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The MOST Theological Collection: Catholic Apologetics Today: Answers to Modern Critics

"Chapter 18: Faith Alone: Luther's Discovery?"


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A basic Protestant claim is that Martin Luther's great discovery was the concept of salvation by faith alone, which he found stated in the Epistles to the Galatians and the Romans. What about this claim? As we saw in Chapter 17, it could not be true that Christ would let His Church teach the wrong method for salvation for most of the time throughout so many centuries. If He had so failed the Church, we would have to reject Christ Himself for making false promises.

Yet, we can gain insight by looking at Luther's claim. It often happens that when a person makes a major error, he has also seen something much more clearly than most men. The bright light of his insight can blind him, so that he misses the total picture and hence, falls into error. Luther had that type of experience. He did see an important truth more clearly than most Catholics of his time. The Church had never denied that truth; in fact, it had taught it, and even defined it, as we shall see. Yet in the practical abuses of the day, many did not have a good appreciation of this important fact.

So we can gain some added light by looking for what Luther saw.

1) Salvation by faith alone

Is it true that there is salvation by faith alone? Definitely, yes! St. Paul teaches it over and over and it is the chief theme of Galatians and Romans. But St. James wrote in his Epistle (2:24), "See that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone."

Because it was contrary to his personal philosophy, Luther rejected that Epistle. But if we look closely, we will see that the critical point lies in the meaning of the word faith. Not everyone uses every word in precisely the same sense. St. James and St. Paul, both working under inspiration, could not contradict each other. But they did use the word faith in different senses. St. James clearly uses faith to mean, narrowly, just intellectual acceptance of a revealed truth. So we can see why St. James feels the need to add works. Even St. Paul talks similarly at times; for instance, in Romans 2:6-13: "He will repay to every man according to his works ... For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified." As we will explore later, St. Paul does not mean that works earn salvation-but violations of the law can earn eternal ruin.

Thus, St. Paul does not disagree with St. James, but his use of the word faith is much broader. By faith, Paul means total adherence of a person to God in mind and will. This, in turn, implies several things: If God speaks a truth, we believe with our minds. This is the sense St. James had in mind (see 1 Thes. 2:13; 2 Cor. 5:7). If God makes a promise, we are confident He will keep it (see Gal. 5:5; Rom. 5:1; 1 Thes. 5:8). If God gives a command, we obey (see Rom. 1:5). And all should be done in love (Gal. 5:6).

In contrast, the Lutheran Augsburg Confession taught (20:23), "Faith does not mean knowledge of an event ... it means a faith which believes ... also in the effect of an event, namely ... the remission of sins, i.e., that we have, through Christ, grace, righteousness, and remission of sins." Modern Protestants often express this as meaning that one takes Christ as his personal Savior, or, has confidence that the merits of Christ are credited to his account. It is as if there were a ledger with a credit and a debit page for each man. If he "takes Christ as his personal Savior," he can write on the credit page the infinite merits of Christ. On the debit page go his sins: past, present and future. Of course the balance is always more than favorable.

Hence, they see no need for confession, no need even to make an act of contrition even out of love. Protestants believe that Jesus paid in advance for one's sins, and nothing more needs to be done. Hence, Luther wrote to his associate Melanchthon, "Sin greatly, but believe more greatly."113 Luther has been unjustly maligned for saying this because it sounds as if he encouraged sin, which he surely did not mean to do. What he meant was that no matter how much you sin, you need do nothing to gain forgiveness except believe that Christ paid the bill in advance. You are infallibly saved.

The Council of Trent condemned this idea of faith as heretical.114 Even many Protestant scholars today modify the old notion of faith substantially. A standard Protestant reference work on Scripture, the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Supplement Volume, tells us, "Paul uses pistis/pisteuein [Greek words for faith and believe] to mean, above all, belief in the Christ kerygma [proclamation or preaching], knowledge, obedience, trust in the Lord Jesus."115 Note the word obedience. The Interpreter's Dictionary admits St. Paul includes it in an important place in his idea of faith.

In fact, Paul sometimes identifies faith and obedience when he speaks of the "obedience of faith." Here, the of has the same sense as it does when we say the "city of Chicago." We mean: the City that is Chicago (see Rom. 1:5; 16:26, and in a similar sense, Rom. 10:16; 6:16; 15:18; 2 Thes. 1:8). Similarly, Vatican II says, "the obedience of faith" is "an obedience in which man entrusts his entire self freely to God, offering 'the complete submission of intellect and will to God who reveals.'"116

Clearly, such a concept of faith as that given in the Councils of Trent and Vatican is radically different from Luther's concept. So, sadly, Luther's "discovery" is not really a discovery but a mistake, since he did not get the true Pauline meaning of faith in the words "salvation by faith."

We noted earlier that the Protestant view tells people they can be infallibly saved once for all by just one act, taking Christ as their personal Savior. St. Paul had no such notion. If anyone should have been saved that way, it ought to have been St. Paul. Yet Paul told the Corinthians, "But I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway." (1 Cor. 9:27). So Paul knew he had to tame his flesh by mortification, much as athletes at the Isthmian games went into training. Hence, in 2 Cor. 11:23-27, he added fasting to all the great hardships that came with his apostolic work. He did not want to fall and risk being rejected at the Judgment. If he were "infallibly saved," there would be no need of acts of mortification, because no matter how much he might fall, he would still be saved.

Again, in 1 Cor. 10:1-12, he is trying to induce the Corinthians to be willing to give up meat at times to avoid scandal, and he tells them in effect, "Do not just say, we are the People of God-look at the first People of God. God did not approve of many of them, so He often had to strike them, even to strike them dead." So Paul concluded in 1 Cor. 10:12, "Wherefore he who thinks that he stands, let him take heed lest he fall." If they were all infallibly saved there would be no need for such a warning.

Again in Romans 5:3-5, Paul wrote, "But we glory also in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces patience; and patience trial; and trial hope; and hope does not disappoint us." These verses make "character" needed for salvation, character coming from endurance in suffering. This is hardly the same as an easy once-for-all declaration of "taking Christ as my personal Savior." Yes, the best Protestant teaching does urge good works, not to earn salvation, but as the fruit of faith. But according to that Protestant teaching, it is faith alone that gives hope-not endurance in suffering leading to character.

Still further, St. Paul told the Philippians (2:12), "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." The expression, "with fear and trembling" was a stereotyped one which meant only "reverently." Yet they had to work out their salvation-not get it in one quick stroke, infallibly, by "taking Christ as their personal Savior."

2) Total dependence on God

Earlier in this chapter, it was suggested that Luther might have seen something true with special clarity. He did. He saw our total dependence on God for doing good and our inability to do good by ourselves, so that we cannot really earn salvation. Now this was not really a new concept. The second Council of Orange in 529 A.D. had defined the same concept, as we shall see. But the truth was obscured and almost forgotten by some; hence, it was good to have it re-emphasized.

The Second Council of Orange was not a general council, but because of a special confirmation by Pope Boniface II, its canons are recognized as having the force of solemn definitions. They teach most strikingly our total dependence on God. Canon 4 says, "If anyone contends that God waits for our will so we may be cleansed from sin-and does not admit that the very fact that we even will to be cleansed comes in us by the infusion and work of the Holy Spirit, he resists the same Holy Spirit ... and the Apostle [Paul] preaching ... 'It is God who works in you both the will and the doing.'"117 Canon 7 adds, "If anyone asserts that we, by the good power of nature, are able to think anything that pertains to salvation ... or to choose or consent to the saving preaching ... he is deceived by a heretical spirit. He does not understand the word of God in the Gospel: 'Without me you can do nothing' and the words of the Apostle; not that we are sufficient to think anything by ourselves as from ourselves: our sufficiency is from God."

These definitions are utterly devastating to our pride and claims of self-sufficiency. The Council taught that we cannot even will to be cleansed from sin except by the work of the Holy Spirit in us, for He causes us to will good, and that we cannot even get a good thought leading towards salvation or make a good choice (decision of our will) towards salvation of our own power. For as Jesus Himself said, "Without me you can do nothing." (John 15:5). And St. Paul taught, "Not that we are sufficient to think anything by ourselves, as from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God." (1 Cor. 3:5). St. Paul taught, too: "For it is God who works [produces] in you both the will and the doing, according to his good will." (Phil 2:13).

So we are totally dependent on God to get a good thought, to make a good decision and to carry out that decision. Neither Luther nor anyone else could have said it more bluntly. So Luther did not discover our dependence on God, though he did greatly emphasize it.

Are we then marionettes, unable even to make an act of will? Of course not. Scripture, over and over, urges men to repent, to return to God. St. Paul in 2 Cor. 6:1 says, "And we exhort you not to receive the grace of God in vain." So it does depend on us in some way whether or not grace bears fruit in us. Just how to reconcile our inability and our freedom, St. Paul does not explain, nor has the Church completely explained thus far. Later, we will offer a suggested way.

But to return to Luther-he not only emphasized our total dependence on God, which is fully true, he not only gave the basis for a belief in infallible salvation, which is false; he also provided-not intentionally-a basis for a belief or implication that God infallibly damns many persons, independent of anything or any condition in them.

Here is how it happens. Luther believed that human nature was totally corrupted by Original Sin, so much that he wrote a treatise called, On the Bondage of the Will. He was, of course, wrong about that total corruption.118 But that idea, along with the teaching on total dependence, logically should lead to a belief in a blind, absolute predestination by God. The situation is well stated in the Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod of Lutherans: "As to the question why not all men are converted and saved, seeing that God's grace is universal and all men are equally and utterly corrupt, we confess that we cannot answer it."119 Of course, they could not answer, for it is unanswerable if there is nothing at all in man to serve as a basis of whether he should be saved or lost. Then God alone, with no regard to any condition within man, must decide to damn some and to rescue others.

What the Lutherans feared-rightly-to teach, John Calvin did teach. He held the theory of an absolute predestination. Thanks be to God, very many of those descended from him now repudiate such an idea.120 We do not even need the help of a teaching of the Church to know that concept is wrong. This belief makes God a terrifying monster, who really would not love anyone, but would just use people, some to show His "justice," some to show "mercy."

Is there a way out of this morass? Definitely, yes. We will see it in the next chapter. But for the time being, since we have dealt in difficult material to comprehend, let us briefly sum up what we have seen. Protestantism teaches salvation by faith alone. St. Paul did speak of salvation by faith, but St. Paul meant something quite different by faith from what Luther meant, as many Protestant scholars are seeing today. The error of teaching salvation by a mere confidence that the merits of Christ are credited to one's account leads logically to another error: infallible salvation once one has "made a decision for Christ." We saw that St. Paul did not at all believe that he was infallibly saved by his adherence to Christ.

Yet, we said that the Protestant error contained a good insight: our total dependence on God. But Luther's way of understanding that dependence led to still another great mistake. It led to thinking there is nothing at all in man on the basis of which God could decide who is to be saved or damned. The resulting belief-from which most Protestants rightly backed away-is a blind predestination or decision by God without considering anything in man to save some and damn others.

There is, as we said, a way out of this tangle. We will start to explore it in the next chapter.


113 Letter 501, to Melanchthon, Aug. 1, 1521, in Luther's Correspondence. Lutheran Publication Society, Phila. 1918. II, p. 50.
114 DS 1561-65.
115 Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, Abingdon, Nashville, 1976, p. 333.
116 Vatican II, On Divine Revelation § 5. Inner quote from Vatican I: DS 3008.
117 DS 374, 377.
118 The Church has condemned the idea of total corruption: DS 1568. St. Paul speaks of us as a "new creation," which, being totally remade, can hardly be totally corrupt: 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15. Cf. also Eph. 2:10; 2:15; 4:24; Col. 3:10; 2 Cor. 4:6.
119 Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod. Concordia, St. Louis, 1932, § 14.
120 Cf. J. Hardon, Christianity in Conflict, Newman, Westminster, 1959, p. 194.

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