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Are We Saved by Faith Alone?

Today’s Question: I recently was handed a copy of the Summer '98 Good News El Paso, and read your article ‘Do you hate Catholics?’ I agree with you, in terms of your statement, "I don't think that love should force me to keep quiet when I disagree with others".

Your statement "Martin Luther, though not perfect, was not a ‘Judas Iscariot’". He did, however, make a solemn vow before God (upon entering the priesthood) then abandoned that vow. We can then certainly see from Sacred Scripture that Judas Iscariot did abandon any vows he made when he betrayed Christ! So, in a sense, Martin Luther does share certain similarities with Mr. Iscariot!

Faith without works is dead, now isn't it? Did you know that Martin Luther wanted to throw out the epistle of James, as well as the book of Revelation, when he ‘recomposed’ the Bible?

Gerry, a devoted Catholic

Bible Answer: You said that Martin Luther "shared certain similarities with Mr. Iscariot" because he abandoned his vows as a Catholic Monk. I don’t think it’s right to infer that because he renounced his vow as a monk that puts him in the same category with Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Christ.

For example, does this mean if a Mormon who made a vow in the Mormon Temple wanted to be a Catholic that you would want him to remain in Mormonism because he made a solemn vow? I think you can see the fallacy of your argument. When a person sees that he made a vow to an apostate religion then he must repent and get out of his vow. I think this is what Martin Luther believed.

Now concerning Martin Luther’s teaching on salvation by faith alone and his initial rejection of the book of James: As you know it is true that Luther felt that James differed with Paul’s teaching on salvation by grace through faith. As a result he held suspect, the book of James, but later realized that James did not contradict Paul’s teaching, but simply put emphases on the need for faith to work. Thus was born Luther’s famous statement, "We are saved by faith alone, but faith is never alone."

This might surprise you, Gerry, but I don’t agree with Luther’s statement. The reason is simple, if faith is "never alone" then we are not saved by "faith alone." Luther played semantics.

Not only was Luther wrong because the statement contradicts itself, but it also contradicts the Bible: "You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone" (James 2:24).

So you can see clearly that a person is not justified by "faith alone".

I think because most Protestants want to affirm salvation by "faith alone" that Protestantism has suffered morally. (By the way, I don’t consider myself a Protestant or a Roman Catholic, but simply a Christian.)

Through this dogma of salvation by faith alone many professing Christians believe they are saved even though their conduct says something else. As a result, I believe we will see many professing believers cast into hell. As Jesus said, "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21).

Profession is not enough, action is also required to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Someone might argue, "Are you teaching salvation through works?" Not when you understand that good works come from a salvation already received.

Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-9: "For it is by grace you have been saved through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works so that no one can boast." So salvation is not by any human works. Most people stop reading right there, so they assume the "works" Paul was referring to was "good works" which accompany your faith, but that is not the kind of works Paul had in mind; we know this because he continues in the next verse, "For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (v 10).

Notice the difference between the "works" that can’t save you in verse nine, and the "good works" that we do in Christ. When Paul mentioned the works that can’t save you he was referring to the works of the Law. "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law" (Rom 3:28).

"Observing the law" was the "works" that can’t save you. "Observing the law" is not the same as "good works". This is where many make the mistake. They put "good works" under the category of the "works of the Law." But good works must accompany your faith or you really do not have faith.

You see, the nature of true faith is action. For someone to claim faith, yet act the opposite proves the person’s claim to faith is not real. This is what James understood. Faith by nature acts. For example, you drive through a green light because you trust the other cars to stop at their red light. Faith, in other words, is not really passive but active. When you understand faith in these terms, you realize that James was referring to the natural aspect of faith--that is it acts.

Yet, it is possible to treat faith like a life insurance. You buy the insurance, but after that, it does not change your lifestyle. Some accept Christ and get baptized because they want to ensure that they will make heaven. Like insurance, they see salvation as only relevant upon their death. But James teaches that faith in Christ changes a person's life in the now.

There is no such thing as faith without corresponding action. Faith must act, or it isn’t faith. So we are not saved by faith alone, because faith is never alone.

I think a better way to state how we are saved is this: We are saved by grace alone, through faith that works. Notice where I placed the word "alone." I placed it along with grace. Grace is free, so no one can earn it. As Paul writes: "And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace" (Rom 11:6).

It is grace alone that saves, and the means to this grace is faith that works. So if we claim to have faith in Christ, then we must act like it.

Finally, it should be noted that in 1999 the Roman Catholic Church signed an agreement with the Lutheran Church on the doctrine of Justification. The joint statement says this:

"Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works."

Martin Luther may not have seen the fruit of his work, but the Catholic Church has come around to understand that salvation is by grace alone. And hopefully Protestants can come around to see the importance of good works after salvation, produced by the inward work of the Holy Spirit. As the statement says, God does not simply call us to good works but "equips" us to good works. In that sense, faith without works is indeed dead. But works without saving faith is double-dead; it deceives us into thinking we are saved because of the good works we have done. We should rest in the saving work of Christ on the cross and allow the Holy Spirit to continue His work in bearing fruit.


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