Merit: Dialogue w Two Protestants on Catholic Soteriology

Merit: Dialogue w Two Protestants on Catholic Soteriology June 19, 2018
Good discussion on how “merit” is defined and understood by the Catholic Church. Many misconceptions are cleared up.
This exchange was originally from the Pontifications blog. Chris Jones’ words will be in green; Nathan’s in blue.
* * * * *

To distinguish is not to separate, and Sola Fide does not separate justification and sanctification. It does distinguish them, precisely in order to clarify that it is the work of Christ that is the sole ground of our salvation – not any of our works, either before or after regeneration. This in turn allows us to afford the works of faith their proper role in sanctification, without allowing those works to be regarded as contributing any merit towards our salvation. This (regarding our works as meritorious towards salvation) is the key error of the Tridentine soteriology.

I have a post (Forensic justification, imputed righteousness, and theosis) on my weblog from a few months ago which expands on this. I invite your comments on it. 

Chris, I did read your post referenced above. You wrote in it:

In the end, it is all one: justification is sanctification is salvation. Salvation is accomplished by His all-sufficient sacrifice, and worked out in our lives with our cooperation with grace, by grace.

But this is the Catholic position (a very eloquent statement of it, I might add), so if you somehow think it is not, then you are laboring under a misconception. The good news is that Catholic soteriology is closer to what you say is the Lutheran position than you supposed. That is, it would be “good news” if you desire more doctrinal unity and better mutual understanding among Christians, as I do. Catholic “merit” would pretty much be the equivalent of “cooperation” above.

You cannot earn your salvation … (because you are justified by faith) … but you must most assuredly work for it (because, being justified, you are to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, doing by grace the works that God has prepared for you to walk in).

This would also be identical with the Catholic position, with one revision: change “faith” into “grace.” “Work out” above would be the equivalent of our “merit.” We are given grace to work: that work is in turn meritorious because of (and ultimately only because of) the grace given to us by God to enable us to do them in the first place. Our view is exactly that of Augustine’s in this regard.

So what is it that you claim we disagree on here besides the usual endlessly-discussed abstract differences (“are works organically connected to salvation or are they merely done in gratefulness to God for an already-received salvation,” etc.) which I personally find boring. I think Lutheran and Catholic soteriology is actually quite close. It is the “faith alone” part that is different and un-patristic.

I think what Chris Burgwald wrote recently in another forum likely applies to a considerable degree to this present discussion:

My doctoral dissertation . . . [was] on justification in Lutheran-Catholic dialogue, and found — with plenty of others who have gone before me — that many apparently theological disagreements between traditions boiled down to differing theological languages & thought-forms. In other words, there are instances in which things could have been cleared up simply if each side recognized that the other was using a term or concept in a manner different from their own usage.

Sounds much like the filioque controversy, doesn’t it?

I am arguing that there is a true and fairly significant difference regarding “faith alone” in its abstract sense but there is great commonality between Catholics and Lutherans in terms of sola gratia, non-Pelagianism, the necessity of works in the Christian life (however it is construed), the organic relationship of faith and works, per James, rejection of antinomianism and double predestination, etc. One of the sticking-points seems to be merit, but I believe that the Catholic doctrine is possibly being misunderstood by some, and I would like to see clarification on that, myself.

But this is the Catholic position (a very eloquent statement of it, I might add)

Thank you for your kind words. My intent in the post I linked to was to acquit the Eastern Orthodox of teaching salvation by works; if it acquits the Roman Catholics of it into the bargain, so much the better.

But I must confess that I doubt it. Nothing about Orthodox synergism implies that any of our cooperation with grace makes us deserving of salvation; but the plain sense of canon 32 of Trent, which I cited above, says precisely that. Your simple equation of “merit” and “cooperation” does not do justice to the substance of the points at issue. The Lutheran Confessions (FC SD II.65ff) speak of cooperation in terms similar to the canons of 2d Orange and the (Eastern Orthodox) Confession of Dositheos; but none of these teaches, as Trent does, that this cooperation merits our salvation.

Alright; let’s try this again. What is the difference between (any of) the following statements?:

Chris: “In the end, it is all one: justification is sanctification is salvation. Salvation is accomplished by His all-sufficient sacrifice, and worked out in our lives with our cooperation with grace, by grace.”

Trent: Decree on Justification, Chapter Five: “. . . without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace: in such sort that, while God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, neither is man himself utterly without doing anything while he receives that inspiration, forasmuch as he is also able to reject it; yet is he not able, by his own free will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in His sight. Whence, when it is said in the sacred writings: Turn ye to me, and I will turn to you, we are admonished of our liberty; and when we answer; Convert us, O Lord, to thee, and we shall be converted, we confess that we are prevented by the grace of God.”

Trent: Canon I on Justification: “If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema.”

2nd Orange, Canon 20: “Man does no good except that which God brings about that man performs.”

2nd Orange, Canon 9: “As often as we do good, God operates in us and with us, so that we may operate.”

St. Augustine: “What merit of man is there before grace by which he can achieve grace, as only grace works every one of our good merits in us, and as God, when He crowns our merits, crowns nothing else but His own gifts?” (En. in Ps. 102,7; cited in full agreement by the Catholic Catechism at the beginning of its section on “Merit”: #2005-2006: “in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts”)

Catholic Catechism (#2007): “With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man.”

Catholic Catechism (#2008): “The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.”

Catholic Catechism (#2009): “Filial adoption, in making us partakers by grace in the divine nature, can bestow true merit on us as a result of God’s gratuitous justice. This is our right by grace, the full right of love, making us ‘co-heirs’ with Christ and worthy of obtaining ‘the promised inheritance of eternal life.’ The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness. ‘Grace has gone before us; now we are given what is due. . . . Our merits are God’s gifts.’ [Augustine] ”

Catholic Catechism (#2011): “The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace.”

Martin Luther: “We must therefore certainly maintain that where there is no faith there also can be no good works; and conversely, that there is no faith where there are no good works. Therefore faith and good works should be so closely joined together that the essence of the entire Christian life consists in both.” (in Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 246)

Matthew 5:12: “your reward is great in heaven” [when you are persecuted and lied about]

Matthew 19:21: “go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven . . .”

Philippians 2:12-13: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Now, what is the difference between any of these statements (i.e., the biblical and Lutheran ones over against the supposedly different Catholic ones)? I don’t see any. Perhaps you’ll be so kind as to point out where it is. If you are determined to find Pelagianism under every “Catholic rock,” when in fact is isn’t there, then you’ll “find” it by forcing it into the texts, I suppose, but nevertheless, it still isn’t there. Yet the Lutheran confessions falsely accuse us of it.

It is true, that despite seemingly miniscule differences, if any, here, Lutherans and Catholics find it difficult to totally agree on this. Hence, the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Statement on Justification by Faith (my statement is from a 1985 book, which may be an earlier draft) acknowledges:

Thus the essential intentions behind both the Catholic doctrine of merit ex gratia and the Lutheran doctrine of promise may be compatible, but the two sides have difficulty in finding a common language . . . Lutherans are primarily intent on stressing the saving character of the unconditional promises God addresses to human beings and on preventing Christians from being left to their own resources, whereas the Catholic preoccupation is to make sure that the full range of God’s gifts, even the crowning gift of a merited destiny, is acknowledged. Both concerns reflect aspects of the gospel, but the tension nevertheless remains. (section 112 of “Merit”)

I don’t think it is worth fighting over (yet here I am clarifying how I think there is little difference because I do think it is important to show that there is scarcely any difference here). Catholics are not Pelagians and Lutherans aren’t antinomians. We meet in the sensible middle ground, with some difference in abstract nuance, terminology, and emphasis.

I have been very clear on where I part company with the Roman Catholic Church on this issue: canon 32 of the Tridentine decree on justification. The Catholic position, as I understand it, is that, apart from grace, we are unable to earn our salvation; but grace is given in order that we may be enabled to earn our salvation. When canon 32 says that “the justified, by the good works which he performs … truly merit[s] increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life”, that tells me that grace is given so that we may come to deserve eternal life, on account of the good works that grace enables us to do.

That’s the difference: one view is that we receive eternal life by grace, because we can never deserve it or earn it; the other view is that we receive grace so that we can and do earn, and deserve, eternal life. Canon 32 of Trent teaches the latter view. Orthodoxy does not teach that; 2d Orange does not teach that; and the Lutheran Confessions do not teach that. You may regard that as a “miniscule difference”; I do not. 

If the merit itself is entirely a gift of God and only possible because of God’s grace, and all merit is, is God crowning His own gifts (Augustine, and echoed by the Catechism), then where is the beef? I continue to not see any essential difference.

Your problem is that you are unnecessarily and unbiblically dichotomizing. You insist on isolating man’s merit so that it will appear to be a man’s salvation: the dreaded salvation by works that the Lutheran confessions think they see in Trent and Catholicism, and not a free gift of God. But our theology takes the greatest pains to emphasize that this is not what the teaching means. If you say that Augustine was correct on this, and we specifically agree with him in our explication of merit, then we agree with you! It’s simple logic:


1. Chris (A) agrees with St. Augustine’s teaching (B) on merit.

2. The Catholic Church (C) agrees with St. Augustine’s teaching (B) on merit.

3. Therefore, Chris (A) agrees with the Catholic Church (C) with regard to merit.

A = B
B = C
A = C

You want to quibble over the terminology of “deserve” and “earn” and “merit” and “reward” – as if those things are utterly foreign to a biblical worldview as concerns salvation? That won’t fly, because Scripture is clear:

2 Timothy 4:8: I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award me on that Day . . .

Matthew 19:29: And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.

Luke 6:38: give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.

1 Corinthians 3:6-9: I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. (cf. 2 Cor. 9:6)

1 Corinthians 3:14: If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. (cf. Mk 9:41)

1 Corinthians 9:24-27: Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

Ephesians 6:8: knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. (cf. Matt 16:27)

Colossians 3:23-24: Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you are serving the Lord Christ.

Hebrews 6:10: For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love which you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do. (cf. Matt. 20:4)

Hebrews 10:35: Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.

Hebrews 11:6: And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

James 1:12: Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him.

2 John 8: Look to yourselves, that you may not lose what you have worked for, but may win a full reward.

Revelation 2:10: Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.

Revelation 3:11-12: I am coming soon; hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. He who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God; never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.

The notion of merit is also taught by the Church fathers:


St. Justin Martyr (d. c. 165)

We have learned from the prophets and we hold it as true that punishments and chastisements and good rewards are distributed according to the merit of each man’s actions. Were this not the case, and were all things to happen according to the decree of fate, there would be nothing at all in our power. If fate decrees that this man is to be good and that one wicked, then neither is the former to be praised nor the latter to be blamed. (First Apology 43 [A.D. 154])

St. Theophilus of Antioch (late 2nd cent.)

He who gave the mouth for speech and formed the ears for hearing and made eyes for seeing will examine everything and will judge justly, granting recompense to each according to merit. To those who seek immortality by the patient exercise of good works [Rom. 2:7], he will give everlasting life, joy, peace, rest, and all good things, which neither eye has seen nor ear has heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man [1 Cor. 2:9]. For the unbelievers and the contemptuous and for those who do not submit to the truth but assent to iniquity . . . there will be wrath and indignation [Rom. 2:8]. (To Autolycus 1:14 [181])

St. Irenaeus (d.c. 202)

[Paul], an able wrestler, urges us on in the struggle for immortality, so that we may receive a crown and so that we may regard as a precious crown that which we acquire by our own struggle and which does not grow upon us spontaneously. . . . Those things which come to us spontaneously are not loved as much as those which are obtained by anxious care. (Against Heresies 4:37:7 [196])

St. Cyprian

[Y]ou who are a matron rich and wealthy, anoint not your eyes with the antimony of the devil, but with the collyrium of Christ, so that you may at last come to see God, when you have merited before God both by your works and by your manner of living. (Works and Almsgivings 14 [253])

St. Cyril of Jerusalem

The root of every good work is the hope of the resurrection, for the expectation of a reward nerves the soul to good work. Every laborer is prepared to endure the toils if he looks forward to the reward of these toils. (Catechetical Lectures 18:1 [350])

St. Jerome

It is our task, according to our different virtues, to prepare for ourselves different rewards. . . . If we were all going to be equal in heaven it would be useless for us to humble ourselves here in order to have a greater place there. . . . Why should virgins persevere? Why should widows toil? Why should married women be content? Let us all sin, and after we repent we shall be the same as the apostles are! (Against Jovinian 2:32 [393])

St. Augustine

He bestowed forgiveness; the crown he will pay out. Of forgiveness he is the donor; of the crown, he is the debtor. Why debtor? Did he receive something? . . . The Lord made himself a debtor not by receiving something but by promising something. One does not say to him, “Pay for what you received,” but “Pay what you promised”. (Explanations of the Psalms 83:16 [405])

We are commanded to live righteously, and the reward is set before us of our meriting to live happily in eternity. But who is able to live righteously and do good works unless he has been justified by faith? (Various Questions to Simplician 1:2:21 [396])

What merits of his own has the saved to boast of when, if he were dealt with according to his merits, he would be nothing if not damned? Have the just then no merits at all? Of course they do, for they are the just. But they had no merits by which they were made just. (Letters 194:3:6 [418])

What merit, then, does a man have before grace, by which he might receive grace, when our every good merit is produced in us only by grace and when God, crowning our merits, crowns nothing else but his own gifts to us? (Ibid., 194:5:19)

St. Prosper of Aquitaine

Indeed, a man who has been justified, that is, who from impious has been made pious, since he had no antecedent good merit, receives a gift, by which gift he may also acquire merit. Thus, what was begun in him by Christ’s grace can also be augmented by the industry of his free choice, but never in the absence of God’s help, without which no one is able either to progress or to continue in doing good. (Responses on Behalf of Augustine to the Articles of Objections Raised by his Calumniators in Gaul 6 [431-432])

Second Council of Orange

[G]race is preceded by no merits. A reward is due to good works, if they are performed, but grace, which is not due, precedes, that they may be done. (Canons on Grace 19 [529])

Your problem, then, is not only with the Catholic Church, but also with the Bible and with the Church fathers. You disagree? Then I would be very curious to see how you would interpret the above Scripture and patristic citations.

Hello. I am just getting caught up in this discussion. I like how much everyone around here thinks so much.

No doubt, too much for our own good. LOL

I think I understand these issues and perspectives pretty well and am looking to, as you say, really get a handle on the practical differences. Let me put forward what I think is the ultimate biggee, and which is the actual root of the whole faith vs “faith and good works” debate: present assurance that one is in a state of grace.

Now that is a good way to put it: saying “assurance that one is in a state of grace” rather than “assurance that one has achieved eschatological salvation.” On this we can all agree.

I realize that this is introducing what may seem to be a new topic here, but I doubt this is the case – I think everything in the Christian life really comes down to this.

. . . I submit the primary difference is that, for Luther, truly good works before God can only come about when a person is certain that in Christ he already has full salvation and is merely working it out.

How can one “have” something yet still be working it out? If they have it, it makes no sense to keep working on obtaining it. And if they are working to obtain it, obviously they don’t have it yet. If you’re courting a woman in the hopes of winning her over, you don’t have her yet, do you?! But if you “have” her (ring, wedding date, etc.), then you’re not still courting; you are now planning. You’re no longer “dating to figure out”; rather, you are “figuring out a date.” :-) So the statement above is incoherent. Insofar as it truly represents Lutheran or Reformed thought, they are incoherent, too.

In other words, this person has absolute confidence that because of the completed work of Christ on the cross, if they were to drop dead at that very moment, they would die in a state of grace – ie, they would at the very least make it to purgatory, which of course means that they would eventually make it to heaven. Only when a person has a trust or confidence in Christ in this way does He perform any work that is pleasing to God.

This is a relatively better way to put it, because you are talking about “right now” rather than in the remote future. We simply don’t know the future, but we can have a significant assurance in the present, and this is where Lutheranism and Catholicism converge — again in a practical sense. There will always be differences in abstraction surrounding these issues. People want to argue endlessly over those, whereas I am much more concerned about practical implications for living the Christian life and faithfully serving Jesus.

Secondly, though Luther is wrong to say that no work can be good at all unless a person is “saved,” etc., it is a true that any good that can come from a work must be because the performer is in a state of grace. This is Catholic teaching, too. Hence, Matthias Premm, in his Dogmatic Theology for the Laity (New York: Society of St. Paul / Alba House, 1967; reprinted by TAN Books and Publishers, 1977, 263-264):


By sanctifying grace we are children of God. Only by sanctifying grace do we have a right to heaven as our heritage. By purely natural good acts, such as even the sinner can perform, heaven cannot be merited as a reward; we must be in the state of grace, a child of God. Only after human nature has been united to God by grace and raised above its own nature can good acts, which proceed from this supernaturally elevated nature, be directed towards the possession of God in the hereafter. Only in this way can we merit the vision of God in heaven, since it completely surpasses the powers of our pure human nature.

By sanctifying grace we become living members of the mystical body of Christ, one with Christ our Head. Thus our acts become acts of Christ, who, in an incomprehensible way, is living and working in his members. Through this intimate union with Christ, our Mediator before the father, we merit the happiness of heaven.

[this also ties into theosis, which I have written about: Theosis and the Exalted Virgin Mary]

Finally, sanctifying grace makes us temples of the Holy Spirit, who compels us to good works (Rom 8:14). St. Francis de Sales writes that the Holy Spirit performs good works in us with such consummate skill that the works belong more to him than to us. He works with us and we work with him . . .

For our works to be meritorious, it is not enough that they proceed from the state of grace; they must also be done with a good intention . . . good works must proceed from faith and love, and must be directed to the honor and glory of God . . . (1 Cor 10:31).

To clarify further: our works, which God has given to us to do in Christ in His grace, only merit imperishable heavenly rewards, not heaven (ie, the relationship with God – knowing God – see John 17:3) itself.

In the sense that we are saved by grace through the cross, absolutely. As I have argued, merit is only comprehensible if it is understood to be itself a gift of God’s grace: God crowning His own grace.

So Chris in #74 is right on with his comments: “that tells me that grace is given so that we may come to deserve eternal life, on account of the good works that grace enables us to do.” (note its “eternal life” that he’s talking about). I also note that all of the Biblical and Patristic citations you note, only talk of rewards, but not eternal life (ie, the relationship with God itself, certain now and after death of course). Interesting…

I still await Chris’s reply to my many biblical citations and patristic evidences. But in any event: first of all, your generalization is simply not true. It’s not possible to make a complete dichotomy between works and the rewards of heaven itself and of differential rewards in heaven. This must always be understood in the above sense, as elaborated upon by Premm (and as St. Augustine taught): works as the fruit of grace and good intentions: simultaneously God’s and our own works.

In the passages I cited, one notes that there is scarcely a word about faith alone, assurance, and other Lutheran/Protestant distinctives. That’s all you want to talk about as regards salvation, yet the Bible approaches the subject very differently. It is almost always tying works in somehow with salvation.

To drive the point home, I see it is time to again make a Revised Protestant Version of the Bible (RPV), to illustrate how St. Paul and other biblical writers got it wrong, and should have taken a crash course at a RPC or LCMS or Southern Baptist seminary, so that he would know how to present salvation in the appropriate terms. So how should the above passages read if Protestants are right on this matter?:

2 Timothy 4:8 (RPV): I have striven to achieve faith alone, I have finished the race of gratefulness for faith alone, I have kept to the dogma of faith alone. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award me on that Day . . .

Matthew 19:29 (RPV): And every one who has believed in faith alone and absolute assurance of salvation, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.

Luke 6:38 (RPV): believe, and salvation will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the faith you believe will be the salvation you get back.

1 Corinthians 3:6-9 (RPV): I believed, Apollos had faith, but God gave the salvation. So neither he who believes nor he who preaches the gospel is anything, but only God who gives salvation. He who believes and he who has faith are equal, and each shall receive salvation according to his acceptance of faith alone. For we are not God’s fellow workers; you are a snow-covered dunghill. (cf. 2 Cor. 9:6)

1 Corinthians 3:14 (RPV): If the faith which any man has believed on the foundation survives, he will receive salvation. (cf. Mk 9:41)

1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (RPV): Do you not know that in life all men compete, but only the one who exercises faith alone receives salvation? So believe that you may obtain it. Every good Protestant exercises faith in faith and faith in absolute assurance of salvation. They do it to receive salvation. Well, I do not believe aimlessly, I do not believe as one beating the air; but I work only out of gratefulness to God for salvation already obtained, lest after failing to exercise faith alone I myself should be damned.

Ephesians 6:8 (RPV): knowing that however much faith alone one musters up, he will receive salvation from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. (cf. Matt 16:27)

Colossians 3:23-24 (RPV): Whatever your denomination, believe heartily, as believing in the Lord and not men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you are serving the Lord Christ.

Hebrews 6:10 (RPV): For God is not so unjust as to overlook your faith and the love which you showed for his sake in believing in him, as you still do. (cf. Matt. 20:4)

Hebrews 10:35 (RPV): Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which proves you are saved.

Hebrews 11:6 (RPV): And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and have absoloute assurance that he is saved.

James 1:12 (RPV): Blessed is the man who strongly believes with faith alone, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him.

2 John 8 (RPV): Look to God, because you cannot lose what you have believed in, and must win salvation.

Revelation 2:10 (RSV): Believe with faith alone unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.

Revelation 3:11-12 (RPV): I am coming soon; hold fast to your faith, so that no one may seize your assurance. He who believes in faith strongly enough, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God; never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.

Moreover, it is also true that in every passage I could find which discussed judgment at the end of time, works were discussed and regarded as the criteria for entrance into eternal life, not faith at all. Surely this must be significant. This is how God (not the Council of Trent) chose to present the matter. See: Final Judgment & Works (Not Faith): 50 Passages.

Not to get off topic at all here though – I want to talk about and rivet on assurance. From what I’ve read and from my email conversations with Catholics, this is the huge elephant in the room. Dave, can you tell me what your view of assurance of salvation looks like?

. . . my question is – and I think its somewhat connected to your thoughts in this quote above and probably essentially at issue in the justification-works debate – how do you, as someone who is serious about Catholic teaching, understand the issue of assurance of salvation?

As I noted above, practically speaking, Lutherans and Catholics have substantial agreement (the greater difference is between either of us and Calvinists, with their double predestination). I feel no less “confident” of my ultimate salvation than I did as a Protestant, when I believed (much like the Baptist eternal security position) that nothing could take my salvation away except a literal rejection and trampling upon Christ.

The Catholic believes that he has a “moral assurance” by examining his conscience and life to determine whether he is in mortal sin or not. If he is not, he has every bit as much of an assurance at that moment of heaven as any Protestant, no matter what the Protestant claims.

If we are in good graces with God right now, then we can be confident that if we die right now, we will be saved (though we probably will have to endure purgatory before we get to heaven). We can’t know the future. We can’t know for sure whether we will fall away from this faith in Jesus and belief in Him. We are constantly warned in Scripture to be vigilant against falling away, which doesn’t jive with “absolute assurance”:


I would argue that this Catholic approach is precisely that of the Apostle Paul. I cited my friend Al Kresta in my book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism (p. 41):


Unlike the modern evangelical Protestant revivalistic preaching tradition, the Apostle Paul was not preoccupied with his acceptance as a sinner before a holy and righteous God. That was Luther’s crisis. Protestants have tended to read Paul through the lens of Luther’s experience.

1. . . . Luther said he feared God but clung to the Apostle Paul. All the constitutive elements of the classic Luther-type experience, however, are missing in both the experience and the thought of the Apostle.

Unlike Luther, Paul was not preoccupied with his guilt, seeking reassurance of a gracious God. He was rather robust of conscience, even given to boasting, untroubled about whether God was gracious or not (Philippians 3:4 ff.; 2 Corinthians 10, 11). He knew God was gracious. He never pleads either with Jews or Gentiles to feel an anguished conscience and then receive release from that anguish in a message of forgiveness . . . Paul’s burden is not to “bring people under conviction of sin” as in revival services. Forgiveness is simply a matter of fact.

When Paul speaks of himself as a serious sinner, it is . . . very specifically because . . . he had persecuted the church and missed God’s new move – opening the covenant community to the Gentiles (1 Corinthians 15:9-10; Ephesians 3:8; Galatians 1:13-16; 1 Timothy 1:13-15).

What is now set right in his life is not that he is no longer trying to work his way to heaven, abandons self-exertion and now trusts Christ; it is rather that he now sees that God has inexplicably chosen him to reveal this new and more inclusive covenant community made up of Jew and Gentile . . . (Ephesians 2:11-3:6).

2. Paul’s arguments against works of the law are not fundamentally arguments against human participation in or human cooperation with the saving purposes of God but arguments against Judaistic pride that sought to define membership in the covenant community by reference to Jewish marks of identity, such as circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, etc. and not fundamentally faith in Jesus as Messiah . . .

Again, this, I think – is really all about assurance. Dave — I have listened to you (Catholic Answers) and read some of your stuff — it would be an honor to speak with you and get your expertise here. I’ve done a little research on the topic and had many conversations on it — but I really would love to get your take on it.

Well, you’re too kind. Hope my thoughts have been helpful to you, in order to work through the issues and rightly understand where we agree and disagree.


I still await Chris’s reply to my many biblical citations and patristic evidences.

And I still await your explanation why, if the Lutheran view of justification is now acknowledged to be identical to the Roman Catholic view, Dr Luther was excommunicated.

[I gave 50 reasons why Luther was excommunicated. As of five days after that was posted, not a peep has been heard in reply from Chris]

I haven’t the time to reply in detail to your biblical and patristic catena. You seem to have more time than I to produce voluminous and detailed comments. I’ll just make a few general remarks.

First of all, there is no “Protestant view”, nor is there a “Lutheran/Protestant” view. To the extent that such a thing as “generic Protestantism” could be identified and meaningfully spoken of, its essence is Reformed, not Lutheran. Your discussion of these matters does not seem to be based on an understanding of the differences between Lutheranism on the one hand, and the Reformed and their intellectual and theological heirs on the other.

I am a synergist; I recognize an appropriate role for human cooperation with grace in the economy of salvation. (There are some of my fellow Lutherans who take me to task for this; they are not as familiar with the Formula of Concord as they ought to be.) I believe that grace is absolutely necessary (against Pelagianism), and that it is both logically and temporally primary (against semi-Pelagianism). I recognize that the Catholic Church agrees with me about these things. This is the position that your Biblical and patristic catena establishes, and I agree with it.

But St Paul makes a distinction in 1 Co 3 between the foundation and what we build on it. That corresponds to the distinction (not separation) which we Lutherans make between justification and sanctification. When I deny that a man may, even by grace, come to “deserve” eternal life, I am saying that our works form no part of the “foundation” which St Paul talks about in 1 Co 3.10-11 (For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ). I do not see canon 32 of Trent as consistent with this.

I acknowledge that both Scripture and Fathers are rife with the language of “reward”. But what is that reward, which is said to follow from our works? Is it the forgiveness of sins? Is it eternal life? If those are now to be dependent on our works, what has become of grace? The ground of our forgiveness and of our eternal life is the work of Christ alone; and none of the Scripture, and none of the Fathers, that you have quoted says otherwise. But canon 32 of Trent does. 

Eric Phillips (like Chris Jones, a Lutheran) added:

If every merit a just man has is implanted in him by the grace of God, for Christ’s sake, then it is alien merit. He does not “truly merit” eternal life; Christ does, on his behalf. What is more, if the weakest brother and the greatest saint both get to heaven, though separated greatly in terms of their good works, it is clear that so far as the question of heaven is concerned (leaving to the side the fact attested to in most of your quotations, that reward in heaven will be greater for some than for others), the question of merit is purely binary: either one has been joined to Christ, or one has not. And this is why we confess sola fide, and see it as bound up inextricably with sola gratia.

We’ll have to agree to disagree. I continue to believe that we are closer on this than you make out, and I think that is a good thing (if true, as I believe it is). I don’t see the point in continuing to try to find differences where there really are none, or where they are insignificant except for “how many angels on a pin?” abstractions which make little difference in the Christian life. We can all unite on the following propositions:

1. We are saved by grace through faith.
2. Semi-Pelagianism is false.
3. We are not saved by works; we cannot save ourselves.
4. Good works are a necessary component in the Christian life, as we serve God and love our fellow man.
5. Sanctification is a necessary part of the Christian life.
6. Antinomianism and “cheap grace” are false.
7. We are “co-laborers” with God and must “work out our own salvation.”
8. Faith without works is dead.

Catholics and Orthodox and Protestants agree on all these things. We can quibble about merit and penance and faith alone and predestination and the nature of justification and apostasy and theosis and Methodist and pentecostal perfectionism, the spiritual gifts, and all the rest of the endless disputes all we like, but if we unite on these tenets, then there isn’t a bit of difference in our day-to-day Christian walk with Jesus, in the Spirit, united to God the Father in baptism, with God indwelling us, that all the other fine-tuned discussions make.

Go be a good Lutheran and I’ll try to be a good Catholic, and we can fully agree (I think) on the eight propositions above and rejoice in this agreement. I will continue to work for as much unity among Christians as I can find (even if not identical beliefs in some areas), and also point out differences (defending Catholicism, of course) where we disagree in good faith and all sincerity. I do both things: always have; always will.


(originally 4-2-06)

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