You ever turn on the garbage disposal and, lo and behold, there’s a spoon in the drain?
The Reformation concept of justification was starting to feel like that spoon to me. It seemed to function like some theological wrench Luther had thrown into the ‘works’ of the Old and New Testaments, causing troubles of all kinds.
Here’s a better analogy. One time a tiny moth flew into my ear while I was brushing my teeth. I’m telling you it surreptitiously entered the bathroom and flew all the way in and was walking to and fro on my ear drum. Instantly, I was holding my head and leaping about like I a madman. It felt, and sounded, like there was a crow inside my skull flapping its wings and trying to get out. I couldn’t hear a thing until Tina reached in with a pair of tweezers and dragged the monster out by its little trespassing feet.
This is how the Reformation doctrine of justification started to seem to me. It was like Luther had released this theological moth that was buzzing around in the pages of the Old and New Testaments making it impossible to hear what Scripture was saying.
THE SILENCING OF SCRIPTURE
For instance, Scripture was telling me (explicitly!) that Abel was “approved as righteous” because he offered to God an acceptable sacrifice (Hebrews 11:3); that Noah “found favor in the eyes of the Lord” because he was “a righteous man, blameless in his generation” (Genesis 6:8,9); that God found Abraham’s heart to be faith and therefore made a covenant with him (Nehemiah 9:8); that he saw Abraham’s faith and “reckoned it as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).
This is what Scripture was saying. What Protestantism said was, “This is impossible. God is perfectly holy and demands perfect holiness. The imperfect faith and obedience of an Abel or a Noah or an Abraham is not sufficient basis for acceptance with God. We must have Christ’s perfect righteousness imputed to our account.”
Scripture spoke of all kinds of people as having lived in obedience to God’s commandments. God described Abraham as one who “obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Genesis 26:5). Zechariah and Elizabeth were described as “both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly” (Luke 1:6). And there were plenty of others. In fact, not only were people spoken of as having kept the commandments of God; they were described as loving God’s commandments and delighting in them! “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97). “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul!” (Psalm 19). “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked… But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he mediates day and night” (Psalm 1).
This is what the Bible was saying. What Protestantism said was, “No one can keep the commandments of God because God, who is holy, demands perfect obedience. And no one can delight in God’s law. In fact, the commandments of God can only serve to drive us to despair so that we will seek to be justified by the imputed righteousness of Christ.”
Scripture, in both Old and New Testaments, was telling me in a thousand ways that the path to God’s blessing (including the blessing of eternal life) is the path of faith, leading to obedience, persevered in to the end — by the grace of God.
This is what Scripture was saying. What Protestantism said was, “No. We are justified by faith alone in the imputed righteousness of Christ. Justification takes place and is completed the moment we first believe.”
In short, Scripture was telling me all kinds of things Protestantism said were impossible or simply not true. Again and again, Scripture would open its mouth and the Protestant doctrine of justification would silence its voice.
PROTESTANTISM’S IRON BED
Maybe you’ve heard of Procrustes and his iron bed from Greek mythology.
Procrustes ran a little inn. When travelers passed by, he would invite them in for a pleasant meal and rest for the night. He had a special bed that, curiously, matched exactly the length of every person who lay on it. And the reason it did was that once Procrustes’ guest had climbed into his iron bed, he would bring out his tools and get to work on them. Those who were too short, he would stretch to make them longer. Those who were too tall, he would cut down to size, amputating as much of their feet and legs as was required to achieve the perfect length. In the end, everyone fit the bed the Procrustes. He made sure of it.
It seemed to me over time that within Protestantism as a system of thought, justification by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness functioned as a kind of “Procrustean bed.” It was the one thing assumed to be true. As it was for Luther, this doctrine was the unquestioned and all-controlling assumption, the fixed center. Everything else was interpreted in the light of it and so long as this doctrine wasn’t touched, it didn’t matter how many passages of Scripture had to be twisted out of shape and tortured and made to say something they weren’t saying — all so that they would “fit” this view of justification.
Well, at this point I was wide open to hearing what Catholicism had to say on the issue. Was there another way of putting the puzzle pieces together that didn’t create such havoc with the plain sense of Scripture?
THE CATHOLIC ANSWER
“Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith. Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth, reaching its culmination in him.” – Pope Francis, Announcing the Year of Mercy
The surprisingly simple answer that Catholicism gave is found in these words of Pope Francis: “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith.”
Here’s what Catholicism (in essence) said to me: Yes, God is holy and yes, we must be holy to enter heaven — and we will be. But this doesn’t mean that in order for God to accept us now and declare us righteous in his sight we must be perfectly righteous ourselves or have a perfect righteousness legally credited to our account. The mystery of the Christian faith is that “Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy.” From the cross of Jesus Christ, a fountain of mercy has been opened. And when we come to Christ, he doesn’t have to legally impute righteousness to us; He forgives us. He forgives us and he changes us from the inside out.
I saw immediately that this made sense of how God is depicted in Scripture.
Jesus is described in Hebrews 1:3 as “the radiance of [God’s] glory and the exact representation of his nature.” In other words, if we want to see who God the really is, we need to look at Jesus Christ. He is the face of the Father.
And the face we see in Jesus, as Pope Francis says, is the face of the Father’s “mercy.” It’s the face of the man who looked with infinite compassion at the woman caught in adultery, the Samaritan woman, the tax-collector in the sycamore tree. All he needed in order to forgive everything was to see the tiniest flicker of humble faith.
Scripture presented God as a merciful and forgiving Father. Even during the period of the Law, when Moses said to the Lord, “I beg you, show me your glory,” God’s response was to pass before Moses and proclaim his “name” (which means his essential nature): “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in mercy and faithfulness, keeping merciful love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” (Exodus 34:6-7).
Protestantism had emphasized God’s holiness and concluded that the only way we can be holy in God’s sight and acceptable to him is to have the perfect righteousness of Christ legally imputed to us.
Catholicism responds: Why can’t it be that God forgives us, and makes us holy?
Second, I saw that this made sense of how God could accept the feeble and imperfect faith of Abel, Noah, Abraham and others, count their faith as righteousness and speak of them as obedient to his commandments.
Protestantism looks at these illustrations and responds, “There’s no way that a holy God could possibly accept the feeble and imperfect faith and obedience of Abel, Noah and Abraham. There is no way God could ‘approve’ them as righteous, no way he could see their faith and obedience and ‘reckon’ this as ‘righteousness.’ After all, God is holy and demands perfect holiness.”
Catholicism’s answer was: “God could do this because his heart toward these men was a heart of mercy. Because he wasn’t looking at them with the eyes of an infinitely holy Judge, but with the eyes of an infinitely merciful father. Because he looked at them exactly as Jesus looked at the Samaritan woman, exactly as the Father in the parable Jesus told looked at his prodigal son. And so he forgave the feebleness and imperfection of their faith and their obedience.”
I thought about the father in the parable of the prodigal son. I thought about how the instant the father saw his son returning from his life of sin, Jesus says he “had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” And before his son could even begin making his confession, the father was calling out to the servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry!”
This is how God could “accept” the feeble and imperfect faith of these Old Testament saints. And how he could accept mine.
Third, I saw that this is precisely how the promises of the New Covenant are actually described in Scripture.
When the prophets described the blessings that would come with the New Covenant (the covenant Jesus established at the Last Supper) they didn’t describe them in terms of righteousness being imputed or credited. They spoke of the New Covenant as a time when God would forgive the sins of his people (Jeremiah 31:34) and would make them righteous from the inside out.
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances (Ezekiel 36:24-27).
Finally, this made sense of how salvation is depicted in Scripture as a process, as a path we must walk.
Luther’s doctrine made salvation something that essentially happens at the moment we first believe and are credited with Christ’s righteousness. This is when we are “saved.” Because of this, Protestantism is always having to explain away every passage in the New Testament that says that to inherit eternal life we must persevere in faith and obedience.
Catholicism has no problem with the image of Noah having to build the ark in order to be saved, or Abraham having to leave his home and family in order to receive the promises, or the children of Israel having to cross the wilderness in order to inherit the land. And it has no problem with these New Testament passages that describe salvation as a process and path.
Because what Catholicism teaches is that in Christ there is mercy. And when we come to him in repentance and faith, rather than a legal transaction occurring by which we are “saved,” what happens is this: we are forgiven the sins we’ve committed and given everything we need to walk the path of faith, leading to obedience, resulting in the blessing of eternal life.
We are washed from the stain of original sin. We are given new hearts and the Holy Spirit who will “cause” us to walk in God’s ways and transform us from within into the image of Christ. Because we have an Advocate with the Father (1 John 1:8-2:2), we know that we have forgiveness whenever we fall, if only we want it and seek it. From the fountain of God’s mercy flowing to us from the cross of Jesus, we are given everything needed to persevere in faith and obedience and inherit the promise of eternal life.
And this is God’s will, that by his grace we inherit the promises by walking this path of faith.
Luther said that discovering the doctrine of imputed righteousness was like walking through open doors into paradise.
For me, it was leaving behind Luther’s doctrine of imputed righteousness and coming to see that in Christ God forgives us and changes us from within that was like walking through open doors into paradise.
I would like to add that as a student of Scripture, it was also like having a spoon pulled out of the garbage disposal or a moth removed from my inner ear, but I know this doesn’t sound nearly so eloquent and spiritual.