Ironically, my conversion to the Catholic faith began while attending Fuller Theological Seminary, a prominent Protestant seminary in Pasadena, California. Even more ironic, it was a prominent Protestant New Testament professor at this prominent Protestant seminary who set me on the long and winding road that would lead, fifteen years later, to resigning my ministry as a Baptist pastor to enter the Catholic Church.
It was the winter of 1981/82. I was sitting in my hermeneutics class (the science of interpretation), the professor was talking about Martin Luther and John Calvin and the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone, and he made the following comment:
“It’s a curious thing,” he said, “but when you think of it, the Bible is essentially one story after another of men and women and their relationships with God, one illustration after another of how God relates to and deals with his people. And never in these stories do we see God telling people they will receive his blessing ‘by faith alone.’ Rather, the pattern is always trust me (faith), do what I tell you to do (obedience) and I will bless you. In order to be saved through the flood, Noah had to trust God (faith) and he had to build the ark (obedience). In order to receive the promised blessings, Abraham had to trust God (faith) and he had to leave his home and family in Mesopotamia and follow God to a place he’d never seen before (obedience). The scriptural pattern is always faith, leading to obedience, resulting in the blessing of God.”
The Seeming Logic of “Faith Alone”
Now, as an evangelical Bible Christian, of course I believed that salvation was by faith alone. Everyone I knew believed this.
We saw “faith alone” clearly taught in the New Testament — especially in those places where St Paul says we are saved by “faith” or “faith in Christ” and not by “works” or “works of the law.” But it also made sense to us.
In fact, it seemed required by simple logic. After all, the Bible is clear that God is to receive all the praise and glory for the work of salvation. But isn’t it only reasonable that for God to receive all the glory, God must do all the work?
Catholics talk about how we must “cooperate” with God’s grace. Catholics talk about how me must “respond” to grace and persevere in faithful obedience in order to enter heaven. Yes, Catholics understand that it’s God’s grace and the work of the Holy Spirit within them that even allows them to persevere in faithful obedience. They understand as well that again and again along the path they’re going to fall and need to come to Christ for forgiveness and renewed grace to take up their mats and walk.
But bottom line: Catholics believe they have to take up their mats and walk in order to be saved. Catholic believe they have to do something.
This meant to us that Catholics were embracing a false gospel, that for them salvation is not entirely the work of God. In some sense Catholics believe they have to “contribute” to their own salvation, in some sense even “earn” it. But of course in that case a Catholic would have reason to boast and God would not receive all the glory. And since this is clearly impossible, so also is the Catholic conception of salvation.
By this powerful line of reasoning, we confirmed to ourselves that salvation must be my faith alone.
For us there were really only two options: either one is saved by faith alone and God receives all the praise and glory, or one is attempting in some manner to earn salvation through obedience and God does not receive all the praise and glory.
It’s with this in mind that Protestant pastor John MacArthur refers to Catholicism as “a damning system of works-righteousness.”
The Troubling Case of Noah
So the class ended, I hopped on my moped and headed off to the Valley Hunt Club, where I worked as a waiter. I’m amazed I didn’t screw up every table I served that night, I was so deep in thought over the relatively simple observation the professor had made.
There was no way to get around the fact that Noah had to build the ark in order to be saved through the flood.
Yes, faith was at the heart of Noah’s obedience. If he didn’t believe God’s warning about the flood, he wouldn’t have bothered to do anything. On the other hand, if he hadn’t built the boat, he wouldn’t have been saved. No faith, no salvation. No wood and nails, no salvation. It was clear: in order to be saved, Noah had to believe God (faith) and he had to build the boat (obedience). Noah was saved by faith and obedience.
Does this mean Noah “earned” his own salvation? Is the story of Noah an example of “a damning system of works-righteousness”?
Of course not. When a patient trusts his doctor and follows the doctor’s prescription, we don’t say he “earned” his health. Trusting and obeying isn’t the same thing as working and earning. When you trust and obey, it’s the doctor who is gloried and made to look good. When you work and earn, it’s you who is made to look good.
Should God have had Noah relax in a hammock and built the ark himself to make sure that he (God) received all the glory? Is Noah in heaven boasting for all eternity in his personal “accomplishment?”
Somehow I knew this couldn’t be true. Somehow I knew that God received the glory for Noah’s deliverance through the flood and that Noah is on his face for all eternity thanking God. But it didn’t fit with the the arguments I’d heard from the time I’d come to Christ.
The Even More Troubling Case of Abraham
Several days later, while on the way to work, I was so engrossed in these kinds of questions that I forgot I was on a moped. I peacefully powered down the freeway on-ramp and was happily put-putting along at 30 miles per hour. It was seeing a highway patrolmen with his lights on and a car pulled over just ahead that awakened me from my slumber. I immediately brought my vehicle to a halt, hopped off, assumed the most casual air I could muster and strolled past the highway patrolman and up the nearest off-ramp and out of danger.
I don’t think I waved or anything like that.
What about Abraham, the “father of faith?” In Genesis 121-3, God comes to him and says, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And in the very next verse: “So Abram went, as the Lord had told him…” Again we see faith and again we see obedience.
And the more you read of Abraham’s life the obedience part only increases in prominence. In Genesis 17 God informs Abraham that as a requirement of the covenant, Abraham must take a flint knife and do the unthinkable: circumcise himself and every male over eight days old in his household. Anyone who isn’t circumcised will have broken the covenant. In other words, Abraham has to do this or he will not receive the promised blessings.
In Genesis 22 God commands Abraham to take his son Isaac up to Mt Moriah and offer him as a sacrifice. You know the story. The angel of the Lord intervenes to stop him and… well, listen to what the Lord says to him: “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore…. and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”
I tried to imagine a Protestant minister talking like this and I couldn’t.
Truth is, most of us Reformation-minded Evangelicals were so concerned to protect “faith alone” that we could hardly mention the word “obedience” without feeling the need to immediately cushion the blow with all kinds of explanatory language: “But of course, I’m not saying God blesses us because of our obedience or that obedience is somehow required in order to receive the blessing of God.”
Well, it was surely required in the case of Noah and Abraham!
Reading along I came to the grand finale, Genesis 26:1-6. At this point Abraham has died and the Lord appears to Isaac to confirm and renew the covenant promises. “I will be with you, and will bless you,” the Lord says, “I will fulfill the oath which I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and will give to your descendants all these lands; and by your descendants all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves: because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.”
Chewing on this passage while working the dinner shift at the hunt club that evening, I dumped an entire hot spinach salad upside down on the head of a bald man. What? God is going to fulfill the promises he made to Abraham, including the promise of the Messiah? And he’s going do this “because (because!) Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws?”
I didn’t even know Abraham had commandments and statutes and laws from God!
Now I’m learning that the “father of faith” was “earning” God’s blessings through obedience to God’s laws? That the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant — even the blessing of the coming Messiah! — where “rewards” for Abraham’s obedience?
But of course Abraham wasn’t “earning” anything. As with Noah, it was Abraham’s faith that drove him to keep the commandments and statutes and laws of God. His obedience was an obedience of faith. But his obedience was as necessary as his faith. In fact, when you read the entire story of Abraham in Genesis and ask yourself the question “According to what is actually emphasized in the text, upon what basis is God going to fulfill his promises to Abraham?” the clear answer is his faithful obedience.
A Conceptual Mess
Where do we find “faith alone” in the stories of God’s people? Where do we find faith being pitted against obedience?
I continued to think through the stories of Scripture. Moses and the children of Israel were saved from slavery in Egypt and given the Promised Land as an inheritance. This land flowing with milk and honey was a type of heaven. Did they receive this blessing by faith alone? Sure, if slaughtering a lamb and spreading its blood and eating it and walking out of Egypt and crossing the Red Sea and following a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night and crossing the Jordan and conquering the cities of Canaan one-by-one in battle sounds to you like “faith alone.” It didn’t to me.
And it was the same with David and Solomon and all the rest.
I was driving my moped onto freeways and dumping salads on customer’s heads, walking around squinting like Mr. Magoo and asking myself question after question. For instance, why is it that if Noah believes he must build a massive ark in order to be saved, we honor him as a saint and preach sermons about his faithful obedience and never once worry about whether God received all the glory? But if a Christian (whether Catholic or Arminian Protestant) believes he must live as Noah lived and persevere in faithful obedience in order to enter heaven, we say he’s embraced “a damning system of works-righteousness” and preach entire series of sermons on how inserting obedience into the equation robs God of his glory and leads to boasting?
Here’s another question I was asking: If God wanted to teach the world that in order for the blessing of eternal life to be received as a gifts, and for Christ to receive all the praise and glory for that gift, it must be received by faith alone, why did God fill the entire Bible with the stories of men and women who never receive his blessings by faith alone? Why is the pattern always faith, leading to obedience, resulting in blessing?
And yet the stories are never presented as negative examples. And the blessings they receive through faithful obedience are never conceived as something earned, but always as gift. And God is always gloried. And the saints are never boasting in what they’ve accomplished. And Hebrews 11 (a New Testament book) holds them all up as examples for us!
I had no idea where all this would lead me. Certainly, Catholicism never crossed my mind. All I knew was that “faith alone” was looking more and more like a conceptual mess. It just wasn’t making sense with what I saw in Scripture.
Ah, I remembered, but doesn’t St Paul say we are saved by faith alone?
(to be continued…)