us rejecting Jesus. AC XIX calls the cause of sin “the will of the wicked, that is, of the devil and ungodly men; which will, unaided of God, turns itself from God.”  

 

On Holiness:

Luther says about faith that it “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.” God thus not only forgives our sins and pardons us from the eternal punishment that we deserve, he completely changes us and saves us from our sins by making us a new creation. David in Psalm 51 pleads to God both to “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (v.1) and to “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (v.10). The prophet Jeremiah (31:33) tells us that God will “put my law within them and write it on their hearts.” So the law not only shows our sins, it is also our guide; this is the third use of the law (see SD VI). Paul tells us in Colossians 3:2 to “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” Romans 6 discusses how the old Adam is killed and we are made a new creation. We were “buried with him by baptism into death, in order that … we might walk in newness of life” (v.4). We “must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v.11). Luther says that we “become like the death and resurrection of Christ, and complete our baptism, which signifies the death of sin and the new life of grace-until we are entirely purified of sin, and even our bodies rise again with Christ and live forever.” This is also what Luther calls the “wonderful exchange.”

Walther says: “We dare not think that Christ by His grace abolished the Law, and that now we need not fulfill it. Definitely not! The Law is the declared, eternally unchangeable will of God. It is, therefore, not in the least revoked by the Gospel. It must, therefore, be fulfilled to the very smallest letter not only by Christ but also by every individual person. Just this – to bring man again to this ultimate, completely perfect fulfillment of God’s Law – is the final purpose of the whole redemption of Jesus Christ … Christ attributes His fulfillment of the Law to those who believe in Him, and thus by grace makes them righteous before God. But this does not imply that they can now boldly transgress the Law, but rather, that as children of God they again become willing and capable of fulfilling the Law and finally come to the perfect image of God to which they were created. Once people are pardoned, the call of the Letter to the Ephesians goes out to them, “Be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.” (Eph. 4:23, 24). And again we read in the Letter to the Colossians, “Put off the old man with his deeds, and put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him.” (Col. 3:9, 10).”

Similarly, the Catholic Catechism states in paragraphs 2012 and 2013: “‘We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him … For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified’ (Rom 8:28-30). All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity. All are called to holiness. ‘Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt 5:48). In order to reach this perfection, the faithful should use the strength dealt out to them by Christ’s gift, so that doing the will of the Father in everything, they may wholeheartedly devote themselves to the glory of God and to the service of their neighbor.”

 

On God as the Cause of Salvation:

From the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification(7): “In faith we together hold the conviction that justification is the work of the triune God. The Father sent his Son into the world to save sinners. The foundation and presupposition of justification is the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. Justification means that Christ himself is our righteousness, in which we share through the Holy Spirit in accord with the will of the Father. Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works. … We confess together that all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation. The freedom they possess in relation to persons and the things of this world is no freedom in relation to salvation, for as sinners they stand under God’s judgment and are incapable of turning by themselves to God to seek deliverance, of meriting their justification before God, or of attaining salvation by their own abilities. Justification takes place solely by God’s grace. … We confess together that sinners are justified by faith in the saving action of God in Christ. By the action of the Holy Spirit in baptism, they are granted the gift of salvation, which lays the basis for the whole Christian life. They place their trust in God’s gracious promise by justifying faith, which includes hope in God and love for him. Such a faith is active in love and thus the Christian cannot and should not remain without works. But whatever in the justified precedes or follows the free gift of faith is neither the basis of justification nor merits it.”(8)

Thank you for sharing this journey with us.

Link to Part I

Link to Part II

Link to Part III

Link to Part IV


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Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Ben is currently a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Saint Louis University. His life is enriched daily by his wife Elizabeth and their twin daughters Julian and Lillian. Ben writes from within the Roman Catholic tradition, and specializes in research on Saint Bonaventure, Saint Augustine, philosophical theology, and Christian mysticism.

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