The argument over faith and works has supposedly been one of the cornerstones of the theological debate between Protestants and Catholics. In fact, there isn't any irreconcilable difference between mainstream Catholic and Protestant theology on the topic.

Martin Luther developed the teaching of justification by faith alone in response to the excesses of emphasis on faith and prayer for others. During the Middle Ages, many people came to believe that they would be saved fromdamnation if they said the right words or carried around the right objects. These ideas were never officially endorsed by the Church hierarchy, but they weren't particularly discouraged either--partly because a lot of people were gaining money and prestige from their perceived ability to provide tickets to Heaven. Salvation increasingly came to be seen as something that could be purchased or negotiated.

Luther reacted against this by talking about salvation by faith alone, meaning that a personal decision to follow God was all that one needed to be saved--the amulets and special prayers weren't necessary if you had faith, and wouldn't help you if you didn't. Justification by faith alone because the theological epicenter of the Reformation, since it affirmed the individual's ability to be saved without mediation or intervention from an ecclesiastical hierarchy, and without going through any rituals that could be put under human control.

Despite the conflicts and mutual condemnations over the centuries, the mainstream Catholic and Protestant views on justification have never been irreconcilable--and as mainstream views have changed, they are relatively easy to reconcile today. The Catholic Church has always said that rituals have no benefit if they're not performed with real faith and contrition...and today, that idea is pretty much accepted by ordinary Catholics as common sense. Almost all Catholics would agree that if Stalin had a deathbed conversion, he would be saved even though he was unable to perform any good works. At the same time, there are very few Protestants who believe that works are really irrelevant. If you ask most Protestants what happens to a person who has a moment of true faith and then commits every sin in the book, most of them will agree that this person doesn't get into heaven--although most of them will say that it's because he didn't really have faith in the first place.

The point is that both Catholics and Protestants generally agree on the most important things--you don't have to do anything in particular to be saved, but "being saved" isn't something that excuses you from an obligation to do good.

Paul’s Use of the Gentile Debate to Teach Justification By Faith

Many important events in the early Church center around the Gentile debate—the question of whether to require Gentile Christians to observe the Law of Moses. Beginning with Peter’s dream (recorded in the first part of Acts) this topic takes on great importance in the doings and teachings of the Apostles, especially the Apostle Paul. Paul mentions the debate in many of his epistles to the different churches: Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. Throughout all his teachings in these epistles Paul uses the debate to convey a theological message—salvation by grace and justification by faith. Using events surrounding the Saints at that time Paul was able to more effectively teach a key principle of the Gospel to members of the congregations to which he wrote and spoke.

In Acts 10, the Apostle Peter has a dream commanding him to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles. This is the beginning of the Gentile ministry, of which Paul eventually handles the majority. It is also the first recorded instance of practice-altering revelation after the ascension of Christ, and theologically solidifies the apostolic keys as the requirement for new doctrine after Christ—but this does not mean that everyone accepted Peter’s revelation without question. The most significant resistance to the Gentile ministry were those who believed that Gentiles must first become proselytes (converted Jews) and obey the Law of Moses before they could accept the Gospel of Christ. These people are referred to throughout the New Testament by “they of the circumcision” or a similar denotation.

As we know today this teaching was clearly false, and Paul spent a great deal of time working against the misinformation it caused. Each of his major letters contains references to the debate (which Peter settled in Acts 15) and Paul consistently uses each of these references to teach what he sees as the central point of the Gospel: salvation and justification by faith. Each example drawn from a Pauline epistle follows the same basic pattern: the law is good, but circumcision and the law gain a man nothing if he has not faith.

Taking the epistles in Biblical order, the first time where Paul uses this technique and mentions the Gentile debate is in Romans, beginning in the second chapter. Paul speaks of how those who are righteous shall be counted the same whether they are circumcised or not. Specifically he says, “Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith.” (Romans 3:30) This makes immediately clear the doctrine that God no longer differentiates between Jew and Gentile—the gospel of faith and repentance is available to all. Peter speaking concerning the Holy Ghost confirms this: “Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ;” (Acts 11: 17).

In Galatians Paul next mentions the Gentile debate in the context of faith and repentance. Paul notes in that epistle that to him is committed the gospel of the heathen (meaning the Gentile) while Peter carries the work of the circumcision (Gal. 2: 7-9). Paul then proceeds to clarify that there is truly no difference. He later says, “For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.” (Gal. 5: 6) Paul clearly states that the means to salvation through Christ is faith and love.

A detailed discussion of the Gentile debate is given in Ephesians immediately following the doctrine of salvation by grace. Paul states that now all men are saved by the grace of Christ, and not of themselves. Five verses later he says that the walls between the Jew and Gentile have been broken down by this doctrine and salvation comes unto Jew and Gentile alike (Eph. 2: 11-14). This gives a sharp contrast to the Gospel preached by Christ, which went by the word of Christ only unto the Jews: “Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs.” (Mark 7:27)

Paul reinforces this teaching of unity through the grace of Christ in his epistle to the Colossians. He speaks in the third chapter of the virtues the Saints should all strive to possess, the chief among these being charity. He recommends that all put on the new man of repentance through the grace of Christ, “Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all.” (Col. 3: 11) Here Paul clearly shows that all men, regardless of lineage, can have the grace of Christ unto salvation.

Throughout his epistles to the various churches, Paul repeatedly emphasizes that we as Saints are saved by the grace of Christ and justified through faith on his name. This is Paul’s central theme and resulted in the beginning of the Reformation by Martin Luther. Paul also consistently mentions the Gentile debate in his letters, as he was commissioned to carry the Gospel to the Gentiles. In these letters he uses the mention of the Gentile debate to show that all righteous men are equal in the sight of God, and to teach the principle of salvation by grace. This combination reflects Paul’s concerns for the Saints he taught and his skill as a teacher of the Word.

Node your homework.
This is an essay providing an argument for the protestant belief that we are saved by faith only, or in Latin, Sola Fide.

Sola Fide - By Faith Alone

There is just one way into heaven: believe that Jesus is the son of God.
I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life (John 5:24).

Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law (Romans 3:28).

From these, and scores of other verses, we must know one thing, if we learn nothing else from God's Word: we are saved by faith alone. There is no act you can preform and no deed you can do to earn your way into God's presence.

One sin (and everyone has sinned) sets you so far apart from God's glory that not even dedicating your life to the refugees in Somalia will atone for it. John the Baptist to Mother Theresa to yours truly have sinned, and there is no hope of being forgiven on account of being a good person.

Yet, God's grace is so great that He sent His son to take our punishment. All we must do is allow Him to take our punishment and all our sins will be wiped away. No deeds you perform afterward will make you better or worse in God's eyes - there is no "more perfect." Jesus certainly did not think the thief on the cross next to His was about to perform some deeds to achieve holiness, but he was still promised a place in paradise.

Under the Old Covenant, the Jewish people were to follow a very strict set of laws to remain in God's favor. If they ever made a mistake they were to sacrifice an animal. This would postpone punishment, but never made them entirely blameless. When Jesus died on the cross, we entered into a new covenant. He was a perfect sacrifice - no longer would God's children need to kill animals to stay in His favor.

All of this is not to say that deeds are not important. They are, but they are not necessary for salvation. We are improved as people, grow closer to God, receive greater rewards, and achieve God's will (not to mention you will want to do them anyway when you have been saved). Still, nothing you can do will cause you to be holy; only Jesus can do that.

Sola Scriptura - By Scripture Alone
Sola Fide - By Faith Alone
Sola Gratia - By Grace Alone
Solo Christo - By Christ Alone
Soli Deo Gloria - Glory to God Alone

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