Justification: Lutheran and Roman Catholic

A while back I was contacted by a man who was curious about the difference between the Roman Church and the Lutheran Church. Initially I sent him a copy of my brother Rolf’s short essay on justification but the man wanted something more specific. Believing that it is always a good thing to review what we believe especially in contrast to others I have decided to share part of that exchange with you. 

Dear Pastor Preus,


Hello, I contacted you a while back asking about justification. You had sent me an essay and I thank you for that. I am still struggling with what the differences are between Catholics and Lutherans on the doctrine of how we are saved. Can you help me shed some light on the differences? At times they seem far apart and at times seem very similar.




Name withheld

Dear Name Withheld,

I commend you for your tenacity. You‘re like the Canaanite woman crying after Jesus for mercy even though she qualified neither by merit nor by pedigree. I, distracted by other matters, have ignored you far too long and will now make right that apparent indifference.

According to the Lutherans, justification is not a process by which God works a change in someone. God actually does work a great many changes in the minds and hearts of his people but that is not justification. It is often called Sanctification or Christian Renewal or the change of heart or even sometimes reptentence. But Lutherans do not typically use the word “Justify” to describe the changes God works in us.   

Rather justification is a verdict. It is a courtroom term. It refers to the action of God outside of us by which he speaks his favor upon us and considers us righteous or acceptable in his eyes. Justification is a work of God by which God says, in effect, that we are acceptable to him.

How can God do this? How can he account us righteous, consider us favorable and call us holy in his eyes when we are so obviously without righteousness, without favor and without any intrinsic holiness? We are in fact guilty.

He justifies us, simply, by counting to our credit the innocence, blessedness and righteousness of Jesus. So, the holy life of Christ – He obeyed his parents, he showed mercy to others, he submitted to the harsh will of his father, he never complained, He prayed without ceasing, He is a lamb without spot or blemish, like us in every way except without sin – this holy life is counted to your credit. Further your guilt is counted against Jesus. He bore your sins in his body to the cross. The punishment you deserved was placed upon him; He is counted guilty with your sin.

This happy exchange – He is counted guilty with your sin and you are counted innocent or righteous with his holiness – is really “justification” in a broad, general, historic and objective sense.

Then God takes this verdict of justification which was accomplished by Jesus on the cross and he speaks it upon you. When your pastor absolves you God is speaking righteousness upon you. When you were baptized He was speaking you righteous for Christ’s sake. When you receive the Lord’s Supper He is declaring you righteous through the gifts of Body and Blood. Whenever you hear the good news of Christ God is speaking the righteousness of Jesus upon you.

The gospel and sacraments which God uses to speak you righteous He also employs to create faith in your heart. Faith is the receptive instrument of justification. Faith receives the verdict. It simply takes and holds what God is speaking upon you. So when the Bible says that we are justified by faith it does not mean that we are justified by what faith does or by the charity which always flows from faith. Rather, “we are justified by faith” means that faith holds on the word of the gospel of Jesus which says that He died for you and speaks upon you the blessings of His death.

My understanding of the Roman view is this: It postulates that justification may be a verdict but it is a verdict spoken upon us only when we have actually become an innocent and righteous person. Justification is based upon your faith and upon the charity it produces in you. It is not the imputation of the righteousness of Jesus upon you as the Lutherans assert. As such, in the Roman system justification does not assume the central and dominant place in their thinking and in their faith that it does in Lutheranism. Further, in the Roman system you can never be certain of your justification because it is based on the changes in you which, even though worked by the Holy Spirit, are never complete.

In the Lutheran view you can be 100% positive that you stand before the throne of God and enjoy his favor because Christ’s innocence is counted to your credit. In the Roman view you can never by certain of God’s favor because it is not based 100% on the merits and worthiness of Jesus but upon the change which God works in you. There is doubt in the Roman view. There is certainty in the Lutheran view.  

The chief criticism of the Lutheran view by the Romanists is that people will take advantage of God’s gift. If you tell people that they are justified and enjoy the favor of God without any merit or worthiness then they will continue to offend against God with the facile explanation that they are forgiven anyway and God will bring them to heaven because of Jesus even though they lead disgusting and indifferent lives.

To this the Lutherans reply:

  1. Yes, forgiveness and justification (which are really pretty much the same) always involve a risk. Whenever God forgives He risks that we will go out and do the same sin again. In fact that’s what the people of God often did in the bible. You risk the same when you forgive. But God risks it, not because he is convinced that we will begin to “fly right” but because He accepts Jesus and honors the death and word of Jesus.
  2. The same Word of God which speaks God’s righteousness upon us also works in our hearts “to will and to do of his good pleasure.” Our justification is based solely upon the word of God and not upon any subsequent change in us but that change is nonetheless worked by God. We are saved by faith alone but faith is never alone.
  3. The good news that we are accepted by God without any worthiness in us is a far greater incentive to good works than the constant admonishment that we must continue to strive so as to gain his favor. Earthly children behave better for parents whose love is obvious and unconditional than children who are uncertain of their parents’ unconditional acceptance. So with the Kingdom of Heaven. God produces works in us more effectively if he convinces us that these works do not save us or even contribute in any way to our salvation.  


The Canaanite woman was accepted by Jesus. Why? Was it her tenacity which saved her? No, although certainly she was persistent. Was it her devotion to her daughter that saved her? No, although a more devoted mother you will not find. Was it her plaintive prayers that saved her? No, although she is a model for the Christian prayer-life. The woman said to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy upon me.” She knew that Jesus was the promised shepherd (like David) who would lay down his life for the sheep. She knew that He would atone for her sins through his death. (The word “mercy” means “propitiate” which means to take away anger through a sacrifice). She knew that His word accomplishes what it says and she took him at his word. Through faith she was holding on to Jesus – His work through the cross and His word of pardon and acceptance.

So that, in a nutshell, is the difference between Lutheranism and Romanism. The difference at times may seem and even sound minimal. But they are truly vast and worthy a great and profound discussion. Although slow to answer I am not disinterested. If you want to follow up with more queries please do so and be patient with me.

In Christ,

Klemet Preus


Justification: Lutheran and Roman Catholic — 29 Comments

  1. I’ve explained it in different terms, and maybe this will help. Man deserves punishment, suffering and eternal damnation for his sins. Jesus Christ has made full payment for all mankinds sins that will ever be committed. By faith in Christ, we are declared not guilty before God, even though we are in fact guilty. Jesus payment erases the debt of our sins. This faith is not a mere intellectual faith, but faith in the heart that fears loves and trusts in God above all things. While this faith is never perfect, and our thoughts and deeds are never perfect, if our fear love and trust in God is above all other things, we are righteous in God’s sight and part of his eternal kingdom.

    Catholic theology is a system of debits and credits. Our sins are our debts we owe to God, punishments we deserve because of our sins. We acquire credits to pay these off by our own good works, by the crucifixion of Christ and by the good works of others done on our behalf. We cannot enter heaven until all the debts have been paid off by credits available from the various sources. This is where purgatory comes in. If one has not enough credits to pay his debts at the time of death, he must go to purgatory to make satisfaction for his own sins by suffering, or hopefully his relatives will have masses said for him to pay off his debt faster so he can get eventually to heaven. How long this takes, the church cannot answer.
    Absolution from the priest is not a forgiveness of these debts. Catholic theology differentiates between temperal and eternal punishment. Absolution takes care of the the eternal punishments, but the temperal must still be paid by good works, like alms to the poor, prayer, fasts, attending mass, etc, etc etc. Good sources are the Catholic catechism, and the old Luther movie is also very good for lay people to understand.

    Keep in mind, you’ll get different oppinions from different priests but this is what I’ve been able to cull from sources like the RC catechism, the Luther movie and the decrees of the council of Trent. While they may speak differently, the Council of Trent has never been rejected as far as I know, and they still have purgatory in their Catechism, so the old system that Luther grew up with is essentially still in tact, IMHO>.

  2. From the Roman Catechism with paragraph numbers:

    “2027 No one can merit the initial grace which is at the origin of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit, we can merit for ourselves and for others all the graces needed to attain eternal life, as well as necessary temporal goods.”

    This makes it pretty clear. Initial grace yields conversion and is totally from God – nothing added by man. BUT that grace needed for eternal life; that is up to us. We have to work for it and work hard enough to MERIT it. Fall short and you go to purgatory until you work it off.

    This is the best summary of the Roman position that I know of. I have heard it referred to as participatory salvation by some.

  3. And the truth is that many Reformed and Arminian protestants are closer to Roman Catholicism with regard to salvation in terms of the proper distinction between law and gospel. What underlies that is a deficient Christology in relation to a proper doctrine of original sin.

  4. I just finished reading your father’s little book “Justification and Rome” What a theological heavyweight he was! The book is marvelous and needs to be required reading in the Seminary and it would be good to have District conferences to have it as a topic. The topic is still relevant.

  5. @Joe #2

    Having done graduate work at a Roman Catholic university, it is interesting to note that they assume that since grace is involved that it solves the entire problem of our objection. In other words, they have no concept that simply saying “grace is necessary for salvation” is an inadequate answer.

    The problem with saying grace + human effort = salvation is that the whole thing would fall apart without human works. Hence grace functionally makes no difference whatsoever within such a system. In the end, it always still comes down to human works.

    What is most annoying is that JDDJ works on the premise that the issue of Reformation was whether grace was involved in the event of justification and now, because Catholics say there is, therefore we can have an agreement. The real issue of the Reformation was justification by faith, in a verdict and action of God external to one’s self. The Middle Ages and subsequent Catholic theology is full of grace. That’s not the issue.

  6. Rev. Preus,
    Thank you for bringing us to the article of justification. It is crucial that we keep coming back to it because it informs all of the rest of what we teach and confess. I pray that we may continually study and be reminded of the right and true teaching of this wonderful doctrine.

  7. @Johannes #7

    Johannes- Interestingly enough many of them, even the professional theologian types, haven’t really read the Apology or any of the Lutheran Confessions. It should be born in mind that many Roman Catholic theologians that I encountered (though not all) know surprisingly little about Lutheranism or any other denomination other than their own.

  8. This comes up a lot in my family, some are Lutheran Roman Catholic, and Orthodox. Interesting discussions arise. The Orthodox do not have a Juridical point of view. In fact they see it as something a little more fluid. In short, I have been saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved. I find the similarities and differences interesting between Lutherans, Catholics, and Orthodox.

  9. @Dr. Jack Kilcrease #9
    thanks for getting this thread rolling. Justification by Grace through Faith apart from the works of the law is the heart of the Lutheran witness. It is the distinct gift that Lutherans bring to any authentic ecumenical conversation and it is the place where we will rise and fall as a church. Its the reason we named our first two girls Faith and Gracia after Ephesian 2:8-9. They are a constant reminder to me (especially when soccer balls are thrown in the house at 6:30 am) that it’s all about grace made known through faith in Jesus.
    thanks for the reminder about our need to understand each others historic theological documents as well as our own to have real conversations with our neighbors. I am a cradle Catholic who now has served 10 plus years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor. I find many Catholics and Lutherans who lack an understanding of each other’s positions.
    In many ways I’ve found that many Lutherans and Catholics treat their respective church’s theology like a col-de-sac. We assume we know what the otherside says and stick to our own with out examining the other more closely.

  10. Catholic views of grace are really hard to understand unless you know greek philosophy well, as it they try to fit it into aristotles categories. Also, there are multiple competing systems, but they all provide that human action and choice is a essential part of obtaining sanctifying grace.

    Also, check jackkilcrease.blogspot.com/ for more explanation about how requiring human cooperation destroys the whole nature of grace.

  11. Boaz– I believe you’re quite correct in your statement about the Roman view of grace being informed by Aristotle. Roman theology is still largely Thomist and Thomas Aquinas was heavily influenced by Aristotle. I think “grace” from the Roman perspective can be seen as a “substance” in an Aristotelian sense. That is, grace is the “gas in your tank” which allows you to perform good works in love which in turn justify you. So just as a car doesn’t go anywhere without gasoline, the Christian cannot be saved without this grace from God– thus Rome can agree with the statement “you are saved by grace,” it’s just that “grace” has an entirely different meaning than what we mean when we use the phrase.

  12. @Johannes #7

    Confutation here: http://bookofconcord.org/confutatio.php


    “… Roman theologians charged with the preparation of the Confutation … were ordered to be moderate in their response.”

    “It was, like the Augsburg Confession, prepared in both Latin and German, but read aloud only in German. ”

    Pope and emperor forced to appeal to the little people here?

    1530 attempts at gagging:

    “The Confutation was regarded as being so bad, even by the Roman Catholics, that they did not allow the Lutherans to have a copy. Fortunately Lutheran scribes had copied every word down during its reading. It was not published until 1573, in Latin, and did not appear in German until 1808. The Lutherans asked for a copy after it was read, and were told by the Emperor on August 5 that they would not receive a copy, unless they met three conditions: (1) They that do not reply in writing; (2) They not print anything about it, or do anything to publicize it, a demand made specifically by the Roman theologians; (3) That they join with the Emperor and the Roman Catholic estates and concur with the Confutation, in every point. These demands were soundly rejected.”

  13. Lutheran – God IMPUTES justification objectively, outside of us and for us – then follows Christian growth via Word and Sacrament. Justifiation “it is finished”.

    RC- God Infuses us by the Holy Spirit enabling us to become righteous and all this process is made available to us by Christ’s life and death on the cross – ‘problem is we never know when that infusion is complete! Justification – when is it finished?

  14. @Ken H #13

    Ken- Most importantly to the Roman concept is the idea of grace as a virtue or habit. Namely, activities infused in the soul. For Aristotle being=doing. So, to be justified one would have to “do” justice, meaning having faith, hope and love.

    For Luther, one’s nature as a creature is inherently receptive. If you read the Catechisms on the articles concerning creation this comes out particularly strongly. As creatures of the creator we are receptive to God’s goodness in his gifts of family, house and so forth. In redemption, we are justified by receiving God’s forensic verdict.

    So, for Luther the essence of created being is “receiving,” whereas for Thomas and subsequently Roman theology it is “doing.”

    This is Aristotle vs. Genesis 1-3.

  15. Dear Klemet, what a wonderfully clear and concise explanation justification and a good contrast about the place of justification in Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism. You are certainly your father’s son! I think there’s room for another justification hymn or two…

  16. Hey…Klemet…I think it should be illegal for you to use such an old, old picture of yourself on this web site.

    This is Art (your confirmand) Casci

  17. Klem,

    This discussion just came to my attention.

    Some months ago encouraged a man who had some questions about the Lutheran and Roman positions on Justification to write to you. I wanted him to hear from someone who understands the Lutheran position (and I believe that many many Lutheran pastors do not). If this is the same person, I am glad that he sought you out. I certainly do not want to be accused of misrepresenting the Lutheran position, and I couldn’t find any page on the LCMS website that described the “central article” in any detail whatsoever and his own Lutheran pastor (if what was reported to me was accurate) had made some mistakes in teaching the doctrine accurate.

    I believe you have described the Lutheran doctrine as I was taught it by your father, one thing that I noticed was that you did not fully explain why it is that the word and sacrament can be said to justify. Now perhaps I understand this wrongly, but my understanding is that the Word and Sacraments justify because they provide faith, and faith apprehends the atonement. This is different from the calvinistic teaching that they justify because they inspire faith, i.e. the Eucharist is a reminder of the passion, and when it stirs my heart to believe, I am justified.

    Nonetheless, technically speaking (as I understand it) the Lutheran position that the power to justify is not “in” the word or sacrament, they contain the power to create faith (when it pleases the Holy Spirit), but we are justified by the faith they provide (which apprehends Christ), but not by the Sacrament. Hence, Luther’s teaching in De Captivate concerning the sacraments, and Melancthon’s statement in the Apology (falsely attributed to Augustine) that “Faith in the sacrament, and not the sacrament, justifies.”

    In addition, while I believe your description of the Lutheran position is, nonetheless, excellent. There are many inaccuracies in what you say the Roman doctrine is. I wonder if you could find a Roman bishop or priest who would say, “Yep, that is what we believe.” I don’t think you could.

    For one thing, we do not deny that we are declared righteous because of the Righteousness of Christ. I know that Lutherans are prone to claim this based on Canon XI, but Canon XI rejects the view that we are justified by the sole imputation of the Righteousness of Christ. The Catholic Church, however, sees that Justification also includes the impartation of grace by which we are truly and actually made righteous.

    Allow me to try to explain why this is so. In adam’s fall, two things went horrible wrong for man and his posterity. One the one hand, he was imputed with Adam’s guilt, which is to say that God considers all men guilty because of the trespass of one man. Lutherans accept this as Hereditary Guilt. But that is not all. Man also inherits Adams sinful nature. Lutherans call this “Hereditary corruption”. Hereditary guilt and hereditary corruptions are the two parts of original sin. Actual sin is another thing, and I will leave it out of this discussion for brevity.

    Because man’s loss of righteousness was two-fold (effecting both his being and his status before God), man’s justification is also twofold. It includes the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to answer the imputation of Adam’s guilt. But it also includes the transformation of man, whereby he is no longer corrupt, but is a new creation, the old has gone.

    My problem (now) with Lutheranism is that it diminishes the power of the cross and resurrection. In Christ, I am not only declared righteous, I am made righteous. (and I remain righteous until I commit actual sin (if it is mortal sin)).

    The second point that I want to make is regarding certainty of salvation. I think there is alot of misunderstanding here. First of all, while a Lutheran may confess that he is 100% certain of salvation, he nonetheless must acknowledge that man is capable of deception, and the Christian who at one time in his life is 100% certain by the end of his life can die an avowed atheist and manifest, unrepentant sinner. So the Lutheran may only be certain of his final salvation only so far as he dies in God’s favor, which is to say, in a state of true faith.

    This is exactly the point of the Canon of Trent when it says that one cannot “know with the certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to error” This is to say that we don’t know the future, and we are capable of being seduced and mislead into misbelief, despair and other great shame and vice. The point also, is that we can have a false confidence of those who believe they are Christian in spite of the fact that they never go to Church, are living in an unrepentant adulterous relationship, and often frequent bowling alleys.

    On the other hand, as I Catholic I do believe that if I die right now I will go to heaven. This is because I trust in the saving work of Jesus Christ, who has declared me righteous and makes me a new creation. But this is not to say that I denyt the possibility that I may fall away before I die, althought I have to say I consider it rather unlikely.

    Dan Woodring

  18. Dan,

    Thanks for taking the time to defend the Roman position. It is always good to keep doctrinal discussions going between denominations but I have to say your understanding of Scripture is faulty.

    Your Romanist misunderstanding of Scripture is evident in your second to last line. You see your justification not to be by faith alone but by faith and works (the new creation you speak of). That is the difference. Your new doctrine (Rome) is contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture that we are saved by faith alone.

    That is really all that needs to be said but it is also of note to respond to your description of the two manners in which we have fallen and your understanding of Trent.

    Concerning the two parts of the fall, you would have a point except for the fact that the Scriptures teach what Luther discovers about this. Our concupiscence is not put to death until the old self is destroyed in the eschaton. The Romanists like you make the mistake of thinking that it must be fixed in this life or in the next. One does not need to add an ontological change to our being in this life or through the purging of purgatory. That takes place in the transition to heaven. This is Scripture’s clear teaching. The needed change in self to merit salvation is the product of human reason and paganism.

    Concerning your use of Trent, as I recall, it does not refer to not knowing the future. It flat out denies that salvation can be of faith alone but is a matter of faith and works. This is also the teaching of the Joint Declaration. It turns salvation into a process as opposed to something that is immediate and certain because it is by faith and not by works.

    I think you must have read a little too much Kavanaugh et. al. while at the Fort.


  19. Tim,

    Actually I wasn’t a big fan of Fr. Kavanaugh at the Sem. And I haven’t re-read anything from him since then. I wish I would have read St. Augustine, because then I might have understood the Biblical Doctrine of Justification as is faithfully confessed by the Roman Catholic Church.

    Obviously we disagree about that, and I would be willing to discuss the reasons why I hold that the Catholic and not the Lutheran doctrine is a correct exposition of Scripture. However, at this point I would like focus on what the Catholic Church actually teaches. Once we establish what Lutherans and Catholics really teach, then perhaps we can compare those teachings to Holy Scripture.

    I had once thought that the Roman Catholic teaching was unscriptural, but I did not know what Catholics taught, I only knew what Lutherans said Catholics taught. I will admit that the position that Klem ascribes to Catholics is unbiblical, but I am arguing that Catholics actually teach something quite different.

    I know this is your blog, and I hope to be a polite guest here. But before we can establish whether the Roman Catholic teaching on Justification is biblical or unbiblical, it seems to me that we ought to be clear on what that teaching is.

    As for faith alone, you are correct that Roman Catholics reject this as it is confessed by protestants. (I am sorry to word it that way, but there is a sense in which Catholics believe we are justified by “faith alone”–I can explain that another time)

    However, I do want to clarify that although Catholics teach that we are saved by faith and works, you would be wrong, on this basis, to conclude that Catholics believe than man, to some degree, earns his own salvation. We Catholics do believe that salvation is a free gift of God.

    I realize that sounds like a contradiction to you, and I shall do my best to explain it.

    When Lutherans confess that we are saved by faith, they are correct to point out that this faith is not our own doing. Rather this faith is given to us by the Holy Spirit. And yet we are not entirely passive, because we do not reject faith in God. Still, faith comes from God, and not from us, therefore it is God’s work in saving us.

    I would like you consider that love (caritas) works in much the same way. It comes from God, it is His gift. This love expresses itself in the keeping of the commandments. And yet it is God doing the work.

    This is how we understand St. Paul when he says “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you.” It is true, that Catholics admit that man, in a sense, cooperates with this Grace of God, just as he cooperates in the work of faith (by not rejecting confidence in God), nonetheless, he is not saved though His cooperation, but by the Grace of God that is at work in him.

    As far as Trent, I simply ask that you look at the canons objectively rather than depend on your recollection. And I suggest you ask a Roman Priest whether you are understanding what you read there correctly. I am sure that you want to present Roman theology accurately. If Lutheranism is true, you should have nothing to gain by distorting the views of your opponents.

  20. I echo Dan’s thoughts here, and believe the characterization of Catholic position is not accurate.

    Pastor Rossow, if you want a faithful and accurate presentation of the Catholic understanding, I suggest reading (not necessarily agreeing with it) “Roots of the Reformation” by the late Fr. Karl Adam, a 20th century German Catholic Theologian, which is available free here: http://www.ewtn.com/library/chistory/rtref.txt

    Also, Pastor Rossow, I have a question for you. You say above: “except for the fact that the Scriptures teach what Luther discovers about this.”

    My question is by what authority does Luther teach this ‘new discovery”? By what authority did Luther reject the faith of those who went before him and “discover” a new revelation and understanding? Clearly Luther rejected many ideas which he held early in life, and which those who went before him held (and I might add those who came after, to this day hold). Are we to believe that Luther’s new understanding is a private but authoritative divine revelation? How do we Christians discern when these private ‘discoveries’ are actions of the Holy Spirit, and when they are the all too familiar well meaning moves into error and division?

    If we take Chesterton’s beautiful quote:

    “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”

    And Paul’s exhortation in 2 Thess 2:15 to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.”

    …and apply it to Luther, would he not be considered a part of the small living oligarchy arrogantly rejecting the faith that was passed on to him in favor of his own self determined understanding? Why should we see Luther as something other than a brilliant and gifted, but rebellious son of the Church who fell into error?

  21. Hello,

    I am a Catholic who stumbled onto this site, and I have to echo Dan Woodring: your understanding of the Catholic view of justification is flawed. I would encourage Confessional Lutherans to view the entire relevant section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church here: http://www.usccb.org/catechism/text/pt3sect1chpt3art2.shtml

    This section includes paragraph 2027, which was included by Joe. I thank him for investigating the real teaching of the Catholic Church instead of accepting a possibly inaccurate portrayal. However, he made the (apparently inadvertent) mistake of taking the paragraph out of context.

    This short paragraph appears at the very end of a long explication of Catholic doctrine on grace, justification, sanctification, and merit, in the summary section (“In Brief”). The “In Brief” section ends every major portion of the Catechism. It is important to note that paragraph 2027 uses a technical theological term, “merit,” which is defined and explained earlier in the section. Please particularly take note of these points:

    “The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ… Filial adoption, in making us partakers by grace in the divine nature, can bestow true merit on us as a result of God’s gratuitous justice. This is our right by grace, the full right of love, making us ‘co-heirs’ with Christ…” (CCC 2008-2009, emphasis original)

    As I understand the teaching of Confessional Lutheranism (please correct me where I am wrong), our relationship with God begins and ends with justification, a single event in which our manifold flaws and imperfections are covered up with the perfection of Christ. The Catholic understanding begins with initial justification, but we believe that God does more than merely cover up our many blemishes. He adopts us as his children—just as he adopted Israel in the Old Testament. To say that we can be made somehow “good” is a radical and audacious thing, but the fact that the perfect God adopted us as his own children is the radical and audacious thing that makes it possible. Any talk of man’s “merit” in Catholic teaching is understood as the inheritance of adopted sons and daughters.

    Here is an analogy I heard the other day: Let us say my son asks to borrow money to buy me a gift, and I give it to him freely. He uses that money to buy a gift and gives it to me. I might tell my friends, “Look what my son gave me!” But who is the gift really from? Man’s “merit” before God consists of gifts He gives us, which we then give back to Him.

    The idea of man attaining salvation by doing works (which are good only because God gives the goodness to us) through faith is based on Sacred Scripture (Matt 7:21, Matt 25:31-46, John 14:15, James 2:14, Heb 11:31).

    Also, please be assured that faithful Catholics experience no uncertainty about their salvation. Once a person has been justified (“received sanctifying grace” in our terminology), he can only lose his salvation through a deliberate grave sin, which is never an accident. And he can always ask for, and receive, justification again, until death.

    You ask “When is justification ever done?” Well, in this life, my friend, it is never done. Catholics believe not that they have to keep working to “do enough” (that’s the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons you’re thinking of), but that there is always something more to look forward to. Justification/sanctification (which to Catholics are the same process, not distinct) is complete when we die and are freed from the final effects of Original Sin (concupiscence). In this life, when our Father gives to us from our inheritance, we always squander some of it. Our Father expects us to do this because we are imperfect and childish. Only in heaven will we receive the fullness of our inheritance and be unable to squander any of it.

  22. Growing up in the Catholic teachings was very confusing for me. For one thing, I never felt I was worthy enough for God’s love let alone His forgiveness. I didn’t understand who Jesus Christ was, only that He was the Son of God, and the virgin Mary was his mother. I remember lighting candles before saying certain prayers. And I hated going to confession because I came out feeling worse than when I went in because I was plagued with thoughts of “Did I confess all my sins? And the pennance we had to give afterwards, by saying so many hail Marys, and our Fathers…The Rosary. What was that all about anyway?
    It wasn’t until I started to read the Bible on my own that I started to question the Catholic Religion? There was so many things that they were teaching that were not in line with God’s Word. Which even made my life more confusing…=>
    That is when you can say, I just gave up and went about living my life as the world does, without God’s Word in my life. Only I could never get completely away from God, His Word would always convict my heart when I was doing wrong. Deep down inside I knew what I was doing and how I was living wasn’t the life I truly wanted. I did want to live a Christian life, but I just didn’t feel worthy enough. = I met someone who was a Lutheran, and need a say more. When I took the class called “Life with God” it made all the difference. Coming to true saving faith.
    Now it wasn’t easy at first because I still had all this wrong teaching within me, and at times it is still hard for me. But I am so grateful to God that He lead me to where I am today!
    When I read Martin Luther’s story, I could not help be feel my own life within his. The struggles he shared with his faith, I so could relate too…because that is exactly how I felt.
    Anyway that was my experience growing up in the Catholic Church. I know it probably has nothing to do with what is being talked about here, but I just wanted to share what it was like for me growing up in the Catholic teachings.

    Sincerely In Christ’s

  23. Cynthia, I am so sorry to hear that your early faith experiences did not help you grow close to Christ. It sounds as if the people who were responsible for your faith formation failed you. Like many people (including Martin Luther and myself), it sounds as if you had to contend with that ugly beast called scrupulosity. During the first decades after Vatican II, Catholic teaching fell temporarily into an abysmal state. Now there is a growing movement, at least in the English-speaking world, to bring the truths (rather than the scruples) of the faith to the world. Catholic teachings really are based on Scripture, which should not be surprising, considering that it was mainly Catholic monks who copied and preserved the Bible until the printing press was discovered. All the major beliefs disputed by Luther—such as purgatory, the role of works in our sanctification (after initial justification by faith alone), the primacy of one apostle over the others (i.e. the Pope), praying to saints, the role of Sacred Tradition and a teaching Magisterium along with Scripture—can be found clearly in the Bible. Other beliefs now largely rejected by American Protestantism, but dear to Luther, include devotion to the Virgin Mary and belief in the Real Presence in the sacrament of the altar.

    Martin Luther had to change the Bible to make it reflect his beliefs. He took out part of the Old Testament and labeled it “apocryphal.” He also wanted to ditch the Letter of James and adjust the wording in Romans. In fact, though I need to do more research on the issue, it is starting to seem to me that there was a deliberate misreading of the entire message of Romans regarding faith and works—it seems to be referring specifically to the works of the Old Law, i.e. the rules for good Jewish people. Extending that idea to all works is frankly peculiar, and contrary to the words of Christ Himself, who told us to keep His commandments (works), to help those in need (works), and to do the will of His Father (works).

    May God continue to bless you, and I will pray for you. Please return the favor and pray for me? I could use it.


  24. Thank you Robyn, for I truly do need prayers! For there is so much I still am longing to understand and to be made more clear to me, when it comes to reading and studying the Word of God. I know that His Holy Spirit is indeed working within me.

    I will indeed continue to pray for you as well Robyn…Do take care and God bless you!

    In Christ’s

  25. As a retired Missouri Synod Lutheran minister’s “offspring” aka: “P.K.” – Me thinks y’all thinks too much!”.

    Do you you think “J.C.” pondered, thought out, analyzed every little piddling thing that crossed his mind? No, in my opinion. He LIVED His faith. No judgment – that is God’s job – NOT yours. Sometimes I think most “Misery” Synod Lutherans need an occasional enema. Way too “tight sphictered”…… (try 2 see the humor, please) -Life is short…. What can you do to make life more uplifting? Stop ruminating about trivial stuff…enjoy your life. (Ok, I’ll stop being a “cheer-leader)… You only have ONE life on this earth… focus on bringing JOY into your family & life. If you want to live life feeling bad & make other people (including your family), feel bad, let’s just all go down to the local travel agency & book ourselves on a “guilt trip”…(Li’l joke there. 🙂 [It’s ok Lutherans to laugh….really!] LIGHTEN UP!!!!!

    Thanks 4 “hearing me out”. :-> J. (daughter of two(2) very “tight sphictered” parents.

    That again, Luterans, is another l’il joke there. It’s ok to laugh! All the best to whomever reads this.

  26. @Cynthia Goetz #24
    Regarding the class, “Life with God”, when did you take this course? Do you remember who published the course? I’ve inquired of CPH whether or not they have anything similar to that wonderful series, but they have no record of it. I, too, gained great knowledge and gratification from the course. I just wish I could remember the source. I think it was the early 80’s when I took the course. Thanks.

  27. I am a farmer, not a theologian, so I might make mistakes here, but I think a caricuture of Confessional Lutheran theology has been put into this thread.

    The portrayal is that in Confessional Lutheranism, “our relationship with God begins and ends with justification.”

    Off the top of my head, as a layman, I see two distortions in that statement.

    1. Theology of the Cross.

    It relegates Luther’s theology of the cross to the periphery, a place to which Confessional Lutherans never consign it. The theology of the cross has much to say about humility, trial, suffering, temptation, and prayer, all of which stand on justification but go onward in learning the obedience of faith. The cross excludes merit not only in justification but in sanctification. Daily crucifying the sinful human nature — does not sound much like quitting at justification.

    “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:20) The life I now live. That is, after having received Christ, after being justified, now I live (sanctification), how? How do I live now? “By faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

    2. Receive and Walk.

    It omits an emphasis Confessional Lutherans place on such texts as Col 2:6, “As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him.”

    In my senior confirmation class under Rev. Dr. Casper B. Nervig (author of Christian Truth and Religious Delusions, who I think can be taken as a Confessional Lutheran), emphasis was placed on “Receive and walk.” It is a calumny against Confessional Lutheranism that it does not confess, believe, teach, and practice walking. Its concern is for a victorious walk through trial, suffering, and temptation, which can only be done on the same foot as the receiving. To begin on the foot of grace and faith when we receive Christ, but then try to walk on the feet of merit leads only to stumbling and possible despair.

    A shipwreck of faith has too often been made by that, and no one has any right to lay such a stumbling block before others. Don’t the meritologists realize that we laypersons have to try to live by what you teach. Merit in sanctification is just another Pharaoh commanding me to make bricks without straw.

    “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” (Gal. 5:16) Shall I claim merit for a walk done by the Spirit?

    Confessional Lutheranism is strong on sanctification by putting the strong feet of grace, faith, the obedience of faith, and the Spirit to the walking. In other words, we walk by the merits of Christ.

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