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A Brief Letter Explaining the Differences Between Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism

This letter was a response to a Roman Catholic' questioner on our web site.

Thanks for your questions. I'll do my best to answer them!

First, you asked about the fundamental differences between Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism. 500 years ago Martin Luther and those who embraced the Biblical Gospel that he had rediscovered, bitterly broke with the Roman Catholic Church, over two main differences. To this day these two differences remain.

Difference #1 is over the answer to the question, "How is one saved and enter heaven?" Martin Luther and Lutherans to this day answer this question with Scripture: "we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law" (Romans 3:28; see also Romans 3:19-4:5; Romans 5:1-2; Galatians 2:16-21; Galatians 5:1-5; Ephesians 2:8-9; see also John 3:16; 11:25-26). In other words, Lutherans say that we are justified/saved/enter heaven by faith in Jesus as Savior PLUS NOTHING. Christ died for every sin and all guilt, for every impurity and all that we lack. By His death He offers complete forgiveness and salvation AS A GIFT. We receive that gift by faith, by believing that Jesus died for ME. Our love, our performance, our good works do not and cannot save us in whole or in part. Only Jesus' performance saves us and our faith in Him makes His performance ours.

Roman Catholics (then and now) answer: No, we are saved by faith PLUS love and good works. Faith alone in Jesus Christ as Savior does NOT save! Unless faith is completed by love and good works it cannot save us." Put another way, then, Roman Catholics say that faith in Jesus is INSUFFICIENT to save us. Faith alone is not enough. Our faith must be "formed by love," which means that the burden of proof falls on our love. Only if we are loving enough, can our faith save us, say Roman Catholics. How much love is needed? How many good works? How much effort? Unfortunately the Roman Catholic Church cannot tell you this. It merely answers (then and now) "Do your best and hopefully that will be enough." But how do we know when or if we've done our best? And what about the Biblical teaching that if we are trying to placate God with our love and good works, God demands perfection, not the best we can do?! (see Matthew 5:48; James 2:10; Lev. 19:2; Galatians 3:10-11)

The Council of Trent made this teaching the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church (canon XII) and actually damned anyone who said that we are justified by faith alone for Christ's sake. Both the New Catholic Catechism, Vatican II, and other contemporary documents show that this is still the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church today. Therefore, the recent "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification" passed by an overwhelming majority at the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, as you know the ALC is now part of this) is grossly premature. Why? Because it declared that there is now basic agreement between Lutherans and Catholics on justification by faith. If only it were so! But it is not, and I'm basing this on each church's official documents.

This first difference between Lutherans and Roman Catholics is a pivotal difference over the main teaching of Christianity. Galatians 5 tells us that anyone who seeks to be justified (saved) by the Law (by our love, effort, good works, etc.) is severed from Christ and has fallen from grace! We are not to depend on our works, even in part, but only on what Christ has done for us! Faith alone saves. So your assessment that for Lutherans salvation is "easier" is correct. Easier for us, since its a gift that we receive by faith and baptism. But very costly for Christ who had to give His life to procure it!

Difference # 2 is over the answer to the question, "What is the highest authority in Christianity?" Roman Catholics have argued that it is the papacy (or at least the magisterium); Lutherans have argued that Christ is the only head of the Christian Church, his body; and holy Scripture is that authority by which all Christian doctrine must be judged.

From the time of Luther on, Lutherans have rejected the RC's claim that the pope is the divinely appointed head of Christendom (though Luther was willing to allow him to be considered head of Christendom by human right, if only he would allow the Gospel to be preached). Particularly offensive to Lutherans was the claim, first made by pope Boniface VIII, in the bull "Unam Sanctum" (1302 AD), that no one can be saved unless they submit to the Roman pope. Yet this has never been retracted, but actually has been strengthened in official documents since the time of the Reformation (1500s).

As recently as the Vatican II Council held in the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church reasserted this view of papal authority: "Religious submission of will and mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic teaching of the Roman Pontiff even when he is not speaking 'ex cathedra'" [that is, when he is not proclaiming a formal doctrinal decree]. Also, the recently published "Catechism of the Catholic Church," the official guide for Catholic teaching says:

    The Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ and as pastor of the entire church, has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered (Par. 882).

This Luther and all Lutherans rejected and still reject. Faith in Jesus alone is necessary for salvation. And holy Scripture, the Word of God, is the final court of appeals for all questions concerning Christian doctrine, not the pope, or any other human organization.

There are other differences, of course. Though Lutherans thank God for Mary and view her as the mother of God, we utterly reject the RC teaching that she is co-Mediator (Savior) with Christ, that she was sinless, or that her intercessions today are crucial for our salvation. We also differ with Catholics on the sacraments, purgatory, and a number of other lesser items.

With all my heart I desire true unity with Roman Catholics, but we are far, far away from that at this point. More prayer and serious ecumenical work is needed. Having said this, I must add that Lutheranism (when it is faithful to Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions) is "catholicism the way it oughta be." It is reformed Catholicism, Catholicism purged of teachings and elements that contradict the Gospel of justification by faith alone. It is for this reason that we Lutherans, from Luther on, describe ourselves as "catholics" but not ROMAN Catholics.

I encourage you to check out several other places on our web page for more info.: On the "Martin Luther and the Lutheran Reformation" page, see any of the articles under the "Lutheran Reformation" subheading. You might also want to check out the Lutheran Confessions (our official Lutheran documents) on the "Book of Concord" page. Go to the "What We Believe" section. You might also find the tract "If You Hope to Enter Heaven, There is One Thing You Need" in the "Tract" section of the web page.

Yours in Christ,
Dr. Richard Bucher