Luther Fundamentally Misunderstood St Paul, Part 13: Objections

By February 22, 2016 Apologetics 7 Comments

When I talk to my Protestant friends about how Catholics understand the biblical teaching on salvation, a number of objections are raised. If I tried to deal with every one of them I would have to essentially exegete the entire Bible, there are so many passages that touch on the issue. But I do want in this post to look at three of the most common theological objections I face. Each of these encapsulates a way of thinking that lies at the very heart of how Protestants see things — how I saw things for many years before becoming Catholic.


But Ken, in order for salvation to be a free gift from first to last, it must be received by faith alone. If our obedience were a part of what was required, then salvation would be something we’ve earned and could rightfully boast in!

Well, let’s think about this…

We know that Noah’s obedience was “required” in order for him to be saved through the flood. He had to build the ark. Does anyone imagine that throughout all eternity Noah is boasting about how he earned his own salvation?

We know that Abraham’s obedience was required in order for him to receive the promised blessings. He had to leave his country and go to the land God was to give him as an inheritance. He had to move out. In at least two places God states (explicitly!) that He’s going to keep the promises made to Abraham because of Abraham’s obedience. “Because you have done this… I will indeed bless you” (Genesis 22:16,17; see 26:1-5).

Does anything think of Abraham as an illustration of a man who “earned” God’s blessing through his obedience? Does anything think of him as an example of “works”? St Paul describes him as the father of faith!

Jesus commanded those at the wedding feast at Cana to fill six water jugs to the top. Does anything think the wine that resulted wasn’t a free gift? He commanded Peter and the others to go back out on the lake and let down their nets. Does anyone think Peter walked away bragging about how he earned all those fish by his “works”?

The reason those who trust God and do what he says are not made proud by their obedience is that they know that their obedience, as much as their faith, is the gift of God.

Which is exactly what God said through the prophet Ezekiel,

I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

The logic expressed in this first objection is simply a logic foreign to the thinking of Scripture. It’s simply not true that God requiring our obedience turns the Gospel into, to quote John MacArthur, “a damning system of works-righteousness.”


But Ken, if our justification is in any sense dependent on what we do, then God will not receive all the glory for the work of salvation. And yet God says in scripture, “I will not give his glory to another!”

Here’s how popular Protestant author John Piper explains his motive for writing a book defending justification as the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.  He says: “I am jealous for Christ to get all the glory he deserves in the work of justification.”

This is a common thing for a Protestant to say. This is how serious Protestants feel about this. When we Catholics emphasize obedience we are stealing the glory that ought to be God’s alone! Because of this, Luther emphasized how important it was that one remain entirely passive in justification: “All that man has to do is remain passive. He must not attempt to do anything himself for his salvation. This would be presumption.

I thought this myself for many years. After all, it sounds reasonable  that for God to get all the glory, God must do all the work.

Or does it? Imagine God saying to Noah, “OK, a flood is coming and an ark needs to be built. But to make sure that I receive all the glory, you just lie down in that hammock over there and check Facebook while I build the ark!” This is not the thinking of Scripture.

It’s not even rational when you think it through. Imagine a father who thinks that in order to be glorified in his sons, he needs to make sure they do nothing but remain absolutely passive. “Now, boys, you just sit there in front of that TV set and eat popcorn while I paint the house and mow the lawn and wash the car and take out the trash. Whatever you do, do not imagine that the glory of my fatherhood will be displayed by you pitching in. No, just the reverse. In order to receive the full glory due me, I must do everything. You must remain absolutely passive.”

The thought is almost laughable! Because isn’t the truth the exact opposite? Isn’t a father glorified  precisely when, because he’s given his sons life and taught them well and they’ve become responsible, mature young men, they  paint the house, they  mow the lawn, they  wash the car and they  take out the trash — while he  sits on the couch in front of the TV set eating popcorn?

In the same way (minus the bit about the couch and the TV) God is glorified through  our faith and obedience. This  is what brings God the greatest glory — for us to trust him and do what he says!

Once again, this objection is simply not true.


But Ken, you say God looked at Abraham’s faith and credited his faith as righteousness. And that he can do the same with us. But how could an infinitely holy God look on the imperfect feeble faith of an Abraham, and accept that?

This is important. This line of thought is at the heart of the Protestant view of justification. In fact, this is why Protestants argue that Christ’s own righteousness must be credited to our account. It’s because God is “of purer eyes than to behold iniquity and cannot look on wrong” (Habakkuk 1:13). It’s because “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isaiah 64:6) before He who is infinitely holy and therefore can accept nothing less than an infinitely perfect and complete holiness.

Reformed theologian Bruce Bickel puts it like this:

If one is justified by a declaration of God, received through faith alone, then one is declared righteous in Christ the very moment one believes that the person and work of Christ — His righteousness, His perfect life of obedience — is credited to one’s account. Conversely, if one is justified by a process of sanctification that is never completed in one’s lifetime [the Catholic view] one does not have sufficient basis for acceptance with God (Justification by Faith Alone, p. IX).

The key is in those words “sufficient basis.” In other words, unless I am perfectly holy in God’s sight, he cannot accept me. Doesn’t matter that I’ve repented and turned to Christ in faith. Doesn’t matter that God has forgiven me for the sins I’ve committed, infused His own divine life into me and is in the process of transforming me into the image of Christ. Because this process is not yet complete, God cannot accept me.

None of this, Bickel says, is “sufficient basis” for acceptance with God. This is why I must be clothed in Christ’s perfect righteousness. I’m the dunghill that has to be hidden under the snow of Christ’s righteousness so that I’m blotted out and God sees only Christ.  Otherwise, God cannot accept me as his son and look at me with any pleasure. That’s the logic of the Protestant conception of justification.

Here’s how I respond to this entire line of thought: Of course it’s true that God is infinitely holy. And of course it’s true that you and I will need to be completely holy in order to enter heaven. This is what the process of sanctification is all about. But since when does it follow from this we must be perfectly holy now  in order for God to “accept us” as his children.

In fact, how different is this image of God from the image our Lord revealed to us when he came to “show us the Father” (John 14:8). All Jesus had to see was the tiniest glimmer of faith for him to “accept” anyone, no matter how sinful they had been. When the Prodigal Son returned home, notice his father didn’t respond, “Son, I can only accept you if a perfect righteousness been legally credited to your account. I see that there is true repentance here, but since your repentance will never be perfect in this life, this is not sufficient basis for me to accept you.” Instead, we read:

While he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him…  [And he] said to his 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 fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”

It was Jesus’s heart of mercy and love that caused him to weep over Jerusalem. “How often I would have gathered you together…” It was this same heart of mercy and love that led Jesus to accept the entirely imperfect man who said, “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.”

This is why Jesus could look with mercy on the woman caught in adultery. This is why God could look on the feeble faith of Abraham and accept it and declare him righteous. And this is why He can do the same with you and me. It’s called mercy and it flows from the cross of Jesus.

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  • Mark Miller says:

    Thank you Ken for being obedient to God’s promptings and serving as a channel of His grace flowing to us. Thank you for not being “passive”. May God continue to bless you.

  • Mike Warner says:

    I cannot believe that now through three emails, you have not answered my original query: “Do mans’ laws trump God’s?”

    You are free to believe what you wish – that’s the “liberty” I told you about earlier. Fascinating to me is that the encumbrances put on a catholic person is much like the Jewish law was before. Does anyone recognize the meaning of religo . . . to bind? And the catholic faith does a great deal of that, binding with this rule and that. Holy days of obligation, Mary, the ever virgin. What . . . Immaculate Conception? You have to be kidding me. Does the word exclude Mary from “all have sinned and fall short”. I will allow you freedom to believe what you wish. After 26 years in the dark ages of my life, in fact I call those days in parochial school kin to water boarding, I find a totally refreshing daily experience with Christ Jesus, the LORD of all. I wait for your answer to question number one. 😉

    Ken, Jesus wanted salvation to be so simple that even a child could understand and make a profession in Christ. You would put to sleep any 12 year old with your bantering above. KISS!!! If you are “saved”, then you would also be assured of your place in eternity. If so, I am happy for you and we’ll meet soon enough. Take a look at 1 John 5:13, one of my favorite verses. John wanted us to “know for certain” of our future place. Great comfort. Real assurance, confidence, joy and peace. No carrot act as with the little donkey . . . if you go to confession, if you make all of the Holy Days, if you , if you, and more if you’s. I am convinced, Ken, that Christ wanted us to be free from religion and its encumbrances. It sounds like you have fallen victim to a whole list. Have to go for now. More later when I can think clearly – have to be in NC tomorrow, a ten hour trip. NIghty-night. 😉

    • Ken Hensley says:

      I apologize, Mike, but I no idea about the three emails you mention. But the answer to your question is of course No, the laws of man do not trump the laws of God. So which law of God do you see being trumped by which law of man?

    • Ken Hensley says:

      Mike, you quote 1 John and talk about the assurance God wants you to have and how I suffer from all these “ifs”.

      Well, read 1 john. The entire book is one sustained “if.” It’s one sustained “by this we know…” — if we keep God’s commandments, if we love our brother, if this, if that. I’m sorry, but the NT is filled with if’s. “For we share in Christ IF we hold firmly to the end the confidence we had at first” (Hebrews 3:14). God will present us blameless “if we continue in the faith…” (Colossians 1). “If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love” (John 15:10). See 1 Corinthians 1:1ff. And I could go on quoting. How do you understand all those passages?

      I do live with confidence. I’m confident because I know that God loves me and has given me everything I need to walk with him and sow to the Spirit and reap the harvest of eternal life. And I know that however often I fall I can be forgiven, stand up and keep walking.

    • Mike McGinn says:

      Mike, if only things were so simple. Here’s a question for you. If Jesus wanted salvation to be so simple that a child could understand and make a profession of faith, then why did he bother with 12 adult male disciples? Why not simply enlist 12 teenagers? Wouldn’t they have done a better job? As for Jesus’s all-encompassing love and compassion for all of humanity, why would he tell his disciples in Matthew 10:13-15, “If the house is worthy, give it your blessing of peace. But if it is not worthy, take back your blessing of peace. Whoever does not receive you, nor heed your words, as you go out of that house or that city, shake the dust off your feet. Truly I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city.” That certainly doesn’t sound very Christian to me. It also sounds like Jesus expected that the people of the city needed to be worthy of something in order to receive his blessing of peace (via his disciples). In other words, there was some kind of standard to be met, some kind of bar to be hurdled. Unfortunately, our society is all about the easy path. Just simply accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior and, viola, your are justified for eternity…no further questions asked…no further demonstration of worthiness. Just click here and become a lifetime member.

  • Doug says:

    Thank you Ken,another thought about the the thought of having to be perfect and holy as God in order to be saved,it could be that we will only be as perfect and as righteous as God made us to be and this is enough and it will also be sufficient for us when we are in His presence without the presence of any evil influence,our obedience to Him in this life is what is sufficient to satisfy Gods purpose of love and justice which is what the purpose of Adams obedience was suppose to be and our obedience to Him in this life will be enough to make us able to be worthy of eternal life because we made the choice to obey Him,we passed the test.Noah was perfect enough for God because he was perfect as he could be when he obeyed.

  • AnDrew says:

    John 6:66 is the Protestant Way. You cannot walk away from Jesus real flesh and blood presence and be justified by a symbol.

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