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.
A DAMNING SYSTEM OF WORKS-RIGHTEOUSNESS
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.”
ROBBING GOD OF HIS GLORY
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.
NO SUFFICIENT BASIS
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.