Sacraments and “Works”: Where Protestants get it wrong

Theophany Icon

An icon of the Theophany, the Orthodox celebration of the Baptism of Christ, when the Holy Spirit descended upon Him like a dove.

It occurred to me today, I think, the real reason why Reformed and evangelical Protestants reject the Sacraments and any belief in the idea of sacramentality.

St. Paul writes (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, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Baptism, Catacomb of St. Callixtus

A third-century representation of Baptism from the Catacomb of St. Callixtus, Rome.

In the Protestant mind, Baptism and the other Sacraments are “works.” The idea of sacramentality is incompatible with the doctrine of sola fide because, by the Protestant interpretation of Paul, one’s salvation is accomplished by faith alone. To grant that the act of Baptism itself, a “work,” has any sacramental power at all, that it washes away one’s sins and gives one a new birth in Christ, is to admit that some other action beyond faith alone is necessary for salvation.

Therefore, in order to make sola fide work, they dismiss Paul’s clear testimony elsewhere in Scripture regarding the efficacy, sacramentality, and necessity of Baptism (Titus 3:4-7):

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

How can this be? How can Paul say that God saved us not because of works, and at the same time that He saved us by the washing of regeneration (διὰ λουτροῦ παλιγγενεσίας)? Clearly, Paul speaks of “works” here in a different way than Protestants suppose.

We are saved not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy. Certainly, we are saved only by God’s mercy and grace — no works we do can ever earn our salvation. But that doesn’t mean — and Paul never says — that we are saved by faith alone — that we don’t have to do anything. Baptism, and the other Sacraments, are not “works” by which we try to earn God’s favor or earn our salvation, but the God-given and Christ-instituted means by which we receive His grace.

15 thoughts on “Sacraments and “Works”: Where Protestants get it wrong

  1. Also, we cannot expect to live a dishonest, depraved life and rest on our laurels because we know that Jesus dies for our redemption. We need His grace in order to life according to His will and to recognise when we’re off track. As sinners we needs His grace to keep us strong, and the Sacraments are there for this purpose. I can’t ‘be saved’ unless you adhere to your Baptismal promises. I need to belong to the family of God in order to be saved….Protestant or Catholic, I need Baptism as the door that leads me to Christ.
    This is an interesting post. What would Protestants consider charity work to be?

    • Absolutely! All through the New Testament, obedience to God’s commands is emphasized. St. Paul says plainly, “[God] will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury” (Romans 2:6-8). But the sola fide argument is so often taken to such an extreme (and Luther himself declared this) that obedience isn’t even necessary; that once you are “saved” (the moment one has faith, according to Protestants), nothing you can do, no sin or even willful disobedience, can take that away. It’s “faith alone” that saves — God doesn’t even take “works” into account (in clear contradiction to so much Scripture). Since we are such hopeless sinners, we can’t stop sinning, and the only “work” that matters is Christ’s work on the Cross. His righteousness is “imputed” to us, so that when we are judged, His work covers every sin we have ever done, even those committed after our Baptism (so the Protestant argument goes).

      According to Protestants (at least the more thoughtful ones), good works of charity are a natural result of being “saved,” of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in one’s life. When cornered, some Protestants will say that if a believer doesn’t produce good works, he is not really saved — in other words, good works are a necessary product of salvation; in other words, good works are necessary for salvation; they’re just the result of grace is one’s life and not the cause of salvation. Which is very close to what we say. We need God’s grace to be saved and to even do good works; but we have to receive and cooperate with that grace, and it’s that grace working in us that saves us, not the works themselves.

    • In the beginning of the article it says what needs to happen.
      Eph 2:8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. – That’s it nothing else.

      in response to the work of charity i will say this:
      Good works do not lead to Salvation, rather, Salvation leads to good works.

  2. The more I study this, the more I am convinced that part of the problem is the especially North American obsession with doing the least amount of work for the greatest gain. This has led North American Protestantism to be focused on solely “What must I do to be saved?” This is the only concern. Once that is established, everything else is not necessary and is “works-righteousness”. This is bad, bad theology, yet is all too prevalent.

    Works are absolutely necessary for the Christian. We are called again and again to take care of the poor and the oppressed, to support each other, to remember our Lord’s death and resurrection until he comes again, and to proclaim the Good News. These are not optional. They are the Christian life.

    What they don’t do, however, is provide salvation. We don’t earn rightness with God through them. God’s grace alone provides that. The sacraments are not the only way in which God’s grace comes, but we have been promised that grace most certainly comes through them. That is why we continue to celebrate them.

    • “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe with your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” That’s all you have to do, by this line of theology. Confess and have faith. Which is accounted for by the “sinner’s prayer.” Recently the Southern Baptist Convention had a major conflict when the more Calvinistic wing of Baptists wanted to reject the “sinner’s prayer” as a valid means of salvation — not because it’s bad theology, but because having to pray a prayer is a “work.” That’s as near as I could understand it, anyway.

      • Exactly. The most common question is, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”, the implication of course being that, if you don’t specifically think this thought, then you have not “done” what you need to do to be saved–except only those sinful “Catholics” make you do anything to be saved, and of course, they don’t require anything. Except this. It confuses me.

        I was at a Ren Fest on Saturday, and waiting for a show to start, there was a young couple behind me who had just started dating. The girl asked the guy, “So, how long had you been attending [whatever church it was] before you accepted Christ?” I nearly choked, and not because the answer was “3 weeks”, but because of the theology behind it. It’s everywhere.

  3. Pingback: Justification by faith alone, or what? What do Protestants think Catholics believe? « The Lonely Pilgrim

  4. As a “Protestant” Pastor I want to express what I have studied through the word of God in regards to salvation. I believe in Salvation by Grace through faith alone. Through the cleansing power of the Blood of Christ. He forgives all our sins and it is up to us to accept Him into our lives. The key though is that we need to go to Christ with a repentant heart. The attitude of not wanting to sin anymore and turn to Christ who can deliver us from our sin. We must be Repentant.
    I also believe that according to the book of James chapter 2, that once you have the Salvation of Christ, works will come naturally to you. The Bible says that we are known by our “fruit” (works). If one does not have the desire to do the work for Christ, then I am lead to personally doubt if that said individual has truly received Him. If an individual still has a desire to live in his sin, then he obviously did not come to Christ with a repentant Spirit and did not receive salvation. That is not saying that one can not backslide (2 Peter 1 clearly teaches that one can backslide enough to even doubt that they have been truly saved)
    The Word of God also teaches that Christians will have a desire to know Christ and spend time with Him.

  5. You indicate at the end of your article that Sacraments, are a means by which we receive His grace.

    This is not only in direct contrast to your objective, but proven to be incorrect at the beginning of your article when you sight Eph 2:8:

    Ephesians 2:8 8For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:

    Eph 2:8 shows we receive God’s grace through faith. It doesn’t say faith and sacraments. – It just says, Faith.

    • Hi, thanks for the comment.

      I would ask you, how do we receive grace by faith?

      Is it simply by believing, having faith in our minds, or in our hearts? We believe, and in that moment we receive grace?

      That is a typical Evangelical attitude, but I would argue, it’s neither what Scripture teaches nor what even the Protestant Reformers believed. Luther too called baptism the means of grace.

      As I pointed out in the article, Paul, even after saying that we are saved through faith, goes on to teach that “he saved us … by the washing [λουτροῦ, “bath”] of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” He also says, in Romans 6:4, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” We are baptized in order that — a purpose clause — we might walk in newness of life. He doesn’t say, “We are baptized because we walk in newness of life.” Peter says pretty plainly, in 1 Peter 5:21, “Baptism now saves you.”

      Am I saying, then, that we save ourselves by a “work”? Not at all. This is a basic misunderstanding of Scripture. Baptism is not a “work” we do but a work the Holy Spirit does on us. It’s not “the bath of regeneration and the renewal of ourselves” that saves us, but the bath of regeneration and renewal of (and by) the Holy Spirit. We all — Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Evangelicals — agree that our salvation by grace, through faith, is solely the work of the Holy Spirit. Who “works”? Not us, but the Holy Spirit. All we do is present ourselves, in faith, to His mercy and grace. The Holy Spirit works to wash away our sins and fill us with His love — whether that’s by a literal, sacramental baptism, as Scripture teaches, or in lieu of that, by other means.

  6. Hey I am Protestant and have been for quite some time now (My whole life) but I have been asking questions concercing this. So if I understand you correctly you are saying that the baptism by the Holy spirit is the water baptism. Also, you are saying that the grace of God is fulfilled in those sacraments. This is not a work of ourselves but Gods work that produces salvation. If I got that right. Are we are still saved by grace because sacraments are not our works? They are the means the grace are given? I have been looking into catholicism and want to learn. Thank you.

    • Hi, thanks so much for the comment. I’m sorry it’s slipped by me these few months. My email notifications have not been working.

      Yes, that’s basically right and what I’m saying here. Protestants who complain that the practice of the Sacraments is “works salvation”, aren’t really understanding who is working. A Catholic who is baptized, or goes to Mass and receives the Eucharist, or goes to Confession, doesn’t think of those things in the sense that “I did something,” “I worked.” Rather, God is working through the sacraments, ministering His grace. Even Protestants, when they talk about sacraments, refer to them as a “means of grace,” the tool by which God applies grace. And yes, when we are baptized, it’s the Holy Spirit who is working, washing us and cleansing us. I’m glad to answer any questions you may have!

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