The Justification of Robert Koons


Robert C. Koons, professor of philosophy at the University of Texas, has announced his decision to leave the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. Dr Koons explains that critical to his decision has been a reevaluation of the Reformation construal of justification. He has made available a lucid analysis of the key issues: “A Lutheran’s Case for Roman Catholicism.”

Comparing the Catholic and Lutheran understandings of justification is not an easy matter, despite the confident polemics of the past four hundred and fifty years. Key terms (justification, grace, faith, merit) possess different meanings within the respective systems. As a result, the two traditions appear to agree when they do not in fact agree and to disagree when they in fact do agree. Identification of the authentic differences between the Catholic and Lutheran understandings thus requires patient and charitable analysis.

Koons argues that the difference between the Catholic and Lutheran understandings is more subtle than usually recognized:

• Is the difference one between a righteousness in us (in nobis) and a righteousness outside of us (extra nobis), or between an inherent and an imputed righteousness? As we have seen, both sides admit that we are really made righteous by God’s imputation, and both admit that this righteousness consists in a right relation to Christ.

• Does the difference consist in the issue of whether our works can be said to ‘merit’ grace and eternal life? As we have seen, both sides admit that God can be said to ‘reward’ our works with eternal life, and both admit that some of our works can be ‘means’ of grace. This amounts to our works having a kind of ‘merit’ (in the Roman sense).

• Does the difference concern the question of whether our works can play any causal role in securing our final glorification. As we have seen, both sides affirm Peter’s injunction that we do good works to make our calling secure. (2 Peter 1:10) (p. 39)

The crucial difference, Koons asserts, is grounded in the way in which each tradition construes the relation between objective and subjective justification. Both sides agree that humanity is justified by the merits of Christ alone. Both reject the Calvinist error that Christ died only for the elect. Both reject the universalist error that all will ultimately be saved. Humanity is objectively justified in Christ, yet we may not say that each individual is subjectively justified. Wherein lies the difference between the unjustified man and the justified man? What must happen to us, within us, that we may become subjectively justified?

Lutheranism identifies the justified man as he who has received the gift of faith in Jesus Christ through the preaching of the gospel. Catholicism identifies the justified man as he who has been been regenerated in the Holy Spirit and supernaturally restored to a relationship of love with the Father through the incarnate Son. Which is the superior explanation? Koons has become persuaded that the Catholic view best states the reality of our justification:

In order to be able to benefit from our objective justification, we must undergo an internal transformation that enables us to enjoy eternal life with God. Eternal life in God’s presence would be no benefit to a sinful man, whose heart and mind are at enmity with God. C. S. Lewis illustrates this fact beautifully in his masterpiece, The Great Divorce. Unregenerate people would find heaven more intolerable even than hell.

How does this internal transformation take place? It begins with faith, which is itself a free gift of God, dependent on no prior works or merits. However, merely believing God is not sufficient for being able to enjoy communion with God: faith must reach its natural end or completion, in the form of the love of God. Only when, through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we begin to love God are we in a state in which we can begin to enjoy the benefits of Christ’s redemption. It is true, of course, that we never love as we ought, but neither do we ever trust as we ought. The process of sanctification is a long and gradual process: the attainment of perfection is not a prerequisite of friendship with God, but the natural result of that friendship. (p. 40)

The two positions are not in fact far apart. “The difference (faith alone versus faith completed in love),” Koons elaborates, “is a subtle one, since Lutherans admit that saving faith is never ‘alone’, that is, that it is always accompanied by an inward renewal and by good works that flow from this renewed nature and that are pleasing to God. The Scriptures describe eternal life as a reward for these good works, and without good works one’s perseverance in grace cannot be secure” (p. 39).

Yet despite the relative closeness of the two construals of justification, the confessional Lutheran continues to insist that the difference remains church-dividing. He fears that the Catholic identification of justification and regeneration undercuts our assurance before God. If to be justified is to be transformed by the Spirit, necessarily manifested in good works, are we not in fact thrown back upon ourselves and forced to trust in our deeds, thus leading to either self-righteousness or despair? But this concern, Koons says, is unwarranted, for the very nature of our regeneration disallows the attempt to secure our justification in our works:

We cannot trust in our outward works, since the merit of any work depends on its supernatural quality as a fruit of the Holy Spirit. This supernatural quality is not under our control. In the end, we must place our faith wholly in the promise of the gift of the Spirit to us for Christ’s sake. One cannot assess the merits of his own life in terms of the visible or introspectible character of one’s deeds. (p. 35)

In its own way, in other words, the Catholic construal of justification achieves the Lutheran goal of absolute reliance upon God. Like the Lutheran, the Catholic must ultimately look away from himself and throw himself upon the mercy and grace of the Father. While it is descriptively true that, in Christ and by the Spirit, our good works merit final salvation, no human being can introspectively examine himself and know with absolute certainty that the salvific description obtains. No one can see himself as God sees him. And so the Catholic, like the Lutheran, looks to the promises of Christ sealed to him in the sacraments. In this respect, Koons believes that the Catholic sacramental principle of ex opere operato actually provides a stronger basis for assurance than the Lutheran understanding of sacramental efficacy:

There is one respect in which Lutheran assurance is decidedly inferior to its Roman counterpart. Lutherans deny that the sacraments (of baptism and of absolution/penance) are effective unless the individual exercises saving faith, while Romans stipulate that the sacraments are effective unless the individual actively intends to use them for base purposes. The technical term for this dispute is ex opere operata (Romans affirm this and Lutherans deny it). The logical consequence of the Lutheran position is that I cannot be sure that I am now in a state of grace, reconciled to God, unless I am sure that I have saving faith. In contrast, the Catholic can be assured that his sins are forgiven, so long as he as not intentionally created some inner obstacle to the efficacy of the sacrament. This means that when the Catholic exercises faith or trust, the object of the trust is simply the grace and mercy of God, whereas when the Lutheran does so, he must to a certain degree rely on the quality of his own trust. This subjective, self-referential character of the Lutheran conception of trust can place a serious obstacle to one’s assurance of one’s present state of grace. To their credit, Lutheran theologians urge their laymen to direct their faith solely toward God’s faithfulness as its object, but this instruction is inconsistent with the theory that the beneficial efficacy (although not the validity) of the sacrament depends on the genuineness of the believer’s faith. (p. 36)

I’m not sure if Koons does justice here to the Lutheran position. At least as interpreted by non-Lutheran Phillip Cary, the Lutheran understanding of the gospel grounds faith in the external word and short-circuits the introspective move to reflective faith (also see Cary’s essay “Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant,” Pro Ecclesia [Fall 2005], pp. 447-486. I briefly discuss Cary’s argument in “Believe and you have it [or maybe not]”). Koons has neglected, perhaps, the Lutheran reinterpretation of sacrament as word-event: sacraments accomplish their purpose by visibly enacting the unconditional promises of the gospel. When God in Holy Baptism says to me “I love and forgive you,” I do not need to reflectively know whether I believe it or not; I just need to believe it—and in believing it I receive my assurance. Yet I also see Koons’s point, for it is descriptively true that only those who trust in Christ are in fact justified. In some sense faith is a condition for salvation, and if so, then it seems inevitable that the troubled sinner will seek to know whether that condition has been fulfilled within himself. I’ll leave it to Lutherans to defend themselves against Koons’s criticism. At a practical level, I am confident that Lutherans are in no better and no worse position than Catholics on the matter of salvific assurance. Just as Lutherans cannot determine through introspective analysis whether they in fact believe, so Catholics cannot determine through introspsective analysis whether they in fact possess the supernatural life of God. Both are ultimately compelled to cast themselves on the merciful God who slays them in baptism and raises them to new life in the eucharistic Christ. Only in the actual living of Christian discipleship, in prayer, worship, repentance, and good works, can authentic assurance be achieved. Assurance is neither abstract nor static. It is a personal knowing, and unknowing, gained through daily self-surrender to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col 3:3-4).

I also commend to you Pastor Adam Cooper’s recent response to Koon’s reflections on justification.