Before I decided to launch into this series comparing the Protestant and Catholic doctrines of justification, I wrote a single post, which with my evangelical friends in mind, I affectionately titled: ‘Faith Alone’ is a Conceptual Mess.
I talked in that post about how it was (strangely enough) one of my Protestant professors as Fuller Theological Seminary who first got me questioning the idea of “faith alone”. As I begin now to tell the story of how and why this Baptist pastor came to embrace the Catholic view of salvation, I need to return to this first instance of questioning.
I was a young seminary student for whom nothing was more exciting than thinking about the truths of the Christian faith.
I was also a pure unadulterated advocate of sola scriptura, wide-open to any and all arguments that could be made from the Bible. And having the mindset of a theological detective, I was all the time measuring exegetical footprints in the mud, all the time on the lookout for patterns of textual evidence, continually examining the shapes of ideas and arguments.
And when Dr Fuller said what he said in class that day, my anti-symmetry antennae stood upright and began to flash red.
THE BIBLICAL PATTERN
The professor was talking about Luther and Calvin and justification by “faith alone” and all of a sudden he said:
“You know, it’s a curious thing, but when you think of it, the Bible is essentially one story after another of men and women and their relationships with God, one illustration after another of how God deals with people. And never in these stories do we find God telling people they will receive his blessing ‘by faith alone.’ Instead, the pattern is always ‘trust me (faith), do what I tell you to do (obedience) and I will bless you (blessing)’. The pattern we see in Scripture is always faith, leading to obedience, resulting in God’s blessing.”
I remember the professor offering some simple but powerful illustrations: Noah had to trust God (faith) and build the ark (obedience) in order to be saved through the flood (blessing). Abraham had to trust God (faith) and leave his home and family in Mesopotamia (obedience) in order to receive what God was promising him (blessing). Moses and the children of Israel had to trust God (faith) and sacrifice the Passover (obedience) in order to be delivered out of bondage in Egypt. Naaman the Syrian had to trust God (faith) and dip himself seven times in the Jordan River (obedience) in order to be cleaned of his leprosy.
The man blind from birth had to trust Jesus (faith), but in order to see again he also had to wash in the Pool of Siloam.
One thing that struck me at the time was how simple it was to find illustrations of this pattern of “faith, leading to obedience, resulting in blessing”. It was simple because this is simply what we see throughout Scripture.
THE PROTESTANT PATTERN
Now, this professor wasn’t questioning the Protestant view of nature of justification. He thought of justification in terms of the legal imputation of Christ’s righteousness (we’ll be coming back to this later). What was troubling him was this idea that justification is received by “faith alone”. He didn’t see how “faith alone” fit the pattern he saw illustrated in the lives of every saint in the Bible, which was
- Faith, leading to
- Obedience, resulting in
According to Luther and classic Protestantism, here’s how we’re called to relate to God:
- We believe in Christ (faith)
- We are immediately justified (blessing)
- And then we proceed to live out our faith (obedience).
In other words, the pattern becomes
- Faith, resulting in
- Blessing, leading to
Entirely different than what we see throughout the Bible.
With Noah and Abraham and Moses and the rest, obedience is part of what is needed “in order to” receive the blessing. In Protestantism, obedience instead becomes our response to having already received the blessing. It’s how we demonstrate our gratitude for the blessing of justification already received by faith alone and show that God is in our life.
The two patterns have entirely different shapes to them. They don’t look the same.
Now, the idea that God would change the essential pattern of how he wants us to relate to him seemed strange to me. I remember asking myself the question: “If God wants to teach the world that his blessings must be received by faith alone, why did he fill the entire Bible with the stories of men and women who are never called to receive his blessings by faith alone but always by faith and obedience?”
ONE ANSWER THAT DIDN’T WORK
One of the answers I was tempted to give as a Protestant went like this: “The pattern we see in the lives of these people in the Old Testament doesn’t apply to us. They lived under a system of works; we live under a system of grace”.
Except… if this were true, why are these Old Testament saints set forth in the New Testament as examples for us to emulate?
For instance, in Hebrew 11 the author scans salvation history from creation forward and presents his Christian readers with example after example of men and women he wants them to imitate. And every one of them illustrates the pattern of faith, leading to obedience, resulting in blessing. “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he received approval as righteous” (11:4). “By faith Noah, being warned by God of events as yet unseen, took heed and constructed an ark for the saving of his household…” (11:7). “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out…” (11:8). “By faith [Moses] left Egypt…” (11:27). And so forth.
The author of Hebrews parades before us all these people who trust God and do what God tells them to do and therefore are blessed and instead of saying “But please ignore all these examples because, after all, these men and women were living under a system of ‘works’ and we’re living under a system of ‘grace’ and so the way they lived and related to God doesn’t really apply to us” — instead, what do we read? “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood…. Strive…for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:1-4, 14).
No. It was perfectly clear to me that the author of Hebrews wanted me to imitate Noah and Abraham and Moses. As they walked in the obedience of faith and were “approved as righteous” (11:4) and received God’s blessing, he wanted me to do the same.
He sees a continuum between their way and ours. He’s not drawing a contrast. Not in the least.
CALLING GOOD EVIL
But here’s the thing that over time really twisted my head into knots:
Not only does Protestantism insist on this change in the basic pattern of how we’re to relate to God, it insists that the “old pattern”, the pattern we see illustrated in the lives of Noah and Abraham and Moses and every Old Testament saint, the pattern we see praised and set forth in Hebrews 11 as an example for Christians to imitate — it insists that this pattern is now to be considered “legalism”.
That’s exactly right. Say to any Protestant that you believe we must trust God and obey him in order to receive his blessing and you will be considered a “legalist”. If you believe we must persevere in faith and the obedience of faith to receive eternal life, Protestants will say you’ve embraced a”damning system of works-righteousness”.
In other words, not only is the old pattern no longer in force; it’s downright evil.
As I wind this up, let me say that I don’t present this as a “proof” that justification by faith alone is wrong. So please don’t respond that this doesn’t “prove” anything — as though this were the entire case. No, the case that drove me to embrace the Catholic view of justification — the case I’ve only begun to present — is a case involving an accumulation of evidences over a long period of time.
But every story has to start somewhere. For me, it was this little brain-twister about patterns that first got me thinking outside the Lutheran box. There would be many more brain-twisters to come.
In our next episode, we’ll look at more of them.