Luther’s Innovations

de la Tour, St. Paul (1620)

St. Paul (1620), by Georges de la Tour. (

Here’s an attempt at a brief little post:

I do intend to pick up my series on the Sacraments, soon — but to do them in the right order (that is, starting with the Sacraments of Initiation and proceeding to the end of life), I need to cover the Eucharist next — and how can one write a brief post on the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith? Where do I even begin? I guess my general theme has been the Catholic view of the Sacraments, and how Protestants have or have not received them. That will be a starting point. But the hurdle is writing a post on “the Catholic view of the Eucharist”!

I have acquired some Catholic commentaries on Scripture recently, and have been immersing myself in them and in the Word: especially a close study of St. Paul, in particular his Epistles to the Galatians and Romans, which Protestants have appropriated and used to justify their doctrine of sola fide. As a nascent Catholic, I was rather wary of these letters, fearing the all-too-familiar Protestant interpretations would lull me back; but now that I’ve matured a little bit, I’m finding just how little support there is for those understandings.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1533), by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

I’m coming to the realization that Martin Luther did not so much “rediscover” “the doctrines of grace” or justification by faith, as is often credited to him — the Catholic Church has always affirmed those, and continues to. What Luther did that was new was read innovations into those doctrines: in particular the idea that justification is by faith alone — which the text never says or even implies (in fact it says the opposite); and that the “works” of which St. Paul is writing are more than just the works of the Mosaic Law — which is the clear context — but any “works” at all; anything that man does in an effort to please God.

John Calvin

John Calvin (1509-1564)

Later Protestants, particularly Calvinists, erred in applying this interpretation of “works” to the Sacraments, which are the “works” of Christ, not man, and in which man only participates by the grace of God, through faith (cf. CCC 1999–2001). Luther himself taught that the Sacraments were the means of grace. Calvinists’ unscriptural aversion to “works” can be taken to extremes, such that sinners should logically make an effort not to do anything, lest they appear to be relying on their own “works” for salvation.

Protestants have grown so accustomed to these interpretations that when they read St. Paul, their minds fill in the gaps with Luther’s false assumptions, such that they are completely unable to read the text on its face. They read “by faith alone,” whether the text says it or not. They understand “works” in the broadest definition possible, no matter how narrowly Paul applies the term. It’s the blind spot in one’s vision that one has lived with for so long that one forgets what it’s like to really see; the cherished rug that has covered one’s floor for so many ages that one forgets what the floor looks like, or that there’s even anything underneath.

Okay. Well, that wasn’t what I intended to write when I sat down to write; but there you have it — a (relatively) brief little post.

See my follow-up to this post, “The Rub with Protestant Theology: Why I teach what I teach.

Justification by faith alone, or what? What do Protestants think Catholics believe?

Le Sueur, The Preaching of St. Paul at Ephesus

The Preaching of St. Paul at Ephesus (1649), by Eustache Le Sueur. (

For Protestants, one of the cries of the Reformation, one of the staples of Protestant faith, is sola fide, justification by faith alone. Many Protestants, especially the Reformed, hold this point to be so crucial and integral to the message of the Gospel that they label any other view (that is, the Catholic or Orthodox views) to be “heresy” or even “apostasy.”

As you know, this troubles me deeply. The Catholic Church teaches salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), the gracious and unmerited favor of God on the sinner, just as uncompromisingly as any Protestant community. So Catholics and Protestants agree on the source and the cause of grace; what we disagree on with regard to sole fide amounts to merely the mechanics by which that grace is received. To my view, our theologies even on this disputed point are much closer to each other than either side generally admits, resulting in what appears to me to be a difference of mere wording and nuance.

Velazquez, St. Paul

St. Paul (c. 1619), by Diego Velazquez. (

So the charge that the Catholic Church teaches a “different gospel” than Protestants (and a false one) is entirely incomprehensible to me. And so, the question occurs to me — and I sincerely hope for some dialogue with Protestants here: What is it that Protestants, particularly Reformed Protestants, think that the Catholic Church teaches, that is so antithetical to the Gospel? that would warrant denying fellowship with their Christian brothers and sisters, and even accusing them of “apostasy”? I am not at this time attempting any positive argument for Catholic position; I am merely trying to understand the Protestant charge.

The unspoken assumption of sola fide — by faith alone — is the rejection of the idea that “works” play any role in salvation. As St. Paul writes, “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” (Ephesians 2:8–9). These verses comprise one of several linchpin passages in sola fide theology — but what exactly does Paul mean here by “works”? I have often heard the accusation that Catholics (or Arminians, or anyone not Calvinist) teach “works’ righteousness” — the doctrine that by our “works” we are saved: that somehow, anything we can do can win God’s favor, merit our salvation, or in our own deeds make us righteous. As I’ve demonstrated, this isn’t what Catholics believe at all. I have heard the charge that Catholics are “Pelagian” or “semi-Pelagian”: Pelagius taught that Adam’s original sin did not taint human nature and that man was capable, in himself, of choosing good over evil without the grace of God. The Catholic Church denies this, and always has.

Ribera, Saint Paul (1637)

Saint Paul (1637), by Jusepe de Ribera. (

This line of sola fide reasoning apparently interprets that the “works” of Paul’s argument means any act of doing somethingany work accomplished, ἔργα or facta. The belief, then, that doing something, anything, any action at all other than having faith, is necessary for salvation, is therefore construed as a contradiction: Certainly the practice of the Sacraments or the belief that Baptism is necessary for salvation fall into this category, but taken to the extreme, this opposition to “works” (that is, having to do anything to be saved) includes even the simple act of praying a prescribed prayer.

So is that it? Is it this teaching that one has to do something in order to be saved that is so gravely contradictory to the Gospel, and that makes Catholics “apostate” (that is, having willfully turned one’s back on and denied Christ)? Or is there something else I’m overlooking? Because the something that Catholics believe one must do to be saved, at a most basic understanding, is merely to accept God’s freely offered grace. All other actions — Baptism, the Sacraments, good works of charity proceeding — are merely the result of God’s grace working in our lives, both giving us the will and empowering us to work (Ephesians 2:10, Philippians 2:12–13).

Where in this is the denial of Christ? If I believed that in any sense I was abandoning Christ’s Gospel, I would not have made this journey. I would like to understand the positions of Protestants who would label this “apostasy.”

The necessity of faith and works

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1533), by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

A little flash that just occurred to me:

Protestants argue sola fide, that we are justified by faith alone. The Catholic position is often presented as fide et operis, by faith and works. But Catholics and Protestants agree that it is not our action or operation, either in having faith or doing works, that saves us, but entirely the grace of God (sola gratia).

The Apostle Paul writes in 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.

Protestants get very hung up on the Catholic insistence on works, that works are necessary for salvation. But most Protestants admit this, if the question is posed the right way. As Saint James writes (James 2:14-17):

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

As this makes evident, works are necessary. Faith without works is dead. Protestants argue from this that works follow faith — that true faith necessarily produces the fruit of good works; that if a brother does not produce good works, then he never had true faith to begin with. But the result is exactly the same: Good works are a necessary consequence of faith.

This is exactly what Catholics argue — only in affirming free will, Catholics present that it is incumbent upon the believer to choose to do good works, given the gift of God’s grace which enables the believer both to will and to work (Philippians 2:12-13).

Catholics affirm that our initial justification is by faith alone, as a gift of God’s grace, not because of any work or merit on our own. Protestants affirm that works are necessary for salvation — a necessary consequence of true faith. That puts the two parties on the same page regarding the necessity of both faith and works for salvation — and much closer to agreement than either would like to admit.

The Roman Catholic Controversy: What is the Gospel?

The Roman Catholic Controversy

The first post in my series on James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy.

Catholics and Protestants — do the differences still matter? That is the question The Roman Catholic Controversy presents us with from the start. From the very first pages, the book makes clear that the question is merely rhetorical: In the foreword, John H. Armstrong announces unequivocally that “Catholic doctrinal formulations . . . significantly conflict with the plain teaching of God’s Word” and that Catholic doctrines “actually undermine the grace of God in the Gospel.” Accidentally, Armstrong places the book in its context: The Catholic Controversy was published in 1996, amid the first in the new explosion of converts from evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism, and the rising wave of conversion literature, especially from Scott Hahn (Rome Sweet Rome, 1993), Patrick Madrid (Surprised by Truth, 1994), David Currie (Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic, 1996), and Stephen Ray (Crossing the Tiber, 1997) — and the ensuing counter-wave of panicked evangelical apologetics. I sincerely hope The Catholic Controversy is not another attack book, a blunt weapon designed to stanch the flow of defections by any means necessary.

Thankfully, James White steps forward with an ingenuousness and honesty that seems to reflect a genuine evangelical concern for truth and for salvation. In a world of postmodern relativism*, as “many . . . are, perhaps unwittingly, sacrificing absolute truth on the altar of compromise and expediency,” White fears the true message of the Gospel — the truthfulness — is being lost. This truth is central and crucial — and on this truth, White argues, Protestants and Catholics have a “disagreement of a fundamental nature” regarding the most fundamental of questions: What is the Gospel?

* For what it’s worth, on my first day of grad school, one of my professors announced that “postmodernism is dead.” I am pleased to confirm that at least in the historical discipline, it has shown no signs of stirring.

In a disarming feint, White does a curious thing: He presents a hypothetical dialogue between a recent, enthusiastic Catholic convert and a shocked evangelical friend. I must admit, I nearly laughed out loud as he introduced this. “At the mall, Bill has just run into Scott, an old friend from his teenage years. He and Scott both sang in youth choir; they even passed out tracts together near the downtown mission. Bill is in for a surprise.” It smells in every way like a bad after-school special. And remember, kids, don’t accept food or drink from Catholics: it just might be the Body and Blood of Christ.

Scott, the convert, echoes so many of the arguments and claims I myself have made for the truth of Rome: that Catholic doctrine does have a firm foundation in Scripture; that Catholics don’t worship Mary; that sola scriptura has no basis in Scripture; and that coming to Rome is not to lose the Gospel, but to gain the fullness of Apostolic Truth. White acknowledges that most Protestants are not prepared to answer the claims of Rome, and he implies that this is why Scott converted: because he lacked the knowledge to defend against them. I can only presume that White will return to each of these claims, and provide a counterargument.

White then approaches the main argument of his book: not only to reject the claims of Rome, but to reject all efforts at ecumenism. Merely sharing the “bare confession” that “Jesus is Lord” is not a valid basis for Christian unity, he rightly argues. More than simply calling on the name of Jesus, “who Jesus is, what He did, and how we come to know Him” are crucial questions to the Christian identity. (All emphases are White’s.) “If unity in doctrine on the person of Christ is necessary for meaningful unity,” White asks, “is unity on the doctrine of the Gospel itself also just as necessary?” It is a telling question that I believe underpins White’s argument.

White concludes his first chapter in very certain, concrete terms: that the Roman Catholic Church is “preaching a gospel that is contradictory to that taught by the Apostles of the Lord,” a teaching that is “a dangerous error that is to be avoided at peril of spiritual loss.” Catholics very clearly teach “a different gospel” than Protestants (and with that, he sets up a thesis directly contrary to mine); he knows many Catholics who would acknowledge as much, he adds. “The Gospel message itself is an issue upon which compromise is impossible. No unity can exist where the Gospel is no longer central to the teaching of the Church,” White argues. “The Roman Catholic position on the topic of the Gospel . . . falls outside the realm of biblical truth, not just in minor, secondary issues but with reference to the very heart of the Gospel itself.”

And what, to White, is the heart of the Gospel? He does not leave us in suspense: “The fact that God justifies us freely by his grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone must, I believe, be included in the most basic, fundamental definition of the Christian faith.” It is the standard Reformed refrain that has echoed since the Reformation itself: without the five solas — sola scriptura (by Scripture alone), sola gratia (by grace alone), sola fide (by faith alone), solo Christo (by Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone) — there is no Gospel.

But this returns me to the essential question which White posed: What is the Gospel? Is the Gospel Reformed doctrine? Did Jesus lay out the five solas in His Sermon on the Mount? If this in itself is White’s gospel, then I have no doubt that Catholics denied sharing it. No, doctrine — both Reformed doctrine and Catholic doctrine — is teaching about the Gospel. And even though both Catholics and Protestants claim that their teachings were guided by the Holy Spirit (the Catholic Church does claim infallibly), teaching is something men do; saving is what Jesus does.

Despite White’s insistence that the Catholic Church teaches a “different gospel” than Protestants, we both agree that Jesus saves. We both agree that we are sinners in need of a Savior, hopeless in our sin without Him. We both agree that salvation is by grace alone, by Christ alone — that no one can approach God, by his own grace and merits, apart from the grace of God. We both agree that God is love — that because He loved us, Christ died for the sins of us all so that we might be saved; that we are justified by His merits alone. And yes, there are doctrinal differences between us. But is the Gospel that Jesus justifies us by faith alone (with works necessarily proceeding), upon which we disagree — or is the Gospel that Jesus justifies us by His grace alone, and nothing we have ever done or could ever do, by our own merits or efforts, could pay the price He paid — upon which we agree? Does White really mean to subjugate the love and the grace and the salvation of God to doctrine?

As often as Protestants accuse Catholics of worshipping Mary, I often wonder if Reformed Christians don’t worship their solas. Doctrine is important; I do not argue otherwise. Doctrinal relativism — the trap I myself fell into for so long — is a lie. But do our different doctrines not describe the same Truth? Is that Truth not the Christ who saves us by His grace, rather than our doctrine?

Analogies for the Catholic view of grace and salvation

I posted these in a comment to somebody, and thought they might be worth sharing:

The best analogy I can think of to the Catholic understanding of salvation — and this has made all the difference in my life and in my Christian walk — is that we are trapped in our sins at the bottom of a pit, and entirely unable to do anything on our own to get out of it. Then God lowers us a rope (grace), and by that rope He can pull us out. But first we have to take the rope.

Dad helping baby walk

This was a much cuter photo than the ones of the old people and rehab patients.

Another one is this: we are little children taking our first steps — or alternately, we are old and decrepit, or in rehab — in any case, we can’t walk on our own. We can’t even take the first step under our own power. But Christ takes hold of us (by His grace), and as long as we hold on to Him, He holds us up. If we let go even for an instant, or try to do anything without Him, we go tumbling. But as long as we let Him hold us and help us, we are able to take steps forward. He is the one doing all the heavy lifting — we are just moving our feet, inching slowly toward our sanctification. (The old and decrepit person may work better, because unlike the child, we’ll never have the strength to walk on our own. The only good thing about the child metaphor is the paternal aspect.)

The Same Gospel: A Plea to Bible Christians

I’ve decided, sadly, that I’m going to have to back off posting so much. I have a lot of other things I need to be working on for school, and this is taking a lot of time and attention. It’s my passion right now; but I have way too many competing passions. This post is burning a hole in my heart, though, so I wanted to share it first.

Compassion by Bouguereau

“Compassion” (1897), by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

As I’ve been venturing out into the blogosphere, I’ve been encountering an alarming and disheartening degree and presence of anti-Catholic sentiment among Protestant (“Bible”) Christians. Now, it’s one thing to disagree with Catholic doctrine and practice; it’s another entirely to reject Catholics as “unbelievers,” “heretics,” “apostates,” “pagans,” “demonic,” or otherwise as un-Christian or even anti-Christian. I’ve been called all of these in just the past week.

Let me declare to anyone who will listen: Catholics believe the same Gospel as Protestants. We worship the same God, the same Christ, the same Holy Spirit; we believe in the same grace and the same faith and the same salvation; we read and affirm the same Scriptures. If you have been told otherwise, you have been told lies. This post is aimed at those Protestants to whom this may come as a surprise. Briefly, I will present a case for the Christianity of the Catholic faith: not necessarily to convince you of its truth, but to convince you that despite doctrinal disagreements, Catholics are indeed your brothers and sisters in Christ.

Ending the Forever War

I am blessed to have been raised in a loving home and a loving church that never taught hate or rejection for any other members of the Body of Christ. As I grew older and first encountered opposition to Catholicism, I was always quick to stand by my Catholic brothers’ and sisters’ side in defense. If anything, anti-Catholic persecution drove me toward the Catholic Church rather than away from it: for I’m inclined to run away from anyone who attacks the Body of Christ.

I am frankly quite flabbergasted as to why this is happening. How can anyone who examines what the Catholic Church teaches proclaim it as “un-Christian”? The answer is, of course, that these people never examine what the Catholic Church teaches. They are taught prejudice, hostility, and hate from their childhood; they remain in the closed communions and enclaves of their own churches; they never encounter Catholics or Catholic churches enough to challenge or question what they have been taught; and they teach the same prejudices to their children. This vicious cycle has no doubt been going on for generations, for 500 years, since the Protestant Reformation itself. The degree of rancor and resentment I have felt among these groups — and it seems to be most pronounced in sects of the Calvinist and Reformed traditions — is heartbreaking.

Yes, I know that Catholics persecuted Protestants in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; Protestants persecuted Catholics, too. Many Protestants and many Catholics died for their faith. It was unjust and it was wrong, on both sides. But it has been 500 years. It has been seventy years since the end of World War II; 150 years since the end of the American Civil War; yet all of the combatants in those conflicts have moved on. It is time that we all took a good look at our differences, buried this decrepit 500-year-old hatchet, ended this forever war, and worked together to heal the wounds we’ve inflicted, and continue to inflict, on the Body of Christ.

A Common History

Protestants seem to forget, I think — or ignore, or gloss over, or not think about — that for the first 1,500 years of Christianity, Catholics and Protestants shared a common history. I admit I have a difficult time, as an historian, understanding this reasoning: even as a Protestant, I understood and appreciated this. But I think there are several prevalent Protestant myths:

  • That at some point in those 1,500 years of history, through a “Great Apostasy,” the Roman Catholic Church fell away from “True Christianity,” commingled its doctrines with pagan religions and philosophies, or became bound up with cold legalism and dead tradition and lost sight of the Gospel of Christ. If you believe this or anything similar, I challenge you to study the history of the Church, and declare a point at which the Catholic Church “fell away” from the Truth and beyond which it became “apostate.”

  • That at some point in history, the Roman Catholic Church began to interpret Scripture mistakenly, or even stopped reading Scripture; or that it allowed its emphasis on Tradition to supersede or override the truth of Scripture. If you believe this, I challenge you again to declare a point at which this happened, and declare specific traditions that you believe to be unscriptural (this doesn’t mean “not in Scripture”; this means “against Scripture” or “contrary to Scripture”; see the section on Catholic Tradition below).

  • That Protestant thought and beliefs have always existed, during those 1,500 years of history, among sects persecuted and suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church; that your brand of Christianity was never part of the Roman Catholic Church and that your Christian ancestors never believed what Catholics believed. This is mythology. Believing this requires identifying your beliefs with some truly heinous heretical sects. If you believe this, I challenge you to examine the history of Christianity, and examine the historical origins of your own denomination, and explain to me where you think you came from.

  • St. Francis

    St. Francis of Assisi (1642) by Jusepe de Ribera.

  • Believing any of these myths also requires believing that the Holy Spirit, which Jesus promised would guide the Church in all truth (John 16:13), has failed to do so; and that the Gates of Hell did in fact overcome the Church (Matthew 16:16-19). For “Bible Christians” to believe this is to undermine their own belief. No matter what you may believe about the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, the fact is indisputable that for 1,500 years, those churches preserved, protected, and nourished the Christian faith and the Christian Bible, in order to deliver it into the hands of the Protestant Reformers in the sixteenth century. This also requires rejecting most of the great Christian saints of history as apostates or heretics.

We Believe…

By the very nature of that common history, Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians share in common, at the very least, the three historic ecumenical creeds of the Christian faith: the Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox all still affirm these things together (I am paraphrasing a bit):

  • We believe in One God, the Father Almighty, who created the Heaven and the Earth.
  • We believe in Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, existing from the beginning of time as God’s Son, of the same substance as the Father, fully God and fully Man.
  • Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified and died for the sins of humanity, and was resurrected on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. He ascended into Heaven, sits at the right hand of God the Father, and will judge the living and the dead at the end of the age.
  • We believe in the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Holy Trinity with the Father and the Son, who spoke through the Prophets, inspired the Holy Scriptures, and guides Christ’s Church today.
  • We believe in One, holy, catholic (universal) and apostolic Church; the forgiveness of sins; the communion of saints; the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

Historically, these creeds and these tenets of faith define Christian orthodoxy: those who adhere to these beliefs were and are called Christians.

Protestant Misconceptions

There are a number of flagrant misconceptions that Protestants have about the Catholic Church. These are lies. I will here aim to address every one that I can think of; but I will no doubt be adding to this list later.

  • “Works’ righteousness”: That Catholics believe they can “save themselves,” through their “good works” or living a “good life” apart from the grace of God. Catholics believe nothing of the sort. See the section below, “Salvation by Grace, through Faith,” for a more detailed explanation.

  • Virgin and Child with Rosary, 1655 (Murillo)

    Virgin and Child with Rosary (1655), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

  • “Mary worship”: Catholics do not “worship” Mary. Catholics honor and venerate Mary as a profound example of faith, grace, and obedience. Catholics do believe a number of traditions about Mary that are not found in Scripture, but these (1) do not conflict with Scripture, (2) are supported by Scripture, and (3) are well attested in tradition by the writings of the Church Fathers in the first Christian centuries. See my introductory post on this subject, “The Veneration of Mary: An Introduction for Protestants,” and the section below on Catholic Tradition.

  • Saints: Likewise, Catholics do not “worship” saints. As with Mary, we honor and venerate saints as heroes and examples of faith, charity, and virtue. Saints are Christians who have died in Christ, whom the Church believes are now in Heaven, and whom the Church believes are still a part of our communion in the Body of Christ. Praying to saints and to Mary is nothing more than asking our family and loved ones to pray for or intercede for us to God.

  • Catholic Tradition: Many Catholic doctrines are based on tradition, beliefs that were handed down orally and through writing from the Apostles and the Early Church. Catholics do not adhere to sola scriptura (which, we hold, is unhistorical and unscriptural); we believe Scripture and Tradition are two distinct sources by which we’ve received God’s Truth. Catholics nonetheless believe Scripture is inspired and inerrant. No part of Catholic Tradition contradicts Scripture.

  • The Pope: Catholics believe the bishop of Rome (the pope) is the successor of St. Peter, and therefore the foremost among bishops and the head of the Catholic Church. But he does not replace Christ as the Head of the Church. The pope is a man elected to an office by men (the college of cardinals), under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. He is not divine or godlike in any way. He is called the “Vicar of Christ,” which means only that he is Christ’s representative on earth to His Church: a pastor with a really big flock.

  • Purgatory: Catholics believe in Purgatory, a state of purification after death for Christians who have not been fully conformed to Christ during their lifetimes. Purgatory is not a place of punishment for the guilt of sins. It in no way diminishes Christ’s sacrifice or declares that it is “not enough” to save or forgive sins. All Christians who live and walk in the life of God’s grace will have their sins forgiven and are guaranteed salvation; but Purgatory is a place of purification or preparation for the dead in Christ to stand before God in Heaven. It is easier thought of as a state or a journey than a place as Dante imagined; it is the path a soul takes on the way to Heaven. Every soul in Purgatory will reach Heaven in the course of time. The belief in Purgatory, a purging fire, is based in Scripture (2 Maccabees 12:46, 1 Corinthians 3:15, 1 Peter 1:7) and Tradition, and was a belief of the entire Christian Church until the time of Luther.

Salvation by Grace, through Faith

But the most pernicious of lies against the Catholic faith is that the Catholic Church teaches a “false Gospel,” that of “works’ righteousness” or “salvation by works”: that Catholics believe they can “save themselves” by their “good works” or by living a “good life” without the help of God’s grace. Catholics believe no such thing. The Catholic Church teaches, the same as Protestants, that we are saved by God’s grace alone, through faith, as we are taught by Scripture. Where Catholics and Protestants differ is that Protestants believe in salvation by faith alone (sola fide), while Catholics do not (you will not find anywhere in the Bible that says “by faith alone”). This is not as big a difference as it seems.

This is not the place to argue for or against the merits of sola fide. But I want to draw your attention to these points:

  • Both Protestants and Catholics teach that salvation is a free gift, an undeserved gift of God’s grace given to sinners by no merit of their own. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
  • Both Protestants and Catholics teach that initial justification is entirely the work of God, through faith; that without the work of God’s grace, sinful humans can do nothing to approach God on their own. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
  • Both Protestants and Catholics teach that good works, following that initial justification, are necessary. (Ephesians 2:10, James 2:17, Philippians 2:12)
  • Both Protestants and Catholics teach that good works are the fruit of faith in God, and are only possible by His grace; that it is God’s grace who works through us. (Philippians 2:12-13)

So what is the difference? Only this: Protestants teach that if a Christian does not produce the fruit of good works, then they never had true faith to begin with, and will not be saved. Catholics teach that only if a Christian bears the fruit of good works, then they will be saved. The end result is the same in both teachings: no works, no salvation (James 2:17). We have to do something with our faith to be saved; both Protestants and Catholics affirm this. Both Protestants and Catholics affirm that faith, by grace, comes first. Protestants teach that with faith, a true believer will bear the fruits of good works. Catholics teach that with faith and by grace, a true believer both wills and works (Philippians 2:12-13). Catholics do not teach that “our works save us”; we teach that it is by our allowing God to produce the fruits of righteousness in our lives, by His grace and by our cooperation with it, that we are saved.

This does not amount to “works’ righteousness” in any way. It is not by any effort of our own, or by any works of our own, that we are saved. As Ephesians 2:10 teaches, we are “created for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” It is by walking in these good works, by God’s grace, that we “work out our own salvation” (Philippians 2:12-13) and are saved.

(There is more on this subject, with quotes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, at “Salvation by Grace Alone.”)

The Same Gospel


Both Protestants and Catholics teach the Gospel of grace, of God’s divine, overflowing, and unmerited favor and forgiveness upon humanity, apart from anything we have ever done or could ever do. The major differences between Protestant and Catholic teachings are in how that grace is received and how one walks in it. These differences are not fundamental; for the foundation of both teachings is the grace poured out by Christ crucified. Both teachings end in the salvation by grace alone of undeserving sinners. The Gospel is love, and faith, and grace, and forgiveness — and both Catholics and Protestants affirm this and walk in this.

The Apostle Paul urges that there be no divisions among us (1 Corinthians 1:10-17). We have pretty well screwed that one up. I truly believe that both faithful Protestants and faithful Catholics are part of the same body of Christ — for Christ is undivided (1 Corinthians 1:13). I have high hope that if we push past our hostility and our prejudices, if we listen to each other and talk to each other, if we work by the grace of the Holy Spirit, then someday we will see a reunion of all Christians. I believe this is necessary, as we approach the end of the age: we must stand together as Christians against the challenges of secularism, atheism, and modernism. Christ wants to return for a one, whole, spotless Bride; and we owe it to our Lord and to His Church to strive for that.

But for the time being, why don’t we at least stop attacking our fellow members of the Body of Christ? Why don’t we embrace each other as the brothers and sisters we are? Jesus gave us a new commandment: that we love one another, just as He loved us. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another,” He said (John 13:34-35). And yet I’ve seen more hostility, hatred, and mistrust between Protestants and Catholics, fellow Christians, than I’ve ever seen love. What kind of witness does this show to the world, that the people who call on the name of Jesus cannot even love each other? This goes both ways: Catholics should love and embrace their Protestant brethren, too. It is only through love, forgiveness, and grace that we will ever be reconciled and healed.

Against a Charge of Pelagianism

St. Augustine

St. Augustine (c. 1645-1650), by Philippe de Champaigne.

(I was accused of heresy today. I’m sure it won’t be the last time, but since it’s the first time, I’m rather upset, and was interrupted from writing your regularly scheduled post. Rather than leave this as a lengthy comment on an innocent bystander’s blog, I thought I would post it here.)

Oh, so you want to appeal to the historic Church? I hope you are prepared to support your arguments.

First, the Pelagian heresy espoused that Adam’s original sin did not taint human nature, and that man was capable, in himself, of choosing good over evil without the grace of God. Which the Catholic Church explicitly denies, and always has. You should remember that it was the Catholic Church that branded Pelagianism a heresy in the first place and rejected it at the Council of Carthage in 419 — which affirmed that without God’s grace, it was impossible to do good works (Canon 113). The Council of Trent again affirmed in 1547:

If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema (Council of Trent, 1547: Sixth Session, Canon I “On Justification”).

So if you’ve going to charge anyone with Pelagianism, you should (1) know what Pelagius actually taught; (2) remember who it was who condemned Pelagius; and (3) understand what the party you’re charging actually teaches.

The Catholic Church in every way affirms that salvation is from God and by God; that God does the saving, by His grace alone, not man, by anything that he does or could do. Believing that God offers His grace freely, but allows man the free will to choose or reject it, is a far different proposition than claiming “man saves himself.” You are charging the Church with an opinion that it does not hold, does not assert, and has never asserted.

Second — you claim your view is that of the “historic Church” and St. Augustine. Would you agree with these statements?

[L]est the will itself should be deemed capable of doing any good thing without the grace of God, after saying, “His grace within me was not in vain, but I have laboured more abundantly than they all,” he immediately added the qualifying clause, “Yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” In other words, Not I alone, but the grace of God with me. And thus, neither was it the grace of God alone, nor was it he himself alone, but it was the grace of God with him. For his call, however, from heaven and his conversion by that great and most effectual call, God’s grace was alone, because his merits, though great, were yet evil. (St. Augustine, On Grace and Free Will, 5:12) (A.D. 427)

Unintelligent persons, however, with regard to the apostle’s statement: We conclude that a man is justified by faith without the works of the law (Romans 3:28), have thought him to mean that faith suffices to a man, even if he lead a bad life, and has no good works. Impossible is it that such a character should be deemed a vessel of election by the apostle, who, after declaring that in Christ Jesus neither circumcision avails anything, nor uncircumcision, Galatians 5:6 adds at once, but faith which works by love. (St. Augustine, On Grace and Free Will VI.18)

… This love the Apostle Peter did not yet possess, when he for fear thrice denied the Lord (Matthew 26:69-75). There is no fear in love, says the Evangelist John in his first Epistle, but perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). But yet, however small and imperfect his love was, it was not wholly wanting when he said to the Lord, I will lay down my life for Your sake (John 13:37); for he supposed himself able to effect what he felt himself willing to do. And who was it that had begun to give him his love, however small, but He who prepares the will, and perfects by His co-operation what He initiates by His operation? Forasmuch as in beginning He works in us that we may have the will, and in perfecting works with us when we have the will. On which account the apostle says, I am confident of this very thing, that He which has begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6). He operates, therefore, without us, in order that we may will; but when we will, and so will that we may act, He co-operates with us. We can, however, ourselves do nothing to effect good works of piety without Him either working that we may will, or co-working when we will. Now, concerning His working that we may will, it is said: It is God which works in you, even to will (Philippians 2:13). (St. Augustine, On Grace and Free Will XVII.33)

Indeed we also work, but we are only collaborating with God who works, for his mercy has gone before us. It has gone before us so that we may be healed, and follows us so that once healed, we may be given life; it goes before us so that we may be called, and follows us so that we may be glorified; it goes before us so that we may live devoutly, and follows us so that we may always live with God: for without him we can do nothing. (St. Augustine, On Nature and Grace 31)

But God made you without you. You didn’t, after all, give any consent to God making you. How were you to consent, if you didn’t yet exist? So while he made you without you, he doesn’t justify you without you. So he made you without your knowing it, he justifies you with your willing consent to it. Yet it’s he that does the justifying …” (St. Augustine, Sermon 169.13) (PL 38, 923)

“No man can come to me, except the Father who hath sent me draw him”! For He does not say, “except He lead him,” so that we can thus in any way understand that his will precedes. For who is “drawn,” if he was already willing? And yet no man comes unless he is willing. Therefore he is drawn in wondrous ways to will, by Him who knows how to work within the very hearts of men. Not that men who are unwilling should believe, which cannot be, but that they should be made willing from being unwilling. (St. Augustine, Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, I:19) (A.D. 420).

As strong as we could, we urged on them, as on your and our brothers, to preserve in the catholic faith, which neither denies free will whether for a bad life or a good one, nor allows it so much effect that it can do anything without the grace of God, whether to convert the soul from evil to good, or to preserve and advance in good, or to attain eternal good, where there is no more fear of falling away. (St. Augustine, Epistle 215:4) (A.D. 423).

Augustine was writing in many of these cases against the Pelagians — who argued that they could do good works and be justified apart from God’s grace. Their argument never was that they didn’t need works to be justified — and so Augustine never argued specifically against that; all of his arguments go to the fact that God’s grace was necessary to do good works, which the Catholic Church affirms. As for the teachings of the other Church Fathers:

Seeing, therefore, that we are the portion of the Holy One, let us do all those things which pertain to holiness, avoiding all evil-speaking, all abominable and impure embraces, together with all drunkenness, seeking after change, all abominable lusts, detestable adultery, and execrable pride. “For God,” saith [the Scripture], “resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble.” Let us cleave, then, to those to whom grace has been given by God. Let us clothe ourselves with concord and humility, ever exercising self-control, standing far off from all whispering and evil-speaking, being justified by our works, and not our words.” (Clement of Rome, Epistle to the Corinthians, 30) (A.D. 98).

But He who raised Him up from the dead will raise up us also, if we do His will, and walk in His commandments, and love what He loved, keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness, covetousness, love of money, evil speaking, falsewitness; “not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing,” or blow for blow, or cursing for cursing, but being mindful of what the Lord said in His teaching: “Judge not, that ye be not judged; forgive, and it shall be forgiven unto you; be merciful, that ye may obtain mercy; with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again”; and once more, “Blessed are the poor, and those that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” (Polycarp, To the Philippians, 2) (A.D. 135).

All creation fears the Lord, but all creation does not keep His commandments. They only who fear the Lord and keep His commandments have life with God; but as to those who keep not His commandments, there is no life in them. (The Shepherd of Hermas, II Commandment Seventh)

We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments, and chastisements, and good rewards, are rendered according to the merit of each man’s actions. Since if it be not so, but all things happen by fate, neither is anything at all in our own power…But this we assert is inevitable fate, that they who choose the good have worthy rewards, and they who choose the opposite have their merited awards. For not like other things, as trees and quadrupeds, which cannot act by choice, did God make man: for neither would he be worthy of reward or praise did he not of himself choose the good, but were created for this end; nor, if he were evil, would he be worthy of punishment, not being evil of himself, but being able to be nothing else than what he was made. (Justin Martyr, First Apology, 6) (A.D. 155)

If men by their works show themselves worthy of this His design, they are deemed worthy, and so we have received — of reigning in company with Him, being delivered from corruption and suffering. For as in the beginning He created us when we were not, so do we consider that, in like manner, those who choose what is pleasing to Him are, on account of their choice, deemed worthy of incorruption and of fellowship with Him. For the coming into being at first was not in our own power; and in order that we may follow those things which please Him, choosing them by means of the rational faculties He has Himself endowed us with, He both persuades us and leads us to faith. (Justin Martyr, First Apology 10) (c. 150)

Whoever dies in his sins, even if he profess to believe in Christ, does not truly believe in Him, and even if that which exists without works be called faith, such faith is dead in itself, as we read in the Epistle bearing the name of James. (Origen, Commentary on John, 19:6 (A.D. 232).

All indeed depends on God, but not so that our free-will is hindered. “If then it depend on God,” (one says), “why does He blame us?” On this account I said, “so that our free-will is not hindered.” It depends then on us, and on Him. For we must first choose the good; and then He leads us to His own. He does not anticipate our choice, lest our free-will should be outraged. But when we have chosen, then great is the assistance he brings to us … For it is ours to choose and to wish; but God’s to complete and to bring to an end. Since therefore the greater part is of Him, he says all is of Him, speaking according to the custom of men. For so we ourselves also do. I mean for instance: we see a house well built, and we say the whole is the Architect’s [doing], and yet certainly it is not all his, but the workmen’s also, and the owner’s, who supplies the materials, and many others’, but nevertheless since he contributed the greatest share, we call the whole his. So then [it is] in this case also. (John Chrysostom, Homily on Hebrews, 12:3) (A.D. 403).

There is a whole lot more where this came from.

Third, regarding “Mary worship”: That’s a very ignorant thing to say. Catholics do not “worship” Mary, or the saints, or anyone but God. Regarding the Eucharist (I presume you are referring to the Real Presence): I encourage you to read the Church Fathers, every one of whom affirmed the Real Presence.

Regarding “liberal theology”: Our theology is older than yours by about 1,500 years, and has remained consistent. That’s nothing if not conservative. Regarding ecumenical efforts: Certainly there can be no reconcilation if you’re not willing to listen to what anyone else has to say. Don’t let biases and prejudices cloud your judgment.

Regarding “the majority of the Christian Church [viewing] the Catholic church as a cult [whose] followers are going to Hell”: the last time I checked, we are the majority of the Christian Church, by about two to one. And I can speak from having been a Protestant most of my life that very few Protestants think the Catholic Church is going to Hell.

Fourth, you call me “brother,” yet in the same breath call me a heretic and an “unbeliever.” That’s not very generous or charitable of you. I can see very well your view of the Catholic Church today. I propose that you should do a little studying of your own about what the Catholic Church actually teaches, rather than simply accepting what you’re told — especially before you accuse a “brother” of heresy or consign a fellow Christian to Hell. We have a fundamental difference — but it is not what you are accusing me of. We both agree that salvation is only by God, through grace, and that man can do nothing to save himself apart from grace. We both agree that true Christians produce good works, that good works are necessary, and that man can only do those works by God’s grace. The only difference appears to be whether man has free will to accept or reject God — and I do not think an affirmation of free will amounts to Pelagianism or any other historical heresy. What do you say to those who walk away from the faith after years of living in grace?

Salvation by Grace Alone

One of the most frequent charges I’ve heard from Protestants against Catholicism, who attack it as a heresy or a “false gospel,” is that the Catholic Church teaches “works’ righteousness,” or “salvation by works.” This is what I grew up hearing and believing, so I know the thinking well. Protestants think that Catholics believe they can “save themselves” or somehow merit salvation from God, through their good works, apart from His grace. This couldn’t be further from the truth. So, I thought I would take a moment to present what the Church actually teaches, so that anyone making this charge will at least be informed.

Protestant theology teaches salvation (or justification; Protestants and Catholics have different understandings of this word) by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide), drawing this largely from the epistles of St. Paul, especially Romans and Galatians. Protestants seem to think that Catholics don’t read the same letters. We do, and always have. The Catholic Church fully affirms that salvation is by grace alone, but has a different interpretation of the passages in which Protestants read sola fide, especially in light of other passages, most notably from the Book of James (which Martin Luther famously declared an “epistle of straw” and wanted to discard as uncanonical). Catholics certainly affirm salvation by faith. But Paul never once says by faith alone.

This is a much bigger argument than I have time to get into in a single post — many, many people have written whole books about this issue, and I have no hopes to resolve it here. The Wikipedia article is meaty with evidence and claims from both sides, for anyone who might be interested: there are just as many verses of Scripture cited to reject sola fide as to support it. This is one of the fundamental disagreements between Catholics and Protestants, and as long as people have free thought, we will be of different minds.

What I do hope to do here is to clear up what the Catholic Church actually teaches regarding grace and faith and “works” in salvation. (There’s another much misunderstood doctrine of “merit” that relates to this, but I will save that for next time.) Protestants teach that justification comes from grace alone. Catholics affirm this:

Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life (CCC 1996).

This vocation to eternal life is supernatural. It depends entirely on God’s gratuitous initiative, for he alone can reveal and give himself. It surpasses the power of human intellect and will, as that of every other creature (CCC 1998).

Now, regarding works: let’s go ahead and get this out of the way. The Council of Trent, in its first canon on justification, declared in no uncertain terms:

If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema (Council of Trent, 1547: Sixth Session, Canon I “On Justification”).

Do Catholics believe that works (or deeds, or things we do) justify us? Absolutely not. We are justified solely by the gratuitous grace of God.

But what is the role of works? Do works play a role in our justification? Catholics believe they do. So do many Protestants. One needs to understand what we mean by “works.” Basically, and most importantly, it means one has to work at salvation: we have to do something.

What do we have to do? First, and most essential, we have to cooperate with God’s grace; we have to accept it:

Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent:

When God touches man’s heart through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, man himself is not inactive while receiving that inspiration, since he could reject it; and yet, without God’s grace, he cannot by his own free will move himself toward justice in God’s sight (Council of Trent, 1547: Sixth Session, Chapter V [DS 1525]) (CCC 1992).

This belief that we have to assent to God’s prevenient grace (that is, grace coming before regeneration, drawing us to Christ) is essentially the same doctrine taught by Arminian and Wesleyan theology. In fact, they found it the same place we did, St. Augustine.

The Synod furthermore declares that . . . the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation [calling], whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace . . . (Council of Trent, 1547: Sixth Session, Chapter V). [This quote dovetails with the one above cited in the Catechism.]

So, initial justification and conversion is entirely by grace, but must be assented to in order to receive it. So what about continuing “works”? Well, in our continuing sanctification and conversion to Christ, we have to continue cooperating with God’s grace. And that’s a lot of work. And, as St. James says, “Faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:17, 26 ESV). Do works justify us? No. But through our works, God works with us to bring about our sanctification.

And just to be clear, what “works” am I talking about? Most important is participation in the Sacraments, constantly renewing our relationship with Christ and with His Church. Also prayer, fasting, almsgiving, acts of charity and loving our neighbor: what Jesus commanded us to do. Without these “works,” a Christian isn’t exactly taking part in the life of Christ. St. Paul tells us to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [us], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12 ESV).

God works in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. It is God’s constant and continuing grace that enables us to do the work we do, to even engage with His working in our lives:

The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. This latter is needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity. God brings to completion in us what he has begun, “since he who completes his work by cooperating with our will began by working so that we might will it” (St. Augustine, De gratia et libero arbitrio, 17):

Indeed we also work, but we are only collaborating with God who works, for his mercy has gone before us. It has gone before us so that we may be healed, and follows us so that once healed, we may be given life; it goes before us so that we may be called, and follows us so that we may be glorified; it goes before us so that we may live devoutly, and follows us so that we may always live with God: for without him we can do nothing (St. Augustine, De natura et gratia, 31) (CCC 2001).

Once again, this doctrine of cooperating with God’s grace is very similar to the doctrines of Arminian Protestants. We understand grace in different ways, but both agree that we must work with it. Arminian theologian Roger Olson writes, “If people are working out their salvation, from beginning to end, it is only because ‘God is at work’ in them. That’s prevenient, assisting grace: prevenient leading up to conversion and assisting throughout the entire Christian life” (Olson, Against Calvinism, 172).

So, to draw this to a close: synergistic (requiring our cooperation with God’s grace), Catholic theology is, similar to Arminian and Wesleyan theology; as opposed to monergistic as are Calvinist and Lutheran theology. “Works’ salvation” it is not.