Some years back, my daughter asked me: “Daddy, what is a Protestant?” My answer was simply this. A Protestant is a Christian who “protests” various teachings of the Catholic Church, but retains core Catholic teaching, such as the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for example. I stopped there as the answer seemed to be satisfactory to her young ears.
Yes, Catholics and Protestants have these core teachings in common, but where we start to diverge is on the issue of Atonement, and in particular, what that Atonement of Christ’s sacrifice means in practical everyday terms. The issue of salvation has for the last five centuries been the core issue fuelling the rift between Catholics and Protestants. Now, let us have just a little review here before we get started.
Martin Luther (the 16th-century father of Protestantism) was spurred to act by abuses within the Catholic Church during his time. The abuses were real, and they were also not really Catholic. Had Luther opposed these abuses on purely Catholic teaching, he might be revered as a “Saint Martin of Wittenberg” today. That however, didn’t happen, namely because he chose to take matters into his own hands. Rather than opposing abuses of Catholic doctrine on Catholic grounds, he chose to become his own re-interpreter of Scripture, even when it meant opposing a thousand years of historical Christian tradition. Thus, “Saint Martin of Wittenberg” was never to be, and so Martin Luther, became a controversial man — the chief proponent of a movement that would fracture Christendom into a half-dozen pieces in his own time, and literally thousands of denominations and sects in the centuries to follow.
Luther had many problems with Rome, and Catholicism in general, but chief among them (or at least the issue that started the whole thing) was the issue of salvation. These issues can be confusing to both Catholic and Protestant lay people today. So to better understand, we must look at some important terms…
- Salvation = A general term that refers to our acceptance into heaven and eternal life with God.
- Atonement = This is what Jesus Christ did on the cross for us. His bloody sacrifice makes our salvation possible by paying the penalty for our sins. It literally means to bring two things together as one — “at-one-ment.” Christ, through is sacrifice on the cross, brings God and man together — “at-one-ment” — or atonement.
- Justification = A more specific term dealing with salvation that describes how we are saved. Because of what Jesus Christ did on the cross, (the Atonement) we are justified = made “just-as-if” we never sinned.
- Sanctification = A specific term that comes from the Latin word sanctus meaning “holy.” This means to be made holy, which again is done by what Jesus did for us on the cross (the Atonement).
- Grace = The favour of God’s life in us.
- Faith = Belief in God, his Son, and his Atonement on the cross.
- Works = Actions of goodness in accordance with God’s will and the Church’s teaching.
- Original Sin = the sin of our first parents (Adam and Eve) which gives humanity a spiritual and physical (possibly genetic) disposition to desire sin.
- Actual Sin = the sins we do in our own lives.
- Merit = the property of a good work that deserves recognition or reward
- Free Will = the God given ability of human beings to choose to cooperate with God’s grace or reject it.
The Catholic Church has always taught that our salvation comes through the merit of Jesus Christ’s atonement on the cross which forgives our sin (original sin and actual sin), and that as a result of this grace, we are given faith and works by the Holy Spirit, which can increase our own merit, cooperating with Christ’s full merit toward our salvation and increase in glory. This cooperation between man and God, in the form of man choosing to follow Christ and live within him, follows our justification by grace from all sin (including actual and original sin) and is our sanctification as well.
“Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.” — Catechism 1989.
To be clear, the merit of Christ is the operative grace here. It is his work, and his work alone, that saves us. However, God allows us to cooperate in justification (and sanctification) with our own free will.
Okay, so now that we have defined Catholic teaching on salvation, let’s examine what was going on in Northern Europe at the time of Martin Luther. A common misconception was spreading at the time that good works, alone, created merit for justification. Now remember, this isn’t what the Catholic Church officially taught, but in practical application, some local pastors and evangelists were effectively teaching that error by their abuse of the doctrine of purgatory.
Now purgatory (read my essay on purgatory here) is a real teaching of the Church with Biblical support (Matthew 5:48, Revelation 21:27; 1st John 5:16-17, Matthew 5:26; Matthew 12:32; 2nd Maccabees 12:44-46; 1st Corinthians 3:10-15; 1st Corinthians 15:29-30; 1st Timothy 1:16-18), but it was never designed to imply that one “earns” his own salvation, nor the salvation of another, by doing good works. Rather, the teaching of the Church is that one attains justification entirely through the merits of Christ’s atonement by cooperating with the Holy Spirit. However, if the fullness of one’s sanctification (holiness) is not yet complete upon death, the prayers and sacrifices of those still alive can be applied toward those souls already justified in purgatory, and awaiting their eternal award. Again, please read my article on purgatory to gain a better understanding of this. Now, what was happening in Northern Europe at the time of Luther was a little sickening. Typically, it all comes down to money. I don’t know how else to say this, but sadly, the Church’s teachings on purgatory and indulgences were being abused by local evangelists in such a way to serve as a fundraising campaign…
“As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!” It is unknown if he actually said it, but this saying was attributed to Johann Tetzel, who was Martin Luther’s main opponent during the Reformation period. In all fairness to Tetzel, while it did appear that he was effectively teaching an over-simplified heterodoxy on purgatory, which he mistakenly believed to be accurate, even Martin Luther admitted that many of the scandals surrounding Tetzel really had nothing to do with Tetzel himself. That being said it’s fairly safe to say that a good number of Catholics in Northern Europe were under the false impression that their works (through monetary sacrifice), by their own merit, could attain salvation for their departed love one’s soul in purgatory and even for themselves. Thus, the term “sale of indulgences” was born. This is what Martin Luther rightly and vehemently opposed. The only problem was, he took it too far. In his zeal he proverbially “threw the baby out with the bath water.” He went against over a thousand years of historical Church teaching and denied the doctrines of purgatory and indulgences entirely, and in exchange, formulated his own doctrine on salvation that would later be emulated (in various forms) throughout all the Protestant world.
I think the simplest way to understand the difference between the Catholic understanding of salvation, and the common Protestant misunderstanding of salvation is to look at it in terms of time. You see, because of the problems related to purgatory and indulgences in the 16th century, a doctrine of instantaneous salvation was formed. Luther never said this, but he unwittingly laid the groundwork for it with the concept of “faith alone.” This was later amplified through the teachings of John Calvin, and then redefined and reformulated hundreds of different ways within Protestantism in the centuries to follow. Be that as it may, Luther and Calvin are the progenitors of this teaching, with Luther being the unwitting founder and Calvin being the refiner.
For the sake of brevity I’ll not get into the details of their two theologies, and those familiar with them will probably breathe a sigh of relief here, as they can be really quite complex. Suffice it to say, both Luther and Calvin subscribed to a split between justification and sanctification, separating the two, wherein justification eventually became a one-time event that happens instantaneously upon having faith in the atonement of Jesus Christ. Sanctification, so the common Protestant teaching goes, comes later and is entirely separate.
According to common Protestant teaching, one can be justified and have no sanctification whatsoever. Case in point, one example often given is the thief on the cross, who Christ forgave and brought with him into heaven. For the Protestant, justification centres around faith and faith alone. Having faith in Jesus Christ and his atonement on the cross is what makes one justified and that equals salvation. Works are not necessary to salvation, but they are a product of it. Thus, according to the common Protestant mindset, one can determine if one is already saved or not depending on one’s sanctification (holiness). A Christian who shows little or no evidence of good works is not sanctified, and therefore, must not have been justified either. His faith is a false faith, or he was never saved to begin with.
Now remember, this doesn’t accurately describe every single Protestant’s belief on this issue, as that would be impossible to do, since there are literally hundreds (if not thousands) of different Protestant denominations and sects, each teaching their own version of the story. Nevertheless, this is a general synopsis of the Luther-Calvinian world view that has evolved throughout the last five centuries. It is the perception held by a majority of Evangelical Protestants today. It all centres around time, and it has to do with a one-time instantaneous event, wherein one makes a conscious choice to believe and trust in Jesus Christ. Once that choice is made — presto! — instantaneous justification (and thus salvation) has just occurred. The evidence of that will be made manifest later in time with sanctification (holiness). To be clear though, the Protestant mindset is that salvation occurs with justification (faith alone) and sanctification (good works) is just a sign that justification has already occurred.
Now this is in contrast to the Catholic view of salvation, which according to Church teaching is a lifelong process that is not complete until death. In the Catholic view, God’s grace is made manifest in the atonement of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and this grace is applied by God’s unmerited favour toward us. By his grace he chooses us, and gives us the opportunity to choose him. If we do, he again applies his grace in us, and that in turn can produce both strong faith and good works in us, if we are open to them, and do not stifle them by our sin. Therefore, there is no real separation between justification and sanctification, as they both occur in the life of the believer simultaneously, and are not complete until that life is over.
So in summary, in contrast with Catholicism, the common Protestant teaching, that has evolved over the last five centuries, is that justification is a one-time event (Protestant) versus a life-long event (Catholic). This is totally separate from sanctification, which the Protestant believes occurs slowly and is independent of justification. Whereas with Catholicism, salvation is a lifelong event wherein justification and sanctification are coupled together. In Catholicism, sanctification is part of justification.
So who is right?
Let’s see what the Scriptures have to say…
“You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” — James 2:24
As you can imagine, this short little passage presents a pretty big problem for the Luther-Calvinian (Protestant) point of view on justification by “faith alone.” The only time the phrase “faith alone” appears in the entire Bible is here, in James 2:24, and it specifically says we are NOT justified (saved) by “faith alone,” but instead includes works in our justification. Martin Luther had a problem with this passage, and for that matter, he had a problem with the entire Book of James! In the preface of his German translation of the Bible he referred to James as “an epistle of straw” and saw it on a lesser order than other Biblical books. He even relegated the Book of James to the category of New Testament apocrypha along with Hebrews, Jude and Revelation. For Luther, James could not be reconciled with his theology, so he was inclined to simply throw this portion of Scripture out of the Bible. Luther did what many Protestants have done since, pitting Saint Paul against Saint James, or at the very least, up-playing the writings of Saint Paul and down-playing the writings of Saint James.
However, to pit one apostle against another is a grave mistake, and completely unwarranted, for even Saint Paul himself goes right along with Saint James in writing…
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” — Philippians 2:12-13.
What we have in these two apostles is two sides of the same coin. Saint Paul simply emphasises the faith-side of the justification/sanctification coin, while Saint James simply emphasises the works-side of justification/sanctification coin, but it’s the same coin and neither denies the other. Both of them view salvation (justification/sanctification) as a process, not a one time event. Neither attempts to separate (bifurcate) justification and sanctification. Again, just like faith and works, the two go hand-in-hand. This is the Catholic point of view. But as we can see in this passage above from Saint Paul, he reveals something very important to remember: “for God is at work in you, both to will and to work.” Herein we have the revelation of God’s grace. It is his doing not ours. God gives us faith as a gift, if we are willing to receive it. Simultaneously, God gives us works as a gift, if we are willing to receive them. They are both part of the same package. You can’t accept one without accepting the other. For Saint James puts it clearly…
“But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” — James 2:18.
Again, it all falls back on God’s doing not ours. Faith and works are a package deal, and they both come as a singular gift from God’s grace alone. As Saint Paul says above, God gives us the will (faith) and God gives us the works. They both come from him, by his grace and mercy. Their merit is his merit, because he dispenses them both together. God, by his grace, made our atonement possible through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. God, in his grace, makes our faith possible, and God, in his grace, makes our works possible, when we open ourselves up to believing and obeying him. The only thing we have to boast of is our free will (our ability to choose), which was again, given to us by God.
A good example of this comes from the thirteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus addressed a large crowd…
And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’ — Matthew 13:3-9
After this his disciples complained a bit about his speaking in parables to the masses, so he proceeded to explain to them what the parable meant… When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’ — Matthew 13:19-23
From this parable, and its explanation, we clearly see Jesus’ teaching on salvation as anything but a one-time instantaneous event, but rather something that occurs over time, and can be undone by the cares of this world. What does that mean in laymen’s terms. It means simply this. We receive God’s grace through hearing the word of God and his sacraments. When we are old enough to do so, we make a free-will conscious choice to have faith in him, trust him, and do what God says. This is made possible only because God gives us the strength and favour to make it happen. In other words, everything we have, our faith and our works, comes to us from God. He gives us these gifts, and when we choose to exercise them, he rewards us simply for accepting and using the gifts he gave us. In other words, in a very real sense, God rewards what he gave, and crowns his own merit in us. Everything comes from him and returns to him for reward. We human beings are merely conduits of God’s grace (expressed through faith and works), because we have the choice to either let them flow through us, or stifle them through our stubbornness and pride (sin), which is usually caused by our attachment to things of this world. The only thing we human beings really have, that is of our own, is choice! We choose yes or no. In choosing yes or no, we choose whether we are saved or damned. And this choice is a choice we make every day. Our salvation happens when we let God’s grace flow through us. Our damnation occurs because we spend a lifetime refusing to let that happen. Just as damnation is not a one time event in our lives, neither is our salvation. It is something that happens through the whole course of our lives in Christ. When God looks at our lives, at the end of our lives, he looks to see if we have accepted his grace and allowed it to flow through us (both in faith and works). Or have we, by disbelief and sin, refused his grace, and done everything we can to stop it from flowing through us?
I think the fear many Protestants have is that if we include works as part of the salvation package, then we run the risk of becoming engrossed in works-related righteousness. This can lead some people to work feverishly for righteousness, fearing that God will damn them to hell if they don’t. It produces a kind of slavery, wherein works are no longer done for the sake of love, but simply to earn one’s way into heaven. Conversely, works-related righteousness can also produce a false sense of pride, wherein those who have done great works of good might think of themselves more righteous than others and look down upon others as the Pharisees in the time of Jesus. Often, the Catholic Church is accused by Protestants of engaging in this very sort of thing, wherein it is falsely believed the Catholic Church actually teaches of gospel of works-related righteousness. This is an unfortunate error on their part, because the Catholic Church nowhere teaches that. In fact, both Martin Luther and John Calvin accused the Catholic Church of this very thing, and in response to their accusations, the Catholic Church issued the following decree from the Council of Trent…
Canon 1. “If anyone says, 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 (AD 1545 – 1563)
This canon from the Council of Trent says a lot in a little space. Let us consider the context of Saint Paul’s teaching. Saint Paul started out as Saul of Tarsus, and he was a Pharisee of the Jews. He spent a lifetime dealing with Pharisees because he was one of them. Among his peers he was known as Rabbi Saul, and he studied at the feet of the greatest rabbis in Palestine at that time. Rabbi Saul was a religious zealot, who firmly believed in works-related righteousness. He subscribed to the Pharisaical notion that it is only by our own obedience (works-related righteousness) to the Law of Moses that we can be saved. So Rabbi Saul went out and zealously persecuted the followers of Rabbi Yeshua (Jesus Christ) for multiple reasons. First, because they believed Rabbi Yeshua (Jesus Christ) is God. The Pharisees considered that blasphemy and apostasy. Second, because they were teaching that Gentiles could be saved even if they didn’t follow the Law of Moses. That sacrilegious if you believe in works-related righteousness as the Pharisees did. Third, because they were teaching that salvation came through God’s grace and not through the Law of Moses at all! That was the ultimate sacrilege and blasphemy for a Pharisee.
Now, I assume that everyone reading this knows about Rabbi Saul’s conversion story on the road to Damascus, and how he became Saint Paul the Apostle, so I just want to put his ministry in context here. The primary motivator in Rabbi Saul’s life leading up to the road to Damascus was works-related obedience to the Law of Moses. No naturally, in the years following the road to Damascus, the converted Saint Paul spent a lot of time talking about the Law of Moses and what it really means in the finished work of Jesus Christ. He speaks of the Law of Moses quite a bit, and in those passages he talks about the superiority of faith in Christ over strict obedience to the Law. He instructs us that the Law was given as a tutor to teach us right from wrong, pointing out that we are incapable of keeping the law on our own, and it directs us toward Jesus Christ as our Messiah, Saviour, High Priest and King — the fulfilment of the Law. Saint Paul tells us much about superiority of faith over the Law, but he nowhere says we are saved by faith alone. Go ahead and look! It’s not in his writings. Nowhere, anywhere, does Saint Paul indicate that good works done in Christ (sanctification) are completely disconnected from salvation (justification). Lest there should be any doubt, let Saint Paul speak for himself on the capacity for one to lose his salvation after having first attained it. It helps to remember that Saint Paul often used the word “love” (meaning “charity”) to describe good works…
“You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” — Galatians 5:4
“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” — Galatians 5:6
“And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” — 1st Corinthians 13:2
“I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.” — 1st Corinthians 9:27
“So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” — 1st Corinthians 10:12
“More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” — Phillipians 3:8-14
“Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.” — 1st Timothy 4:1
If we should question Saint Paul though, let us defer to Saint Peter, just as Paul did at the Council of Jerusalem recording in Acts 15. Paul, like all the apostles, yielded to Saint Peter, and likewise, so should we. The following are the words of Saint Peter himself on this issue…
For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment that was passed on to them. It has happened to them according to the true proverb, ‘The dog turns back to its own vomit,’ and, ‘The sow is washed only to wallow in the mud.'” — 2nd Peter 2:20-22
Saint Paul, in many of his apostolic letters to congregations made up of sizeable Jewish converts, was in many cases, correcting the previous errors of Rabbi Saul. In doing so, he was preaching to his Jewish Christian brethren, and warning them about the pitfalls facing those accustomed to following the Law of Moses. Now, Saint Paul also addressed Gentile Christians as well, and indeed considered himself an apostle to the Gentiles, but you can never separate Saint Paul the Apostle from Rabbi Saul the Pharisee. They are the same man. As the canon from Trent points out above, we cannot say that our justification comes from our own good nature or personal obedience to the Law of Moses. It is the work of Christ, which begins on the cross at Calvary and continues to flow through us in both faith and works as our free-will permits. Salvation is a process, not a one-time event, and it comes to us by faith and works as gifts of God’s grace. It is not the result of “faith alone.”