“Faith Alone” & Salvation: Dialogue w Lutheran Pastor

“Faith Alone” & Salvation: Dialogue w Lutheran Pastor February 18, 2019

This exchange came about in a Facebook discussion of my blog article, Faith & Works: Oil & Water or Two Sides of a Coin? Rev Ken Howes (Missouri Synod) is a friend of mine. We have engaged in several enjoyable and constructive dialogues and have great respect for each other. I would contend that such friendship (or at least respect: whether friends or not) is absolutely necessary for any truly good and instructive dialogue to take place.

Pastor Howes  has a law degree from Valparaiso University and a Master of Divinity degree from Trinity Theological Seminary, and is working on an STM degree with the Institute of Lutheran Theology: in the area of systematic and historical theology. His words will be in blue.


It’s not “either or” It is “both and”. The only question is the order in which they come.

Lutherans are often accused of antinomianism (a disregard for Law). That allegation is not true as to most Lutherans. But there are Lutherans who go there. I would say they’re not very good Lutherans, but they’re awfully influential in ELCA.

Faith does indeed produce works. We differ on the relationship between works and salvation. The saved will do good works; good works are the mark of the saved. But salvation itself is not the fruit of those works. We’d say you have the right cart and the right horse, but have put the cart before the horse.

Let me ask you, then: how come in 50 passages I have found having to do with the final judgment or entrance into heaven, works are mentioned in all 50 of them as key factors. Faith alone is never mentioned. Faith was mentioned in one of the fifty, but alongside works.

[note: I would say that this suggests our view of sola gratia, with synergy and merit: not Semi-Pelagianism]

Is that not the very opposite of what we would expect to find in the Bible if the Lutheran sola fide were true in the sense that you believe it?

Another favorite (and I believe, devastating) argument that I make is from the rich young ruler. He asks Jesus how he may attain eternal life (salvation). Jesus asks him if he kept the commandments (yes; this is works); then He tells him to perform another work: sell all that he has. Jesus says not a thing about faith in Him alone.

You prove only that the specific phrase “faith alone” does not appear in those passages. I could play the same game and ask why John 3:16 does not say, “For God so loved the world that whosoever does good works should not perish but have everlasting life.” Or why John 11:25 doesn’t say, “I am the resurrection and the life; he that believeth in me and doth good works, though he die, yet shall he live; and he that liveth, believeth in me and doth good works shall never die.” The fact is that faith is a prerequisite to salvation; good works are a mark of salvation. Salvation doesn’t occur without both, one as the way by which one is saved and the other as the consequence of that salvation. Those who believed in him also did good works. At the same time, it is also true that those who believe in him are still sinners and still do that which they hate (Rom. 7).

It’s not just that “faith alone” doesn’t appear (the only time it does appear in Scripture, it is condemned: in James), it’s that faith scarcely appears at all in the 50 passages. Heres a summary:

1) “faithful” (2) and “faithful servant” (2) appears in Matthew 25:14-30 in the midst of various works.

2) “work of faith” appears in 2 Thessalonians 1:7-12.

3) the “faithless” will end up ” in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur” in Revelation 21:8.

That’s it! This is hardly a ringing endorsement of the overwhelming centrality of faith alone as the means of salvation.

We totally agree on grace alone and we agree that faith is a necessary and key ingredient in salvation, but deny faith alone. John 3:16 doesn’t teach faith alone, because “believe” includes the notion of works in it. I wrote about this in some depth in my first book: A Biblical Defense of Catholicism:

John 3:36 [RSV]: “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.”

The Greek word for “believes” is pistuo, and the Greek for “does not obey” is apitheo. There is a parallelism in this verse, whereby belief and obedience are essentially identical. When all is said and done, believing in Christ is obeying him. This ought to be kept in mind by Protestant evangelists and pastors who urge penitents to “believe in Christ,” “accept Christ,” etc. To disobey Christ is to be subject to the wrath of God. Thus, again, we are faced with the inescapable necessity of good works — wrought by God’s grace, and done in the spirit of charity — for the purpose and end of ultimate salvation, holiness, and communion with God.

St. Peter, in 1 Peter 2:7, uses the same parallelism, with the same two identical Greek words (believe/disobedient in KJV). St. Paul uses apitheo with regard to disobedience to parents in Romans 1:30 and 2 Timothy 3:2, and in a more general sense (describing sinners) in Titus 1:16 and 3:3. Obviously, no one disbelieves in the existence of his parents. St. Paul is speaking of disobeying parents’ commands. In the same sense, such disobedience (not mere lack of faith) is said to be the basis of the loss of eternal life in John 3:36.

To speculate further, if it be granted that pistuo (“believe”) is roughly identical to “obeying,” as it indisputably is in John 3:36, by simple deduction, then its use elsewhere is also much more commensurate with the Catholic view of infused justification rather than the more abstract, extrinsic, and forensic Protestant view; for example, the “classic” Protestant evangelistic verse John 3:16, Jesus’ constant demand to believe in him in John 5 through 10, and St. Paul’s oft-cited salvific exhortations in Romans 1:16, 4:24, 9:33, and 10:9, generally thought to be irrefutable proofs of the Protestant viewpoint on saving faith.

John 6:27-29: “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal. Then said they to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ ”

In verses 28 and 29, working and belief in Christ are equated, much like obedience and belief in John 3:36. In the marvelous phrase “doing the works of God,” we see that our works and God’s are intertwined if indeed we are doing his will. This is the Catholic viewpoint: an organic connection of both faith with works, and God’s unmerited grace coupled with our cooperation and obedience. Our Lord constantly alludes to the related ideas of reward and merit, which are complementary: Matthew 5:11-12, 6:3, 18, 10:42, 12:36-37, 25:14-30; Luke 6:35, 38; 12:33. St. Paul, using the same word for “works” (ergon), speaks in Acts 26:20 of the process of repenting, turning to God, and doing deeds worthy of their repentance. In other words, they will thus prove their repentance by their deeds.

We really don’t disagree about what constitutes the life of a Christian. In the long run, I’m not sure how critical the order in which we put them is. You agree with us that grace, delivered through faith, comes first (CCC, sec. 2010). We put all works after, not before, justification, but we do not thereby minimize the role of works in the Christian life.

I’ve often made the same point. At the same time I have to critique faith alone as a most unbiblical concept. But grace alone and faith and works are eminently biblical.

Whether faith alone is biblical depends on whether it’s taken as a license to antinomianism. If that, then I agree with you. Works are part of the Christian’s life. But “if it is by works, then it is no more grace.” So works follow justification; they do not precede it. But that should not be taken, and I agree that it sometimes is, to mean that “as long as I believe, it’s all OK.”

It comes down to the “third use of the Law.” The regenerate person wants to live a God-pleasing life. For him, the Law provides a guide: “This is God-pleasing; this is not.”

The danger for the Lutheran is antinomianism; the danger for the Catholic is semi-Pelagianism. Correct Lutheran teaching is not antinomianism; correct Catholic teaching is not semi-Pelagianism. But you can find both–even some antinomianism among Catholics and some semi-Pelagianism among Lutherans.

Look at all the supposedly Catholic congressmen and governors who think abortion is just fine; and you can find some pietistic Lutherans who get so wrapped up in “personal holiness” that they become semi-Pelagian.

I agree that many who distort a given communion’s teaching are found in any group. The devil does that . . .

works follow justification; they do not precede it.

You keep telling me that but I’m interested in biblical passages that you think establish that belief. I’ve given plenty of Bible to support Catholic beliefs.

I’m not accusing Lutherans of antinomianism. I’m simply saying that “faith alone” (even rightly understood) and the separation of sanctification from justification is unbiblical, and I think I have more than proven it with scores and scores of Bible passages. I understand the Lutheran (and general Protestant) position (used to hold it myself), as shown by this article: Martin Luther: Good Works Prove Authentic Faith.

John 3:16; 11:25-26; Rom. 3:28; 4:2-4; 5:1-2,9,15-16; 7:24-25; 10:9; 11:6 Eph. 2:8-9. There are more; but those will do for now. Our justification is by grace through faith. Being justified, we are then raised to new life in Christ, in which our lives are marked by living in the Spirit rather than the flesh (Rom. 6; Eph. 2:10).

Thank you. I will look those over.

I asked for biblical passages that suggested your statement: “works follow justification; they do not precede it.” Now I’ll comment on the ones you produced, looking for mentions of works in context.

John 3:16 (RSV) For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

Works are mentioned in 3:21: “But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.” This shows that the good deeds (enabled and “wrought in” and by God) were present before the person went to the light (Jesus), which is the opposite order to what you claim: people believe in Jesus, and then good works follow in gratefulness, etc. To me, this indicates Catholic synergy and merit, not faith alone.

John 11:25-26 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, [26] and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

I don’t see works in context. On the other hand, “believes” is pisteuo: which I analyzed in my comment above from my book, as having works contained within its definition and biblical application. Therefore, this asserts the Catholic view of faith and works together in justification — not faith alone. They’re together, as opposed to it being a sequence of “believe in faith / do good works as a result.”

Romans 3:28 For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.

First of all, Paul made it crystal clear that he had a quite positive view of works in the scheme of salvation in Romans 2:5-13. But here Paul is referring to Jewish reliance on the specific works of the law, not to works in general, as N. T. Wright and others have explained at length. Protestants often misinterpret Paul in this way. The “new perspective on Paul” (Wikipedia article) replies as follows:

Paul was not addressing good works in general, but instead questioning only observances such as circumcision, dietary laws, and Sabbath laws, which were the ‘boundary markers’ that set the Jews apart from the other nations. . . .

In 1963 the Lutheran theologian Krister Stendahl published a paper arguing that the typical Lutheran view of the Apostle Paul’s theology did not fit with statements in Paul’s writings, and in fact was based more on mistaken assumptions about Paul’s beliefs than careful interpretation of his writings. Stendahl warned against imposing modern Western ideas on the Bible, and especially on the works of Paul. In 1977 E. P. Sanders published Paul and Palestinian Judaism. In this work he studies Jewish literature and Paul’s writings arguing that the traditional Lutheran understanding of the theology of Judaism and Paul was fundamentally incorrect. . . .

Paul’s letters contain a substantial amount of criticism of “works of the law”. The radical difference in these two interpretations of what Paul meant by “works of the law” is the most consistent distinguishing feature between the two perspectives. The historic Lutheran and Reformed perspectives interpret this phrase as referring to human effort to do good works in order to meet God’s standards (Works Righteousness). In this view, Paul is arguing against the idea that humans can merit salvation from God by their good works alone (note that the “new” perspective agrees that we cannot merit salvation; the issue is what exactly Paul is addressing).

By contrast, new-perspective scholars see Paul as talking about “badges of covenant membership” or criticizing Gentile believers who had begun to rely on the Torah to reckon Jewish kinship. It is argued that in Paul’s time, Israelites were being faced with a choice of whether to continue to follow their ancestral customs, the Torah (“the ancestral customs”), or to follow the Roman Empire’s trend to adopt Greek customs . . . The new-perspective view is that Paul’s writings discuss the comparative merits of following ancient Israelite or ancient Greek customs. Paul is interpreted as being critical of a common Jewish view that following traditional Israelite customs makes a person better off before God, pointing out that Abraham was righteous before the Torah was given. Paul identifies customs he is concerned about as circumcision, dietary laws, and observance of special days.”


Romans 4:2-4 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. [3] For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” [4] Now to one who works, his wages are not reckoned as a gift but as his due.

Regular contributor to my blog, “Adomnan” offered some very helpful commentary on Romans 4:5:

. . . “the one who does not work but believes — I would translate “believes” rather than “trusts” here — him who justifies the ungodly” is not a generalization about all who believe, but refers specifically to Abraham. Paul sees Abraham at this point as typical of all Gentiles who believe, or perhaps as their exemplar or “father.” However, Abraham is the sole person being spoken of.

[Dave’s note: “trusts” in RSV for Romans 4:5 is pisteuo (Strong’s word #4100), which is translated in the KJV “believe” or “believer” (1) or “believing” (1) 238 times out of 246 total appearances, or 97% of the time (“trust” also a few times) ]

When Paul says that Abraham “does not work,” he isn’t saying that Abraham has not done good works. In fact, Abraham had been justified since he responded to God’s self-revelation in Ur and had done many good works worthy of being reckoned as righteous. Romans 4:5 is describing but one instance of a good work (an act of faith) that was reckoned as righteous.

In context, “does not work” means “is not doing the works of the Law:” that is, Abraham has not yet been circumcised and is still a Gentile. He does not do works of Jewish Law, works of Torah.

In Greek the phrase “the one who does not work” could be translated — clumsily — as “the non-working one,” non-working not in the sense of not doing good works but in the sense of not doing works of Torah. Paul’s use of the definite pronoun suggests he has a definite person in mind (Abraham).

In the second part, “believes on him who justifies the ungodly,” the word “ungodly,” in context, does not mean wicked. Abraham was not wicked at this stage in his life. He was already justified. It means “Gentile.” “Ungodly” in Greek is asebes, a word that refers to the sphere of religious observance, and not to evil in a wider moral sense. Essentially, it means “non-observant” of the Jewish Law, or “impious” from the point of view of the Jewish Law (which would be the point of view of the Judaizers). We have no adequate word to render this concept in modern English, but “Gentile” comes closest.

Paul is saying that someone — Abraham in this case — could be “impious” from the point of view of the Jewish Law (i.e., a Gentile), but righteous from the point of view of God. “Justifies the ungodly” thus amounts to “regards the Gentile Abraham as righteous.”

In sum, Paul is saying that God reckoned righteousness to Abraham (not for the first time!) while he was still a Gentile. And this is the same point that Paul makes throughout Romans 3 and 4; i.e., Gentiles don’t have to become Jews to be judged righteous by God. They only have to respond to God’s revelation with faith, as Abraham did while still as Gentile.

Or, to paraphrase all of Romans 4:5: “And to Abraham before he had done any works of Torah but still believed in Him who regards the Gentile as righteous, his belief was credited as an act of righteousness.”

[Dave]: Abraham’s justification is also discussed in James 2, and there it is explicitly tied in with works, thus providing a perfect complementary (very “Catholic”) balance with Romans 4.

For much more on this issue and similar passages, see: Justification is Not by Faith Alone, and is Ongoing (Romans 4, James 2, and Abraham’s Multiple Justifications).

Romans 5:1-2, 9, 15-16 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. [2] Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. . . . [9] Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. . . . [15] But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. [16] And the free gift is not like the effect of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification.

I don’t see anything about works in context, so I fail to see how these passages support your statement: “works follow justification; they do not precede it.”

Romans 7:24-25 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? [25] Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

Again, when I look for works in context, so that this can be evidence for your assertion, I found these:

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.

That is: “don’t do these bad deeds. If you don’t [implied, I think: “do good works”], you’ll be saved.” That’s works and merit as part and parcel of the equation (like the sheep and the goats passage), not exercised faith alone, guaranteeing salvation, followed by grateful good works of the already saved person.

Romans 8:17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

Salvation is contingent (“provided we . . .”) on suffering with Jesus. Thus, it’s something beyond faith. It’s a meritorious work, through which (along with grace and faith) we will be saved. Thoroughly Catholic and unProtestant . . .

Romans 10:9 because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Where is the notion of works following (the point at hand)? I don’t see it. Maybe I missed it.

Romans 11:6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

I think this is “works” in the sense described by the New Perspective on Paul: not all works (which Paul espouses in several places: notably Romans 2).
In any event, context again lacks a passage saying that good works would follow in gratefulness for an achieved salvation.

Ephesians 2:8-10 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God —
[9] not because of works, lest any man should boast. [10] For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

This shows Paul using “works” in both senses. 2:8 is simply grace alone, where we have no disagreement. 2:9 shows that we’re not saved by the Mosaic Law, but by Christ and grace. 2:10 shows how good works are part of this faith. There is no clear indication of the chronological order you speak of: [salvific] faith [with assurance], then good works in Christ.

I’ve shown in many papers against total depravity that the Bible definitely refers to good works and good men before regeneration or justification.

Lastly, I don’t see the proposition we are debating in Romans 6, either. Perhaps you can show me where you think it is.

In each case, justification happens on the basis of faith. Works are not the basis of justification. But the justified do good works. Romans 6 describes the new life to which we are raised. When we have been raised to the new life, we are already justified.

I suppose one could take that view, from a Protestant paradigm. But it seems odd to me that — like sola Scriptura, perspicuity, and so many other Protestant distinctives — it is not clearly laid out. It seems to me that it would be if in fact it were true.

This is the biblical problem I have with these things, whereas I can find tons of Scripture for virtually all Catholic teachings, save for some that are mostly implicit, like the Marian doctrines.

I don’t find this strict separation, as I showed in 50 passages from Paul, subtitled, “St. Paul’s Teaching on the Organic Relationship of Grace, Faith and Works, and Obedience”. See also:

Bible on Participation in Our Own Salvation . . . Always Enabled by God’s Grace

New Testament on Sanctification by Our Own Actions

St. Paul vs. John Calvin: “Doers of the Law” Will be Justified

Very extensive presentation of your case. You’re basically refuting a case I wasn’t making. To your credit you do it very well. I agree entirely that we uphold the Law and keep it as a guide to our conduct, both as to what we should and as to what we should not do.

Alright, brother. :-) I was directly responding to your own statement of belief, but whatever. Thanks, as always, for the engaging and stimulating discussion.


Photo credit: statue of Martin Luther (1483-1546): founder of Protestantism and Lutheranism [Max PixelCreative Commons Zero – CC0 license]


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