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Monday, August 07, 2006

Saved By Christ or What?

One of the great points of division historically between Lutherans and Romans Catholics is the notion of salvation through faith alone (sola fide). This topic continues to energize discussions between believers in those respective churches today.

Setting sola scriptura aside for another occasion, the remaining Reformation solas are sola gratia (grace alone) and solus Christus (Christ alone). When we say that a sinner is saved via faith only, we are saying the same exact thing as when we say that he is saved by God's grace alone and by Christ alone.

We mean that when it comes to being justified before God, I can boast of nothing. I can never stand before the Almighty pointing to my own achievements as a basis for His acceptance. I can only appeal to God's grace (unmerited favor). I can only point to the righteousness of Jesus Christ reckoned to sinners. When I lie dying, I will not find comfort in looking at myself, my life, my personal holiness. All of that falls short, far short. But I will find comfort in the grace of God and work of Christ on my behalf.

That's what sola fide means. It does not mean that a Christian can disregard God's law. It does not mean that it is possible to be a true believer without demonstrating fruit in one's life. It does not mean that we should not expect the believer to advance in holiness. It does mean that none of those things are sufficient to save us, nor are they capable of adding anything to the work of Christ on the cross. The merits of Jesus are the only merits necessary or capable of making me right with God.

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11 comments:

Darrell said...

Hi, Pastor Scott.

As you know, this is a topic of much interest to me. I'll quote a bit of what you wrote and then list a few comments, questions, etc:

It does not mean that it is possible to be a true believer without demonstrating fruit in one's life {snip} It does mean that none of those things are sufficient to save us, nor are they capable of adding anything to the work of Christ on the cross.

Yes, but aren't we called to participate as Christians? I know we can add nothing to the perfection of Christ's sacrifice... but I feel certain that good works are expected of us. I find evidence of this in the way I read things like Matt 21:24, Rev 14:13, Galatians 2:19-20, and a whole pile of other verses, chapters, etc. I like the quote from Luther about separating faith from works being akin to separating heat from light in fire. It seems to me to be an academic idea and that it's not really practical.

I also believe that good works can actually lead to the development of the faith that saves a person. Even if doing good works is done initially for reasons other than faith, I believe that they can have a transformative power and that they can help a person develop a real, saving faith. I'm concerned that "sola fide" sends the wrong message and that there might be people who don't get on the road to the right kind of life because they don't "feel" like it'll make a difference since they don't "feel" like they have faith yet.

Of course, as an RC, I believe that we receive the real presence in the Eucharist and that it doesn't depend on my ability to psyche myself up into "feeling" like I'm saved.

I understand the reasons for the distinction, but I've yet to come up with a real, practical application other than to help people get over the guilt of feeling like they've not done enough to "deserve" salvation. None of us "deserve" salvation, so none of us should worry that we haven't earned it. We can't earn it. That's the point of the Passion. My concern is that, based on my personal experience, I've seen so many people start with "sola fide" and end up in pure antinomianism. (Thanks again for having explained that distinction to me in the comments at my own blog recently.) I have seen sola fide used as an excuse and as a way of letting oneself off the hook, and I understand that it is important to understand that our works can't save us, so there's no need to worry that we haven't done enough. Yet, I remain convinced that the more good works we do, the stronger our faith gets... the stronger our faith gets, the more good works we do... etc, etc. I think we should encourage both and I can't help but worry that "Sola Fide" can send such a wrong message. I've seen it happen with regard to my Fundamentalist upbringing. People use Sola Fide as an excuse for bad behavior, or a lack of good behavior, all the time. I think that's human nature. We hear about a concept like Sola Fide and we ask ourselves "So what does that mean for me?" The answer is often "Oh, good! I'm off the hook!"

Thanks in advance for taking the time to read this, and thanks for all you've done to help me develop my own faith. I hope you know that I'm one RC who values you very much as a spiritual advisor!

Pastor Scott Stiegemeyer said...

Hey Darrell,
Thanks for your comments. Your insights are always valued here.

Let me come at this as a pastor. One of my members just died. She was well into her 90s. Everytime I spoke to her, she expressed fear of death. She was worried about her shortcomings. What should I say to her? Put your faith in Christ's righteousness only or put your faith in Christ's righteousness plus what you have done? The Christian needs to stop looking at himself and look to Christ alone. That is what sola fide means. I realize that you have encountered people who've misunderstood this doctrine. I'm sure this could be said of just about every doctrine. But those who are familiar with the Reformation writers understand it in the way I am expressing it.

You see, I don't believe I have to spend much time telling people to do good works. If they have faith, the producing of good works will come naturally. Just like you don't have to persuade an apple tree to produce apples. If it is healthy and alive, it is in its nature to produce them. So the key is to produce faith. How is that done? By preaching law and gospel. Or in other words, preaching God's judgment and warnings toward sin and preaching his mercy and forgiveness in Christ. The Holy Spirit will work through the Word to produce faith when and where it pleases Him. And this faith will be visible in good works.

I don't know if it's practical or not. But I believe it is true. Each person must answer this question, 'will I spend eternity in Christ?' Start asking people this question some time. Most people will say something like, "I don't know. I hope so." I know I am a child of God. Not because I can look at my piety which would lead to pride. But because Christ died for me. Jesus said, "He who believes and is baptized shall be saved." That is what sola fide says. Or in the words of St. Paul, "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved."

But again, to re-emphasize. This belief is not the mere intellectual affirmation of certain propositions. That is certainly part of it. But no one is saying that saving faith is ever anything less that a fully transformative reality. People who claim to have faith, but live unrepentant in sin, are not believers. They are hypocrites.

It depends on which question you are asking. If you ask, how should a Christian live, then I will tell you about God's law and the works one must embody. But if you ask, how can a person be saved from sin, death and hell, then I will talk only of the Savior and what He has done for us. And the wonderful thing is that once a person understands the work of Christ and apprehends it for himself, good works will flow from him with joy and thankfulness.

I'm not quite with you on your comments about faith growing from good works. I do agree in the sense that living a godly life results in blessing. It also results in great suffering. And suffering can strengthen faith. But faith comes from enjoying what Christ does, not what we do.

And as a side note, Lutherans also believe in the real, objective and bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Darrell said...

Thanks for continuing the dialogue.

And as a side note, Lutherans also believe in the real, objective and bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Yeah, I'm with you on that.

I'm not quite with you on your comments about faith growing from good works.

Let me make it clear that I'm speaking from personal opinion on that one, not from RCC teaching. I have no idea how the Church would answer my question on that issue. Here's where I'm coming from, though: When I start an exercise routine, I hate it. The first several days are awful. Painful. I have to force myself to do it. However, within a couple of months, I'm loving the process and I can't imagine how I ever lived without it. I guess my theory is that as we see the goodness that comes from doing good, it might increase a border-line faith into something real and life-saving.

Then again, there's a subtext in what I just wrote: border-line faith. I guess I'm saying that the bare seed of faith has to be there first, even if it's small and seemingly helpless. The faith has to come first. Alright, now I'm arguing against myself.

Would you agree, though, that continuing with "good works," even when you don't "feel like it" and when you're not particularly motivated, is a way to keep your faith from dying on you?

Where does the LCMS stand on "once saved, always saved," by the way? I firmly believe that it's possible to lead a devout Christian life and then throw it all away on the last day of your life. I don't believe in the once and eternal "born again" experience. I didn't learn that from the RCC, it was a shared belief that drew me to the RCC to begin with. Where do you stand on that one?

Thanks, as always, for taking the time.

Pastor Scott Stiegemeyer said...

Hi Darrell,

Lutheranism does not teach "once saved/always saved." We also do not believe in what you refer to as a once and eternal "born again" experience. The scriptures talk of people who make shipwreck of their faith. Just like there can be deathbed conversions, so there can be deathbed apostacies. We believe in baptismal regeneration. The washing of rebirth is what happens when a person in united to Christ's death and resurrection through holy baptism. But these blessings can be discarded.

Kelly Klages said...

Another observation, this time from a "fundamentalist-turned-Lutheran." When Lutherans speak of faith, they are not talking about a feeling. That, indeed, is often a fundamentalist assertion, that faith and sola fide is all about feeling motivated and having some sort of inner glow that feeds off of our own good decision making coupled with a little help from God's grace. Continuing good works even when your emotions aren't complying is evidence of faith that is there, and trust in God is strengthened through his promises of faithfulness. What was said about a godly life leading to suffering which strengthens faith is certainly true. But faith is always that which clings to Christ and that which receives God's gifts and blessing, resting in Christ's faithfulness, though our sin is great.

VirginiaLutherans said...

I think the concept of "vocation" is also quite helpful in this area. I recommend reading "Luther on Vocation" to understand it more fully. It is much to complex for a blog response! (Pastor Stiegemeyer would surely edit it out of necessity! ;-)) The crux of it is that when we are a Christian and fulfill our vocations (i.e. roles in life- citizen, father, daughter, worker, etc) to the best of our ability, we are doing "good works." However, it is faith that saves, not works. Faith that has no works is not faith, just as works without faith is also death. I think it was referred to as a flame- it has heat and light, and nothing can separate the two. According to Luther, good works flow from God, through us, to our fellow man through our vocations. This is how God can provide even the non-Christian with good things. I suggest reading the book, and I hope Pastor Stiegemeyer can correct any inaccuracies/unclear statements.

Darrell said...

Kelly: That, indeed, is often a fundamentalist assertion, that faith and sola fide is all about feeling motivated and having some sort of inner glow

Exactly. I remember a life-changing conversation with a Fundamentalist uncle. I had gone to him in need of very major advice regarding some serious personal problems. I was in crisis. His response was just to repeatedly ask if I'd "accepted Jesus as my savior." His assertion that my problems would just go away if only I'd really accept Jesus as my Savior was a major wake-up call for me. It made me realize that there simply HAD to be more to Christianity than this silly stuff. If there weren't, it woudln't have endured for 2000 years. It was then and there that I really made my own personal break with Fundamentalism. There was no going back at that point, I'd rejected it.

Have you ever read the very short autobiographical story Salvation by Langston Hughes? I highly encourage ALL Christians to read it. I think it is very important.

By the way, thanks as always for the response, Pastor Scott.

organshoes said...

The thing that always troubles me about relying on God works as some sort of proof of faith is: how much good work is enough? What about the times I don't help my neighbor (or even pray for him?) because I had something else that needed doing? Who's to say that I shouldn't have ignored my own needs for those of my neighbor?
Maybe a defining of 'good works' is needed; or a distinction between 'doing what is good' and 'getting things done for Jesus.'
Is it plain to people that 'good works' does not only mean charity and missionary work and rigorous sacrifice--something public and obvious and awe-inspiring? But also being a faithful spouse, a loyal employee, an honest citizen, a diligent parent, an obedient child, etc., etc.
It is burden as well as blessing to be all these things. It's easy to be married, employed, someone's child, etc.; but not always [even seldom] easy to be 'at work' being 'good' at them.

Kelly Klages said...

Christian good works are good because they are "in Jesus." God is pleased with our good works for Jesus's sake, not because our motives are so pure nor our deeds meritorious. But Jesus's purity and merit are credited to us, and he nourishes and strengthens our faith, so that all Christian goodness has its source, sustenance, and end in Jesus.

Darrell-- I totally hear you on that "Have you *really* accepted Jesus?" issue! You're absolutely right. Interestingly enough, my rejection of that fundamentalist notion was not just because of its silliness, but also because of the role human works play into that plan of salvation. Because it was so dependent on me and my good decisions, there was no comfort, no certainty, only pride or despair. It was the exact opposite of sola fide.

Thanks for the Langston Hughes link. It was very sad, but unfortunately it's still a reality all over the world today.

Darrell said...

Organshoes: The thing that always troubles me about relying on God works as some sort of proof of faith is: how much good work is enough?

That statement made me thing about the end of Schindler's List. Oskar Schindler had done so much to save so many people, but still felt that he was a failure. He was crying, saying things like "If only I'd sold my ring I could have saved one more person... if only I'd sold my car I could have saved one more person." etc, etc. You are right, there is a trap in relying on good works.

For me, the way around that trap is my belief in purgatory. I had been taught as a child that the RCC believed in purgatory as sort of mini-hell; a punishment. My understanding of purgatory now is totally different than that. It's not a negative thing, it's a very positive thing. Through purgatory (as I understand it) all those feelings of guilt, unworthiness, etc, will be burned away as we approach God. Basically, the last of the walls that each of us has built up around us will come down and we'll finally stand before God in a pure state. That'll be scary and painful at first, but that doesn't mean it's a bad thing. Many of the best parts of life (childbirth, for instance) are scary and painful. I'd reference much of the book of Hebrews to explain that idea... the idea of the love of God being a holy, purging fire.

This has been a good conversation and I realize I need to talk more with my priest about Sola Fide. My gut instinct tells me that practicing Lutherans and practicing Catholics really believe the same things about faith and good works and that if we could put this matter of interpretation behind us, it would be a wonderful thing. I kind of see it like this: On the matter of faith and works, Catholics believe that 1 + 2 = 3. Lutherans believe that 2 + 1 = 3. I believe more and more that we're saying the same thing, we're just saying it differently.

I feel compelled, as I often do, to remind anyone reading something I've written about faith that I do not speak for the Church. If something I've written makes the RCC look bad, it's because of my misunderstanding or because I haven't expressed an idea very well. Remember, I'm a lay-person and a newly baptized Christian. Please be patient with me! :)

Pastor Scott Stiegemeyer said...

Hey Darrell,
I understand what you say about not wanting to be the official representative for the RCC. I understand that you are a committed layman who also happens to be very thoughtful and well read. I think you give the RCC a good face, so to speak.

I happen to be on a weekly Christian radio show with another pastor. And one time we were talking about sola fide, as we understand it as Lutherans. And we had one caller, a young woman, who said that she's been a life-long devoted Roman Catholic and she insisted that what we were saying was no different than what she'd been taught. We certainly took her at her word and rejoiced at this unity.

I agree that traditional Lutherans and Roman Catholics have much much in common. Maybe even more than I realize. I also think the modern church, in daily practice, speaks differently than it did in the 16th century and that is something we have to take into account.

Differences still exist. And sometimes even subtle wording can carry large meaning. But I do find actual conversations with actual believers from other churches quite exhilerating.

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