This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and a new Pew Research Center survey addresses the way Catholics and Protestants view salvation today. The research group explains the results of their survey this way:
"Although Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers in the 16th century held that eternal salvation is attained solely through faith (a belief known in Latin as sola fide), the surveys show that many Protestants today say instead that eternal salvation is attained through a combination of faith and good works – which is the traditional Catholic position."
But does this statement tell us the whole story? And does it provide any assistance to Protestants and Catholics who may not yet be saved, redeemed, born again, forgiven, and justified? How does Scripture address the vital connection between faith and works, and how can we help a person come to see the biblical relationship between the two, regardless of one's church affiliation?
While the Pew survey scratches the surface of this historic issue, we must dig deeper if we are going to wrap our mind around the biblical teaching of salvation and the Christian life.
Martin Luther stated the Scriptural position correctly when he said, "We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone."
Luther's insightful comment is critical if we are going to understand the relationship between faith and good works, both of which have a direct connection to salvation.
Surely few if any Catholics and Protestants would say, "Good works are not needed in the life of a believer." I don't know anyone who would make this unbiblical claim. (I addressed this topic in an article entitled, "Salvation Without Good Works is an Oxymoron.")
The thief on the cross was immediately justified before God as he trusted Jesus to forgive him right then and there. And our Lord told him, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43)
Surely few if any Catholics and Protestants believe that this thief did not go to heaven when he died. In fact, see if you can find even one Catholic or one Protestant who believes such a thing. I don't think you will find such a person.
Catholics and Protestants alike can benefit greatly from spending significant time studying the foundation of the Christian life, (1 Cor. 3:11) and then promoting among their people what actually happens on the front end of a person's relationship with God. (1 Cor. 6:11)
The apostle Paul had a firm grasp on these spiritual dynamics. Just read his epistles. In the early chapters, Paul explains that believers are already justified, saved, redeemed, born again, and forgiven. And it all takes place the moment a person repents of his sin and trusts Christ for salvation.
It is in the later chapters of his letters where Paul gives the believers instructions for holy living, especially since their salvation is already secure in Christ. At the same time, Paul warns those in the church who are deliberately sinning that they need to repent and turn to Christ. After all, those who truly know Jesus as their Savior also follow Him as their Lord.
Any way you slice it, spiritual conversion is always necessary on the front end. Only unbelievers can be converted. And conversion happens on the front end of the Christian life, just like physical birth happens on the front end of a person's earthly existence.
"Wait a minute," you may say. "What about infant baptism? How can we discuss the Catholic and Protestant teaching of salvation without discussing infant baptism?"
Obviously, there is much disagreement on the topic of infant baptism. And the apostle Paul wrote very little about baptism when compared to how much he wrote about Christians being justified on the front end through faith. Paul's statements about baptism are also very few when compared to how many instructions he gave believers encouraging them to live a righteous life that honors the Lord.
While much can be said about Christian baptism, the purpose of this article is not to figure out what is going on in the heart of every child who was baptized as an infant. The purpose of this article is to consider the Pew survey and dig deeper when it comes to the relationship between faith and good works, especially in the lives of teenagers and adults.
This is not to diminish the fact that Jesus loves every child, but rather, to focus the discussion on those who wrestle with the relationship between faith and works. Adults and teenagers are able to process these theological issues, whereas infants are obviously not yet able to understand these spiritual distinctions.
And so what are we to say about the Christianity of individual Catholics and individual Protestants? Well, see if you can find even one Catholic or one Protestant who says, "Repentance and faith are not necessary in order to be a Christian." I doubt you will find one.
But what is especially interesting is what you will discover if you ask Catholics and Protestants this question: "If an atheist repents of his unbelief and receives Jesus as Savior through faith, what is received by this new believer there on the front end of his relationship with Christ?"
Salvation? Redemption? The new birth? Justification? Forgiveness of sins?
The foundation for biblical discipleship is such a critical aspect of Christianity, and the Bible is very clear on the matter. Anyone who trusts Jesus as Savior is a Christian. Anyone whose "body is a temple of the Holy Spirit" (1 Cor. 6:19) is forgiven of his sins. And anyone who claims to be a Christian while deliberately and persistently living for sin is not a follower of Jesus.
Paul wrote, "A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life." (Galatians 6:7,8)
And we are told in Hebrews: "If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God." (Heb. 10:26,27)
Isn't this something that both Catholics and Protestants affirm?
In fact, see if you can find even one Catholic or one Protestant who thinks that a person claiming to be a Christian will go to heaven, while deliberately and persistently living for sin day after day and year after year. I doubt you will find even one who believes such a thing.
So let's see where that leaves us.
It would seem that almost every Catholic and Protestant probably agrees with Jesus that the thief on the cross is in heaven today.
And it seems that most Catholics and Protestants would agree with the Lord and with the apostle Paul that faith and good works are both critically important in the life of Christian discipleship. Apple trees produce apples, and Christ produces good works in the life of every Christian. It's what happens if you are truly connected to the vine.
Jesus said, "I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." (John 15:5)
Can you find even one Catholic or one Protestant who thinks that Christ does not produce good fruit in the life of every person who is truly a Christian? I doubt you will find one.
So what is the relationship between faith and good works? Well, those two things always go together. One flows from the other.
James wrote, "Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." (James 2:17)
See if you can find even one Catholic or one Protestant who disagrees with James on that point. I doubt you will find one.
So was the faith of the thief on the cross dead, or alive? Obviously, his faith was alive. Otherwise, Jesus would not have told him that he would be in heaven later that day. The thief was converted on the front end, and he was immediately saved, forgiven, born again, redeemed, and justified through faith.
"The promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace." (Romans 4:16)
The "tree" of salvation so to speak is planted in the heart of a believer through faith, and this tree produces good fruit. Good works always flow from Christian faith.
The Holy Spirit brings about the "new birth" (1 Peter 1:3; 1 Cor. 12:3) through repentance and faith, and a believer in Jesus is also a Christ follower and a disciple of the Savior.
If you are not a believer, then you are not a follower and disciple of the Messiah. And if you are not a follower and disciple of Christ, then you are not a believer; you are not a Christian.
The terms "Catholic" and "Protestant" can only carry so much water. And religious surveys don't dig a much deeper well than those religious labels. If we are going to really grasp the biblical teaching on salvation, we need to get down to the level of God's wellspring that resides within the soul of every single believer.
Jesus said, "Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him. By this He meant the Spirit." (John 7:38,39) Either God's streams of living water are inside you, or not. If so, then you are saved, forgiven, redeemed, born again, and justified. If not, then you remain lost in your sin and you are heading toward hell rather than heaven. (John 3:36) Your only hope is Christ, as you turn to Him in repentance and believe that His death was for you and that His blood washes away your sins through faith.
In Paul's day, there were disagreements over the circumcision of believers. (Gal. 2:11-21) In our day, there are disagreements over baptism. But what matters most is whether or not a person is connected to the vine. If someone is connected to Christ, then he will follow Christ in his daily life.
As Paul wrote, "Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation." (Galatians 6:15)
And so remember: Organizations can take surveys, but only God can see into your heart. What does the Lord see in your heart today? Is Christ in your life, or are you the shepherd of your soul and the captain of your eternal destiny?
"Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." (Romans 10:13) And the first sermon Jesus ever preached was simply, "Repent and believe the good news." (Mark 1:15)
It's really not as complicated as it might seem at first blush. One must dig deeper into Scripture, while recognizing that a survey can only scratch the surface. One on one conversations are the best way to find out what a person believes, and the best way to help a person navigate his way through the theological waters of faith, good works, and salvation.
Regardless of your religious label, ask yourself this question: Am I trusting in Jesus' death on the cross for my forgiveness and salvation, while also living my life for the One who was sacrificed so that I can go to heaven when I die?
At the end of the day, what are we to say about faith and good works? Well, it's never been either/or; it's always been both/and. For 2000 years, those who have received Christ as Savior through faith (John 1:12) have been instantly forgiven, redeemed, saved, born again and justified.
So what, if anything, have we learned after 500 years, and what does each one of us plan to do about it in our own family, church, and sphere of influence?