One of the more fundamental differences between most Protestant faiths and Catholicism is the understanding of the role that “faith” and “works” play in our salvation. One of the more common claims leveled against Catholicism is that we are a “works based” salvation. As Catholics we would disagree with that assessment. And it’s important for us to realize that while most Protestant denominations hold to a theology of salvation by “faith alone” and not “works,” within Protestantism there can be much disagreement about what is considered to be a “work” and what is considered to be part of a “saving faith.”
For example, in those denominations that are traditionally Calvinist in belief, the understanding of what is part of a “saving faith” versus a “work” can look like this:
Remember that Calvinists would believe that an individual does not “choose” to believe in Christ but is rather given the gift of faith based upon the pre-determined will of God that they are one of the “elect” to be saved. So from their perspective, the idea that you would freely choose Christ as your Savior is considered to be a “work,” and those who profess that are a “works based” salvation.
You will also note that they would consider Baptism to be part of a “saving” faith. This is because they accept the view of Martin Luther (the original salvation by “faith alone” advocate) that Baptism isn’t a “work” that we do at all. Rather, it is a work that God does in us. While not all Calvinists would agree with the necessity of Baptism, those who hold to the original teachings of Calvin seem to. Lutherans would also have this view and agree with the necessity of Baptism.
Now, consider a more typical Evangelical approach to salvation regarding works:
In this view, part of a “saving” faith would include a free choice to accept Christ as both Savior and Lord and repentance of sin. Whether or not faithfulness is required could depend on the individual’s view of whether or not a person can lose their salvation. In the video clip the “Good-o-Meter” provided in this post it is evident that faithfulness is not required from that perspective.
But Baptism in this view becomes a “work” and not necessary for salvation, along with any type of commitment to a community of believers. While those would be encouraged and seen to be very good things, they would be understood to have no bearing on the individual’s ultimate salvation.
One of the problems with this perspective from a Catholic view is that the determination of what belongs to a “saving faith” and what is a “work” seems to be based upon spiritual activity versus physical activity. Baptism is a “work” because it involves a physical act. Repentance is not a “work” because it involves a spiritual action. But these are both something that a person “does,” are they not? The relationship between our physical and spiritual nature should not be divided but should be one in complete harmony as God created us, and it was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). This harmony was wounded by original sin. Remember how Adam and Eve suddenly realized they were naked yet before sin the thought never occurred to them? (Genesis 3:7) Christ will restore this original harmony between our spiritual and physical natures. We will ultimately experience a glorified body for all eternity in perfect union and harmony with our spiritual nature. This understanding of salvation whereby only actions that are spiritual are part of a saving faith and actions that are physical are “works” further drives a wedge between our physical and spiritual natures that Christ will restore in wholeness and unity.
While the view above is a more traditional Evangelical understanding of “faith” versus “works,” in more recent years another view has emerged and seems to be growing and looks like this:
In this view, “repentance” becomes a “work.” There is no requirement to make Jesus “Lord” of your life or attempt to follow him, although all would probably tell you that’s a good thing that you should do. They would consider those who believe you have to repent in order to be saved as teaching a “works based” salvation.
The contrast between these two Evangelical views is often identified by the terms “Lordship Salvation” versus “Free Grace” theology. You will also hear this latter view referred to “Easy Believism” by its detractors.
Consider the difference in the way salvation is portrayed in these two Statement of Faiths. The Southern Baptist SOF says this:
Repentance is a genuine turning from sin toward God. Faith is the acceptance of Jesus Christ and commitment of the entire personality to Him as Lord and Saviour. Justification is God’s gracious and full acquittal upon principles of His righteousness of all sinners who repent and believe in Christ. Justification brings the believer unto a relationship of peace and favor with God.
The Southern Baptists clearly fall on the “Lordship Salvation” side of this divide as they believe that repentance is necessary to receive justification – Jesus must not only be accepted as your Savior but also as Lord.
Here is an example of a Statement of Faith from a group that rejects “Lordship Salvation” and would fall into “Free Grace” theology:
No act of obedience (other than faith in Christ), whether preceding or following faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, such as commitment or willingness to obey, sorrow for sin, turning from sin, baptism, or submission to the Lordship of Christ, may be added to, or considered a part of, faith as a condition for receiving eternal salvation. The saving transaction between God and the sinner consists simply of the giving and receiving of a free gift that is without cost to the believer (John 4:10; Romans 4:5; Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8–9; Titus 3:5; Revelation 22:17 ).
In that example it is made very clear they believe that repentance is not necessary in order to be saved, nor is submitting to the Lordship of Christ.
It’s important in any discussion with someone about “faith” and “works” to understand exactly what is meant by a “work” as this can most certainly vary between groups. In my next post I’ll look at an example of “Free Grace” theology and explore that thinking a bit more.