Luther, Catholicism, and Justification by Faith

In his book The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, the great Catholic scholar Louis Bouyer, himself a convert from Lutheranism, describes Martin Luther’s understanding of justifying faith:

Salvation is a grace, a gift of God, not the work of man. Therefore, man can be saved by faith in the Savior and by this means alone … The essential, for salvation, is to recognize that God is its author, that it depends, not on one’s own strength, but on God’s. In this realization, where a radical distrust of self is but the obverse of absolute confidence in God, consists faith; nothing else can possibly replace it.

Faith alone saves us means, if it means anything, that we, on our part, have nothing to add to it, nothing outside or independent of it. Any such addition would result, of necessity, in a denial of the essential. For if, believing in principle in the saving action of God, we were obliged to add something of our own initiative, what would be the result? We would fall back at once into the impossible situation from which grace had rescued us; we would have to accomplish our salvation in part, in the hope that God would do the rest. But our actual state of wretchedness comes from our incapacity for any effective initiative, even incomplete, toward salvation; in short, we have not only to be assisted to save ourselves; we need to be saved.

In other words, either we are not saved by divine grace, acknowledged and accepted by faith, or this grace, which is in God, is the sole cause of our salvation, and faith, which is in us, the sole means of access to it. For if there is something needed for salvation that has a source other than grace received by faith, we are confronted again with the impossible task of the salvation of man by man. The gospel, however, is the good news that someone else—God in Christ—has done for us what we could not do. (pp. 27-26)

Bouyer goes on to say that the purpose of Luther’s sola gratiasola fide is to reject the idea that we have to add something external to these two things—grace which gives and faith which receives. Such an addition would amount to saying that we are saved neither by grace nor by faith. God provides part of what is needed for our salvation, but we are still left with providing our “personal quota.” This is the crude synergism that we often hear preached from the ambo, whether it is located in a Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox church. “On the other hand,” Bouyer writes, “the insight of Luther, preserved in the type of Protestantism most faithful to its origins and most truly Christian, is that all is grace, and that, conse­quently, all in our salvation comes to us by faith.” Bouyer offers this evaluation: “At once we can see that Luther’s view of salvation, so understood, is in perfect harmony with Catholic tradition, the great conciliar definitions on grace and salvation, and even with Thomism” (p. 29).

Yet I often hear Catholics, including clergy, teaching some version of faith plus works. I am not throwing stones. As one of my good friends likes to say: “We Episcopalians get salvation the old fashioned way. We earn it!”

Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft hammers the point home:

But many Catholics to this day have not learned the Catholic and biblical doctrine. They think we are saved by good intentions or being nice or sincere or trying a little harder or doing a sufficient number of good deeds. Over the past twenty-five years I have asked hundreds of Catholic college students the question: If you should die tonight and God asks you why he should let you into heaven, what would you answer? The vast majority of them simply do not know the right answer to this, the most important of all questions, the very essence of Christianity. They usually do not even mention Jesus!

Until we Catholics know the foundation, Protestants are not going to listen to us when we try to teach them about the upper stories of the building. Perhaps God allows the Protestant/­Catholic division to persist not only because Protestants have abandoned many precious truths taught by the Church but also because many Catholics have never been taught the most precious truth of all, that salvation is a free gift of grace, accepted by faith. I remember vividly the thrill of discovery when, as a young Protestant at Calvin College, I read Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Council of Trent on justification. I did not find what I had been told I would find, “another gospel” of do-it-yourself salvation by works, but a clear and forceful statement that we can do nothing without God’s grace, and that this grace, accepted by faith, is what saves us. (“Justification by Faith”)

Theologians can debate how one crosses the “t’s” and dots the “i’s”; but it’s also fairly clear, given the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, that in its own way Catholicism affirms both the sola gratia and the sola fide. But it’s one thing to affirm a doctrine; it’s quite another thing to proclaim the gospel in such a way that it creates the hearing of faith. And that’s true no matter what one’s ecclesial tradition may be.

(24 March 2004; mildly rev.)

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3 Responses to Luther, Catholicism, and Justification by Faith

  1. Iain Lovejoy says:

    Q: “If you should die tonight and God asks you why he should let you into heaven, what would you answer?”
    A: “Who are you and what did you do with the real God?”
    The question is surely a nonsense. Either God loves us and wants us in heaven, or he doesn’t. There may be all sorts of reasons why we cannot or will not enter heaven, but there is surely no question of God choosing whether to “let” us in for some purpose relating to God.

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  2. Jeff says:

    This bit is not clear to me, “surely no question of God choosing whether to ‘let’ us in for some purpose relating to God”, but the question isn’t nonsense at all. The NT testifies very clearly that some will receive the Kingdom and others will not; some will enter in and others will not. Their receiving and entering are based not solely on the love of God but on their response to that love. Jesus asked such questions all of the time, and the question gets to the heart of the matter, as Kreeft rightly sees: have we truly heard and received with meekness the gospel of the Kingdom which is a gospel of grace and cannot be received except as babies carried to Jesus by their parents – helpless and humble and incapable of doing anything to contribute to their salvation.

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    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      The point is that, even if we were to reject universalism (and the NT “clearly testifies” no such thing, as our host in this blog has posted many times) the New Testament (and for that matter the Old) is absolutely clear that God desires us to be saved, does all he can to save us and does not need to be persuaded to allow us into heaven, whether by words or deeds. If we are faced with someone who says he could let us in if so minded, but won’t unless persuaded, it is not God.
      As far as I am aware (correct me if I am wrong) Jesus never once asked the question “Why should I / God save you?” He was asked what one should do to be saved, he said what one should do to be saved, he implored people to be saved, but he never once suggested that people had to persuade him or God they were worth saving.

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