I like detective stories, especially theological detective stories.
I’m hoping you do as well, because very soon (in my next post) I’m going to begin presenting you with one. It’s the story of how and why this particular theological snoop (and Protestant minister) came to reject the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone and embrace the Catholic understanding of how we are saved and come to inherit eternal life.
Now, some of you find thinking about these kinds of issues exciting. But whether or not this is your favorite literary genre, I’m hoping to convince you that the reformer Martin Luther fundamentally misunderstood St Paul and that Protestantism since, following squarely in the footsteps of the sixteenth century Augustinian, has been teaching a confused doctrine of justification that simply does not reflect what the Bible teaches.
But before we launch into the drama, I want summarize where we’ve come and make some comments about the importance of the subject.
In simple terms, “justification” is the theological term Catholics use to describe the entire process by which we are forgiven our sins and made internally righteous and fit for heaven.
Justification is a process, and it’s process in which we are involved. In fact, even as Moses and the children of Israel had to walk from Egypt to the Promised Land, so salvation is a path we must walk. Of course we don’t walk it in our own strength, but in the grace of God. And of course we don’t walk it without falling countless times and coming back to the Lord countless times to receive forgiveness and strength to take up our beds and walk again. But still we must walk and persevere in walking to the end.
This is what Catholics mean when they speak of “justification”.
For Protestants, “justification” is something entirely different. It isn’t about how we become “internally righteous and fit for heaven”, and it isn’t a “process”. For Protestants, justification is a legal transaction that takes place and is completed the moment one believes in Christ. It consists of the righteousness of Christ being legally “credited” (“imputation” is the word normally used) to the one who believes. This is what makes one “just” in the sight of God.
Yes, Protestants are quick to add, those whom God justifies he also regenerates and indwells with his Spirit such that they will want to grow in faith, hope and love. That’s sanctification. In fact, if one who claims to be a Christian does not struggle to live in obedience to Christ, this can be taken as evidence that the person may have never “truly believed”.
But that’s another matter entirely. In the Protestant view, one’s “right standing” before God is based “solely” on Christ’s righteousness having been imputed to one’s account.
Now, Luther’s commitment to this view of justification was total.
He referred to justification by faith alone as “the article upon which the church stands or falls”. He spoke of it as “the summary of Christian doctrine“ and as ”the sun, which illumines God’s holy church.”
John Calvin referred to justification by faith alone as the “hinge upon which the door of all true religion swings.”
For the reformers, this was the most important doctrine of all! In fact, for Luther it became the rule by which everything was to be judged. He interpreted all of Scripture in the light of this doctrine and was willing to question the inspired authority of any New Testament book that didn’t seem to agree with it.
For instance, the Epistle of St. James.
Because James says in 2:24 “You see that a man is justified by deeds and not by faith alone” Luther responded, “Away with James! Its authority is not great enough to cause me to abandon the doctrine of faith… If they [referring to other teachers] will not agree to my interpretations, then I shall make rubble of it. I almost feel like throwing Jimmy into the stove. It is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works… Therefore I do not want him in my Bible.”
Luther went so far as to assert that no one could be saved who did not agree with him on this crucial issue. “I do not admit that my doctrine can be judged by anyone, even the angels. He who does not receive my doctrine [of justification by faith alone] cannot be saved.”
That’s how important the doctrine was to him and indisputable it was in his mind that he was right.
Now, admittedly Luther was not a man given to half-measures. When he made the decision to enter the monastery at the age of 21, he didn’t even tell his parents. He quit the university, took two weeks to put his affairs in order, walked with a few of his closest friends to the gate of the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, announced in grand fashion, “you who see me here today shall see me no longer” and went inside.
Luther was a radical by nature. But he’s not the only one insisting on the non-negotiable status of justification by faith alone.
This may come as a surprise to some of you, but this is still how serious Reformation-minded Protestants feel about this issue. For them, justification by faith alone remains “the article upon which the Church stands or falls.”
In a book I have titled Justification by Faith Alone Dr. John Gerstner, professor for many years at Gordon Conwell Seminary in Boston, talks about the conversion to the Catholic faith of his former seminary student Scott Hahn. He describes how he “mourned” for Scott when he learned of it. Why? Because he believed that no one could be saved who had understood, and then rejected, justification by faith alone.
In fact, Dr. Gerstner interpreted Scott’s becoming Catholic as strong evidence that he, Scott, must never been a Christian at all. “Instead of leaving the Protestant Church,” Gerstner writes, “[Scott] was leaving the lost world into which he was born — and from which he was never actually separated — for the false Church of Rome. He has leapt from the frying pan into the fire, and only God can deliver him as a brand from the burning (p. 185).
WHY SO IMPORTANT?
Catholics read this and think: Why?
What would lead a Christian scholar like John Gerstner to view the importance of this doctrine in such radical terms? Is it justification by faith alone or nothing in his eyes? Yes, it is. Being in the Church of Rome is the same as being lost in his thinking? Yes, pretty much. He doesn’t believe Catholics are even Christians? No, he doesn’t.
And there are many who don’t! And the ones who don’t — the one’s who most doubt that Catholics should be counted as Christians — are the ones who are most serious about the Reformation doctrine of sola fide.
Why? Because (so important for Catholics to sympathetically grasp this) in their view the very Gospel of the grace of God is at stake in this dispute between the Protestant and Catholic views of justification.
You see, in their thinking, there are really only two options when it comes to salvation: either one is saved by faith alone in the imputed righteousness of Christ or one is attempting in some manner to “earn salvation” through one’s obedience. It’s either faith alone, or works.
In their thinking, faith alone in the imputed righteousness of Christ means that salvation is from first to last the work of God. It means that there are no grounds for human boasting. It means that God receives all the praise and glory for the work of salvation.
The Catholic view, on the other hand, which insists that justification is a process in which our perseverance in faith and obedience is required… Well, in this case, Protestants reason, if we actually achieved eternal life, we would have contributed to our own salvation. Salvation would be partly God’s work and party ours. We would logically have grounds for boasting for all eternity that we had to some degree “saved ourselves”. God would not receive all the praise and glory! And yet St Paul is so clear in teaching that salvation is God’s gift and that Christians have no grounds for boasting…
It’s this line of reasoning that leads a serious Reformation-minded Protestant pastor like John MacArthur to write: “The difference between Rome and the Reformers is not theological hair-splitting. A right understanding of justification by faith is the very foundation of the gospel. You cannot go wrong at this point without corrupting every other doctrine as well. And that is why every ‘different gospel’ is under the eternal curse of God.”
Believing this, MacArthur has referred to the Catholic teaching as “a damning system of works-righteousness”.
The Protestant position is one I know well. After all, I was taught it in seminary and then taught it myself for many years.
But over time I began to have questions. And not because I was paying attention to the writings of Catholic theologians. I had never read a Catholic theologian at the time. It was because I was paying attention to the writings of the Old and New Testaments, to the writings of Paul and Peter, James and John, Matthew, Mark, Luke, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and others.
As a theological detective, snooping about in the Bible, I began to run into pieces of evidence that didn’t fit the Protestant narrative.
To be continued…