The Protestant Reformation was a major event that exposed and rejected many errors of the Roman Catholic Church, and restored scripture as the authority of God's Word. However in the process it adopted an error of doctrine that became a foundation of doctrine for that branch of Christianity: that man is justified and saved by faith alone, and in regards to works man can do nothing. The Roman Catholic Church has pointed out this error multiple times, but Protestants tend to not listen to the Roman Catholic Church due to their other errors. However, on this issue the Orthodox Church has pointed out the error of the Protestants as well (see How are we Saved?). This goes to show the teaching began in the 16th century, and was not part of the original Christian faith.
This is an error that many Protestants fail to see, as most who grow up in a religion cannot see the errors of their own religion. Very few question the religion they grew up with. When one has accepted a certain false doctrine as true, certain "blinders" go up in the mind so that when a contradictory passage is seen that goes against the doctrine, the passage is ignored, or certain false word definitions are used.
Since personally I was introduced to Christianity through the Protestant faith this is what I was taught, but only when I investigated Christianity in an objective manner was I able to see the error. Thus I am quite familiar with the arguments on both sides of the fence, and I know how easy it is to use scripture to support the Protestant doctrine. Within most every religion there are errors, and one can only see them when one decides to rationally investigate them instead of accepting truth on the basis of authority.
So how do Protestant or Reformed churches support their doctrine? There are several foundational pillars by which salvation or justification by faith alone is taught:
1. Primacy of the letters of Paul over the gospels of Jesus.
2. Defining the word faith as "belief" instead of the original meaning, which is "living by the truth."
3. A misinterpretation of "works of the law" in the letters of Paul.
4. Man has freedom of thought, but in regards to action has a passive will.
So let us go through each of these pillars of faith one by one.
JESUS CHRIST SPOKE AGAINST AND CONDEMNED SALVATION BY FAITH ALONE
Protestant ministers and theologians will probably never publicly admit that they consider the letters of Paul as primary for teaching doctrines of faith over that of the gospels, but in practice this is true. Perhaps 90% of all sermons will be given from the letters of Paul, more rarely the gospels, and for the most part the Old Testament is ignored entirely. This is because there are large sections of scripture which goes against the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, which is the foundation of Protestant doctrine.
But what did Jesus say on this issue? The fact of the matter is, Jesus condemned religion of faith alone or one of belief only, and he spoke against it in the harshest of terms. These are the few passages where we see Jesus actually getting angry with the false religious teachers, and it is one of the reasons why the Jewish Pharisees absolutely hated him. This is readily apparent in several passages, as follows:
1. Those who break the least of the commandments and so teach others will be LEAST in the kingdom of heaven. But those who DO AND TEACH the commandments, will be GREAT in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:19)
2. Not everyone who believes and pays lip service will go to heaven, but those who do the will of the Father will go to heaven. Those who hear the Word, and do not do them, are foolish (Matt. 7:21-27).
3. Jesus condemned the scribes and the Pharisees for teaching the law but not doing it. Jesus called them blind and foolish, and stated they would not escape the damnation of hell (Matt. 23:3, 19, 23, 33).
4. Those who believed the Lord and paid Him lip service, but did no act of love in their life, were condemned to hell (Matt. 25:31-46)
5. Only those who DO THE WILL of his Father does Jesus consider his family or brethren (Mark 3:31-35, Luke 8:21).
6. Jesus condemned the Jews for just paying lip service and following traditions of men, rather than doing God's commandments (Mark 7:6-9)
7. Jesus asks, "Why do you call me Lord, and do not do the things I say?" (Luke 6:46)
8. Only those who hear the Word and do it are those who bear fruit (Luke 8:15)
9. The parable of the Good Samaritan shows doing the will of God has priority over religious belief. The Samaritans have different religious beliefs than the Jews (Luke 10:30-37)
10. "blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it" (Luke 11:27-28)
11. Those who heard the teaching, but continued in their sin, could not enter heaven (Luke 13:23-27)
12. "If you love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15, also 14:21, 15:10)
THE FALSE DEFINITION OF FAITH AS "BELIEF" INSTEAD OF "LIVING BY THE TRUTH"
So given the above passages where Jesus condemns belief alone, how do Protestant ministers and theologians get around it? They will quote other passages where Jesus talks about faith. However this is where the biggest misunderstanding of Christianity has come: in the English language, faith has been taken to mean mere belief that something is true, and from that most people think if they merely believe in a certain way they will be saved. To support this, they will mention such passages as the following:
"Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned." (Mark 16:16)
However the Greek word can also be translated as having faith, like this:
"Whoever has faith and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not have faith will be condemned." (Mark 16:16)
In other words, mere belief that something is true does not save, but rather living by that truth is what saves. That this is so, one has to pay attention to the other passages of scripture. In ancient times, if one believed what someone said was true, but did nothing according to that truth, this meant that one did not really believe it since they did not commit to any action based on that truth. Thus one cannot simply believe what Jesus said is true, and yet follow an evil life that has nothing to do with what Jesus said. The problem here is the same Greek word is variously translated as "belief" or "faith." Because of this, it is a common misconception among many that religion consists of belief alone without regard to one's life, which is not what scripture teaches.
So, how do we know the correct definition? We simply look at the Hebrew scripture where it is said "the just shall live by faith" (Hab. 2:4) which Paul quotes and makes the foundation of his argument (see Rom. 1:17, Gal. 3:11, Heb. 10:38). The Hebrew word for faith is 'emuwnah, which is ultimately derived from "Amen" which means "so be it" or "let it be true." Truth must be conjoined with good, and that this is so is from the word "just" which can also be translated as "righteous" - which is to do what is good. So the passage is saying, those who do good will have eternal life by living by the truth. Action must be guided by truth, and knowing the truth is merely a first step. But according to Jesus, those who know the truth, and do not do according to it, are foolish and will be severely condemned, perhaps more so than those who are in simple ignorance.
It should be noted, that even in the first century there was a strong debate between the apostle Paul and James, the half brother of Jesus, over the matter of what "faith" really meant (see Rom. 4:3, which is countered by James in James 2:23). For an interesting theory that this debate is mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls, see Christus Victor, Pauline Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls. In the New Church, faith and belief is a required first step in spiritual development, but it must be conjoined with a life according to it. The first act of belief is repentance from sin, that is, reforming one's life. Although truth or faith is first in time, a life of love is first in end: in the New Church, love is primary, it is a life of love which saves, not mere belief. To come to a correct understanding one must take all passages of scripture in context.
WHAT IS THE MEANING OF "WORKS" AND "WORKS OF THE LAW" IN THE LETTERS OF PAUL?
The next pillar of Protestant doctrine are the many instances in which Paul mentions "works" or "works of the law" in his letters. The Protestant reformers took this to mean works of charity, or any active form of faith. However historical research within Protestant theological circles has conclusively shown that this is not correct - see A New Perspective on Paul and the New Church Perspective on Paul. This has caused some - not all - to reexamine their theology.
The problem here, is that the apostle Paul used the word "works" in three different contexts. Since he uses the same word "works" in different contexts, it has led to endless debates. In the letters of Paul, the word "works" has the following three different meanings:
1. The word "works" is used to refer to the external Mosaic rituals of the Jewish law, which were abrogated when they were fulfilled by the coming of the Lord. Paul most often refers to the rite of circumcision, animal sacrifices, dietary laws, and Jewish feast days.
2. The word "works" is used for self-meritorious works, or things done for the sake of selfish gain.
3. The word "works" is used for works of charity, acts of love, acts of repentance, or things done out of faith.
So here is the problem: most Protestant theologians may be aware of the first two definitions, but are unaware or ignore the third in their theology. To cover all of this I will simply enumerate the instances where Paul mentions works (also translated as "deeds") for each of the three definitions:
1. Works are the external rituals of the Mosaic law: Rom. 3:20, 3:27-28, 4:2, 4:6, 9:11, 9:32, 11:6; Gal. 2:16, 3:2, 3:5, 3:10; Eph. 2:9; Heb. 6:1, 9:14
2. Works are self meritorious works, done for sake of self: 2 Tim. 1:9; Tit. 3:5.
3. Works are works of charity, or acts of faith, or acts of repentance, or acts of evil, by which all will be judged: Rom. 2:6, 2:15, 13:3, 13:12, 15:18; 1 Cor. 3:13-15, 5:2; 2 Cor. 9:8, 11:15; Gal. 5:19, 6:2-8; Eph. 2:10, 5:11; Col. 1:10, 1:21, 3:17; 1 Thes. 1:3; 2 Thes. 2:17; 1 Tim. 2:10, 3:1; 5:10, 5:25, 6:18; 2 Tim. 2:21, 3:17, 4:14, 4:18; Tit. 1:16, 2:7, 2:14, 3:1, 3:8, 3:14; Heb. 6:10, 10:24, 13:21
Protestants will use verses in context #1 to support their theology, often also thinking that Paul was talking of works in context #3. It is very subtle. One can see how Paul switches context, sometimes in one sentence to the next (see especially Eph 2:9-10, Tit. 3:5,8). This caused utter confusion in the mind of James and other early Christians - even Peter admitted this (see 2 Pet. 3:15-16). If one is unaware of the context, one can be easily misled by the writings of Paul. That works of charity are necessary for salvation (context #3) one can also prove by looking up the same word in the gospels.
A FALSE THEORY OF PROTESTANTS: MAN HAS A PASSIVE WILL, AND COMPLETE INCAPACITY TO DO GOOD
Obviously Protestants cannot completely ignore context #3 in the writings of Paul. So how do they get around it, to support the idea that faith is mere belief, and that one is saved by faith alone? For this, they state each person as to their works really does nothing, but the Holy Spirit given by God does it. Each person of himself does nothing. In other words, while we have freedom of thought, we do not have freedom of will. We have a "passive will." But this is simply not true, we have freedom in both thought and will. There is a reason why a body is attached to our brain, and we are not mere statues. In Protestant theology, good works are seen as mere evidence of the dwelling of the Holy Spirit, but does not play a role in regard to salvation. It is a mere "byproduct" of passive belief.
This theological theory is not only false, it is logically incoherent. For scripture teaches we will be judged by out works (see Matt. 16:27, Rom. 2:6, and others). If we are responsible for what we do, we have freedom in terms of our will. It is true that only God is good, and all good comes from Him alone. But our will must submit to God's commandments by obedience and a living active faith.
In New Church theology, each person plays an active role in their spiritual development, in both thought and deed. This is described as a "covenant" - inasmuch as each person approaches God, God will fill that person with His Holy Spirit. As God changes us within, He forms within us a new will and understanding to do that which is good according to the truth. As we do good according to the truth, by faith we should acknowledge that all good and truth comes from God alone. But it takes our active participation to live a full spiritual life. This active participation in word and deed is what is known as "fruits of the Spirit." But it takes place in an active will, not a passive one, and the first spiritual act of the will is that of repentance, which is to turn away from evil. A passive will does not do anything, just as a dead tree cannot bear any fruit.
Good and truth are spiritual in origin, and ultimately originate from the Lord alone. To be spiritual, one must have spiritual communion with heaven. At the time of Jesus this spiritual communion was threatened to be cut off by the rise in the power of hell over humanity, thus it was necessary for Jehovah to become incarnate to fight against the hells through his human form. But this does not remove any responsibility on our part: to be spiritual, to enter into communion with the Lord, one must follow the commandments.
CONCLUSION: ONE IS NOT SAVED BY BELIEF ALONE, BUT BY A LIFE ACCORDING TO THE COMMANDMENTS
To conclude, I will simply quote from Swedenborg:
"That it may not lie hid from any one how the case is with the salvation of men after their decease, it is to be briefly told. There are many who say that a man is saved by faith, or, in their words, if he only has faith; but for the most part they are those who do not know what faith is. Some think that it is mere thought, some that it is an acknowledgment of something to be believed; some think that it is the whole doctrine of faith, which is to be believed, and others think variously. Thus in the bare conception of what faith is, they wander in error; and so of course, in regard to the means by which a man is saved. But indeed faith is not mere thought, nor is it an acknowledgment of something to be believed, nor a knowledge of all things which belong to the doctrine of faith. By these no one can be saved; for they cannot send a root down deeper than into the thought. Thought saves no one; but it is the life which he procured to himself in the world, by means of the knowledges of faith. This life remains; but all thought which does not comport with his life perishes, even to becoming none at all. Consociations in heaven are according to lives; and by no means according to thoughts which are not of the life. Thoughts which are not of the life are mere pretences, which are altogether rejected.
"In general, life is twofold; on the one hand infernal, on the other heavenly. Infernal life is from all the ends, thoughts, and works which flow from the love of self, consequently from hatred against the neighbor; heavenly life, from all the ends, thoughts, and works which are of love toward the neighbor. The latter is the life to which all things that are called faith have regard, and which is procured by all things of faith. From this it may be evident what faith is, namely, that it is charity; for, to charity all things lead which are called the doctrines of faith; in it they are all contained, and from it they are all derived. The soul, after the life of the body, is such as its love is." (Heavenly Arcana, n. 2228.2-3)