By God's grace
Rome and Luther on salvation

By Timo Laato
Translated by Bror Erickson

The Roman Catholic Church clearly teaches that a man is saved by God’s grace. His grace is based upon the atonement that Jesus Christ won on Golgotha. This is recurrently stated and should not be for­gotten. The works of the law do not affect salvation. They are completely and wholly rejected. Instead, the church emphasizes faith through which a man participates in God’s grace and daily lives in thankful re­liance on him. To this Catholic doctrine of salvation belong all the Protestant and Lutheran fundamen­tals, particularly in the current ecumenical era when the denominations humbly and in mutual love seek to leave aside the old contentions and reach communion across confessional lines to create a sufficient unity, trusting in the Holy Spirit’s help. The Lord obligates us to such a vision in his High Priestly Prayer that “they may all be one so that the world may believe.” This much unification has been reached at present! Christian unanimity continues to grow and is on the path to completion. Therefore, the future really looks bright.

Or does it?                                

Were you surprised by what I just said? I imagine so. One can read parallel descriptions, to the one I just gave above, in many ecumenical reports and events. This is how the matter is formulated. It is generally felt that the whole story should be believed without any objections. Hence, it is important that you, the reader, would encounter the prevailing reality which powerfully ensnares the leaders and decision makers of the church today.

The Roman Church Teaches God’s “Grace”

The Roman Church does indeed teach God’s grace, and with great emphasis. In a cer­tain sense they give it even more weight than other church bodies. However, upon closer inspection the mean­ing of the language is changed extensively.

In the Bible, God’s grace is understood as his love, and is par­ticularly shown in the fact that Jesus died on the cross as the perfect, once-and-for-all atoning sacrifice for the whole world. When a sinner believes this he is completely justified (saved) and needs nothing else. He is an heir of heaven by faith. “It is finished!” (John 19:30)

The Roman Church does not teach God’s grace in a similar way. To be sure – I repeat – it teaches much, very much about God’s grace. But not in accordance with the Bible. In what follows, allow me to summarize the Roman Catholic doctrine of salvation.

Faith

Faith comes about by the grace of God, or by his initiative. Nonetheless, everyone must cooper­ate and use his freewill to say “yes” to faith. If not, he remains in his sin! Faith does not yet save in and of itself if it is not formed by love (in Latin fides charitate formata) or if good deeds have not made it live. Thus faith does not mean only that one trusts in Christ. It also takes for granted many other causes as necessary conditions for salvation. That is far different from what both the Bible and the Lutheran confessions teach.

Without works of the Law

In Roman Catholic theology, God’s grace indicates that salvation does not depend on works of the law. These are understood as miserable remnants from the Old Testament and Judaism by which one tries to save oneself. Still, good works are required as a condition for salvation. First love brings faith to life (as said above). In the Bible and in the Lutheran Reformation, “salvation without works of the law” stands for salvation without any works. Again we note how the same terminology hides a completely different teaching of grace within it.

For Christ’s sake

In Roman Catholic theology, one naturally holds in highest honor Christ’s work on the cross as the marvelous ex­pression of God’s grace. Indeed, it is the whole basis for salvation. But that does not mean that all of salvation rests only on it. There is a lot more needed. Christians must cooperate, love and do good deeds in an effort to sanctify themselves. The atoning work of Christ on Golgotha is the whole basis for salvation—in the sense that each person may build upon it and ac­complish what is still lacking in his own salvation.

Therefore, Mary has been elevated as “Co-Redemptrix” (in Latin Mediatrix omnium gratiarum) in parallel with Christ. One prays to her and calls upon her for help in order that she in turn may in­fluence her Son and make him favorably disposed toward sinners. One often prays even to other saints for help. Consequently, man is saved for the sake of Christ – about this there is no doubt – but not only for his sake.

Justification and the meritorious nature of works

Accordingly, in the Roman Catholic Church, justification does not mean “to be counted righ­teous,” i.e. that in his grace on account of Christ apart from any work, God declares that all iniquity is forgiven, and thus gives eternal life to the sinner in that moment. On the contrary, justification turns into a long process that demands one continue and sustain one’s cooperation. The Roman Cath­o­lic Church rejects the biblical and Lutheran teaching that a Christian is “righteous and sinner at the same time.” Rather, he must become completely and wholly righteous in order to enter into the kingdom of heaven.

According to Rome, one must perpetually cooperate in one’s own salvation. Therefore, the meritorious nature of good works is not denied, provided that they are done in love and humility. Yet, at the same time it is emphasized that the meritorious nature of works in its deepest sense is based (believe it or not) on God’s grace, apart from which nothing happens. In other words, the merits of Christ are not enough. They are not the whole of salvation.

The superfluous merits of the saints

Blessed saints, with the help of the grace they once received, have successfully done much more good than they themselves are able to take advantage of. The Roman Catholic Church passes on such extra mer­its to those who have need of them. Anyone might ensure his own salvation on account of them. Unsurprisingly, Catholics declare that the special arrangement of transferring mer­its to others depends upon the grace of God who helps and admonishes the Christian to fight off the manifold temptations threatening his eternal bliss.

Indulgences

The Roman Catholic Church has kept indulgences in use and brought them into the open once again. It recently occurred at the turn of the millennium, at the very same time it had nego­ti­ated and come to agreement with Lutherans regarding justification! History repeats itself. By obtaining an indulgence, one successfully – in reliance up­on God’s grace – helps shorten one’s time in purgatory.

Purgatory and Requiem Masses

Purgatory is needed because so many Christians fail to become completely and wholly righteous during their lifetime. They must then be purified after their death. Even here God shows his infi­nite grace because the sinner is given the possibility to attain moral perfection in eternity on the other side of time. One can also shorten the time the deceased spend in purgatory with the help of requiems for which a person pays.

Grace and “Grace” – a Comparison

Accordingly, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that a man is saved by the grace of God. Yet, there have been no fundamental changes in its doctrine of salvation since the time of the Reformation. It remains essentially the same. In this sense the main lines of Catholic teaching, formulated in the beginning of the article, hold true.

With many ecumenical conversations one looks for the lowest common denom­inator. One expresses dogmatic statements in such a fine way that both parties can understand them in their own way. Facts that testify to decisive differences are not discussed to the extent need­ed. As a result, confusion arises.

To be sure, salvation by God’s “grace” does not mean the same thing as salvation by God’s grace alone. The former re­quires man’s cooperation in everything. As such it leads to an unresolvable uncertainty. “Have I really ful­filled my share? Am I now saved?” The affliction concerning how it will finally go for me is in­her­ent in the Roman Catholic doctrine of salvation. No one finds any comfort as long as he opposes the gospel in un­belief. Only when God’s grace shines under open sky does the hope of heaven brighten the day.

Last but not least, the good works of Christians are definitely not denied in the Bib­lical Reformation. They inevitably follow from faith, but remember that they are confined to sanctification. They have no place in justification in which there is only room for the good works of Christ. 

Timo Laato is Associate Professor of New Testament at The Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gothenburg, Sweden