Faith alone (and why we don’t have to fight about it).

Many Protestant churches teach it’s by faith alone that we’re saved. Many Protestants, in conversations that often turned into arguments, have reminded me that my church – the Catholic Church – doesn’t teach that.

They have said my church is wrong for that. 


That I’m wrong for not believing it.


That I should leave my church.


Well I’ve been thinking, and there’s something I need to get off my chest.


The Protestant siblings in Christ who have most often reminded me that my church doesn’t say we are saved by faith alone are the same Protestants who have said they believe my faith in Jesus Christ is legit (i.e., “I know you’re a Christian, despite your church.”).


Well let’s suppose the truth – the whole truth, independent of human interpretation – turns out to be that we are, in fact, saved by faith alone. That my church actually is wrong. What happens when a Catholic has faith – when a Catholic’s faith is legit, despite his or her church? 


If it’s by faith alone that we’re saved, and a Catholic really has faith, we can deduce the following: 


1. He or she will be saved.


and


2. Neither good works, nor what the Catholic Church teaches about salvation, nor what a Catholic believes about salvation, can negate his or her salvation. 


Not only can we deduce points 1 and 2, but if we believe we are saved by faith alone and we believe the Catholic in question has faith, we have to deduce points 1 and 2. Because if we believe we are saved by faith alone and we believe the Catholic in question has faith, we cannot disagree with points 1 and 2. Because if we disagree with points 1 and 2, we might not actually believe we are saved by faith alone.


It’s like this:


If we say we are saved by faith alone but believe a person’s salvation is negated by good works, what we’re really saying is this: Faith literally must stand alone in order to save us, that faith does its job if and only if nobody adds anything to it, including works. Which implies that the Christian life should be one of stagnation until death. We say we’re not only not saved by faith and works, but must avoid works, because they’ll negate our faith-alone salvation (which is contrary to what Christ teaches, and – for the record – is also contrary to what most of my Protestant friends who believe sola fide practice. I know they don’t believe that.).


And if we say we are saved by faith alone, but we believe a person’s salvation is negated if his church doesn’t teach salvation by faith alone, or that a person’s salvation is negated if she doesn’t believe in salvation by faith alone, what we’re really saying is this: We are saved “by faith and by being part of the right church,” or we are saved “by faith and by the belief that we’re saved by faith alone,” or we are saved “by faith and by being right.” We simultaneously say, then, that “it’s faith alone that saves us and it is not faith alone that saves us.” Which means in truth, we don’t believe we are saved by faith alone at all. We believe we’re saved by faith and something else.


I don’t say all this to try to prove you wrong. In fact, if you believe we are saved by faith alone, I’m not even saying you’re wrong.


I’m also not saying you’re right.

And I’m not saying I think right belief is unimportant. (I think it is!)

I’m not saying I don’t think it matters what our churches teach. (I think it does!)

I’m not saying I don’t share the blame for all the conversations that broke down into fights. (We’re all guilty!)

I am saying I think a person can believe it is by faith alone that we’re saved. But I’m also saying that if they believe that and they believe I have faith…

They don’t have to tell me I’m wrong anymore.

They don’t have to tell me my church is wrong anymore.


We don’t have to argue anymore. 


There is no reason.

In my head, as I type this, I picture the Protestant v.Catholic fights of yore, in classrooms at the Protestant school where I studied from fifth through twelfth grade. All the times I was told I’m wrong. All the times I was told my church is wrong. All the times we argued. All bricks we added to the wall we’ve built between us. All the bones we broke in the Body. All the ignoring what we have in common. All the division.


I see the lady who told me my church is of the devil. I imagine her reading this post, and shaking her head, and crossing her arms, and saying, “Then maybe your faith isn’t real after all.”


And maybe you’re thinking that now, too.

But if we’re honest with each other, we can conclude that for every person on earth, there are only two people who can know for sure whether his or her faith is real:


The person him or herself, and Jesus Christ.


Some Christians – both the Protestants who believe salvation depends solely on faith and the Catholics who believe there is more to salvation than faith – are in the habit of deciding whether somebody else’s faith is real, anyway.


If we’re honest with ourselves, we know nobody gave me the authority to tell you if you’re saved.


If we’re honest, we know lots of people in both camps have faith and lots of people in both camps do good things and lots of people in both camps have faith and do good things. We can agree with Fr. Benedict Groeschel: 


“Many people get involved in that useless old argument over faith and works,” he wrote. “I never met good Protestants who didn’t think they should obey God’s will, and I never met good Catholics who thought they would get to heaven just by doing good works, such as giving away turkeys at Thanksgiving.”


Preach, Fr. B. And I think he’d agree with this (and I hope you do, too): 


We do each other a disservice when we act like our mission on earth is to tell other people that they’re wrong.


We do the world a disservice when in lieu of bringing Christ to it as best we can, and in lieu of being His hands and feet in it, we argue.


We do the Kingdom a disservice, when instead of using our time to cultivate our own faith, we use it to make judgments about that of others.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Terry W

    Arleen, thanks for your words. As your friendly Presbyterian Minister (who grew up Catholic) I have heard this for years, and I am sorry that it still goes on. It is no wonder that people outside the church think that we are nuts. If all of us as Christ followers took the whole idea of both justification and sanctification seriously, I think that these arguments would end. We are called to both faith and service as we live in Christ, no matter what flavor our church may be. Simply stating that you have faith is a start, but we can’t just stop there. Maybe one day…we can hope that the body of Christ will find a way to stop with all of the fights and be the people that Jesus wants us to be and that his prayer in John 17 will be realized. Thanks again for your good words. Hope you don’t mind if some of them show up in a Presbyterian sermon sometime. Blessings to you.

  • @Terry: AMEN, AMEN and AMEN. I can’t say it enough. Thank you for your expression of hope, and for YOUR good words. I’d be honored if some of mine showed up in a Presbyterian sermon. 🙂

  • Terry W

    One thing I have come to appreciate about your generation of Christians (I have a few years on you) is that you all have helped push us away from the belief that ‘it’ is all about where we go when we die. While questions of heaven and hell are important, Jesus talked a whole lot more about today…about how we live our lives in relationship to him and to the world. I think that for a lot of people, it is easy to get caught up in just the issues of whether someone is saved and will go to heaven. I am so grateful for people who are teaching me that we are called to usher in this kingdom today, to work for reconciliation and grace and mercy. Jesus calls us to live our lives in such a way that we are helping to bring in this kingdom. So much of what he did was to do exactly that..to show that there is something better than the mess we have created and that we, through the Holy Spirit and the body of Christ and all that God gives to us, can work together in bringing about this new kingdom. Thanks once again for helping me see things through your younger eyes.

  • @Terry: PREACH, friend! There IS something better than this mess we’ve created – so much better. I’m so encouraged by your comments and excited to be part of that ushering in to which He’s called us!

    I thought of you and this conversation this evening on my way to dinner. I was listening to the album “Beautiful Things” by a band called Gungor. The song “People of God” struck me as really relevant. The line “Tear down the walls that divide us, let love rebuild and unite us…” gets me every time.

    Here’s the song in full:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ih-qGGV3hJ8

  • I agree with you wholeheartedly. We use this issue as yet another way to draw lines and determine who’s in the club and who’s out, when in fact only God and each individual knows where she or he stands. I’m glad to find more and more people like you who recognize this false thinking and call it as such.

  • @Andrew: Grateful for your feedback. I, too, am glad to meet more and more who see it like we do. We gotta stick together!

  • Yeah, I struggled with this. I was in the camp you mentioned, I think, of “faith” having to stand alone. I think the way I would have defended it was using the word gospel a lot.

    “If a person thinks they are saved even partially by works then they don’t get the gospel. They don’t get that everything from Christ is a gift and we can’t earn our way into heaven. And if you don’t get the gospel, then you’re not truly saved and need to be evangelized.”

    I started having questions down the line about how particular I thought people needed to be, about having an intellectual assent to just the right formula. . .

    Good post.

  • @thereluctantroad: Thank you! It’s good to get the perspective of somebody who’s seen this from both sides. It had to be uncomfortable when your questions started arising. But needless to say, I’m excited the answers you found led you where they did.

  • First of all, Arleen, your blog is amazing and so are you.

    Second, I love that you take this theological issue head-on! You make some great points 🙂 I’m a former Lutheran converting to the Catholic Faith right now, and I’ve been researching and thinking a lot about this sort of thing lately on my journey.

    Anyway, you’re an inspiration with your outspoken chastity, holy living, vibrant Faith in Jesus Christ to the point of impressing Protestants, and faithful Catholicism. Regarding the third,

    I’ve always felt that it’s the duty of every Catholic to be more zealous, more knowledgeable about the Bible, and more committed to Jesus Christ and following Him than Protestants are. I guarantee that you will win more souls to the one true Church and the fullness of grace and truth in Her by that means than through any other.

  • @Jonathan: Thank you so much! My heart is warmed by your kind words. I’m grateful. And glad you stumbled upon my blog. I hope to see you around here more often!

  • You can count on it!

  • Ed (UK)

    At end of day, “faith” and “good works” are just words!
    We could spend a lifetime trying to work out what they are, precisely, in terms of salvation, and then another lifetime explaining what we mean by them!
    To me the key to salvation is Jesus commandments and teachings: love God and neighbour (so just being grateful to God for being alive, adoring God spiritually, making a temple of our bodies for God, asking God for forgiveness, turning to God in good times as well as bad, trusting in God, allowing God to fill us up with His presence, forgiving others, being compassionate to others, not judging others, being true ourselves to others, and so on).
    Faith and hope are both key, and they’re both connected to love, but love is absolutely key.
    So faith (and hope) are key. But at the heart of it all is love God and neighbour. That is the word – love – we should be really focused on everyday, all the hours of the day (important as the words “faith”, “hope” and “good works are”.
    Sure love is “easy” to talk about. But if we’re going to talk about salvation, then that “word” love is absolutely at the heart of it (and those Protestants and Catholics who argued over justification were, i think, indulging in esotericism). It is love, not “faith” or “good works” or “hope” (important as these all are, and connected to love) – the love of God and neighbour, that sums up best what it is all about (and as Jesus taught!)
    God bless, Ed

    • Re: “the love of God and neighbour, that sums up best what it is all about (and as Jesus taught!)” – AMEN.

  • Ed (UK)

    And now i’m thinking love is both an ATTITUDE (being grateful, adoring God spiritually, trust, forgiveness, humility or striving to be humble and so on) and ACTION (the Good Samaritan) and that there has to be the right attitude in the action otherwise the action is just duty and so dead. And that in good action towards others, we’re not just loving neighbour but God (and, also, that action is required in loving God directly, ie praying when we’re not in the mood etc).

    Lastly, key, also, is that God calls ALL to salvation, not just some (and that does NOT equal universalism, because it doesn’t necessarily follow that all will respond to God’s call to salvation, but we hope and pray all do, at least those who can be positively affected by our pray).

    Apologies for the long sermon but suddenly thought a bout a few things myself i hadn’t thought about for a while or forgotten (and feel much better fot it!)

    All the best, Ed

    • I don’t mind your long sermon at all. Glad what you read led to lots of thought and I appreciate that you shared your thoughts. Hope to see you thinkin’ and a writing around my blog more often.

  • “It is not faith that saves, but faith in Jesus Christ…. It is not, strictly speaking, even faith in Christ that saves, but Christ that saves through faith. The saving power resides exclusively, not in the act of faith or the attitude of faith or in the nature of faith, but in the object of faith.” – B. B. Warfield

  • Anonymous

    Arleen are you trusting in Christ ALONE to be right with God?

    Enjoy this song “In Christ Alone”…

    http://youtu.be/qLy8ksqGf9w

    • This is one of my all time favorite worship songs! Thanks for sharing.

  • Anonymous

    I am glad you enjoy this song, it is one of my favorites too but, you did not answer my question:

    Are you trusting in Christ ALONE to be right with God?

    —————————-
    Following are several of the doctrinal statements made on Justification at the council of Trent. After each Canon are scriptures that contradict that Canon.

    You will see the word “anathema” used many times by the Council. This means that those who disagree with the doctrines of this Council are cursed. In Gal. 1:8-9, the word “anathema” is used. The curse must come from God. Therefore, we conclude that according to Roman Catholicism, anyone who disagrees with the following Canons are cursed of God. The Roman Catholic church excommunicates those under anathema. In other words, excommunication means being outside the Christian church. Being outside the church means you are not saved.

    In spite of what Catholicism states, the Bible speaks differently. Following each Canon is a list of appropriate scriptures countering the Catholic position.

    CANON 9: “If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.”
    “Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin,” (Rom. 3:20).
    “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” (Rom. 3:24).
    “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law,” (Rom. 3:28).
    “For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness,” (Rom. 4:3).
    “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” (Rom. 5:1).
    “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God,” (Eph. 2:8).
    “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost,” (Titus 3:5).

    CANON 12: “If any one shall say that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in the divine mercy pardoning sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is that confidence alone by which we are justified … let him be accursed”
    “But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name,” (John 1:12).
    “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law,” (Rom. 3:28).
    ‘For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness,” (Rom. 4:3).
    “Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them. 26For such an high priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens; 27Who needeth not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice, first for his own sins, and then for the peoples: for this he did once, when he offered up himself,” (Heb. 7:25-27).
    “For the which cause I also suffer these things: nevertheless I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day,” (2 Tim. 1:12).

    Arleen, are YOU trusting in Christ ALONE to save you from the wrath God?

    In Christ,
    Linda

    • Linda,

      I answered your question neither here nor in the comments section of what I recently wrote for RELEVANTmagazine.com because rare are the instances in which a Protestant person asks me that question and doesn’t intend to follow it with a debate (so rare, in fact, that I actually can’t think of one). And I don’t debate, though I am happy to participate in dialogues when I have time.

      For more on why I don’t debate, see the following:

      http://arleenspenceley.blogspot.com/2012/01/how-to-talk-to-catholic.html

      and

      http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/church/blog/28001-confessions-of-a-catholic-christian

      In answer to your question, I believe “justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call” (CCC 1994, paragraph 604). It is “through faith, which is prompted by God’s grace, (that I) accept the atoning work that Christ underwent for us.” (as borrowed from a lovely quote by Robert Sungenis)

      Related: RELEVANTmagazine.com posted a fabulous column called “Being Holy in an Age of Being Right” and this quote from it is incredibly relevant (no pun intended) to why I don’t debate:

      “We do it with Christians that think differently regarding heaven and hell, baptism or remarriage, or those who get a little too charismatic when their favorite worship song is played. We do it with anyone who we view as ‘the Other.’

      The real issue is us. 

We struggle to ‘put skin’ on the words and message of Christ with anyone who thinks differently than us. Too often, we demand conformity prior to connection. When we approach one another as brothers and sisters—image bearers of the God we claim to serve—and celebrate what we have in common, we better position ourselves to helpful dialogue in the midst of disagreement. 

We carry divine potential for healing and restoration. We have an opportunity and responsibility to allow our words and actions to surge with the power and energy of a life of love.” -Michael Kimpan (Read the whole column here: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/current/op-ed/being-holy-age-being-right)

  • Anonymous

    Arleen, I do not want to debate you, I just care enough about you to get you to answer the question (in your own mind) then really think about what that means.

    Enjoy the Keith Green song…

    http://youtu.be/iXbwPR0JolY

    In Christ,
    Linda