The work of a detective can be exhausting.
By the time I came to believe that the Catholic teaching on salvation was the biblical teaching I had been on the case for a couple of decades. During those years I’d spent a great many hours and days walking the streets and alleyways of the Old and New Testaments, rummaging around in its pages, poking into the business of countless biblical scholars.
Finally the time came for me to organize and present my case. Late one night, I went to the evidence room, pulled down the box labeled “Luther and Justification” and dumped it out on my cold steel industrial desk. I wanted to review one last time the steps I’d taken in moving from Luther to Catholicism on the key issue of salvation
STEP ONE: PATTERNS
Clearly, this is where it began. Step one was the scriptural pattern I’d been shown all the way back in seminary, a pattern I found illustrated on virtually every page of the Bible: in order to receive His blessings, God calls us to trust him (faith) and do what He tells us to do (obedience).
I simply could not escape those concrete images. There’s was doubt: Noah had to build that boat in order to be saved through the flood. His obedience was as required as his faith. Naaman the Syrian had to dip himself in the Jordan seven times to be cleansed of his leprosy. The man born blind had to wash in the Pool of Siloam in order to come up seeing.
In the Bible obedience was always required. And never did it somehow turn the relationships people had with God into one of “works.” Never did the requirement of obedience result in all the evils Protestantism insisted it would: man boasting in his achievement, God not receiving the glory, etc.
STEP TWO: FAITH AND OBEDIENCE IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
Step two was coming to the realization that this essential pattern of faith, leading to obedience, resulting in God’s blessing doesn’t change when we come to the New Testament.
When Peter preached his first sermon on the Day of Pentecost and the crowds, cut to the heart, cried out, “What must we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized for the remission of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). My assumption is that it would not have gone well for anyone who responded to Peter’s call by walking away thinking, “I believe what he says about this Jesus but I don’t really need to be baptized. I’m fine with me and Jesus and faith alone.”
In a thousand and one ways I found the gospels and writings of the apostles continuing to teach that we must trust in Christ and live in obedience to his commands if we wish to inherit the promise of eternal life.
I mean, how could I ignore the straightforward teaching of St Paul that it is those who persevere in “doing good” who will receive “eternal life” (Galatians 6:6,7), that it is those who “by the Spirit put to death the misdeeds of the body” who will “live” (Romans 8:12,13)? And I could quote similar statements from every book in the New Testament.
STEP THREE: TENSIONS
Step three was feeling the tension that was created as I attempted to really hear what these passages were saying while at the same time holding a view of justification that insisted I was saved (past tense, done deal, books closed) way back in 1976, when I first believed.
Protestantism said that justification is the legal crediting (imputation) of Christ’s righteousness to our account the instant we believe. Increasingly, this view of justification felt like a wrench stuck in the gears of Scripture. If I believed it, how could I take the New Testament authors seriously when they commanded me to fight and wrestle and run and strive and warned me (with tears!) of the danger of becoming entangled in sin and “falling away” from the living God? (See Hebrews 3:12-14)
The writer of Hebrews even talks about those who were “partakers of the Holy Spirit” who then fall away and cannot be restored to repentance (Hebrews 6:4-5). It became just too hard to try to explain all of these passages away. Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, John — they all seem to think of salvation as something that can be lost.
STEP FOUR: BRAND NEW
Step four was the discovery, in the work of one of the most respected Protestant theologians in the world, that at the time of the Reformation the Protestant doctrine of justification was new to the history of Christian thought. Before Luther and Melanththon and Calvin, it had never been held, or even “contemplated,” said Alister McGrath.
Luther thought his view so clearly taught in Scripture — especially in St Paul — that he declared it the “doctrine upon which the church stands or falls.” Calvin spoke of justification by faith alone as the “hinge upon which the door of all true religious swings.” Serious Protestants doubted anyone could be saved who didn’t believe it.
And then I discover that it was brand new with the Reformers? What?
STEP FIVE: JUSTIFICATION IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
Step five was reexamining the Old Testament and coming to the conclusion that the idea of justification as legal imputation isn’t there at all.
When God “reckoned” Abraham’s faith “as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6), when he “reckoned” Phinehas’ zeal for holiness “as righteousness” (Psalm 106:31) he was reckoning, considering, accounting something he saw in them as righteousness. He wasn’t saying these men were perfectly righteous. Nor was he saying that righteousness was somehow legally transferred to them from an outside source. He was simply declaring them to be faithful members of the covenant.
STEP SIX: JUSTIFICATION IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
Step six was reexamining the New Testament for evidence of this idea that justification entails the legal imputation of Christ’s righteousness and coming to the conclusion that it doesn’t exist there either.
It’s not stated anywhere. And the passages that are supposed to imply it, don’t. Yes, justification is described as the gift of God. Yes, in most cases justification describes God’s declaration that we are righteous. But none of this requires us to think of justification as legal imputation. God could be declaring us righteous in the same way he declared Abraham and Phinehas righteous — because he sees righteousness in us.
God could be declaring us righteous because he has through the power of his grace washed us clean and is making us righteous and so declares us to be faithful members of his the covenant.
I learned that because of the lack of evidence for legal imputation in the New Testament, a growing number of Protestant (not Catholic) biblical scholars are abandoning the whole idea as simply not taught in the Bible.
STEP SEVEN: MERCY
Step seven was listening to the Catholic view of justification and noting how well it fit with the patterns and images of Scripture.
Think with me. What is the central Old Testament image of salvation? It’s the Exodus. So what do we see in the story of the Exodus? We see a lamb slain and a people redeemed out of bondage. We see God leading them every step of the way through the wilderness, a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. We see God feeding them with bread from heaven, providing water from a rock, teaching them His commandments. We even see God providing a means of atonement so that when his people sinned they could be forgiven and stood on their feet again.
In short, we see God mercifully providing everything they would need to make their journey from Egypt to Canaan.
We also see (clearly) that none of this insured that that they would reach the Promised Land. The question remained: will they follow the Lord through the wilderness? Will they avail themselves of God’s provision? Will they seek forgiveness when they fall? Will they persevere in faith and the obedience of faith? Or will they decide to turn back to Egypt?
Well, this is exactly how salvation is described in the New Testament. The sacrifice of Christ our Passover redeems us from sin and opens for us a treasure chest of mercy from which is provided to us everything we need to make the journey to eternal life. God leads us by his Spirit. He feeds us with the true bread that comes down from heaven. He provides us with water from the rock, which is Christ. He even provides us with a means by which we can be forgiven and washed clean every time we fall.
But the question for each of us remains: Will we follow? Will we avail ourselves of God’s provision? Will we seek forgiveness when we fall? Will we return again and again to the fountain of mercy? Will we persevere in faith and the obedience of faith? Will we fight the good fight?
This is how salvation is described in the NT. And it fits the Catholic teaching, where God’s mercy to us in Christ is not shown in Him legally imputing righteousness to us, but in Him forgiving us and giving us the things we need to sow to the Spirit and reap eternal life.
The Catholic teaching fits the biblical image of salvation as a path. It allows Scripture to speak naturally and mean what it says when it describes salvation as a path we must walk by His grace.
STEP EIGHT: NOT OF WORKS
Step eight was coming to see that Luther and Protestantism since have fundamentally misunderstood what St Paul meant when he said we are justified by faith in Christ and not by works.
He did not mean that we don’t have to do anything in order to be saved. Not only would this contradict what St Paul says repeatedly throughout his letters; it misunderstands the situation he was dealing with.
In Romans and Galatians and throughout his ministry, he was dealing with Jewish believers who were insisting that in order to be saved Gentiles needed to (essentially) become Jews, that they needed to receive circumcision and adhere to the “customs of Moses” regarding Sabbaths and the dietary laws.
In response to this, Paul’s argument is that in Christ the wall between Jew and Gentile has been torn down and it’s not important whether one is circumcised or not. Whether Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free, what matters to God is that we are new creations in Christ (Galatians 6:15), that we have a faith that works through love (Galatians 5:6) and that we keep the commandments of God (1 Corinthians 7:19).
There was more work to be done. There were some objections that needed to be cleared away. But it was late.
I put the evidence back in the box, put the box back on the shelf and went out for a few drinks with my partners.