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I will often engage in dialogue with Catholics and Orthodox Christians who tell me that the doctrine of their churches affirms that salvation is by grace through faith.

If that is true, then what distinguishes Lutherans from Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians?

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    then what distinguishes Lutherans from Catholics, or even better from Orthodox Christians Their hats, obviously. ;-) All kidding asied, this question is kind of broad, and it seems to be missing something in terms of specificity. For example, can you insert your sources for the Catholic and Orthodox "affirms salvation by grace through faith" to support this question based on hearsay evidence? ("Someone told me" isn't usually a good basis for a question) (And because I am very aware of church history, any answer that does not include politics is only partially right ... 8^p ) – KorvinStarmast Jan 8 at 22:30
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    "What distinguishes Lutherans from Catholics" is not necessarily the same question as "Why did the reformation happen". The former is a question about the state today, the latter about historical circumstances. One big driver for the reformation was the catholic practice of selling letters of indulgences, something that doesn't exist anymore AFAIK, but is obviously quite far away from "salvation by grace through faith". – kutschkem Jan 9 at 9:46
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    Because it wasn't the only point at issue. Luther had 95 theses, not just one. – Marquis of Lorne Jan 9 at 12:05
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    Things people told you != beliefs of certain religions. You should have sought out the actual teachings of these churches instead of assuming people knew what they were talking about. – tar Jan 9 at 17:30
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Because the Catholic Church doesn't teach that we attain salvation only through the reception of God's grace by faith. That's why the Protestant teaching is called sola fide!

The Catholic Catechism says:

CCC 2010 Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life. Even temporal goods like health and friendship can be merited in accordance with God's wisdom. These graces and goods are the object of Christian prayer. Prayer attends to the grace we need for meritorious actions.

And the Council of Trent declared:

Canon xxiv. If any one shall say, that the justice received is not preserved, and also increased in the sight of God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of justification received, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.

Canon xxxii. If any one shall say, that the good works of a man that is justified are in such wise the gifts of God, as that they are not also the good merits of him that is justified; or, that the said justified, by the good works which are performed by him through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life, if so be, however, that he depart in grace, and, moreover, an increase of glory; let him be anathema.

So while the Catholic Church affirms that we cannot merit "the initial grace of forgiveness and justification" it does teach that our good works merit the completion of our sanctification and our full attainment of salvation and eternal life. It also condemns the Protestant teachings that good works are only the gifts, fruit, and signs of justification but do not merit eternal life.

As to the Eastern Orthodox churches, I know much less about them, but I did find this catechism. If I'm understanding correctly, it teaches a rather sacramental understanding of salvation, in which participation in the sacraments is necessary. Protestants would say this too is not compatible with salvation by grace alone through faith alone, as well as the doctrine that Christ is our only mediator (ie, Christ alone).

The Church is not a building, but a People who are filled with the Holy Spirit and who share in His life bringing His life into the world. It is through the sacraments of the Church that we are united to Christ. (p77)

Rather than the Protestant teaching that we are united to Christ by the Holy Spirit through faith.

Since they [the sacraments] were initiated by Christ Himself, or by the implicit request of Christ, they are necessary for our salvation. They were instituted as a means of transmitting Grace based on the needs of the believers. This is not to limit the action of the Holy Spirit as it can surely act outside of these ceremonies. But, Grace can only be received through Baptism and the Eucharist which were directly established by Christ. (p92)

Yet, no matter how great our repentance is, if it is not completed by the Mystery of Confession it does not give rise to salvation or reconcile us with God. It is only through Confession preceded by the sincere repentance that our sins can be cleansed and our soul be healed. Repentance alone is not sufficient. (p109)

There is no doubt that God accepts the repentance of a sinner, but He forgives it only through the medium of the spiritual Father [a priest] and the Mystery of Confession. (p110)

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I'd like to focus on the following part of your question because it is not answered, yet:

If ..., why did the Protestant Reformation happen?

This question implies that the main reasons for the separation of the Catholic and the Protestant Church were of religious nature.

When learning about Luther's time in history lessons in school here in Germany, we learn about the reasons that played an important role: Many (or even most) of the reasons for the separation were not of religious nature.

The historic background in Germany is little known outside Germany and it is rather difficult to explain.

One reason for the success of the Reformation (not for the Reformation itself) in Germany was that most monarchs in Germany were against the pope for economic but not for religious reasons.

You could also look at the Anglican Church:

The reason for the separation was that King Henry VIII wanted to get divorced and marry another wife.

According to the German Wikipedia, the pope first wanted to allow the divorce but the reason why he did not allow it was fear of the king of France.

Fear of the king of France is obviously not a religious reason.

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    Henry VIII's reason is religious in one sense: the religion did not let him do it, so better to start a new religion. ;) – Nate Barbettini Jan 11 at 0:34
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    Henry VIII in fact earned the title 'Defender of the Faith' from the Pope at the time because of his strong rhetoric published contrary to Luther. Something the British throne still passes down as a title. – AER Jan 11 at 6:08
  • @NateBarbettini I updated my answer to make my point more clear. – Martin Rosenau Jan 11 at 6:47
  • @MartinRosenau Makes sense! – Nate Barbettini Jan 12 at 20:34
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While it is true that one can say the Eastern Orthodox proclaims "salvation by grace through faith", the eastern understanding of what exactly salvation is departs radically from that of western Christianity. This was actually made clear in the local Orthodox Church tract another answer referenced, but seems to have been overlooked (p.78-79):

The problem is that Orthodox and Evangelicals do not use the word saved in the same sense. This means we are talking about different things. In the evangelical understanding the satisfaction theory of atonement is assumed. It presupposes that the difference between the saved and the damned is the attitude of God toward them, not any inherent quality of their own. It also presupposes that our state of being guilty can be changed in an instant. For an evangelical, to be saved means to be declared “not guilty” by God.

From the eastern perspective, western Christian confessions inherited this largely juridical interpretation of salvation, wherein Christ's death on the Cross was a key event in human history that finally accomplished retribution for man's disobedience in the Garden. While the eastern Church might have agreed with some of the motives of the Reformation (e.g. rejection of the notion of Papal primacy), it also sees that the basic premises of penal substitutionary atonement - perhaps most aptly articulated in the 11th century by Anselm of Canterbury - had been carried over.


The Archangel Gabriel announced to the Virgin that Jesus would save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). Elsewhere we read that the Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost (Luke 19:10), that He is not come to destoy men's lives, but to save them (Luke 9:56), and that He came not to judge the world, but to save the world (John 12:47). Commenting on these passages, the late Archbishop of Dallas, Dmitry Royster, wrote:

What does "being saved" mean? From what sins do men need to be saved? Since sin in the Greek original is hamartia, literally "failure" or "missing the mark", we have to conclude that man's sin consists fundamentally in his missing the very point of his existence (although for some Christians, salvation has been reduced to nothing more than escaping the punishment of hell).1


A further contrast of Eastern Orthodox and western Christian (Roman Catholic/Protestant) fundamental beliefs concerning the nature of sin can be found in a later edition of M. Pomazansky's Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, where the editors comment:

Roman Catholic teaching on inherited guilt is based on the works of Blessed Augustine,2 who wrote "Even of believing husbands and wives are born guilty persons ... on account of original sin" ("Treatise against Two Letters of the Pelagians, Ch. 11); "The fault of our nature remains in our offspring so deeply impressed as to make it [our offspring] guilty" ("On Original Sin", Ch. 44); "Inasmuch as infants are not held bound by any sins of their own actual life, it is the guilt of original sin which is healed in them by the grace of Him Who saves them by the laver of regeneration [i.e. in Baptism]" ("On the Baptism of Infants, Ch. 24); "Until then, this remission of sins takes place in the offspring, they have within them the law of sin in such manner that it is really imputed to them as sin; in other words, with that law there is attaching to them its sentence of guilt, which holds them debtors to eternal condemnation" ("On Marriage and Concupiscence", Ch. 37). The concept of inherited guilt was affirmed at the fifth session of the [Roman Catholic] Council of Trent (1546), which, in defining the Roman teaching on original sin, referred to the "guilt of original sin." In the 17th and 18th centuries, some Roman Catholic theologians continued to develop Blessed Augustine's teaching on inherited guilt. However it was in Protestantism rather than Roman Catholicism that the doctrine of inherited guilt (also known as the doctrine of "imputed sin") was given its most extreme formulations.3


1. St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans: A Pastoral Commentary (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2008), p. 33.
2. St. Augustine is venerated as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church, but he is also acknowledged to have committed some theological errors during the course of his vigorous condemnation of Pelagius. A fairly detailed explanation of this can be found in S. Rose, The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church (St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2007). Some of these Augustine himself recanted later in life.
3. Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (3rd ed.; St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2005), p.165n.

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CuriousDannii's answer is quite good, and well researched. I'm adding an answer that is perhaps more conceptual and experiential.

Firstly, there's a number of reasons for the Reformation on grounds other than salvation by grace through faith: e.g. originally the abuse of indulgences (not strictly doctrinal), then Papal supremacy, the role of tradition in informing doctrine, primus inter pares of the Pope, the role of the saints in heaven.

Beyond those are a host of reasons that all Protestants don't entirely agree on either (but have the freedom to do so).

In terms of the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith, it comes down to the matter of only. (sola fide) Orthodox and Catholics believe that you are saved by grace (God's redeeming action), but this does not mean that you are excluded from participating in this. The doctrine of total depravity is the key point of difference.

  1. Protestants, generally, would believe in total depravity, and in fact that it is not even possible for anyone to do good works, not just with the help of God, but in fact it is the exclusive work of God.
  2. The Catholic side would say that this is removing God from His role in nature, and underpinning what is a natural good. Protestants would say that God is not as involved in nature (being the natural world), that making material things holy is idolatry, and argue that Catholics tend to just tick boxes and have works without it being rooted in faith (which whilst not uncommon, often tries to be corrected by priests in the Catholic Church).

Full disclosure: I'm Catholic, previously Calvinist (5-pointer even), and completely believe that there are many things in this life that can be good.
Please comment if you think I've been biased or unfairly painted either view. I acknowledge that Protestantism in some instances has become quite Catholic such as the Oxford movement in the Anglican Church or the Arminian rejection of predestination.

Hope this helps, wishing you grace for caring about this, and my best wishes resolving this question.

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  • please check my edit: I went in for format and did little attempt to improve the flow of the prose. word smithing is a bit of a compulsion with me. :-) – KorvinStarmast Jan 11 at 19:41
  • @KorvinStarmast, great edit thanks. A lot clearer. – AER Jan 11 at 22:28

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