Grace alone, faith accompanied

by Joel on October 22, 2007

I only believe that we are “saved by faith alone” if that is meant to stand for something far grander and more transcendent. Otherwise, faith takes on the color of striving rather than receiving. In my area of the U.S.A., we Protestants on the whole tend to be a bit smug, or even full of ourselves, in believing that the relationship between faith and works is a simple one for humans to understand and that we get it right by believing we are “saved by our faith” but that Catholics believe that we are “saved by our works.” Our belief is a distortion at best and just plain wrong at its worst. We come to inaccurate conclusions because we forget that “faith alone” is meaningless absent the truth of its origination in “grace alone.” Unaccompanied “faith” is often no more than wandering thoughts and random ideas fashioned to “re-create” in the style of Adam and Eve. Although in history there have been times that the Catholics Church may have distorted the relationship between faith and works, Protestants have often done the same thing, sometimes to the extent of effectively treating works as something to be done if the time is convenient and if doing works doesn’t get in the way of sharing and practicing our faith. I’ve lost count of the number of times that Protestants, sometimes members of my own churches, almost make their heads spin and their eyes pop out as they proudly proclaim, “good works won’t get you to heaven.” Beyond that, quite sadly many Protestants really believe that Catholics are doomed to hell. About the only immediate reply I muster these days is, “Well, your good works won’t keep you out of heaven, either.” I try to say it with an encouraging smile.

There are some subtle distinctions on these matters that can be hashed out in the comments, but for my main point, consider “What Do Catholics Believe? - Section 3” from The Space Mouse:

Wait, you may say. Catholics don’t believe that we are saved by Christ’s death. They believe that we can earn our salvation through works! If you say this, you are probably chuckling a little of the stupidity of those Catholics, for Paul plainly said that works could not save anyone.

But maybe you are a little more enlightened than that. Maybe realize that Catholics believe that we are saved by grace alone (we cannot earn our salvation) and by Christ alone (He is the Way, and the Truth, and the Light. There is only one Way.)

Then what was the big argument with Luther? Why don’t Catholics believe that we are justified by faith alone, if they believe that we are justified by grace alone? Well, the number one reason is because the Bible says quite emphatically that this is not true. Take a look at James 2:24. It may help you to realize that the Catholic definition of faith is ‘assent in truths revealed by God.’ This kind of faith is not enough to save us. What is needed are the virtues of hope and love, as well. As the Baltimore Catechism put it: ‘”we must worship God by faith, hope and charity; that is we must believe in Him, hope in Him, and love Him with all our heart.” Sometimes other Christians use the word “faith” to mean all the same thing Catholics mean when we say “faith, hope and love”. So in this sense, there really isn’t as much disagreement between Catholics and Protestants as there appears to be!

Catholics believe, along with the apostle John, that those who love God will keep His commandments. We believe that sin is a rejection of God; that is our definition of sin, really, since sin means choosing that which we know to be against the will of God.

But didn’t John Wesley proclaim that we are saved by “faith alone”? He did indeed, but he also didn’t mean it in exactly the same way as Luther, for Wesley usually spoke of faith and obedience as a merged concept and in that regard, his view of “faith alone” was closer to the Catholic view than the Lutheran view. When Wesley said, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can” he was clearly not talking merely with reference to works but summarizing the faith in terms of the expanded “faith, hope and love” or faithful obedience. Faithful obedience, or “living faith” is no less entirely a gift of and by God’s grace than Luther’s proclamation that faith is acceptance of the Messiah. Wesley is simply explaining what it means to believe in the Christ. (Can one believe in Christ without striving by Grace to immitate Jesus?) If Wesley made the distinction of connecting faith to the heart, primarily, rather than reason, he was not downplaying the role of reason in understanding God’s word but rather disavowing the idea that one can acquire faith through reason. In that regard, both Wesley and Luther saw faith as God’s gift, then.

Are there Catholics who act as if they are saved by works? Yes, but no more, so, in my opinion than do Protestants. However, that has more to do with the challenge of trusting God than with theology per se.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }


ee 10.22.07 at 11:59 am

Good post.

I think your general premise of Catholics and Protestants believing essentially the same things about salvation, works and grace (albeit under a skin of difference) is right at a more academic level - I wonder if it’s right at the congregational level?

I have little experience of Catholic congregations I must admit. Would your average Catholic congregation member believe, for instance, that you could ‘lose’ your salvation by sinning? Or that you earn your salvation by doing good?


Joel 10.22.07 at 1:16 pm


At the congregational level, in both Protestant and Catholic churches, a variety of views are held that don’t come close to official doctrine. That includes the thinking of some of us who are clergy. The variances are sometimes due to insufficient study and other times to defiance.

I can make generalizations from Catholics and Protestants that I know personally to write that some Catholics may emphasize guilt too much while some Protestants embrace a farly “cheap grace.”

While there can only be one ultimate truth, God’s truth, of the exact relationship between faith and works, it takes an ongoing struggle (enjoined joyfully in opportunity and hope?) for our limited minds to grasp it. There is a misunderstanding that faith is “believing” and works is “doing.” However, when we are true and obedient to God’s purposes, the act itself can be faith, because we have engaged it not to secure our salvation but out of the righteousness bestowed upon us. ‘”By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” Can Abraham’s faith and obedience be separated? The “going” IS faith simply because of its genesis.

As great a person as John Wesley seems to at times have displayed some insecurities about the “fullness” of his salvation. Intellectually he clearly believed that we are saved by faith in a manner consistent with the coupling of both Paul’s and James’ writings. On the other hand, it appears to me that at times Wesley’s insecurities (about the state of his salvation)may have driven him toward certain works rather than the gift of grace engaging them. In other words, Wesley was human and like other Christians sometimes probably tried to please God by works rather than covenant faith as a gift of grace. I would see that as the exception, though. The truth is that many Protestants participate (at least subconsciously) in church work partially in hope that such is “insurance” toward salvation. And don’t most of us struggle with the “fate” of the “good and kind person” recently deceased who never seemed to have a relationship with Christ? Grace can’t be reduced to a formula.

Most Catholics I have known do believe that one can lose thier salvation. However, some, just as with Protestants, have a shallow view of repentance and see retaining salvation as a formula in a way that doesn’t encourage the receiving of sanctifying grace. By formula it can become, “I’ll live my life as I choose, but will make sure to periodically confess its sinfulness so that my salvation is secure.” God does forgive over and over, but God also desires to not be mocked and to be accepted as the superior party to the covenant relationship.

What I find fascinating is where people tell me that they went to church for years, participating actively in the life of the church, without having a relationship with Jesus Christ. Only years later, they will tell me, did they really come to accept Christ as savior. That may be the case, but they might also be wrong. Since salvation is a gift from God, I’m not sure that people can “know” that they were church-going unbelievers. Rather, it may be that by God’s sanctifying grace their faith simply matured. While some take Wesley’s “strangely warmed heart” as his true point of conversion, he doesn’t seem to have regarded it as such himself. God in Christ initiates the relationship. While we may have a strong sense where we have rejected Christ, we are probably not the best at assessing the true process of conversion. Yes, people will say they know the moment, the one moment they accepted Christ. But it could also be the one point where it clicks in their heads even though the gift was already being received in “parcels” so to speak. In certain areas of the US there is a big push for people to name the date, time and place of conversion. That’s fine if it happened that way. But since faith is not acquired of our will, such can be an artificial and meaningless endeavor.


PamBG 10.22.07 at 2:12 pm

I’m not really convinced of all the stereotypes connected with the denominations but I agree with the point of the original post about faith, grace and works. I agree totally with Joel’s last paragraph in the previous comment.

Luther was not the only Roman Catholic who thought that the Church needed reforming in his time. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, was actually tried and exonerated by a church court for being a ‘crypto-Lutheran’. I think that ‘the big deal’ with Luther was that the institutional church was corrupt at the time - which the RC church itself recognised; hence the counter-reformation and the many people within the RC church who tried to reform it.

I don’t buy the idea that Luther discovered anew something that the RC church didn’t know. I think that Wesley’s balance of grace, works and holiness is as close as I can reckon to ‘biblical Christianity’ which is why I’m a Methodist!


Joel 10.22.07 at 2:30 pm


I agree with you about Luther. It is also true that Wesley really didn’t invent anything new with his emphasis on grace and social holiness. but he, along with others, helped us find our way back to these Scriptural emphases.

Clearly, the Catholic Church went through a bad period, which as you point out, they eventually worked to correct themselves.

Also, althought I used Luther for a point of contrast, I intend no criticism of the denomination(s). The practice of faith is more important than the names or labels applied.

My emphasis is meant to be kept on the smugness of relying on “salvation by faith” that is really cheap grace while broadly implying that others’ salvation is endangered because they supposedly make no connection between faith (via Grace) and salvation when much of the time they really do.

I recognize the danger of stereotypes, but also find it unhelpful to ignore either the real or perceived differences.


dh 10.22.07 at 3:20 pm

Well I believe that works don’t save a person but that works confirm the Faith that is already present before hand. So a person without any works I would question that they had Faith in the first place. So for me I believe one cannot be saved without Faith alone. Works don’t save but confirm existing Faith. So works are of upmost importance once one by Faith receives the free gift made available to all but entered only by confession of heart, soul and mind. Also one must not forget the importance of works and Faith after one is a Believer for Sanctification. As a Believer we can be even closer to God by Faith and works of Faith for God out of our obedience to God’s purpose and His Word.

Scripture says “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and Believe in your heart that God has risen from the dead you shall be saved.” One can say the opposite that if one DOESN”T confess all of the things here they WON’T be saved. So I can see “other’s Savlation being endangered if one doesn’t do what Scripture says with heart, soul and mind. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all of your mind.”


dh 10.22.07 at 3:23 pm

I also have a problem with the title. One can’t receive the Grace made available to all except by Faith. We are saved by Grace THROUGH Faith. If one doesn’t have Faith then from this passage Grace cannot be received.

Grace is meaningless unless one receives what is available by Faith.


ee 10.22.07 at 3:28 pm

Thanks for the reply Joel. I think your perspectives (and Pam’s for that matter) are very helpful in understanding that many of the differences in these matters - often held to be of first importance - are really not that major. And I certainly agree that there are many Protestants who hold to a theory of salvation by grace whilst practising a salvation of works.


Richard 10.22.07 at 4:02 pm

dh - If faith is what we do, then you’ve neatly re-invented salvation by works. Faith itself is a gift from God, an act of grace.


dh 10.22.07 at 4:44 pm

Richard, I never said Faith is what we do. I said one must accept the free gift. It isn’t a reinvented “salvation by works”. Why else would Jesus say “Behold I stand at the door and knock if anyone OPENS the door I will come into him and sup with Him and He with Me.” Your view denies this passage and other passages where the confirmation of the fact that one must receive a free gift for Salvation. When one receives a gift on Christmas it would be strange for people observing a child unwrapping a gift to call it “work” but that is just like it is for us when we accept Christ. It would also be strange to think that a child who doesn’t unwrap their gift has received the gift when the child never unwrapped the gift. Again, many people receive gifts but one truly doesn’t “receive” it until one unwraps the gift. Heck, a person could throw away the gift without wrapping it, etc. does that mean the person is a Believer or has Salvation. (see the analogy)

I think you miss the point with regard to gifts, Grace and Faith. Everybody on this planet by living physically is a Grace and gift from God. However, we all are born “dead in our tresspass of sins”. We are talking about eternal life which is both physical AND Spiritual and the fact remains “Except a man be Born Again he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” and with regard to the Romans passage confession is necessary for Salvation to receive and “unwrap” the free gift made available to all. I don’t see how your view is consistent with Scripture which seems to make this very clear.


Joel 10.22.07 at 4:52 pm


Although I believe that we have the free will to accept or reject God’s grace, there is a danger in going that step further and turning faith into an “effort.” The combined “energy” of all humankind would have no effect on the gift, freely offered. Although my Wesleyan understanding is one of “free will” such is a relative term. We don’t seek the gift, look for it, etc., nor is it lost or misplaced.


dh 10.22.07 at 5:55 pm

Well, Joel I believe the Scripture “Seek and ye shall find, knock and the door shall be opened. For if any one who seeks shall find, to anyone who knocks the door shall be opened.” kind of disagrees with what you are saying. I do not believe Faith is doing good deads because many people do “good deads” but have no Faith in Christ and thus are “dead in their tresspass of sins”. I also don’t believe one can lose or misplace their Salvation. I believe many of those who appear to have that either are “backslid” and have not experienced and measure of Sanctification or they were not Believers in the first place and just thought they were. Kind of like accepting christ in their mind but not giving their heart and soul in conjunction with it.

I believe that it is a combination of God’s Grace seeking us (God’s spirit moving to and fro seeking thus who will put their trust in Him.) and us seeking God’s Grace. When one reads Romans 1, Rev 3:23, parable of the lost coin, etc. one can see there is a combination of God to us and us to God. “We love Him because He first loved us.” As you can see it is an action by both parties. However, I would venture to say it isn’t by “deeds” because “…not of works lest anyone should boast.” There is a difference between “deeds” and “effort”. “Narrow is the gate that leads to life Broad is the way that leads to destruction.” To go through a gate requires effort. However, the gate to life is Grace that God made available and draws us to Himself. He draws us to Himself and we come to God as children “crying ABBA Father”. It doesn’t have to be either/or, mutually exclusive, etc. I believe that people in my camp who believe like I do have the “either/or” placed on them in an overgeneralistic way. God comes to us draws us to Him and we respond to either accept or reject by Faith in Him. “Without faith it is impossible to please God.”

I still believe the only effort in relation to the gift made available to all to have Salvation is to accept Christ. This doesn’t place human effort over Christ because Christ’s Grace is the making it available to all people.

Also, be advised that I’m a CalviMininian and thus not 100% free will not 100% prestination (or double predestination that people rightly reject as well) even though I believe in a type of free will where God knows who will accept and reject Him yet it is not predetermined. When people mention predestination I believe that it is not saying predetermined. Even though God knows who will accept or reject Him it isn’t predetermined. Arminians don’t believe God knows who will accept or reject Him which goes against His omnipotence, omniscience, etc. that is clearly in God’s Word with regard to His nature.


Kim 10.22.07 at 6:04 pm

Two things that this conversation - which I don’t mean to dis, it’s a fine post, Joel, and everyone has courteously and helpfully contributed, DH included, so thanks - but two things that it demonstrates are (a) the crucial importance of historically and contextually locating ideas such as grace, faith, works, etc., including the theological battlefields in which they are deployed (e.g. Paul contra Christian Judaizers, Luther contra a corrupt late medieval penitential system, Wesley contra an arid nonconformity and a complacent Anglican establishment), and (b) that people can mean different things with the same word (e.g. Paul and James on “faith”) - and they can mean the same thing with different words too.

For me the fundamental, and I think indisputable, statement is that we are “saved” (which itself is just one of a constellation of related ideas (e.g. “reconciliation”, “redemption”, “victory”) by God, by God alone, of whom grace - i.e. covenant-faithfulness and loving-kindness - is the principal soteriological metonym. In faith human beings cor-respond to grace, and faith, crucially, must surely be understood holistically - it is a gestalt that includes head, heart, and hand; assent and knowledge, trust and confidence, a holy life and loving service. The idea that we can privilege, let alone isolate, any of these things is an anthropological nonsense - I believe - and a theological calamity (e.g. a privileging of the cognitive dimension of faith is what led to Bonhoeffer’s diatribe against “cheap grace” - c.f. contemporary Protestants who think that we are saved, not by grace, but by thinking that we are saved by grace - or a privileging of the affective dimension of faith by self-styled born-again Christians, i.e. if you don’t have a certain “experience” you are not a “real” Christian).

By the way, pace Pam, I am a member of the United Reformed Church because it looks to no particular founder (Calvin notwithstanding - remember Zwingli, Oecolampadius, Bullinger, Bucer, et. al. - all Reformed; remember too that Calvin called Luther “my much respected father”, and learned from both Western and Eastern Church Fathers, and from medieval theologians too), because it is not only inherently but also constitutionally ecumenical (and so I learn from Wesley as well as Jonathan Edwards, von Balthasar as well as Barth, Zizioulas as well as Gunton).


dh 10.22.07 at 6:35 pm

I don’t believe that it is “Holistic”. I believe ALL of those things can be isolated. I know many people who do “good things” and even for God and not be “saved”. It also isn’t “cheap Grace”. I take offense to the term because we all deserve death and it is by the Grace of God that we even have A WAY to obtain Salvation. That isn’t cheap because God paid the price and made that Grace available. The fact confession must be made for Salvation. Scripture is very clear and this “Holistic” thing is just outside of Scripture in light of all of the passages with regard to confession, etc. The isolation is not “priviledge” but are isolated. I believe it is a calamity for people to think that we are all believers when in fact we aren’t and are “dead in our tresspass of sins” without Faith in Christ alone.


PamBg 10.22.07 at 7:48 pm

My emphasis is meant to be kept on the smugness of relying on “salvation by faith” that is really cheap grace while broadly implying that others’ salvation is endangered because they supposedly make no connection between faith (via Grace) and salvation when much of the time they really do.

Yep, I agree with you. I didn’t really mean to refute you as simply speaking to the issue raised.

By the way, pace Pam

I’m not really ‘anti’ any denomination, Kim. Some of this discussion seems an anwful lot like angels dancing on the head of a pin.


dh 10.22.07 at 8:09 pm

What is so smug about recognizing that “Without Christ we are nothing”? There ARE people whose Salvation is endangered who never accepted Christ as their Savior. It isn’t cheap. I take offense to that when Scripture says “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and Believe in your heart that God has risen from the dead you shall be saved.” This passage also implies that without doing this that one is NOT Saved. Also, Scripture makes the distinction between the necessity of giving ones whole being to Christ “Thou shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all of your mind.” I know many people who have a “head knowledge” of Christ but have never given their heart, soul and mind over to Christ. I know many great and good people who go to church and do great things but when asked “have you ever gave your heart to Christ”. They say “no” or “I don’t believe I need to do that”. How can one say that in light of the “confession” passage in Romans or even the John 3 passage with Nicodeamus.

I heard a complaint that one can’t seperate heart, soul and mind. How can one say this when Scripture seperates it “heart, soul and mind”? What is the point of mentioning all three seperately when they are mentioned seperately? The fact remains many people even pastors got “saved” later in life because they realized late in life that they never gave their entire lives over to Christ. They may have gave their mind over to Christ by learning all they can from God’s Word but true Salvation comes when one gives their entire being to the Lordship of Christ by Faith in Him alone. This isn’t a “Holistic” thing but understanding how both our “flesh” and our “spirit” need to be under the Lordship of Christ.


Kim 10.22.07 at 9:05 pm

Yeah, Pam, I know that - you’d be a great URC minister! And I know what you mean about the angels and pins: I was going to begin my comment by suggesting that there was something Babel-like about the discussion, but I thought I might be misunderstood.


dh 10.22.07 at 9:08 pm

Kim, I would interested in what you think has been “Babel-like” about this discussion?


dh 10.22.07 at 9:14 pm

I’m also interested in what about this discussion has been like a discussion about “angels and pins”?

P.S.: on a humorous side note: If one wants to find out how many angels can dance on the pin one can find out. Since in the Bible it says 1/3 of the angels were cast out of heaven to be with the devil than we know that the number of angels is not infinite but finite. So the answer is the remainning 2/3 as being angels with the remainning 1/3 being changed from angels to demons by being “fallen angels”. Another answer might be less than that from as little as zero to the 2/3’s number if it happen to be God’s will that none of these or a certain number less than the 2/3’s should not be allowed to dance on a pin. If God said I don’t want any to dance on a pin then it is certainly within His authority to make such a directive. :)


Joel 10.24.07 at 7:04 am


The title “grace alone” doesn’t relate to a lack of “faith” response. Rather, I was simply accepting the terms “sola gratia” in whole and qualifying “sola fide”. I am not countering justification by faith but trying to cast it in a wider context.

God’s grace is never “cheap” but our understanding of it certainly can be. I see “cheap grace” as another way of saying “shallow faith.”


You are right about the importance of historically and contextually locating the terms “faith” and “grace.”

It seems to me that faith should be approached neither as a work nor as mere belief; that is, there must be the “essential unity of faith and works.”


The awkard and/or inexact nature of this blog discussion is greatly reflected in Scripture, “Now we see as in a mirror dimly” or “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”


Faith seems to me to be neither the things we do, nor apart from the things we do via God’s grace.


Richard 10.24.07 at 10:43 am

>> Faith seems to me to be neither the things we do, nor apart from the things we do via God’s grace

I wouldn’t argue with that.


dh 10.24.07 at 4:03 pm

Well, I don’t want people to misunderstand me. When I say Faith for Salvation by giving ones heart, soul and mind I’m agreeing with Joel that it is more than just belief. Many people believe in their head that Jesus is Lord but by Faith one must give their heart, soul and mind (all of our being) to Christ for Salvation. I still believe that it is “We love Him because He first loved us.” That it is God first coming to us by “knocking” and us responding by Faith to that “knock” to “open the door”. I don’t believe this understand of justification by Faith as being cheap because it is God’s understanding of Salvation by Faith alone from Scripture. Scripture is clear that one must “confess” with ones mouth and believe in ones heart (notice it says heart in conjunction with the believe part) for Salvation. This also is not a shallow faith understanding because it is God’s understanding from His Word that says confession and belief with ones heart, soul and mind of Christ for Salvation. The fact remains people can believe in ones mind but not believe in ones heart and soul and thus miss Salvation. I think we would all agree with that. To me my understanding of works is that it confirms the Faith that is already their in the first place but that works alone do not save a person in that people who don’t believe in God do good works even works that are considered good from God’s Word but have not received Salvation. (”Lord haven’t we prophesied in your name, healed the sick, feed the poor and done marvelous works in your name? In that day I will say depart from Me I never knew you.”)

Joel, Kim and Richard what are your thoughts about what I said in the previous paragraph? I would be interested in your thoughts.

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