This is the fourth article in a series published for local newspapers in Clayton County, IA.
The Lutherans and Roman Catholics do not disagree with the following statement: “We are saved by grace alone.” But we have different definitions of grace, which result in much different teachings on how we are saved. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that grace is God’s gifts poured into our souls to help us merit the grace of salvation. While they agree that you can’t gain salvation without God’s grace, they do not agree that grace excludes the movement of man’s will. This is sometimes called habitual grace, that is, when man cooperates with God so that the grace of God grows within him until he is justified. This, of course, includes his own good works and desires.
We agree that God creates good works within the Christian. We agree that the Christian, according to his new will of faith created in Christ, cooperates with the Holy Spirit to do good works. But this isn’t what saves us. Rather, this is a fruit of our salvation. As Jesus says, “A good tree bears good fruit.” First, the tree is good. Then the fruit is good. As St. Paul says (Eph 2:8-9), “By grace you have been saved through faith. That is not of yourselves. It is a gift of God, not by works, lest anyone should boast.” Only then does he go on to explain (Eph 2:10), “For we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has ordained beforehand that we should walk in them.” First, we are saved by grace, and then we do good works.
It is true that sometimes the Scriptures speak of grace according to the fruits it produces (Rom 12:6). But the fruits are not the form of grace; they are rather a result of grace. Grace isn’t what we do. If St. Paul distinguishes grace from works, then we cannot include works in our definition of saving grace, since otherwise, grace would not be grace (Rom 11:6). In fact, he uses the term grace (Rom 4:16; Eph 2:8) in the same way he uses the term mercy when he speaks of how we are saved (Eph 2:4; Titus 3:5). We can therefore define God’s grace as the same as God’s mercy.
So grace is not a series of virtues and good works God operates within the Christian. It is rather God’s merciful attitude toward sinners. It is God’s loving kindness by which he sent his only begotten Son into the flesh to bear the penalty of our sins in our place so that he might declare us righteous in him (Rom 3:24).
While it is certainly true that God works through us to do good works, it is not these works that gain us salvation. It is rather the God who is working in us who saves us. And he saves us not by the growth of righteousness within us, but by giving us a righteousness from outside of us – his own righteousness through Jesus Christ (Phil 2:12, 13; 3:9). This is the righteousness Christ earned for us by his obedience unto death (Phil 2:5-11; Rom 5:18). And by God’s mercy – by God’s grace – it is ours through faith.