Debate with a Lutheran Pastor on Faith and Works

Debate with a Lutheran Pastor on Faith and Works May 4, 2017


Image by “geralt” (April 2017) [Pixabay / CC0 public domain]


[from another public Facebook thread. Lutheran (LCMS) Pastor R. Daniel Carlson’s words will be in blue]


You can’t take a passage like “whoever BELIEVES (has faith) in Me will not perish but have everlasting life”, which are Christ’s own words from His mouth, and negate it by saying that other passages imply that it’s not just believing but also works. That’s called BAD exegesis.

So instead you look at these straight forward passages (like John 3:16, Romans 3, Ephesians 2, etc.) and let them stand. Then you look at James where it says “faith without works is dead” and other such passages IN THE LIGHT of the clearer passages AND the Gospels. You also look for passages that talk about works and “fruits”…lo and behold, the ONLY conclusion that can be drawn without stepping outside of Scripture is that faith PRODUCES works/fruits. Works DO NOT go alongside with faith as an additional requirement, but follow faith. WE are saved by grace through faith….NOT of ourselves, it is the GIFT of God, NOT by works…WE are CREATED (or better we are created as Christians) to DO good works, but NOT works must be done for salvation. Again, Jesus says, “whoever BELIEVES [has faith] in me shall not perish but have everlasting life,” not “whoever believes and does good works…”

Lutherans and Catholics do NOT agree on this, and your Sacrament of Penance is a fine example of our disagreement. Roman Catholics see works as a “paying off” of sin. So you go to confession, and the priest tells you, for your penance, to do certain works in order to pay off your transgression. For Catholics, Baptism is just a seed, planted into the heart and good works are required to make the seed grow. The more good works, the closer you are to heaven, the less good works, the more time you spend in purgatory.

Lutherans believe none of this. For Lutherans, good works are a bi-product of faith, a bi-product produced by the Spirit of Christ living in us and giving to us in our Baptisms. We are FULLY sanctified, FULLY made holy, FULLY set apart – yes, FULLY saints and absolutely going to heaven when we die, no strings attached. We are thankful for God’s gifts of the spirit, for good works, but we don’t gauge our salvation by them. When we sin, we confess our sins and then, by faith trust that Christ’s death on the cross paid IN FULL the price.

[my citation of  part of the above] “We are thankful for God’s gifts of the spirit, for good works, but we don’t gauge our salvation by them.”

Why do God and Scripture writers, then, mention works and never faith alone, in 50 passages concerning the final judgment? You tell me. How do you interpret that in your theological system? Why is faith alone never mentioned in those contexts, in the very place where it seems to me that we ought to expect it, if Protestant theology is correct?

[cited again] “Then you look at James where it says “faith without works is dead” and other such passages IN THE LIGHT of the clearer passages”

James is very clear. It’s not unclear at all. It’s only unclear to those who don’t care for the message he is giving:

James 2:14 (RSV) What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him?

2:17-18 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. [18] But some one will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

2:20-22 Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? [21] Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? [22] You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works,

2:24-26 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. [25] And in the same way was not also Rahab the harlot justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? [26] For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.

Crystal clear; couldn’t be any more clear than it is!

Catholics synthesize that with the passages that discuss grace and the ones that talk of faith. It’s no problem. I’ve done it in various papers and books of mine many times. We think in “both/and” terms because (I would contend) that is the scriptural / Hebrew outlook. “Either/or” is the overly rationalistic approach. Here are relevant papers of mine:

St. Paul on Grace, Faith, & Works (50 Passages) [8-6-08]

Grace Alone: Perfectly Acceptable Catholic Teaching [2-3-09]

Bible on Participation in Our Own Salvation (Always Enabled by God’s Grace) [1-3-10]

Bible on the Nature of Saving Faith (Including Assent, Trust, Hope, Works, Obedience, and Sanctification) [1-21-10]

Justification: Not by Faith Alone, & Ongoing (Romans 4, James 2, and Abraham’s Multiple Justifications) [10-15-11]

New Testament Epistles on Bringing About Further Sanctification and Even Salvation By Our Own Actions [7-2-13]

Reply to James White’s Exegesis of James 2 in Chapter 20 of His Book, The God Who Justifies [10-9-13]

Jesus vs. “Faith Alone” (Rich Young Ruler) [10-12-15]

Dialogue: Rich Young Ruler & Good Works [10-14-15]

“Catholic Justification” in James & Romans [11-18-15]

Grace Alone: Biblical & Catholic Teaching [12-1-15]

Philippians 2:12 & “Work[ing] Out” One’s Salvation [1-26-16]

To answer some of your questions:

“Faith without works is dead”. This is a statement of fact, not a statement of condition. Also, the word “works” in many of these contexts does not equate to someone earning their way to salvation by DOING such works.

Let’s change the words “faith” and “works” to something more day-to-day. “TV” without “REMOTE” is “USELESS”. This is a point of fact, not a condition. My TV has one button and it turns the TV on or off, that’s it. Thus when I got the TV, the remote necessarily had to come with or it is worthless.

Likewise, faith which does not produce [good] works is no faith, why? Well, faith is a gift from God, given through the Holy Spirit’s indwelling in a person. Therefore works necessarily follow.

James’ statement “faith without works is dead” isn’t James shaking his pointer finger at us and saying “you better do good things or God will take your faith away”, or “you can’t have faith unless you force yourself to do good” or anything like that. If you read the greater context, James tells us what he’s trying to get at. He is saying that his faith is shown/proven/demonstrated by his good works, that anyone who says “we have faith” but no works show from it…they truly don’t have faith.

It’s not faith AND works but faith THEN works, otherwise Jesus would be wrong when He says that believing is what gives eternal life, and St. Paul would be wrong when he says that we are saved by grace (alone) through faith (alone). You take issue with the “alone” word, but since neither Christ or St. Paul, or the writer of Hebrews adds any trailing thought to this, it’s fine to say “alone” after these phrases because they stand alone. Likewise, Abraham was made right by FAITH, and with regard to his works, he was not exactly a consistent good-doer. “Abraham believed God” and what? He was righteous! That’s it.

All the other passages that you contend teach that it’s works AND faith that save, well I assert that they must be filtered and exegeted with John 3:16 in mind, and not on their own, and yes, this includes James.

You still haven’t answered my question about the 50 passages concerning judgment. That’s not surprising. I don’t think any Protestant has since I came up with the argument 15 years ago. What possible answer could there be?

Catholics aren’t saying that it is works that save (which is the Pelagian heresy). We’re saying that we’re saved by grace through faith, and that faith by nature includes works within it, in the overall matrix of faith, action, justification, and eschatological salvation.

And this is massively backed up in Scripture, as I have shown in many of my writings.


It becomes a big problem if one wants to only consider a particular set of Bible passages that have a certain theme, and ignore another set that has a different theme, within the overall topic of soteriology.

The Catholic position takes both sets seriously and (agree or disagree with us) harmonizes them into a coherent whole.

But Protestants too often want to ignore all the passages having to do with good works and merit and synergy and concentrate almost solely on the passages having to do with grace and faith.

We see this happening above: in the refusal to deal with the 50 passages I collected, that have to do with the final judgment, and are unanimously about works, not faith.

I see Protestants (in the course of my hundreds of dialogues these past 21 years online) doing the same thing with the Church fathers. Passages about Scripture are always produced, while the ones from the same person about tradition, Church authority, and apostolic succession are ignored.

Neither side can be hyper-selective like that. We need to take all of Scripture and all of a Church fathers’ writings into account, in order to accurately convey the teaching of either.

Many of us who used to be Protestant, became Catholics largely due to starting to look at all of Scripture rather than only the usual prooftexts, and reading the fathers to see what they actually taught, rather than relying on selected “pre-filtered” quotations, meant to prop up a Protestant outlook that began 800-1400 years after the patristic period.

[a day later] Do you plan on ever explaining to me why 50 passages in Scripture about the final judgment all talk about works but never faith alone?

Here’s my response to works playing a part in our salvation and not faith alone: [Defense of the Augsburg Confession: section on good works].

How many of my 50 passages does it address? [I then looked at it] Looks like it doesn’t deal with a single one. I am underwhelmed. So (what else is new?): no Protestant reply to fifty biblical passages about works in relation to judgment and salvation.

You can have a million passages and it doesn’t change the fact that Jesus said “believe in me…have eternal life…” and never said anything about works.

If I were to say to you that I have a dog, love my dog, and take him to the park every day and play fetch with him – you’d say “okay”. If, 20 years later, I tell you that my dog is dead, do you take these two statements and conclude that I play with my dead dog?

Of course not! The 50 passages, when I’m going to go through one by one as you’ve not gone through them one by one, ALL have to deal with Christians – we who ARE saved. They are not in refute, other than the suggestion that works are required TO BE saved. Jesus, in John 3, is telling Nicodemus how one IS saved – these are two different things and they need not be intertwined.

Dave Armstrong James, when talking to his audience, it talking to CHRISTIANS, people who ARE SAVED, who HAVE BEEN BAPTIZED, who have on their bodies the marks of Christ. He’s not to a pagan, unbelieving audience.

Note how Peter, in Acts 2, and in other places, is talking to an audience of people who are NOT saved. What does he say to them? Does he or St. Paul or anyone EVER tell them that they must do good works to be saved? NO, but only faith. It’s the same for St. Paul in Romans 3 – “a salvation APART FROM WORKS…justification BY FAITH…” Yet, St. Paul, St. Peter, and all the rest, even Jesus, all say to the faithful, to those who are saved, that good works must necessarily follow or it is dead faith – like the parable of the sower.

You can refute this all you want to, but you simply cannot say that one is saved by faith AND works….because Jesus never said it, and by saying it, you very strongly imply that Christ’s work on the cross is inadequate, and that, sir, is blasphemy.

And you know that’s also what the Baptists do with their whole “decision” and “ask Jesus into your heart” garbage – it’s all works righteousness and it’s all slander against Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Romans 1:17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.”

Romans 2:6-7 For he will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; (cf. 2:8; 2:10)

Romans 2:13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. (cf. James 1:22-23; 2:21-24)

Romans 8:13 for if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live. (cf. 2 Cor 11:15)

1 Timothy 6:18-19 They are to do good, to be rich in good deeds, liberal and generous, thus laying up for themselves a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life which is life indeed.

Titus 1:16 They profess to know God, but they deny him by their deeds; they are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good deed.

You’re not quoting anything that we don’t already know. EVERY one of these passages come from a context of preacher preaching to a child of God and NOT to pagans.

Find me a quote where the preacher is preaching to pagans and telling them “you must do good works to be saved” and then we’ll talk.

Half of my passages (Romans 1-2) deal with a wider audience than Christians. St. Paul is talking to pagans in Romans 1:18 up through 2:16: which incorporates my first three passages.

Martin Luther, in his Lectures on Romans (Luther’s Works, vol. 25, p. 155: I have the whole 55-volume set in hardcover) agrees:

[v. 1: 20] [T]he apostle with these words does not rebuke the Romans only, as many believe. He rebukes not individuals but all people, Gentiles and Romans alike. This can be seen very clearly from the words of the apostle later in Rom. 3:9: ‘We have already charged that all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin.’ . . . the apostle, as he writes, sees before his eyes the whole world as one body . . .

Titus 1:16 They profess to know God, but they deny him by their deeds; they are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good deed.

This passage is also written expressly about unbelievers, since the preceding verse 15 states: “To the pure all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure; their very minds and consciences are corrupted.” That makes it four out of six of my passages that are about unbelievers and not Christians, whereas you stated (inexplicably and remarkably): “EVERY one of these passages come from a context of preacher preaching to a child of God and NOT to pagans.”

Or find me a passage from the Gospels where Jesus tells an unbeliever that he must have faith AND works to be declared righteous by God and I will throw away my Luther’s rose.

Matthew 19:16-24 And behold, one came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” [17] And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” [18] He said to him, “Which?” And Jesus said, “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, [19] Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [20] The young man said to him, “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?” [21] Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” [22] When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. [23] And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. [24] Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

What is most striking about this incident in the life of Jesus — given Protestant views — is the almost sole emphasis on works rather than faith, in Jesus’ reply to the rich young ruler’s question (I have combined elements in all three accounts), “what good deed must I / shall I do to inherit / have eternal life?” It’s reiterated over and over again: works, works, works. It doesn’t follow that faith is not involved, too. Elsewhere, Jesus and Paul and other biblical writers say plenty about faith and assent. But it does mean that works are central in the whole equation and can’t be separated from faith and put in a secondary category.

Right at the beginning of the incident, the ruler asks, “what good deed must I do?” Inheriting eternal life is clearly synonymous with “ultimate salvation.” According to Protestant soteriology (theology of salvation), this isn’t even the right question to ask. Their immediate reply would be, “you have a fundamental misunderstanding of salvation. You can’t do anything to be saved. No work you do is sufficient. All you can do is have faith in Jesus Christ, Who died for your sins.” That’s evangelical Protestant doctrine.

The interesting consideration here, then, is: why doesn’t Jesus act like a good evangelical and correct him right out of the starting-gate? Jesus would have failed Soteriology 0101 in any evangelical seminary or divinity school. Not only are good works, or deeds front and center; he also asks about which deed “must” he do. There is an element of necessity. If he doesn’t do some sort of good deed, he won’t be saved. But if this is essentially wrong and wrongheaded, Jesus would have corrected him by saying that he was wrong to be thinking about works rather than faith, and about thinking that any work was necessary for salvation.

He doesn’t do that at all. Instead, Jesus strengthens the man’s initial assumptions and explains what works he has to do to be saved: “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” It’s a required condition for obtaining a desired goal: “If you want x, do y.” Y is necessary to obtain x, and y = keeping commandments, which are good works, in order to achieve x (eternal life). This is not like any sermon I ever heard in my 13 years as an evangelical! This is not how we were taught to share out faith in street witnessing, in order to “get people saved.”


You’re arguing something different from what we are arguing anyway. You’re acting as if we believe that the non-believer can be saved by faith + works at first (i.e., semi-Pelagianism), rather than be initially justified by faith through grace (as we believe). He then is required to do good works (just as in your system) to show that he has an authentic faith. If he fails to do these, he can lose this justification or (worst-case scenario) his ultimate salvation.

Our systems then diverge in that we say these works are part and parcel of merit and increase of grace, whereas as you say they are relegated to the box of sanctification, having nothing to do with either justification or salvation.


What the Bible actually teaches about attaining eschatological salvation; what you resolutely refuse to deal with, is summarized by the following, from the end of my paper of 50 passages dealing with judgment and final salvation:


In light of this survey of biblical statements on the topic, how would we properly, biblically answer the unbiblical, sloganistic questions of Matt Slick [Presbyterian pastor and head honcho of the large CARM forum]: “If you were to die tonight and face judgment and God were to ask you why He should let you into heaven, what would you tell Him? Just curious.”

He’s completely well-intentioned and has the highest motivations. He desires that folks should be saved. But he is dead wrong in his assumptions, when they are weighed against the overwhelming, (far as I can tell) unanimous biblical record. Our answer to his question and to God when we stand before Him, could incorporate any one or all of the following 50 responses: all perfectly biblical, and many right from the words of God Himself:

1) I am characterized by righteousness.
2) I have integrity.
3) I’m not wicked.
4) I’m upright in heart.
5) I’ve done good deeds.
6) I have good ways.
7) I’m not committing abominations.
8) I have good conduct.
9) I’m not angry with my brother.
10) I’m not insulting my brother.
11) I’m not calling someone a fool.
12) I have good fruits.
13) I do the will of God.
14) I hear Jesus’ words and do them.
15) I endured to the end.
16) I fed the hungry.
17) I provided drink to the thirsty.
18) I clothed the naked.
19) I welcomed strangers.
20) I visited the sick.
21) I visited prisoners.
22) I invited the poor and the maimed to my feast.
23) I’m not weighed down with dissipation.
24) I’m not weighed down with drunkenness.
25) I’m not weighed down with the cares of this life.
26) I’m not ungodly.
27) I don’t suppress the truth.
28) I’ve done good works.
29) I obeyed the truth.
30) I’m not doing evil.
31) I have been a “doer of the law.”
32) I’ve been a good laborer and fellow worker with God.
33) I’m unblamable in holiness.
34) I’ve been wholly sanctified.
35) My spirit and soul and body aresound and blameless.
36) I know God.
37) I’ve obeyed the gospel.
38) I’ve shared Christ’s sufferings.
39) I’m without spot or blemish.
40) I’ve repented.
41) I’m not a coward.
42) I’m not faithless.
43) I’m not polluted.
44) I’m not a murderer.
45) I’m not a fornicator.
46) I’m not a sorcerer.
47) I’m not an idolater.
48) I’m not a liar.
49) I invited the lame to my feast.
50) I invited the blind to my feast.

You miss the whole point of Jesus’ conversation with the young man in Matthew. He thinks he’s done all the good he needs to do – even responds with “I’ve done all these things”. Jesus then says, “one thing you lack…”, and reveals the true heart of the young man — greed and covetedness and hate and idolatry…breaking every one of the commands he thinks he keeps. Afterward, Jesus says to his disciples that with man it is impossible, but not with God, calling the disciples to believe (have faith) in God’s work of salvation. He NEVER tells the young man that he’ll be saved if he just does good works.

Man, you need to learn the difference between Law and Gospel.

But this particular text isn’t dealing with good works for salvation but revealing that, before God, no good works will save them, not from the Jews or the Gentiles or anyone because…ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Yes, ultimately the issue is one of grace. What IS grace? Is it a substance that you can get more and more of through good works? NO. Grace is a disposition God has toward us on account of His love for us. When we are saved, we have ALL the grace He can give. Being saved is a WHOLE lot more valuable than anything. For Roman Catholics, grace is a substance, sort of like the angels in the show Supernatural have. You get enough grace in baptism for justification, but then you must do good to get more grace and more grace…

I don’t take issue with good works – and the BEST work we can do is proclaim the Gospel to the lost. Yet, all of the stuff that you’ve written about the necessity of good works for salvation is like cat screams to me. Not only do I interpret the passages you provide differently than you do, I simply refuse to say that salvation is by faith AND works. I agree with James when he says “faith without works is dead” because works are a God-given response to faith and if there is no faith, there are no works.

You may not know this, but the most opposing thing that I read – maybe you’re not trying to say this – is that works must come from the old man. See what I mean? When you say we MUST do good works to be saved, to me that’s LAW, and we cannot be saved by keeping the law because the primary purpose of the law is to show us our sinfulness. Now, if good works come from the NEW MAN, then that’s a God-thing! God is creating the good works in us, and that’s GOOD NEWS! I WANT to do good works, and God enables me and empowers me to do them. This is completely different than saying we MUST do good works to be saved, see??

In essence it’s ‘true’, but the language of “MUST” vs. “CAN” changes the whole thing. When I read Eph 2:8ff, I read that the works that God prepares for us to do aren’t burdensome, heavy, or demand, but gospel, joyful, and we’re empowered by God so that we CAN do them. Thus, if I sin, I don’t feel like I have to do 2x as much good to pay my penance – Christ has paid it all ready – instead I have the freedom to, with God’s help do better.

Thanks for your reply.

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