My uncle is a devout Lutheran. He loves God deeply and is on fire with the Holy Spirit. He does the good work of bringing men into a deeper love for God and to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. He recently asked me why I converted to Catholicism. The simple answer is that I came to believe that the Catholic claims were truth.
Luther founded his church on three basic principles: sola fide, sola gratia, and sola scriptura. As a Catholic I believe the first two although I understand them a bit differently. The big difference between the two faiths is with sola scriptura.
Sola Fide – By Faith
The doctrine of Sola Fide says that a person is saved through faith. This is absolutely correct. One can only be saved if he or she has faith in Jesus Christ, son of the living God. Luther changed the verse in Holy Scripture that says this by adding the word “alone” to it because it was his opinion that it should have been written that way. The Lutheran belief is that one need to do nothing more than have faith and salvation will be granted. Luther believed that no sin could separate man from God and that he could commit murder or adultery a thousand times a day and that it wouldn’t matter. This has led to the common belief that all sins are already forgiven so asking forgiveness for sin is no longer necessary. It has also led to the belief that one does not have to do any “works” to prove your faith.
Catholics agree that a person is saved through faith. Without faith one cannot obtain salvation. But scripture is also very clear that sin can still separate man from God and that sins committed after the crucifixion still need to be forgiven apart from the crucifixion. For this Jesus gave us the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He paid the price for sin but we still have to ask for that to be applied to our debt.
Think of it like this – a rich man creates a fund to pay the electric bills of everyone in his town. Catholics believe that you have to apply, or ask for, this money to be applied to your bill. Lutherans believe that your bill is automatically paid without you asking for it to be.
So, instead of believing that all we need is faith alone Catholics believe that we are saved by faith through love. Jesus said that if you love him you will follow his commands. Following his commands require works of love and obedience. Are works required for salvation? If you love Jesus and therefore are obedient to him they are.
Sola Gratia – By Grace
The doctrine of Sola Gratia says that a person is saved by grace. Again, this is absolutely correct. All salvation is granted through the grace of God and cannot be merited on our own accord. Here again Luther inserts the word “alone” to break the tie between the works that we do and the grace that we receive. No works are necessary. God will grant his grace to whoever believes in him. In reality we do the good works we do because of the grace we receive. One way to think of grace is like a supernatural glow our souls have when our wills are aligned with God’s will. When we receive God’s grace we will be doing the good works of love that he wants us to do. A good way to state the Catholic belief is:
By the grace of God, we are saved through our faith; this faith entails by its very nature, good works, always enabled by prior grace, without which this faith is dead.
Sola Scriptura – Scripture Alone
Thus brings us to the probably the biggest issue that separated Catholics from non-Catholic Christians. One of Luther’s doctrines is sola scriptura or scripture alone. Catholics believe in the three legged stool of sacred Scripture, sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium. Until Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press c. 1440 the Christian faith was passed on orally. The common people generally did not know how to read and books were expensive. The faith was passed on by the bishops who passed on faithfully that which they had received from their bishops who received it from their bishops who received it, going back to the beginning, from the mouth of Jesus. The Magisterium is made up of the Pope (the head bishop) in union with all of the bishops. Through apostolic succession the Magisterium is the sole authority of the Catholic faith.
Sacred Tradition did not support Luther’s theology so one of the things he had to do when he broke away was throw out 1500 years of Catholic teaching so he could teach his opinion instead. He did this by instituting the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Sola Scriptura states that we do not need sacred Tradition, we only need that which is written in the bible. So what does the bible have to say about that?
“I am writing these things to you, hoping to come to you before long; but in case I am delayed, I write so that you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God. Follow what is written in Holy Scripture, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”
1 Timothy 3: 14-15
Anyone familiar with this verse knows that is not what is says. The actual scripture says –
“…you will know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”
It is not scripture that is the pillar and bulwark of the truth, it is the Church. Holy Scripture says that Holy Scripture is not the pillar of God’s truth, the Church is. Luther threw out 1500 years of the Church so he could interpret scripture to support his differing opinion. If the Church is the pillar of truth and Luther disagrees with the Church…
This is where I started to believe the Catholic claims.