As I understand, the Lutheran view is Faith=Salvation and Salvation brings about Good Works. The Roman Catholic view is that Faith + Good Works = Salvation. In both cases, you have Faith, Works, and Salvation. Why is the difference so important? I know Luther was concerned that he could not do enough good works, but that is not everyone's concern. I realize that this is a huge Lutheran/Catholic division, but it seems like a very small point. Why is the distinction so important, since we end up at the same point (with Salvation, Faith, and Works) in both cases? Thank you.
What We Believe
What an important question! You are correct in understanding that works enter into the teachings of both churches, but the motivation for doing those works is entirely different.
The teaching of the Bible is that we are saved only by God’s grace through God-given faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). Scripture makes it clear that we are saved by God’s works, not ours (Titus 3:4-6). More than that, the Bible emphasizes that we can lose out on salvation by trying to add anything to Jesus’ saving work.
The book of Galatians addresses that very situation. A group called the Judaizers was telling the Galatians that faith alone was not enough for salvation, and that their obedience of certain parts of God’s law was also necessary for their salvation. The apostle Paul addressed that situation by condemning the teaching of the Judaizers and warning the Galatians that they were jeopardizing their salvation by thinking they could contribute to their salvation by their obedience of the law. Rather than pointing out specific passages from Galatians, I would encourage you to read the epistle’s six chapters to see how strongly Paul condemned the teaching of the Judaizers and pointed the Galatians to look to Christ alone for salvation.
Motivation for keeping God’s law, again, is the key to understanding the differences between official Roman Catholic Church and Lutheran Church teachings on the subject of salvation. The difference in motivation can be illustrated by asking: am I trying to keep the Ten Commandments to try to get something from God (forgiveness of sins, salvation) or give something to God (praise, gratitude)? If I’m trying to get something from God (as in contributing to my salvation), I will realize like Luther that I can never do enough. The law of God demands perfection, and all of us fall woefully short of that standard. If I’m trying to give something to God through my obedience to his law (giving him my praise and gratitude for his gift of salvation), then I understand the role of good works. Those works flow from saving faith and comprise a big “thank you” to God (Colossians 3:17). Thank you for your question.
Answered by James Pope, professor at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minn. Pope is a contributing editor to Forward in Christ magazine. He writes the monthly “Light for our path” question and answer column.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are some sins worse than others?
Since God created us to love him perfectly, and to love our neighbor as himself, any failure to love in heart, word, or action is the equivalent of shattering the whole law of God. James tells us that in the second chapter of his epistle, "For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it" (2:10). Every one of my sins is lawless rebellion against the God who created me to be a perfect reflection of his love in this world. Every failure to live in love is a damnable rejection of his purpose for our lives. In that sense all sin is equally evil. It is all equal evidence that we have a nature within us that is exactly the opposite of what God created us to be.
But for the believer in Christ, there's more to the story. Because we stand forgiven and holy in God's sight through the perfect life, death, and resurrection of his Son, every sin does not instantly make an unbeliever out of us. As we live in repentance that runs each day from the evil of our sin to the cross of our Savior, we find that "the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, purifies us from all sin" (1 John 1:7). Through faith in Christ we stand in God's grace (Romans 5:1-2).
However, if we grow careless about sin we are inviting spiritual disaster. If, when we become aware of sin in our hearts and lives, we continue in that sin and begin to excuse and defend it, then we are in danger of allowing sin to rule in our hearts again just as it did when we were unbelievers. To persist in what we know to be sin, will soon drive the Holy Spirit and faith from our lives. Paul warns us in Romans 8:13, "If you live according to the sinful nature, you will die." In that sense, stubborn and willful sin is more dangerous to our faith than sins of weakness or ignorance from which we run to his cross as soon as we recognize them. That's true even though all sin is by nature damnable in and of itself.
This sounds a bit paradoxical but here is the truth: if we treat sin as the evil it is and run to our Savior's gracious arms, it cannot harm us. Christ has paid for them all! But if we treat sin as harmless and defend and excuse it, then we are giving that sin the power to destroy us all over again.
All of this isn't about categories of sins ("big ones" and "little ones"), as if we could make two lists of different "types" of sins. The difference is the attitude of our hearts toward sin. Are we clinging to our sins or are we clinging to our Savior?
How do I know there is a God?
Have you ever thought about how many things you know and believe without having seen them? Take gravity for instance. No one has ever seen gravity, but I see evidence of it is all around. As a matter of fact, we depend on it for almost all of our everyday activities. Gravity holds our cars on the road. It keeps us from floating away into space. We would be in serious trouble without it.
Look at God in very much the same way that you look at gravity. You have never seen him, but you see evidence that he must exist in the world. Whether taking in a soft summer sunset or a late night display of the constellations, know that someone took some serious time and effort to get things just right. The Bible puts it this way, "Every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything." (Hebrews 3:4)
Have you ever taken time to look closely at the world in which we live? Get up a little earlier than normal tomorrow and let the sunrise speak for itself. You decide which is more impressive, the beauty of the sunrise or the fact that is has risen every day in the history of the world. You will hear an inaudible voice in that sunrise. It is God's voice. (Psalm 19:1-4)
Perhaps you are more impressed with detail. Take time to count the hairs on one of your arms from your wrist to your elbow. As you notice the delicacy with which each hair is connected, consider how hard plastic surgeons work to duplicate a "normal" hair pattern. They never do get it quite right, do they? All of this is part of God's great attention to detail and more evidence that he does exist.
We have never seen God, but, like gravity, we know he is here. He has taken the time to leave evidence of his existence all around the world in which we live. Take time to notice it. You will see that he is very real. If you want more, definite information, take time to get to know him better in the Bible.
How could God allow suffering and evil?
This is a classic question. When it's a challenge to the Christian faith, trying to prove that God doesn't exist, it's usually phrased like this: "If God is truly omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipotent (all-powerful) and loving, how could he allow suffering and evil?"
Here is a classic answer.
God exists. Jesus said he does, and he rose from the dead to show that he could be trusted to tell the truth.
God is all-knowing. That trustworthy Jesus said so. And since God knows everything, he is smarter than we are. So he may do or say things that are perfectly right, but we don't understand them, because we're not as smart. We have that experience every day with people who are smarter than we are.
God is all-powerful. In philosophical terms, all-powerful means that he can do whatever he wants. He can always put his will into action.
God is loving. God showed his love for all people by sending a Savior (John 3:16).
Does God allow evil to occur? That depends on how you define evil. Sometimes what seems bad or evil to one person seems good to another person.
But let's grant that God does allow evil to occur. It's only temporary. Death intervenes. Since God is smarter, perhaps that temporary evil actually turns out to be for some good in the end. For example, the Bible tells the story of a man whose brothers sold him into slavery. That was evil. But it turned out for good. The man himself said so (Genesis 50:20).
Since God is smarter than I am, I trust that when he allows evil or suffering in my life, it will work out for my good (Romans 8:28). Since he's loving, I trust that everything really will work out for the best in my life. And since he's all-powerful, I can ask him to get rid of the evil, and trust that if that's what he wants at that time, he can and he will (Matthew 7:7).
Do I have to believe the whole Bible?
Your chest feels as if an elephant is dancing on it. You're gasping for air. Sweat is glistening on your face. You are in the emergency room of a hospital. Nurses are hooking wires all over your chest. Another nurse is searching for a vein to start an I.V. Another nurse is putting a small pill under your tongue. After looking at the monitor and the EKG tape, the doctor informs you that you are having a heart attack. It's a frightening scene. Other tests prove that there is a blockage in your heart. The doctor tells you what has happened to your heart and then proceeds to explain what needs to be done to repair your heart so that you can continue to live.
Are you going to believe everything he says? Or are you going to pick and choose what you want to believe and disregard the rest, which could cost you your life? Your life depends on believing everything the doctor tells you.
There are people who believe the whole of the Bible. There are people who don't believe anything in the Bible. But how can a person believe just some of the Bible? How does a person pick and choose what parts of the Bible are true and what parts are not true? How can a person believe that Jesus died on the cross to take the sins of the world away and yet not believe that Jesus rose from the dead? How can a person believe that Jesus did miracles, but that Jonah could not have spent three days in the belly of a great fish?
What is true and what is not true? The Bible is God's Word. Not believing some of the Bible will lead to doubting all the Bible. The Bible is not a collection of human ideas and thoughts. The Bible is God's Word, given word for word by the Holy Spirit to human writers. If any part of the Bible is merely human thoughts, and not God's Word, then all of God's Word can't be trusted. If it is God's Word, then all of it is true and is to be believed.
We believe the entire Bible is God's Word and it is true. Our belief is not founded on shaky ground. First, there is more evidence for the documents of the Bible than for any other ancient book. Second, all the writers of the New Testament wrote within the first century of Christ's birth. They all knew Jesus. Third, even historical facts cited by the writers have been proven to be true. Fourth, God promised that the writers would tell the truth. The Holy Spirit guided them so that they did just that.
We believe all of the Bible because in it God tells us that he loves us sinful human beings so very much that he sent His Son Jesus to live, suffer, die and rise for us so that we could be with him in heaven. That is why God tells us that his words "are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31).
God's Word is all true. You can trust every word of it from beginning to end.
Am I good enough to go to heaven?
Mom went over to the slow cooker where the turkey had been all day. As the lid was taken off, a shriek filled the air. The slow cooker had been unplugged hours before to make room for Uncle Bob's famous sweet potato soufflé.
Tears filled Mom's eyes. "My dinner is ruined!" she cried. Dad chimed in, "Oh, honey. I am sure that it is good enough." However, the half baked turkey was not good enough, nor was it safe to eat.
In our lives we probably hear or say those words often. "Oh, the lawn looks good enough. I can wait another couple of days to mow." "Oh, the house isn't that dirty. It is good enough for now." "My job was done well enough for today. I am going home!"
What about when it is quitting time here in this life? Are we sure that we are going home to heaven? Are we good enough?
We may be individuals who settle for good enough more than we like to admit. However, we have a God who doesn't settle for anything but perfection. Jesus says, "Be perfect . . . as your heavenly Father is perfect" Matthew 5:48.
So are we good enough to go to heaven?
God takes the "lid" off of our hearts and tells us what he sees. "Every inclination of the heart is evil from childhood" Genesis 8:21. Even if we try hard and work at being kind, good, and perfect we still fail. "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" Romans 3:23.
So now what do we do? Similar to an uncooked turkey, does the heat get turned up on us in hell? Is our hope to have life in heaven ruined?
Thanks to Jesus Christ our Savior the answer is, "No." We do have hope because Jesus has forgiven our sins by dying on the cross and he has declared us to be innocent by rising from the dead. Because of what Jesus has done, every time that God looks at us he sees "you holy in his sight without blemish and free from accusation" Colossians 1:22.
Are you good enough to go heaven? Jesus did not just make you good enough but he made you perfect! Through faith you receive "the gift of God which is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" Romans 6:23.
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