Dialogue w Three Lutherans on Justification & Salvation

Dialogue w Three Lutherans on Justification & Salvation September 8, 2018

This dialogue took place on the Lutheran blog Three Hierarchies, underneath the post, “Reformed and Roman Catholic doctrine as compromise platforms.” Professional historian CPA’s words will be in blue; Eric Phillips’ words in green, and Tom R’s in purple.

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So apparently, Catholic teaching explicit states that those are justified who merely believe, as a set of facts that has nothing to do with their lives, the church’s creed, as long as they sincerely try to be a good person (as defined by Christian moral teachings) and avoid mortal sin.

It does? That’s news to me. You flip it around so that we Catholics are the ones who believe in imputed justification (“those are justified who merely believe”) and then hint that we are semi-Pelagian?

I don’t know where you get this. A snippet from the Catholic Encyclopedia is not Trent. Why is it that you never cite the very thing you are ostensibly talking about (Trent)? I find this to be very shoddy reasoning; well below your usual high standard.

Going back to my initial point: this line of reasoning is also beyond silly in light of the simple fact that Catholic soteriology explicitly joins justification and sanctification, so that it is impossible to make out that they can be separated in the sort of “imputation / easy believism with a Catholic works twist” that you try to unsuccessfully pull off.

It seems to me such an elementary point that I am truly baffled how you could have missed it. You didn’t trouble yourself to cite Trent itself with regard to how it is supposedly a “compromise platform,” but, tell ya what, since you are a nice guy, I’ll save you the trouble and do it for you:

Decree on Justification


What the justification of the impious is, and what are the causes thereof.

This disposition, or preparation, is followed by Justification itself, which is not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace, and of the gifts, whereby man of unjust becomes just, and of an enemy a friend, that so he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting.

Of this Justification the causes are these: the final cause indeed is the glory of God and of Jesus Christ, and life everlasting; while the efficient cause is a merciful God who washes and sanctifies gratuitously, signing, and anointing with the holy Spirit of promise, who is the pledge of our inheritance; but the meritorious cause is His most beloved only-begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when we were enemies, for the exceeding charity wherewith he loved us, merited Justification for us by His most holy Passion on the wood of the cross, and made satisfaction for us unto God the Father; the instrumental cause is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which (faith) no man was ever justified; lastly, the alone formal cause is the justice of God, not that whereby He Himself is just, but that whereby He maketh us just, that, to wit, with which we being endowed by Him, are renewed in the spirit of our mind, and we are not only reputed, but are truly called, and are, just, receiving justice within us, each one according to his own measure, which the Holy Ghost distributes to every one as He wills, and according to each one’s proper disposition and co-operation. For, although no one can be just, but he to whom the merits of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ are communicated, yet is this done in the said justification of the impious, when by the merit of that same most holy Passion, the charity of God is poured forth, by the Holy Spirit, in the hearts of those that are justified, and is inherent therein: whence, man, through Jesus Christ, in whom he is ingrafted, receives, in the said justification, together with the remission of sins, all these (gifts) infused at once, faith, hope, and charity. For faith, unless hope and charity be added thereto, neither unites man perfectly with Christ, nor makes him a living member of His body. For which reason it is most truly said, that Faith without works is dead and profitless; and, In Christ Jesus neither circumcision, availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh by charity. This faith, Catechumen’s beg of the Church-agreeably to a tradition of the apostles-previously to the sacrament of Baptism; when they beg for the faith which bestows life everlasting, which, without hope and charity, faith cannot bestow: whence also do they immediately hear that word of Christ; If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. Wherefore, when receiving true and Christian justice, they are bidden, immediately on being born again, to preserve it pure and spotless, as the first robe given them through Jesus Christ in lieu of that which Adam, by his disobedience, lost for himself and for us, that so they may bear it before the judgment-seat of our Lord Jesus Christ, and may have life everlasting.


In what manner it is to be understood, that the impious is justified by faith, and gratuitously.

And whereas the Apostle saith, that man is justified by faith and freely, those words are to be understood in that sense which the perpetual consent of the Catholic Church hath held and expressed; to wit, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and the root of all Justification; without which it is impossible to please God, and to come unto the fellowship of His sons: but we are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification-whether faith or works-merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle says, grace is no more grace.

Now of course the Lutheran goes on to quibble with merit and perseverance in said justification, lest it be lost. But the quibble is ultimately not with Catholics, it is with the likes of St. Paul, who expresses these things in far more Catholic terms than Lutheran. He doesn’t seem to think that his justification is in the past, and his salvation already attained. For example:

1 Corinthians 9:27 but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

1 Corinthians 10:12 Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.

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.

Philippians 3:11-14 that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own . . . I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

The Apostle Paul doesn’t arbitrarily separate justification from sanctification, or man’s works from God’s grace that enables them (as Lutherans arbitrarily do, creating unbiblical false dichotomies):

1 Corinthians 3:8-9 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.

1 Corinthians 15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me.

2 Corinthians 6:1 Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain.

St. Peter agrees (as we would expect the first pope to do):

2 Peter 1:10 Therefore, brethren, be the more zealous to confirm your call and election, for if you do this you will never fall;

Former Lutheran Louis Bouyer highlights the Lutheran biblical difficulty here:

The further Luther advanced in his conflict with other theologians, then with Rome, then with the whole of contemporary Catholicism and finally with the Catholicism of every age, the more closely we see him identifying his affirmation about ‘sola gratia’ with a particular theory, known as extrinsic justification. That is to say, he himself unites two statements so closely that they become inseparable – one an affirmation, grace alone saves us; the second a negation, it changes nothing in us in so doing. To recall a simile he himself popularised, the grace of God envelops us as in a cloak, but this grace leaves us exactly as we were. The sinner, after receiving grace and so saved, is no less a sinner than before . . .

Justification by faith is not nearly so important to St. Paul as to Luther, but has been forcibly crammed by the latter into texts which in fact do not mention it . . . Without the least doubt, grace, for St. Paul, however freely given, involves what he calls ‘the new creation’, the appearance in us of a ‘new man’, created in justice and holiness. So far from suppressing the efforts of man, or making them a matter of indifference, or at least irrelevant to salvation, he himself tells us to ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling’, at the very moment when he affirms that ‘. . . knowing that it is God who works in you both to will and to accomplish’. These two expressions say better than any other that all is grace in our salvation, but at the same time grace is not opposed to human acts and endeavour in order to attain salvation, but arouses them and exacts their performance . . .

Extrinsic justification, a justification independent of any interior change, of any new capability given to man to perform acts pleasing of themselves to God, is so far from being a Pauline doctrine that it is quite irreconcilable with the whole body of his teaching.

Calvin . . . was quite conscious of this, and applied himself with some success to correcting Luther on this point. None the less, the clear-cut distinction he tried to draw between justification and sanctification, while willingly admitting that they are inseparable in fact, cannot be maintained in a scientific exegesis. Scripture, even St. Paul alone, apart from the evidence of the four Gospels, sweeps aside the last dialectical device for safeguarding the theory of extrinsic justification . . .

The uneasiness felt by Protestant systems opposed to Catholicism is nowhere so evident than in the long controversy on the meaning in St. Paul of the word ‘dikaioo,’ to justify. All Protestant exegetes, anxious to safeguard the expressions used by Luther and Calvin, set out to show that it can only mean ‘to declare just’, not ‘to make just’; that is, it applies merely to extrinsic justice, which has nothing real to correspond with it in the person justified. Nevertheless, modern scientific exegesis unanimously acknowledges that the word can only mean ‘to declare officially just someone who is so in reality’. Even the idea of the Word of God creating what he says by the act of saying it – so well drawn out by Barth from the entire Bible – would be enough to show that God makes just whom he ‘declares just’, even if he were not so beforehand, by the very fact of his declaration, so the opposition set up is without meaning. (The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, translated by A. V. Littledale, London: Harvill Press, 1956, pp. 170, 175-176, 180-181)

I’ve put together a “a handy summary of Tridentine soteriology” that may be helpful for Lutherans to actually grasp what Trent teaches about justification and salvation (which would be a nice change). 

Of course God makes us just. Forensic justification isn’t the only thing we ever get; it’s just the thing that gives us confidence of salvation here and now, while we are still sinning. At present we wear the white robe. In eternity, we will be like Him.

[ . . . ]

One interesting line of argument that I’ve noted sometimes emerges in theological debates with Catholics who have fallen away from Evangelical Christianity: here’s a summary…

Thanks for the qualification and nuance.

“Even when I was a Protestant, I gradually became aware that only the Catholic Church had preserved the Apostolic teaching in its fullness. So I converted.”

“What then would you do if, after you became Catholic, you realised that the Catholic Church in fact had fallen into some heresy, or if it espoused some novel doctrine that you couldn’t reconcile with Scripture? Would you leave the Catholic Church?”

“Of course not. Instead, I would submit my own private judgment to that of the Magisterium. To think that I, a mere layperson, could accuse the Church itself of error is laughable.”

Again, this doesn’t apply to me, or, I would say, any thinking Catholic. What you describe is a blind faith that isn’t worth the “ink” to write “blind faith”.

If the Catholic Church truly fell away and became radically unbiblical (say, like the Episcopalians now have), I would leave it if there was something better (I’ve written about this before). I imagine I would become Orthodox as the next best choice. But I don’t see that there is any perfect choice. I think that the Orthodox compromise the received apostolic and biblical teaching on contraception and divorce. Who among Protestant denominations have preserved those thngs? There might be some dinky storefront one somewhere.

So: the ex-Prot is arguing both that (a) individuals are equipped to pronounce that a Protestant church’s teachings don’t fit with the Apostles’ teachings, but also that (a) individuals are not equipped to pronounce that the Catholic church’s teachings don’t fit with the Apostles’ teachings.

We are equipped enough to understand what a documented received teaching passed down from the apostles is. Take, again, the issue of contraception. It is widely known that all major denominations opposed it as grace sin until 1930, when the Anglicans started allowing it in “hard cases” (gee, that sounds like familiar rhetoric! Where have we heard that before?).

Now, does it take a Th.D. in theology to grasp that fact? No; it’s rather simply ascertained. It is historical fact. This was apostolic teaching. This was patristic and medieval teaching. It was “Reformation” teaching. It was post-“Reformation” Protestant teaching till 1930. It is what it is. A = A. So to deny this is to depart from apostolic doctrine.

Newman as an Anglican says “to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant”, but if as a Catholic he ever started wondering “Hey, where was the Papacy for the first 700+ years,

Are you saying that people like Pope St. Leo the Great and Pope st. Gregory the Great weren’t popes? That would be about as ahistorical as I have ever seen. Even rabid anti-Catholics date the “papacy proper” from one of these two men, whose teaching on the papacy was very explicit.

and how come the New Testament writers got the Marian Doctrines so wrong?”,

They did? Where?

he would have had to suppress such heretical thoughts on pain of damnation. (It’s actually a very effect meme – the “lockout principle”.)

Of course, Protestantism is no different. If you are a conservative Lutheran, go to your pastor and say you think baptism and the Eucharist are purely symbolic and see how well that goes over. You would have to suppress such “heretical thoughts” also and if your pastor was consistent, you would find your formerly Lutheran butt out on the pavement in front of St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church in Missouri or Wisconsin.

So when a Catholic argues that Catholicism best fits with history and Scripture, it’s like someone telling me that his house is red, not grey…. but then also saying that he’s colourblind and can’t tell red from gray.

Very interesting. Folks can either back up their views from history or they can’t. I think I can, or at least I can to an extent that I don’t see that any other claims to be heirs of apostolic and patristic Christianity are nearly as plausible as the Catholic claims.

As for the semantical discussion about the definition of “faith”: that bores me (as “straining the gnat” semantics generally do). I’m much more interested in the entire Catholic soteriology vs. the entire Lutheran soteriology: the concepts, not the words. We’ve already been over how Catholics generally define the word “faith” differently, and that our “hope” is roughly equivalent to your use of “faith.” Your claim had to do with the overall soteriology, and you misrepresented ours. I countered it with a long passage from Trent, that I don’t believe you or anyone else has since interacted with.

I have long argued, that in a very real practical concrete sense, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Catholic soteriologies are largely the same. When one gets away from the abstractions and word games, all agree on the following:

1) We are saved by grace alone.

2) Good works must follow in the Christian life.

3) Those who persist in extremely serious sin and show no fruits of repentance will quite potentially be damned.

Period. We can define the relationships differently, separate sanctification from justification, discuss imputation and infusion, bring the Holy Spirit and regeneration into it, wrangle over merit and the nature of divine-human cooperation, argue about whether human nature is intrinsically sinful, etc., etc. In the end, the above simple, non-theological, non-philosophical scenario still applies.

The Catholic says that if good works aren’t present, then the person isn’t justified, because “faith without works is dead.” The Lutheran at some point, I believe, would question someone who showed no fruits of good works, too, based on sentiments such as the following, from 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)

Accordingly, if good works do not follow, it is certain that this faith in Christ does not dwell in our heart, but dead faith. (Althaus, ibid., 246; also Luther’s Works, 34, 111; cf. 34, 161)

Reformed theology says much the same, and Wesleyan theology is very much Catholic, in how it merges or at least brings in very close affinity, sanctification and justification.

This is what I like to emphasize, and I wish we all could do that, rather than wrangle about all the abstractions. The Christian life can bring all the diverse Christian theologies together in the very practical, “Jewish” way above.

This is why all the passages about Judgment that I have ever found, where God says anything, involve works, not justification by faith alone. God doesn’t say, “did you BELIEVE in Me with faith alone?” He says, rather, “you are saved because you DID this and didn’t do that.”

I say the excruciating analysis of the word “faith” is much ado about nothing. We believe largely the same (whatever words are used), in the sense that I outlined above. Do you agree with at least that practical, concrete point of mine?

It reminds me of the time a Baptist pastor friend of mine, who had a bookstore that I frequented, once said that Catholics don’t believe in a personal relationship with Jesus.

I looked around on his shelves and noticed Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ. So I asked him if he had ever read that? If one can read that marvelous book and conclude that Catholics know nothing of a relationship with Jesus Christ, then what else can we do? One might just as well conclude that birds don’t fly or that elephants don’t have trunks.

People will believe what they want to believe about Catholics, unfortunately. All we can do is try to educate and disabuse people of false notions. I think the common ground is far more profound than what divides us.

As for the similarity uniting the Reformed, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic soteriologies, they’re all Augustinian and all affirm sola gratia, so there’s something to what you say. You are underestimating the importance of sola fide, however.

Glad to see the extensive agreement, and thanks to you and CPA and Tom R for the great discussion. Let me disagree with one point, though, if I may. The last sentence above makes no sense in the context of an acknowledgement of similarities, because it isn’t a similarity in the first place.

That would be like saying, “turquoise, aquamarine, and teal all have in common the characteristic of “containing the color blue” and then someone comes along and says “ah, but you’re underestimating the importance of red.”

It doesn’t apply if the topic is common ground. It wouldn’t even apply if purple (which contains red) were one of the three colors listed, because it would only be one of the three, which is the point. “Common ground” must refer to “that trait held by all in common.”

Moreover, in the practical, non-abstract sense in which my initial “common ground” scenario functioned, “faith alone” (or any other abstract theological concept) is ultimately irrelevant, precisely because the commonality was on practical, not ultra-theological, or broadly intellectual grounds. It works with and applies to the practical fruit and lived-out-experience of all truly Christian (non-Pelagian, trinitarian) systems.

But if your last sentence was simply a sort of stand-alone editorial comment, you could say that in the sense that I ultimately reject sola fide as a biblical doctrine, and as applied as one of the pillars of Protestantism. That said, I still see a lot of common ground even with regard to sola fide considered separately (more than is usually supposed by Protestants and seemingly still not grasped by CPA). 

Dr. Howell (former Presbyterian) makes the point that the Catholic beef is not with any imputation whatsoever, but rather, with the radical concept of “faith alone” to the exclusion of works.

But as I have shown, practically-speaking, it comes out the same, anyway (which is why I consider so many discussions on faith and works as tedious and missing the point. When Lutherans and Calvinists go on to say that works better follow justification or else one can question whether it even occurred, the practical result is the same: faith and works are joined. The only difference is in the fine -tuned abstractions and the way concepts and doctrines are categorized and related to each other.

I prefer the common sense, non-philosophical, non-theological approach of someone like C. S. Lewis, who said that the false dichotomy of “faith vs. works” was as foolish as saying that one blade of a pair of scissors was more important than the other.

That last sentence was not intended to express a similarity, but rather to point out that sola gratia is only half the question.

Perhaps I’ll have time to read one or more of those papers later. For now, I’ll just say this: to me, it seems there is a big difference between viewing salvation as something already accomplished, in which I must simply maintain faith so as not to fall away, and viewing it as a goal that I can reach if I avail myself sufficiently of God’s help.

But again, there is a practical similarity, if not equation (in that specifically concrete sense). You say that you view salvation as something already accomplished, yet you can fall away. So it really isn’t “accomplished” after all, is it? It’s not because you haven’t gotten there yet. The eschatological (“being in the elect”) sense of salvation is the only one that really matters in the end: whether we get to heaven or not. And no one can say for sure that they will persevere to the end. We don’t know the future. Hence, St. Paul’s talk about “pressing on,” etc.

So the Catholic view is not really that different from yours: it’s simply looked at from a different vantage point, like a spider on the ceiling viewing the whole room differently because he is upside down, but it is the same room (and also because he is a lot smaller). It’s two ways of looking at the same thing, with different abstract theologies tacked onto them.

So the Catholic “presses on” with St. Paul, just as the Protestant does. The latter can talk as if it’s really accomplished already, but that is practically meaningless as long as one can theoretically fall away. One can only have, therefore, a “moral” assurance (precisely as we teach).

If I examine myself and am sure that no mortal sin is abiding in me, and I am doing my best to follow God, I can be morally sure now that I will be saved if I die in the next hour. I would argue (having been in both camps) that the observant, faithful Catholic is, thus, every bit as “sure” of his salvation as the Protestant is or is actually able to be; once one looks closely at both visions of the Christian life.

Now, someone might think that the Calvinist approach (with its doctrine of perseverance) solves the “problem of assurance”, but it really doesn’t. Even John Calvin stated that no one can be absolutely certain themselves, or know about others, that they are of the elect.

The problem of lack of knowledge of the future, in the end, makes the Calvinist just as uncertain of his final state as Catholics or Lutherans or Orthodox or anyone else. They simply don’t know for sure. The individual Calvinist usually assumes he is in the elect, but it’s just that: only an assumption.

He looks at others and makes a judgment: “that guy is an adulterer; he’s not in the elect.” That guy denies the Trinity; he can’t be in the elect.” Etc. Then if someone comes right out and rejects Jesus or the Trinity, or is caught with a prostitute (or worse, a little boy or girl), and was previously thought to be one of the elect, then it is simply stated that he never was regenerate or of the elect (and Baptists say he was never “saved”).

But (quite obviously) no one “knew” all that till the event happened. Likewise, no one knows for sure that they won’t later fall away. Say they endure a great tragedy that causes them to lose faith entirely (and the “bad people” we observe may always repent in the future and start following God). Well, no one “knew” what was going to happen in the future.

So we’re all in the same boat: we press on and make our election (that we can only make an educated guess that we have) more sure. It works out exactly the same in all Christian systems of soteriology. There is no “big difference” as you claim. The difference lies in someone’s level of devotion to Jesus and love towards his fellow man, or lack thereof. In other words, the only real (concrete, practical) difference comes down to who is living out the Christian life with more fervor and zeal and consistency and love, and who isn’t.

Maybe that is why God Himself talks so much about works in the scenes of judgment recorded in Holy Scripture, rather than “faith alone”?

These are a few of the areas where Catholics understand fully that it is no contradiction to say “You are X forever” but also “You are commanded not to act in a way contrary to X”.

Yes; decent analogies (in and of themselves) and a good point; however, it’s a disanalogy when you are talking about salvation, because, as I wrote above, the only sense of salvation that has any ultimate meaning is eschatological salvation: does one actually end up in heaven, thus proving he really was saved and of the elect?

So, to further expand upon your analogy, one can get married and even intend to stay together forever, but one can’t know with infallible certainty that they will do so and will never divorce. Presumably, everyone who gets divorced thought on their wedding day that they would not. But in any event, it only refers to this life, not one’s status with regard to the next.

Likewise with the priest. Indeed, he has an indelible mark as a priest. But that refers to the here and now: this life. He can act inconsistently with that, just as in 1 John it says that the essence of being a Christian is to not sin (the ideal), but also says, “if we sin, we have an advocate” (realistic appraisal of human frailty).

But the claim to some sort of assurance of salvation is with reference to one ending up in heaven. That is what being saved ultimately comes down to. And we can’t know that, short of a revelation from God: itself difficult to know with absolute certainty.

To a Lutheran, the Augustinian Evangelical view of faith/ works is like “I love my wife. Therefore (a) I will stay married to her for life, and (b) I will give her a wonderful birthday present”,

But I just showed how no one knows that for sure. You only know it now. You can’t know for sure what will happen tomorrow. You love your wife now. But say ten years from now she has an affair and also kills one of your children (perhaps by abortion). Will you feel the same? No, of course not. Simply saying, “I love Jesus and am committed to him, so I am saved [or, must be saved] only refers to current desire and willingness, not to all future sates of mind and will.

The Catholic can say exactly the same thing, with a little different lingo (taking out the past tense of salvation): “I love Jesus and have entirely committed my life to Him, and intend on serving Him the rest of my life, and to grow in sanctity and virtue, and if I continue to do so by His grace I am assured that I will eventually go to heaven.”

whereas the Catholic (or Arminian Evangelical) view looks rather too much like “I’d better get my wife a wonderful birthday present, or else I might find myself no longer married to her.”

But this isn’t true. We don’t think in such simplistic, superficial terms. We would say, rather, “those who love God (as with a wife) will naturally want to do loving acts towards Him and to get to know Him better.” It’s no different. And a rejection of God or salvation works out practically the same. The Catholic would say:

A1) “If I reject my wife utterly I might find myself no longer married to her.”

A2) “If I reject God utterly I might find myself separated from God in hell.”

Whereas the Protestant says:

B1) “If I reject my wife utterly I might find myself no longer married to her.”

B2) “If I reject God utterly I (probably or certainly) was never saved or regenerate in the first place and will find myself separated from God in hell.”

The only difference is adding in the relative abstraction of being “saved” in this life, while not knowing with certainty one’s final destination. Practically speaking, the two are identical.

Works to us are a result, not a cause, of salvation.

This is your basic fallacy. Works are no cause of salvation for the Catholic, either. We are not semi-Pelagian, as your Confessions erroneously state. We believe that all good works whatever, as well as salvation itself, must wholly originate from God’s grace.

Man merely cooperates with this grace. It is man’s works enabled by God, and simultaneously God’s works through him, as we see in Ephesians 2:9-10 and Paul’s many statements about being God’s co-workers, etc. Lutheranism makes a false, unnecessary dichotomy between God’s grace in our works and our doing the works. It falsely collapses all such cooperation with grace into semi-Pelagianism, but it is not at all.

If one is failing at works, the remedy is to return to the Gospel – “remember that you have been saved” – rather than to add on more Law.

It has nothing to do with “law” because in the first place the claim is not that we are saved by works. Even the astute OT Jew knew that the Law did not save Him; that was by faith in God. It’s all grace; all we’re doing is cooperating with that grace.

If we are failing we don’t simply reiterate an abstraction in our mind: “hey, I forgot I was saved for a moment there; now that I know I am once again, I can do better!” That accomplishes little, and is self-generated.

Right. The thing we reiterate is very concrete. “Christ Jesus died for me, and in Him I am forgiven all my sins.”

Absolutely; conditional upon our repentance. If we fall into mortal sin (1 Jn 5:16-17) we can confess to a priest (Mt 16:19, 18:18, Jn 20:23) and receive forgiveness and grace from God to become restored spiritually. It’s an ongoing process. God will forgive anyone who repents. Regeneration is a past event, but justification/sanctification is ongoing.

* * *

The Catholic says that if we are failing, we go to God and ask Him for more grace, and receive such grace through confession or the Eucharist or prayers. This in turn helps us to be better people. It doesn’t come through “faith in faith” which is a purely subjective thing, but through objective grace from God, mediated through the sacraments or sacramentals but also through other means: always from God, not our own subjective feelings and thoughts.

For both of us there is the chance of falling away, and yes, there is that for the Presbyterians and Baptists also, though they may define it away. That’s not what I was talking about, though. I’m talking about how we are saved, not whether.

We’re saved by God’s grace. We all believe in sola gratia. Any good works in any non-Pelagian soteriology are themselves initially generated by grace. Where’s the beef? Why even have any controversies about these things?

The real difference is between non-Pelagian (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox) systems and Pelagian ones (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarians, etc.). It’s a category mistake made by the Lutheran confessions, that Catholics are semi-Pelagian.

I’ve argued that the Book / Formula of Concord in its final formulation in 1580 should have understood the clarifications of Trent vis-a-vis soteriology and modified the charges of semi-Pelagianism. As it is, it stands as an institutionalized, dogmatized misrepresentation of another Christian system, which is unfortunate and doesn’t help matters any.

‘It has nothing to do with “law” because in the first place the claim is not that we are saved by works.’

Do you then reject the argument put by many Catholics that St Paul in Galatians is only condemning the idea that we are saved by obeying the Jewish Law, of Moses, and not the Moral Law?

I follow the interpretation of N. T. Wright. This general view was expressed by my friend Al Kresta in a lengthy citation in my book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism:

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 . . .

Contrary to the pronouncements of popular preachers, first century Judaism did not believe in salvation by works. They believed that they were God’s elect people by grace; lawkeeping was their response to God’s grace. Salvation was understood to be granted by God’s electing grace, not according to a righteousness based on merit-earning works. But most Protestant scholars since Luther have read Paul as saying that Judaism misunderstood the gracious nature of God’s covenant with Moses and perverted it into a system of attaining righteousness by works.

Wrong! Luther’s experience was not Paul’s. New Testament scholars, for the most part, now understand ‘works of law’ not as synonymous with human effort but as the activities by which the Jews maintained their distinct status from the Gentiles . . .

For Paul, these boundary-defining features distinguished Israel in the flesh (Romans 2:28 ) and encouraged Jews to boast in their national identity (Romans 3:27-29; Galatians 2:16; 6:13). They were obstructing the extension of God’s grace to the nations through Christ. In so doing, they were undermining their very purpose of existence: all the nations were supposed to be blessed by the offspring of Abraham (Genesis 12:3; Deuteronomy 4:6; Isaiah 66:20).

So when Paul says of the Jews that ‘they sought to establish their own righteousness’ (Romans 10:3) he doesn’t mean that they were trying to earn their salvation through human exertion but that they arrogated to themselves the authority to set the conditions by which believing Gentiles could be regarded as full members in the new covenant community. They rejected the authoritative apostolic teaching that the Gentiles and Jews constituted one body (Acts 15:1,24; Galatians 1:7; 2:12; 5:10; Ephesians 2-3:13) and they sought to thwart God’s inclusion of the Gentiles by insisting that Gentiles first become Jews through circumcision, etc., rather than through faith in Jesus, who is the ‘aim’ or ‘end’ of the law (Philippians 3:2; Galatians 5:6; 6:15; 1 Corinthians 7:19; Romans 10:4). They were retrogressive . . . (pp. 42-43)

Do you think Wright’s right in his attack on veneration of saints too?

Dunno. I haven’t seen that. Probably not, if he is attacking it. Better for Wright to be wrong, though, than for wrong to be right.

* * *
Is our cooperation grace too?

It’s enabled by grace. But we still have to be willing to do it, or can refuse, not being robots. God wants His creatures to actively participate in His purposes.

If you say that salvation is something we merit (in whatever relative, grace-modified sense) through cooperation, and that cooperation – no matter how grace-powered – depends on our own will and determination, then there’s more between us than sola fide. Your rejection of sola fide is causing a hiccup in your sola gratia as well.

On the other point, sin and repentance, and therefore the forgiveness of sins also, are indeed ongoing in the Christian life. This does not mean that justification is ongoing, however; the absolutions we receive are reiterations of the declaration God made when we were baptized: “You are forgiven in Christ.” They give us comfort and feed the faith by which we remain in Christ; they do not put us back in after some mortal sin has uprooted us. Nothing can uproot us except the loss of faith, and if faith is lost, we will not believe the absolution.

And even if we could agree on “ongoing justification” being in some sense a legitimate description of absolution, we certainly could not agree that it is an ongoing process. Being sanctified is a process. Being justified is a simple condition. There are degrees of Christ-likeness. There are not degrees of forgivenness.

And we come to the Catholic-Lutheran brick wall again. At a certain point the dialogue ceases and both parties simply state their positions to the other, who is oblivious.

My hope was to illustrate that the commonalities are a lot more than usually supposed. If I have convinced even one person of that, then it has been a net gain.

I ain’t gonna go down the muddle-headed road that equates mere biblical, explicitly Pauline cooperation with God’s grace as semi-Pelagian. If we are that, then so is the Apostle Paul, and we’re in good company.

If you reject any cooperation at all, then you reject Paul, and your problem is with the Bible and the Great Apostle, not with the Catholic Church, since we derived our doctrine on merit from him (and from St. Augustine, too).


I guess in the 16th century context of widespread Lutheran forcible suppression of the Mass, systematic misrepresentation of the Catholic version of sola gratia in the Lutheran Confessions is not in the least surprising.

By contrast, I (the big bad boogeyman apologist) have defended Luther on many occasions against false bogus charges, and also Melanchtonian Lutheranism against similar false accusations of semi-Pelagianism.

I don’t see how inaccuracy in describing other Christian systems does anyone any good.

Yes, there are commonalities. They cannot be understood properly, however, if the differences are excluded from the conversation. They shape each other.

I don’t know where you got the idea that I see “explicitly Pauline cooperation with God’s grace as semi-Pelagian.” What’s semi-Pelagian is 1) making this cooperation the engine of justification, and 2) making it dependent on human good will instead of divine predestination and the gift of perseverance.

It isn’t. It is simultaneously God-enabled behavior and man’s own behavior. It’s a biblical paradox: one of many. But if one disallows those and insists on dichotomizing at every turn, then it is seen as an “either/or” contrary. I maintain that Paul doesn’t see it that way, with his terminology of “fellow laborers” with God, etc.
That’s not a paradox at all. God gives the ability, man must choose to use it. It’s just simple straightforward synergism.
I understand that you cannot see it any other way from within your paradigm. We’ll have to agree to disagree. You believe that man does nothing at all, including even cooperating with a free gift. I don’t think the biblical data either suggests or requires that. There is a middle biblical ground that preserves free will and the proper dignity of regenerated, Spirit-indwelt man without descending into semi-Pelagianism. You’ve ruled it out by your categories.
No, I don’t. What I believe is 1) that man’s cooperation is not salvific, and 2) that faith, which is salvific, is not cooperation, but purely the gift of God.
It’s just playing word games, Eric. There is no difference. Either way, man’s gotta do something. You call the cooperation (exercising faith or what not) a gift. It clearly isn’t insofar as it has to be accepted and acted upon by man, and that is doing something. There is no way out of it. If you give a horse season tickets to the local NBA team, he doesn’t know what to do with it; he can’t grasp the significance of it; to the horse it is just a meaningless piece of paper.

Every gift has to be accepted by the recipient. This is how faith and grace are. They are pure gifts of God, but if we don’t appropriate them to ourselves and act upon them, they are meaningless. The acceptance is also grace. But it is acceptance and is an act, and it is not”nothing”.

If we aren’t mere automatons, we accept the gift of grace and faith, just as a prisoner must accept the gift of a pardon from the governor. He could reject it; he could hang himself the day before it came or refuse to leave the prison. Or he can accept it and choose to walk out a free man. Giving assent to God’s gift and repenting and making a change in one’s life is all doing something.

We Catholics also believe that “man’s cooperation is not salvific.” Salvation comes from God’s grace alone (sola gratia). The real problem underlying all these word games is Lutheranism’s false doctrine of man: as if man is utterly, absolutely evil (I dealt with this above, with my citations of former Lutheran Louis Bouyer).

Now, we agree, that man can do no self-generated good works, apart from God’s grace. Trent clearly teaches this. It is our doctrine and dogma too. But once grace enters in, man can cooperate with it and do good works in Christ. These, in turn, prove that justification is real, in both systems. The Apostle Paul is very explicit about this notion.

I think Dave is correct in his disagreement with Eric about the whole question of faith is or is not a work – it’s a mere logomachy – except on one thing (and that’s the thing that makes all the difference):

If we ask, why are some saved and not others, we can either answer because some cooperated and some didn’t (and we can do that immediately or else mediately by saying God foresaw their faith, etc.).

Or else we can refer the whole question to God, or in any case refuse to use human free will as an answer to the question.

That’s where the difference is.

Or we can take the Molinist view, as I do: God knows who will respond or not respond to His grace, by virtue of his middle knowledge (scientia media) — a function of His omniscience, and so gives more grace to those whom He knows will indeed respond to and act upon His grace.

More paradox, but not contradiction! Middle knowledge is indicated in Scripture; e.g., where Jesus said that if Tyre and Sidon had heard the gospel, they would have repented (Matthew 11:20-24). 

The Molinist “God foresaw who would repent and believe” view is popular among Catholics and Arminian Protestants (eg Seventh-Day Adventists). The problem with it is, it means St Paul (sorry, The Paulist Author[s]) wasted his papyrus writing Romans 9. Rather than explaining that the clay pot doesn’t talk back to its Maker, he should have been rushing to explain that the Maker would never do so harsh and cruel a thing as making some vessels prepared for destruction. Rather, he should have been explaining that the Maker only foresaw that some of his clay pots would crack (yet still refused to make them more soundly…)
The Molinist position is exactly what I called a mediate theodicy of free will. Right or wrong, then suddenly questions of whether faith and/or cooperation with grace are meritorious, a work, etc., are no longer logomachies, because suddenly they are being asked to carry the immense weight of deciding why some are saved and some not.

This is why I have insisted that in Bondage of the Will Luther’s principle question is not free will in the abstract, but theodicy, and why the Augsburg Confession insists that the only part of “free will” that matters theologically is the free will to turn or not to turn to God.

I for one am eagerly looking forward if and when I get to heaven, to finding out who was right on this blasted free will / predestination dispute and some others. I suspect there will be a lot of “heavenly humor” about folks being wrong and spending so much energy and time in their life fighting for things that were simply untrue. Then we’ll all forgive each other our follies and human pride and get on with the business of worshiping God together for eternity.
* * *
I mentioned N. T. Wright only in passing, and almost exclusively with regard to the interpretation of “works of the law” and the “law / grace” relationship, not all of soteriology. But Rich Lusk, in his “A Short Note on N.T. Wright and His Reformed Critics” [link now defunct] writes:

Wright stresses the “already” as well as the “not yet” of justification. Here both Rome and the Reformers must be found wanting. For the Reformers, justification was conceived almost entirely in terms of the “already”. What wounded consciences needed to hear was that God had already accepted them in Christ. Rome, of course, held the verdict of justification in suspense until the last day, making assurance impossible. For Wright (and not a few top notch Reformed theologians) justification is present and future. Initial justification is received by faith alone. But “future justification, acquittal at the last great Assize, always takes place on the basis of the totality of the life lived” [8]. Indeed, this point seems obvious, even if it has been largely missed because of our polemic against Rome. Scripture repeatedly points ahead to a final judgment in which works will play a vital role in our acquittal (though not in abstraction from faith, of course) ” [9].

8. P. 144 in Paul and the Mosaic Law, edited by J. D. G. Dunn.

9. Cf. Mt. 25:31ff, Rom. 2, etc. The Westminster divines implicitly acknowledge a future dimension to justification in WSC 38, since they spoke of “acquittal” occurring at the final judgment. Among more contemporary Reformed theologians, Gaffin and Norm Shepherd have spoken freely of the future aspect of justification.

There’s your “common ground” again: what I have been stressing in many statements above. But some folks want to keep stressing that we disagree so wildly on the whole vexed faith and works issue. We do indeed, abstractly, but not so much in terms of the practiced Christian life. 


(originally 2-1-07)

Photo credit: Philip Melanchthon (1540): engraving by Heinrich Aldegrever (1502-1555/1561) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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