Salvation by Faith Working in Love

Picking up where I left off yesterday, I had been talking about how Pope Benedict has argued that “Luther’s phrase, ‘faith alone’ is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love.” It’s a provocative argument from the Roman Pontiff, but one not dissimilar to Cardinal Newman’s argument that saving faith and obedience are the same thing.

1. Obedient v. Disobedient Faith

As Fr. William Most explains, Paul means three things when he uses the term “faith”:

1) If God speaks a truth, we believe it in our mind;
2) If He make a promise, we are confident in it;
3) If He tells us to do something, we must do it– “the obedience of faith” : Rom 1:5.

Now, the first two, even by themselves are meritorious. Romans 4:3 reminds us that by Genesis 15:6, Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” But from this must come the third part of faith — the obedience of faith. After all, James 2:19 notes that even the demons have these first two forms of faith. And as James continues:

Do you want proof, you ignoramus, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called “the friend of God.” See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

So Abraham is faithful not because he has just the first two forms of faith, but because he has all three. Protestants often claim that you can’t have the first two forms of faith without the third, but this is wrong — as noted, the demons do.

2. Loving v. Unloving Faith

The other way in which faith is formulated in two separate sense is faith with or without love. This is best seen in 1 Corinthians 13. For example, in 1 Cor 13:1-3, Paul says:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

This chapter posed a very serious problem for Luther. First, Paul says that faith without love is nothing. And second, Paul speaks of the various spiritual gifts a bit later in the chapter, and says that love is greater than faith. Now, from Luther’s perspective, if you truly believed Jesus was Lord, that faith would necessarily result in love and good works. But here, Paul’s talking about people for who that just isn’t so. They believe that Jesus is Lord, they perhaps even believe He’s calling them to love, but they just don’t.

There’s an important difference to draw out here: Luther argued that faith without love wasn’t faith; but Paul argues that it is faith, simply a worthless faith. Paul Althaus, a liberal Lutheran theologian from the mid-twentieth century, describes Luther’s take on this passage, and why it’s wrong:

The correspondence, or much more correctly, the unity of the Lord and of the Spirit exclude the possibility of Paul saying as Luther does that “the Spirit, or the gifts which He grants, can be present even without faith in Christ…” Luther must assert this because his understanding of faith eliminates the possibility of a faith in Christ which would be without love. God can certainly work such a faith but it cannot possibly be the same as saving faith in Christ. Luther must therefore make a distinction between the faith of 1 Corinthians 13:2 and saving faith in Christ. He minimizes the significance of the former by calling it “hypocritical,” “put on,” and “false.” In Luther’s thinking, men who have such a wonder-working faith (without love) are unbelievers when judged by the standard of faith in Christ. The question is whether or not Paul would have agreed on this. Is Luther’s alternative between true faith which is active in love, and “false,” “hypocritical,” or “put on” faith, adequate in view of the faith of which Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians 13:2? Paul depreciates that faith only in comparatively in its relationship with love (1 Cor. 13:13) but not in and of itself. Luther declares that faith which does not result in love is no faith at all. Paul declares that the man who has only this faith without love is “nothing.” He does not say that such faith is no faith at all.
(The Theology of Martin Luther, pp. 443-444)

In the context of 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is explaining why out of faith, hope and love, “the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). He’s comparing real faith with real hope and real love, and saying that love still greater, because real faith, by itself, isn’t enough.

Now, obedient faith and loving faith aren’t separate things — they’re one in the same. You cannot obey God without loving Him and your neighbor, since the entire Law is built on the twin commandments of love (Luke 10:26-28). That’s the prescription given by Christ: love God and your neighbor, and you’ll live. Don’t, and you won’t. So faith, obedience, and love, are wrapped up into a single action, our loving submission to God, expressed through loving obedience. John 15, which I’ll get to in the last section, addresses this beautifully. To obey Christ, you must love: “This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:17; see also John 15:12). And to persevere in the love of Christ, you must obey: “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love” (John 15:10) Obedience and love are inseparable parts of a growing faith.

3. Faith Working in Love: The Key to Salvation

The KJV version of Galatians 5:6 nails it: “For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.” Paul’s phrase, also translated “faith working through love” sums everything I’ve said up succinctly: for faith to be worth anything, it must not be mere belief, or even belief combined with trust, but belief, trust and loving obedience.

This, of course, leads to James’ message in James 2. James makes it crystal clear that mere belief and trust is insufficient, since even the demons have it, and aren’t saved. And what’s more, they believe and trust that God means what He says even more than we do — they’ve seen His Power firsthand. I’ve heard Protestants refer to this as “mere intellectual assent,” but it’s not — it’s truly believing that what God has promised is going to happen. But that’s not a saving faith (obviously). What’s missing is their submission to God and their obedience. That’s why James hits so heavily on the theme of good works. God calls us generally to love our neighbor, and calls us to specific good works as well (Ephesians 2:10). If we do these good works, we’re obeying Him. We’re being faithful, and we’re being justified. If we don’t do these good works, we’re disobeying Him, and we’re being faithless. James sums it up simply: “For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead“(James 2:26). This is exactly what Paul’s driving at in 1 Corinthians 13:2.

4. Understanding the Relationship between Faith and Obedience

The relationship between faith and obedience is where things can be a bit confusing. When James speaks of “faith,” he means #1 and #2 above (believing and trusting in God), without necessarily accompanying obedience. As noted above, this belief and trust can exist without obedience: it’s just dead (as James says), and worth nothing (as Paul says). Paul sometimes means faith in this way (as in 1 Corinthians 13), but sometimes uses it as a shorthand for obedient faith, as in Romans 1:5.

The easiest way to understand the relationship is this: obedience and love are the fruits of faith. To love and obey God, you must first believe in Him, and trust in Him. As, Psalm 111:10 says, the fear of the Lord is “the beginning of wisdom” and obedience of God’s commandments — you must believe before you can obey. That doesn’t mean all faith bears the fruit of love/obedience, just that only faith bears this fruit. There’s no other source.

Imagine explaining to someone the ingredients to grow an apple tree. The only ingredient is an apple seed, planted in the right environment (rich moist soil, with plenty of room to grow). So “seed alone” is enough. But at the same time, the seed must be growing into something more than a seed, and it must eventually produce branches and fruit — something which may not happen (if the seed dies, or the soil dries up, etc.). In a sense, then, Luther is right, that faith is all you need: it’s in the sense that to have an apple, you only need an apple seed. That apple contains within it everything necessary to grow into a full-grown tree capable of bearing good fruit. If you don’t like the analogy, blame Paul: he describes good works as the fruit of faith in Colossians 1:10. But an apple seed and a fruit-bearing apple tree are very different, and in that sense, the seed alone isn’t sufficient — it needs to grow into a plant to be of any use. Otherwise, it’s worth nothing.

So where Luther was wrong was that he believed that all true seeds of faith eventually bore the fruit of good works, so that as long as you had a seed, you knew you’d eventually have fruit. That’s not true. The parable of the sower appears in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8 — in all three versions, the exact same seed is thrown, and yet depending of the soil (the disposition of the hearer of the word of God), it either dies out at once, grows and then dies out, or grows and bears fruit.

John 15 contains a similar parable, in which Jesus is the Vine, and we are the branches (John 15:5). And it is only by Christ the Vine that we can bear fruit, since “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me” (John 15:4). That’s the part Luther got right. But he’s wrong in thinking that all of the branches will bear fruit, and that all of the branches will remain in Christ: John 15:2 speaks directly to the reality that some branches will be cut off for not bearing fruit. And the fruit He’s talking about is love and obedience, as mentioned above (see John 15:10, 12, 17). That’s pretty blatant. Some Christians will be attached to the Vine of Christ, but won’t love and obey, and will be cut off. Period, end of story. Those dead branches, once again, are the same as the dead Christians of James 2, the unproductive soil from the Synoptic Gospels, and the worthless faithful of 1 Corinthians 13 — every New Testament writer is presenting the same point, many straight from the mouth of Christ.

So faith, apart from love/obedience, is useless, dead, dried up. In that sense, Luther was wrong. But “faith working in love” is what we need, and all we need. There’s no need for works of the law, etc. – just faith working in love, alone. In that sense, Luther was right.

Since justification is the overwhelming reason Protestants cite for refusing to be Catholic, I’m curious to hear what the counter-arguments are here. Can a person believe in Christ and not obey Him?


  1. I’d say your Althaus quote on 1 Cor 13 was critical to proving the main point.

    The key is to get to the heart of Protestant ‘strongholds’ and refute them, because that’s where Protestants are hiding out. You can quote anything you want against them, but it will fall on deaf ears because they’re conditioned to think another way. For example, on the topic of justification, I’ve found that Protestants have super-isolated texts like Romans 4:4-5, injected their own understanding into the text, and made this the lens by which *all other* Scripture is interpreted. So if you quote 1 Cor 13 or John 15 or whatever, the Protestant will default back to Romans 4:4-5 and do whatever necessary to make 1 Cor 13 and John 15 conform to Rom 4:4-5. Protestants have literally hung their hat on 2-3 verses of Scripture and refuse to take Scripture as a whole. It’s astonishing to realize, but when you do, it’s a whole new ballgame.

    This explains why Protestants generally shy away from interpreting Romans 4:3 in light of Romans 4:18-22 and why they go at lengths to deny Habakuk 2:4 as quoted in Romans 1:17 is to be read as “faithfulness” when Hebrews 10:36ff quotes this same text and explains it as “faithfulness”. And most ironic of all, for a group shouting “Faith Alone,” they virtually ignore Hebrews 11 which is devoted to the subject. I’ve picked up numerous Protestant books on justification by faith alone, and there is almost no mention Hebrews 11.

    I recently finished a post on this topic of faith alone according to Protestant thinking:

  2. Thanks, Nick. I read your post. Good use of Genesis 26:4-5. I think the text (in the greater context of Abraham’s righteousness) is pretty clear that Abraham’s faith and Abraham’s faithfulness, which includes works, are one and the same. Hebrews 11:8-19 shows the same thing as well. It incorporates everything James talks about in James 2 under the heading of Abraham’s “faith,” even while James distinguishes between Abraham’s “faith” and “works.”

  3. Sola Fides… Saved by faith alone.

    The fundamentalist believes he is assured of salvation.

    All he has to do is to accept Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and savior and salvation is automatic and irrevocable no matter what he does for the rest of his life.

    Oh Yeah? What happened to the ten commandments?

    A. Many verses in Scripture attest to salvation by faith alone. Joel 2:32, “…that every one that shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

    Acts 2:21 says the same almost word for word, and likewise for Romans 10:13. “…I live in the faith of the Son of GOD…”, is from Galatians 2:20. Again, these are beautiful words that should be heeded by all.

    B. However, elsewhere in Scripture there is quite a different side of the story. Start with Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father in Heaven shall enter the kingdom of Heaven.”

    Very clear that you have to do the will of the Father to gain salvation.

    I like 1 Corinthians 10:12, “…let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” That one says you cannot be guaranteed of salvation.

    Then James 2:14-26 says over and over, “…Faith too without works is dead…Faith without works is useless…so Faith also without works is dead.” Again, words to be heeded by all.

    C. So what is the answer to this dilemma? Is this one of those Bible ‘conflicts’ you keep hearing about? No, not at all.

    The answer is very simple. There are two types of salvation, ‘objective salvation’, and ‘subjective salvation’.

    The verses in ‘A’ are examples of objective salvation. Jesus Christ did atone for all of our sins, past, present and future.

    He did His part and did it well, but He left the burden upon each one of us to complete the second side of the story by atoning for our own sins, by doing the will of the Father.

    We have to keep the commandments. We have to practice ‘subjective salvation’. There is no salvation by accepting only part of Scripture as shown in ‘A’, and by rejecting, or trying to explain away the verses in ‘B’.

    Yet this what Protestants are doing. Again, we have to combine ‘A’, and ‘B’, to have the full truth. A+B=C = TRUTH.

  4. The counter-argument would be that love and obedience are technically actions (works). Under your view Luther would agonize over whether he loved enough or was obedient enough.

    But you make a good point in rebutting Luther’s insistence that faith without more isn’t really faith. Of course there are people who have faith but refuse to love and obey. Perhaps the right approach is to require love and obedience for salvation but to do away with the notion that God measures these qualities in us. Rather, God just requires that we try.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *