Q - I would like to ask you a question that stumped me when talking with a non-Catholic friend. I realize the Catholic position on salvation is that you need faith AND works since they cannot be separated. (above all grace). We agreed that it is through grace that we have been saved and that having faith and then doing nothing doesn't guarantee you salvation. But he continued saying that faith alone still stood because it is through our faith and nothing else that we do works. I found it weird to comprehend because it sounds Catholic, yet they still agree in faith alone. Do I have a misconception of what faith alone means to them or did I happen to come across a denomination that agrees with the Catholic Church on salvation? Thanks
A - Thanks for the question. First of all, I cannot be certain what your friend means by "faith alone", because there are many different understandings of the phrase. Luther taught one thing about it, which is carried down in some ways to some Lutherans, yet others have changed it some. A slight variation has developed in Reformed Protestantism, and then a several slightly different versions have come into popular Evangelical Protestant circles.
Therefore, it would be a good idea for you to ask some probing questions as to what your friend means by "faith alone".
The best document I know of is the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church. This document sums up the common understanding of the issues and the things that still divide us. I will try to sum it up, but it is a relatively easy read.
The 5th paragraph sums up the purpose and goal of the document:
The present Joint Declaration has this intention: namely, to show that on the basis of their dialogue the subscribing Lutheran churches and the Roman Catholic Church are now able to articulate a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ. It does not cover all that either church teaches about justification; it does encompass a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification and shows that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations.
Some relevant quotes:
Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ's saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.
We confess together that all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation.
We confess together that God forgives sin by grace and at the same time frees human beings from sin's enslaving power and imparts the gift of new life in Christ.
We confess together that sinners are justified by faith in the saving action of God in Christ.
We confess together that in baptism the Holy Spirit unites one with Christ, justifies, and truly renews the person.
We confess together that persons are justified by faith in the gospel "apart from works prescribed by the law" (Rom 3:28).
We confess together that the faithful can rely on the mercy and promises of God. In spite of their own weakness and the manifold threats to their faith, on the strength of Christ's death and resurrection they can build on the effective promise of God's grace in Word and Sacrament and so be sure of this grace.
We confess together that good works - a Christian life lived in faith, hope and love - follow justification and are its fruits.
I suggest you continue to talk about with your friend, gently asking probing questions, after reading through this document.
I hope this helps.
For more on this topic, read this post I wrote previously on Faith and Works.