Luther Fundamentally Misunderstood St. Paul, Part 5: Tensions

By December 24, 2015 Apologetics 13 Comments

I remember the moment it became clear to me that I was insane.

I had resigned my position as a Protestant minister and was waiting tables at a restaurant in the Valley. I was in the kitchen folding napkins preparing for the lunch shift. I was thinking about Martin Luther and working on some theological problem when I heard someone screaming. I glanced in he direction of the sound and saw that it was my manager and that she was screaming at me. Exactly what she was screaming, I can’t recall, but the gist of it was that I should be folding my napkins much faster than I was.

I mumbled an apology of sorts and picked up the pace, but inwardly I was thinking, “Lord, what have I done?”

In this series I’m explaining how this particular Protestant pastor went insane. That is, I’m explaining how I came to move away from the doctrine that launched the Reformation and provided me with my income (Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone) and embrace Catholicism and wind up at the age of 42 enduring abuse at the hands (actually the voice) of a woman a dozen years my junior in the kitchen of a French/Asian fusion restaurant on Ventura Boulevard.


In my last post I talked about the brain-twister that first got be thinking outside the Protestant box.

It was the simple reality that when I looked at the basic pattern we can see in Scripture of how people are called to relate to God, it’s not the “faith alone” pattern we see in Protestantism. Instead, it’s always “faith, leading to obedience, resulting in blessing”.

I saw this in the lives of Noah and Abraham and Moses and every person in the Bible.

And once I saw this, the questions that came naturally to mind were: If God wanted to teach the world that his blessings must be received by faith alone, in order that they might be by grace alone, and that God might receive all the glory, and that it borders on legalism to even imagine that our obedience would be required, why did he fill the entire Bible with the examples of men and women who are always called to trust him (faith) and do what he tells them to do (obedience) in order to receive his blessing — and present them not as examples of legalism but as positive examples for us to imitate in our lives?

It didn’t make sense. I was scratching my head.

And all the more vigorously as I graduated from seminary and was ordained into the Christian ministry and began to spend a great deal of time preaching verse-by-verse through various books of the New Testament. I found that the pattern I’d seen in the Old Testament didn’t end with the Old Testament but continued right on through the New Testament as well.

In fact, I found myself running continually into passages that fit beautifully with the basic pattern of “faith, leading to obedience, resulting in blessing,” but didn’t fit, and created “tension” with, the idea that salvation is something determined at the beginning of our Christian life.


For instance, what was I to make of passages like Romans 2:7 and Galatians 6:6-7, where St Paul, the apostle supposedly most devoted to teaching justification by faith alone, describes eternal life as the reward one receives for “doing good?”

“God will give to each person according to what he has done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Romans 2:7).

“Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. 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. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest, if we do not give up.”

What was I to make of so many passages in the Gospels where Jesus speaks of obedience as though it were the key to whether or not one will receive his blessing?

“If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love?” (John 15:10).

“Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me…” (Matthew 25:31-46).

And then, what was I to make of all those passages scattered throughout the New Testament that seem so clearly to teach that it is possible for a believer to become entangled in sin, lose the will to repent, and not make it to the end?

“See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first” (Hebrews 3:12-14).

“He has now reconciled . . . in order to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him, provided that you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, and shifting form the hope of the gospel which you heard…” (Colossians 1:22-23).

“Therefore do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised” (Hebrews 10:34-35).

And I could go on quoting from every book in the New Testament. While it’s filled with passages that speak of salvation as being by faith in Christ, it’s also filled with passages that speak of salvation as a reward for faithful obedience, that speak of obedience as the determining factor on the day of judgment, that insist we must persevere to the end in faith and obedience in order to be saved.

I thought again about that pattern of faith, leading to obedience, resulting in blessing.

I thought about how faith and obedience seem to be almost interchangeable in Scripture. St Paul describes Abraham as a man who received God’s blessings because of his faith, and yet when the Lord appears to Isaac he says, “I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven…because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.”

I thought about Moses and the children of Israel on their way from Egypt to the Promised land. God supplied them with everything they needed for the journey. It was all grace. But in response to that grace, God’s people had trust him and follow the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. They had to collect the manna each morning. When they sinned they had to bring their sacrifice, receive God’s forgiveness and continue the march of faith. It was those who persevered to the end who took the land and received their inheritance.

It struck me that this is how salvation seems to be described in the New Testament.

All these passages fit when I thought of salvation in terms of this pattern. They became problematic when I tried to make them fit what I had been taught to believe as a Protestant about salvation.


Here’s why these passages created tension for me. Remember that the very essence of the Protestant view is that justification is a legal transaction that takes place and is completed the moment we first turn to Christ in faith. Christ’s righteousness is credited (imputed) to our account and we are from that instant as righteous in God’s sight as Jesus himself. We are saved.

Now, if Paul believed and taught this, then how is it that he turns around on a dime and warns his readers that God cannot be mocked, that a man will reap what he sows and that the ones who will reap a harvest of eternal life are the ones who persevere in “doing good?”

If the Lord Jesus believed and taught justification by faith alone in his imputed righteousness, how is that he describes the day of judgment as a time when God will judge each person according to his deeds?

I imagined Jesus speaking to the crowds of simple men, women and children who followed him. If it was crucial that they understand that their acceptance with the Father could only be by faith alone in his imputed righteousness, how could he look them in the eyes and say the kinds of things he said? “If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love.” “It’s those who do the will of my Father in heaven who will enter the kingdom of heaven.” “Enter the kingdom… for I was hungry and you fed me…”

How could he give these people the clear and unmistakable impression that their salvation would be based on trusting him and obeying him, like Noah, like Abraham, like all the saints of Hebrews 11, with never a word spoken to correct the false impression he was giving?

Not once do we find Jesus saying, “If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love — but of course I don’t mean to imply that obedience is necessary in order to be saved! No, no, eternal life is by faith alone! I’m just saying that if someone has true faith, he will be the sort of person who will keep my commandments and remain in my love. That’s all!”


Of course there were ways explaining these “difficult” passages. There were ways of defusing them and getting around what they seem to be saying when read in a natural and straightforward manner.

“Oh, Jesus doesn’t mean that obedience is an actual condition for entering heaven…”

“When Paul says that God will give eternal life to those who persist in doing good (Romans 2:7), he’s just speaking hypothetically. He’s describing a hypothetical scenario and saying that if salvation was by obedience, then God would give eternal life to those who persist in doing good. But it’s not, and so in reality God gives eternal life on the basis of faith alone…”

“James is just saying…”

“The author of Hebrews is just saying…”

I knew the explanations. But over time the explanations started to remind me of the explanations O.J.’s defense attorneys gave. Over time the explanations just didn’t seem to really work.

I could see that these New Testament passages sit naturally within a framework of faith, leading to obedience, resulting in blessing. I could see there was a natural fit, like a glove on a hand. I could also see that these passages don’t sit naturally within the framework of justification by faith alone. There’s not a natural fit. 

And we all know that if the glove does not fit, you must acquit.


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  • Jim Malloy says:

    But in this case the glove fitting is a very good thing.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours!

  • Mark M says:

    Thank you once again for such an enlightening article!
    God blesses us through you.
    May you have a very joyous Christmas!

  • Douglas Pearsall says:

    This is the very reason Im turning toward the Catholic church,I cannot find any other church that I can agree on about salvation.

  • Patrick says:

    Thank you for making sense of a religious position that I as a Life-long Catholic have never been able to reconcile with what the Bible actually teaches.

    You have done me a great service.

    God Bless you & Mary Christmas

  • Doug says:

    It’s disappointing that you categorize all Protestants within the identity of today’s Evangelical form of “salvation”. It should be noted that several Protestant segments have historically taught that “salvation” is also the reward of obedience and that not everyone who is justified is forever, unalterably sealed into a heavenly reward. John Wesley and many of his Methodist comrades were consistently lambasted for teaching that works of faith were mandatory for an entrance into heaven and that one once justified could be eventually lost. He taught that justification was one’s title to heaven and that sanctification was one’s fitness for heaven and that the two could not be divorced. Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress clearly illustrates the same truth of obedience that you have espoused is only found in The Church. Even Reform Protestants teach a perseverance of the saints in which they simply explain away the “originally justified” aspect of salvation. As for the very accurate explanation of the Protestant understanding (or definition?) of justification (“justification is a legal transaction that takes place and is completed the moment we first turn to Christ in faith. Christ’s righteousness is credited (imputed) to our account and we are from that instant as righteous in God’s sight as Jesus himself. We are saved.”) isn’t it also built on Christ’s and the Apostle Paul’s own clarification found in many NT (and originally) OT Scriptures? The fact that many Protestants have applied this idea of justification/salvation in a selectively “biblical” manner shouldn’t mean that the reality of justification by faith alone is not itself true. And wouldn’t a logical conclusion require that if a person could lose their salvation they would have had to have been justified sometime before losing that salvation or somehow we would need to explain how a person could be saved without being justified? So does the church teach that one is never truly justified/saved until they have finished their life course? And exactly how does a sinner gain a justified title once they have sinned? Are we still awaiting a future justification from our past sins? I think that the question needs a broader biblical input. It is a question that is often misunderstood.

    • Ken Hensley says:

      Hi Doug. In answer to your concern…

      1. I’m telling the story of MY personal journey in this series and since I came from the classical Reformation tradition rather than the Wesleyan, my story is about how I came from the classical Reformation tradition to the Catholic.
      2. The Arminian and Wesleyan school of thought is by far the minority position within Protestantism. Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, all the Puritans, the Baptists and Presbyterians and modern Evangelicals of all stripes have held the classic Protestant position I’m describing and critiquing.
      3. I haven’t said that ONLY the Catholic Church has another view. I know there are some Protestant denominations that have similar views but I’ll make sure to make that more clear. (It was reading John Wesley that I first started to doubt the classic Protestant explanations of many passages.)
      4. To your point about Protestants finding support for their view of imputation in the New Testament – yes, and I will be talking about that. I just haven’t gotten there, yet. All I’ve really done so far is (a) talk about Luther’s experience, (b) talk about how important the issue is, (c) describe in simple terms the classic Protestant and Catholic views, and explain how I began to see (d) patterns and (e) passages in Scripture that made ME think there was something wrong with the classic Protestant doctrine of justification.
      5. Finally, to your point about justification being had and then lost, yes, basically what the church teaches is that justification can be had and then lost. Of course, this entails a different definition of justification than Luther held, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

      So don’t be disappointed!

      • Douglas Barrett says:

        Very well put. I also came out of a non-RC tradition (High Church Anglicanism). In fact, I was an Anglican priest of 32 years!. Like you, I found myself, not at 42, but at 62 (!) being yelled at by my superior officer in a private security outfit, a lady easily 20 years my junior. I am now almost finished my two year seminary preparation for Catholic priesthood, in all likelihood this coming spring. My reasons were slightly different, though. As an Anglican, the necessity of obedience is something which I believed because it was taught (so, I believe you to be wrong on that one point 🙂 ). My problem was one of authority. The Anglican church had declined to the point of determining doctrine by majority vote. Is women’s ordination, for example, a matter of doctrine or discipline? Since they could do nothing if the former, they, naturally, decided (by majority vote!) that it was the latter. Now they were free to make the change! Then, in order to accommodate it, they published new liturgical resources to legitimize it. The same is happening with gay “marriage”, and the same happened in 1930 with birth control. There were just too many question marks in Anglicanism. Even their liturgical resources (the Book of Common Prayer chief among them), while beautiful in liturgical language and rich in Biblical tradition, left just too many ambiguities in faith and practice.


  • Done M Espina says:


    This series is getting more interesting to me. Thanks.

  • Mark O'Rosky says:


    As always enlightening; I have meditated on the pattern since the previous post. And since you bring up OT people, I began to mull over the NT pattern; about people and the pattern. Earlier I brought up Mary. But the one that has always been thrown back at me is the good thief. But… On deeper reflection; the good thief had faith, trusted Jesus, admonished a sinner, proclaimed the kingdom, and then received the blessing.

    This pattern will serve me well. I thank you. Peace and Joy of the season be on you and your family.

  • Gian Alpuche says:

    In my life I truly lived what you described. I had some faith but not alot. And when my life went south i turned to God and strenthened my faith which in turn let me be more obedient to god. And after all this I now truly feel that God’s blessings are upon me. Great article..

    • Gian Alpuche says:

      I forgot to mention I am a Catholic since I was A baby. And what I said earlier was not something I read or was taught. It is something that just happened. It was God working his glory on me. I am blessed to be christian…

  • Janet C says:

    To Doug’s question about what happens when one sins , how does one regain a justified title and does this go on for your whole life…yes it does go on, because we sin again. That is where the sacrament of reconciliation comes in and where we have the opportunity to recieve God’s grace through repentance and pennance. It is good stuff! The path is so well laid out, I love it.

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