by Fr Alvin Kimel


On what grounds do Anglicans maintain separation from the Roman Communion? Are we justified in maintaining this separation? The current dissolution of the Episcopal Church, and of Reformation Christianity in general, requires orthodox Episcopalians to thoughtfully answer these two questions.

Martin Luther broke the unity of the Church because he believed that the gospel itself, expressed in the slogan “justification by faith,” was at stake. This, and this alone, justified schism. When Philip Melanchthon signed the Smalcald Articles, he wrote:

I, Philip Melanchthon, regard the above articles as right and Christian. However, concerning the pope I hold that, if he would allow the Gospel, we, too, may concede to him that superiority over the bishops which he possesses by human right, making this concession for the sake of peace and general unity among the Christians who are now under him and who may be in the future.

Hence Melanchthon was willing to accept the Papacy if the freedom to preach the gospel of the justification of the ungodly was allowed in the church. For Melanchthon reconciliation with Rome did not require perfect agreement on justification. All he asked was the freedom to preach the gospel. Grant this freedom and he would be happy to be reconciled to the historic structures of the Church.

Is it any longer reasonable to justify separation from the Catholic Church because of differences on the doctrine of justification by faith? The remarkable Lutheran/Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification would suggest that such separation can no longer be justified on this basis.

First, the document clearly states that “the mutual condemnations of former times do not apply to the Catholic and Lutheran doctrines of justification as they are presented in the Joint Declaration” (Annex to Common Statement). The Lutheran understanding of justification, as defined by the document, is not considered to be church-dividing by Catholicism; the Catholic understanding of justification, as defined by the document, is not considered to be church-dividing by Lutheranism. In other words, one can hold a “Lutheran” understanding of justification and be a Catholic! This doesn’t mean that all Catholics need agree with this Lutheran understanding. Disagreement is tolerated within Catholicism on many issues. Consider the eternal debate between Thomists and Molinists on free-will, grace, and predestination. These two schools contradict each other directly on what was once considered a very important matter, yet the Magisterium determined that it was best not to decide between the two schools–and so the argument continues. Similarly, there can now be a Lutheran “school” within Catholicism that is deemed not to contradict the canons of the Council of Trent. The gospel, as understood by confessional Lutherans, can now be freely proclaimed within the Catholic Church without fear of ecclesiastical censure. If the “Lutheran” gospel is welcome in the Catholic Church, then Anglicans, who have permitted wide differences on justification (compare Thomas Cranmer, Richard Hooker, and Jeremy Taylor), certainly should have no qualms.

Second, I note the non-Tridentine flavor of the Joint Declaration. For Trent, justification is a process of transformation. This understanding of process is certainly not denied by JD, but neither is it insisted upon. In other words, room is now granted for the recovery of the eschatological understanding of St Paul and Luther. What do I mean when I speak of an eschatological understanding? I mean that justification is a reality that in Christ is given to us fully and received in faith, and yet it is also the case that we may and must in faith grow into our justification, until it becomes our eternal possession in the Kingdom. We are in the present justified by grace, received in faith and yet in hope we anticipate the Final Judgment. The Kingdom is come and is not yet. We are truly righteous but we still await our fulfillment in righteousness. It is precisely this eschatological nature of justification that the forensic dimension of justification-language seeks to communicate.

Third, the document makes it clear that our justification is not conditional upon our works. Forgive me for citing so many passages from the JD document, but it’s important for us to see the emphasis placed on the sola gratia and sola fide:

Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.

Through Christ alone are we justified, when we receive this salvation in faith. Faith is itself God’s gift through the Holy Spirit who works through word and sacrament in the community of believers and who, at the same time, leads believers into that renewal of life which God will bring to completion in eternal life.

We confess together that sinners are justified by faith in the saving action of God in Christ. By the action of the Holy Spirit in baptism, they are granted the gift of salvation, which lays the basis for the whole Christian life. They place their trust in God’s gracious promise by justifying faith, which includes hope in God and love for him. Such a faith is active in love and thus the Christian cannot and should not remain without works. But whatever in the justified precedes or follows the free gift of faith is neither the basis of justification nor merits it.

We confess together that persons are justified by faith in the gospel “apart from works prescribed by the law” (Rom 3:28). Christ has fulfilled the law and by his death and resurrection has overcome it as a way to salvation. We also confess that God’s commandments retain their validity for the justified and that Christ has by his teaching and example expressed God’s will which is a standard for the conduct of the justified also.

We confess together that the faithful can rely on the mercy and promises of God. In spite of their own weakness and the manifold threats to their faith, on the strength of Christ’s death and resurrection they can build on the effective promise of God’s grace in Word and Sacrament and so be sure of this grace.

Catholics can share the concern of the Reformers to ground faith in the objective reality of Christ’s promise, to look away from one’s own experience, and to trust in Christ’s forgiving word alone (cf. Mt 16:19; 18:18). With the Second Vatican Council, Catholics state: to have faith is to entrust oneself totally to God, who liberates us from the darkness of sin and death and awakens us to eternal life. In this sense, one cannot believe in God and at the same time consider the divine promise untrustworthy. No one may doubt God’s mercy and Christ’s merit. Every person, however, may be concerned about his salvation when he looks upon his own weaknesses and shortcomings. Recognizing his own failures, however, the believer may yet be certain that God intends his salvation.

However our works are to be understood, they cannot be understood as being the ground of our justification, even while acknowledging them as fruits of justification in Christ and even while acknowledging that by our actions our union with Christ can be deepened and that Christ will reward our good actions in heaven. If the sinner faces the question “Am I now justified?” this question cannot be answered by looking at one’s own works, which are always flawed and imperfect, but by looking at Christ himself, who is our justification, sanctification, and election.

I do not believe that the JD has answered all questions and resolved all problems, most of which are probably systematically unresolvable. We are, after all, talking about the mystery of grace and faith. This agreement does, however, open up new possibilities for construing the mystery of faith. Neither the Council of Trent, the Lutheran Confessions, nor the Articles of Religion is the last word on justification. Karl Rahner comments: “For it is not at all likely that the limits set by the Magisterium (‘definitions’) in its defensive statements of a truth, will express adequately all aspects of the truth as it exists in the mind of the Church.” It is important to observe, for example, that Eastern Orthodoxy speaks of our relationship to God in very different categories. The notion of created grace is alien to Eastern theology. It prefers to speak of the believer’s deification in Christ by the the Holy Spirit. Catholicism has never insisted that the Orthodox churches or the Byzantine Uniate churches adopt the Tridentine conceptuality.

Thus I am encouraged indeed by the Joint Declaration. It is certainly not just a scholastic restatement of the Council of Trent. The Joint Declaration invites the Church to enter into a deeper understanding of the mystery of grace.

Anglicans can no longer pretend that we remain separated from Rome because of critical disagreements on the gospel of Jesus Christ. A remarkable convergence has occurred between the Roman Communion and the churches of the Reformation.

23 March 2004


Is salvation a process? For purposes of our discussion, I propose to distinguish notionally between justification and sanctification. This is not a distinction that is generally made by Catholics (Hans Kung being an exception), who typically comprehend under “justification” that which Protestants would identify as “justification” and “sanctification.” This is a notional distinction that allows us to emphasize the gratuity of God’s actions in taking us into union with him in his triune life; but as we shall see, this union cannot be reduced to temporal stages of justification and sanctification.

According to ecumenical exegesis of the New Testament, justification is God’s divine act of acquittal by which a sinner is declared to be just. Justification is the nonreckoning of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, heard and received in faith. Justification is God’s final judgment let loose in history ahead of time.

As eschatological judgment, justification is an event, not a process. When God tells me that my sins are forgiven, just, and in the right, then I simply am forgiven, just, and right. There is nothing more to be added to this unconditional divine declaration. I can only believe it or disbelieve it. This is why love is not directly correlated to justification. I am justified by faith alone. Thus Hans Kung writes:

Justification through “faith alone” bespeaks the complete incapacity and incompetence of man for any sort of self-justification. In justification the sinner cannot give anything which he does not receive from grace. The attitude of simple trusting submission under God’s gracious judgment is faith, which does not even appeal to its self, its deed or its attitude, which would only be the craftiest kind of “glorying” (1 Cor 4:7; Rom 4:20). Thus, no work, not even a work of love, justifies man, but only faith, justified through God himself. This faith as a gracious gift of God is not achievement through works, but rather self-surrender to God, an abandonment by grace to the grace of God as a response to the act of God. (“Justification and Sanctification in the New Testament,” in Christianity Divided, p. 323)

At the moment of baptism, I am justified. At the moment of absolution, I am justified. At the moment of eucharistic reception, I am justified. Do I know this for an absolute certainty? Of course not. When I look at myself I see a sinner who does not deserve God’s love and forgiveness, who each day chooses self over God a thousand times an hour. But the gospel summons me to look, not to myself, but at Christ Jesus, who has died for my sins and who assures me a place at his Heavenly Banquet. And so I believe.

If salvation is considered purely as process, then assurance of any kind would be impossible. I can know neither the genuineness of my faith, repentance, and love, nor whether tomorrow I will persevere in faith. But at the eschatological moment that confronts me in the gospel, I may look to Christ and believe and “know” that I am saved. The gospel tells me, Christ died for the ungodly. I appear to qualify.

The Catholic fear has been that the Reformation imputation creates only a legal fiction. But if the declaration of justice is God’s declaration, then it must effect what it speaks. God speaks his Word and the world comes into being. God sends forth his Word and it does not return to him empty. His Word creates and recreates. This has been well stated in the Catholic/Anglican agreement Salvation and the Church:

Justification and sanctification are two aspects of the same divine act (1 Cor 6:11). This does not mean that justification is a reward for faith or works: rather, when God promises the removal of our condemnation and gives us a new standing before him, this justification is indissolubly linked with his sanctifying recreation of us in grace. This transformation is being worked out in the course of our pilgrimage, despite the imperfections and ambiguities of our lives. God’s grace effects what he declares: his creative Word imparts what it imputes. By pronouncing us righteous, God also makes us righteous. He imparts a righteousness which is his and becomes ours.

To be in Christ, St Paul tells us, is to be a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). There is no legal fiction here. We truly become what God declares us to be. Imputation of righteousness is sanctifying transformation. Thus Cardinal Bellarmine: “When God justifies the sinner by declaring him just He also makes him just, for God’s judgment is according to truth.”

How can we understand this? By seeing that justification and sanctification are simultaneously bestowed upon us in our baptismal rebirth and our incorporation into Christ. We are ontologically united to Christ Jesus and are indwelt by his Holy Spirit. We live in Christ and abide in Christ and he in us. All of his blessings are given to us in union with him. If I am truly baptized into the ascended Son of God, if my human nature has been transfigured in the uncreated energies of the eternal Word, how can it be said that I am not saved, justified, sanctified, deified, glorified?

Does this mean that “once saved always saved”? I think that the best answer to this question is “I truly hope so!” But I also know myself, and I know the terrible possibility that I might choose to sever myself from God’s grace forever. Karl Barth called this the “impossible possibility.” How is it possible for a person who is surrounded by the unconditional and infinite love of God to choose Hell? Yet we see this possibility enacted in Judas, and we know this possibility in our hearts. Is this not what mortal sin truly is, a decisive concentration of the will in rejection of God’s love and mercy? Have I thus run afoul the traditional Catholic teaching on mortal sin? I’m not sure. I confess that I have for a long time been attracted to some Catholic presentations of the fundamental option; but I also acknowledge that the fundamental orientation of the human person toward God is shaped by our actions and embodied in our actions. Thus I am happy (I think) to agree with John Paul II when he writes:

By his fundamental choice, man is capable of giving his life direction and of progressing, with the help of grace, towards his end, following God’s call. But this capacity is actually exercised in the particular choices of specific actions, through which man deliberately conforms himself to God’s will, wisdom and law. It thus needs to be stated that the so-called fundamental option, to the extent that it is distinct from a generic intention and hence one not yet determined in such a way that freedom is obligated, is always brought into play through conscious and free decisions. Precisely for this reason, it is revoked when man engages his freedom in conscious decisions to the contrary, with regard to morally grave matter.

However, where does the gospel proclamation of Christ’s unconditional love and mercy fit in to all of this? Is salvation merely a matter of avoiding grave sins? I hear the warning of the Holy Father. We cannot presume upon God’s mercy while at the same time freely choosing to disobey him. Our faith in Christ’s promises cannot be divorced from the choices we make in our day to day lives. Yet there is also the decisive word of the gospel–Christ died for the ungodly! At the end of each day, all we can do is throw ourselves back on the unmerited mercy of God and rededicate our lives to our Lord’s service and obedience. (If there is a better way to formulate this, I sure wish someone would show me. )

Is assurance of my future salvation therefore impossible? Surely not. God has already issued his judgment in the cross of his Son: “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6). God has already sealed this judgment to me in gospel, baptism, absolution, and eucharist: “You are righteous in my Son.” Cleaving to the gracious promises of Christ Jesus and his Kingdom, surely it is right to confidently hope for my future salvation. “Faith is hope anticipated,” writes Richard John Neuhaus, “and hope is faith disposed toward the future.” He who has died for the sins of the world, he who has risen from death into the glory of God, he who has poured out his Spirit upon me and brought me to faith, will surely keep me in this faith. This is my hope. But I do not have any guarantees. The warning of Hell remains.

So is justification a process? No and Yes. Justification is an eschatological event in which I am captured by Christ’s word of forgiveness and justice. When God says to me in the gospel that I am accepted by him, then truly I am accepted by him. The Lord has spoken and he does not lie. But the fact remains that this side of the Kingdom, even though I have died with Christ and my life is hid with him, my faith is constantly threatened by the flesh, the world, and the Devil. Each day I am summoned to consecrate myself to our Lord and to live out the life of obedience and love that he has given to me. Each day I am summoned to grow in sanctity and holiness through prayer, mortification, and acts of love and mercy. Each day I am summoned to become the person God has truly made me to be. “Become what you are,” St Leo the Great declared, “another Christ.”

Is this understanding contrary to Catholicism? Recent ecumenical agreements lead me to believe that Catholicism has recognized that the Tridentine decrees cannot be woodenly asserted four hundred years later. Conciliar infallibility does not guarantee that a given dogmatic formulation is the best formulation, only that it does not ultimately lead the Church into error within its historical context. From God’s point of view, our salvation is no doubt a process of conversion, sanctification, and glorification. But from the sinner’s point of view, salvation is present event, as I listen to the gospel and trust in the promises of Christ.

24 March 2004


Which denomination or tradition does the following statement best represent? Lutheran? Baptist? Reformed? Anglican? Catholic? Orthodox? Methodist?

Salvation is a grace, a gift of God, not the work of man. Therefore, man can be saved by faith in the Savior and by this means alone…. The essential, for salvation, is to recognize that God is its author, that it depends, not on one’s own strength, but on God’s. In this realization, where a radical distrust of self is but the obverse of absolute confidence in God, consists faith; nothing else can possibly replace it.

Faith alone saves us means, if it means anything, that we, on our part, have nothing to add to it, nothing outside or independent of it. Any such addition would result, of necessity, in a denial of the essential. For if, believing in principle in the saving action of God, we were obliged to add something of our own initiative, what would be the result? We would fall back at once into the impossible situation from which grace had rescued us; we would have to accomplish our salvation in part, in the hope that God would do the rest. But our actual state of wretchedness comes from our incapacity for any effective initiative, even incomplete, toward salvation; in short, we have not only to be assisted to save ourselves; we need to be saved.

In other words, either we are not saved by divine grace, acknowledged and accepted by faith, or this grace, which is in God, is the sole cause of our salvation, and faith, which is in us, the sole means of access to it. For if there is something needed for salvation that has a source other than grace received by faith, we are confronted again with the impossible task of the salvation of man by man. The gospel, however, is the good news that someone else-God in Christ–has done for us what we could not do.

The passage cited is from the renowned Catholic scholar Louis Bouyer’s book The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism (1956). It represents his interpretation of the essential views of Martin Luther.

Bouyer goes on to say that the purpose of Luther’s sola gratia and sola fide is to reject the idea that we have to add something external to these two things–grace, which gives, and faith, which receives. Such an addition would amount to saying that we are saved neither by grace nor by faith. God provides part of what is needed for our salvation, but we are still left with providing the rest. “On the other hand,” Bouyer writes, “the insight of Luther, preserved in the type of Protestantism most faithful to its origins and most truly Christian, is that all is grace, and that, consequently, all in our salvation comes to us by faith.” Bouyer offers this evaluation: “At once we can see that Luther’s view of salvation, so understood, is in perfect harmony with Catholic tradition, the great conciliar definitions on grace and salvation, and even with Thomism.”

Yet I find that many Catholics, including clergy, understand the Catholic Church as teaching faith plus works. I am not throwing stones. As one of my friends likes to say, “We Episcopalians get salvation the old fashioned way: We earn it!”

The following comments by Peter Kreeft seem particularly appropriate:

But many Catholics to this day have not learned the Catholic and biblical doctrine. They think we are saved by good intentions or being nice or sincere or trying a little harder or doing a sufficient number of good deeds. Over the past twenty-five years I have asked hundreds of Catholic college students the question: If you should die tonight and God asks you why he should let you into heaven, what would you answer? The vast majority of them simply do not know the right answer to this, the most important of all questions, the very essence of Christianity. They usually do not even mention Jesus!

Until we Catholics know the foundation, Protestants are not going to listen to us when we try to teach them about the upper stories of the building. Perhaps God allows the Protestant/Catholic division to persist not only because Protestants have abandoned many precious truths taught by the Church but also because many Catholics have never been taught the most precious truth of all, that salvation is a free gift of grace, accepted by faith. I remember vividly the thrill of discovery when, as a young Protestant at Calvin College, I read Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Council of Trent on justification. I did not find what I had been told I would find, “another gospel” of do-it-yourself salvation by works, but a clear and forceful statement that we can do nothing without God’s grace, and that this grace, accepted by faith, is what saves us.

Theologians can debate how one crosses the “t’s” and dots the “i’s,” but it’s also clear, at least to me, that Catholicism formally affirms the sola gratia, sola fide. I just wonder how many Catholics have actually heard this gospel preached within their parish churches and catechism classes.

24 March 2004


Is faith a condition for salvation? If we are not saved by our works, does this not mean that faith therefore becomes our necessary contribution to final salvation? We are not robots, after all. God will not coerce us into loving him or force us to remain in his presence. He will not save us against our will. A few thoughts:

First, if we say that faith is a condition for salvation, do we not also want to say that love is a condition for salvation? After all, we can’t get into heaven unless we have become people who love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds. We have to made fit for eternal communion with the Triune Persons. If we answer yes and agree that love is a condition, perhaps the condition, for salvation, then a whole host of other questions are raised. How loving do I have to be to at least get into purgatory? How much progress do I need to have made in the years before I die? What if I happen to be on a downward swing at death? Is assurance of salvation ever possible, since I can never know the true state of my soul and therefore never know if I truly love God or if I love him enough, according to God’s standard. Needless to say, the same questions must be asked if one substitutes “faith” for “love.”

Second, as dogmatically defined by the Council of Orange (see esp canon 5), faith itself is a gift of God. So if faith is a condition for salvation, it’s a condition of a special sort, for it is God who provides that which he requires. Sola gratia. And unless I’m not mistaken, the Thomist understanding of efficacious grace and predestination is very close to the Calvinist position (though avoiding double predestination), and it is still considered a legitimate option within Catholicism.

Third, to see how difficult it is to formulate faith as a condition for salvation, consider what happens when one goes to sacramental confession. I make my confession and say the act of contrition. The priest gives me a penance, and then he pronounces absolution: “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Here is the gospel in declarative, unconditional form. Absolution is a performative word; it effects what it says. When faced with an unconditional promise of this kind, I can only believe or disbelieve. There is no in-between and nothing else to do. Is the absolution conditional upon my faith? No. God has forgiven my sins. It is true that the absolution will not bring me benefit unless I believe it, but it’s also the case that the absolution is liberating only if it is unconditional.

If the priest had said instead, “You are absolved from your sins if you have in fact truly repented and if you now truly trust in God,” I would be in a totally different place. Now the burden of effecting forgiveness, or at least of actualizing assurance, is placed back on my shoulders. I have been told that I will be forgiven only if I trust, only if I believe, only if I have truly repented. Well, how do I make myself believe? And how will I know if I have trusted enough to activate the absolution? Isn’t my repentance always half-hearted? When the gospel is spoken to me as a conditional promise, and faith is specified as a condition for salvation, then faith necessarily becomes a work that I must now (quite impossibly) seek to achieve in order to obtain the forgiveness I desire. I am thus thrown back upon myself.

There is a mystery here, I know. We are making a distinction between third-person discourse and first- and second-person discourse. The Tridentine definition, like all other ordo salutis formulations (whether Protestant, Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox), is located under third-person discourse. It attempts to describe the order of salvation and to specify where “faith” is to be placed in that order. It assumes that we can in effect “look” at our saving relationship with God externally, if you will, and describe it. In this description, faith will be a condition for salvation, because we are trying to describe the transformation that a person undergoes from being a sinner to being a saint. Only loving, faithful, holy people are prepared to perfectly enjoy God in heaven, after all. All of this is true, yet it can be pastorally disastrous when the third-person description is preached prescriptively to sinners.

The Reformation approach (justification in the performative mode of promise), on the other hand, locates justification under first- and second-person discourse. It seeks to instruct gospel-speakers that when they speak the good news of Jesus Christ that they do so with radical unconditionality, for it is only this unconditionality that liberates the sinner for faith. This hermeneutical understanding of justification was not addressed by the Council of Trent and therefore does not fall under the anathemas of Trent. It remains an ongoing dogmatic proposal to the Church catholic.

Scottish theologian James B. Torrance makes a helpful distinction between legal repentance and evangelical repentance:

Legal repentance says: “Repent, and if you repent you will be forgiven,” as if God is persuaded into being merciful by our acts of repentance. Here our forgiveness is conditional upon our deeds of obedience. When the prodigal son returns, the Father puts off the party of restoration until after the son has truly demonstrated his contrition and change of heart and thus merited the restoration of status.

Evangelical repentance, on the other hand, says: “Christ has borne your sins on the cross, therefore repent.” In evangelical repentance, forgiveness is logically prior to repentance. God has spoken his word of forgiveness on the cross, and it is this word that summons forth our repentance and obedience. The father runs down the road when his prodigal son returns and cuts short the son’s prepared confession, ordering his son’s immediate restoration and the killing of the fatted calf.

Which understanding of repentance best exemplifies the teaching of Jesus? Which understanding is catholic?

25 March 2004


Righteousness will be reckoned to us who believe in him that raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification. (Rom 4:24-25)

What has the resurrection to do with our justification? For those of us who think of the atonement of Christ principally in terms of substitution, satisfaction, and sacrifice, the significance of the resurrection is often reduced to divine confirmation of Jesus’ identity. Yet the Apostle says that Christ was raised from the dead for our justification. Evidently our Lord’s atoning work comprehends both his saving death and his victorious resurrection.

One scholar who has reflected deeply on this is the great Reformed theologian Thomas F. Torrance. In his book Space, Time and Resurrection, Torrance suggests that the Reformation understanding of forensic justification fails to comprehend the recreation of the sinner effected by Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Justification is not just a cancellation of guilt and the bestowal of a new status. It is the resurrection of the old man into the new life of Christ. Torrance writes: “When, therefore, the Protestant doctrine of justification is formulated only in terms of forensic imputation or righteousness or the non-imputation of sins in such a way as to avoid saying that to justify is to make righteous, it is the resurrection that is being by-passed.” To reduce justification to a forensic event is to reduce the resurrection to an event of the same kind. “But if the resurrection is an actual event in the raising of Jesus Christ in the fullness of his humanity from corruption and death, then justification must correspondingly be a creative, regenerating event.” Justification as only forensic imputation is analogous to resurrection without an empty tomb.

Torrance points us to the story of our Lord’s healing of the paralytic. Jesus declares to the man “Your sins are forgiven” and then follows with the healing words “Rise, take up your pallet and go home.” The absolution of the paralytic reaches its full realization in his restoration to physical wholeness. Thus absolution and healing are intrinsically joined. The second word of healing does not merely supplement or add to the first word of healing; it manifests the true significance and power of Christ’s absolution. Is it coincidental that the resurrection term “rise” (egeiro) is used in this text? Torrance doesn’t think so. Our Lord’s justifying word is a word that heals, transforms, and sanctifies the whole person. It changes our historical and personal reality.

Forgiveness is not just a word of pardon but a word translated into our existence by crucifixion and resurrection, by judgment and recreation…. Justification is not only a declaratory act, but an actualization of what is declared…. The resurrection tells us that when God declares a man just, that man is just. Resurrection means that the Word which God sent on his mission does not return to God void but accomplishes that for which he was sent.

An eschatological time-lag exists between the resurrection of Christ and the full actualization of his forgiveness in the resurrection of the body; but Scripture does not allow us to push this completely into the future. We have been reborn in the Spirit and enjoy union with him in his risen and transformed human nature. As the Apostle declares, we have been raised with Christ and now sit with him in the heavenly places (Eph 2:6; Col 3:1).

Torrance’s position here has its roots in the theology of Karl Barth. I recall Hans Kung’s book Justification, where Kung asserts a compatibility between Barth’s presentation of justification and the decrees of the Council of Trent.

It is important to note that this view of the recreating power of the justifying word is the basis of the Anglican/Catholic agreement on justification:

Justification and sanctification are two aspects of the same divine act (1 Cor 6:11). This does not mean that justification is a reward for faith or works: rather, when God promises the removal of our condemnation and gives us a new standing before him, this justification is indissolubly linked with his sanctifying recreation of us in grace. This transformation is being worked out in the course of our pilgrimage, despite the imperfections and ambiguities of our lives. God’s grace effects what he declares: his creative word imparts what it imputes. By pronouncing us righteous, God also makes us righteous. He imparts a righteousness which is his and becomes ours.

I thus return to my thesis advanced in my first article in this blog—namely, schism from Rome can no longer be justified on the basis of alleged disagreement on justification by faith. When we get past the polemics, we see that, with a modicum of charity, the Reformation sola gratia, sola fide can be reconciled with the essential concerns of Catholic dogma. We also see that the imputational and forensic formulations of justification, which have been so popular in Protestant theology for the past four hundred years, need to be corrected if they are to be situated within the fullness of the Holy Tradition.

What is unclear to me is where the Orthodox stand on the sola gratia, sola fide. I realize, of course, that the Orthodox do not use “justification” language much, preferring instead to speak about our divinization in Christ; but I would still like to know what the Orthodox think about Protestant and Catholic formulations of grace and justification. Many Orthodox approvingly point to the writings of St John Cassian. The Council of Orange, however, seems to have condemned the kind of synergism that Cassian espoused, yet as far as I know the Catholic Church has never criticized the Eastern Church as “semi-Pelagian.”

My concern here, as always, is to try to understand these matters from within the wholeness of the catholic faith.

17 April 2004


Was the Reformation a blunder? Darn tootin’! Fifteen years ago I would have been shocked at such blasphemy. But now the answer seems obvious.

I am certainly not suggesting that the European Church was not in drastic need of both theological and ecclesiastical reform. Everyone seems to agree on this. But was the corruption of such degree that it justified the breaking of the Western Church? (Yes, I know all about Tetzel’s bad stewardship program.) And did the Reformation actually provide the cure?

It is perfectly true that we can find real wrongs, provoking rebellion, in the Roman Church just before the Reformation. What we cannot find is one of those real wrongs that the Reformation reformed. (G. K. Chesterton)

I do not know if Chesterton is accurate or not in his assessment. We’ll leave that to the historians, assuming they can transcend the polemics. But surely, after almost five hundred years, we can look back and legitimately question whether the Reformation was the cure for what ailed the Church. Look at the thousands of sects that have since sprung up, each one justifying its existence by appeal to the Bible. Which Reformation confession or catechism are we going to subscribe to? Augsburg? Heidelberg? Dort? Westminster? The Articles of Religion? Or perhaps we’ll just align outselves with one of the nondenominational “Bible only” denominations. It’s cafeteria Christianity. And today the situation is even worse. The heirs of the Reformation, under the relentless attacks of modernity, have lost their grip on the essentials of Christian doctrine. So what is the Protestant solution to Protestant apostasy? Create another denomination, of course. Revolution and schism seems to be built into the Protestant DNA.

“Hey, Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat.” “Bullwinkle, that trick never works.” “This time for sure!”

But the Reformation was a matter of the gospel, we declare! Martin Luther recovered the true understanding of the gospel–justification by faith alone! Here is the doctrine upon which the Church stands or falls. “Whoever falls from the doctrine of justification,” states Luther, “is ignorant of God and is an idolater.” Surely here was a matter on which it was right to take a stand. “Here I stand, I can do no other!” (Perhaps Luther never actually said this; but it makes for a great book title.) Surely it was right to oppose Pope and bishops, let the chips fall where they may. And from this point on, we, the children of Luther, have been convinced that we are the bearers of the real gospel, over against the corrupt Church of Rome and its anti-gospel of salvation by works. We may not be able to hang on to the catholic substance of the Faith, but we remain convinced that we alone have the good news. Sola fide!

There is one problem with this myth, however. The Reformation formulation of justification by faith alone was a novelty in the history of the Christian theological tradition. Look far and wide and you will not find the pre-Reformation Church teaching “justification by faith alone.” Ask an Eastern Orthodox theologian about justification by faith, and he will shake his head in bewilderment. Salvation is theosis in Christ, he will say, and he will then explain to you all about the synergistic cooperation of man’s free will with the divine will. He may even quote the famous words of St Maximus the Confessor “Our salvation finally depends on our own will.” (From the heights of purgatory, Luther and Calvin scream in horror.)

But surely St Augustine, doctor of grace and tireless opponent of Pelagianism, believed in the Reformation understanding of justification by faith alone! Well, not really. Augustine appears to have had this disgusting habit of talking about being “made” righteous—it’s not his fault, of course; he was working from the Vulgate—and of conflating justification, sanctification, and regeneration. Like the other Fathers of the early Church, Augustine spoke of justification as a process, a process from a state of sin to a state of holiness. We can find some instances where the Fathers appear to talk about imputed righteousness and justification by faith (see Thomas Oden’s The Justification Reader); but on the whole one does not find even an incipient Lutheranism in the patristic period.

Surely this cannot be, we protest (in good Protestant protesting fashion). But consider the words of one of our own, Alister McGrath (Reformation Thought):

Whereas Augustine taught that the sinner is made righteous in justification, Melanchthon taught that he is counted as righteous or pronounced to be righteous. For Augustine, ‘justifying righteousness’ is imparted; for Melanchthon, it is imputed in the sense of being declared or pronounced to be righteous. Melanchthon drew a sharp distinction between the event of being declared righteous and the process of being made righteous, designating the former ‘justification’ and the latter ‘sanctification’ or ‘regeneration.’ For Augustine, these were simply different aspects of the same thing . . .

The importance of this development lies in the fact that it marks a complete break with the teaching of the church up to that point. From the time of Augustine onwards, justification had always been understood to refer to both the event of being declared righteous and the process of being made righteous. Melanchthon’s concept of forensic justification diverged radically from this. As it was taken up by virtually all the major reformers subsequently, it came to represent a standard difference between Protestant and Roman Catholic from then on.

In his two volume study on the history of justification, McGrath describes the Reformation formulation of justification as a “genuine theological novum.” A novum! In other words, a novelty! But we are Anglican traditionalists. We decry the novelties of the revisionists. We are rightly suspicious of anyone who breaks with the teaching of the Church, particularly as expressed in the age of the Fathers.

Okay, perhaps we cannot find imputed righteousness in the Fathers; but it’s right there in St Paul. I have a bookshelf of books telling me that forensic justification is identical to the Apostle’s doctrine. The liberating gospel of grace may have been lost for fifteen hundred years–golly, it sure got misplaced early on, didn’t it?–but Martin Luther finally unearthed the message of grace and salvation after centuries of corruption, irreligion, and idolatry. Just as Paul had to fight against the works-righteousness of second-Temple Judaism, so Luther fought against the pernicious Pharisaism of medieval Catholicism. But now non-Roman scholars like E. P. Sanders, James D. G. Dunn, Jacob Neusner, Krister Stendahl, and N. T. Wright, tell us that that this portrayal of Judaism is pure caricature, a projection into the first century of 16th century polemics. Moreoever, it looks like Saul of Tarsus did not suffer from episodic depression, a poor self-image, and bouts of self-hatred. His concern was the inclusion of the Gentiles into Israel apart from submission to Torah. With the advent of this new perspective we can no longer identify Luther’s understanding of justification with the understanding of the New Testament.

Was Luther, therefore, wrong on justification? I am unwilling to say this. He was a creative genius who struggled to proclaim the gospel of Christ in a fresh way, both to himself and others. And in the process he was led into fresh, personal, and powerful ways of speaking the gospel to the hearts of sinners in the late Middle Ages. Personally, I believe that he recovered for his age the eschatological dimension of salvation through Christ. But Luther & Melanchthon’s interpretation of St Paul and their specific theological proposals were new! They broke with fifteen hundred years of exegetical and theological tradition. It was therefore wrong for them to insist upon their formulations to the point of fracturing the Church. Those who advance theological novelties should be a bit more humble and patient, don’t you think? It often takes the Church a generation or two or three or four to absorb a new insight into the gospel. Yes, Luther thought he had rediscovered a true understanding of Holy Scripture; but many of the revisionists against whom we battle today think the same.

There is so much misunderstanding about justification by faith. If Protestants think that either Catholicism and Orthodoxy (at their best) teach that sinners may rely upon their works for final salvation, they are wrong. Both traditions embrace the sola gratia. Both teach the baptized to rely ultimately, not upon their own works and strivings, but upon the mercy and grace and love of God, freely given in the sacramental and ascetical life of the Church.

If Protestants think the Protestant/Catholic debate is about whose “order of salvation” is superior, then they need to think again. Everyone has an ordo salutis that they think is better than the other guy’s. Take your pick, but don’t divide the Church because of it. And let’s also be clear. What Luther meant by “justification by faith” is not identical to what Chemnitz meant by it nor is it identical to what Calvin meant by it nor is it identical to what John Wesley meant by it nor is it identical to what the revivalist preacher means by it–and it may well be that these various meanings are contradictory and irreconcilable. Simply saying the words “I believe in justification by faith” doesn’t mean squat.

So what was the true Reformation concern, then? Here I side with George Lindbeck and Robert Jenson. What the Reformers were struggling to advance was a proclamatory and hermeneutical rule: Preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in such a way that it produces faith in the hearer, rather than self-righteousness. Lutherans call this the proper dividing of law and gospel. Lindbeck describes the rule as metatheological; Jenson as metalinguistic.

If justification by faith is actually best understood as lex proclamandi, then this means that the preacher can stand in his pulpit and declaim “justification by faith!” at the top of his lungs and yet simultaneously be violating the very doctrine he is expounding. Justification by faith does not say “talk about justification by faith”; it says that whatever you talk about in the name of Christ, do so in such a way that the only response available to the hearer is faith or offense.

I affirm this meta-linguistic rule wholeheartedly and have done so ever since Jenson beat it into my head during one of his seminars. However, let it also be noted that the clear articulation of this rule is new in the history of the Church. This is why Jenson refers to “justification by faith” as a dogmatic proposal to the Church catholic. It is a proposal, because it has never been ecumenically affirmed and defined. To insist on it being anything more than a proposal, therefore, means self-exclusion from the communion of the Church. Hence evangelical-catholic Lutherans refer to Lutheranism as a reforming movement within the Church catholic and not a denomination. (But such romantic self-assessments are no longer as persuasive as they once were. If ELCA is anything, it is a denomination.) Catholics and Protestants alike claim that the Council of Trent anathematized the Lutheran understanding of justification; but as Lindbeck notes, it is now clear that due to the polemics of the day, the Fathers of Trent condemned only a caricature of the authentic Reformation teaching. “Reformation polemicists,” Lindbeck continues, “returned the compliment and put the worst possible interpretation on the Tridentine decrees. The self-interest of each side required that the other be proved heretical and the breach between the confessions irremediable.”

For more of my blasphemous thoughts, see the first four articles I wrote when I commenced this blog in March: one, two, three, and four.

Was the Reformation a blunder? Is the Pope Catholic?

23 April 2004


When push comes to shove, Anglicans just do not get excited like the Lutherans and Reformed when it comes to justification by faith. We of course believe that salvation is by grace, received in faith; but for some reason the topic does not energize us in the way that it energizes our confessional Protestant brethren. Compare Richard Hooker’s classic sermon on justification with any sermon by Luther on justification, and you’ll see what I mean. Hooker dots the i‘s and crosses the t‘s in good scholastic fashion, but one is left wondering what all the fuss was about. Yes, there are plenty of exceptions within our tradition–one good contemporary exception is Paul Zahl, the new dean of Trinity School for Ministry–but I think that my observation still holds. As a theological and homiletical theme, justification by faith simply is not where most Anglicans live.

Yet justification by grace has been a burning concern of mine since seminary. I have devoted several of my blog articles to this theme (and here’s one more), though they have yet to generate much response. So I was pleased to find a mini-debate on justification happening over in the Reformed networld. Three weeks ago Paul Owen wrote a short piece Galatians 5:2 and Faith Alone. This generated a critique by Eric Svendsen. And now Owen has issued a rejoinder, On Proper Distinctions.

If I read Owen rightly, his goal is to persuade his fellow Reformeds that the Catholic Church may still be judged a Christian body, even though her teaching on justification is quite wrong. “Nowhere does the New Testament say that a particular understanding of the way in which justification is received is necessary for salvation,” writes Owen. He believes Paul’s Letter to the Galatians provides crucial support for this claim. Svendsen, on the other hand, does not find Owen’s exegesis of Galatians convincing, nor do I. Svendsen is right when he says that the majority of biblical scholars would disagree with Owen. This doesn’t mean that Owen is wrong; but he does need to make a significantly stronger case.

Svendsen takes Owen to special task for cherry-picking “criteria for what constitutes an essential belief,” though it must also be noted that Svendsen himself does not propose an alternative or superior method for doing so. I presume he believes that the essential Reformed beliefs have already been ably stated in the Reformed confessions, which of course then raises the question why a Protestant confessional document should have any authority in defining an essential belief of the catholic faith. But if I have to choose between Owen and Svendsen at this point, I think I’ll side with Svendsen. The constitutive status of a given belief is not exclusively determined by whether or not the apostolic writers have explicitly stated “Christians must believe ______ about ______.” The Christian faith is a living language. Its depth grammar can only be ascertained through the actual speaking and living of the language of faith over the course of time. It is possible, therefore, that Christians might eventually discern that a specific formulation of justification is indeed a core belief of the Church, even though it was only implicit in the apostolic age. The confession of the divinity of the Holy Spirit might be cited as an example of such a doctrinal development.

Svendsen makes clear that he is not theologically committed to the damnation of invincibly ignorant Catholics. He is simply convinced that the Catholic belief-system is condemned by a proper reading of the Apostle Paul:

No one I know has ever asserted that the Roman Catholic layman is lost; he may very well be in the same confused position as the majority of the Galatians. All we have ever asserted is that the Roman Catholic defender (who knows the gospel and has consciously rejected it) is lost–precisely because he is engaged in the same Judaizer activity of proclaiming and upholding a false gospel that Paul says condemns.

My bet is that Svendsen, like most Protestants, misunderstands what the Catholic Church actually teaches on justification; but that is not my concern at the moment. What concerns me is that he and Owen appear to have missed the true function of the Reformation doctrine of justification. But before I explain what I mean, let me state right off that when it comes to justification by faith, I believe we should listen first to the Lutherans and only secondarily to the Reformed. Why? Because justification was the beating heart and passion of the early Lutheran Reformation in a way that it never was for the early Reformed Reformation. Alister McGrath notes the strong moralism of Zwingli, Oecolampadius, and Bucer. Their concern was regeneration and moral renewal, not the preaching of God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. Calvin theologically rescued Reformed Protestantism from this stifling moralism with his creative formulation of justification, uniting the forensic dimension with personal union with Christ; but Calvin represents the second-generation of Reformation theologians. He wasn’t in on all the excitement of the first couple of decades when Luther’s preaching of the gospel transformed Germany.

Owen and Svendsen are still operating under the commonplace assumption that the doctrine of justification, as propounded by the reformers, is a description of the individual’s movement from sin into righteousness (ordo salutis). Owen doesn’t think the matter should be church-dividing; Svendsen does. But when justification is construed as a description of the process of salvation, the Protestant and Catholic descriptions end up looking similar. Both Protestant descriptions and Catholic descriptions (note the plural for both) begin with the sola gratia and end with the sola gratia, and both find a way to include the sinner’s cooperation with God in the process. It’s hard to see why folks were once willing to kill each other on this question.

But if justification is understood as a metalinguistic, hermeneutical rule, then we can see why the early Lutherans were so passionate on the subject. We find this hermeneutical interpretation of justification advanced in Melanchthon’s Apology of the Augsburg Confession. “All Scripture,” he writes, “should be divided into these two chief doctrines, the law and the promises” (IV.5). His critique of his opponents is that they prefer the rhetoric of law, prefer to proclaim obedience, demand, and works than to proclaim the unconditional promises of the merciful, forgiving Christ. Melanchthon’s gravamen against the Catholic Church is that promise has disappeared from her speech and practice. The preaching of the gospel has been reduced to exhortation. The discourse of law enjoys an essential role in the speech of the Church; but this discourse destroys the sinner whose conscience has been invaded by the wrath and judgment of God. For such a sinner, only the word of Christ’s immediate and unconditional absolution can grant new life and rebirth. We must learn, the Lutherans tell us, to properly distinguish law and gospel.

As a metalinguistic doctrine, justification by faith cannot be argued for as one might argue for any other doctrine. It is perfectly possible to be confessionally pure, subscribing wholeheartly to the Augsburg Confession or the Westminster Confession, and yet to violate the reforming doctrine of justification precisely by teaching justification as a description of salvation that one must believe in in order to be saved. It is quite possible—Protestants do it all the time—to take the “doctrine” of justification by faith and to turn it into law. There is only one way to believe in justification and that is to preach Christ Jesus in such a way that the sinner either trusts more fully in the love, mercy, providence, and holy law of God or walks away in disgust, anger, or perhaps sadness. Preaching justification by faith has very little to do with talking about justification by faith. It has everything to do with proclaiming the good news of Jesus.

15 July 2004


Does God accept and affirm me “just as I am”? The inclusivist orthodoxy of the Episcopal Church would emphatically answer yes. We have all been taught and formed by Paul Tillich’s reformulation of justification by faith:

You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!

This is a powerful message. It clearly touches the hearts of many in the modern industrial world, including my own. ECUSA has embraced it as the gospel and is now in the process of restructuring the entirety of its ecclesial life under its guidance. This version of the gospel has sunk so deep into our being that when we read the Gospels we hear Jesus’ words through the filter of Tillich and his inclusivist successors. But …

The early Fathers of the Churchs simply would not have recognized the inclusivist gospel as a true reading of the New Testament. They would have been scandalized by it. They would have recognized it for what it in fact is–the heresy of antinomianism. I am not arguing that Tillich drew his reflection to its antinomian conclusion; but it’s clear that ECUSA has.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have a real fondness for antinomianism. There is a part of me that really wants Jesus to be an antinomian. I have my own sinful needs, wants, and desires, just like everyone else. It would be wonderful if God were to affirm me just as I am. I’d get to have my cake and eat it, too. What more could a person ask for. Antinomianism is a delightful message. That it is also damnation is a little thing indeed compared to the joy of knowing that I am divinely affirmed in my egoism.

Yet the gospel of grace remains the gospel, and the Church cannot fudge or water down this message. We may even take this a serious step further. If the preaching of the gospel does not generate the accusation of antinomianism, then the gospel the Church is preaching probably is not gospel. After all, St Paul himself was accused of encouraging sin so that grace might abound (Rom 6). The message of radical grace will inevitably evoke the accusation of antinomianism from those who have not been truly converted to Christ.

Paul’s rejoinder in Romans 6 is instructive. Paul denies the charge of antinomianism, not by retreating from unconditional grace into moralism, but by reminding his readers of the truth of their baptism. “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom 6:2). Believers of Christ Jesus have died to sin in Holy Baptism and therefore do not want to sin! We have no desire to abuse grace for the sake of self-gain or egotistical desire. For St Paul, justification by faith and regeneration by the Holy Spirit are two complementary ways of thinking about our new being in Christ. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17).

The gospel is not a declaration of affirmation. It is a declaration of transforming absolution that frees us from the burden of sin and grants us new life in the Spirit in the resurrected humanity of Jesus Christ. God does not just cancel the guilt of the past; he does not just affirm us in our self-will; he crucifies us and raises a new person in Christ by the Holy Spirit.

Does God accept me as I am? Of course not. He kills me and makes me a new creation! Thanks be to God!

23 July 2004


A couple of readers have asked me to elaborate further on the metalinguistic or hermeneutical understanding of justification by faith. I am happy to make an attempt. For the past twenty some years, I have sought to norm my preaching of the gospel by the metalinguistic rule of justification. I do not know if it has made any difference to my hearers. The masses do not flock to my parishes to hear Fr. Pontificator’s sermons. The Spirit has not fallen down upon my hearers in power and tongues of flame. No one gets slain in the Spirit. Lives are not converted and transformed. John Chrysostom, John Wesley, or Billy Graham I am not. But each Sunday I still seek to rightly divide law and gospel. I confess I haven’t figured out yet how to do it rightly much of the time.

The hermeneutical understanding of justification has its roots in the distinction of law and gospel expressed by Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon. In his Apology of the Augsburg Confession Melanchthon advances a twofold analysis of churchly discourse. “All Scripture,” he writes, “should be divided into these two chief doctrines, the law and the promises” (IV.5).

Law is here understood as God’s moral will for humanity. The divine law lays claim on human behavior, instructing humanity how to live and prosper in God’s good creation and judging violations of human flourishing. But the law also reaches into the human heart, requiring “works far beyond the reach of reason, like true fear of God, true love of God, true prayer to God, true conviction that God hears prayer, and the expectation of God’s help in death and all afflictions” (IV.8). And it is at this point that the existential crisis of the terrified conscience is created. If the law demands that which I cannot provide and if my eternal justification before God is contingent on my producing all that the law requires, then I am trapped in condemnation and despair.

For the terrified conscience, there can be only one solution. God must speak a word that reaches into the human heart, a different kind of word that does not require anything of us but rather graciously confers upon us that righteousness which the sinner cannot obtain through the law. In other words, God, through his Church, must speak a word of unconditional promise, a word that “accomplishes what it says in the very act of being proclaimed” (Justification by Faith: Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII, p. 47).

Here is the fundamental insight of the Lutheran reformers: The promise of Christ is unconditional, granting forgiveness of sins, justification, and eternal life. “For if the promise were conditional upon our merits and the law, which we never keep,” writes Melancthon, “it would follow that the promise is useless” (IV.42). This promise can only be received by the hearer in faith, as the responsibility for its fulfillment is assumed by the speaker. When God unconditionally promises me eternal life, there is nothing I must do to ensure the realization of the promise. I can only believe or disbelieve the promise.

The Gospel is, strictly speaking, the promise of forgiveness of sins and justification because of Christ. Since we can accept this promise only by faith, the Gospel proclaims the righteousness of faith in Christ, which the law does not teach. And this is not the righteousness of the law. For the law requires our own works and our own perfection. But to us, oppressed by sin and death, the promise freely offers reconciliation for Christ’s sake, which we do not accept by works but by faith alone. This faith brings to God a trust not in our own merits, but only in the promise of mercy in Christ. (IV.43)

Robert Jenson explains that law-discourse is human communication that confronts the hearer “as demand, or, what is the same, poses the future conditionally” (Lutheranism, pp. 43-44). “‘Do not steal!’ the commandment says, and if you do, you will be sentenced to five years in prison.” “If you get straight A’s on your report card, you will be given a scholarship to Harvard.” “If you are caught speeding, you will be fined.” “If you eat your squash, then you can have dessert.” Law discourse shares an “If …, then …” linguistic structure.

Promise-discourse, on the other hand, grants the hearer a future independent of his actions. The speaker assumes total responsibility for the fulfillment of the promise he makes to the hearer. “Because I am President of the United States, I pardon you your crimes.” “Because I love you, I will give you that new car you have been dreaming about.” “Because I am your employer, I am giving you a promotion.” “Because I have promised myself to you, I will never leave you.” In contrast to the “If …, then …” structure of law-discourse, promise-discourse expresses a “Because …, therefore …” linguistic structure.

Precisely because Jesus is risen from the dead and transcends all conditions of mortality, the Church is authorized to proclaim the good news in all of its radical unconditionality. “Because Jesus lives with death forever in his past, you are assured a place in his kingdom.” “Because Jesus lives in the infinite power and mercy of God, your life, as disappointing and broken as it may now be, will be fully and perfectly realized when he returns in glory.” “Because Jesus died for your sins, your sins, past, present, and future, are forgiven completely and utterly.” Jenson writes:

“The gospel’ is the Reformation label for that promise which, if true at all, is unconditional: the promise made in the name of one who has already satisfied the condition of death and therefore has all the future in his gift. (p. 44)

At this point, of course, the question always rises: But we have to do something, right? We at least have to believe and accept, right? We have to repent of our sins, change our lives, subject ourselves to the Lordship of Christ, obey the commandments, love our neighbors, or at least be sincere, right? Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde gives the radical Reformation answer. “What must I do to be saved?” Forde answers: Nothing!

Yet how can that be? Descriptively, the passage of the sinner from sinner to a creature fit for the kingdom of God will invariably be conceived by us as a multi-step process of transformation, because that is in fact how we experience the Christian life from our finite temporal vantage point. Theologians, Catholic and Protestant, have offered differing descriptions of this movement. St Thomas’s process is typical: (1) infusion of grace; (2) movement of the free will toward God in faith; (3) movement of the free will in recoil from sin; and (4) remission of guilt. (I’m relying here on Forde’s description of Thomas. If this is wrong, please let me know.) The Reformed ordo salutis might be identified as: (1) election, (2) gospel call (3) inward call (4) regeneration, (5) conversion (faith & repentance), (6) justification, (7) sanctification, and (8) glorification. The Arminian order as: (1) outward call (2) faith/election, (3) repentance, (4) regeneration, (5) justification, (6) perseverance, (7) glorification. These various elements are juggled differently by different theologians and different traditions. (Once again, if these are wrong, please correct me.) The Lutheran pietist ordo is different than the gnesio-Lutheran ordo; the Puritan ordo is different than the ordo of Jeremy Taylor and his fellow Caroline Divines–and so forth. Theologians may stipulate that these steps are fulfilled in our lives simultaneously; but with the exception of a few Lutherans, we still understand our Christian life as growth in the Holy Spirit and holiness.

Each of these descriptive orderings of salvation must at some point make a place for the engagement of the human will. We are not robots and are not saved as robots. We certainly do not experience our relationship with God in the Church in a mechanistic manner. We hear the Word preached. We make moral and spiritual decisions. We repent of our sins. We partake of the Holy Mysteries. We pray and read the Scriptures. We love, or do not love, our neighbors. However the activity of the human will is coordinated with divine grace, the fact remains that the human will is and must be engaged in the process of salvation because we are human. We are not saved apart from our willing and doing. In some mysterious way we freely cooperate with God. And this is as true for Protestant descriptions of the salvific process as for Catholic descriptions. All agree that at some point the individual must choose to receive and enjoy and return God’s love and persevere in this love. Not to do so is hell.

When the Catholic/Protestant debate on justification is construed as a disputation on the ordo salutis, the discussion quickly becomes sterile, unproductive, and usually nasty. The fact is, there is no one ordo salutis that is characteristic of either Catholicism or Protestantism. The differences between Calvinism and Arminianism are as great as the differences between Calvinism and Catholicism. The joke goes: “Arminians know they are saved but are afraid they can’t keep it. Calvinists know they can’t lose their salvation but are afraid they don’t have it.” And, we might add, Catholics have no idea whether they are saved or not … they just know that the Prots aren’t. Even within historic Lutheranism one discovers a wide divergence on these matters. Are good works necessary to salvation or not? George Major said they are necessary to salvation, John Agricola said they aren’t necessary to salvation, and Nicholas von Amsdorf said they are “detrimental to salvation.” I suppose the only logical position left is to say they are both necessary and detrimental to salvation. Forde likes to tell the story of the Lutheran pastor who on his death bed declared that he was certain he was going to heaven, because he could not remember having ever done a good work in his life. This is a story only Lutherans could tell.

If the Reformation was simply a controversy about the “right” description of the salvation process, then it was a blunder of titanic proportions. Once one gets beyond the Catholic/Protestant polemics, one discovers that the Protestant descriptions are just as potentially productive of works-righteousness as are any of the Catholic descriptions. As Jenson observes: “When Protestants do produce descriptions of the salvation-process, these do not notably differ from those currently approved by Roman Catholic theologians and available, if not dominant, at the time of the Reformation” (Unbaptized God, p. 23).

Various Lutherans, however, have advanced the view that the true Reformation concern was not descriptive but hermeneutical. The most articulate American advocate of the hermeneutical understanding of justification has been Robert W. Jenson.

This dogma [“justification by faith alone, without works of law”] is not a particular proposed content of the church’s proclamation, along with other contents. It is rather a metalinguistic stipulation of what kind of talking–about whatever contents–can properly be proclamation and word of the church. It does not say: Talk about justification and faith. It is perfectly possible to talk about these subjects, even mimicking the Reformers, and proclaim the purest works-righteousness. Rather, it says: Whatever you talk about, do so in such a way that the justification your words open to your hearers is the justification that faith apprehends rather than the justification that works apprehend. Unpacking the words “justification” and “faith,” the proposed dogma says: Make the subject of your discourse those points in your and your hearers’ life where its value is challenged, and interpret the challenge by the story about Christ, remembering that when this is rightly done your words will be an unconditional promise of value.

It is this metalinguistic character of the proposed “justification by faith” dogma that makes it a doctrine by which the church stands or falls. If justification were a content-item of the gospel, along with other content-items, the question of which was “most important” would always be a matter of silly debate. But the doctrine is instead an attempt to state minimal identifying characteristics of the language-activity we call “gospel.” (Lutheranism, pp. 42-43)

In other words, justification by faith is hermeneutical instruction to preachers to rightly divide law and gospel. In the name of the risen Lord, preachers are to so proclaim the promises of Christ that the only responses available to their hearers are faith and offence.

George Lindbeck, perhaps American Lutheranism’s leading ecumenist, has advanced an understanding of justification very similar to Jenson’s. He describes the doctrine as a metatheological rule. This rule, he says, is easy to state: “All church teachings and practices should function to promote reliance or trust in the God of Jesus Christ alone for salvation” (George Lindbeck, “Article IV and Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialogue,” Lutheran Seminary Bulletin [Winter 1981], p. 6). This rule does not advance a theory of justification. It does not describe the order of salvation. It does not even make any affirmations about what is true or false. It prescribes. So structure the Church’s speech and life, states the metadogma, that faith in Jesus Christ as savior is encouraged and formed. Lindbeck writes: “We should not trust anything for justification except God’s unconditional promises in Jesus Christ, not even the faith, virtues and merits, if there be any, which God works in us sola gratia” (ibid., p. 6).

Lindbeck’s identification of justification by faith as a grammatical rule helps to explain why we hear so little about this rule for the first fifteen hundred years of the Church’s history. People can speak a language well without knowing all the grammatical rules that govern that language. “Rules can be followed in practice without any explicit or theoretical knowledge of them,” Lindbeck explains. Conversely, people can have explicit knowledge of a grammatical rule and yet still fail to apply the rule to their actual speech. This is especially true for those who are learning a second or third language. The mere invocation of the rule of justification, therefore, does not mean that one is actually shaping one’s discourse and practice by the rule.

It appears that the historical conditions that would force theologians and preachers to bring the grammatical rule of justification to explicit formulation did not arise until the 16th century, when Martin Luther, paralyzed by his terrified conscience, could not find anyone who would speak to him an unconditional promise of salvation. Unfortunately, the debate that ensued confused the two issues of gospel hermeneutics and descriptive theories of justification, and this confusion has continued for four hundred and fifty years. It is only in recent decades that Lutheran theologians have brought clarification to the Reformation concern, thus enabling the recent ecumenical agreement between Catholicism and Lutheranism on justification. Lindbeck elaborates:

The conflict with Rome has not been directly over the metadoctrinal rule, but rather over theologies of justification. Nowhere does the Tridentine decree, for example, specifically deny the metadoctrine. It does not affirm that trust for salvation should not be totally directed to God’s promises in Jesus Christ. Indeed, it sometimes uses language that sounds like this rule. Chapter 16, for example, declares “absit tamen, ut christianus homo in se ipso vel confidat vel glorietus et non in Domino” (“far be it from a Christian to confide or glory in himself and not in the Lord”). To be sure, it goes on to speak of the merit which God works in believers as a condition for the attainment of eternal life (Canon 32), but it also says that this inherent meritorious grace cannot be relied upon (chapter 9). In short, while Trent does not assert reliance for justification on the God and Father of Jesus Christ alone, neither does it assert the contrary. (Ibid., pp. 8-9)

If in fact the primary Reformation concern was and is hermeneutical, and if the Tridentine anathemas do not touch the metatheological rule, as everyone, including Rome, agrees, then the way is open for significant ecumenical rapprochement. In private conversation Lindbeck has told me that one consequence of the Joint Declaration is that the hermeneutical understanding of justification is judged by Catholic theologians to be legitimate opinion within the Catholic Church. In other words, one can be a Lutheran within the Catholic family. There may in fact be good reasons not to be a Catholic; but justification by faith, at least as understood by Jenson and Lindbeck, is not one of those reasons. (See my post Justification by Faith: Is Schism Still Justified?)

If the hermeneutical interpretation of the justification doctrine faithfully represents the authentic Reformation concern, how are we to understand the sola fide, justification by faith alone? Lindbeck proposes a hermeneutical interpretation of the sola fide: To preach “faith alone” is to promise the salvation of Christ in an unconditional manner. It is the gospel proclaimed in the “performative mode of promise.”

Words sometimes function as performances or deeds that themselves constitute the actuality of which they speak. A judge’s verdict does this, but so also does a last will and testament, or the vows exchanged in marriage. These do not describe or ratify preexistent facts, but bring into being the realities that they utter. And what human words can do when used performatively, God’s almighty word does supremely well: it creates the world out of nothing and justifies sinners. God does not first change unacceptable person into acceptable ones before he accepts them, but rather he simply accepts the unacceptable in their unacceptability and thereby makes them acceptable. (George Lindbeck, “Justification by Faith,” LCA Partners [December 1984], p. 10)

God’s justifying word, therefore, is analogous to his creative word that brings creation into being out of nothing. When God promises us that we are righteous, then we are truly righteous.

What does all this mean for Anglicans? Beats me. Rightly or wrongly, justification by faith has never been a primary concern for us, except as a polemical club with which to beat the Papists. I would hope, therefore, that Anglicans would embrace the ARCIC statement on Salvation and the Church and be satisfied. But I also believe that all preachers of the gospel, whether Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, or whatever, need to achieve greater clarity on what it means to preach the gospel. We need to understand that there are times when we may and must, in the name of Jesus, unconditionally promise the salvation of the kingdom to unworthy sinners. I don’t know about you, but sure I need someone to speak such a promise to me!

25 July 2004


Within a hermeneutical understanding of justification, justification by faith is understood as instruction to preachers to proclaim the story of Jesus in such a way that only faith and not works may apprehend the justification that is therein promised. As we have seen, when God speaks an unconditional promise to me, I only have two options: I can either believe it or disbelieve it; there are no works that I must perform to make the promise true. Faith, therefore, is the correlative to unconditional promise. It is not a subjective work that I must now work to achieve. Faith is a mode of life, life lived within the gospel into which I have been baptized. Faith is being grasped by the unconditional promise of salvation. Gerhard Forde writes:

The faith by which one is justified is not an active verb of which the Old Adam or Eve is the subject, it is a state-of-being verb. Faith is the state of being grasped by the unconditional claim and promise of the God who calls into being that which is from that which is not. Faith means now having to deal with life in those terms. It is a death and resurrection. (Gerhard Forde, Justification by Faith–A Matter of Death and Life, p. 22).

Within the hermeneutical understanding of justification, the sola fide is also understood hermeneutically. It denotes salvific proclamation in the “performative mode of promise” (Lindbeck). Salvation is by faith alone because the gospel creates the very faith that receives it. Faith is not a human achievement. It is given to us in the justifying word spoken to us in the name of Christ Jesus. Thus we read in the Lutheran/Catholic Common Statement (1985):

The proclamation of God’s grace in word and sacrament is itself the saving event in that it announces the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God’s word does what it proclaims or, in modern terminology, the gospel message is performative; it effects the reality of which it speaks. The preaching of the gospel has the force of decreeing the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake. Like a will or testament, it makes human beings heirs of the promise quite apart from what they deserve. God’s word accomplishes what it says in the very act of being proclaimed.

In this hermeneutical perspective even the faith which receives the promise is not a condition for justification. It is not a human achievement, but it is rather a free gift created and bestowed in the power of the Holy Spirit by the justifying word to which it clings. Justification is unconditional in the sense that the justifying word effects its own reception. (Justification by Faith: Lutherans and Catholics in Dialogue VII, p. 47).

This is the answer, I believe, to the question that has befuddled Protestants from the early days of the Reformation to the present. If salvation is by faith alone, does that mean that I save myself by believing? Protestant theologians have rightly seen that if faith is construed as a meritorious work, then the entire Reformation is undone.

Martin Luther

“Faith holds out the hand and the sack and just lets the good be done to it. For as God is the giver who bestows such things in His love, we are the receivers who receive the gift through faith which does nothing. For it is not our doing and cannot be merited by our work. It has already been granted and given. You need only open your mouth, or rather, your heart and keep still and let yourself be filled.”

Philip Melanchthon, Apology of the Augsburg Confession:

“For faith does not justify or save because it is a good work in itself, but only because it accepts the promised mercy.”

The Solid Declaration of the Book of Concord:

“For faith justifies, not for this cause and reason that it is so good a work and so fair a virtue, but because it lays hold of and accepts the merit of Christ in the promise of the holy Gospel; for this must be applied and appropriated to us by faith, if we are to be justified thereby.”

Belgic Confession, article 22:

“We do not mean that faith itself justifies us, for it is only an instrument with which we embrace Christ our righteousness. But Jesus Christ, imputing to us all His merits, and so many holy works which He has done for us and in our stead, is our righteousness. And faith is an instrument that keeps us in communion with Him in all His benefits, which, when they become ours, are more than sufficient to acquit us of our sins.” (Belgic Confession, Art 22)

Heidelberg Catechism:

“Question 61. Why sayest thou, that thou art righteous by faith only?

“Answer: Not that I am acceptable to God, on account of the worthiness of my faith; but because only the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, is my righteousness before God; and that I cannot receive and apply the same to myself any other way than by faith only.”

John Calvin:

“For if faith justified of itself or through some intrinsic power, so to speak, as it is always weak and imperfect it would effect this only in part; thus the righteousness that conferred a fragment of salvation upon us would be defective. Now we imagine no such thing, but we say that, properly speaking, God alone justifies; then we transfer this same function to Christ because he was given to us for righteousness. We compare faith to a kind of vessel; for unless we come empty and with the mouth of our soul open to seek Christ�s grace, we are not capable of receiving Christ. From this it is to be inferred that, in teaching that before his righteousness is received Christ is received in faith, we do not take the power of justifying away from Christ.” (Institutes III.11.7)

Richard Hooker:

“God doth justify the believing man, yet not for the worthiness of his belief but for the worthiness of Him which is believed.”

All of the above are essential and necessary qualifications to intellectually explain why faith, in and of itself, is not a work that justifies us before God Almighty. Faith justifies because of its relationship to Christ. Faith is a means, an instrument of our salvation. Faith is the empty hand that receives the gift of righteousness. Faith justifies only in the sense that it is by faith that we cling to the promises of Christ.

But what if an unconditional promise is not spoken to us? This can happen today just as easily in a Protestant church as it can in a Catholic or Orthodox church. How often do we hear our preachers tell us, “You will be saved if you believe on Christ, if you accept his salvation.” Christ has done his bit for us, but now it’s up to us to do ours. Precisely at this point faith becomes a subjective work that we must accomplish in order to appropriate the allegedly free salvation of Christ. Precisely at this point faith has become a condition of salvation–and what a terrible condition it is. How does one start to believe or trust? How does one ever truly know when one does believe? How much belief is sufficient? That these are not idle or theoretical questions is evidenced by the history of Protestant theology and spirituality.

Theologians have often distinguished between justifying or saving faith and historical faith. Historical faith does not justify, it is said, because it is only intellectual assent to the facts of the gospel narrative and the doctrines of the Church. It is not a living faith that expresses itself in obedience to Christ. This is the kind of faith that even the devils may have. Historical faith does not descend to the heart and will. It is pure head knowledge. There is no personal investment in the gospel. Historical faith believes things about Christ but does not believe in Christ. The dimension of trust is absent. Thus it is even possible to assent to the doctrine of justification by faith and yet not be justified by faith.

We all, I think, know what historical faith is. We probably see it in our own lives and the lives of our fellow religionists. So then the burning question becomes, How do I move from historical faith to saving faith? How can I ever know that my faith is truly justifying and not just historical?

Once we start thinking this way, we find ourselves back with Luther in his existential agonies. But now the agony has been caused by Protestant speech about justification and faith. What then is the solution? It is, I suggest, to recognize that the problem has been caused by the failure of the Church to speak unconditional promise to us. Robert Jenson elaborates:

“Historical faith” is apprehension of the mere “history” of Christ; “living faith” is apprehension of the promise made by these histories when proclaimed as done for us. If my faith is merely historical, the problem is not that I lack a personal quality but that the essential point of the gospel has not gotten through to me–perhaps because the Church did not make it. And thus we come to the true function of the Reformers’ distinction. The difference between historical and living faiths is not between two responses to one message, but between the responses to two different messages: “Christ died for the world, and now this is how you get into the result of his death” versus “Christ died and now lives for you.”

“We are justified by faith alone” is not a stipulation about the anthropological conditions of justification, but about the special hermeneutical character of the gospel as a mode of discourse: that is must be promise and not exhortation if it is to be the creative word from God that sets lives right. (“On Recognizing the Augsburg Confession,” in The Role of the Augsburg Confession, ed J. Burgess [1980], p. 159)

So what does sola fide mean? Simply this: Be sure to preach the salvation of Christ as an unconditional promise of salvation. Only then is there a pledge to which faith may cleave. Only then is there a Christ whom sinners may trust. “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17).

26 July 2004


Protestants believe that justification is by imputation. Catholics believe that justification is by infusion. Protestants believe that we are justified by God forensically declaring us just. Catholics believe that we are justified by God making us just. Theologians and apologists tell us that these two models–the imputational and the transformational–are fundamentally incompatible and that the difference is rightly church-dividing.

Of course, things are murkier nowadays, because Catholicism seems willing to embrace within herself some of the Reformation distinctives. As a result official ecumenical agreements on justification have been worked out between Catholics and Anglicans and between Catholics and Lutherans. An informal agreement reached between Catholics and evangelicals, The Gift of Salvation, has also been published. But with a few exceptions, the Reformed and evangelical communities are not buying it! The imputational model of justification is pure Bible truth. To compromise on this is to abandon the gospel. In 1998 the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals declared Gift of Salvation to be a dangerous, ambiguous, and seriously flawed document and reiterated the dogma of imputation as the primary and irreplaceable expression of the gospel:

The historic controversy over imputed versus infused righteousness is a vital, essential matter that posits irreconcilable views of justification. The difference between being justified by inherent righteousness (no matter how acquired) and being justified by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness alone does not admit to compromise. Nor do we view it as a matter that provokes a “needlessly divisive dispute,” which The Gift of Salvation strongly implies it does. We see it as the heart of the Gospel, without which the Gospel is no true Gospel at all.

Similarly, in 1999 Dr. A. L. Barry, president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, decried the Lutheran/Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification as a “betrayal of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” and accused the Lutheran signatories as “sacrificing God’s truth on the altar of unity.” These are hard words indeed.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the same individuals and church bodies that have rejected the ecumenical agreements have also been vociferous in their attacks upon those Protestant scholars who are raising critical questions about the Reformation understanding of the Apostle Paul. I am thinking here, in particular, of the writings of N. T. Wright and Norman Shepherd. Did the Apostle in fact teach the same doctrine of justification as expressed in the great Protestant confessions? If justification by imputation is the “article by which the Church stands or falls,” then readings of the New Testament that call this into question must be dogmatically disallowed. Readers of Pontifications will immediately note the delicious irony of sola scriptura believers dogmatically defining a doctrine to control our reading of Scripture. Despite all of the advances in our knowledge of first-century Judaism and apostolic Christianity, none of this research can be permitted to call into question the 16th and 17th century confessional interpretations of the New Testament.

I would not be the Pontificator if I did not raise once again the question of authority. Are the confessional statements infallible? If not, then by what authority are these confessions, and in particular their imputational construal of justification, imposed upon the Church catholic? There is only one proper Protestant answer: “Justification by imputation is true! Just read the Bible (in Greek).” But this answer is insufficient. No matter how convinced confessional Protestants may be that their specific reading of the New Testament is the right one—and let’s remember, there are also lots of Protestants who do not agree with the Reformed and Lutheran churches on justification (just ask John Wesley and Charles Finney)—the fact remains that the imputational model of justification was a “genuine theological novum” (Alister McGrath). Melanchthon’s and Calvin’s theory of imputation was a real, honest to God novelty. (See my post Was the Reformation a Blunder?) Up until the 16th century, everybody, both East and West, held and taught a transformationist model of salvation. Readers of my blog know that the Pontificator holds a deep sympathy for the Reformation in its hermeneutical call to rightly divide law and gospel; however, the Church catholic has not dogmatically defined justification by imputation. The Council of Trent reaffirmed the transformationist model of justification; and though the Vatican is now willing to acknowledge that the Reformation formulations, properly understood, are not heretical, it sure ain’t going to repudiate the transformational understanding that has been dominant, virtually exclusively so, in the Church for two thousand years—nor should it. For her own part Eastern Orthodoxy has made it clear that she has no intention of altering its teaching of theosis in order to accomodate the salvational theories of the Protestant reformers. Yet confessional Protestants have the hutzpah to insist to the point of ecclesial separation that their theological novum is the gospel and thus defines the identity of the Christian Church. Well, there’s a name for this—sectarianism!

It is at this point that the hermeneutical understanding of justification comes to the rescue. As we have seen, the metalinguistic dogma is not a theory of justification but rather instruction on how to speak gospel. And if gospel-speaking is the making of unconditional promises in the name of Jesus, then imputational and forensic language will always have an important place in the Church’s proclamatory discourse. Gerhard Forde explains:

No doubt there are other metaphors, other pictures and images, for our relationship to God which are important and enlightening and instructive for our communication of the gospel: love, light, truth, meaning, reconciliation, redemption, and so on. They lack the dogmatic importance accorded to justification language, however, because they tend to remain just metaphors, describing the relationship rather than creating it. “Justification” and related concepts like “imputation,” “reckoning,” and “forgiveness of sins” maintain their relevance because they point to a quite specific use of language, a use consonant with the eschatological character of the event: doing the deed, delivering the judgment. Justification language, when properly spoken, does not just talk about the relationship to God, it decides the issue. It speaks simply and directly: “I forgive you all your sins for Jesus’ sake,” “I pronounce you just by virtue of Christ’s righteousness.”

Dogmatically speaking, the reason for the priority and abiding relevance of justification language lies just here: It stipulates what kind of communication is supposed to take place in the proclamation of the church. If justification is an unconditional eschatological pronouncement, then it has simply to be pronounced. There may no doubt be all sorts of ways to do that without using the actual terminology of “justification,” but this language remains the dogmatic plumb line for the church’s proclamation. Thus the article on justification is that by which the church stands or falls. When the church forgets this use of language it has lost its reason for being. (Christian Dogmatics, ed. Braaten & Jenson, II:462)

In other words, what is important is not that the Church teach a theory of imputational justification but that the Church should do salvation to sinners through the preaching of the Word. The language of the courtroom can be employed very powerfully in this regard. There is a difference between saying “Faithful Christians will be acquitted at the final judgment” and “You are innocent!” The first statement is a true description; but it does not change the hearer. The second statement changes the hearer and establishes him in the eschatological life of the Spirit.

Can you think of ways where the Church speaks unconditional promise to sinners? Three items immediately come to my mind: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”; “I absolve you from all your sins”; “The body of Christ,” “The blood of Christ.”

27 July 2004


I was introduced to the thought of Paul Zahl in the mid-eighties. I don’t recall why I purchased his book Who Will Deliver Us? (1985), but I clearly recall the excitement I felt while I read it. I remember saying to a friend, “I sure wish I had written it.” I was also a little bit jealous, because I knew I could never have written such a lively, engaging book. I was at that time in my “Lutheran” phase, immersed in the writings of Martin Luther, Martin Chemnitz, Robert Jenson, Gerhard Forde, and Carl Braaten. Justification by grace through faith was a burning evangelical concern for me. The sola gratia, sola fide spoke to my heart, as it speaks to the heart of anyone who suffers from depression and self-hatred. In Zahl I met a kindred evangelical spirit. I had the privilege to talk to him at a SEAD meeting in Alexandria and was much impressed by his lively faith. It does not surprise me that he has become the Dean of the Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry. I have occasionally wondered if Paul does not sometimes fall into antinomianism, but … what the heck … that’s an occupational hazard for anyone who pushes the sola gratia envelope.

Prozac and twenty years later …

The message of sola gratia still speaks as powerfully to me today as it did in the 80’s, but I have lost my Lutheran accent. I began to lose it in the mid-90’s. I ultimately found it impossible to reconcile the monergism of Luther with the synergism of the Church Fathers. If I have to choose between Luther and the Church Fathers—and ultimately, everyone who wrestles with these questions does have to make a choice—the Church Fathers win, every time. Thomas Oden’s The Transforming Power of Grace (1993) was particularly helpful in my acceptance of patristic synergism. And once I accepted a synergistic framework of grace, I found I could no longer dismiss the Catholic understanding of justification.

And now I am a Catholic. And Paul Zahl remains an evangelical Anglican. In his recent article, “Turning Romeward?,” Paul tells us why he cannot become Catholic. Reason #1: no surprise here—justification by faith.

The big problem with Roman Catholicism is the old and enduring problem, which has never been resolved. It is the problem of the first formal cause of our Justification. “They” believe in infusion, “we” believe in imputation. For the layman, this means “they” teach that we are OK when we become actually OK, while “we” teach that we are OK before we become actually OK.

The classic way of putting this is that we become righteous after we are regarded, in our lostness, as righteous. And we remain, in this human life, both 100% righteous (from God’s point of view because of Christ’s perfect sacrifice) and thoroughly flawed (instrinsically) even as our fruited works show the gradual growth of actual righteousness within us.

Twenty-years ago I would have sounded a hearty “Amen”; but today I read this statement and shake my head. Where has Dean Zahl been during the past two decades? After years of intense research and dialogue on the theme of justification, Lutherans and Catholics have discovered that the anathemas of the 16th century no longer obtain, given what each Church actually believes and teaches about justification. Catholics are now persuaded that Lutherans do not presently teach, and quite likely never did teach, the errors condemned by the Council of Trent—specifically, that justification is a legal fiction and that believers can rely upon their subjective exercise of faith for assurance of salvation. Lutherans are now persuaded that Catholics do not presently teach, and quite likely never did teach, the errors condemned by Luther and the Lutheran confessions—specifically, that salvation is achieved by the believer’s spiritual and moral works. In the late 1990’s Lutherans and Catholics finally reached a formal consensus on justification. Yes, differences remain, but they are not considered as church-dividing. One can hold a Lutheran understanding of justification by faith, as defined by the document, and be a Roman Catholic in good standing!

And to make matters worse for Zahl, Anglicans and Romans reached ecumenical agreement on justification back in 1986: Salvation and the Church:

Justification and sanctification are two aspects of the same divine act (1 Cor 6:11). This does not mean that justification is a reward for faith or works: rather, when God promises the removal of our condemnation and gives us a new standing before him, this justification is indissolubly linked with his sanctifying recreation of us in grace. This transformation is being worked out in the course of our pilgrimage, despite the imperfections and ambiguities of our lives. God’s grace effects what he declares: his creative word imparts what it imputes. By pronouncing us righteous, God also makes us righteous. He imparts a righteousness which is his and becomes ours.

God’s declaration that we are accepted because of Christ together with his gift of continual renewal by the indwelling Spirit is the pledge and first instalment of the final consummation and the ground of the believer’s hope. In the life of the Church, the finality of God’s declaration and the continuing movement towards our ultimate goal are reflected in the relation between baptism and the eucharist. Baptism is the unrepeatable sacrament of justification and incorporation into Christ (1 Cor 6:11; 12:12-13; Gal 3:27). The eucharist is the repeated sacrament by which the life of Christ’s body is constituted and renewed, when the death of Christ is proclaimed until he comes again (1 Cor 11:26).

Sanctification is that work of God which actualizes in believers the righteousness and holiness without which no one may see the Lord. It involves the restoring and perfecting in humanity of the likeness of God marred by sin. We grow into conformity with Christ, the perfect image of God, until he appears and we shall be like him. The law of Christ has become the pattern of our life. We are enabled to produce works which are the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Thus the righteousness of God our Savior is not only declared in a judgement made by God in favor of sinners, but is also bestowed as a gift to make them righteous. Even though our acceptance of this gift will be imperfect in this life, Scripture speaks of the righteousness of believers as already effected by God through Christ: “he raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:6).

The term justification speaks of a divine declaration of acquittal, of the love of God manifested to an alienated and lost humanity prior to any entitlement on our part. Through the life, death and resurrection of Christ, God declares that we are forgiven, accepted and reconciled to him. Instead of our own strivings to make ourselves acceptable to God, Christ’s perfect righteousness is reckoned to our account. God’s declaration is sometimes expressed in the New Testament in the language of law, as a verdict of acquittal of the sinner. The divine court, where the verdict is given, is the court of the judge who is also Father and Saviour of those whom he judges. While in a human lawcourt an acquittal is an external, even impersonal act, God’s declaration of forgiveness and reconciliation does not leave repentant believers unchanged but establishes with them an intimate and personal relationship. The remission of sins is accompanied by a present renewal, the rebirth to newness of life. Thus the juridical aspect of justification, while expressing an important facet of the truth, is not the exclusive notion in the light of which all other biblical ideas and images of salvation must be interpreted. For God sanctifies as well as acquits us. He is not only the judge who passes a verdict in our favor, but also the Father who gave his only Son to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. By virtue of Christ’s life and self-oblation on the cross we are able with him to say through the Holy Spirit, “Abba, Father” (Rm 8:15; Gal 4:6).

What more does an evangelical Anglican want? What more does any believer who is passionately committed to the sola gratia need? The agreement clearly states that we are saved by the sheer unmerited grace of God, not by our own works and strivings. It even affirms the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to undeserving sinners, but with the imputation construed as an efficacious, performative word that truly makes the sinner righteous. Here we see the contribution of J. H. Newman now being assimilated into both Anglican and Catholic reflection. In his Lectures on Justification, the Anglican Newman wrote:

God’s word, I say, effects what it announces…. God’s word is the instrument of His deed. When, then, He solemnly utters the command, “Let the soul be just,” it becomes inwardly just;… On the whole then, from what has been said, it appears that justification is an announcement or fiat of Almighty God, which breaks upon the gloom of our natural state as the Creative Word upon Chaos; that it declares the soul righteous, and in that declaration, on the one hand, conveys pardon for its past sins, and on the other makes it actually righteous.

When Newman wrote this he believed that he was offering a faithful interpretation of Anglican belief. He was no doubt wrong—but only by a hundred and forty years or so. How fitting that the Anglo-Catholic Newman would provide the critical insight that would eventually be employed to effect theological reconciliation between Anglicanism and Catholicism on the question, How does God justify the ungodly?

I have to believe that Dean Zahl is well acquainted with both the Anglican/Catholic and Lutheran/Catholic agreements on justification, yet he still asserts that justification remains a church-dividing matter. I have not read Dean Zahl’s more recent books—perhaps he discusses this question in them. But it sure looks to me that Zahl is stuck in the 16th century.

13 September 2005


In the 16th century Martin Luther broke the unity of the Church in Germany. He believed he had rediscovered the authentic gospel of Jesus Christ, summarized in the slogan “justification by faith.” Mankind is justified by faith in Jesus Christ, and not by works, he declared. Near the end of his life, Luther explained how he arrived at his revolutionary insight through meditation upon Romans 1:16-17:

Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradiese.

Justification by faith! For four hundred years Protestants have protested against the Church of Rome under this banner. The protest continues today. Most recently, the dean of the Episcopal School for Ministry, Paul Zahl, has identified justification by faith as the primary reason he cannot become Catholic. Like the Judaizers with whom the Apostle Paul contested, the Catholic Church teaches a gospel that is no-gospel; and so Protestants must continue to protest.

It is typically asserted that the Protestant doctrine construes righteousness as the imputation of Christ Jesus’ righteousness to us, whereas the Catholic Church construes righteousness as the infusion of Christ Jesus’ righteousness into us. In popular parlance, as Zahl puts it: “For the layman, this means ‘they’ teach that we are OK when we become actually OK, while ‘we’ teach that we are OK before we become actually OK.”

This popular caricature grievously distorts the teaching of the Catholic Church. Philosopher Peter Kreeft tells how, as a student at Calvin College, he read St Thomas Aquinas and the decrees of the Council of Trent. “I did not find,” he says, “what I had been told I would find, ‘another gospel’ of do-it-yourself salvation by works, but a clear and forceful statement that we can do nothing without God’s grace, and that this grace, accepted by faith, is what saves us.” Kreeft’s discovery of the authentic Catholic view of justification is confirmed by the ecumenical agreements between the Catholic Church and the Anglican and Lutheran Churches. These agreements are necessary reading. Protestants, of whatever stripe, may eventually decide that they do not go far enough in asserting what they believe needs to be asserted; but I believe that anyone who reads them sympathetically will agree that the Catholic Church formally, clearly, and emphatically teaches that salvation is achieved by God’s grace alone—sola gratia! And depending on how one defines one’s terms, one can even describe “faith alone” (sola fide) as Catholic doctrine (see especially Hans Küng, Justification ([1964]).

But the Catholic and Protestant construals of justification are different. The Catholic Church speaks of justification as a process, beginning with conversion and culminating in glorification. This process begins with grace and concludes with grace. “The grace of Christ,” the Catholic Catechism tells us, “is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification.” At no point, according to the Catholic Church, can justification be understood as sinful man pulling himself up by his bootstraps; nor can it be understood as man earning his way into heaven by his good works; nor can it even be understood as a team effort, with God doing his part (perhaps a big part) and man doing his part (perhaps just a little bitty part). The work of justification is God’s work. God justifies man by graciously incorporating him through Baptism into his Trinitarian life and making him a new creation by the Holy Spirit.

But do not Catholics speak of the baptized as cooperating with God’s work of justification? Yes, of course. How could they not? Within a transformationist model of justification, there will always be a necessary place for man’s personal involvement in the process of salvation; otherwise, it would take place completely outside of man and would not touch his life. We are not robots. We are personal beings who live in time. Each day we make a thousand and one decisions for and against God. Each day we look into the mirror and decide whether we will live for God or for ourselves. Each day we either grow in love toward God or we grow in egotism and alienation away from God. And we each know that we have been given the terrible freedom in Christ to ultimately say to God, “My will be done.” And so each day we cry out, Kyrie eleison.

This is not just a “Catholic” problem. It is an ecumenical problem, shared by anyone who speaks of salvation as process. Until the Reformation, all Christians, West and East, understood salvation as a process that necessarily engages the will of the baptized. This is as true for St Augustine as for St Maximos the Confessor, as true for St Thomas Aquinas as for St Gregory Palamas. Pre-Reformation theologians may disagree about the specifics of the process; but they all agreed that salvation was a process. They all agreed that the faithful must work out their salvation in fear and trembling through prayer and works of charity. That is to say, they all reflected upon this theme within a transformationist model of salvation. And I would suggest that this is also true for most Protestants, despite what their theories say. This becomes apparent as soon as one addresses the question “Are good works necessary to salvation.” No, the Protestant says … but when pushed to the wall he generally concedes that the just will necessarily express their faith in love, hope, and good works. The faith alone that saves is not really quite alone. A notional distinction is made between justification, as imputational event, and sanctification, as growth in faith and holiness. As Richard Hooker wrote:

We teach that faith alone justifieth: whereas we by this speech never meant to exclude either hope and charity from being always joined as inseparable mates with faith in the man that is justified; or works from being added as necessary duties, required at the hands of every justified man.

At this point one really has to wonder what the bother is all about. Are we simply arguing about words and their definitions? Following the tradition going back to St Augustine, if not earlier, Catholics typically employ the word justification to refer to the entire process of salvation, a process that necessarily includes repentance, Baptism, faith, hope, and all the works of love that we rightly expect to be embodied in the lives of Christians. Protestants use justification to refer to the initial stage, to the moment when the believer hears the word of the gospel and trusts it for his salvation. From this moment on, the believer is understood as justified, with the caveat that if his faith does not grow in holiness and love, it is not in fact a saving faith. Needless to say, this caveat has presented serious spiritual problems in the history of Protestantism. If it is possible that my faith is not truly authentic, if it is possible that my faith is counterfeit, then how can I ever be assured that I am truly justified? The quest for assurance within Puritanism certainly gives the lie to any suggestion that the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith resolves the quest to find the gracious God.

But it is true that the 16th century Reformers sought to break out of the transformationist model of salvation. If the problem we are trying to solve is assurance—and this certainly was Luther’s problem—then the only way this can be done is to locate our righteousness in Christ completely outside of ourselves. Hence the Protestant insistence that the formal cause of our righteousness is the alien righteousness of Christ imputed to us. We are saved by the forensic transfer of Christ’s righteousness to us. As Alister McGrath notes, the assertion of extrinsic righteousness is the defining characteristic of Protestantism:

The notional distinction necessitated by a forensic understanding of justification, between the external act of God in pronouncing a sentnece, and the internal process of regeneration, along with the associated insistence upon the alien and external nature of justifying righteousness, must be considered to be the most reliable historical characterisation of Protestant doctrines of justification. As the Osiandrist controversy made clear, an anti-Pelagian doctrine of justification could still be rejected as unrepresentative of the Reformation if the justifying righteousness was conceived intrinsically. Indeed, precisely this controversy may be considered to have exercised a decisive influence in establishing the concept of forensic justification as characteristic of the Reformation. As the history of the Reformation itself demonstrates, the criterion employed at the time to determine whether a given doctrine of justification was Protestant or not was whether justifying righteousness was conceived extrinsically. This criterion served to distinguish the doctrines of justification associated with the magisterial Reformation from those of Catholicism on the one hand, and the radical Reformation on the other. (Iustitia Dei [1986], II:3)

Whether the imputational model actually accomplishes that which it intends—namely, the elimination of the fear of damnation—is, as I said above, debatable (see my articles on Mortal Sin). But what is crucial to see is that the imputational model is a decisive break with the Sacred Tradition of the Church. This point must be stated as clearly, emphatically, and loudly as possible: The Reformation doctrine of righteousness by imputation is a novelty and innovation in the history of Christian doctrine. It is not a return to the Fathers. It is not a return to St Augustine. Imputation represents a radically new theological development and marks, as McGrath explains, “a complete break with the teaching of the church up to that point.”

From the time of Augustine onwards, justification had always been understood to refer to both the event of being declared righteous and the process of being made righteous. Melanchthon’s concept of forensic justification diverged radically from this. As it was take up by virtually all the major reformers subsequently, it came to represent a standard difference between Protestant and Roman Catholic from then on. In addition to differences regarding how the sinner was justified, there was not an additional disagreement on what the word “justification” designated in the first place. The Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church’s definitive response to the Protestant challenge, reaffirmed the views of Augustine on the nature of justification and censured the views of Melanchthon as woefully inadequate. (Reformation Thought, pp. 108-109)

Protestants, of course, believe that the imputational model of justification, as opposed to the transformational model, represents a return to St Paul and Holy Scripture. Be that as it may, does it not bother them that they dogmatically define the Christian faith by a doctrine that first appeared on the scene fifteen hundred years after the death of the last Apostle? Are they not uncomfortable, at least just a tad, that the unique doctrine that they herald as the “first and chief article” of the Christian faith is an invention of Martin Luther and Philip Melancthon. By what authority, beyond the personal authority of the Reformers themselves, do they insist that this doctrine justifies separation from either Catholicism or Orthodoxy? After all, justification by imputation lacks catholic consent and has never been approved by an ecumenical council. All heretics assert the support of Holy Scripture for their positions. St John Chrysostom knew his Greek New Testament just as well as the Reformers, but he did not find the sharp cleavage between justification and sanctification within it. One can find examples of imputational language in Chrysostom, as well as in others of the Church Fathers; but the language is employed within the comprehensive framework of theosis. Many, perhaps most, New Testament exegetes are increasingly wary of identifying the theological views of Luther and Melanchthon with that of the Apostle Paul. Read Krister Stendahl, E. P. Sanders, and N. T. Wright, for example. And then read Joseph Fitzmyer’s massive commentary on Romans.

Dear Protestant readers, by what authority do you invoke the doctrine of imputation to justify continued separation from the historic Churches founded by the Apostles? Put aside, for the moment, your Reformation glasses, and you may well find that the New Testament reads very differently.

17 September 2005


Whenever the assertion is advanced by Catholics that justification by faith, properly interpreted, should no longer be considered a church-dividing issue between Catholic and Protestants, the question is inevitably asked by Protestant interlocutors, “But what about Trent?!” Simply whisper the word, and shivers run down the spine. Was not Trent the Council that dogmatized salvation by works? Do not the Tridentine decrees teach that we must earn our way into heaven?

I confess that until fairly recently, I never even looked at the decrees of the Council of Trent, and I do not yet have even a rudimentary grasp of them. But two things I have learned: First, the justification decree and anathemas are widely misunderstood, both by Protestants and Catholics. Second, mainstream Catholic theologians do not read and apply the conciliar text nearly as woodenly as their Protestant counterparts do.

Let me address the second point first. In his classic book Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection, Hans Küng rebukes Karl Barth for his unsympathetic reading of the Council of Trent. The Catholic Church, he writes, does not look at the inerrant Tridentine decrees as “rigid and frozen formulations, but rather as living signposts for continued research into the inexhaustible riches of the revelation of Jesus Christ” (pp. 100-101). The Tridentine decrees may have been a definitive word on justification; but they are not, for Catholics, the final word. Because Catholics understand the Church as a living, developing community formed and ruled by the dogmas of the past, under the continuing guidance of the Magisterium, they are open to fresh formulations of the apostolic faith in a way that confessional Protestants sometimes are not. Küng further elaborates:

The one truth of faith, its one fundamental structure, is capable of articulation for man in many structural patterns—varying the one same fundamental structure through shifting emphasis among the essential traits. Dogmatic definitions express the truth infallibly and precisely (not just approximately) and thus irrevocably. As such they have become involved in the historical reality of everything human. They add to it irrevocable yet historically conditioned accents, expressing a definite objective perspective. But because they are finite statements which never express absolutely everything, they never wholly exhaust the fullness of truth. That is why dogmatic formulations are not at all incapable of being refined and perfected, just as the Church cannot be tied to any particular short-lived philosophical system. As St. Thomas had said, quoting Isidore: “An article (of faith) is a perception of divine truth that tends toward that truth.” (p. 102)

It is this freedom in the Spirit that has allowed the Catholic Church to reexamine the Reformation construals of justification and to ask whether they are in truth excluded by the Tridentine anathemas. The result: the Lutheran/Catholic and ARCIC agreements on justification.

A sympathetic reading of Trent—this is the first requirement if one is to understand the Catholic understanding of justification. In his book Reformation Thought (2nd ed. [1993]), Alister McGrath notes the confusion about justification that reigned in the late medieval Church. Schools of theological thought abounded. The Papacy was reluctant, perhaps incapable, of enforcing orthodoxy, and no one was quite sure what the official answer was to the question “What must one do to be saved?” The decrees of the Synod of Orange (A.D. 529), formulated in response to the heresy of semi-Pelagianism, were apparently unknown to late medieval theologians and would not be “re-discovered” by the Church until the mid-16th century, at which point they became the cornerstone for Tridentine reflection. McGrath elaborates:

Confusion over the official teaching of the church on justification contributed in no small manner to the origins of Luther’s programme of reform in Germany. The most recent known authoritative pronouncement on the part of a recognized ecclesiastical body relating to this doctrine dated from 418, and its confused and outdated statements did little to clarify the position of the church on the matter in 1518, eleven hundred years later. It seemed to Luther that the church of his day had lapsed into Pelagianism, an unacceptable understanding of how an individual entered into fellowship with God. The church, Luther believed, taught that individuals could gain favour and acceptance in the sight of God on account of their personal achievements and status, thus negating the whole idea of grace. Luther may well have been mistaken in this apprehension—but there was so much confusion within the church of his day that no one was able to enlighten him on the authoritative position of the church on the matter…. We can speak of a spectrum of thought within the late Middle Ages. A remarkably wide range of doctrines was in circulation. It is all too easy for twentieth-century writers, with the benefit of hindsight, to recognize the potential dangers of the ideas being developed by the first reformers—but at the time these ideas attracted little attention from the official defenders of orthodoxy. The boundary lines between what was orthodox and what was not became so hopelessly confused that it was virtually impossible to treat individuals as Luther as heretical—and by the time this move became necessary, the Reformation had gained such momentum that it proved difficult to obstruct it. The scene for a future religious confrontation was set by the doctrinal pluralism of the late medieval church. (Reformation Thought, pp. 33-34)

One of the up and coming philosophical schools was known as the via moderna (nominalism). Its fourteenth and fifteenth century advocates were William of Ockham, Pierre d’Ailly, Robert Holcot and Gabriel Biel. The via moderna espoused a view of justification that is perhaps most accurately described as semi-Pelagian but which its critics attacked as Pelagian. It was this position that Martin Luther learned at the University of Erfurt. He appears to have been unacquainted at first hand with the rival soteriologies then also current in the Catholic Church.

McGrath briefly summarizes the doctrine justification as formulated by the via moderna:

According to the theologians of the via moderna, the covenant between God and human beings established the conditions necessary for justification. God has ordained that he will accept an individual on condition that this individual first fulfills certain demands. These demands were summarized using the Latin tag facere quod in se est, literally “doing what lies within you,” or “doing your best.” When individuals met this precondition, God was obliged, by the terms of the covenant, to accept them. A Latin maxim was often used to express this point: facienti quod in se est Deus non denegat gratiam, “God will not deny his grace to anyone who does what lies within them.” The noted late medieval theologian Gabriel Biel, who is known to have influenced Luther through his writings, explained that “doing your best” meant rejecting evil and trying to do good. (Reformation Thought, p. 76)

Within the divinely established covenantal system, man is understood as enjoying the freedom to seek the will of God and obey his commandments, with the attached promise that if he does so, if he fulfills the ordained pre-conditions, he will be rewarded with salvation. As the pre-Reformation Luther put it: “Hence the doctors of theology rightly say that God gives grace without fail to whoever does what lies within them (quod in se est).”

It was this quasi-Pelagian theology that Luther identified as the formal teaching of the Catholic Church; and it was this quasi-Pelagian theology that proved intolerable for the sensitive and scrupulous Luther and evoked his radical reformulation of justification.

When the Council of Trent was finally convened in 1545, it was confronted with the formidable task, amidst a plethora of conflicting theological opinions, of defining the authentic Catholic doctrine on justification in response to Protestant errors. It is beyond the competence of this writer to adequately state the Tridentine construal of justification. But it does appear that this construal should be understood as a powerful recovery of Augustine, normed by the decrees of the Synod of Orange. Semi-Pelagianism was, once again, explicitly and definitively excluded from the Catholic faith, which means that the via moderna position against which Luther had striven so mightily was identified as error, at least in substance if not by name:

When the apostle says that the human person is justified “through faith” and “gratuitously” [Rom 3:22, 24], those words are to be understood in the sense in which the Catholic Church has held and declared them with uninterrupted unanimity, namely, that we are said to be justified through faith because “faith is the beginning of the human being’s salvation,” the foundation and root of all justification, “without which it is impossible to please God” [Heb 11:6] and to come into the fellowship of his sons. And we are said to be justified gratuitously because nothing that precedes justification, neither faith nor works, merits the grace of justification; for “if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise (as the same apostle says) grace would no longer be grace” [Rom 11:6]. (CT, “Decree on Justification,” chap. VIII)

“Nothing could bring out more clearly,” comments Louis Bouyer on the above passage, “that Catholic doctrine itself, as defined at Trent, does not admit salvation by faith and works, if by that is meant works that are not themselves the product of saving grace received by faith” (The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism [1956], p. 71). Thus the Council of Trent reaffirmed the sola gratia as the very heart of Catholic soteriology. At the same time, the Council did not attempt to resolve many of the long-standing disputes between Thomists, Scotists, Augustinians, and the other schools then prevalent in the 16th century Church. A latitude of interpretation is built into the decrees themselves; they virtually demand further clarification and refinement by the Church. The Council of Trent marks both an end and a beginning. This important fact needs to be remembered when interpreting the Tridentine doctrine.

The Council of Trent was a conservative council. It reaffirmed the transformationist model of salvation that had been the foundation for Western reflection on justification for fifteen hundred years. The Council of Trent was also a biblical and patristic council. When one reads the Decree on Justification, one immediately observes the numerous appeals to Holy Scripture. Scholastic vocabulary is eschewed, replaced by biblical language and the phraseology of St Augustine. McGrath concludes: “In brief, then, Trent maintained the medieval tradition, stretching back to Augustine, which saw justification as comprising both an event and a process—the event of being declared to be righteous through the work of Christ and the process of being made righteous through the internal work of the Holy Spirit” (Reformation Thought, p. 115).

Impossible question: If the Council of Trent had occurred a hundred years before the birth of Martin Luther and its construal of justification had been assimilated into the consciousness of the medieval Church, would Luther have found it necessary to break communion with the Church?

20 September 2005


One of the most helpful books I have read on the topic of justification is Alister McGrath’s historical survey, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification. I have found especially interesting McGrath’s discussion of the diversity of construals of justification within early Protestantism. Here are a few examples:

Ulrich Zwingi: “Zwingli’s theological development appears to have been decisively influenced by his near-fatal illness during an outbreak of the plague at Zurich in August 1519. During the course of this illness, Zwingli appears to have realised that he was nothing but a plaything in the hands of the Almighty, whether he was saved or not was a matter of the divine good pleasure…. The strongly determinist cast to Zwingli’s thought—probably owing more to Seneca than to St Paul—which is reflected in his emphasis upon an omnipotent and sovereign God contrasts with Luther’s quest for a gracious God. In his understanding of justification, Zwingli departs considerably from Luther. In his early humanist period, Zwingli’s understanding of justification appears to have been primarily ethical. His contemporaries within the Christianismus renascens movement regarded him as a fine exponent of the philosophia Christi, with its emphasis upon moral integrity. Zwingli’s statements concerning the ‘law of the lliving spirit’ are of particular importance in this connection: he defines this law as the ‘leading and instucting which God offers to us out of a true understanding of his word.’ For Zwingli, the ‘righteousness of faith,’ based upon obedience to God, must be contrasted with ‘self-righteousness,’ based upon self-confidence. The similarities between Erasmus and Zwingli on the lex evangelica are evident, particularly in their subordination of justification to regeneration. In fact, Zwingli rarely uses the term ‘justification’ or ‘justified,’ tending to use the term rechtglobige (‘right-believing’) instead. Thus he indicates that der rechtglobige mensch submits himself to the law willingly, in contrast to the unbeliever. Zwingli’s emphasis upon the moral character of the ‘new man’ (wiedergeborene und neue Menschen) leads him to understnad justification to be based upon an analytic, rather than a synthetic, divine judgement.” (II:32-33)

Johannes Oecolampadius: “A similarly moralist approach to justification may be found in the writings of Johannes Oecolampadius, whose strong emphasis upon the importance of regeneration in the Christian life inevitably led to man’s justification being subordinated to his regeneration. As Oecolampadius remarks in the course of his comments on Hebrews 10:24, the Christian must continually examine himself to see if the faith which he professes is manifested in good works…. Oecolampadius’ chief concern appears to have been the ethical dimension of faith. Similarly, Christ’s death upon the cross exemplifies the divine love for man, which is intended to move man to moral excellence. Here, as with Zwingli, we find the moral protests of the early Swiss Reformers passing into their theology: the man who has true faith is the man of moral integrity—whose faith may be proved by precisely that integrity.” (pp. 33-34)

Heinrich Bullinger: “Similarly, Heinrich Bullinger insisted that justification did not mean the imputation of righteousness, but the actualisation of righteousness. As with later Pietism, man’s justification is confirmed by moral action.” (p. 34)

Martin Bucer: “The most significant exposition of the doctrine of justification within the early Reformed church is due to Martin Bucer, and it is here that we find the still-inchoate moralism of Zwingli being developed into a strongly Erasmian doctrine of justification. Even from his earliest period, Bucer was strongly inclined towards Erasmianism. Although Bucer was clearly influenced by Luther, following their meeting at Heidelberg in 1518, it is significant that Bucer tended to interpret much of Luther’s teaching in Erasmian terms, and to pass over many of his more distinctive ideas altogether. Bucer’s preoccupations are clearly moralist, as may be seen from his reduction of ‘doctrine’ to ‘ethics’ on the basis of his philological exegesis of the concept of torah: for Bucer, the whole of scripture is thus lex.

“Bucer develops a doctrine of double justification: after a ‘primary justification,’ in which man’s sins are forgiven and righteousness imputed to him, there follows a ‘secondary justification,’ in which man is made righteous: the isustificatio impii, expounded by Bucer on the basis of St Paul, is followed by the iustificatio pii, expounded on the basis of St James. While Bucer is concerned to maintain a forensic concept of primary justification, he stresses the need for this to be manifested as good works in the secondary justification. Although man’s primary justification takes place on the basis of faith alone (sola fide), his secondary justification takes place on the basis of his works. While Bucer maintains the forensic nature of the primary justification, he stresses the need for this to be manifested in good works. Although this secondary justification appears to be equivalent, in respects, to the later concept of sanctification, it is still conceived in primarily moralist terms…. Just as a good tree produces good fruit, so the justified sinner must produce good works.” (pp. 34-35)

Early Anglican Reformers: “There are excellent reasons for supposing that essentially Augustinian doctrines of justification were in circulation in England independent of the influence of Luther, and that the doctrines of justification which developed as an indirect consequence of such influence appear to have omitted the idea of the reputatio iustitiae Christi alienae—a central feature of Luther’s conception of justification—altogether. Thomas Bilney, for example, a leading figure of the ‘White Horse circle,’ developed a concept of justification framed solely in terms of the non-imputation of sin, omitting any reference to the concept of the ‘imputation of righteousness.’ Similarly, William Tyndale, although making extensive use of Luther in his early polemical works, tends to interpret justification as ‘making righteous.’ Tyndale’s emphasis upon the renewing and transforming work of the Holy Spirit within man is quite distinct from Luther’s emphasis upon faith, and clearly parallels Augustine’s transformational concept of justification. John Frith reproduces a sanative concept of justification, clearly Augustinian in its structure. Frith’s most characteristic definition of justification is that it consists of the non-imputation of sin, omitting any references to the imputation of righteousness…. In 1531, George Joye defined justification thus: ‘To be justified, or to be made righteous before God by this faith, is nothing else but to be absolved from sin of God, to be forgiven, or to have no sin imputed of him by God.’ The assertion that justification is the forgiveness or non-imputation of sin without the simultaneous assertion that righteousness is imputed to the believer, or with the assertion that justification is to be understood as making righteous, appears to be characteristic of the English Reformation until the late 1530s.” (pp. 98-99)

“A work of particular importance in establishing the position of the early English national church on the nature of justification is the Homily of Salvation, usually regarded as the work of Thomas Cranmer himself. In many respects, the Homily is Melanchthonian. For example, the obvious similarity between the explanations of Cranmer and Melanchthon concerning the correct interpretation of the phrase sola fide have been noted. The Homily is, in fact, a fine exposition of the Melanchthonian doctrine of justification per solam fidem The verbal similarity between Melanchthon and Cranmer on the role of the law is also striking, as is their similarity in relation to the fiduciary character of faith and the Anselmian approach to the death of Christ. However, Melanchthon’s influence is conspicuously absent in Cranmer’s discussion of the nature of justification. Cranmer interprets justification to mean ‘making righteous,’ which clearly reflects the strongly factitive Augustinian concept of justification evident in the collection of patristic texts assembled by Cranmer in support of the position he develops in the Homily. Although Cranmer rejects Augustine’s doctrine of justification on the basis of fides quae per dilectionem operatur, excluding charity from his account of man’s justification, he does not extend this criticism to Augustine’s understanding of the nature of justification.

“This raises an important point. The English Reformers appear to have understood that their continental colleagues developed a doctrine of justification by fayth onely, and that its leading feature was the total exclusion of human works from man’s justification. Several of them also appear to have understood that this faith was ‘reputed’ as righteousness, possibly drawing on the use of this term in the Apology for the Augsburg Confession. They do not, however, appear to have realised precisely what was meant by the very different concept of the imputation of righteousness, or its potential theological significance. In general, the English Reformers appear to have worked with a doctrine of justification in which man was understood to be made righteous by fayth onely, with good works being the natural consequence of justifying faith—a possible interpretation of the Lutheran teaching, as stated in the important confessional documents of 1530, but not the most reliable such interpretation.” (p. 101)

I am particularly struck by the moralistic nature of the early Swiss Reformation. Here was a “reformation” that had little to do with the gospel of grace; indeed, its theology of justification was as works-righteous-oriented, if not more so, as the via moderna to which Luther so vigorously objected. The early Swiss reformers were primarily interested in the moral reform of the Church. Evidently the terrified conscience of Luther did not necessarily represent the religious experience of all.

The absence of imputed righteousness in the early English reformers is also notable, an absence that would continue, McGrath says, even with the publication of the 1563 Articles of Religion:

“It is therefore evident that the 1563 Article on justification is intended to clarify the somewhat vague statement of 1552 along Lutheran lines. It will, nevertheless, be clear that the Article does not distinguish between the idea of the imputation of faith for righteousness and the quite distinct idea of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. The former expresses the notion that God accepts, reckons or ‘reputes’ the faith of the believer to be ‘righteousness’; the latter, which corresponds to the teaching characteristic of the continental Reformation by this stage, expresses the notion that faith is the means by which the extrinsic righteousness of Christ is appropriated by the individual believer. The importance of the distinction may be seen from the later seventeenth-century controversy among Independent and Presbyterian divines, in which Thomas Gataker, John Graile, John Owen and Joshua Watson held the latter, and Richard Baxter, Christopher Cartwright, John Goodwin and Benjamin Woodbridge the former, to be the formal cause of justification. Although there are reasons for supposing that the early English Reformers actually inclined towards the former position, the latter became established as normative within the English national church by the end of the sixteenth century.” (p. 103)

Faith as the formal cause of justification—until I read McGrath I did not realise that this appears to have been the majority position of the English Reformers and Elizabethan Church until the latter part of the 16th century. This interpretation of justification also helps to explain the anguished search for assurance that would come to characterize Puritanism in the 17th century. If faith is the formal cause of my justification before the Holy God, if my faith is reckoned by God as righteousness, then I had better be sure that I have it … yet how can I ever really know that I have the real thing? And existential matters are then made even worse if we then add on the anti-Pelagian codicil—viz., faith is a gift of God and not something I can achieve on my own. At that point, the agony of the terrified conscience becomes the agony of predestination. Am I elect or reprobate?

The Council of Trent is looking better and better … ;-)

22 September 2005


Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the Pontifical Household preacher, has preached a wonderful series of homilies this Advent. His third sermon, delivered on Friday, December 16th, was devoted to the theme of justification by faith. He began his sermon with these words:

When one speaks of faith in St. Paul one thinks spontaneously of the great theme of justification by faith in Christ. And on this we wish to concentrate our attention, not to outline the umpteenth discussion on the topic, but to receive his consoling message. I was saying in the first meditation that there currently exists a need for kerygmatic preaching, suitable to incite faith where it has never existed, or where it has died. Gratuitous justification by faith in Christ is the heart of this type of preaching, and it is a shame that this is, in turn, practically absent from ordinary preaching in the Church.

In this respect something strange has occurred. To the objections raised by the reformers, the Council of Trent had given a Catholic response, that there is a place for faith and for good works, each one, it was understood, in its place. One is not saved by good works, but one cannot be saved without good works. Nevertheless, from this moment in which the Protestants insisted unilaterally on faith, Catholic preaching and spirituality ended up accepting the nearly exclusive and thankless work of calling to mind the need for good works and of one’s personal contribution to salvation. The result is that the great majority of Catholics have lived entire lives without having ever heard a direct announcement of gratuitous justification by faith, without too many “buts.”

That last phrase, “without too many buts,” particularly struck me. It’s the “buts” that kill the preaching of grace. The good news of Jesus Christ is expressly that—good news! Yet we preachers are so keen on constantly reminding folks of their necessary response of obedience and good works. “God has become man for your sake, but …” “Christ has died for your sins, but …” “Jesus has risen from the dead so that you may have eternal life, but …” How can we experience the joy and wonder of the gift with so many “buts”?

Even after twenty-five years of preaching, I haven’t figured out yet how to pull all of this together. If salvation is a gift, then surely there will be times in our preaching when fidelity to the text demands that we simply give salvation through the word, with no ifs, ands, or buts. What must we do to be saved? we ask. “Absolutely nothing!” Gerhard Forde answers. To proclaim the gospel is to give the gift of new life, and is to give it in such an unconditional way that hearers are either reborn in the Spirit or scandalized. No one is reborn, refreshed, renewed, or offended when our preaching is always qualified by the stern warning of the necessity of obedience and good works.

Yet faithful preachers, precisely because of their fidelity to Scripture and the teaching of the Church, cannot avoid the call to obedience: Repent of your sins. Bend your will to the will of Christ. Surrender yourself to the grace of the Savior. Take up your cross and follow Jesus. Faith without works is dead. Believe!

I am persuaded that the faithful preaching of grace is not a matter of reciting formulas. Between the heresies of universalism and limited atonement is the mystery of salvation, and this mystery is not reducible to slogans. Salvation is a gift. We cannot earn it. We cannot merit it. It is granted to us unconditionally. Yet somehow the gift of salvation necessarily involves us in love, faith, and obedience, without which we cannot be saved, will not be saved. No theological magic wand can dispel the terrible possibility of damnation. We sinners need our preachers to tell us this, too.

Faithful preaching of the gospel, therefore, requires a wide-range of sermons. There will be sermons that declare to the baptized, in the name of Christ, the unconditionality of God’s love and mercy. There will be sermons that call upon the baptized to repent of their sins and urge and empower them to walk in holiness and love. There will be sermons that encourage the baptized with the promise that their perseverance in faith and good works will be rewarded by God in the kingdom. And there will be sermons that warn the baptized of the terrible consequences of disbelief and sin. In the course of the year, all of these sermons will be preached. But surely the dominant note of our preaching must be grace, that wondrous gift of our Lord Jesus Christ, who for our sake and for our salvation was conceived in the womb of the Holy Vigin and became Man.

It is the Incarnation, I propose, that provides the grounds for a moralistic preaching that is not moralistic. In Christ our human nature has been healed, purified, sanctified, deified. By grace we have been incorporated into our Lord’s sacred humanity; by grace we have been made a new creation. Faithful gospel preaching will therefore be structured as “Because … therefore …” Because you share in Christ’s regenerated human nature, because you have been reborn in him by the Holy Spirit, you are now capable of living faithfully … you are now capable of repenting of your sins … you are now capable of loving your neighbor, no matter how annoying he is … you are now capable of forgiving your boss for treating you so shabbily … you are now capable of being faithful to your spouse, even though he or she bores you to tears … you are now capable of truly taking up the cross of the Savior and following him in a life of sacrificial service to God. Grounded in the Incarnation, gospel preaching opens up a new future for the hearer and therefore is a preaching of grace, even if the words grace and forgiveness are never mentioned.

I do not know if Fr Cantalamesa is correct when he says that most Catholics have lived their lives without hearing the gospel spoken to them without “too many buts.” What about the absolution given in the Sacrament of Penance? It’s hard to get much more gratuitous than that. But based on anecdotal evidence, I suspect that Fr Cantalamesa may be right. (The same is probably true for most Protestants, also.) Exhortatory, moralistic sermons are simply easier to preach than sermons that actually bestow the new life of grace. But perhaps Fr Cantalamesa’s sermon will encourage Catholic preachers to step forward and boldy proclaim the good, the very good news of Christ Jesus.

Fr Cantalamesa’s sermon for 3rd Advent: Part One and Part Two.

19 December 2005


I want to revist a topic that was discussed here on Pontifications back in September. In response to an article by Dr. Paul Zahl, I criticized Zahl for ignoring the dramatic ecumenical progress that has been made on the issue of justification. This question was recently raised again over at Titusonenine. Most of the commentators insist that justification by faith represents a church-dividing issue between Anglicans and Catholics. When I referred the brethren the two important documents “Salvation and Church” (the Anglican/Catholic agreement) and “Joint Declaration on Justification” (the Lutheran/Catholic agreement), I was told that these agreements are unrepresentative and lacking in authority. It is true that the ARCIC agreement does not enjoy any formal authority in either communion; but the same cannot be said of the Joint Declaration. The Joint Declaration, combined with the annexed elucidations, does enjoy an official status in the Catholic Church. When the Joint Declaration was first released, Edward Cardinal Cassidy went so far as to declare, “In conclusion, I wish to stress that the consensus reached on the doctrine of justification, despite its limitations, virtually resolves a long disputed question at the close of the twentieth century, and on the eve of the new millennium.” This is not to say that differences do not remain between Lutherans and Catholics—these differences were acknowledged by Pope Benedict in November—but it is to say that the remaining differences are no longer considered as church-dividing by either the Catholic Church or the Lutheran World Federation.

Hence the confession of the Joint Declaration:

“Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works” (JD 15).

Yet apparently some Anglicans, particularly those of evangelical commitment, are not convinced. They repeatedly assert that justification by faith remains a church-dividing matter between Anglicans and Catholics, with the strong implication, if not outright assertion, that the Catholic Church teaches “salvation by works.” But there is an irony here that needs to be noted: Justification by faith is not considered by these same individuals as a church-dividing matter within the Anglican Communion, despite the fact that (1) Anglicanism cannot be said to be confessionally committed to any specific formulation of justification by faith and (2) Anglicanism comprehends within itself a diversity of, sometimes incompatible, beliefs on justification by faith.

All Anglicans, I think, would agree with Article XI of the Articles of Religion, “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings”; but no single interpretation of this formula is confessionally required and as far as I know never has been. Richard Hooker’s interpretation of justification, which distinguishes between justifying (imputational) righteousness and sanctifying (infusional) righteousness, is righty noted as a classical expression of the Anglican view. Hooker’s position is in fact very similar to Calvin’s.

But as Alister McGrath observes in his book Iustia Dei, many of the early Anglican reformers did not employ imputation as a way of speaking of justification by faith. McGrath writes, “In general, the English Reformers seem to have worked with a doctrine of justification in which humanity was understood to be made righteous by fayth onely, with good works being the natural consequence of justifying faith” (p. 262). McGrath says that this English formulation of justification, which is different from the imputational formulations advanced by contemporaneous Lutherans and Reformed on the Continent, appears to have been taught in the Church of England through much of the latter half of the 16th century.

Perhaps the difference between Hooker and the English Reformers is inconsequential, but the same cannot be said of the views advanced by many of the Caroline Divines in the mid-17th century. In the works of Charles Hammond, William Forbes, Jeremy Taylor, and George Bull, we see the rise of an interpretation of Article XI that perhaps is most accurately described as Augustinian. McGrath identifies the three characterizing features of the Holy Living position:

1. Justification is treated as both an event and a process, subsuming regeneration or sanctification.

2. The formal cause of justification is held to be either imputed righteousness, or inherent and imputed righteouess—but not inherent righteousness alone.

3. The teachings of Paul and James are harmonized in such a manner that both faith and works are held to be involved in the justification of humanity, frequently on the basis of the explicitly stated presupposition that faith is itself a work. (p. 281)

Holy Living represented only a minority of Anglican theologians over a fairly short period of time, but it was powerfully resurrected in the famous “Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification” by John Henry Newman and has been propounded by many Anglo-Catholics ever since. Newman believed he was advancing a via media position, based on the Caroline Divines. When he republished these lectures in 1874, Newman stated that he substantially held the same views as a Catholic. Newman’s voice can be heard in the ARCIC agreement, particularly in this statement:

Justification and sanctification are two aspects of the same divine act (1 Cor 6:11). This does not mean that justification is a reward for faith or works: rather, when God promises the removal of our condemnation and gives us a new standing before him, this justification is indissolubly linked with his sanctifying recreation of us in grace. This transformation is being worked out in the course of our pilgrimage, despite the imperfections and ambiguities of our lives. God’s grace effects what he declares: his creative word imparts what it imputes. By pronouncing us righteous, God also makes us righteous. He imparts a righteousness which is his and becomes ours. (SC 15; also see Reginald Fuller’s article “Justification and the Holy Spirit“)

Given that no official Anglican authority has ever declared the views of Taylor or Newman heretical or un-Anglican, it is difficult to see how anyone can rightly assert a specific interpretation of Article XI as the Anglican position. For the last two hundred and fifty years (at least), Anglicans have disagreed among themselves as to what justification by grace through faith means, yet they have remained in communion with each other. Perhaps the most one can say is that Anglicanism is confessionally committed to the sola gratia … but then again, so is the Catholic Church.

But not only has Anglicanism tolerated a diversity of contradictory positions on the article of justification, so has Protestantism. Within Protestantism one finds agreement on the verbal formula “we are justified by faith alone” but significant disagreement on what the formula means. “Justification by faith” means two different things when it is proposed by someone who teaches monergistic predestination (Luther and Calvin) and when it is proposed by someone who teaches universal atonement and predestination by divine foreknowledge (Arminius and Wesley). “Justification by faith” means two different things when it is proposed by someone who teaches baptismal regeneration (Luther) and by someone who does not (C. H. Spurgeon). Calvinists and Methodists do not teach the same doctrine. Lutherans and Baptists do not teach the same doctrine. Anglicans and Anglicans do not teach the same doctrine. If Luther had been acquainted with the views of Jeremy Taylor or John Wesley, he would have anathematized them right along with the Catholic Church.

Martin Luther declared justification by faith to be “the head and the cornerstone” of the Christian religion, “the article upon which the Church stands or falls,” yet his heirs cannot agree on what it means. All they seem able to agree upon is that the slogan “justification by faith” is what separates them from Catholics—no matter what the Catholics say!

(The site that provides the ARCIC document appears to be down, hopefully temporarily. The document can also be found here.)

4 January 2006


Bishop N. T. Wright has been one of my favorite biblical scholars for many years now. The first book I read by him was The New Testament and the People of God. I very much appreciated his attempt to understand 2nd Temple Judaism on its own terms and not filtered through Reformation/Catholic debate on justification. I have also appreciated Wright’s work on the historical Jesus and his engagement with the folks of the Jesus Seminar. His book on the resurrection of Jesus is a tour de force. In many ways, Bishop Wright is a model of a Christian scholar, a man of erudition and passionate faith. He is also a delightful conversationalist. Two years ago I had the privilege of dining with him at the home of Bishop Robert Duncan in Pittsburgh.

It therefore came as a shock to read someone describing Wright as a heresiarch:

Wright is a heretic. A heresiarch. He will forever burn under God’s righteous wrath and under the solemn and scornful gaze of the Lamb of God for all eternity if he does not change his theological views before he dies, or rather, his lack of good theology! He is a false teacher, and one of the most influential heretics of the century because he affected people at the seminary level – where pastors are trained and scholars born – and has infected a good number of churches, right down to the layman and youth of the day.

Strong words indeed. They were written by Dr. Matthew McMahon on the Puritan Board on 27 December 2005. McMahon is the author and webmaster of A Puritan’s Mind and a pastor in the Reformed Presbyterian Church.

Why is Wright a heretic? Not because he has denied the Holy Trinity, not because he has denied the divinity of Christ, not not because he has denied that salvation is by grace alone, not even because he has denied that salvation is by faith alone. Wright is a heretic because he believes that the 16th and 17th century Protestants misunderstood what justification means in the thought of the Apostle Paul. For Paul justification is concerned, not with the question “How may I be saved?”, but with the question “Who belongs to the people of God?” Wright explains:

What is ‘justification by faith’ all about? Paul’s answer is that it is the anticipation, in the present time, of the verdict which will be issued on the last day. Those who believe the gospel; those, that is, in whose hearts and lives the Spirit has been at work by the word to produce the faith that Jesus is Lord and the belief that God raised him from the dead—these people are assured, as soon as they believe, that they are dikaioi, in the right. They are declared to be righteous; the verb dikaioo has that declarative force, the sense of something being said which creates a new situation, as when a minister says ‘I pronounce that they are husband and wife’ or when a judge says ‘I declare that the defendant is not guilty’. They are then, because of God’s declaration, ‘righteous’ in the covenantal sense that they are members of the single family God promised to Abraham, in the forensic sense that the divine lawcourt has already announced its verdict in their case, and in the eschatological sense that this verdict properly anticipates the one which will be issued, in confirmation, on the last day. ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Messiah Jesus; for the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.’ It takes all of the rest of Romans 8 to explain that, of course, but we should be in no doubt that Paul connects in the most intimate way possible the final verdict ‘not condemned’ with the continuing work of the Spirit, and roots that work in the death of Jesus through which sin was condemned and the verdict ‘righteous’ which was already issued as soon as the gospel had produced faith. It is false to the point of slander to say, as some have, that by stressing the Spirit-led life as that which leads to the final verdict I (or Paul!) must somehow be insinuating that present justification is after all a matter of something I do as opposed to something God does. The word of the gospel, and the work of the Spirit which puts it into effect, is all of grace, producing in me that first fruit of faith which is itself simply the breathing in of God’s love poured out in the cross and the breathing out of what results, the confession that Jesus is Lord and the belief that God raised him from the dead. (Also see Wright’s 2003 Rutherford House lecture “New Perspectives on Paul.”)

I have been wrestling with Wright’s construal of justification for several years now. I lack the training and background to negotiate his exegesis. I am particularly concerned with the absence of baptism in his account of justification and incorporation into the Church. (I think he discusses baptism in his commentary on Romans, but my copy is in a box somewhere in my basement). Given what I have read about 2nd Temple Judaism, Wright’s views make a great deal of sense; but I know they are controversial and debated. (The best website on Wright and the other scholars of the New Perspective is the Paul Page.)

I have to wonder. Are Wright’s views on justification controversial because they misrepresent the teaching of Paul or because they contradict the historic Protestant confessions? This is difficult to answer honestly, because historical exegesis and confessional fidelity are so often mixed up together. For example, see the article “Why Wright is not Reformed” by Fred Greco. Greco takes Wright to task not because Wright has misunderstood Paul but because he has proposed a theory of justification that departs from the historic Reformed confessions. And Greco is correct. Wright does assert that justification in Paul is different from justification as formulated by confessional Protestantism. And so McMahon is correct in his anathema of Wright, if the Reformed confessions infallibly state the true undertanding of justification.

But when did the Reformation confessions or the views of Luther and Calvin achieve irreformable status? If Scripture, and Scripture alone, is our final authority, and if the Apostle Paul’s teaching on justification is what the Church should and must teach on justification—and I believe that most Protestants would agree with both premises—then must not the Church, as understood by Protestantism, be willing to reform its understanding of justification in light of superior critical-historical exegesis? I am not asserting that Wright is indubitably correct in his views—scholars are going to be debating these questions for decades—but I am claiming that given our vastly expanded knowledge of both 2nd Temple Judaism and the first-century Church, we are in a much better position to understand the writings of Paul than were Martin Luther and John Calvin.

I have been passionately interested in the question of justification by grace through faith since my middler year in seminary when I discovered a short article by James B. Torrance on the unconditionality of the gospel. For years I tried to read everything I could by Lutheran and Reformed scholars. After the American Lutheran/Catholic statement on justification was released in 1983, Robert Jenson expressed his disappointment with the results. In his judgment, the dialogue participants (Lindbeck being the important exception) were still treating Catholic/Reformation disagreement on justification as a disagreement about biblical exegesis. They did not yet see that the questions addressed by St. Paul, St. Augustine, and Martin Luther were not identical. We need to speak of three distinct doctrines of justification in the Church, not just one. Jenson elaborates upon this in his book Unbaptized God (1992). The following is a long citation, but please read and re-read it carefully. And please remember, Jenson’s analysis is completely independent of the New Perspective.

In the historic discourse of the church, the phrase “the doctrine of justification” is severely multivocal. The phrase’s formulaic use, however, has regularly led into the unstated supposition that it must be univocal, that justification is the caption for some one problem together with its proposed solutions. This is not the case. At least three different questions with their own sets of proposed answers have, at various times, gone under the one title “justification.” Confusion would not have ensued if the three questions had been merely unrelated.

At a first locus of doctrine labeled justification, we have the apostle Paul’s question “How does God establish his righteousness among us?” together with his and others’ labor to answer it. For a second locus labeled “justification” we have Western Augustinianism’s several efforts to describe the process of individual salvation, to lay out the factors and steps of the soul’s movement from the state of sin to the state of justice. A third locus under the same label—the specifically reforming doctrine of justification—includes the body of teaching that the American Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue called “hermeneutic” or “metatheological” or “proclamatory.” This doctrine describes nothing at all, neither God’s justice nor the process of our becoming just. It is instead an instruction to those who would audibly or visibly speak the gospel, a rule for preachers, teachers, liturgists, and confessors. This instruction may be formulated: So speak of Christ and of hearers’ actual and promised righteousness, whether in audible or visible words, whether by discourse or practice, that what you say solicits no lesser response than faith—or offence.

This hermeneutical doctrine can—and in the sixteenth century did—become a reforming doctrine because of its critical function. For such instruction to pastors will necessarily become polemic whenever the church solicits responses less obligating and energetic than faith, in other words, works.

When Paul’s question and that of the reformers are straightforwardly set beside each other, they are not quite the same; nor then have Catholicism and the Reformation been directly in dispute over Paul’s problematic. Certainly, were it not for the Pauline presence in the canon, the Western church would not have been concerned with those matters that occasioned the Reformation. What Luther and his colleagues were about, until the indulgence controversy interrupted, was a Pauline renewal of Wittenberg’s theological curriculum. Nevertheless, the question to which the reforming doctrine of justification responds is not identical with that to which Paul devoted himself.

I do not say that the exegesis of Paul’s doctrine of justification is not disputed; the dispute, however, is not between the confessions. Long sections in dialogue documents of Pauline exegesis about justification rarely contribute to the consensus achieved in them, and some apparent but illusory remaining dissensus may even result from their presence.

The historical relation between the second and third loci of justification is more complex. If patterns of proclamation or practice judged unacceptable by reforming critique are traceable to specific theological opinions, the critique will also attack those opinions. And in the sixteenth century, the reformers made the standard descriptions of the salvation-process the target of such theological polemic.

Some theologians of the Reformation have directed this sort of polemic only against particular late medieval and Tridentine accounts of the movement from sin to righteousness and have proposed their own replacements. Other theologians of the Reformation do not conceive the work of the gospel in the human soul as a process at all, and have thought that Lutheran and Reformed alternatives to late medieval or Tridentine descriptions of the process were intrinsically no more appropriate than those they replaced. But both sorts of Reformation theology were present from the beginning; and Reformation theologians of the more radical sort have yet to persuade more Augustinian colleagues to abandon their enterprise. Moreover, when Protestants do produce descriptions of the salvation-process, these do not notably differ from those currently approved by Roman Catholic theologians and available, if not dominant, at the time of the Reformation. Therefore, the second doctrine of justification is not itself a doctrine that divides Catholicism and the Reformation.

It remains that of the questions about justification only one has stood between Catholicism and the Reformation: Is the reformers’ hermeneutical instruction necessary in the church, and is the critique this instruction will surely generate legitimate and needed? And if this question is kept clearly in view, if its focus is not blurred by subliminal identification with other connected but distinct questions, full consensus is now achieved. For whenever this question has been asked in its own right, Catholic participants in the modern dialogues from first to last have answered yes. (pp. 22-24)

Is Bishop N. T. Wright a heretic? Of course not! Is he right about Paul and justification? Heck if I know. Does it matter? Yes, because we all want to understand the New Testament as well and accurately as possible. No, because the authentic concern of the Reformation, namely, the preaching of the gospel in a way that generates faith and not self-righteousness, simply is not dependent upon Wright being right or wrong.

8 January 2006


In one corner we have Antonio de Rosa representing the Free Graces; in the other corner we have Steve Hays and Evan May representing the Reformeds. It’s been a real bloody battle, but each is still standing. The question between them: Can we be assured of our eternal salvation?

Antonio says yes, absolutely. “Assurance,” he declaims, “is of the essence of saving faith.” We may be certain of both our present salvation in Christ and our eternal security in Christ because of the objective “promise of Christ to give, as a present and immediate possession, the free gift of eternal life by simple faith in Him alone, apart from works.” The logic is simple and compelling. The Creator of the universe has made a promise that all who believe in him are saved. Believe and the promise is yours; believe and you must know that the gift is given to you. To doubt is to doubt the one who makes the promise; to doubt is to disbelieve the promise.

I contend greatly that God, the perfect Father wants everyone to certainly know, not just at the moment of faith in Christ, but throughout their entire Christian pilgrimage here that He is indeed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, their Father, and that they are completely accepted by Him on the basis of Christ’s works.

Do you know that you are certainly saved, that for sure your name is written in the book of Life? that you are accepted by God, and that He is your Father?

If you don’t, you can! Simply look to the passages of Scripture that promise eternal life as a present possession to the one who merely believes in Christ for it.

For instance, John 6:47:

“Most assuredly I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life”

Do you believe in Christ here in His solemn assertion? If you do, you must be convinced that you have eternal life, for the guarantee is disclosed in the promise.

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?’” (John 11:25-26)

Notice the guarantee here! Jesus is the Guarantor of eternal life to the simple believer in Him for it! If you believe that Jesus guarantees you eternal life by your simple faith in Him, not only do you possess eternal life, you necessarily have absolute assurance that you are saved!

How can a person say that they believe Jesus here and not understand that they have eternal life? It is impossible, for, as I have said, the explicit guarantee of eternal life is the promise to the believer in Christ. So therefore, to believe this statement of Christ is to believe that you have eternal life. Only if you doubt the veracity of Christ’s statement will you not have absolute assurance of salvation.

Are you now experiencing any doubts about your salvation? Look to Christ and His promise in faith and you will be certain!

Or as Martin Luther succinctly declared, “Believe, and you have it!”

In a more recent post Antonio summarizes his position thusly:

“Eternal life is a guaranteed absolutely free gift received immediately by the intermediate agency of a simple act of punctilliar faith in Jesus Christ alone for the purpose of receiving eternal life, apart from works of any kind; and at that simple moment of faith in Christ, he is eternally secure!”

There is power and passion here, no doubt about it. This stuff will preach. But Steve is not convinced. He believes that Antonio has fallen into the heresy of antinomianism. He also believes that Antonio has severely misrepresented Calvin and the Reformed tradition. And on the question of assurance, Antonio, says Steve, has failed to distinguish between rational and irrational doubt:

Faith is a subjective state of mind. Belief admits degrees of certainty and uncertainty. Belief may be a temporary state of mind. It is possible to misinterpret the Bible. To say that we’re saved by faith alone does not remove the subjective dimension of assurance or the uncertainties and vicissitudes that can attach to that mental state. Where assurance is concerned, there is no arbitrary standard. Rather, we are entitled to no more or less a level of assurance than God has promised us.

Steve’s colleague, Evan May, also takes Antonio to task for failing to distinguish between genuine faith and false faith, between saving faith and fruitless faith. A faith that does not manifest itself in love and obedience is not saving faith, no matter how confident that faith may be. In a follow-up article, Evan elaborates:

Obedience demonstrates the veracity of faith. Faith is the means of justification. But obedience demonstrates faith. If faith is not accompanied by obedience, then it is simply not saving faith (James 2:14)…. The elect will persevere to the end. But perseverance isn’t the basis of assurance. Faith that saves is. What is the basis of my assurance? My confession of faith. But how do I know that my faith is genuine, saving faith? Via James, John, and the New Testament as a whole, I know that obedience demonstrates the veracity of my confession of faith.

The contestants agree on the Reformation solas: Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone. But they part company on the question of assurance. Can I know that I am right with God? Can I know that I am saved? Can I know that I am predestined for eternal glory? In a very real sense, the question of assurance, in all of its existential power, is the burning question posed by the Reformation. And it’s a question that the Reformation both solved and exacerbated.

16 January 2006


“Believe, and you have it!” This is one of Martin Luther’s most quoted expressions. All Protestants love it. Indeed, Luther liked it himself and used it frequently in different contexts. But what did Luther mean when he said it? The “it” is pretty clear—Jesus, righteousness, salvation, justification, forgiveness of sins, eternal life. And “believe” is pretty clear too—trust in Christ Jesus and his saving work. Yet as clear as the words seem to us, we probably do not understand the expression in the way Luther intended.

Phillip Cary, professor of philosophy at Eastern University, has recently explored the nature of saving faith in Luther and Calvin: “Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant: The Logic of Faith in a Sacramental Promise,” Pro Ecclesia (Fall 2005), 447-486. Both Luther and Calvin agree on the fundamental claim that sinners are justified by grace alone, freely, apart from all works, through faith in the promises of God. Faith does not earn justification; it achieves nothing. Faith believes in the God who keeps his word and accomplishes all. The certainty of faith is therefore rigorously objective, for it is grounded outside the self in the faithfulness of God.

Yet despite this apparent agreement, faith functions differently for Luther and Calvin, especially on the question of assurance. The logic of faith in Calvin can be described in the following syllogisms:

Major Premise: Whoever believes in Christ is saved.
Minor Premise: I believe in Christ.
Conclusion: I am saved.

Major Premise: Christ promises absolution of sins to those who believe in him.
Minor Premise: I believe in Christ.
Conclusion: I am absolved of my sins.

Faith here works reflectively. It looks to Christ, but it also looks back upon the self and its act of faith. Cary writes:

In this syllogism the major premise is taken from the Scriptural promise, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). The minor premise is a confession of faith in Christ. The logical conclusion is the assurance of salvation. Hence to know that I am saved I must not only believe in the promise of Christ but also know that I believe it. In this sense faith is reflective: faith is based on God’s word, but the assurance of faith must include believers’ awareness that they have faith.

To achieve assurance, the believer must believe that he believes. But how does one determine whether one believes? Typically through two ways—either by evaluating one’s inner experience or by evaluating one’s behavior, or perhaps a combination of the two. The former is common in charismatic and pietistic circles. The believer confirms his faith by appealing to past experiences (“I’ve been born again or baptized in the Spirit”) or by assessing the quality of his present spiritual experience. The latter is common in confessional Reformed circles. Evan May, cited in my recent article “Hey buddy, are you saved?”, exemplifies the reflexiveness of Reformed faith. Acknowledging that the act of belief may not always be what it seems to be (authentic faith vs. counterfeit faith), May invites the believer to establish his assurance by examining his life and determining whether he is living out his faith in love and obedience. But whether one is looking at one’s inner experience or one’s moral actions, one is looking at the self. Protestant faith is inherently reflective. As Cary writes, “A reflective faith has itself for object in addition to God’s word.”

The logic of faith in Luther can be described in the following syllogisms:

Major Premise: Christ told me, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
Minor Premise: Christ never lies but only tells the truth.
Conclusion: I am baptized (i.e., I have new life in Christ).

Major Premise: Christ says to me, “I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
Minor Premise: Christ never lies but only tells the truth.
Conclusion: I am absolved of my sins.

One immediately notices the difference between the syllogism of Calvin and the syllogism of Luther. In Calvin’s syllogism, the first premise is a general statement. In Luther’s syllogism, the major premise is a first-person divine promise spoken directly to the sinner in a sacramental event. Whether that event is the foundational event of baptism, the promises of which the sinner can recollect for the rest of his life, or the repeatable event of Penance, the promises of which are available to the sinner for the rest of his life, the sinner is confronted with a decision—to believe or to disbelieve, to trust or to distrust. Faith for Luther is nonreflective. Faith rests directly on Christ. It does not look away from the sacramental event; it hears the promises and believes or not. It is in this sacramental context that the famous saying of Luther makes sense: “Believe, and you have it!” The object of faith here is not a general gospel statement, such as we find in the Calvinist first principle (“Whoever believes in Christ is saved.”). The object of faith is a divine promise spoken directly to the sinner by Christ, through the mediation of the Church. If the Lord tells me my sins are forgiven, who am I to contradict him?

For Luther, assurance is not the product of an act of self-reflection; assurance is identical to the act of believing. I do not need to know whether I truly believe. I do not need to know whether my faith is authentic or not. All I need to do is believe the promise; the promise is fullfilled in me in that very act. Believing does not necessarily mean knowing that I have faith. Believing is simply believing. Cary states the difference between Luther and Calvin thusly:

According to Luther’s account of baptism Christ speaks to me in particular, which is possible only with an external word, not a universal principle. The major premise of Luther’s syllogism, which refers to me in particular, differs subtly but profoundly from the major principle applying to me only as a member of a whole class of people, i.e., all who believe in Christ. In the Lutheran syllogism, “you” means me; in the Protestant syllogism, “you” could only mean whoever meets the stated condition of belief in Christ. For the promise of the Protestant syllogism is conditional, logically equivalent to the conditional statement: “If you believe in Christ, you are saved.” Here the pronoun “you” is not dependent for its meaning on external circumstances and therefore cannot refer to me in particular. It is a logical placeholder, like a variable in algebra. In modern logic, in fact, the sentence would read: for all x, if x believes in Christ then x is saved. In order for this “x” refer to me, I must meet the condition stated in the if-clause. What is more, according to the logic of this syllogism I must know I meet the condition in order to know I am saved. Here Luther gets off the boat. All the Reformers agree, of course, that faith in Christ is a condition of salvation, but Luther does not think we need to know we meet this condition. This gives us a kind of freedom to be unconscious of our faith—unconcerned about how strong or weak it is, how sincere or insincere—which is reflected in the minor premise of Luther’s syllogism, which does not explicitly mention faith (quite in contrast to the minor premise of the Protestant system, “I believe in Christ”). This makes it logically possible for believers not to believe that they believe. For faith need not speak of faith but only of the truth of God’s word.

Luther’s unreflective faith flows from and is dependent upon his Catholic conviction that the Lord’s sacraments confer the grace they signify. But Luther reconstrues the ex opere operato as performative word: The sacraments do not work impersonally but work precisely because they speak God’s promise. They are an embodied form of first- and second-person discourse. Because they are external to the hearer, they are objectively present for faith. The statement “Whoever believes in Christ is saved” is always true, in all times and places; but the baptismal form of this gospel, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” is true only when spoken in the right circumstances. A sacrament requires its proper context. It must be performed at the right time and right place, in accordance with the sacramental mandate. But when the mandate is fulfilled, the sacramental word is there to be believed or disbelieved. “Faith clings to the water,” wrote Luther in his Large Catechism. The sinner need not know whether he believes to obtain assurance of his absolution; he need only believe the external gospel “done” to him in the name of Christ. Thus Cary concludes, “Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone is at its origin a Catholic sacramental doctrine.”

Luther and Calvin present two very different expressions of the gospel. It’s the difference between hearing God speaking the words “I love you” directly and personally and hearing the preacher declare “God loves everyone.”

Cary notes one other important difference between Luther and Calvin. Luther summons the believer to cling to the external promise. This non-reflective faith, however, lacks the knowledge of final security, for the promise does not tell the believer that he is one of the elect. Hence the believer recognizes that he must persevere to be saved, without the certainty that he will persevere. With Calvin, on the other hand, an innovation is introduced into the doctrines of predestination and justification—the promise of perseverance. Cary explains:

Calvin’s theology is foundational for the Protestant tradition in that it is the first theology in the wake of Augustine to inculcate and systematically support the belief that Christians on earth are already saved for eternity. This requires a crucial departure from Augustine, in that Calvin must teach that individual believers can and should know they are predestined for salvation (since all who are saved are predestined to be saved, I cannot know I am saved without knowing I am predestined to be saved). We can call this, Calvin’s epistemic thesis about predestination. This epistemic thesis, not double predestination, is Calvin’s radical innovation in the doctrine of predestination. To support it, both logically and pastorally, the rest of his thinking must take a shape that is quite different from any previous Christian theology. Above all, Calvin’s epistemic thesis implies that true faith in Christ be permanent, persevering to the end. This implies (contrary to Augustine’s view) that all who truly believe in Christ receive the gift of perseverance, which implies in turn that if you know you truly believe, you can know you will persevere and be saved….

Calvin’s epistemic thesis therefore makes Christian faith essentially reflective. Since the gospel does not tell me directly whether I am predestined for salvation, I must work by inference, and the crucial premise of my inference must be that I believe in Christ. From the fact that I presently believe I can infer that I will persevere in faith to the end—from which it follows that I am predestined for salvation.

Given that the gospel spoken to me does not tell me that I have been secretly chosen by God to persevere to the end, I must perform a reflex act, look at my faith and recognize myself as a believer and thus one of the elect.

Luther, on the other hand (at least in his best moments) eschews all attempts to secure the certainty of predestination. In one of his table talks Luther describes the search to achieve certainty about one’s election as a “fire that cannot be extinguished” that leads only to despair. “Our Lord God is so hostile to such disputation,” Luther declares, “that he instituted Baptism, the Word and the Sacrament as signs to counteract it. We should rely on these and say: ‘I have been baptized. I believe in Jesus Christ. I have received the Sacrament. What do I care if I have been predestined or not?’” Thus Luther’s faith remains unreflective. It clings to the external promise and refuses to look back into the dark abyss of the self. The non-reflective believer, therefore, believes the gospel and receives the gift of justification, but without the certainty of perseverance. “This is the price of freedom,” Cary writes, “to believe the word alone. I am free from the reflective requirement of believing in the authenticity of my own faith or experiencing my own holiness, but I am uncertain of God’s ultimate intentions towards me.” Luther will not allow us to look away from the Crucified to divine the secret counsels of the God of Majesty.

To return now to my earlier article, what about the free grace theology of Antonio de Rosa? Antonio reads very Lutheran, doesn’t he? He objects to the reflexiveness of the Reformed construal of assurance, rightly observing that the need to believe that one believes effectively undermines the assurance of faith. Yet because of the absence of sacrament, Antonio remains within the Reformed syllogism, with all of its conditionality. Re-read his article “Why Sacrifice for God if You Can’t be Certain that Christ Sacrificed for You?” With no sacraments to invoke, he can only cite general statements from Scripture about faith and eternal life and invite us to find ourselves intended in these statements. But faith is still the stated condition for salvation: if you believe, you will receive eternal life.

Jesus is the Guarantor of eternal life to the simple believer in Him for it! If you believe that Jesus guarantees you eternal life by your simple faith in Him, not only do you possess eternal life, you necessarily have absolute assurance that you are saved!

But how do I know whether I believe? How do I know that the evangelical truth intends me as its object? This question is made acute for Antonio, because Antonio joins together the personal knowledge of God’s love and mercy for us, given to us in the sacraments, with the knowledge of our predestination. The question of authentic faith remains, despite Antonio’s theological efforts (see his position statement). Antonio believes he has avoided reflection upon one’s faith to attain assurance; but in fact he remains in the same self-reflective boat with the Calvinists. What he needs are sacraments. Sacraments do not tell us what conditions we must fulfill to be saved; they simply give the salvation they promise—and that is the only assurance we need.

19 January 2006


When we speak the gospel to another person, what is the essential message we wish that person to hear? This is the question that came to my mind as I read Steve Hays’s critique of my article “Believe, and you have it.”

As you recall, Philip Cary construes the Calvinist syllogism as follows:

Major Premise: Whoever believes in Christ is saved.
Minor Premise: I believe in Christ.
Conclusion: I am saved.

In response to this syllogism, Hays writes:

Doesn’t this have a familiar ring to it? Sounds an awful lot like Jn 3:16, does it not? Yet Kimmel is going to criticize this syllogism. Here is one of many points where the Catholic and the Calvinist inhabit different worlds. For the Catholic, it’s as if Scripture doesn’t matter. It makes no difference if the logic of faith in Calvin parallels the logic of Jn 3:16. For Kimmel, it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t solve the “problem” of assurance.

Mr. Hays makes several errors here:

First, my last name is spelled K-i-m-e-l. A little thing, I know, but certainly annoying when people get it wrong.

Second, Hays attributes to me arguments advanced by Dr. Philip Cary, whose article I was describing. I wish I had Dr. Cary’s brain, but alas, I’m just a poor blogger. In his article Cary identifies the essential differences between the Lutheran and the Reformed understandings of the gospel, particularly as related to the question of assurance. Cary sides with Luther on this issue. Given my own reading in Luther, Calvin, and various Lutheran (Jenson, Forde, Lindbeck) and Reformed (T. F. Torrance, James B. Torrance, Karl Barth) theologians, I personally think Cary nails it. He specifies two critical differences between the Lutheran and Reformed traditions: (1) The Lutheran seeks to proclaim the gospel as unconditional promise, whereas the Reformed is constrained to proclaim the gospel as conditional promise. (2) The gospel really is different when it is mediated through sacraments.

Third, Hays is engaging in needless polemic when he says “Here is one of many points where the Catholic and the Calvinist inhabit different worlds. For the Catholic, it’s as if Scripture doesn’t matter.” It’s rubbish, of course, to say that Scripture does not matter to Catholics; but it’s also completely beside the point. The argument here is between Luther and Calvin, as interpreted by Philip Cary, who happens to be an Episcopalian. Does Hays really want to say that Luther & Company do not take Scripture seriously? And why throw in the anti-Catholic jibe?

Hays continues:

And let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that he’s right. Suppose Jn 3:16 fails to close the gap. But how does that disprove Calvin’s position? What Kimmel is doing is to treat assurance as a problem, and then cast about for a solutin in the form of a problem-solving device. If Jn 3:16 doesn’t solve the problem, then, for Kimmel, that disproves the Reformed position. And let us say that Jn 3:16 doesn’t’ solve the problem. How does that have any bearing on where the truth lies? Isn’t Jn 3:16 true? The fact that it may or may not suffice as a problem-solving device in resolving the uncertainties of assurance does not mean that we are at liberty to brush it aside and move on to another hypothetical alternative. After all, doesn’t Jn 3:16 say that whoever believes in Christ shall not perish, but have eternal life? Is it wrong for a Christian to invoke that verse if you ask him why he believes that he is heaven-bound? Even if Jn 3:16 were insufficient to fully ground the assurance of salvation, it is still supplies a necessary condition. Even if there were more to the assurance of salvation than Jn 3:16, can there be any less?

Here is where the Reformed and Lutheran disagreement comes to a head. All Christians agree that Jn 3:16 is descriptively true. All Christians believe that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” But the problem arises when we translate this descriptive statement into gospel-speech. Within Reformed and evangelical circles, faith is typically presented as a condition for salvation. By Lutheran lights this conditioning of salvation undoes the entire point of the Reformation. The gospel is unconditional promise, not law. Twenty years ago Gerhard Forde stated the Lutheran concern in a private letter to me:

The distinction I like to make is one between descriptive language and declarative language. Descriptively it is quite true to say that unless you believe you shall not be saved. But that is just a description of what is the case, and even though it is quite true in and of itself, it is not legitimate to jump immediately to the conclusion or the inference that belief is a condition for salvation, because the description says nothing about how such belief is to come about. Descriptive language is always tricky in theology especially and tricks us because it is so easy to translate it immediately into law language, conditional language. It is the unconditional language, the proclamation, that creates the belief, the faith, without which one cannot be saved. Faith is not a condition for salvation; it is salvation already, since it is created by the living address.

The entire letter should be read carefully. For the Lutheran, the gospel is not a command to convert but the rendering of an unconditional promise to the sinner: Christ died for you. Christ rose from the dead for you. “This is my body, given for you.” It is this promise that creates the faith to receive it. It is this promise that is the gospel.

But it is not just the Lutherans who have a concern for the unconditionality of the gospel. In his article “Covenant or Contract?” (Scottish Journal of Theology 23[1970], 51-76), James B. Torrance discusses the Federal Theology that became dominant in the Reformed Churches. Federal Theology, according to Torrance, distinguishes between God’s covenant of works made with Adam, and through Adam with all mankind, in which Adam is promised eternal life if he obeys the laws of nature, and God’s covenant of grace made with the elect, those chosen out of the mass of fallen humanity and predestined to eternal salvation, with and in Jesus Christ. It appears that this Federal Theology engendered in Scottish preaching a conditional speaking of the gospel. Given that Christ efficaciously died only for the elect, and given that we do not know who the elect are, preachers cannot declare to all people unequivocally, “Christ died for you!” What they can say to all is “You are all under the law. You are all guilty and under judgment. Repent.” If they in fact repent, the preacher can take that as “evidence of election and grace and then hold out the comforts of the gospel.” “This approach,” says Torrance, “made forgiveness conditional on repentance, gave priority to the preaching of law over the preaching of the Gospel, and bred a deep lack of assurance in that it left people tortured by the question, ‘Am I one of the elect? Have I fulfilled the conditions of grace?'” The focus of Christian life thus “moves away from what Christ has done for us and for all men, to what we have to do IF we would be (or know that we are) in covenant with God. For preaching, this means that the emphasis falls less on the indicatives of grace and more on the imperatives of repentance, obedience and faith.”

Torrance calls for a return to John Calvin and his distinction between legal and evangelical repentance. Legal repentance says: “Repent, and if you repent, you will be forgiven,” as if God is persuaded by our acts of repentance into being merciful. Here our forgiveness is conditional upon our deeds of obedience and faith. When the prodigal son returns, the Father delays the party of restoration until such time as the son has truly demonstrated his change of heart and thus merited sonship. Evangelical repentance says: “Christ has borne your sins on the cross; Christ has broken the power of sin and death; therefore repent, take up your cross and follow Christ; therefore worship and love God with all your heart, mind, and soul; therefore obey the commands and precepts of the Lord; therefore love your neighbor as yourself.” In evangelical repentance, forgiveness is logically prior to repentance. God has spoken his word of forgiveness on the cross, and it is this word that summons forth our unconditional repentance and obedience. The father runs down the road when his prodigal son returns and cuts short the son’s prepared confession, ordering his immediate restoration and the killing of the fatted calf. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found!

What would Dr Cary say in response to Torrance’s presentation. Certainly he would, I think, strongly support Torrance’s call for a recovery of the unconditionality of grace and the preaching of evangelical repentance. But I suspect that he would also observe that Torrance’s project is undermined by the Reformed belief that one can have assurance of perseverance and election. The gospel does not promise such certainty. The critical differences between the Calvin and Luther syllogisms thus remain. In any case, with Torrance we have a Reformed theologian who shares the Lutheran concern for the preaching of unconditional grace. Karl Barth, with his christological interpretation of divine election, should also be mentioned here.

Hays then offers an alternative syllogism by which he hopes to hoist me by my own petard:

Major premise: Whoever is baptized is saved.
Minor premise: I am baptized.
Conclusion: I am saved.

Luther would often invoke the memory of baptism whenever he was tempted to disbelieve God’s love for him. Was not Luther therefore engaging in his own form of reflective faith? But this is to overlook a critical difference between recollection of one’s past baptism and the turn to self entailed by examination of one’s faith and works. The Reformed logic of faith requires one to look away from the promise of Christ in order to introspectively discover within oneself the fulfillment of the conditions of salvation. The recollection of baptism, however, is simply recollection of God’s promise spoken in the past and renewed in the present. The promise remains unconditional. The word to which faith clings remains external.

But Luther did not rely on the recollection of baptism alone. He also commended the sacrament of confession, which he interpreted as a “return to baptism.” In the absolution spoken by the pastor/priest, the penitent hears once again the unconditional love and forgiveness of Christ, spoken directly and personally. Faith rests in the sacramental promise.

Hays continues:

Notice the bait-and-switch tactic as Kimmel leaps from direct faith in Christ to the promise of the sacramental event, mediated through the church. Is looking to the sacrament, or looking to the church which administers the sacrament, equivalent to direct faith in Christ? Obviously not. Kimmel has smuggled in one or two addition steps in the process of assurance, and each step is, itself, a theological construct.

Is believing in the sacrament equivalent to direct faith in Christ? Yes! Yes! Yes! The answer of both Lutherans and Catholics is a resounding YES! Nobody but the risen Christ himself can speak and fulfill an unconditional promise. Nobody but the risen Christ himself can baptize sinners and regenerate their souls by the power of the Holy Spirit. Nobody but the risen Christ himself can efficaciously speak the liberating words of absolution. Christ is the proclaimer; Christ is the baptizer; Christ is the absolver. The Church is his deified body and sacrament. He speaks and acts through her ministers. The gospel is not a third-person description about Jesus. The gospel is Jesus. The gospel is Jesus speaking and acting today. And it is this gospel, spoken by Christ in the sacrament, that creates the faith that receives it. As Forde writes, we do not need “to go somewhere else and get something called faith.” The sacrament is the place where faith is evoked and generated; the sacrament engenders the faith that receives all the blessings of Christ. It summons us to believe in the promise of Christ, to believe in the sacramental deed itself. We are saved by the gospel spoken to us, but only if that gospel is the sacramental reality of Christ himself. Christ Jesus is both minister and gift.

I’ve been citing a lot of Lutherans here, so let me close with the words of Pope John Paul II:

Christianity is a great action of God. The action of the word becomes the action of the sacraments. What else are the sacraments (all of them!), if not the action of Christ in the Holy Spirit? When the Church baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes; when the Church absolves, it is Christ who absolves; when the Church celebrates the Eucharist, it is Christ who celebrates it: “This is my body.” And so on. All the sacraments are an action of Christ, the action of God in Christ.

23 January 2006


What is an ordo salutis and do Catholics have one? Jimmy Akin answers these two questions in his recent article “The Ordo Salutis.”

The ordo salutis is a systematic way of describing God’s work of salvation in human beings. As Akin notes, Calvinists have perhaps devoted more thought and energy to the “order of salvation” than any other Christian group, but it is by no means peculiar to Calvinists. Puritans, Pietists, Methodists, Pentecostals—all have reflected on this perplexing matter, as have Catholics, particularly the scholastics.

Yet is there a specific ordo salutis that is particular to Catholicism? This is a very interesting question for me, and I wish I knew enough to give an opinion. Akins offers the following as a possible Catholic formulation:

1. God’s initiative of grace enabling an individual to respond to his call.
2. Conversion (faith and repentance)
3. Baptism
4. Regeneration/Justification/Sanctification
5. Glorification in heaven.

Note that on line #4 regeneration, justification, and sanctification are listed together. “That is because God normally does all of these at once in time” Akin explains. That sounds right to me. Baptism is, after all, incorporation into Christ Jesus in his mystical body, the Church. To be united to Christ is to share in his divine life in the community of the Holy Trinity. To be united to Christ is to be adopted as sons in the Son. To be united to Christ is to be regenerated by the Spirit in his sanctified human nature. To be united with Christ is to be justified with him in his death and resurrection. To be united with Christ is to be divinized and made holy. It is really possible or desirable to sort out which is logically prior? I personally do not think so. All we need to know is that in Baptism we are united to Christ, justified, and made a new creation; and if we commit a mortal sin, we need to go to confession and get re-graced. Sounds like a simple life to me. But of course the simplicity is the profound mystery of our life in the Holy Trinity.

Back in his younger days, when he was still orthodox, Hans Küng wrote a marvelous article titled “Justification and Sanctification According to the New Testament” (Christianity Divided [1961], pp. 309-335). In his article he maintains that we cannot separate justification and sanctification, for both “form a unity in the single event of salvation in Jesus Christ.” Consider this lengthy citation:

Whoever would tear justification and sanctification one from the other does not let the Scriptures teach him, but rather makes up his own teaching. The same theocentricity prevails in both justification and sanctification. It is the just and holy Father alone who justifies and sanctifies: “It is God who justifies” (Rom 8:33). “May the God of peace himself sanctify you through and through (1 Thes 5:23). And the same Christocentricity likewise prevails in both: Only in Jesus Christ who is the Just One and the Holy ONe does the justification and sanctification of sinful men take place directly and primordially. “Jesus Christ, who was our righteousness and sanctification” (1 Cor 1:30). As in justification, so also in sanctification it is man who is being genuinely affected by the justifying and sanctifying action of God. Man receives through the Holy Spirit a real share in the justification and sanctification of Christ and is changed in his very being. “Now you have been sanctified, now you have been justified through the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and through the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11).

In both justification and sanctification the movement proceeds from above downards, from the Father who is the solus sanctus (the only Holy One) and solus justus (the only Just One), through his crucified and risen Son Jesus Christ, who is one with him in the Holy Spirit, to the man who is to be justified and sanctified. Not only justification but sanctification as well is rooted in God’s eternal decree: “From the beginning God has chosen you for salvation in sanctification through the Spirit” (2 Thes 2:12). “Thus has he truly chosen us in him from the foundation of the world, so that we might be holy and blameless before him” (Eph 1:4). Sanctification is not simply—as has often been asserted—the human counter-movement from below, the responsive action of men in sanctification answering to the divine action of justification. No, the origin and beginning of justification are from above, in the action of God. The center and the basis of justification and sanctification is the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ and of the Father, through whom justification and sanctification develop and reach their goal in individual men. Man receives justification and sanctification. (pp. 311-312)

Thus while we may certainly distinguish justification and sanctification, we cannot separate them or divide them; for both are given to us simultaneously in union with Jesus Christ.

Yet Küng notes that whereas there is no self-justification of man, Scripture does speak of a “self-sanctification” by man. As the Apostle Peter writes: “Just as he who calls you is holy, so also ought you to become holy in all your dealings. For it is written: ‘Be holy, for I am holy'” (1 Pt 1:15). This self-sanctification is not an autonomous human work, for it is accomplished in and by the Spirit, yet it is a work man may and must do. Küng continues: “Sanctification is a pure gift of God, but it must again and again be laid hold of and carried further by man. The initial giving of oneself in faith to God who justifies and sanctifies must be followed by loving obedience to God’s commandments. This is a fulfilment of the law which is at the same time free of the law, through love.”

In his article “On the Catholic Question,” Joel Garver writes that Reformed theology, “with its emphasis on union with Christ, has unique resources within it that are able, I believe, to meet the Catholic challenge and to accommodate their legitimate concerns.” This may surprise Catholics. I have often wondered why greater ecumenical progress has not been made between Catholics and Reformed on the question of justification. Perhaps theological agreement was easier with the Lutherans because of mutual agreement on the sacrament of Holy Baptism, yet in Calvin we find an emphasis on our union with Christ, a theme dear to the hearts of Catholics but so often absent in Lutheran reflection. Consider these citations:

We must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us…. All that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him. (Institutes 3.1.1)

Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our heart—in short, that mystical union—are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body—in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him. (Institutes 3.11.10)

You see that our righteousness is not in ourselves, but in Christ; that the only way in which we become possessed of it is by being made partakers of Christ, since with him we possess all riches. (Institutes 3.11.23)

Since the whole affiance of our salvation rests in the obedience which he has rendered to God, his Father, in order that it may be imputed to us as if it were ours, we must first possess him: for his blessings are not ours unless he gives himself to us first. (Geneva Catechism, 342)

Which comes first for Calvin, justification or union with Christ? This is not an easy answer, and Calvin scholars disagree (see Peter Leithart). The great Reformed theologian Thomas F. Torrance powerfully articulates the view that union with Christ is logically prior to justification:

It is only through union with Christ that we partake of the blessings of Christ, that is through union with him in his holy and obedient life. Through being united to him we share in his judgment and his exaltation, in his passive and active obedience, in his Death and also in his Resurrection and Ascension—but first of all it is necessary that we be united to him, that is, have part in the union which he wrought out between us in his Incarnation and in the whole course of his Life. Unfortunately this was reversed in the later teaching of the Church of Scotland, as found in the Westminster Standards—for they put justification first, and then spoke of union with Christ and sanctification as following upon the judicial act that took place in justification by faith. (“Justification in Doctrine and Life,” Theology in Reconciliation [1965], p. 158.)

When the Christian life is interpreted first and foremost as life with and in Christ, the whole notion of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness takes on a very different character. It cannot be understood as a legal fiction because of the depth and intimacy of our union with Christ. God sees us as righteous because we have been engrafted into Christ and identified with his righteousness. We are truly in Christ and he in us; in him we are justified and sanctified. At this point the differences between Catholic and Reformed narrow considerably.

“I have been crucified with Christ,” the Apostle sings. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:19-20).

25 January 2006


If your mind goes into shutdown mode, as mine does, whenever you begin reading about created grace, sanctifying grace, habitual grace, actual grace, sufficient grace, efficacious grace, and every-other-kind of grace, then Charles Cardinal Journet’s little book The Meaning of Grace (1960) may be just the title for you. I will not claim that I now understand all these grace distinctions; but I can say that, thanks to Journet, I think I might be able to state them without completely embarrassing myself … though we shall see.

Grace, according to Journet, has three interdependent meanings: (1) the act of love, i.e., the act of extending favor to another person; (2) the conferral of a gift upon someone as expression of love; (3) the act of thanksgiving by the favored person in response to the gift of love.

The primary and foundational meaning of grace within Catholic doctrine is uncreated grace, the self-donation of God himself: in infinite love God gives himself to human beings and comes to dwell within them. This gift of uncreated grace, of indwelling deity, requires the transformation of the soul, however. The finite human being must be made capable of receiving the indwelling presence of the infinite Creator. By grace our nature must be elevated and brought into a new supernatural life; by grace we must be endowed with a capacity that we do not presently possess—the capacity to participate in the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This new capacity is created grace. “Created grace,” Journet explains, “is a reality, a quality, a light that enables the soul to receive worthily the indwelling of the three divine Persons” (p. 7). Moreover, this quality is not temporary or occasional but is permanent or habitual: it is “an endowment we possess continuously and which is the source in us of activity. The divine action, when it takes hold of me—say that I am in the state of sin—and if I open myself to it, places me in the state of grace, that is to say in a stable condition of grace. If I sleep, I am still in the state of grace; when I wake up, I make an act of faith or love in virtue of this permanent root which remains in me ready to act” (pp. 10-11).

I find this notion of habitual grace to be reassuring. It is God who freely, graciously, and objectively establishes me in a state of sanctifying grace through the sacraments, specifically Holy Baptism and Penance, and nourishes me in this supernatural life through Holy Eucharist, prayer, and acts of mercy. By grace God orients me to himself and makes habitation in my soul. This state of grace can only be lost if I freely will to break union with God through mortal sin. Mortal sin may be likened, suggests Journet, to pouring acid on an oil painting: the painting is destroyed. Venial sin is throwing dust onto the painting: the dust is removed with a sponge and the painting is restored to its original splendor. Catholic life is really very simple and encouraging.

Journet is well aware that Catholic theology in the past has often so emphasized created grace that our union with the uncreated Holy Trinity was lost to view. Hence he is keen to remind us that in the act of elevating us into the divine life God simultaneously communicates himself to us:

The indwelling of the divine Persons is, then, always the accompaniment of grace. The two mysteries are co-relative. Grace is like a net we throw over the Trinity to hold it in captivity. Or here is another way to visualize it: when you bring into a room a source of light, it illuminates the walls; so, when the divine Persons come to us (here we have the source, uncreated grace), the illuminate the walls of the soul (here we have the effect, created grace). And if you possess grace, then the source of grace, the three divine Persons, is there too. In the very gift of sanctifying grace, says St Thomas, the Holy Spirit himself is sent and given to man to dwell in him. The uncreated Spirit is given in created grace, as the sun is given in its rays. The uncreated Gift of the Spirit and the created gift of grace are simultaneous. There are differences of degree in the life of individual souls; but in each of them the intensity of grace and the intensity of the indwelling increase with the same movement…. It is necessary to insist on the reciprocal relation between the finite gift of grace and the infinite gift of indwelling. This view is alone capable of bring out the full dimensions of grace. Our catechism speaks of sanctifying grace, but scarcely at all of the fact of indwelling, which is of greater value, being the source of which grace is the effect. (pp. 14, 16)

Justification signifies that “act by which God moves one who was in a state of sin into the state of grace” (p. 51). To be justified is to have received sanctifying grace is to be possessed by the love of God is to be indwelt by the Holy Trinity is. Or in Journet’s words: “[Justification] is the moment when, the sequence of graces being unbroken, all at once the flower gives its fruit; the love of God invading the soul sets it on the plane of grace and charity, sanctifies it interiorly, and there results the indwelling of the Trinity” (p. 54). This movement from sin to righteousness necessarily involves a secondary act of will on the part of the adult sinner. Journet approvingly quotes the famous saying of St Augustine: “God who created thee without thee, will not justify thee without thee.” Catholicism rejects both Pelagianism (man does all the work) and monergism (God does all the work). God supernaturally moves the sinner to the free act of saving faith, which results, simultaneously and instantaneously, in remission of sins, sanctifying transformation of the sinner, and union with God. Justification must be understood both as event and as a continuous process of purification, healing, and growth in holiness, ultimately culminating in the beatific vision in heaven.

Journet then discusses the neuralgic issue of merit. He admits that misunderstanding of the Catholic doctrine of merit is probably inevitable and that it may be best to avoid the word merit altogether and simply to “explain the thing.” Perhaps Protestants, he hopes, may “find that they have believed it all the time.”

The Catholic doctrine of merit, Journet explains, is the doctrine “that God is so good that he places in me his grace, by whose power I can face in the direction of eternal life, move towards it, adapt myself to it. In the simile of the vine, Christ said, ‘I am the vine, and you the branches. He that abideth in me beareth much fruit’ (John xv. 5). You see, God sets in us the sap of grace and charity with growing intensity; they are the fruits and the final fruit will be entrance in the heavenly kingdom” (p. 58).

Can we therefore merit our final salvation? Can we “oblige” God to reward us with heaven? No, says Journet, if this is understood as man putting God into his debt through his own efforts and works. All we possess we have received gratuitously from God. But yes, says Journet, if we remember that God has graciously set in our souls the “the sap of grace and charity.” In the mystery of grace we cooperate with God in the process of sanctification, bearing fruit unto eternal life. Our good acts are wholly from God as first cause and wholly from man as secondary cause. “When God crowns our merits,” St Augustine writes, “he crowns his own gifts.” What is crucial to remember is that our free acts of faith and love are not autonomous: they are acts enveloped and penetrated by divine grace within a state of grace, leading us to our final and supreme end in Christ. God offers us grace sufficient to freely cooperate with him in a life of discipleship, and in faithfulness to his promises, he rewards our faith with the fullness of eternal salvation. He rewards us with that which he has already given us, with that which he has promised to give us—himself. Hence to say that we can “merit” final salvation is simply a way of emphasizing the Father’s commitment to our good and his faithfulness to his promises. Augustine writes, “The Lord has made Himself a debtor, not by receiving, but by promising.” At no point can the redeemed sinner boast that he has earned his salvation. All is grace. God is the one who brings us into union with himself. God is the one who nurtures us in this union, giving us the grace to freely cooperate with him in a life of prayer and love. God is the one who makes us into persons capable of enjoying God forever. God is the one who rewards our fruitfulness in the Spirit by consummating our eternal union with him in the life of the Holy Trinity. All is grace, yet God does not justify us without us. “Grace in this life,” Journet states, “fits us for the glory of heaven, bears fruit in the glory of heaven, merits the glory of heaven; all these expressions are synonymous. Glory is given to grace as its fruit, as its term, as its reward” (p. 59).

Having now read The Meaning of Grace, I can better understand the suggestion of Hans Urs von Balthasar that the language of merit can easily be eliminated from contemporary Catholic vocabulary, without loss of meaning. “We need have no qualms about dropping the word,” he states, “for there is a biblical word ready to replace it: fruitfulness.”

When rightly construed, how far is the Catholic understanding of justification from that of the Protestant? I am finding that as I come to better understand justification from within the experience of the Catholic Church, the gap between the Catholic and Protestant traditions are narrowing considerably—particularly when the Catholic view is compared, for example, to the Anglican view. Anglicans typically insist that the distinction between justification and sanctification is purely notional. We are justified by faith in Christ, but our justification cannot be divorced from our sanctification in Christ. Richard Hooker distinguishes beween the righteousness of justification and the righteousness of sanctification yet insists on their essential unity:

We ourselves do not teach Christ alone, excluding our own faith, unto justification, Christ alone, excluding our own works, unto sanctification, Christ alone, excluding the one or the other as unnecessary unto salvation. It is a childish cavil wherewith in the matter of justification our adversaries do so greatly please themselves, exclaiming that we tread all Christian virtues under our feet and require nothing in Christians but faith, because we teach that faith alone justifieth; whereas by this speech we never meant to exclude either hope and charity from being always joined as inseparable mates with faith in the man that is justified, or works from being added as necessary duties, required at the hands of every justified man, but to show that faith is the only hand which putteth on Christ unto justification, and Christ the only garment which, being so put on, covereth the shame of our defiled natures, hideth the imperfections of our works, preserveth us blameless in the sight of God, before whom otherwise the very weakness of our faith were cause sufficient to make us culpable, yea, to shut us out from the kingdom of heaven, where nothing that is not absolute can enter.

We are justified by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, says Hooker; but we are not justified apart from love and the fruits of faith. Saving faith is never alone. But once the caveat “faith is not alone” is stipulated, the gap between the Catholic and Reformation positions narrows considerably. The Catholic construal of “merit” cannot be far behind, whether one uses the word or not. The only way to avoid the Catholic understanding of “merit” is to deny sufficient grace and to assert a strict monergism, thus falling into the errors of Calvinism and Jansenism.

19 April 2006


Christopher J. Malloy’s Engrafted into Christ (Peter Lang, 2005) is a vigorous, erudite, and incisive critique of the Lutheran/Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. As a Catholic theologian, Dr Malloy believes that the Declaration neither accurately states the Catholic understanding of justification nor represents a deeper apprehension of the mystery of grace such that would justify the Declaration’s assertion that “a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification exists between Lutherans and Catholics.” The composers of the Joint Declaration have achieved “consensus,” but they have done so only by eliding the dogmatic definition on justification as promulgated by the Council of Trent. Lutherans are of course free to reconfigure their doctrinal formulations in light of fresh readings of Scripture and deeper theological reflection (as evidenced, for example, in the new Finnish reading of Martin Luther); but Catholics are bound to the infallible definitions of ecumenical councils. Trent may not be the last word on justification; but development in the Church’s understanding of the mystery must be faithful to the dogma. Malloy states:

The teachings and the very formulations employed at Trent retain perennial value in themselves. If, as clearly is the case, some teachings are expressed in a mode of thought subject to change, the very teachings themselves, in the same sense and according to the same signification of the original formulations, must never be compromised, even though they can be further refined. (p. 6)

It is one thing to integrate a dogma into a wider and deeper theological context and synthesis; it is quite another thing to elide the dogma altogether. Malloy believes that it is precisely the latter that has occurred in the Joint Declaration. The Lutheran and Catholic participants have achieved a consensus of sorts but at the cost of fidelity to Catholic doctrine.

Engrafted into Christ has been a challenging book for me. The Joint Declaration facilitated my conversion to Catholicism. I did not have to examine the Council of Trent, because I assumed that the Declaration was harmonious with the Tridentine dogma. The doctrine of justification has been a keen interest of mine since seminary. I have burnt more than a few late-night candles trying to negotiate (alas, unsuccessfully) the unconditionality of the gospel promise with the necessary human response of repentance, faith, and discipleship. I was too Anglican to follow Luther in the dialectics of the simul totus iustus et totus peccator—if we are truly united to the risen Christ and share in his sacred humanity, how can it be said that the baptized are totally sinful?—but my heart was warmed by the passion of Luther and his forthright proclamation of the sola gratia. In 1985 I welcomed the declaration of the USA Lutheran/Catholic dialogue that Lutherans and Catholics wholeheartedly accept that “our entire hope of justification and salvation rests on Christ Jesus and on the gospel whereby the good news of God’s merciful action in Christ is made known; we do not place our ultimate trust in anything other than God’s promise and saving work in Christ.” I was not surprised, though, that full agreement could not be reached, given the idiosyncrasy of the Lutheran simul iustus, simul peccator. A year later the Anglican and Roman International Commission announced agreement on Salvation and the Church, and I rejoiced in ARCIC’s assertion that “justification and sanctification are two aspects of the same divine act (1 Cor 6.11)…. God’s grace effects what he declares: his creative word imparts what it imputes. By pronouncing us righteous, God also makes us righteous. He imparts a righteousness which is his and becomes ours.” What more could an evangelical Anglo-Catholic want?

And then the Joint Declaration was published in 1997. I confess that I have always been skeptical of the claim that Lutherans and Catholics of the 16th century simply misunderstood each other on the question of justification; but I was delighted to see Lutherans moving beyond imputation (“Because God’s act is a new creation, it affects all dimensions of the person and leads to a life in hope and love. In the doctrine of ‘justification by faith alone,’ a distinction but not a separation is made between justification itself and the renewal of one’s way of life that necessarily follows from justification and without which faith does not exist”) and Catholics grounding personal assurance in the promises of Christ (“Catholics can share the concern of the Reformers to ground faith in the objective reality of Christ’s promise, to look away from one’s own experience, and to trust in Christ’s forgiving word alone”). And so there the matter rested for me until I became Catholic. I was then confronted with the requirement to treat the dogmatic definitions of Trent just as seriously as I treated the dogmatic definitions of Nicaea and Chalcedon.

Here is the key Tridentine passage:

Finally, the only formal cause is the justice of God, not that by which he himself is just, but that by which he makes us just. Given by him, it is that by which we are renewed in the spirit of our minds. We are not merely considered to be just, but we are truly named and are just, each one of us receiving justice in ourselves according to the measure which the Holy Spirit imparts to each as he wills and according to the proper disposition and cooperation of each.

Much of Malloy’s book is devoted to the explication of this passage. What precisely is the it “by which [God] makes us just”? Malloy convincingly argues that the it, according to Trent, is what Catholic theology has traditionally named sanctifying grace. Malloy explains:

Inhering, supernatural righteousness or justice is a gift from God poured into the sinner by which the sinner is made truly righteous. This gift includes the theological virtues, the infused moral virtues, and the fruits of the Spirit; it is inseparable from the indwelling of the Trinity. Since, however, all of these gifts of the Spirit flow from the fundamental gift of sanctifying grace, inhering justice can also be named sanctifying grace. Sanctifying grace is the Catholic term referring to the “new nature” that God bestows upon a sinner in justification. A thing’s nature makes it to be what it is and is the source from which all its acts flow. That is, a thing’s nature is the source of unity of its various parts and the ultimate principle for the explanation of its various acts. Human nature underlies human acts of appetite and apprehension on the vegetative, sensitive, and rational levels. The “new nature” of sanctifying grace does not change the sinner into a new species: The sinner is not made “not human” from having been a human. The new nature changes the way in which this person is human, hence, the way in which he acts or can act. The new nature given to the sinner in justification heals the effects of original sin and orients his powers to God himself, so that he can know and love God as an intimate friend. The necessary correlate of sanctifying grace is the indwelling of the Trinity, since through grace God makes himself present to the justified…. The new nature is that by which the justified enters into the divine calling. Finally, I would like to add that this “new nature” is not understood as an isolable element in the justified in the justified by which he merely relates to himself. This “new nature” is the power for relationship with Christ. The whole thrust of this teaching is that by this new nature, the formerly damnable sinner now enjoys the capacity to relate rightly to Christ—to be his friend. Through Christ, human beings come into contact with God the Father in his Holy Spirit. For this reason, the whole point of the infusion of this grace is the indwelling of God, enjoyed now in faith and to be revealed definitively in glory. (p. 15, n. 50)According to Catholic faith, justification itself has several elements that are linked through a single formal cause. Justification includes the following elements: the gratuitous remission of eternal punishment due to sin, the infusion of new life into the one being justified, and the rectification of the sinner’s disordered intellect and will. The formal note that links these elements is the God-infused gift of sanctifying grace (formal cause), by which the remission of sins occurs and by which the person’s mind and heart are purified and elevated. (pp. 24-25)

The anti-Pelagian nature of the Tridentine position is clear: human beings are not justified by their un-graced works; they are justified by the gift of inhering righteousness, which makes graced works possible.

Might it not be possible to combine the Lutheran understanding of imputed righteousness and the Catholic understanding of imparted righteousness? In fact, a few of the Council Fathers, including Girolamo Seripando, superior general of the Augustinian order, advanced a double justice theory that proposed to do precisely that: the justification of sinners has twofold formal cause—the justice of Christ and the gift of sanctifying grace. Because our inherent righteousness is imperfect and partial, it too is in need of a final application of God’s mercy and forgiveness. This double justice theory in fact bears similarities to the theory advanced by Anglican theologian Richard Hooker. The Council Fathers explicitly rejected the double justice theory. God’s justifying act makes sinners righteous. They are given a stable disposition for God (i.e., sanctifying grace), and this disposition qualifies them as sons of God and heirs to the kingdom. The remaining inclination to sin within believers (concupiscence) is not to be regarded as damnatory in itself. Hence the emphatic assertion of Trent that there exists one and only one formal cause of justification (unica causa formalis): we are justified by that grace infused into the human soul that orients us to God and makes us a regenerate people truly fit for heaven.

Assuming that Malloy has accurately stated the teaching of Trent, the question then becomes, do we find this teaching fully stated in the Joint Declaration? Malloy’s verdict is an emphatic no. No doubt this verdict will be contested by Catholic ecumenists, and I look forward to reading their responses to Malloy’s book; but I must say that I am impressed by his evidence and argumentation.

Engrafted into Christ has three weaknesses, though I probably should not describe them as weaknesses, since they are inherent to the limited scope of the book. First, because his discussion is restricted to the formal elements of the Declaration, Malloy does not address what I believe to be the existential heart of the Reformation protest—namely, the insistence that the gospel of Jesus Christ is to be proclaimed as good news. Luther and the reformers may have ended up formulating descriptive theories of justification that ultimately must be deemed inadequate to catholic witness and experience; but their protest was a response to a distorted preaching and enactment of the gospel. The gospel is not a scholastic theory; it is, as Robert Jenson states, “the word of grace itself.” The gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ who has come to save sinners and incorporate them into the triune life of God. To put it simply, what kind of promises may the preacher make in the name of Jesus?

Second, I would have liked to have seen a substantive engagement with contemporary Catholic theories of grace. Malloy alludes to these theories at a couple of points, but he does not address them in any depth. Several Catholic theologians over the past one hundred and fifty years, including John Henry Newman, Matthias Scheeben, Maurice de la Taille, Karl Rahner, and Piet Fransen, have attempted to clarify Trent’s assertion of the one formal cause of justification and to interpret it within the wider context of uncreated grace and the story of salvation. These theologians believe that the post-Tridentine emphasis on created grace has distorted the Church’s language of faith and prayer. Grace, they say, became a reified object in popular teaching and came to replace the living relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that is the Christian life.

Malloy does devote an entire chapter to Hans Küng’s book Justification, in which Küng favorably compares the theory of Karl Barth and the Council of Trent. Malloy identifies several defects in Küng’s presentation of the Catholic construal of justification; but I left this chapter wondering if Malloy had adequately appreciated the catholicity of Barth’s theory, which differs from confessional Lutheranism at key points. Catholics can learn much, I think, from Barth’s christological interpretation of God and Christian life.

Third, I would have loved to have seen an extensive discussion of discussion of justification in light of the Eastern understanding of theosis. I did not know, for example, that the scholastic notion of created grace has its roots in several of the Church Fathers, including Origen, Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril of Alexandria, and Maximus the Confessor. My suspicion is that Reformation concerns about the Catholic understanding of justification would be softened if Catholicism articulated a stronger understanding of our incorporation into the divine life of the Holy Trinity. Too often justification in Protestant circles is reduced to protection from divine wrath and judgment; but this is a far cry from the biblical and patristic vision of salvation. To be saved is to be taken up, through Christ and his mystical body, into the ecstatic life and worship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Malloy hints at this with his title Engrafted into Christ and touches upon it here and there. I hope he will explore the matter more fully in subsequent writings.

Engrafted into Christ should be read by all who are interested in the doctrine of justification, and especially by those who are involved in ecumenical dialogue between Protestantism and Catholicism. It is a much needed antidote to the ecumenical tendency to bring about theological unity through equivocation and ambiguity. Authentic consensus cannot be achieved through the redefinition of terms but only through deeper immersion into Scripture and the fullness of the catholic faith.

Let me conclude this review with this fine passage from Christopher Malloy’s book:

“To be capable of treasuring nuptial intimacy with God, the human bride must love him with all her mind and strength, for where the heart is, there is its treasure (Lk 12:34). This is the truest desire of the human heart: to be united with God. This is no foul desire; it is not a self-enclosed love but the God-given impulse for union with the Holy Trinity: ‘Scarcely had I passed them, when I found him whom my soul loves. I held him, and would not let him go until I had brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me’ (Song of Songs 3:4). Lovers long for the real presence of their beloved, and spiritual creatures contact each other by means of spiritual faculties. Union with God entails something real in the creature. Therefore, there must be something real in the creature in order for this creature to be happy. The creaturely condition for happiness provides the necessary ratio for the Catholic tradition’s esteem for created grace, since the creature longs not merely for an acquittal from punishment but for eternal life and is fitted for such life by being turned towards and attuned to God. Since this attunement is a change and since it ought to be a stable change, allowing for the requisite spontaneity of a child of God, Catholic tradition appeals to grace as a created, sanctifying quality…. The person who opposes God cannot be in a divine friendship. The sinner cannot truly be at peace with God. But since God does not change …, the sinner must be changed within the depths of his being. As the seed of eternal life, sanctifying grace constitutes the basis of this change in the creature, admitting and equipping a man for beatitude by establishing him in a real friendship with God. Sanctifying grace is not the agent of this change but the establishment of this change, wrought by God; through sanctifying grace, God brings his bride back to himself and thus finds her pleasing: ‘You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bridge, you have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace. How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride!’ (Song of Songs 4:9-10). This beauty of the bride, bestowed by the Divine Bridegroom, is no obstacle to intimacy. The bride see this beauty, if at all, as but the working of the Groom who draws her up with one hand through his grace and caresses her with the right hand. She cries out, ‘O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me!’ (Song of Songs 8:3). More, the very beauty of the bride is filial. Just s the only begotten God (Jn 1:18), true God from true God, exists forever pros ton patera, so the human person, tumbling out from God’s regenerating love, is situated with the eternal ‘Abba!’ of the Son, progressively and dynamically conformed to the cry of ‘Abba’ by the Spirit (Rom 8:15, 29). Filial holiness is not a cause of pride; it is directly proportionate to humility” (pp. 338-339).

15 May 2006


Am I saved? Will I be saved? These are the two questions that seem to drive discussion of justification by faith. That Catholics and classical Protestants agree that salvation is by grace alone (sola gratia) does not apparently suffice. It does not suffice, by Protestant analysis, because the Catholic sola gratia is conditioned by Church, sacraments, repentance, regeneration, and corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Hence the concern about the Tridentine doctrine of imparted righteousness. If my righteousness is actually mine, then it is something that I can lose. I bear the final and ultimate responsibility for my salvation. If I am to enjoy unshakable assurance in my salvation, then it is crucial that God, and not I, bear the ultimate responsibility. My righteousness must be external to me, imputed to me. Thus the Reformation cry, justification is by faith alone (sola fide).

Unpacking the meaning of the sola fide is not easy, because its meaning significantly differs from one denomination to another, from one theologian to another. In revivalist Protestantism, “by faith alone” turns out to mean that the sinner saves himself by his personal decision for Christ. As the Semi-Pelagian Narrow Catechism puts it:

Q: What one work is required of thee for thy salvation?
A: It is required of me for my salvation that I make a Decision for Christ, which meaneth to accept Him into my heart to be my personal lord’n’saviour.

Q: By what means is a Decision for Christ made?
A: A Decision for Christ is made, not according to His own purpose and grace which was given to me in Christ Jesus before the world began, but according to the exercise of my own Free Will in saying the Sinner’s Prayer in my own words.

Q: If it be true then that man is responsible for this Decision, how then can God be sovereign?
A: He cannot be. God sovereignly chose not to be sovereign, and is therefore dependent upon me to come to Him for salvation. He standeth outside the door of my heart, forlornly knocking, until such time as I Decide to let Him in.

This may be construed crassly (though humorously), but in one form or another, it accurately represents generic American Christianity. God loves mankind and has accomplished in Christ all things necessary for me to join him in heaven. Only one more thing is needful: I must open the door of my heart; I must say yes to Christ. Everyone who has attended the Alpha Course, please raise your hand. And it’s hard to see how one can escape this way of speaking and thinking. I have been a spiritual director for eight Cursillos and have taught several Alpha courses. These programs are structured to confront the individual with the formative decision to give his life to Christ Jesus. I have witnessed dramatic and not-so-dramatic conversions. Lives have been changed. People are re-born in the Spirit. Hearts are healed and renewed.

Yet the Pelagian element haunts me. And it is sometimes the case, not always but sometimes, that a “decision for Christ,” accompanied by a powerful renewal experience, seems to bury the individual deep in self-righteousness. The born-again Christian cannot see it, of course, but his family and friends certainly do. The born-againer is certain of his salvation. Everyone else is certain they never wish to be born again. I suspect that for about a year after my “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” I was absolutely unbearable. I so desperately wanted everyone to experience what I had experienced. It’s probably a good practical rule that anyone who is privileged with a powerful experience of the Spirit should not be allowed to speak to anyone for about a year. The silence would be a mercy to all.

Eventually there comes that moment when one no longer feels born-again. Where did the Spirit go? Was the whole experience something I conjured up for myself? Why can’t I get it back?

Reformed Christianity avoids all Pelagianism by its ruthless doctrine of double predestination. God unconditionally elects some to eternal salvation and unconditionally reprobates some to eternal damnation. The trick is discovering which camp one belongs to. Classical Reformed preaching, unfortunately, is of no help here. The Reformed preacher cannot declare to his congregation that Christ died for all, “including you,” because we know he did not. Nor can he tell any given individual “God has predestined you for glory,” because he has not been granted access to the secret counsels of the Almighty. Thus the Gospel proclamation becomes a general third-person report: “Christ died for sinners.” This does not mean Reformed evangelism is necessarily half-hearted. As J. I. Packer states, the sermons of Bunyan, Whitefield, and Spurgeon “hold forth the Saviour and summon sinners to Him with a fulness, warmth, intensity and moving force unmatched in Protestant pulpit literature.” Yet the fact remains that the Reformed believer can never know, through the preaching of the gospel itself, whether he is personally intended by God’s electing love. Consider the following passage from Packer:

To the question: what must I do to be saved? the old gospel replies: believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. To the further question: what does it mean to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ? its reply is: it means knowing oneself to be a sinner, and Christ to have died for sinners; abandoning all self-righteousness and self-confidence, and casting oneself wholly upon Him for pardon and peace; and exchanging one’s natural enmity and rebellion against God for a spirit of grateful submission to the will of Christ through the renewing of one’s heart by the Holy Ghost. And to the further question still: how am I to go about believing on Christ and repenting, if I have no natural ability to do these things? it answers: look to Christ, speak to Christ, cry to Christ, just as you are; confess your sin, your impenitence, your unbelief, and cast yourself on His mercy; ask Him to give you a new heart, working in you true repentance and firm faith; ask Him to take away your evil heart of unbelief and to write His law within you, that you may never henceforth stray from Him. Turn to Him and trust Him as best you can, and pray for grace to turn and trust more thoroughly; use the means of grace expectantly, looking to Christ to draw near to you as you seek to draw near to Him; watch, pray, read and hear God’s Word, worship and commune with God’s people, and so continue till you know in yourself beyond doubt that you are indeed a changed being, a penitent believer, and the new heart which you desired has been put within you.

Given that Christ has died only for the elect, the quest for certainty of one’s election is urgent, as any Puritan will attest.

Reformed faith is inherently reflective. After I hear the gospel, I then turn my gaze back upon myself and look for the evidences, both within my subjective experience and my moral life, that I have genuinely repented of my sins and trusted on Christ for my salvation. As Philip Cary observes, within the Reformed system assurance of salvation requires “not only the certainty of God’s promise but also the assurance that I actually believe it. For if faith is to include the certainty that I am saved, it must include the certainty that I am among the elect, which requires me to be certain that I have faith. To be assured I have faith I must perform a ‘reflex act,’ as the Puritans called it, in which I look at myself and recognize that I am a believer. But with the rather terrifying distinction between temporary and saving faith in mind, the reflex act will have to look not just at whether I believe the gospel is true but at whether that belief has had the effect on my life that true saving faith must have” (Phillip Cary, “Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant,” Pro Ecclesia [Fall 2005]: 478).

Absolute certainty may be impossible—I may be deluded or deceived by Satan—but through conjunction of the inner testimony of the Spirit and the evidences of moral fruitfulness, a practical assurance, Reformed divinity assures us, is possible. Puritan George Gillespie writes:

Our assurance of justification, adoption, grace and salvation, is virtually in a syllogistical way: Whoever believes on the Son of God shall not perish, but have life everlasting. But I believe on the Son of God; therefore, etc. Whoever judge themselves shall not be judged of the Lord. But I judge myself; therefore, etc. Whosoever loves the brethren has passed from death to life. But I love the brethren; therefore, etc. In these or the like proofs it is the Spirit of grace which gives us the right understanding and firm belief to the proposition. As for the assumption which has in it the evidence of graces, it is made good by a twofold testimony; the testimony of our consciences,(2 Cor. 1:12; 1 John 3:19-21), and the testimony of the Spirit itself bearing witness together with our consciences. And although both propositions are made good, yet we are so slow of heart to believe, that we cannot, without the special help of the Comforter, the Holy Ghost, freely, boldly, joyfully, and with a firm persuasion, infer the conclusion as a most certain truth. So that, in the business of assurance and full persuasion, the evidence of graces, and the testimony of the Spirit, are two concurrent causes or helps, both of them necessary without the evidence of graces. It is not a safe nor a well-grounded assurance without the testimony of the Spirit; it is not a plerophory of full assurance.

Yet while assurance is possible for many, it may still be unattainable for those of sensitive or scrupulous constitutions. The Reformed “gospel” creates a truly terrified conscience with its doctrines of double predestination and limited atonement: because it requires the sinner to turn introspectively to the self, the sensitive soul inevitably finds himself trapped in a bog of uncertainty, ambiguity, and self-condemnation from which he cannot extricate himself. The sensitive soul can always find evidence within himself to counter all hopes that God has chosen him for eternal gladness. He is mired in the slough of despond. The Reformed gospel cannot assuage or heal the terror it has created.

21 May 2006


The classical Reformed preacher finds himself in the awkward position of not being able to say to any given individual “Christ Jesus died for you on the cross.” He cannot directly assure the individual that he is intended by God’s electing love. What he can say is “Christ died for sinners, and if you believe, you will be saved.” Expounding on John Owen, J. I. Packer identifies four essential components of the “old gospel”:

(1.) All men are sinners, and cannot do anything to save themselves;

(2.) Jesus Christ, God’s Son, is a perfect Saviour for sinners, even the worst;

(3.) The Father and the Son have promised that all who know themselves to be sinners and put faith in Christ as Saviour shall be received into favour, and none cast out (which promise is “a certain infallible truth, grounded upon the superabundant sufficiency of the oblation of Christ in itself, for whomsoever [few or more] it be intended”);

(4.) God has made repentance and faith a duty, requiring of every man who hears the gospel “a serious full recumbency and rolling of the soul upon Christ in the promise of the gospel, as an all-sufficient Saviour, able to deliver and save to the utmost them that come to God by him; ready, able and willing, through the preciousness of his blood and sufficiency of his ransom, to save every soul that shall freely give up themselves unto him for that end.”

The Reformed gospel, therefore, is necessarily formulated conditionally: if you acknowledge yourself as a sinner and put your trust in Jesus as Savior, you will be delivered from your sins and preserved by the Spirit unto everlasting life. The Reformed gospel avoids any hint of Pelagianism because it predicates salvation on God’s unconditional election. Only those who are unconditionally predestined will, by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, respond to the gospel in genuine repentance and faith. Regeneration, therefore, logically precedes justification; and because only those who believe are justified, justification must be understood as a conditional reality. John Hendryx elaborates:

Regeneration, the work of the Holy Spirit which brings us into a living union with Christ, only refers to the first step in the work of God in our salvation. It is universally agreed among evangelicals, myself included, that the second step, faith in Christ, must be exercized by the sinner if one is to to be justified (saved). Therefore, justification is conditional (on our faith) … but our regeneration (or spiritual birth) is unconditional; an expression of God’s grace freely bestowed, for it is unconstrained and not merited by anything God sees in those who are its subjects. Regeneration and Justification, although occurring almost simultaneously are, therefore, not the same. Regeneration, has a causal priority over the other aspects of the process of salvation. The new birth (regeneration), therefore, is what brings about a restored disposition of heart which is then willing to exercize faith in Christ unto justification (Ezekiel 11:19; Ezekiel 36:26).

Faith is the precondition for justification; regeneration is the “necessary and efficient precondition for faith.” The new birth precedes faith and generates faith (see John Hendryx, “The Work of the Trinity in Monergism”).

As we have seen, the logical structure of Reformed faith is reflexive. To achieve assurance and security, the believer must turn back upon himself and introspectively discern the evidences of the Spirit in his life. Appeal is often made to the inner testimony of the Spirit, but given the diversity of Reformed opinion on these matters, it would be unwise for me to generalize much more. All classical Reformed theologians emphasize the necessity of assurance. In the words of John Calvin: “No man, I say, is a believer but who, trusting to the security of his salvation, confidently triumphs over the devil and death.” Yet given the logic of the Reformed syllogism, it is difficult to see how real certainty can be achieved, except by a special and immediate illumination of the Spirit.

The classical Reformed presentation of the gospel differs from the Catholic presentation on several key points. Both Reformed and Catholic agree that unregenerate humanity is incapable of genuine faith in Christ Jesus. For the Catholic, this was dogmatically defined at the Council of Orange (A.D. 529):

If anyone says that not only the increase of faith but also its beginning and the very desire for faith, by which we believe in Him who justifies the ungodly and comes to the regeneration of holy baptism—if anyone says that this belongs to us by nature and not by a gift of grace, that is, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit amending our will and turning it from unbelief to faith and from godlessness to godliness, it is proof that he is opposed to the teaching of the Apostles, for blessed Paul says, “And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). And again, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). For those who state that the faith by which we believe in God is natural make all who are separated from the Church of Christ by definition in some measure believers. (Canon 5)

The necessity of antecedent or prevenient grace for justification was reaffirmed by the Council of Trent. But whereas the Calvinist asserts all grace to be efficacious, the Catholic distinguishes between sufficient and efficacious grace. Because God, in his infinite and unmerited love, antecedently wills the salvation of all human beings, he gives to all sufficient grace to freely assent to his universal offer of salvation. Within the depths of the soul, God restores to sinners the liberty to cooperate with him and freely will the good of salvation in Christ. Thomas Oden calls this “grace-enabled freedom” (The Transforming Power of Grace [1993], chap. 5). The fundamental principle was stated by St Augustine: “God who created thee without thee, will not justify thee without thee.” With Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism affirms the mystery of synergism, but a synergism that is most distinctly not semi-Pelagian. As the catechetical Compendium states: “Grace precedes, prepares, and elicits our free response” (§425).

I will discuss in future articles the nature of Catholic assurance, but I would like to note here two critical differences between Catholic and Reformed preaching:

First, the Catholic Church proclaims the universality of God’s saving will. Christ died on the cross for all sinners, for all humanity. The Catholic preacher is thus authorized, in the name of the Holy Trinity, to speak to everyone he meets: “Jesus Christ died and rose again for you!” I cannot imagine not being able to speak such powerful and comforting words. The Catholic gospel is good news spoken directly to the individual, as well as to the human collective. The sinner knows that he is intended by God’s love and mercy. The speculations of Augustine or Aquinas on predestination are not part of the gospel at this primary proclamatory level. There is a world of difference between being told “God loves you” and “God loves sinners.” The latter is third-person report about God’s love for an anonymous humanity, of which some have been reprobated by God: the hearer must infer that he is included in God’s love. The former speaks directly to the heart and soul of the hearer, thus enabling an immediate response of faith and love.

Second, the Catholic gospel does not include the promise of perseverance. The Catholic preacher cannot promise anyone that they can know, in the absence of special revelation, that they will persevere in faith and thus be saved. It remains possible for the justified to fall from grace through mortal sin. Hence the warning of the Council of Trent: “Let no one herein promise himself anything as certain with an absolute certainty; though all ought to place and repose a most firm hope in God’s help” (chap XIII). Here the council follows the consensual teaching of the early Church, including St Augustine.

It is important to note that the thesis of John Calvin that believers may and should know they are predestined to eternal glory represents a radical departure from orthodox belief. Phillip Cary explains:

Calvin’s theology is foundational for the Protestant tradition in that it is the first theology in the wake of Augustine to inculcate and systematically support the belief that Christians on earth are already saved for eternity. This requires a crucial departure from Augustine, in that Calvin must teach that individual believers can and should know they are predestined for salvation (since all who are saved are predestined to be saved, I cannot know I am saved without knowing I am predestined to be saved). We can call this, Calvin’s epistemic thesis about predestination. This epistemic thesis, not double predestination, is Calvin’s radical innovation in the doctrine of predestination. To support it, both logically and pastorally, the rest of his thinking must take a shape that is quite different from any previous Christian theology. Above all, Calvin’s epistemic thesis implies that true faith in Christ be permanent, persevering to the end. This implies (contrary to Augustine’s view) that all who truly believe in Christ receive the gift of perseverance, which implies in turn that if you know you truly believe, you can know you will persevere and be saved. (“Why Luther is Not Quite Protestant,” Pro Ecclesia [Fall 2005], 475-476)

How ironic that the gospel that J. I. Packer so confidently declares to be the “old gospel,” in contrast to the “new gospel” of “universal redemption and a universal Divine saving purpose,” is not so very old at all.

22 May 2006


“How do I get a gracious God?” This is the question that is said to have driven the young Luther. Some scholars have suggested this is inaccurate (see, e.g., David Yeago’s “The Catholic Luther”); but given that I am not a Luther scholar, I will go along with the majority position. The question of assurance, the need for assurance—this was the compelling concern for the great Reformer. How do I get a gracious God?

It’s an odd question, though. I cannot imagine the question being posed in the early centuries of the Church. Christians then simply knew God was gracious. They rejoiced in his paschal triumph over death and the Pentecostal gift of the Spirit. They were confident they would share in his Kingdom. They had been made new creatures by water and Holy Spirit. They now shared in the divine life of the Holy Trinity. Each Sunday they ate the Body and Blood of their Savior. They knew their God was a God of love and mercy, and so they lived their lives in hope. There were no guarantees, of course. They knew they possessed the power to turn away from salvation and enslave themselves once again to sin and death. And so, like the Apostle, they worked out their salvation in “fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Yet as far as I can tell, few suffered from a “terrified conscience.” There was no crisis of assurance.

But in the sixteenth century, one Catholic monk shook the Western world with his anfechtung and fear of divine judgment and Hell. I do not know why Martin Luther found himself incapable of enjoying the comforts of the gospel. Perhaps he read too much Occam and Biel and didn’t read enough Thomas Aquinas. Perhaps his pathologies prevented him from hearing the story of Christ as good news. Perhaps the preachers of the Church, still reeling from the horrors of the Black Plague, found that the only God they could proclaim was a deity of wrath, judgment, and fiery brimstone. But whatever the reason, Luther’s crisis of conscience led him to a revolutionary revision of the Church’s doctrine of justification: “the merciful God justifies us by faith.” Luther believed, rightly or wrongly, that his new doctrine provided the solution to his terrified conscience. Over the next decades Luther’s doctrine would be more precisely formulated as a doctrine of imputational righteousness:

Accordingly we believe, teach, and confess that our righteousness before God consists in this, that God forgives us our sins purely by his grace, without any preceding, present, or subsequent work, merit, or worthiness, and reckons to us the righteousness of Christ’s obedience, on account of which righteousness we are accepted by God into grace and are regarded as righteous. (Formula of Concord, Article III)

Though verbally similar if not identical to the Reformed formulations of justification by faith, the Lutheran doctrine differs from the Reformed in one critical way: it does not secure the salvation of the individual in the secret predestinating decrees of the sovereign God. Classical Calvinism sought to solve the problem of assurance by locating the individual’s salvation outside of the individual in God’s predestinating will. The elect will believe on Christ and be saved. Those who fall away were in fact never predestined. This appeal to predestination creates its own intractable problems for salvific assurance, requiring the individual to turn back to the self and discover within himself evidences of his election. The Formula of Concord emphatically rejects the Reformed doctrines of double predestination and limited atonement, “for they rob Christians of all the comfort that they have in the holy Gospel and in the use of the holy sacraments” (Article XI). Believers are exhorted to seek their assurance, not in the secret counsel of God, but in Christ, who is the “genuine and true ‘book of life.'” Confessional Lutheranism also stays closer to the consensual tradition by acknowledging that the justified may tragically turn from Christ and be eternally lost.

The Lutheran gospel, therefore, does not provide a guarantee that Almighty God will preserve the believer in faith. But it does unconditionally promise a right-standing with God. And it is this unconditionality that secures the assurance of the Lutheran. But how so? Here I propose that the Lutheran doctrine of imputational righteousness functions for Lutherans as authorization for believers to make unconditional promises to each other in the name of Jesus Christ. That the doctrine of imputation need not be so interpreted is evidenced by the conditionalist construals of justification in non-Lutheran denominations (“you will be saved, if you believe”); but it is so interpreted within confessional Lutheranism. Thus Melanchthon:

All Scripture should be divided into these two chief doctrines, the law and the promises. In some places it presents the law. In others it presents the promise of Christ; this it does either when it promises that the Messiah will come and promises forgiveness of sins, justification, and eternal life for his sake, or when, in the New Testament, the Christ who came promises forgiveness of sins, justification and eternal life….

Therefore men cannot keep the law by their own strength, and they are all under sin and subject to eternal wrath and death. On this account the law cannot free us from sin or justify us, but the promise of the forgiveness of sins and justification was given because of Christ. He was given for us to make satisfaction for the sins of the world and has been appointed as the mediator and the propitiator. This promise is not conditional upon our merits but offers the forgiveness of sins and justification freely…. For if the promise were conditional upon our merits and the law, which we never keep, it would follow that the promise is useless.

Since we obtain justification through a free promise, however, it follows that we cannot justify ourselves. Otherwise, why would a promise be necessary? The Gospel is, strictly speaking, the promise of forgiveness of sins and justification because of Christ. Since we can accept this promise only by faith, the Gospel proclaims the righteousness of faith in Christ, which the law does not teach…. Therefore, when a man believes that his sins are forgiven because of Christ and that God is reconciled and favorably disposed to him because of Christ, this personal faith obtains the forgiveness of sins and justifies us.” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession [IV.5, 40-45])

Melancthon’s primary concern is hermeneutical. How is the gospel to be preached? What kind of discourse is it? Melanchthon judges that gospel is properly analyzed as unconditional promise and is to be clearly distinguished from law. The promise of God gives salvation and therefore can only be apprehended by faith, i.e., by trusting the promise. The law of God commands and therefore can only be obeyed or disobeyed. If salvation is contingent upon my obedience, if my standing before God is ultimately determined by my contribution to the process of justification, then certainty of salvation becomes impossible. I may withhold my obedience. I may be overwhelmed by my sin and the burden of saving myself. My obedience will always be deemed inadequate by the holy standards of the Almighty. I am thus left with the horror of my moral failure and importence and the inevitability of eternal damnation. “For the law always accuses and terrifies consciences,” writes Melancthon (IV.38). Melanchthon’s gravamen against the Catholic Church is that it has reduced the gospel to law; it has ceased to speak promise. Robert Jenson elaborates:

“We are justified by faith alone” is not a stipulation about the anthropological conditions of justification, but about the special hermeneutical character of the gospel as a mode of discourse: that it must be be promise and not exhortation if it is to be the creative word from God that sets lives right. The Reformers’ complaint is that such authentic proclamation occurs too rarely in the Church and that this is no accident but is made inevitable by entrenched patterns of practice and interpretation. (“On Recognizing the Augsburg Confession,” in The Role of the Augsburg Confession [1980], pp. 159-160)

The Lutheran doctrine of imputation constitutes Lutheran belief and practice because it is seen as lifting from the shoulders of sinners the burden of responsibility. How does it lift this responsibility? By authorizing the making of unconditional promises: “In the name of Jesus, I say to you, your sins are forgiven.” “In the name of Jesus, I say to you, you are now justified.” Robert Jenson would also add to this promise-making unconditional promises of the future: “In the name of Jesus, I say to you, your place in the kingdom of God is assured.” In all of these promises, God assumes the responsibility for the outcome.

When the gospel is construed as unconditional promise, assurance, indeed certainty, becomes a reality in the life of the believer. We are justified by faith, because when an unconditional promise is spoken, only two responses are possible, faith or disfaith. He who believes the promise simultaneously enjoys certainty, for the promises of God are certain.

But is everyone who hears the promise justified? It would seem that the answer should be yes, but Lutherans almost universally answer no. Only those who believe are justified. What then is to prevent the scrupulous conscience from turning in on himself and asking the unanswerable question, “Do I have faith?” A couple of responses are possible. And this is where matters begin to unravel.

First response: We remind the scrupulous person that faith is not a good work. Faith points away from itself. It only has meaning in relation to its object. As Melanchthon writes, “For faith does not justify or save because it is a good work in itself, but only because it accepts the promised mercy” (Apology IV.65). Or as the Formula of Concord puts it: “For faith justifies, not for this cause and reason that it is so good a work and so fair a virtue, but because it lays hold of and accepts the merit of Christ in the promise of the holy Gospel; for this must be applied and appropriated to us by faith, if we are to be justified thereby.”

But this answer, as right as it is, does not heal the terrified conscience. While it is certainly true that faith relies upon the promise that has been spoken, is it or is it not a condition for salvation? If it is, then I need to know whether I have it. Do I truly and really trust our Lord’s unconditional promise of salvation? How much trust is sufficient? Am I justified when I’m asleep? Is faith in the promise compatible with sin? with venial sin? with serious sin? Does not my egoism and daily sinning disprove the existence of authentic faith in my life?

Second response: Don’t make the introspective turn. Keep your ears pinned to the promise of the gospel. Did you hear the gospel-speaker tell you that you must believe in order to be justified? No, you didn’t. He said, “For the sake of Christ, you are justified!” So cling to the promise, rely on the promise, trust the promise. Gerhard Forde states the the matter in full Lutheran radicality:

We are justified freely, for Christ’s sake, by faith, without the exertion of our own strength, gaining of merit, or doing of works. To the age old question, “What shall I do to be saved?” the confessional answer is shocking: “Nothing! Just be still; shut up and listen for once in your life to what God the Almighty, creator and redeemer, is saying to his world and to you in the death and resurrection of his Son! Listen and believe! (Justification by Faith—A Matter of Death and Life [1982], p. 22)

Faith, therefore, is not something one can ever find in oneself. Faith is not something one does or does not do. It is not an active verb at all. “Faith is the state of being grasped by the unconditional claim and promise of the God who calls into being that which is from that which is not” (Forde, p. 22). Thus Lutheran gospel short-circuits the turn to the self. Once having heard the gospel, I may not subsequently ask the question, “Do I have faith?” or “Do I believe?” because faith is neither an action I can perform nor an attitude I can possess nor a virtue I can exercise. Faith is a mode of eschatological life in the gospel.

Yet as powerful as this dialectical analysis of gospel and faith may be, the niggling question remains: Are all justified to whom the gospel is spoken? And few Lutherans are willing to say yes. And so it does appear that wiggle room is still left for my scrupulous conscience to destroy the assurance of the gospel. If not all are justified, then how do I know that I am not one of them? Yes, it may well be that even asking this question is an act of disbelief, but I am still asking the question. Does the asking of the question mean that I am unjustified?

Thus even though the Lutheran gospel, in all of its radical unconditionality, avoids the assurance problems entailed by a reflective faith, it still cannot prevent a determined conscience from finding that one little loophole of terror. That loophole can only be closed by recourse to deterministic universalism, a position dogmatically barred to both Lutherans and Catholics.

26 May 2006


Over at the Stand Firm site, Fr Matt Kennedy briefly addresses the differences between evangelical Anglicans and catholic Anglicans on the question of justification. He writes:

For evangelicals, salvation is grounded on justification and justification comes by faith alone. For anglo-catholics justification (being declared righteous by God) comes at the end of the process of sanctification, not logically prior (as it does for evangelicals) so that salvation is accomplished through the grace imparted to the believer who cooperates with that grace and bears the fruit of a changed life and good works.

I think, though by no means certain, that this is a fair description of the difference between evangelicals and at least some Anglo-Catholics on justification and sanctification, though it has been many years since I read Fitz Allison’s The Rise of Moralism. Fr Kennedy’s analysis offers an opportunity to distinguish what we might call the classical Anglo-Catholic understanding of justification, shaped by the holy living school of late Caroline divinity (c. 1640-1670), from the Catholic understanding. For the Catholic, justification does not come at the end of the process of justification. Justification both is the beginning of the process of sanctification and is the process of sanctification. From the moment of baptism, believers are regenerated in the Spirit and adopted as sons of God in the Son and are thus justified, unless they freely and willingly turn from God in mortal sin and reorient themselves to self. Final salvation is the rightful inheritance of the justified. The justified cannot earn this status nor earn final salvation, but they can earn their disinheritance by their free and willful disobedience—or as Fr William Most writes, they can “earn to lose it” (see “Justification: The Doctrine of Trent”).

I also note that the late Carolina Divines diverge from Trent on the question of the formal cause of righteousness. Late Caroline divinity apparently stipulated faith—not imparted righteousness—as the formal cause. There is a critical difference between saying that we are formally justified by the supernaturalization of our human nature (Trent) and we are formally justified by our lively, repentant faith reckoned to us as righteousness (Jeremy Taylor). In this respect the Roman doctrine (at least verbally) is decisively anti-Pelagian in a way that the Caroline teaching, and presumably classic Anglo-Catholic teaching, is not.

9 June 2006


The gospel is declaration and promise. It is declaration of God’s mighty acts in history, culminating in the incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension and heavenly session of Jesus Christ; and it is promise, spoken to ears that will hear, of that great good that is now given to them in Jesus Christ. My question is this: When the preacher announces the gospel what kind of promises is he authorized by gospel and ordination to make?

We are all well acquainted with conditional promises. Our world is structured by them. “I will do _____ for you if you do _____.” A conditional promise stipulates conditions that must be fulfilled before the promissor executes his promise. A conditional promise may or may not require action by the promisee. For example:

If the Redskins win the Super Bowl next year, I will take you on holiday to the French Riviera.

Assuming that the promisee has no power to actually influence the outcome of the Redskins’ 2006-07 season, the promisee remains uninvolved in the fulfillment of the promise. He can only wait to see if the improbable event of a victorious Redskins’ season happens. (If anyone can engineer a miracle, Joe Gibbs can!)

If you get on the Dean’s list, I will give you a new car.

If you increase your sales by 10%, I’ll give you a raise.

I will provide you room and board for the next year, unless you break the house rules.

Now things are more interesting. Here the fulfillment of the promise is contingent upon the promisee’s activity and work. By his active involvement, energy, and hard work, the promisee can determine the realization of the promise.

When a person makes an unconditional promise, on the other hand, he assumes to himself the responsibility for the fulfillment of the promise. Despite all obstacles, despite the occurrence or non-occurrence of any future event, he guarantees the promised results.

I will cover all of your credit card expenditures.

For your birthday, I will take you to Ireland.

For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, I will never leave you.

According to one Lutheran construal of the Reformation doctrine of justification, the gospel authorizes the preacher to make unconditional promises to his hearers. Thus Robert W. Jenson:

According to the Reformation insight and discovery, the gospel is a wholly unconditional promise of the human fulfillment of its hearers made by the narrative of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The gospel, rightly spoken, involves no ifs, ands, buts, or maybes of any sort. It does not say, “If you do your best to live a good life, God will fulfill that life,” or, “If you fight on the right side of the great issues of your time …,” or, “If you repent …,” or, “If you believe….” It does not even say, “if you want to do good/repent/believe …,” or, “If you are sorry for not wanting to do good/repent/believe….” The gospel says, “Because the Crucified lives as Lord, your destiny is good.” The Reformation’s first and last assertion was that any talk of Jesus and God and human life that does not transcend all condtions is a perversion of the gospel and will be at best irrevelant in the lives of hearers and at worst destructive.

Moreover, this assertion is itself unconditional. It cannot be agreed to with moderation, as “one legitimate concern” among many, or as a doctrine to be honored on some occasions but not on others. That is what offended such admirable and reform-minded Renaissance moderates as Erasmus or Thomas More or Cajetan: the line the Reformation draws between itself and medievalism allows only the one form of proclamation on its side, and calls all deviations therefrom evil. But that is the very logic of the case. For the only way to practice a conditional affirmation of the Reformation position is occasionally to speak the gospel conditionally—whereupon the Reformation discovery is wholly denied. Either we wholeheartedly and exclusively affirm the unconditionality of the gospel-promise, or, in all that was of importance to the Reformers, we join the medieval church against them. (Lutheranism [1976], p. 42.)

Jenson describes the proposed dogma of justification as a meta-linguistic rule: so speak about Christ and the lives of your hearers that what they hear is an unconditional promise that can only be apprehended by faith. Justification is not a theory about our justification before God; indeed, it is not a doctrine at all. It is, ratherly, hermeneutical instruction on how to speak about Jesus so that one’s speaking is actually gospel.

In my judgment, Jenson’s meta-linguistic construal of justification is the only one out there really worth debating. The neo-scholastic discussions about the formal causality of our righteousness before God are not unimportant, but they also obscure the issue at stake. So what I want to know is, is the meta-linguistic dogma true? Because of its unique character as grammatical rule, there is only one way, it seems to me, to determine whether the reforming instruction in fact expresses the nature of proper gospel-speaking: we must examine past samples of ecumenical proclamation and teaching and judge whether they are characterized by the kind of promissory unconditionality of which Jenson speaks.

19 June 2006


Does the gospel authorize pastors and preachers to make unconditional promises in the name of Christ? And if yes, to whom? Our first step will be to reflect on the catechumenal-baptismal practices of the Church. When the Church is preaching the gospel to unbaptized, what does she say?

In Acts 2 the Apostle delivers his great Pentecost sermon. He concludes his sermon with these powerful words: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” The crowd cry out to Peter and the Apostles: “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter replies, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:36-39). After announcing God’s vindication of Jesus and his enthronement as the king of Israel, Peter summons his hearers to repent of their sins and be baptized—to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Messiah and become his disciples in the Pentecostal community through sacramental initiation, with the promise that if they do this, they will be forgiven of their sins and be filled with the Holy Spirit. The benefits of the gospel are thus presented as conditional upon conversion and baptism. This formulation of evangelistic preaching represents, I propose, the normative apostolic practice and reflects the mandate of the risen Lord: “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).

When Philip shares the gospel with the Ethiopian eunuch, the eunuch is led to ask, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36) And so the eunuch orders the chariot to stop, and Philip baptizes him.

After Paul’s Damascus road encounter with the risen Christ, Ananias comes to Paul and restores to him his sight. He then urges him to baptism: “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16).

When Paul visits Ephesus, he notes that something is missing in the life of the Ephesian “disciples”:

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?”

They said, “Into John’s baptism.”

And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.”

On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. (Acts 19:2-6)

Even in the case where the Holy Spirit preempts sacramental initiation, as for example with Cornelius (Acts 10), the necessity of baptism is affirmed: “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?” Peter asks. “They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have” (Acts 10:47).

The apostolic evangelistic norm, therefore, is gospel-repentance-baptism. But it would be wrong to think of these three elements as following each other only sequentially. Repentance and baptism belong to the gospel proclamation itself. The gospel calls unbelievers to faith, and faith is embodied in submission to baptism and rebirth in the community of Christ.

In his wonderful book The Shape of Baptism (1978), Aidan Kavanagh identifes four elements of the basic initiatory structure of the New Testament:

(1) The proclamation of the gospel.

(2) Conversion to faith in the exalted Lord.

(3) The water bath of baptism.

(4) “Life in a Spirit-filled community living by apostolic teaching, in unity with apostolic witness of the risen Christ who is exalted and now become life-giving Spirit for his people, through eucharistic prayer at home and petitionary prayer in the synagogue.”

Kavanagh succinctly summarizes: “Preceded by authentic proclamation of the risen and exalted Christos-Messiah and by conversion, Spirit baptism by water at apostolic hands initiates one into the full life of the community in which the gospel has become praxis” (pp. 22-23).

The gospel is not just a declaration of our Lord’s saving death and resurrection: it is simultaneously a summons into the community of faith in which Christ may be known and life in the Spirit may be experienced and practiced. The gospel, preached to the nonbaptized, is intrinsically conditioned by conversion, sacrament, and Church. It is a promise of salvation, given to faith and bestowed in baptism.

Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be baptized, and you will be saved.

In the evangelistic setting, salvation, though accomplished in Jesus Christ and now freely offered, is future-event to the hearer. The realization of the gospel promises are expressly formulated as contingent upon the conversion of the hearer and his sacramental entrance into the Spirit-filled life of the Church. The hearer who refuses to repent or who refuses to surrender to the regenerating power of the churchly rites of initiation cannot expect to receive the forgiveness of sins nor experience the new life of Christ.

20 June 2006


When the gospel is proclaimed to the nonbaptized, it is conditioned by faith, repentance, baptism, Church. The hearer must respond to the gospel in specific ways in order to appropriate the blessings of the gospel. The New Testament does not provide us much information on the kind of pre-baptismal catechesis offered in the apostolic churches; but certainly ethical requirements were stipulated. Converts were told that they must reorder their behavior and live lives worthy of Christ, if they would enter into the kingdom. Thus St. Paul:

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6:9-11)

Here the Apostle looks back to the event of baptism in the lives of his readers, reminding them of the sanctifying change effected in their lives by the Spirit of God. I think it is safe to infer that the baptized were informed before their baptisms of the moral life expected of them as disciples of Jesus.

As the Church expanded her mission into the Gentile world, she realized that converts needed lengthy preparation for the Christian life before they were baptized. Hence a catechumenal order was developed. Catechumens were taught the basics of the gospel and equipped for faithful living in a hostile pagan world. Their catechumenate would often last one to three years. Those who practiced ways of living deemed incompatible with the gospel were expected to alter their lives and change their professions. Aidan Kavanagh elaborates on the making of catechumens, as described in the late second century document Apostolic Tradition:

Admission to ‘hear the word’ is not a mere formality: whole classes of people—such as pimps, makers of idols or amulets, and men with concubines—are not to be accepted into this class of learners, or catechumens, unless they first forsake their modes of life. The crux of this admission procedure has nothing to say about the intentions of the applicant: it is his manner of living that is to be ascertained and, apparently, nothing more. From this point on, the applicant, if accepted, into the catechumenate, will be expected to begin living in a manner befitting a Christian—a manner that will be gradually molded by the teaching, moral support, prayer, example, and ritual patterns of the Christian community itself. From this moment, the convert is regarded no longer as a pagan but as an incipient Christian. (The Shape of Baptism [1978], pp. 54-55)

By the beginning of the fifth century, a heresy had developed that directly affected the baptismal practices of the Church. St Augustine believed it was serious enough to warrant his attention. Faith and Works was the result. It is a short tract, yet illuminating for our purposes. Augustine describes this baptismal heresy:

It is the opinion of some that all men without distinction should be admitted to the bath of regeneration which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord, and that they should be admitted even though they are unwilling to change an evil and shameful life, a life notorious for manifest crimes and disgraceful deeds, and even though they declare openly and publicly that they will continue therein. If, for example, anyone is associated with a prostitute, he should not first be commanded to leave her, and then come and be baptized. But even though he remains with her, and say or even declares openly that he will remain with her, he should be admitted to baptism. He should not be hindered from becoming a member of Christ, even though he persists in being a member of a prostitute. Afterwards he can be taught how evil this is, namely, after he has been baptized; then it can be explained to him that he ought to change his life for the better. For these men think that it is wrong and even absurd that one should first be taught how to live a Christian life and then be baptized. They think rather that the sacrament of baptism should come first; the teaching concerning morals and the life of a Christian should follow afterwards.

If the baptized person fulfills the obligations demanded of a Christian, he does well. If he does not—provided he keeps the faith, without which he would perish forever—no matter in what sin or impurity he remains, he will be saved, as it were, by fire; as one who has built on the foundation, which is Christ, not gold, silver, and precious stones, but wood, hay, straw, that is, not just chaste works but wicked and unchaste works. (1.1)

Readers should recognize this heresy immediately. Today it is known as inclusivity, and it manifests itself in the practices commonly termed “open baptism” and “open communion.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it cheap grace: “preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.” It is grace proclaimed, in other words, as unconditional. The bishop of Hippo is scathing in his criticism.

Augustine reminds his readers that the Apostle Paul did not say put on the new man and then take off the old, but rather quite the reverse. In repentance we strip off the old man so that we might be clothed with the new in Holy Baptism. The very purpose of the catechumenate is to instruct the catechumens in “what the faith is and what kind of life is demanded of a Christian. Then, after they have proved themselves worthy, they may eat the Lord’s table and drink from His cup” (6.9).

“This is to preach Christ,” St Augustine declares: “to say not only what one must believe about Christ but also how one must live who wishes to be joined to the body of Christ; to say, in fact, everything that one must believe about Christ, not only whose Son He is, from whom He takes His divinity, from whom His humanity, what things He has suffered and why, what His resurrection means to us, what is the gift of the Spirit which He has promised and given to believers, but also what kind of members, of whom He is the head, He desires, He forms, loves, sets free, and leads to eternal life and glory” (9.14).

For Augustine, profession of faith is insufficient to justify sacramental initiation into the Church. Commenting on St Peter’s instruction to the crowd in Jerusalem (Acts 2:39), Augustine asks, “How can any person be sincerely repentant for his sins if he continues to commit adultery and other grievous sins which the lovers of this world are wont to commit?” (8.12). Repentance requires renunciation of sin and amendment of life. To admit an unrepentant sinner to baptism is to teach him the falsehood that he will enter the kingdom of God even if he continues in his sin till the end of his life. It is to lead him to damnation. Augustine offers the following catechetical counsel:

If we are not to give the sinner a false security, or even authorization to commit sin, this then, in accordance with true and sound doctrine, is the procedure that we must follow in our instructions, namely, that all who are to be baptized are to believe in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as is prescribed in the Creed; that they are to do penance for their sins; and that they are not to doubt that all their past sins will be forgiven them when they receive baptism. They must be told that this forgiveness is not a license to commit sin, but a release from sin; that it is a remission of sin, not a permission to sin. Then it can be truly said of them, in a spiritual sense: Behold, you are made whole; sin no more. For though the Lord, when He spoke these words, was referring to physical sickness, He knew too that this sickness in the man whom He healed was a punishment for sin. But I do not see how our opponents can say to a man: Behold, you are made whole, if they allow him to receive baptism as an adulterer and to remain an adulterer after baptism. For if adultery is not a disease, and a serious and fatal disease, then I do not know what is. (20.36)

The existence of the catechumenate witnesses to the conditionality of the gospel proclamation. The evangelical gospel summons the unbaptized to radical conversion. The catechumenate provides a time during which those who have heard the gospel may begin the process of repentance necessary for the bath of regeneration and life in the Spirit. From the font comes a new being in Christ.

Here is born in Spirit-soaked fertility
a brood destined for another City,
begotten by God’s blowing
and borne upon this torrent by the Church their virgin mother.
Reborn in these depths they reach for heaven’s realm,
the born-but-once known by felicity.
This spring is life that floods the world,
the wounds of Christ its awesome source.
Sinner sinks beneath this sacred surf
that swallows age and spits up youth.
Sinner here scour sin away down to innocence,
for they know no enmity who are by
one font, one Spirit, one faith made one.
Sinner shudder not at sin’s kind and number,
for those born here are holy.

Lateran baptistry inscription (fifth century)

Looking at the baptismal practices and teachings of the New Testament and early Church, I do not see even implicit evidence of a meta-linguistic rule of unconditionality. The unbaptized were expressly told that their enjoyment of the blessings of baptism was conditional upon their turning away from sin, and the Church refused baptism to those who would not repent.

22 June 2006


If Robert Jenson is correct, then the gospel must always be proclaimed as unconditional promise, or it is no gospel at all. We have seen that this thesis runs into serious problems when one is preaching to the unbaptized. According to the witness of Scripture and the early tradition, the gospel-promise is conditioned by repentance, sacrament, and Church: hearers of the gospel are told that if they would share in the life of the Holy Spirit, they must put away their sins, be baptized, and enter into the eucharistic, ascetical, and moral life of the Christian community. But what about the preaching of the gospel within the Church? May we speak unconditional promise to the baptized? Must we speak unconditional promise to the baptized?

St Augustine addresses this question in his tract Faith and Works. Invoking 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, Augustine’s antinomian opponents argued that through faith in Christ the baptized were guaranteed eternal salvation, despite their unrepentant continuance in sinful behaviors. They will be saved through the fire of suffering, “by means of which they will be able to obtain salvation, since they have built upon the foundation” of Christ (15.24).

Augustine finds this interpretation of Paul implausible. It contradicts the wider testimony of Scripture. Augustine readily admits that the 1 Corinthians 3 passage is hard to understand, but “we should not on that account interpret it to our own ruin, as for example, to say, in open contradiction to the teaching of Scripture, that those who live very evil lives can be sure of obtaining salvation, even if they stubbornly persist in their evil ways and do not change for the better or repent of their sins” (15.26).

Augustine offers an alternative interpretation: faith that is dead is not included in the foundation of Christ:

The foundation, which is Christ, is the construction of a wise architect. This does not need any explaining, for it is clearly said: For other foundation no man can lay but that which is laid, which is Christ Jesus. But if Christ is the foundation, then there is no doubt whatever that we must have faith in Christ, since it is by faith, as the same Apostle says, that Christ dwells in our hearts. Furthermore, if we must have faith in Christ, then certainly it must be that faith which, as the Apostle has defined it, works by love. But that faith which the devils have—for they too believe and tremble and acknowledge that Jesus is the Son of God—that faith, I say, cannot be considered as belonging to the foundation. Why not? Because it is not faith which acts through love, but faith which is expressed through fear. The faith, therefore, of Christ, the faith of Christian grace, that is, the faith which acts through love, this faith, if laid on the foundation, allows no one to be lost. (16.27)

What does Paul mean, then, when he speaks of being saved through the flames? Augustine believes that Paul is referring to the suffering entailed by the loss of those things of the world to which men and women are inordinately attached:

If these things are loved with an inordinate affection, it is hard to part with them. He, therefore, who is inordinately attached to them, even though he has faith in Christ, who is the foundation, and has that faith which works by charity, and although he does not in any way whatever esteem or love them more than his faith, nevertheless, if he has to part with them, their loss causes him pain, and this pain is, as it were, the fire by which he is saved. But the less one is attached to them, or, in possessing them, if one possesses them as though he did not possess them, the less pain he suffers in parting with them. However, he who commits murder, adultery, fornication, idolatry, and other similar sins in order to retain or acquire these things, such a person will not be saved by fire because of the foundation, but rather, having separated himself from the foundation, he will burn in everlasting fire. (16.27)

According to Augustine, therefore, the Church’s proclamation of the gospel is always conditioned, explicitly or implicitly, by the summons to repentance and the life of love. We must not so interpret Scripture that we are forced to say to “the unjust, matricides, murderers, fornicators, to homosexuals, menstealers, liars, perjurers,” all you need to do is believe in Christ and you will be saved (16.29). “Let us not promise those who live wicked and shameful lives,” Augustine writes, “that they will suffer only a temporary punishment of fire because they have known the way of justice. It had been better for them, as Scripture so clearly says, if they had not known it” (25.47). We must rather hold fast to the true doctrine of God that “a Christian’s life should harmonize with the sacred character of baptism, and that eternal life should not be promised to anyone who is either not baptized or not leading a good life” (26.48). The righteousness of the Christian must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees.

Morals and faith are intertwined within the life of love. No person can love God unless he has been born anew in the waters of Holy Baptism. By the Spirit the love of God fills our hearts; by the Spirit God becomes in and for us our true good. When the root of charity is planted in our hearts, the regenerate believer begins to delight in the law of God. As Augustine writes in his Letter and the Spirit, “When charity itself is shed abroad in the heart of believers, we have the law of faith, the Spirit giving life to the lover” (29). Love for God is necessarily expressed in love of neighbor. He who does not love his neighbor does not truly love God. Thus no works can be judged meritorious before baptism; but they do become meritorious after baptism.

I believe it is fair to say that St Augustine would have found incomprehensible the meta-linguistic construal of justification. That we are justified by grace and not by our works Augustine taught the Church catholic. But he also knew, with the Church, that the continuance in the state of justification requires our continuance in that love that now forms our souls. Hence it is crucial that the Church also warn believers that their final salvation is dependent upon their obedience and fidelity. The Church cannot unconditionally promise the Kingdom of God to those who refuse to repent of grave sin. The Christian who says to the unrepentant murderer, you are forgiven and are destined for heaven, has not spoken the gospel to that individual. He has, rather, deceived him. I have yet to find any Church Father who either disagreed or would have disagreed with Augustine’s understanding of salvation; nor have I found within the early tradition any samples of gospel-proclamation that embodies the kind of unconditionality that is, according to the meta-linguistic rule, essential to proper proclamation of the gospel. I am thus forced, quite against my inclinations and druthers, to question the claim that the gospel must always be proclaimed as unconditional promise.

29 June 2006


What is the relationship between the preaching of forgiveness and the preaching of repentance? Until you have wrestled with this question, you haven’t plumbed the depths of the evangelical assertion that salvation is by grace alone. If we treat the sola gratia as simply a scholastic problem of relating divine agency and human agency, it becomes a matter of interest only to theologians. But the sola gratia is and should be of burning concern to all Christians and their pastors.

At Faith and Theology, Kim Fabricius writes:

The gospel itself is not “Repent and be forgiven”—that is sheer legalism—but “You are forgiven, and therefore now free to repent.” Even pagans say, “If you’re sorry, I’ll forgive you.” More to the evangelical point, how can we repent of sin when sin is only known as sin forgiven, when we can only know ourselves as sinners in the light of grace?

I first encountered this formulation of repentance and forgiveness in the scattered writings of Scottish theologian James B. Torrance. Torrance distinguishes between evangelical repentance and legal repentance:

Legal repentance is the view that says, “Repent, and IF you repent you will be forgiven!” as though God our Father has to be conditioned into being gracious. It makes the imperatives of obedience prior to the indicatives of grace, and regards God’s love and acceptance and forgiveness as conditional upon what we do—upon our meritorious acts of repentance. Calvin argued that this inverted the evangelical order of grace, and made repentance prior to forgiveness, whereas in the New Testament forgiveness is logically prior to repentance. Evangelical repentance on the other hand takes the form that, “Christ has borne your sins on the Cross, therefore repent!” That is, repentance is our response to grace, not a condition of grace. The good news of the Gospel is that “There is forgiveness with God that he might be feared” and that he has spoken that word of forgiveness on the Cross—but that word summons from us a response of faith and penitence. (“The Vicarious Humanity of Christ,” in The Incarnation, ed. Thomas F. Torrance [1981], p. 142.)

I like this distinction between evangelical and legal repentance and have preached it from the pulpit since my ordination; yet I confess that doubts have niggled at me. These doubts have increased exponentially since my conversion to the Catholic Church. When the Apostle Peter confronted the crowd on Pentecost, he did not declare to them, “You are forgiven for your sins; therefore repent and be baptized”; rather, he said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). In other words, he directed them to a sacramental event in and by which they might put put aside their disbelief and sin and receive the freely offered gift of forgiveness. The summons to baptism is thus included in the gospel message itself. The heathen are not told that they are already forgiven because of what Christ has done for them. They are told to enter the sacramental waters in which they will be forgiven. Forgiveness is something that is done to them. It is a divine word that is spoken to them at the moment they surrender themselves to Christ in repentance and faith.

Evangelistic preaching (i.e., preaching to the nonbaptized), therefore, does not quite fit into Torrance’s categories. Our repentance, of course, does not persuade God into forgiving us. God has indeed already borne away our sins on the cross. He has reconciled mankind to himself in Jesus Christ. The sacrifice has been offered. Atonement has been achieved. Yet there remains the divine summons to conversion and baptism. The nonbaptized are not truly forgiven and reconciled to God until they believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, amend their lives, and enter into the sacramental life of the Church. Sinners do not earn God’s forgiveness by repentance and baptism. Our heavenly Father does not need to be placated or propitiated. But forgiveness only becomes a reality when the sinner has acknowledged his sin and surrendered himself to Christ and the way of discipleship. C. S. Lewis elaborates:

Now what was the sort of “hole” man had got himself into? He had tried to set up on his own, to behave as if he belonged to himself. In other words, fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realising that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor—that is the only way out of a “hole.” This process of surrender—this movement full speed astern—is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death…. Remember, this repentance, this willing submission to humiliation and a kind of death, is not something God demands of you before He will take you back and which He could let you off if He chose: it is simply a description of what going back to Him is like. If you ask God to take you back without it, you are really asking Him to let you go back without going back. It cannot happen. (Mere Christianity [1952], p. 49.)

Consider the parable of the prodigal son. It is clear in the parable that the Father is eager to be reconciled to his son. He yearns for his son’s return. He aches for the healing of their relationship. Each day he looks down the road, hoping to see his son. In one sense one might say that the Father has already in his heart forgiven his son, yet reconciliation cannot occur until the son comes to his senses and makes the journey home. The son must repent. If he does not, the two remain estranged and there is no forgiveness. It is this repentance, this return home, that makes forgiveness and the restoration of relationship possible.

Holy Baptism is precisely this moment of return, that moment when the conversion of the sinner and the forgiveness of God meet and are joined. Baptism simultaneously absolves the sinner and opens to him a new life as an adopted son of the Father. But that moment cannot happen unless the sinner turns back to God.

What about the preaching of forgiveness to the baptized? Does Torrance’s distinction accurately describe the preaching and praxis of the Church catholic? As far as I know, no one has done the kind of historical research necessary to answer this question; but my very, very limited research suggests that Christian preachers have not hesitated to declare to the baptized that God’s forgiveness is, in some sense, conditional upon their repentance (see my series “How unconditional is unconditional?”). After all, Jesus also used conditionalist language on occasion:

If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matt 6:14-25)

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Matt 16:24)

If you want to be perfect, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. (Matt 19:21)

I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will also acknowledge him before the angels of God. But he who disowns me before men will be disowned before the angels of God. And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. (Luke 12:8-10)

Unless you repent, you too will all perish. (Luke 13:3, 5)

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26-27)

When we turn to the letters of St Paul, we find the Apostle to the Gentiles declaring to the baptized the decisive significance of their baptism: you have died with Christ in baptism and therefore sin no longer has power over you (Rom 6), yet this freedom is dependent on continuance in the life of the Spirit: “You, however, are controlled not by the flesh but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of God, he does not belong to Christ” (Rom 8:9). The eschatological indicative of who we now are in Christ, by faith and baptism, is foundational, yet there remains the problem of sin. When Paul commanded the expulsion of the sexually immoral man (1 Cor 5), was he not declaring that the individual had lost his baptismal justification and needed to repent to be forgiven and reconciled, both to God and the Church?

The Apostle John certainly knew the necessity of repentance by the baptized to obtain the forgiveness of sins: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).

The invitation to the eucharistic General Confession in the Book of Common Prayer reflects the usage of John: “Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith, and make your humble confession to Almighty God, devoutly kneeling.” The prayer of confession is then followed by an absolution in the subjunctive mood, as opposed to the indicative mood: “[May] Almighty God our heavenly Father, who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all those who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him, have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, confirm and strengthen you in all goodness, and bring you to everlasting life, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Both the invitation and absolution explicitly assert repentance as a condition for forgiveness. With the sacerdotal requirement that the absolution may only be spoken by a priest or bishop, the absolution approaches an absolute declaration of divine forgiveness; yet it stops just short, precisely because, I suggest, the priest does not know whether each member of his congregation has in fact repented of their sins. The confession is general and so the absolution must be conditional and deprecatory. John Calvin, it might be noted, makes a similar point in his critique of auricular confession:

Nor does it belong to the priest to know for certainty whether or not a sinner is loosed, but to Him from whom acquittal is asked; since he who only hears can ever know whether or not the enumeration is full and complete. Thus there would be no absolution, without restricting it to the words of him who is to be judged. We may add, that the whole system of loosing depends on faith and repentance, two things which no man can know of another, so as to pronounce sentence. It follows, therefore, that the certainty of binding and loosing is not subjected to the will of an earthly judge, because the minister of the word, when he duly executes his office, can only acquit conditionally, when, for the sake of the sinner, he repeats the words, “Whose soever sins ye remit;” lest he should doubt of the pardon, which, by the command and voice of God, is promised to be ratified in heaven. (Inst. 3.14.18)

In his Strasbourg liturgy, Calvin directed the following absolution to be said: “Let each of you confess that he is really a sinner who has to humble himself before God. He must believe that the heavenly Father will be gracious to him in Jesus Christ. To all who have repentance and who seek Jesus Christ for their salvation, I pronounce forgiveness in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.” In Geneva, in response to pressure from his congregation (“No one can forgive sins but God alone”), he substituted a statement of forgiveness in place of the absolution.

Neither Calvin’s formula nor Cranmer’s formula quite satisfy James Torrance’s construal of evangelical repentance.

5 July 2006


Is the gospel to be proclaimed in the form of unconditional promise? Some Lutherans (Robert Jenson, Gerhard Forde) and Reformed (James Torrance, Thomas Torrance) insist that it must be; otherwise it is not the gospel. Yet as we have seen, it is difficult to document this practice in the Church, including the Churches of the Reformation and their offspring. The paucity of such preaching argues strongly against the unconditionality rule.

Grammatical rules are grounded in actual speech; they describe the normative patterns of discourse within a given language. When a grammarian declares that a verb must agree with the subject of the sentence in number, he is not simply offering an opinion; he is describing how the English language works for purposes of effective communication. His assertion is proven or disproven by appeal to the actual speech of competent speakers of the language. “Do not split an infinitive” is an example of a bad grammatical rule: it was an attempt by grammarians to impose Latin grammatical rules on a language that works differently. Split infinitives are common in most varieties of English and indeed are often desirable or necessary. There is a difference between saying, “To boldly go where no man has gone before” and “To go boldly where no man has gone before.” The necessity to split the infinitive is clear in the sentence “John has tried consciously to stop fretting about his career.” As George Bernard Shaw famously mocked, “This is something up with which I will not put.”

Analogously, the meta-linguistic stipulation of unconditionality, at least in its strong form, looks and feels like a prescriptivist imposition upon Christian discourse: it does not accurately describe how Christian evangelists and pastors have in fact proclaimed and enacted the gospel for the past two thousand years. This is particularly true, I think, for the Catholic and Orthodox traditions.

The unconditionalist claims that conditional construals of the gospel promote works-righteousness and lead sensitive souls into the despond of despair. I readily acknowledge that this sometimes occurs. It appears to have happened, for example, in parts of the late medieval Western Church and in 17th century Puritanism. But almost always, besides sin and pathology, one can identify theological, ecclesial, and social factors that have contributed to these unfortunate pastoral consequences. Neither works-righteousness nor despair is a necessary consequence of normal gospel-speaking. Are you, like the Pharisee in our Lord’s parable, tempted to pride because you seem to be blameless before the moral Law? Then St Augustine has good counsel for you: “What merit, then, does a man have before grace, by which he might receive grace?—–when our every good merit is produced in us only by grace and when God, crowning our merits, crowns nothing else but his own gifts to us.” Are you tempted to despair of our sins? Do you fear God’s condemnation? Then St Anselm instructs you to so speak to God: “Lord, I interpose the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between my sins and thee.” The catholic tradition contains the pastoral, homiletical, and ascetical resources to address the many problems and crises that attend Christian living.

How is it possible for Catholicism and Orthodoxy, at least when they are spiritually healthy, to proclaim the sola gratia within a conditionalist homiletical structure, while avoiding the negative consequences of works-righteousness and despair? The answer came to me last week while re-reading Robert Jenson’s article “The ‘Sorry’ State of Lutheranism” (dialog [Fall 1983]):

Repentance is inseparably acknowledgment of my old life and confident prayer for God’s gift of a new one; it is, indeed, the descriptively ungraspable identity of these two acts. And that is to say, morally, repentance in respect of any particular course of sin is inseparably regret for how I have acted and—not resolve to do better but—simply beginning to act differently. What has happened to much Lutheranism is that repentance has been set in a christologically and eschatologically deprived context, so that the word of absolution and the word of promise are two words, and the backward look of regret and the forward look of moral expectation are separately practicable.

The evil is not an insufficient emphasis on the law. The evil is in a peculiar “Lutheran” vacuity of the gospel. If we ask where Lutheran congregations learn to stop worrying and love their sins, we need look no further than the standard sermon-outline of Lutheran preaching…. In the standard Lutheran sermon, there will first be an analysis of some aspect of fallen human life, often very well done. Then will come the “gospel”-part: “To be sure, we must recognize that we cannot by our own reason or strength do differently. Never mind, for Jesus’ sake God loves you anyway.” The “gospel” has no content of its own, it consists only in a cancellation of the previous “law.” (p. 281)

The problem, according to Jenson’s diagnosis, is the reduction of justification to the cancellation of the law; but why has this reduction occurred? Jenson’s answer is surprising: because the Reformation Churches have abandoned the sacrament of Penance. Penance is essential because it is a divine word that simultaneously absolves the past and grants a new future in the Spirit.

The problem is that the word that releases from the past and the word that promises the future have become two words, the look back and the look forward two acts…. Luther and the initial Lutherans understood and practiced the word of forgiveness and the word of promise as one word, the act of acknowledgment and the act of new virtue as one act…. The matter may be put so: actual repentance is an event and not an attitude, even if a “daily” event. Repentance insofar as it is an event cannot really avoid being the unity of the look back and the look forward, for that is the character of human events—to have a beginning and an outcome and to be precisely the accomplishment of their unity. Therefore also the word that calls to and opens repentance must be—to borrow a bit of jargon from a few years back—a word-event, an address that carries the hearer through the unity of a past and a future, a word the hearing of which is itself an epoch of the hearer’s history…. The rite of penance is, precisely as a rite, a word that makes the turn from past action to new action quite apart from the achievement of either the confessor or the penitent. It is, therefore, essential. (pp. 282-283)

The sacrament of Penance is necessary to the spiritual welfare of every congregation and every believer—even in, especially in, those Churches that proclaim the gospel as unconditional promise. Eliminate this sacrament, Jenson says, and the unconditional gospel is inevitably reduced to freedom from condemnation: “God loves you anyway.” Here is the root of the practical antinomianism that afflicts so many Protestant (and increasingly, Catholic) congregations.

Jenson notes that Luther wished to retain the rite of Penance. In 1522 Luther preached against the abolition of private confession: “I will allow no one to take private confession from me and would not give it in exchange for all the wealth of the world. For I know what consolation and strength it has given me” (LW 51:98). Yet Luther did not understand it as strictly necessary to the life of the Church: he ordered private confession to to be voluntary and abolished the requirement of complete confession, i.e., the confession of all mortal sins. “For Luther,” writes Ronald Rittgers, “private confession was a kind of pseudo-sacrament, a means of returning to the inexhaustible supply of grace one received in baptism. Private confession was salutary but not sacramental” (“Luther on Private Confession,” Lutheran Quarterly XIX [Autumn 2005], p. 314). Luther’s ambivalence about the rite was revealed in the Nürnberg absolution controversy in the early 1530s.

Andreas Osiander was a Lutheran pastor in the city of Nürnberg. He opposed the practice of general confession and absolution as unbiblical. He believed that the practice of general confession discouraged private confession and encouraged moral laxity. But the people of Nürnberg preferred general confession, and in 1533 the city council wrote to Wittenberg for advice. In reply Luther, with Melanchthon, recommended that the city retain both forms of absolution, both being genuine means of preaching the gospel: “the preaching of the holy gospel is also in essence an absolution in which forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to many people in common and publicly or to one person alone, whether in public or in secret.” But Osiander dissented. Penance, he insisted, is a divinely instituted sacrament. Through the power of the keys, it truly conveys what it signifies, God’s forgiveness or judgment. When the pastor speaks the divine absolution and lays hands on the penitent, “God himself truly speaks to and touches him with his Word and Holy Spirit.” Hence it is crucial that the pastor only absolve those who can receive the divine word in faith: “if the person who is absolved does not have sufficient sorrow or faith, the keys do not for this reason lie or deceive. What is loosed on earth is certainly loosed in heaven. If the absolved person remains without sorrow or faith … he will be damned on account of his hardness and unbelief. But the sin from which he has been released is truly forgiven him.” Thus Osiander would not risk the souls of his flock by practicing indiscriminate absolution. The pastor must speak with the penitent privately and be assured of his sincere repentance.

Whereas Osiander understood Penance to be the third sacrament, Luther understood it as simply one form of gospel-preaching. Penance was a means of grace but not on the same level as baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Hence Luther did not draw the conclusion that penitents who made unworthy confessions incurred wrath and judgment. The word of absolution appears to have functioned differently for Luther and Osiander. According to Luther, absolution is only efficacious if the penitent receives the divine offer of forgiveness in faith. According to Osiander, faith is not strictly necessary for sacramental efficacy, though of course it is desirable and its absence brings judgment upon the individual. The difference is subtle but important, as Rittgers explains:

For Osiander, the contention that absolution was an order that had to be received by faith posed a direct threat to the validity of the keys. Luther was aware of this threat, but did not consider it particularly serious. To those who charged that his version of the keys rendered absolution uncertain, the Wittenberg reformer responded, “Well, friend, if you call this a failure [i.e., that the keys do not accomplish their purpose unless met with faith], then God fails in all his words and works. After all, very few people believe or accept what he constantly speaks and does for everyone.” The point, again, was that God’s offer of grace was valid quite apart from human responses to it, but only those who received the divine mercy in faith benefited from it. This faith was not a human work—on this point Osiander and Luther were agreed. But only Osiander thought this required complete passivity on the part of the confessant; Luther believed it implied receptivity. Neither man wanted to ascribe agency to confessants, but whereas Luther could still allow—even require—a divinely-caused human response in confession, Osiander permitted nothing of the sort, at least not in the initial reception of absolution. (p. 320)

The Nürnberg controversy is illuminating. Osiander was both more radical and more traditional than Luther. Because Luther understood Penance as simply one form of the gospel, he could not provide a compelling “theological rationale for a Christian to prefer private confession over general confession, or even over confession to a fellow brother or sister in Christ, for all conveyed the same grace” (p. 325). As a result private confession has disappeared, not only in Lutheranism, but in Protestantism as a whole. Why endure the ordeal of privately confessing one’s sins to one’s pastor when general confession is just as good? Osiander, on the other hand, understood the pastoral absolution as a true sacramental act of God, the unbinding and binding of sinners. Because it is a divine, efficacious, and sacerdotal word, because it truly accomplishes forgiveness, it must not be spoken to the impenitent, lest it cause more harm than good. But Osiander’s views on absolution and private confession were ultimately rejected by the Churches of the Reform, and the sacrament of Penance was lost.

And now I am prepared to answer the question I posed above: How is it possible for Catholicism and Orthodoxy to proclaim the sola gratia within a conditionalist homiletical structure, while avoiding the negative consequences of works-righteousness and despair? Answer: the sacrament of Penance!

11 July 2006


What is the crucial difference between (good) Catholic and (good) Protestant preaching of repentance? The former is formed by and directed to the the sacrament of Penance. It thus retains the basic structure that characterizes evangelistic preaching to the nonbaptized. To the nonbaptized the Catholic preacher declares: repent, be baptized in the name of Jesus for the remission of sins, and you will receive the Holy Spirit. To the baptized the Catholic preacher declares: repent, confess your sins to a priest and receive absolution, and you will be renewed in the Holy Spirit. The preaching of repentance is thus sacramentally conditioned. It always includes direction to a sacramental event in which God promises to bestow upon the believer forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit.

Despite its conditionalist structure, sound Catholic preaching on repentance avoids the two pastoral results that Protestants fear for Catholics—works righteousness and despair. Works righteousness is avoided, because simply assenting to a divine command to go to confession is hardly something one dare boast before God. A starving man cannot claim merit for following directions to the local soup kitchen. Despair is avoided, because the risen Christ himself is the principal actor in the sacrament: it is Jesus who forgives, regenerates, renews, vivifies, deifies, and restores to the life of the Spirit. The sacrament effects the grace it signifies; it works, as the theologians say, ex opere operato. The Catholic Catechism succinctly states the Catholic sacramental understanding:

1127 Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify. They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies. The Father always hears the prayer of his Son’s Church which, in the epiclesis of each sacrament, expresses her faith in the power of the Spirit. As fire transforms into itself everything it touches, so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power.

1128 This is the meaning of the Church’s affirmation that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: “by the very fact of the action’s being performed”), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that “the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God.” From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them.

1129 The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation. “Sacramental grace” is the grace of the Holy Spirit, given by Christ and proper to each sacrament. The Spirit heals and transforms those who receive him by conforming them to the Son of God. The fruit of the sacramental life is that the Spirit of adoption makes the faithful partakers in the divine nature by uniting them in a living union with the only Son, the Savior.

At the heart of the sacrament of Penance is the decisive, unconditional, justifying Yes of God, which comes to clear and authoritative expression in the absolution of the Latin rite:

God, the Father of mercies,
through the death and the resurrection of his Son
has reconciled the world to himself
and sent the Holy Spirit among us
for the forgiveness of sins;
through the ministry of the Church
may God give you pardon and peace,
and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

“I absolve you from your sins …” Here is the voice of the Lord speaking to us today, as clearly and powerfully as he spoke to the paralytic in Capernaum. At the moment the absolution is pronounced, the sinner is captured by the Word of God, filled with the Holy Spirit, and raised to new life; he is delivered from all guilt and restored to his proper place within the divine life of the Holy Trinity. G. K. Chesterton referred to the confessional as a “church within a church.” It is here, in the church within the church, that the gospel is applied directly and personally to the individual believer. Except in exceptional circumstances, Catholic priests do not give general absolutions. Absolution is a sacerdotal word that only those who have turned to Christ Jesus in faith and repentance should hear, must hear. Those who are not yet ready to be receive the new life of the kingdom are not yet ready to hear in faith the absolution of the Lord. Just as the Church does not baptize indiscriminately, so the Church does not absolve indiscriminately. Preachers may proclaim the salvation of Christ, may offer the salvation of Christ; but confessors enact the salvation of Christ. “It is almost a good thing,” writes Chesterton, “that nobody outside should know what gigantic generosity, and even geniality, can be locked up in a box, as the legendary casket held the heart of the giant. It is a satisfaction, and almost a joke, that it is only in a dark corner and a cramped space that any man can discover that mountain of magnanimity.”

Within the conditionalist structure of Catholic preaching—“repent and God will forgive you”—we thus find an unconditional, transformative, sacramental Word that absolves the past and opens to the believer a new future in the Spirit. Here is the gospel within the gospel. The preacher does not stand before his congregation and declare to them that they are already forgiven, despite continuance in grievous sin. This would betray and short-circuit the dramatic flow of the gospel, which calls us to continual repentance and conversion. The objective work of redemption in Christ is indeed complete, yet its subjective appropriation by each individual happens within the history of that individual. God has reconciled the world to himself in his dearly beloved Son, yet still I must respond in faith, still I must repent, still I must change my life and allow God to change my life. The tragic mystery of baptismal life is that we continue to reject Christ through mortal sin. We therefore need our pastors to exhort us to abandon our sins and receive the unmerited forgiveness of God. The sacrament of Penance is given to enable the baptized to obey the summons to repentance and begin anew the eschatological life of Christ Jesus in his Church.

13 July 2006


The justification of sinners—this is “the grand question,” declared Richard Hooker, “which hangeth yet in controversy between us and the Church of Rome.” Hooker notes that Anglicans and Catholics agree on many points about justification. They agree that all human beings are sinners and need to be reconciled to God. They agree that God alone is the efficient cause of justification: the justification of sinners is the work of the Holy Trinity. They agree that no one attains justification but by the merits of Christ Jesus: we are justified by grace alone for the sake of Christ, on the basis of his saving death on the cross. They agree that that the righteousness and merits of Christ must be applied to the sinner if justification is to be made actual in his life: Christ freely offers salvation, but it must be received and appropriated in faith. Wherein then lies the disagreement? According to Hooker, Anglicans and Catholics disagree on “the very essence of the medicine whereby Christ cureth our disease,” what is often described as the formal cause of our justification. Formal cause refers to the identity of a given object or event.

The Catholic Church, writes Hooker, teaches that sinners are justified by an inherent righteousness:

When they are required to show what the righteousness is whereby a Christian man is justified, they answer that it is a divine spiritual quality, which quality, received into the soul, doth first make it to be one of them who are born of God; and, secondly, endue it with power to bring forth such works as they do that are born of him; even as the soul of man, being joined unto his body, doth first make him to be in the number of reasonable creatures, and, secondly, enable him to perform the natural functions which are proper to his kind; that it maketh the soul gracious and amiable in the sight of God, in regard whereof it is termed grace; that by it, through the merit of Christ, we are delivered as from sin, so from eternal death and condemnation, the reward of sin. This grace they will have to be applied by infusion, to the end that, as the body is warm by the heat which is in the body, so the soul might be righteous by inherent grace; which grace they make capable of increase; as the body may be more and more warm, so the soul more and more justified, according as grace shall be augmented; the augmentation whereof is merited by good works, as good works are made meritorious by it. Wherefore the first receipt of grace is in their divinity the first justification; the second thereof, the second justification.

Contemporary Catholic theologians would probably wish to nuance, expand, and qualify the above in various ways. Instead of speaking of the infusion of a “divine spiritual quality,” they might wish instead to speak of the supernaturalization or deification of human nature. And they would most definitely wish to complement the Tridentine insistence on sanctifying grace as the formal cause of justice with an even greater insistence on the indwelling Spirit. As Charles Cardinal Journet writes:

When you bring into a room a source of light, it illuminates the walls; so, when the divine Persons come to us (here we have the source, uncreated grace), they illuminate the walls of the soul (here we have the effect, created grace). And if you possess grace, then the source of grace, the three divine Persons, is there too…. The uncreated Spirit is given in created grace, as the sun is given in its rays. The uncreated Gift of the Spirit and the created gift of grace are simultaneous. (The Meaning of Grace, p. 14)

Similarly, Piet Fransen:

Created grace is not something standing in between God and us; it is no path to approach God, no ladder to climb up to God, no means to God—at least not primarily…. Created grace does not act as a screen between God and us since it comes into being only because of and within the gesture by which God unites us immediately to himself. He gives Himself without an intervening medium; He comes to dwell in us and take us back to Himself…. Created grace is at once the fruit and the bond of the indwelling, originating in the indwelling and sustained by the indwelling; it raises us into an ever-deepening actualization of the indwelling on earth and in heaven. Latin expresses it more tersely: ex unione, in unione, et ad unionem—arising from our immediate union with God, granted in that union and urging us to that union. (The New Life of Grace, pp 102-103)

Ultimately contemporary Catholic theologians would want to insist that the justification of sinners is nothing less than their regeneration into the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Hence they find it necessary to qualify, as did John Henry Newman in the 19th century, the Tridentine assertion that the formal cause of our justification is the gift of inherent righteousness. As Karl Rahner explains, “It is true that the Council describes this interior grace in terms which in the theology of the schools hold good primarily of created grace, but it nowhere says that interior grace, as the unique formal cause of justification, must be understood exclusively of created grace (Theological Investigations, I:341). Thus Robert Gleason, for example, speaks of the Holy Spirit as the “quasi-formal” cause of justification (Grace, p. 146).

The Catholic need not deny imputation, spoken in both baptism and absolution. Cardinal Newman boldly acknowledged the imputational force of the justifying Word: Christ declares to the sinner that he is now forgiven and restored to righteousness, and in that divine declaring the sinner is made righteous:

Justification is a word of state and solemnity. Divine Mercy might have renewed us and kept it secret; this would have been an infinite and most unmerited grace, but He has done more. He justifies us; He not only makes, He declares, acknowledges, accepts us as holy. He recognises us as His own, and publicly repeals the sentence of wrath and the penal statutes which lie against us…. Before man has done anything as specimen, or paid anything as instalment, except faith, nor even faith in the case of infants, he has the whole treasures of redemption put to his credit, as if he were and had done infinitely more than he ever can be or do. He is “declared” after the pattern of his Saviour, to be the adopted “Son of God with power, by a” spiritual “resurrection.” His tears are wiped away; his fears, misgivings, remorse, shame, are changed for “righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost;” he is clad in white, and has his crown given him. Thus justification is at first what renewal could but be at last; and, therefore, is by no means a mere result or consequence of renewal, but a real, though not a separate act of God’s mercy. It is a great and august deed in the sight of heaven and hell; it is not done in a corner, but by Him who would show the world “what should be done unto those whom the King delighteth to honour.” It is a pronouncing righteous while it proceeds to make righteous. As Almighty God in the beginning created the world solemnly and in form, speaking the word not to exclude, but to proclaim the deed,—as in the days of His flesh He made use of the creature and changed its properties not without a command; so does He new-create the soul by the breath of His mouth, by the sacrament of his Voice. The declaration of our righteousness, while it contains pardon for the past, promises holiness for the future. (Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification, pp. 73-74)

By the Word of God the sinner is forgiven his sin, made regenerate in the Spirit, adopted as a son in the Son, and brought into the pulsating love of the Holy Trinity. He is made righteous in the core of his being. The Catholic Church thus refuses to divide justification and sanctification. We can distinguish the two intellectually, but in reality there is only the one grace that is the self-communication of God. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ,” the Apostle proclaims, “he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17).

The Anglican Church, on the other hand, insists that the righteousness by which we are justified in the present is extrinsic to the sinner:

There is a glorifying righteousness of men in the world to come: and there is a justifying and a sanctifying righteousness here. The righteousness, wherewith we shall be clothed in the world to come, is both perfect and inherent. That whereby here we are justified is perfect, but not inherent. That whereby we are sanctified, inherent, but not perfect….

But the righteousness wherein we must be found, if we be justified, is not our own; therefore we cannot be justified by any inherent quality. Christ hath merited righteousness for as many as are found in him. In him God findeth us, if we be faithful; for by faith we are incorporated into him. Then, although in ourselves we be altogether sinful and unrighteous, yet even the man which in himself is impious, full of iniquity, full of sin; him being found in Christ through faith, and having his sin in hatred through repentance, him God beholdeth with a gracious eye, putteth away his sin by not imputing it, taketh quite away the punishment due thereunto, by pardoning it; and accepteth him in Jesus Christ, as perfect righteous, as if he had fulfilled all that is commanded him in the law: shall I say more perfectly righteous than if himself had fulfilled the whole law?

Justifying and sanctifying righteousness are thus different in kind, says Hooker. Justifying righteousness is the righteousness of Christ imputed to us. It is external to us and is received by faith. For the sake of Christ, God forgives and accepts us. Sanctifying righteousness is the transformation effected in us by the Spirit and consists of “faith, hope, charity, and other Christian virtues.”

The differences between the two communions on justification are clear. Anglicanism teaches the imputation of righteousness; Catholicism teaches the infusion of righteousness. Yet matters may not be quite as clear as they seem. The discussion comes to a head when we ask, “May one be justified apart from repentance and a transformed moral and spiritual life?” This is not an idle question. One need only read the writings of Zane Hodges and the other teachers of the Grace Evangelical Society. These theologians have followed out the doctrine of imputation to its logical conclusion, offering a clear yes to the question. Yet Hooker refuses to separate justifying and sanctifying righteousness. “We grant,” he says, “that unless we work, we have it [justifying righteousness] not.” Saving faith is inseparable from the virtues of love and hope:

We ourselves do not teach Christ alone, excluding our own faith, unto justification, Christ alone, excluding our own works, unto sanctification, Christ alone, excluding the one or the other as unnecessary unto salvation. It is a childish cavil wherewith in the matter of justification our adversaries do so greatly please themselves, exclaiming that we tread all Christian virtues under our feet and require nothing in Christians but faith, because we teach that faith alone justifieth; whereas by this speech we never meant to exclude either hope and charity from being always joined as inseparable mates with faith in the man that is justified, or works from being added as necessary duties, required at the hands of every justified man, but to show that faith is the only hand which putteth on Christ unto justification, and Christ the only garment which, being so put on, covereth the shame of our defiled natures, hideth the imperfections of our works, preserveth us blameless in the sight of God, before whom otherwise the very weakness of our faith were cause sufficient to make us culpable, yea, to shut us out from the kingdom of heaven, where nothing that is not absolute can enter.

We are justified by faith, yet faith is never alone. At this point the gap between Anglicanism and the Catholic Church narrows considerably. What precisely is the difference between Hooker’s assertion that justifying faith is always joined to charity and hope and Trent’s assertion that justifying faith is intrinsically “formed by love” (fides caritate formata)? The gap narrows to a hair’s breadth when Hooker addresses the question “Which does the believer receive first, justifying or sanctifying righteousness?” Hooker’s answer is illuminating and needs to be read carefully:

We have already showed that there are two kinds of Christian righteousness: the one without us, which we have by imputation; the other in us, which consisteth of faith, hope, charity, and other Christian virtues; and St. James doth prove that Abraham had not only the one, because the thing he believed was imputed unto him for righteousness, but also the other, because he offered up his son. God giveth us both the one justice and the other: the one by accepting us for righteous in Christ; the other by working Christian righteousness in us. The proper and most immediate efficient cause in us of this latter is the spirit of adoption which we have received into our hearts. That whereof it consisteth, whereof it is really and formally made, are those infused virtues proper and particular unto saints, which the Spirit, in that very moment when first it is given of God, bringeth with it….

If here it be demanded which of these we do first receive, I answer that the Spirit, the virtues of the Spirit, the habitual justice which is ingrafted, the external justice of Christ Jesus which is imputed, these we receive all at one and the same time. Whensoever we have any of these we have all; they go together. Yet since no man is justified except he believe, and no man believeth except he have faith, and no man hath faith unless he have received the Spirit of adoption, forasmuch as these do necessarily infer justification, but justification doth of necessity presuppose them; we must needs hold that imputed righteousness, in dignity being the chiefest, is notwithstanding in order the last of all these, but actual righteousness, which is the righteousness of good works, succeedeth all, followeth after all, both in order and in time. Which thing being attentively marked showeth plainly how the faith of true believers cannot be divorced from hope and love; how faith is a part of sanctification, and yet unto sanctification necessary; how faith is perfected by good works, and yet no works of ours good without faith; finally, how our fathers might hold, we are justified by faith alone, and yet hold truly that without good works we are not justified.

Believers cannot lay hold by faith of the righteousness of Christ unless they have already received the Spirit of adoption who creates faith within us. Imputation, in other words, logically follows the gift of the Spirit. “What is this,” Newman asks about this passage, “divested of verbal differences, but to say expressly that the Holy Spirit is the formal cause of justification?” Quite so. The Catholic would simply add that where there is the indwelling Spirit, there is also sanctifying grace.

8 August 2006


John Zahl has posted a citation from Thomas Cranmer on justification. Cranmer rightly claims that “justification is not the office of man, but of God,” and Catholics agree. As the Council of Trent declared:

And whereas the Apostle saith, that man is justified by faith and freely, those words are to be understood in that sense which the perpetual consent of the Catholic Church hath held and expressed; to wit, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and the root of all Justification; without which it is impossible to please God, and to come unto the fellowship of His sons: but we are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification—whether faith or works-merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle says, grace is no more grace.

When Catholics speak of justification, they speak of a state of friendship between sinner and Creator, initiated in Holy Baptism and sustained by faith. The justified are not only pardoned their sins but regenerated in the Holy Spirit through their incorporation into the glorified humanity of Christ. In Christ the justified are adopted as sons and made heirs to the kingdom; in Christ the justified partake of the divine nature; in Christ the justified share in the supernatural life of the Triune God. Hence the Catholic must part company with Cranmer when he writes:

But the true understanding and meaning thereof is, that although we hear God’s word, and believe it; although we have faith, hope, charity, repentance, dread, and fear of God within us, and do never so many works thereunto; yet we must renounce the merit of all our said virtues, of faith, hope, charity, and all other virtues and good deeds, which we either have done, shall do, or can do, as things that be far too weak and insufficient, and imperfect, to deserve remission of our sins, and our justification.

The justified believer cannot renounce the theological virtues of faith, love, and hope because these virtues simply are the new life of grace and justification that he now enjoys in Christ. They have been planted within his soul by God. The Christian cannot create these dispositions through his own efforts. They must be given to him. Robert Sokolowski elaborates:

Natural virtue is acquired by doing good actions, first under the guidance of others and then on our own. Once someone become virtuous, he can rely on his own character and can take pride in himself. But no actions of ours, no matter how virtuous or generous, can bring about our life with God. If we exercise faith, hope, and charity, the very exercise is a gift from God. We do not have the resources to enter this life: not because we are failures as human beings, but because no created and finite being can involve itself with the life led by God. It would be an incoherence to think a creature could do so on its own. The exercise and confirmation of the theological virtues obviously involves prayer, sharing faith and hope with others, acts of generosity, asceticism, and so on, but these “actions” serve to “cultivate” the theological virtues in a way different from the way naturally good actions establish and strengthen natural virtue. The full story of what happens in Christian action is not the visible generosity or patience or courage; the action has a dimension that remains hidden in a way analogous to the way the divinity of Christ was hidden during his life on earth, and for the same reason: what is being done is, not merely an action within the setting of the world and its necessities, but an involvement with God who is not a part of the world. And yet this other dimension in human action, this working of grace, is identifiable with the acts done by the human agent. The substance of what a Christian does in faith, hope, and charity is not simply the human action, but it is identifiable with the human action. (The God of Faith and Reason, p. 73)

To properly understand the Catholic construal of justification one must identify the difference between natural and supernatural virtue. Every human being can cultivate the natural virtues and become virtuous. But no human being can become supernaturally virtuous through his own natural powers and acts: the acquisition of theological virtue requires rebirth in the Holy Spirit and the deification of human nature.

But might not the believer begin to rely on his theological virtues for his justification and eternal salvation? This appears to be Cranmer’s concern, and no doubt much preaching and teaching of his day justified his concern. Yet the authoritative Catholic construal of justification and the theological virtues renders it moot.

Firstly, it must be remembered that justification is itself a freely bestowed gift, mediated by Holy Baptism and renewed in Holy Absolution. It is not a work that anyone can accomplish for himself; it can only be gratefully received in repentance and faith.

Secondly, while it is rightly stated that the justified believer truly possesses the virtues of faith, hope, and charity, yet he does not possess them in such a way as to claim them as his own and boast before God. Just as sanctifying grace is totally dependent upon the indwelling Holy Spirit, so the theological virtues are totally dependent upon the indwelling Holy Spirit. “If the Presence of Christ were to leave us,” writes Newman, “our renovation would go with it.”

Thirdly, the presence of the supernatural virtues within one’s life, or the life of another, cannot be discerned analogously to the presence of the natural virtues:

Once a person becomes temperate or generous or courageous, both that person and other people know that he is temperate or generous or courageous; he keeps acting that way and can be relied upon to act that way in the future. But the theological virtues do not appear in the same public way. As St. Thomas says, we may have signs that indicate that we are living in grace (he mentions as examples that a person may perceive that he delights in God, spurns mundane things, and is aware of no mortal sin), but experiencing such signs is not a perception of the possession of grace; and the reason that we cannot perceive directly that we live in grace is that “the principle of grace, and its object, is God himself, who is unknown to us because of his excellence” (Summa Theologiae I II q. 112, art. 5). Supernatural virtue is not available as a mundane phenomenon, as natural virtue is. Scotus says something similar: “By natural reason nothing supernatural can be shown to exist in the wayfarer, not can it be proved that anything supernatural is necessarily required for his perfection. Neither can one who has something supernatural know it is in him.” Of course we can appreciate that a person is a good and even a holy Christian, but his faith, hope, and charity are not manifest in the same way that moral virtue is manifest, and it is not verifiable in the way moral virtue can be verified. (pp. 73-74)

The unperceivability of the life of grace is disturbing. Natural virtue does not and cannot save us, and therefore we cannot rest confident in it; yet neither can we rest confident in theological virtue. Though we may know that we possess the natural virtues, we cannot know by direct apprehension that we possess the theological virtues; we cannot know that we are supernaturally believing, hopeful, and loving. We may therefore be tempted to seek for natural evidence of our justification. As Sokolowski observes, “We may want a feeling of being saved or a perception of grace so that we will have an assurance for the life of grace somehow similar to the assurance we have in the moral life. We try to interpret theological virtue according to the form of experience of natural virtue” (p. 74). This temptation arises from the failure to distinguish between “the new Christian setting for action from the setting for human action provided by the world” (pp. 74-75). The natural virtues develop within the world of daily affairs, bounded by the necessities of life and cosmos; but the theological virtues only become possible before the transcendent Deity who did not need to create the world, yet who did, who did not need to save the world, yet who died and rose again. The unperceivability of grace, therefore, drives us away from self to Christ, to faith in his promises and in the salvific reality of his mystical body.

The crucial distinction between grace and nature resolves Cranmer’s concern and allows the Church to affirm both the exclusive justifying office of God and the justifying, divinizing reality of the theological virtues. To live in the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is to exercise the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity. This is justification and salvation. This is eternal life.

7 September 2006


Is Catholicism “Semi-Pelagian”? And if it is, does it matter and to whom does it matter?

Let’s address the third and second questions first. Semi-Pelagianism was a theological position condemned by the Second Council of Orange (AD 529). The council was a local synod in Gaul, attended by fourteen bishops. Its acts were forwarded to Rome and formally approved by Boniface II on 25 January 531. The synodical canons consequently enjoy dogmatic authority within the Catholic Church. They have not, however, been received by the Orthodox Church. Thus to the question “Does it matter and to whom does it matter?” the answer is clear—it matters to Catholics. And it matters to Catholics because the Council of Orange enjoys dogmatic authority, and it enjoys dogmatic authority because it was formally confirmed by the supreme pontiff of the Church. If one does not accept the authority of the bishop of Rome, then it’s hard to see how the synod can be said to possess ecumenical authority, and if it does not possess ecumenical authority, then its condemnation of Semi-Pelagianism simply represents one Western theological opinion, albeit the opinion that eventually triumphed in the West. I have never seen the canons of the Synod of Orange discussed by an Orthodox writer. It might be noted, though, that the Conferences of St. John Cassian, in which the Semi-Pelagian position is ably presented, is highly regarded in the Eastern Church.

In essence, Semi-Pelagianism asserts that fallen man, without any special assistance from God, is able to freely make the first step toward God. Cassian cites the examples of Zacchaeus and the thief on the cross, “who by their own desires brought violence to bear on the kingdom of heaven and so prevented the special leadings of their vocation” (Conference 13). Against this view, Orange declared:

And thus according to the passages of holy scripture quoted above or the interpretations of the ancient Fathers we must, under the blessing of God, preach and believe as follows. The sin of the first man has so impaired and weakened free will that no one thereafter can either love God as he ought or believe in God or do good for God’s sake, unless the grace of divine mercy has preceded him. We therefore believe that the glorious faith which was given to Abel the righteous, and Noah, and Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and to all the saints of old, and which the Apostle Paul commends in extolling them (Heb. 11), was not given through natural goodness as it was before to Adam, but was bestowed by the grace of God. And we know and also believe that even after the coming of our Lord this grace is not to be found in the free will of all who desire to be baptized, but is bestowed by the kindness of Christ, as has already been frequently stated and as the Apostle Paul declares, “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29). And again, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). And again, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and it is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). And as the Apostle says of himself, “I have obtained mercy to be faithful” (1 Cor. 7:25, cf. 1 Tim. 1:13). He did not say, “because I was faithful,” but “to be faithful.” And again, “What have you that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7). And again, “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (Jas. 1:17). And again, “No one can receive anything except what is given him from heaven” (John 3:27). There are innumerable passages of holy scripture which can be quoted to prove the case for grace, but they have been omitted for the sake of brevity, because further examples will not really be of use where few are deemed sufficient.

The council thus teaches the necessity of prevenient grace to create within the sinner the desire for Christ and the spiritual regeneration bestowed in Holy Baptism. In Baptism the sinner receives a new freedom to cooperate with grace for eternal salvation:

According to the catholic faith we also believe that after grace has been received through baptism, all baptized persons have the ability and responsibility, if they desire to labor faithfully, to perform with the aid and cooperation of Christ what is of essential importance in regard to the salvation of their soul. We not only do not believe that any are foreordained to evil by the power of God, but even state with utter abhorrence that if there are those who want to believe so evil a thing, they are anathema. We also believe and confess to our benefit that in every good work it is not we who take the initiative and are then assisted through the mercy of God, but God himself first inspires in us both faith in him and love for him without any previous good works of our own that deserve reward, so that we may both faithfully seek the sacrament of baptism, and after baptism be able by his help to do what is pleasing to him. We must therefore most evidently believe that the praiseworthy faith of the thief whom the Lord called to his home in paradise, and of Cornelius the centurion, to whom the angel of the Lord was sent, and of Zacchaeus, who was worthy to receive the Lord himself, was not a natural endowment but a gift of God’s kindness.

Holy Baptism creates the possibility of a true cooperation or synergism between God and the justified believer: prevenient grace leads to cooperative grace. That which is impossible to unregenerate man becomes possible for the regenerate man in the freedom of the Spirit. Thomas Oden explains: “Prevenient grace first operates before the will can cooperate. Prevenient grace is therefore the grace that works without us because it works before us (gratia operans), but cooperating grace is the grace that works with us as it works through us (gratia cooperans)” (The Transforming Power of Grace, p. 51). Or in the words of St Gregory the Great: “The divine goodness first effects something in us without our cooperation, and then as the will freely consents, cooperates with us in performing the good which we desire” (Moralia in Job 16.10).

What precisely is the problem with the Semi-Pelagian position? Robert Sokolowski suggests that Semi-Pelagianism subtly confuses grace and nature. It fails to recognize the Christian distinction between Deity and the world. God is not a part of the world but infinitely transcends it. Only the eternal Creator can lift the human being into his divine life.

If human agency could, on its own terms, achieve or at least initiate the divine life in man, as the Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians held, then that divine life would be something achievable within the powers of nature and the world, and God would not be distinguished from the world in the way Christian faith understands him to be. (The God of Faith and Reason, p. 17)

Yet does not Sokolowski’s analysis of semi-Pelagianism presuppose the fall and the Adamic loss of supernatural life?

10 September 2006


Perhaps someone should write a mystery novel and title it The Orange Disappearance or The Baffling Case of the Church Amnesiac. For six hundred years, from the tenth century to the mid-sixteenth, the canons of the Second Council of Orange were forgotten in the Western Church. They only reemerged in 1538, just in time for the Council of Trent. If this strange lapse in theological memory had not occurred, perhaps the the semi-Pelagian systems of the late Middle Ages, typified by Gabriel Biel and the via moderna, would not have been conceived and perhaps the revolution of Luther would not have occurred.

The Council of Trent faced a formidable, perhaps impossible, task—to formulate a coherent Catholic understanding of justification in light of the myriad views then being taught in the Church (see my article “What About Trent?”). When carefully and sympathetically read, its Decree on Justification is a remarkable achievement. One notes its eschewal of scholastic language and its strong invocation of Holy Scripture. The voice of St Augustine may be heard throughout the document.

Is the Decree on Justification Semi-Pelagian? Such a reading is only possible if one overlooks the Decree Concerning Original Sin, in which the council fathers insisted that all humanity shares in the sin of Adam, i.e., “the death of the soul.” The Decree on Justification begins with a statement on the inability of man to justify himself: fallen man exists in a condition of enslavement to death and the devil (chapter II). He has not lost his free will, which would be to cease to be human, but his will has been wounded and weakened. Because of original sin and the loss of sanctifying grace, man cannot restore his righteousness; he cannot justify himself.

Canon I: If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema.

Canon II: If any one saith, that the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, is given only for this, that man may be able more easily to live justly, and to merit eternal life, as if, by free will without grace, he were able to do both, though hardly indeed and with difficulty; let him be anathema.

Due to this inherited inability, fallen man must therefore be “born again in Christ,” delivered from the power of darkness, and made truly righteous.

The Decree on Justification is principally concerned with the justification of adults, and it therefore provides a description of the preparation of the sinner for justification. In order to understand properly what is being asserted, it is important to remember two points: First, the decree is speaking about adults and therefore about their conversion to faith. What happens in authentic conversion? What does the movement from disbelief to belief look like? How is the grace of God involved in this conversion? Second, justification itself is bestowed in the regenerating waters of Holy Baptism. It is a sacramental act. The initial movement of faith and repentance in response to the gospel is a movement to Baptism.

Chapter V:

The Synod furthermore declares, that in adults, the beginning of the said Justification is to be derived from the prevenient grace of God, through Jesus Christ, that is to say, from His vocation, whereby, without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace: in such sort that, while God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, neither is man himself utterly without doing anything while he receives that inspiration, forasmuch as he is also able to reject it; yet is he not able, by his own free will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in His sight. Whence, when it is said in the sacred writings: Turn ye to me, and I will turn to you, we are reminded of our liberty; and when we answer: Convert us, O Lord, to thee, and we shall be converted, we confess that the grace of God precedes us.

The decree makes two crucial assertions: First, without the grace of God, without the inspiration and movement of the Holy Spirit, fallen man is incapable of moving himself into righteousness. Second, man is not utterly passive. He does not do nothing. He still retains free will, and under the awakening power of the gospel, he has the freedom to not reject the gracious offer of God’s love. God does not coerce people into faith. He does not compel conversion. But in love he invites sinners to abandon themselves to Holy Baptism and be reborn in the Spirit and clothed with the justifying garment of Christ. Stephen Duffy elaborates:

In typically Catholic fashion Trent’s Decree insists that the justification of adults involves a preparatory conversion process. The process includes a free acceptance of grace by the adult coming to be justified. Humans must actively cooperate with grace through the stages leading to justification. Despite sin, free will has not been annihilated, hence the acceptance of grace is conscious and voluntary. Awakened and empowered by God’s prevenient and unmerited call, one becomes active under grace to dispose oneself towards justification. “The one accepting divine inspiration does not do nothing at all, since he can reject it.” Acceptance is a choice against rejection. (The Dynamics of Grace, p. 234)

Most reading this post were probably baptized as infants and therefore do not know the experience of submitting oneself to the discipline and grace of Holy Baptism, yet many have experienced analogous moments in their spiritual lives. We hear the call of Christ to repentance and faith, we hear the promise of his mercy and forgiveness, our hearts burn with the desire to be absolved and transformed in his Spirit, yet we also know that we must give Christ our permission. We must enter the confessional box. We must go forward at the altar call. We must ask someone to lay hands upon us and pray for us. However that moment of grace comes to us, our assent is required. And so it is with the adult convert: he must ask to be baptized; he must signify his desire and willingness to be sacramentally crucified with Christ and incorporated into his body. Paul may have been overwhelmed by his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, yet still he had to allow Ananias to baptize him (Acts 9:19-19). Even if we insist, as do the neo-Thomists, that this free permission is itself the work of God, still it must be given. The gracious God does not violate our personhood and humanity. John Donne may cry out to God to ravish him and overcome all of his resistance—“Batter my heart, three-person’d God” (Holy Sonnet XIV)—yet still the poet must invite the ravishment of his Savior. The Catholic position is succinctly stated by St Augustine: “He who created thee without thee will not justify thee without thee.”

The Catholic Catechism is equally emphatic on the necessity of prevenient grace for conversion to Christ:

The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification in accordance with Jesus’ proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high. “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man. (1989)

Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent. (1993)

Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life. (1996)

Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life: by Baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ, the Head of his Body. As an “adopted son” he can henceforth call God “Father,” in union with the only Son. He receives the life of the Spirit who breathes charity into him and who forms the Church. This vocation to eternal life is supernatural. It depends entirely on God’s gratuitous initiative, for he alone can reveal and give himself. It surpasses the power of human intellect and will, as that of every other creature. (1997-1998)

The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. This latter is needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity. God brings to completion in us what he has begun, “since he who completes his work by cooperating with our will began by working so that we might will it.” (2001)

If the canons of the Council of Orange are allowed to define the heresy of Semi-Pelagianism, then clearly the formal teaching of the Catholic Church, as dogmatically formulated by the Council of Trent and authoritatively stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is not Semi-Pelagian. The sola gratia is strongly and emphatically asserted. Even the beginning of faith is by grace alone.

11 September 2006


“When the Lord returns, what will he be looking for, what will he expect, what will he do?” So asks Dwight over at Versus Populum. This is the key question, is it not? When Jesus returns in glory to judge the quick and the dead, how will he judge us?

Dwight is dissatisfied with the typical, though not universal, Lutheran answer, which he formulates as follows:

If you simply allow Jesus to love you, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done, who you are, why you have lived the way you have. As long as you don’t put up a big “no” to him, he will usher you into his Father’s kingdom….

Dwight sardonically comments, “All that matters, apparently, is day by day reassuring myself of my personal salvation by repeating the mantra, ‘I am saved by God’s gracious loving act.'” Dwight, of course, knows full well that that any good Lutheran preacher or theologian would object to the caricature, and rightly so—yet who hasn’t heard this construal of grace promoted from the pulpit, whether it be Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, or evangelical? I know that I more than frequently preached this message during my twenty-five years as an Episcopal priest: Final salvation is a free gift. Christ has borne God’s judgment against sin on the cross. We are justified by faith, not by works. All we need do, can do, is trust in the One who has fulfilled the law, including the law of faith, for us and in us.

My heart resonates with this message as much today as twenty-five years ago. Precisely because I am a spiritual and moral failure, I have clung to the (Lutheran) gospel of unconditional grace and have taught it to my parishioners as gospel, the gospel, without qualification or reservation. I learned this gospel well through the writings of Thomas Torrance and Robert Jenson. And so I preached and taught.

Yet periodically a text would show up in the Episcopal lectionary that seemed to say something different. My Protestant commentaries would always provide an exegetical “solution” to these difficult texts and thus allow me to continue to believe and preach my gospel of unconditional grace; but given that the “plain meaning” of these difficult texts seemed to contradict my gospel, I invariably chose to preach on something else. Thank goodness there are always three lessons from which to choose each Sunday! And thanks to the miracle of the lectionary cycle, the most difficult text of all, Jesus’ parable of the last judgment (Matt 25:31-46), only appears once every three years. Occasionally a parishioner would cite precisely this parable and ask me how it can be reconciled with my claim that we are judged by faith alone. At such moments I would immediately retreat to the Apostle Paul and insist that the parable does not mean what it seems to mean.

But what if a retreat to Paul is impossible? What if even the Apostle of grace teaches final judgment by works? This is the thesis of Chris VanLandingham’s new book, Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul.

VanLandingham asks us to put aside our confessional spectacles and to take seriously the plain meaning of St Paul’s teaching about the final judgment. When we do so, he argues, we will discover that Paul believed, just as his Jewish contemporaries believed, that “an individual’s behavior during his or her lifetime provides the criterion for this judgment: good behavior is rewarded with eternal life, bad behavior with damnation” (p. 13). Paul may have differed with his fellow Jews on precisely which deeds were proscribed, permitted, or required; but he remained thoroughly Jewish in his conviction that the final judgment was based on deeds: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Rom 2:13). VanLandingham therefore denies that the justification that occurs at the beginning of Christian existence is properly understood as a proleptic experience of the final judgment—God’s eschatological judgment let loose in history, as one of my professors liked to put it. Paul, VanLandingham insists, consistently distinguishes between the two justifications.

But what about all the scholarship that maintains that the Pauline dikai– words assuredly convey a forensic and eschatological sense? It’s wrong, VanLandingham bluntly asserts, just flat wrong:

I contend that even if on occasion dikai– terms are forensic, in Paul at least, the terms do not refer to the Last Judgment. Paul does not, in fact, use the dikai– terms (conjunction with “faith”) in reference to the Last Judgment, that is, the judgment that determines one’s eternal destiny. The issue does not need to be whether the terms (in conjunction with “faith”) are forensic, but whether they refer specifically to the Last Judgment. Paul’s use of the dikai– terms (in conjunction with “faith”), however, does not evoke any judgment or divine determination, and if any divine determination, then certainly not the Last Judgment. … The dikai– terms in Paul do not refer to an acquittal at the Last Judgment. Rather, Paul employs the dikai– terms, as they describe the initial effects of the Christ event for believers, to embrace both the notions of (1) forgiveness, cleansing, and purification of past sins and (2) an emancipation from sin as a ruler over humanity. As such, the dikai– terms are qualitative since they describe the believer’s state of being. The various dikai-terms all refer to the same quality or effect of Jesus’ death upon the believer. Other than their grammatical distinctions, therefore, the best rendering of dikaiosunê is “righteousness,” of dikaios, “righteous,” and of dikaioô, “make righteous.” This sense of the verb, though largely disputed, signifies the transferral from the state of unrighteousness and sin to the state of righteousness, and in regard to sin as a ruler, from bondage to emancipation. Both context and verbal tenses dictate that the verb typically denotes the beginning of the believer’s new life, not the event of the Last Judgment. The usual translation “to justify,” which indicates the notion of acquittal at the Last Judgment, is most difficult to reconcile in several places: 1 Cor 6:11; Gal 2:17; Rom 3:24-25; and Rom 6:7. … Paul never says the dikai– terms, as he uses them with regard to Jesus’ death, refer to the Last Judgment. Only rarely does he associate them with the Last Judgment, but even then nothing demands that they refer only to a status in relation to the court. To the contrary, on these occasions they just as easily could, and, in fact, do refer to character and state of being—they bring out publicly only what one really is. This sense is verified outside of Paul when the dikai– terms are used in association with the Last Judgment (Matt 12:34-37; 25:37, 46; 2 Tim 4:8; 1 Peter 4:17-18; 2 Bar. 24:1-2; 51:1, 3). (pp. 245, 331)

I am particularly intrigued by VanLandingham’s analysis of dikaioô. He notes that the word is used in a variety of senses in classical Greek, Jewish, and Christian literature. He does not deny that the word sometimes conveys a forensic sense, but he does assert that it “does not usually mean ‘to acquit'” (p. 256). On five occasions dikaioô clearly means “to make righteous” (Ps 72:13; Luke 18:14; Jas 2:21, 24, 25). In the absence of compelling contrary evidence, says VanLandingham, we should assume continuity between Paul and popular usage. This Protestant exegete, in other words, thus finds himself in basic agreement with St Jerome and the Vulgate.

I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that if VanLandingham’s exegesis of the Apostle Paul stands up against critical scrutiny, it will initiate a revolution in Pauline studies. Given my lack of competence in Greek and New Testament studies, I am unable to offer any judgment on the matters addressed; but I am impressed by VanLandingham’s thoroughness. Clearly he knows well the Scriptures and the intertestamental literature, as well as the secondary scholarship.

What are the consequences for the various Christian traditions should VanLandingham’s exegesis prove sound? The Catholic and Orthodox traditions will have no problem absorbing his exegesis, since it basically confirms the consensual exegesis of Paul in the first millenium. Arminians, too, should be able to receive his exegesis, given their affirmation of salvation as synergistic process, yet it will still require some significant adjustments on their part. But VanLandingham’s book represents a direct attack on the fundamental positions of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions. If he is right, the Lutheran and Reformed confessions are wrong. No longer will Lutherans be able to proclaim that the Scripture teaches that believers experience the eschatological acquittal in the present moment of faith. No longer will Reformeds be able to declare that the Scripture teaches the forensic imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer.

One final thought: I would love to see Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul reviewed by N. T. Wright. Wright has struggled in his recent writings on Paul to relate present justification and future justification. Regarding the latter, Wright has written: “Future justification, acquittal at the last great Assize, always takes place on the basis of the totality of the life lived.”

20 December 2006


The Catholic Church formally teaches that sinners must earn their way into heaven through good works.

The allegation has been forcefully advanced for the past five hundred years and continues to be advanced to justify corporate separation from the bishop of Rome and to dissuade individual conversions to the Catholic Church.

The allegation is false.

A perusal of the Catechism of the Catholic Church reveals that the Catholic Church clearly teaches that salvation is by grace and grace alone.

Justification has been merited for us by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men. Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy. Its purpose is the glory of God and of Christ, and the gift of eternal life. (CCC 1992)

But what the Catholic Church means by sola gratia is different from what the Lutheran and Reformed Churches mean by the phrase. What precisely is this difference and why the difference?

I propose the following: The Lutheran and Reformed Churches understand the sola gratia as requiring the elimination of all human activity from the salvific equation. Each accomplishes this elimination in its own way. Lutherans speak of imputation and the passivity of justifying faith; Calvinists speak of absolute divine predestination. This is a simplification, of course. A wide diversity of theological expression exists in each tradition. Yet I think that the simplification holds. Reformation faith seeks to ground the salvation of the believer so completely in the work of God that the believer contributes absolutely nothing to his attainment of eternal life. Only if God does all is personal certainty of salvation possible, and it is this desire for certainty that drives both the Lutheran and Reformed traditions. As Phillip Cary states, Lutherans and Calvinists are “monergists about salvation.”

It is at this point that the Catholic Church and the Reformation separate. While the Catholic Church affirms that justification is freely given in Holy Baptism, she also affirms that believers must cooperate with God’s grace to retain their status of justification and thus gain eternal life. “Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent” (CCC 1993). This is the significance of the Tridentine assertion that the baptized may merit final justification. This language of merit accomplishes two things: first, it reminds the believer that life in Christ is a work in process, a work to which he may and must contribute and which he is free to abandon (God forbid); second, it reminds the believer that God is irrevocably committed to his salvation—at each step of the way the divine Lover graciously makes himself present to the believer and “rewards” him with sufficient grace to bring him to his heavenly destination. Though this may sound like a crass quid pro quo transactionalism, it in fact is not. The scholastic language of merit and reward must be interpreted in light of God’s infinite mercy showered upon mankind in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Par caritas, par meritum: “love is the measure of merit.” Justice has been gathered up into absolute love. Who, after all, are said to merit eternal life? Only those who have been freely justified in Holy Baptism, reborn by the Spirit, adopted as sons in the eternal Son, and incorporated into the divine life of the Holy Trinity. Merit is predicated upon prevenient grace, forgiveness, regeneration, adoption, theosis. God “must” reward the perseveringly faithful with heaven—indeed it would be incomprehensible and the most profound and unjust betrayal if he were to do otherwise—because they already live in heaven and have become heaven. Those whom God has freely made to be his heirs have a “right” to their inheritance. In the words of Piet Fransen:

Growth in grace is ordained by the Spirit toward its final fulfillment in Christ. This statement of fact is just another way for us to understand how grace on earth can merit heaven. Heaven is nothing else than the final revelation of what we have become through grace. (The New Life of Grace, p. 220)

The works of love, because they are performed by those who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, may thus be said to merit the final reward of eternal life, which is the consummation of the state of justification into which the baptized have been gratuitously brought. These works have a real value before God, because they flow from the love that God has planted in their hearts. But the reward of eternal life is due to them, as John Henry Newman writes, “only in consequence of the promise of God. Good works have on this ground a claim on God’s faithfulness to His promises, and thereby a claim on His justice, for it would be unjust to promise and not fulfil.”

All lovers know that the bonds of love transcend right or honor. Love is a miracle. I cannot earn the love of my beloved by my achievements. She either loves me or she does not. Yet love also brings the most intense obligations—hence the profound sense of betrayal when solemn promises are broken and trust is violated. “Love does away with ‘merit’ by the very intensity to which it attains,” explains Fransen (p. 205). The employment of merit and reward to speak of growth in grace and final justification began early in the Tradition and needs to be respected; but it is easily misunderstood. At no point does merit become a basis for boasting before the Lord and others: “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty” (Lk 17:10). Perhaps this is why sermons about meriting salvation have largely disappeared from Catholic preaching. Hans Urs von Balthasar has proposed the replacement of merit by the biblical term fruitfulness:

The gospel may promise a “reward in heaven” to a faith that is rightly lived out, but faith itself is very far from calculating any “merit” that may bring about such a reward. The word “merit,” insofar as it concerns some value conferring a right to something, is theologically an unhappy term that would be better dropped. (In tradition it very often has a quite different sense, namely, “being found worthy” by God: tu quae meruisi portare …) We need have no qualms about dropping the word, for there is a biblical word ready to replace it: fruitfulness. God responds to Abraham’s faith in this way: “I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you” (Gen 17:6). The Lord is always using the word in his parables. In John it is the grain of wheat, which dies in the earth, that brings forth much fruit. The metaphor of the vine is even clearer. Apart from Jesus a man can do “nothing,” but if he abides in him he brings forth “much” fruit. If he fails to do this, he is removed; if he succeeds, he is “cleansed,” cut back in order to produce “even more fruit.” (In the Fullness of Faith, pp. 74-75)

Fruitfulness expresses the important truth that the Holy Spirit transforms sinners into saints, into persons capable of selflessly loving God and neighbor. To live in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is to live a new life of self-giving and fruitfulness. Grace either incarnates itself in faith, worship, and godly living; or it is never received. Once again, no one can earn this new life nor achieve it by his own efforts. Only the Creator can communicate his supernatural energies to sinners and make them new creations; only the Creator can infuse the theological virtues of love, faith, and hope into sinners and conform them to Christ. But though the sinner cannot accomplish the life of grace apart from grace, within this life he is given the freedom to cooperate with grace and to grow in the life of the Spirit, with all of its risks and challenges. God wants lovers, partners, and co-workers, not automatons.

I remain unpersuaded, however, that fruitfulness expresses everything intended by the notion of merit. Absent from its semantic range of meaning is covenantal fidelity. Merit is only possible because God is faithful to his promises. Our Lord and Savior has irrevocably committed himself to his Church and summons his followers to claim his promises and rely upon them. These promises undergird the daily and life-long drama that is Christian life. Precisely because final salvation is not monergistically given, these divine assurances are practically necessary. The believer needs to know that God will provide him the power to love, hope, believe, and obey and will reward his efforts with even more grace and power. He needs to know that his daily pursuit of holiness unto eternal salvation will not come to nought. God thus invites believers to trust his word and to live their lives in confident hope. In the oft-quoted words of St Augustine: “God’s goodness toward men is such that he wants his gifts to be their merits.”

Lutherans and Reformed are typically horrified by the Catholic assertion of salvific synergism. Often they will describe the Catholic understanding as Semi-Pelagian. But the charge is false. The formal teaching of the Catholic Church on justification is directly continuous with the teaching of St Augustine and the Second Synod of Orange. I well understand the desire to remove from the sinner the possibility of throwing away, through mortal sin, the precious gift of eternal life given to him in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. I, too, wish to be relieved of moral responsibility for my eternal destiny. I, too, wish God would assure me that I will never refuse his love and will persevere to the end in repentant faith. I, too, wish to know with indubitable certainty that I will gain heaven. But the gospel does not guarantee me my final salvation apart from my repentance, cooperation, and faithfulness. It only guarantees me the absolute love and mercy of the hound of heaven who will chase me relentlessly unto glory. The gospel promises me that God has given me and will give me sufficient and abundant grace to appropriate the freely-offered gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. But he will not take away my freedom. He loves me too much to do so.

12 November 2006


Bad Reason #3

The Catholic Church does not teach that sinners are saved by faith alone.

This statement is absolutely true. The Catholic Church does not teach faith alone. She does not teach faith alone because she judges it to be unbiblical, unpatristic, and uncatholic. She does not teach it because she judges it to be, at best, a one-sided and misleading statement of the truth and, at worst, a heretical distortion of the truth.

Of course, having said this, I do not deny that it’s possible to construe the sola fide in ways acceptable to Catholic doctrine. Hans Küng devoted a chapter of his book Justification to faith alone. “‘Sola fide’ makes good sense,” he writes, “when it is used to express … the total incapacity of man for any kind of self-justification. In justification the sinner can give nothing which he does not receive by God’s grace. He stands there with his hands entirely empty. … Thus man is justified through God’s grace alone; man achieves nothing; there is no human activity. Rather man simply submits to the justification of God; he does not do works; he believes: ‘In this that he believes in God who justifies, he submits to his justification and thus receives its effect’ (Thomas Aquinas In Rom. 4.5)” (pp. 250-251). But lest this be misunderstood, it must also be remembered that according to Catholic teaching, justification is sacramentally mediated, specifically in the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Penance. The sinner comes to these two sacraments not proclaiming his works and worthiness but his need for forgiveness and transforming grace. Only then does the Church baptize and absolve. As John Henry Newman declaimed: “None are justified but those who are grafted into the justified body; and faith is not an instrument of grafting, but a title to be grafted. It is baptism, ‘whereby, as an instrument, they that receive it rightly,’ that is, by faith, ‘are grafted into the Church.'”

When Catholic bishops and theologians heard the Reformers proclaiming “faith alone,” they heard them proclaiming an antinomian gospel: one can be justified by intellectual assent to the truths of revelation, apart from moral conversion and spiritual renewal. Hence the condemnation of the Council of Trent: “If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema” (Canon IX). Even the devils believe and tremble. Are they justified? Of course not. Lutherans, Reformed, and Anglicans rightly protest that this is not what they mean by faith alone. John Calvin writes, “It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone.” Yet Catholic unease with the Reformation sola fide continues. How indeed can it not continue, given the emphatic statement of the Apostle James: “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24; my emphasis).

Much ink has been spilt by Protestants and Catholics in the interpretation of the Epistle of James. The plain meaning of the text itself, however, seems clear: our moral actions contribute to our justification before God. “Can words be plainer,” wonders Newman, “were it not that they are forced into connection with a theory of the sixteenth century.” What is perhaps not clear, or at least has not been clear to Protestants for the past four hundred years, is how to harmonize the teaching of St James with the teaching of the Apostle Paul that we are “not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal 2:16). Some proposed solutions are ingenious to the point of incredulity. The Church Fathers, though, do not appear to have found the reconciliation of James and Paul to be a difficulty. Their solution is simple and elegant: before baptism sinners are incapable of living lives truly pleasing to God; after baptism they are so capable, because they have been justified in Christ, regenerated in the Holy Spirit and given a new freedom to cooperate with grace and accomplish good works unto salvation. St Augustine may be taken as representative. In his essay The Spirit and the Letter, Augustine comments on Paul’s saying that “the doers of the law shall be justified” (Rom 2:13):

The words “the doers of the law shall be justified” cannot mean that they are justified by works and not by grace: that would be to contradict his own statement that a man is justified freely by faith apart from the works of the law—where the word “freely” means simply that works do not come before justification. This he makes plain in another place: “if by grace, then not of works: else grace would be no longer grace.” That “the doers of the law shall be justified” must be taken in the sense that they can be doers of the law if, and only if, they be justified: so that justification does not follow but precede the doing. The word “justified” is equivalent to “made righteous”—made righteous by him who justifies the ungodly, so that he who was ungodly becomes righteous. The statement “men shall be made free” could only be understood to mean that freedom comes to persons who are already men. But the statement “men shall be created” could not possibly denote the creation of already existing men: it means the bringing of men into being as such by the act of creation. Similarly, if we were told that “the doers of the law shall be honoured,” we should properly understand the honour is to be given to those who are already doers of the law. But to say that “the doers of the law shall be justified” is equivalent to saying that “the just shall be justified”; for doers of the law are ipso facto just. We must take it therefore in the same way as we should understand “the doers of the law shall be created”: not because they were, but in order that they may be. So it should be made clear even to the Jewish hearers of the law that they need the grace of the justifier in order that they may become doers. (38)

To understand Augustine on justification, we must first understand that he, and with him the entire patristic tradition, did not teach justification by imputation. According to the doctor of grace, to be justified by God is to be made righteous; it is to be reborn in the Holy Spirit and made into a person capable of fulfilling the law of love. Augustine’s view is typically discounted by Protestants as a misreading of St Paul based on the Latin mistranslation of dikaioun as “make righteous” (iustificare); but in fact the Greek Fathers often read dikaioun as a making righteous (see, e.g., John Chrysostom’s homilies on Romans), and it was this reading that guided the Latin translators. St Jerome did not pull iustificare out of his hat. As New Testament scholar Joseph Fitzmyer writes:

Yet the issue is whether or not one can leave dikaioun solely with the declarative denotation. Is God’s word, spoken in a verdict of acquittal, efficacious or not, i.e., does it terminate or not in a real change in the human beings so addressed? Or, to put it in terms of Kasemann’s thinking, is the “power” (Macht) of the righteous God effective in his declaration? If we admitted above that the piel and hiphil of Hebrew sdq were delocutive, we also have to realize that the Greek contract verb diakioun used in the LXX belongs to a class that is normally factitive in meaning (e.g., deloun, “make clear”; douloun, “enslave”). Since patristic times diakioun has been understood by Greek interpreters of Paul to mean “make righteous.” Indeed, this even seems to be suggested by Rom 5:19 itself. Here one may recall the OT notion of God’s word as effective (Isa 55:10-11). Yet it is not merely that God’s creative power “makes” the sinner anew (that would be to confuse the images again!), but rather that God’s declarative justifying power even makes the sinner righteous. (Righteousness in the New Testament, p. 208)

The Protestant reformulation of justification as forensic declaration, with the accompanying sola fide, represents a significant departure from the Church’s understanding of justification. It elevates the forensic metaphor to a determinative position, thereby distorting our reading of the New Testament, and introduces a bifurcation in baptismal humanity. Justification is reduced to a change in the legal status of the sinner without a necessary change in his ontological reality. The baptized become simul iustus, simul peccator.

There are, of course, ways to articulate the Reformation simul that are acceptable to Catholic theology (see, e.g., Balthasar). It is also important to remember that the Lutheran construal of the simul is not identical to Reformed and Anglican construals. But as popularly presented, the simul iustus, simul peccator must be judged as grievously flawed. Ultimately it leaves us with the image of a pile of shite covered with snow. We are accepted just as we are in all of our wickedness, as we await our eschatological transformation. Precisely because justification is by imputation, from baptism to death, we are revealed to be ungodly, from baptism to death. There is no movement in this life from sin to sanctity. Imputation creates the personal possession by faith of two mutually exclusive states of being: we are simultaneously totally righteous, totally unrighteous. Gerhard Forde puts the matter thusly:

Since God has to impute righteousness we must be sinners. It would make no sense for him to impute righteousness if we were already wholly or partially righteous or even had some hope of becoming so according to our legal schemes. … The iustia exists simultaneously with the peccatum. The unconditional act of justification exposes; by declaring us to be just, it reveals us as sinners. In the light of the totality of justification, sin is confessed simultaneously as a total state. The justifying deed therefore does not remove sin in the sense one might accord a moral or legal scheme; it exposes it. As if the more light you get, the more dirt you see! And the miracle is that God nevertheless does business with sinners—in just that way. (Justification by Faith—A Matter of Death and Life, pp. 30, 43).

There can be no growth in holiness, therefore, for there is no escaping in this life the totality of our sinfulness. Sanctification is simply believing the divine imputation. Here is the evangelical cutting edge of the sola fide. What must we do to be saved? Absolutely nothing, Forde replies! We are saved by faith alone, by believing the imputational promise spoken to us. There can be no more righteousness than that which is given to us, has been given to us, in the gospel. No more can be done; no more can be given. All we can do, need do, is believe. Just shut up and listen! So construed, faith alone excludes all increase in sanctity and righteousness. “The ‘progress’ of the Christian therefore,” explains Forde, “is the progress of one who has constantly to get used to the fact that we are justified totally by faith” (p. 51). Sanctification is the life-long internalization of the truth that we do not have to do anything, for Christ has done all and will do all. Sanctification is a daily self-forgetting—allowing oneself to be grasped by the promise of unconditional grace. For the justified, the only question that remains is “What am going to do now that I do not have to do anything?” But who before Luther ever understood life in grace in this way? By a single phrase, sola fide, the Reformation overthrows the ascetical tradition of the Church and mocks the lives of her saints.

To understand Augustine on justification, we must, secondly, understand that he, and with him the entire patristic tradition, teaches that justification is a process of becoming righteous. This may sound strange to those accustomed to the strict Reformation distinguishment between justification and sanctification; but the Church Fathers made no such distinction, at least not consistently, and would have denied the presence of such a strict and decisive distinction in the New Testament (see Phillip Cary, “The Righteousness of St Augustine“). Life in Christ is a journey toward God within the life of God, a journey made possible by grace, supported and undergirded by grace, directed to grace. To grow in holiness is to grow in our justification and become more acceptable and pleasing to our Creator.

Justification may therefore be described as both event and process. It is event, for in Holy Baptism God absolves the sinner of all his sins and regenerates him in the Holy Spirit. It is process, for in Holy Baptism God establishes a friendship with the believer, a friendship that can be strengthened and deepened as the believer conforms himself to Christ through prayer, sacrifice, and good works, but which can also be injured or lost through grievous sin and impiety. Within this baptismal relationship of love, Augustine, unlike the Eastern Fathers, is also willing to speak of the meritorious quality of good works and their proper reward in eternal life. “For the works of the law,” writes Augustine, “are meritorious not before but after justification” (On Faith and Works 21). Alister McGrath summarizes:

Once justified by divine action, the sinner does not at once become a perfect example of holiness. Humans need to pray to God continually for their growth in holiness and the spiritual life, thereby acknowledging that God is the author of both. God operates upon humans in the act of justification, and co-operates with them in the process of justification. Once justified, the sinner may begin to acquire merit—but only on account of God’s grace. Merit is seen to be a divine rather than a human work. Thus it is clearly wrong to suggest that Augustine excludes or denies merit; while merit before justification is indeed denied, its reality and necessity after justification are equally strongly affirmed. It must be noted, however, that Augustine understands merit as a gift from God to the justified sinner … Hominis bona merita, Dei munera. Eternal life is indeed the reward for merit—but merit is itself a gift from God, so that the whole process must be seen as having its origin in the divine liberality, rather than in human works. If God is under any obligation to humans on account of their merit, it is an obligation which God has imposed upon himself, rather than one which is imposed from outside, or is inherent in the nature of things. … There is no hint in Augustine of any notion of justification purely in terms of ‘reputing as righteous’ or ‘treating as righteous’, as if this state of affairs could come into being without the moral or spiritual transformation of humanity of grace. The pervasive trajectory of Augustine’s thought is unambiguous: justification is a causative process, by which an ungodly person is made righteous. It is about the transformation of the impius to iustus.

Augustine has an all-embracing transformative understanding of justification, which includes both the event of justification (brought about by operative grace) and the process of justification (brought about by operative grace). Augustine himself does not, in fact, see any need to distinguish between these two aspects of justification; the distinction dates from the sixteenth century. … The righteousness which God bestows upon humanity in justification is regarded by Augustine as inherent rather than imputed, to anticipate the vocabulary of the sixteenth century. A concept of ‘imputed righteousness’, in the later Protestant sense of the term, is quite redundant within Augustine’s doctrine of justification, in that humans are made righteous in justification. The righteousness which they thus receive, although originating from God, is nevertheless located within humans, and can be said to be theirs, part of their being and intrinsic to their persons. An element which underlies this understanding of the nature of justifying righteousness is the Greek concept of deification, which makes its appearance in the later Augustinian soteriology. By charity, the Trinity itself comes to inhabit the soul of the justified sinner. (Iustitia Dei, pp. 43-44, 47-48)

Within a transformative construction of justification, faith alone can only have a limited role—specifically, it can only properly refer to that faith that brings the sinner to the sacramental waters of regeneration. In fact, St Augustine even wrote a tract to refute a fifth century version of the sola fideOn Faith and Works. It is true, says Augustine, that neither ceremonial nor moral works justify the unbaptized. They do not justify because they are not performed in true love of God and neighbor, which is only possible to those who have been born again by water and Holy Spirit. Not even faith, which Augustine understands as assent to revealed truth, can justify: St Paul “does not say that any faith in God is good, but he says clearly that that faith is good and in conformity with the teaching of the gospel which results in works of love; and faith, he says, that worketh by charity. As for that faith which some think is sufficient for salvation, he says that it profits nothing: If I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. On the other hand, where faith is joined to charity, there without doubt you will find a good life, for charity is the fulfillment of the law. … For faith that saves is not the faith which the devils have and which is correctly called a dead faith, but the faith which works by charity” (21, 30).

For St Augustine, therefore, it is love that most truly justifies, for love is the Holy Spirit who indwells the hearts of the faithful. Love is the life of God. To be saved is to share in the divine life of the Holy Trinity; to be saved is to love and to freely perform the works of love. Because grievous sin kills the divine life within us, we may not offer assurance of eternal life to those who are living in sin, even if they profess the Christian faith:

Let us take care, therefore, with the help of the Lord God, not to make men falsely secure by saying to them that, as long as they are baptized in Christ and have the faith, they will be saved, no matter what kind of life they lead. Let us not make Christians the way the Jews make proselytes, concerning whom the Lord says: Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, who compass sea and land to make one proselyte, but after you have made him, you make him the child of hell twofold more than yourselves. Let us rather hold fast to the true doctrine of God, our Master, holding fast to both these truths, namely, that a Christian’s life should harmonize with the sacred character of the sacrament of baptism, and that eternal life should not be promised to anyone who is either not baptized or not leading a good life. For it is Christ who said: Unless a man be born again of the Holy Spirit, he will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. And it is Christ who also said: Unless your justice abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. And concerning these same scribes and Pharisees He says: The scribes and Pharisees sits on the chair of Moses; what things they say, do; but what they do, do not. Their righteousness, therefore, consists in “saying and not doing.” It is evident from this reproach that our Lord wills that our righteousness abound more than the “saying and doing” of the scribes and Pharisees; if it does not, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (48)

There is no doubt that St Augustine here represents the consensual tradition of the Church. Is it any wonder that the Catholic Church has refused to confess justification by faith alone?

23 November 2006


Last month, Gerald Hiestand published a three-part series in response to my November article on Catholicism and the sola fide, “Bad Reason #3 Not to Become Catholic.” With the holidays now concluded I have finally had time to read through his pieces. I wish to thank him for the time and thought he invested in this series, as well as for the irenic spirit in which they were written. Not being terribly irenic myself, I am always grateful when I run into it in others. I am a relative newcomer to St Augustine, and welcome the opportunity to learn more about him. I would like to offer a response to part 3 of Gerald’s series.

I want to first note an unfortunate conflation of faith and grace in Gerald’s argument. In the first paragraph he writes, “And though I am largely comfortable with Al’s portrayal of Augustine, I am less comfortable with Al’s use of Augustine as ‘representative of the Church’s consensual opinion’ that ‘justification is by faith plus works.’” He then immediately goes on to say, “I had originally intended to make my case by quoting a number of passages from Augustine demonstrating his insistence that justification is by grace apart from works.” Note how he has substituted grace for faith. After two quotations from Augustine, Gerald then writes, “At no point in any of Augustine’s writing have I ever read him to state that salvation/justification is by grace plus works. He simply does not use this language.” I of course absolutely agree that Augustine does not teach grace plus works. I never stated that he did. Perhaps Gerald has simply mistyped, yet this confusion of grace and faith seems to work its way throughout his piece, particularly in his own construal of the Catholic understanding of justification. Let me emphatically state: the Catholic Church does not teach salvation by grace and works. She teaches salvation by grace alone.

At the conclusion of the second paragraph, Gerald catches himself and returns to “faith”: “I sincerely welcome any of my readers to show me a passage where Augustine—without qualification—explicitly teaches that justification is by faith plus works.” Now I have not studied Augustine nearly as extensively and well as Gerald, but I am acquainted with one tract where Augustine in fact addresses this question in response to the antinomianism of his day: On Faith and Works. While Augustine does not say, without qualification, that we are justified by faith plus works, he does assert both the inadequacy of faith alone and the salvific necessity of works:

Let us now consider the question of faith. In the first place, we feel that we should advise the faithful that they would endanger the salvation of their souls if they acted on the false assurance that faith alone is sufficient for salvation or that they need not perform good works in order to be saved. This, in fact, is what some had thought even in the time of the apostles. For at that time there were some who did not understand certain rather obscure passages of St. Paul, and who thought therefore that he had said: Let us do evil that there may come good. They thought that this was what St. Paul meant when he said: The law entered in that sin might abound. But what St. Paul means here is this: when man received the law, he presumed too much on his own strength. He was too proud to ask God’s help, as he should have done, that he might overcome his evil desires. The result was that his sins were now more and greater because of the law which he did not observe. When he realized his guilt, he turned to the faith for pardon and for help from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. Thus it was necessary that the Holy Spirit fill his heart with love, in order that he might overcome his evil desires and perform out of love for God whatever God commanded him. This is what St. Paul means, and this too is what the Psalmist means when he says: Their infirmities were multiplied; afterwards they made haste.

When St. Paul says, therefore, that man is justified by faith and not by the observance of the law, he does not mean that good works are not necessary or that it is enough to receive and to profess the faith and no more. What he means rather and what he wants us to understand is that man can be justified by faith, even though he has not previously performed any works of the law. For the works of the law are meritorious not before but after justification. …

As we said above, this opinion originated in the time of the apostles, and that is why we find some of them, for example, Peter, John, James, and Jude, writing against it in their epistles and asserting very strongly that faith is no good without works. And as regards Paul himself, he does not say that any faith in God is good, but he says clearly that that faith is good and in conformity with the teaching of the gospel which results in works of love: and faith, he says, that worketh by charity. As for that faith which some think is sufficient for salvation, he says that it profits nothing: If I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. On the other hand, where faith is joined to charity, there without doubt you will find a good life, for charity is the fulfilment of the law. (21)

St. Paul has the same mind on the question of eternal salvation as have all the other apostles, namely, that eternal salvation will not be given except to those who lead a good life. (22)

St. James, moreover, is so opposed to those who think that faith can save without good works that he compares them to devils. You believe, he says, that there is one God? You do well; the devils also believe and tremble. Could he have said anything more concise, more true, more forceful, since, as we read in the Gospel, this is what the devils professed when they acknowledged that Christ is the Son of God? But Christ rebuked the devils, while, on the contrary, he praised St. Peter for making the same profession. St. James says also: What shall we profit, my brethren, if a man say he has faith, but has not works? Shall faith be able to save him? And in other place he says that faith without works is dead. See, then, what a great mistake they make who think that they can be saved by a faith that is dead! (23)

Throughout the tract, St Augustine maintains a distinction between faith qua faith, which does not save, and faith that works by charity, which does save. I do not recall if Augustine offers a precise definition of faith in On Faith and Works; but it’s clear that he understands faith as something that the baptized can have even while continuing in grievous sin. This faith is dead, because it is not united to love and therefore does not manifest itself in obedience and good works. “Faith can exist without love, on the basis of Augustine’s strongly intellectualist concept of faith,” writes Alister McGrath, “but is of no value in the sight of God. God’s other gifts, such as faith and hope, cannot bring us to God unless they are accompanied or preceded by love. The motif of amor Dei dominates Augustine’s theology of justification, just as that of sola fide would dominate that of one of his later interpreters. Faith without love is of no value” (Iustia Dei, p. 45). What then is faith? According to McGrath, faith for Augustine is assent to revealed truth (p. 46). What saves for Augustine is not faith but the love that has been shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. In love we are united to the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—this is our salvation.

Works are essentially connected to salvation, i.e., meritorious, because love for God and neighbor necessarily expresses itself in obedience and good works. Augustine writes, “For a good life is inseparable from faith, from that faith that works by charity; in fact, they are one and the same” (42). It is not sufficient to confess Christ, says Augustine, citing 1 John 2:3-4; we must obey his commandments. A faith devoid of good works is no better than the faith of demons (40). For this reason, persistence in grievous sin cuts one off from the life of God and eternal salvation:

Let us take care, therefore, with the help of the Lord God, not to make men falsely secure by saying to them that, as long as they are baptized in Christ and have the faith, they will be saved, no matter what kind of life they lead. … Let us rather hold fast to the true doctrine of God, our Master, holding fast to both these truths, namely, that a Christian’s life should harmonize with the sacred character of the sacrament of baptism, and that eternal life should not be promised to anyone who is either not baptized or not leading a good life. For it is Christ who said: Unless a man born again of the Holy Spirit, he will not enter into the kingdom of heaven. and it is Christ who also said: Unless your justice abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.. And concerning these same scribes and Pharisees He says: The scribes and Pharisees sit on the chair of Moses; what things they say, do; but what they do, do not. Their righteousness, therefore, consists in “saying and not doing.” It is evident from this reproach that our Lord wills that our righteousness abound more than the “saying and doing” of the scribes and Pharisees; if it does not, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (48)

I am therefore perplexed why Gerald is curious that I have no hesitancy “using Augustine as representative of the Catholic position that ‘justification is by faith plus works.'” Clearly for Augustine, saving faith is faith plus; the only question is plus what. “Faith plus works” is certainly not the most accurate description of either Augustine’s views on justification or the formal teaching of the Catholic Church, but I have never stated that it was. This phrase is Gerald’s, not mine. For both Augustine and the Catholic Church, we are saved by faith informed by love that expresses itself in deeds. This love is not a love that we can create of ourselves from ourselves. It flows from our baptismal union with Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit who is love. It is this joining of faith and love that distinguishes the Catholic understanding of justification from the Reformation understandings and which firmly and clearly parks Augustine in the Catholic camp.

In the debates preceding the final composition of the Decree on Justification, the council fathers quoted St Augustine more than any other theologian. (Aquinas was second.) Augustine’s voice rings throughout the decree. It is not surprising that at the crucial moment when Trent defined the formal cause of justification, it chose the phraseology of Augustine: “the justice of God, not that by which He Himself is just, but that by which He makes us just” (chap. 7). I am not suggesting that Tridentine soteriology is identical to that of Augustine’s—notably absent, for example, is Augustine’s thesis of absolute predestination—but I do assert that its essential structure is Augustinian. Prevenient grace; faith as divine gift; the union of pardon, adoption, and spiritual renewal within the one divine act of justification; baptismal regeneration; the distinction between initial justification and final salvation; cooperative grace; the necessity of perseverance and the possibility of losing one’s justification through mortal sin; meritorious works through grace—these are all Augustinian notes adopted by the Council of Trent.

Midway through his article Gerald finally concedes that “Augustine’s position on justification is substantively representative of Tridentine soteriology,” but he then suggests that the Reformation construals of justification are semantically closer to Augustine than are Catholic construals. I’m not sure what this means or why Gerald thinks this is relevant. Surely what is important is what Catholics and Protestants mean by the words they use. It may well be true that Catholic/Protestant disagreements in the past have been, at least partially, due to terminological misunderstanding and confusion—one example of such terminological confusion are the different meanings assigned by both Protestant and Catholic theologians to the word faith—but as the American Lutheran/Catholic ecumenical dialogue acknowledged in its 1985 report, Justification by Faith, the heart of the dispute lies in a clash between models of salvation: the Catholic Church maintained and refined the transformationist model inherited from Augustine; the Reformers advanced a new, indeed novel, model of simultaneity (simul iustus et peccator), with its assertion of imputational righteousness and a real distinction between justification and sanctification. (With the publication of the new research by Finnish Luther scholars, though, typecasting Martin Luther has become increasingly difficult.) Calvin in particular noted the difference between the two models:

Augustine’s view, or at any rate his manner of stating it, we must not entirely accept. For even though he admirably deprives man of all credit for righteousness and transfers it to God’s grace, he still subsumes grace under sanctification, by which we are reborn in newness of life through the Spirit. But Scripture, when it speaks of faith righteousness [i.e. justification] leads us to something far different: namely, to turn aside from the contemplation of our own works and look solely upon God’s mercy and Christ’s perfection. (Inst. 3:11.15f; quoted by Phillip Cary in “The ‘Righteousness’ of St Augustine“)

But I by no means wish to diminish the ecumenical convergence of the past two decades on the doctrine of justification. I simply wish to assert that when Catholicism refuses to affirm the Reformation “faith alone,” it is only being faithful to the Doctor of Grace, St Augustine of Hippo.

10 January 2007


Should justification by faith still be considered a church-dividing issue between Anglicanism and the Catholic Church? Fr Rob Sanders, who possesses a PhD in theology, thinks so. According to Sanders, Catholic teaching on justification “does not do justice to Scripture, to the holiness of God, the depth of human sin, the fallibility of our understanding of Christian truth, the power of Christ’s atonement, and the need for peace with God in regard to our salvation.” Strong words indeed, strong enough perhaps to deter orthodox Episcopalians and Anglicans from converting to Catholicism. Yet are they accurate? Are they true?

Fr Sanders informs us that his presentation of Catholic teaching faithfully represents the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, and he supports his presentation with several quotations; yet his presentation is misleading and quickly moves into caricature. It’s as if he knows Catholic vocabulary, but because he misunderstands Catholic syntax, he is unable to formulate meaningful Catholic sentences. No informed Catholic will recognize his faith in the Catholicism Sanders describes. Three examples:

(1) The Catholic position on justifications, says Sanders, can be summarily described in these words: “we, by our own works aided by grace, can be righteous before God.” There is a sense in which this is absolutely true. Catholicism, like Orthodoxy, Arminianism, and mainstream Anglicanism, is unabashedly synergistic. It teaches that regenerate believers are given a Spirit-enabled freedom to cooperate with God’s grace and therefore contribute to their sanctity and final salvation. Yet in saying this, four crucial Catholic points, none of which are mentioned by Sanders, need to be remembered:

First, justification is a merciful, gratuitous act of God, ordinarily accomplished in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. All who are baptized are justified, unless they have separated themselves from God through disbelief or mortal sin. As Fr William Most liked to say, we cannot earn our status as justified children of God, but we can “earn to lose it.”

Second, justification is nothing less than union with Christ and participation in the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All who by grace share in this divine life are righteous. In the words of the Catechism:

Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life: by Baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ, the Head of His Body. As an “adopted son” he can henceforth call God “Father,” in union with the only Son. He receives the life of the Spirit who breathes charity into him and forms the Church. (CCC 1997).

Third, the freedom to cooperate with divine grace is a fruit of renewal in the Holy Spirit. Sinful man outside of Christ does not possess this freedom. As the Council of Trent declared: “If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema” (canon 1); and “If any one saith, that the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, is given only for this, that man may be able more easily to live justly, and to merit eternal life, as if, by free will without grace, he were able to do both, though hardly indeed and with difficulty; let him be anathema” (canon 2).

Fourth, the works that contribute to final salvation occur within the saving relationship with God enacted in baptism. Only those who have been justified by grace and reborn by water and Holy Spirit are capable of working out their salvation in fear and trembling. In his grace and love, God brings us into the unmerited state of justification; and from this state flow the sanctifying works that sustain and strengthen it. As John Henry Newman writes: “For if our Life be verily and indeed hid with Christ in God, it follows, that, though we are bound to do our part and work with Him, such co-operation is the condition, not of our acceptance, or pardon, but of the continuance of that sacred Presence which is our true righteousness, as an immediate origin of it.”

(2) Noting the Catholic rejection of the Reformation construal of imputational righteousness, Sanders states, “For Rome, however, one cannot be both justified and a sinner since the only righteousness we possess is our own which cannot coexist with our unrighteousness.” Again, this is a sense in which this is true, but it must be rightly interpreted. It does not mean that justified Catholics may boast in their righteousness. As St Thérèse of Lisieux observes, even if we have done all that is commanded of us, we remain but unprofitable servants. Nor does it mean that justified Catholics do not acknowledge themselves as wretched sinners and pray for God’s forgiveness. We daily pray the words enjoined by our Lord, “forgive us our sins,” and the XVI Synod of Carthage anathematizes all who say that this petition is offered by the faithful only in words and not in truth. Despite new birth in the Spirit, disorder of desire and inclination to sin remains in the hearts of the baptized. But what justified Catholics cannot say is that they are now by nature objects of God’s wrath and condemnation; for they know and believe, by the divine promise of baptism, that they have been justified in Christ and made a new creation. Hence the explanation of concupiscence given by the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification:

Catholics hold that the grace of Jesus Christ imparted in baptism takes away all that is sin “in the proper sense” and that is “worthy of damnation” (Rom 8:1). There does, however, remain in the person an inclination (concupiscence) which comes from sin and presses toward sin. Since, according to Catholic conviction, human sins always involve a personal element and since this element is lacking in this inclination, Catholics do not see this inclination as sin in an authentic sense. They do not thereby deny that this inclination does not correspond to God’s original design for humanity and that it is objectively in contradiction to God and remains one’s enemy in lifelong struggle. Grateful for deliverance by Christ, they underscore that this inclination in contradiction to God does not merit the punishment of eternal death and does not separate the justified person from God. But when individuals voluntarily separate themselves from God, it is not enough to return to observing the commandments, for they must receive pardon and peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation through the word of forgiveness imparted to them in virtue of God’s reconciling work in Christ.

The Catholic, therefore, cannot affirm with his Protestant brothers and sisters that the baptized believer is simultaneously sinful and righteous, condemned and forgiven—at least not in the sense intended by Luther and the Reformation confessions. He whom God has made righteous in baptism is truly oriented in love to the eternal Good and thus free from divine condemnation. Nothing hateful to God remains in those who have been reborn by water and Holy Spirit. Yet the Catholic can also speak of degrees of righteousness and growth in justification and honestly acknowledge his ongoing struggle with sin and his daily failures to love God and his neighbor. Concupiscence constantly poses a radical threat to the believer. Existentially and concretely, therefore, the justified Christian knows that he is a sinner who is utterly dependent upon God’s grace and mercy. Each Sunday the Catholic recites: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.” This may not, at least initially, make much sense to those operating within the Anglican model of double justification; yet as the ARCIC participants discovered, the Catholic and Anglican formulations of justification really are not that far apart (see the ARCIC statement “Salvation and the Church”; also see my article “The Grand Question”).

(3) Sanders rightly notes that the Catechism defines faith in a comprehensive way, that includes both assent to divine revelation and obedience to God’s Word. As we read in the Catechism:

By faith man completely submits his intellect and his will to God. With his whole being man gives his assent to God the revealer. Sacred Scripture calls this human response to God, the author of revelation, “the obedience of faith.” (CCC 143)

To obey (from the Latin ob-audire, to “hear or listen to”) in faith is to submit freely to the word that has been heard, because its truth is guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself. The Virgin Mary is its most perfect embodiment. (CCC 144)

Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. As personal adherence to God and assent to his truth, Christian faith differs from our faith in any human person. It is right and just to entrust oneself wholly to God and to believe absolutely what he says. It would be futile and false to place such faith in a creature. (CCC 150)

This construal of faith is well grounded in Holy Scripture—a fact not acknowledged by Sanders—and enjoys ample patristic support. But it lacks, at least explicitly, that one element that is dear to the evangelical heart—unconditional trust in God’s promises (though one might reasonably argue that trust is necessarily included in “personal adherence to God”). This does not mean, however, that trust is foreign to the Catholic. It only means that we must look elsewhere in the Catechism to find a discussion of it; namely, we must look under the locus of hope:

Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit. “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” “The Holy Spirit … he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.”

The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspire men’s activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude. Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity.

Christian hope takes up and fulfills the hope of the chosen people which has its origin and model in the hope of Abraham, who was blessed abundantly by the promises of God fulfilled in Isaac, and who was purified by the test of the sacrifice. “Hoping against hope, he believed, and thus became the father of many nations.” (CCC 1817-1819)

Precisely because faith, as traditionally defined, does not include hope, and love, it cannot be said to be exclusively justifying (sola fide). “The devils also believe,” the Apostle James reminds us, “and tremble” (James 2:19). But at this point we are playing with words. It is easy enough for the Catholic to speak of faith as comprehending assent, repentance, trust, love, obedience, and hope—at which point it becomes identical to the “lively faith” of which the Anglican Homily on the True and Lively Faith speaks.

If faith includes obedience, then this would seem to imply, says Sanders, that “a certain degree of achieved righteousness is necessary to be saved.” A few paragraphs later Sanders expands his thought: “Since faith is assent to saving truths followed by obedience, it follows that the soul must be obeying the right moral and doctrinal norms for this obedience to save.” From this he then infers the necessity of the Catholic dogma of infallibility.

Now I have never read a Catholic defense of ecclesial infallibility along these lines, but this does not mean that it hasn’t been done. My acquaintance with the literature is limited. However, from what I can tell, the Catechism does not deduce the necessity of infallibility from the salvific necessity of obedient works. I would not expect it to do so, because the Catholic Church does not teach the salvific necessity of obedience in quite the way that Sanders thinks she does.

Sanders is correct. Justification is an achieved righteousness: specifically, it is achieved by God through supernatural transformation of the sinner (sanctifying grace). This is the meaning of the insistence of the Council of Trent that the formal cause of justification is the justice of God—“not that by which He Himself is just, but that by which He makes us just.” God’s love and forgiveness does not remain external to us but grasps us and makes us into new creatures in Christ. God alone justifies, and he accomplishes this justification through gratuitous, unmerited acts of love and mercy, mediated in the sacraments of baptism and penance. But once justified, believers are summoned to cooperate with divine grace and obey God’s commandments. As mentioned above, Catholicism is synergistic: redeemed believers are given a Spirit-enabled freedom to love God and obey his will. There is therefore a sense in which one might say that a Christian is justified by his grace-inspired works, yet only in a limited sense. Like all human beings, Christians are historical beings. They live in the world. Each day they make countless moral decisions that issue in moral and immoral actions. These decisions form who they are, both in relation to God and to their fellow human beings. Catholicism refuses to divorce the faith of the believer from his choices and actions in the world. There is no believing “I” who is not simultaneously embodying his faith or disfaith by his actions. “Show me your faith apart from your works,” writes St James, “and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). The Catholic Church therefore recognizes the moral seriousness of daily living. By our choices and actions, we are either growing toward God in love and faith, or we are growing away from God. As John Paul II explains: “By his fundamental choice, man is capable of giving his life direction and of progressing, with the help of grace, towards his end, following God’s call. But this capacity is actually exercised in the particular choices of specific actions, through which man deliberately conforms himself to God’s will, wisdom and law.” And it is possible, terribly, terribly possible, for the believer to separate himself from the love of God and lose his justification. He may do this by apostasy but also by committing serious sin with the full and free engagement of the will. There is sin, the Apostle John tells us, that is mortal (1 John 5:16-17): it leads to damnation because it destroys the charity that God has placed in our hearts. It might also be noted that this distinction between grave and venial sin is known to all Anglicans who have been catechized in the catholic wing of Anglicanism.

I can well understand why evangelical Anglicans, particularly at this time of ecclesial crisis, would seek to deter their fellow Anglicans from converting to the Catholic Church by identifying crucial, church-dividing differences in doctrine and practice. But surely this must be executed responsibly. A real and sympathetic attempt must be made to understand the Catholic Faith. A quick read-through of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is hardly sufficient. I have been immersed in Catholic theology for the past three years, and I am just starting to get the feel of the Catholic understanding of grace and justification. Evangelical theologians need to do a better job at understanding the Catholic Faith before they attempt to critique it.

28 December 2006


The Rev. Laurence Wells, rector of St Michael and All Angels Anglican Church in Orange Park, Florida, and a subscriber to the definition of justification promulgated by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, has asked me to to respond to five questions regarding justification and the Bible. I am reluctant to do so, as I am not a biblical scholar and therefore am forced to rely almost exclusively upon the commentators I have at hand. In the end we can only find ourselves matching scholar for scholar. “I’ll see your R. C. Sproul and raise you N. T. Wright.” I am also reluctant to do so for another reason: the doctrines of the Church rarely hang on the exegesis of a handful of biblical texts. This is why a Catholic biblical scholar like Joseph Fitzmyer and a Lutheran biblical scholar like John Reumann can reach significant consensus on the various meanings of righteousness in the Scriptures, and yet find themselves in disagreement on the doctrine of justification (see John Reumann, Righteousness in the New Testament). Dogma is not just a reiteration of Scripture but a normative way of reading Scripture that has imposed itself on the mind of the Church by the Holy Spirit and magisterial authority.

The doctrine of justification is particularly confusing because we too quickly assume that if we can figure out what Paul really meant when he wrote about justification, we will have solved the doctrinal question of justification. But as Robert W. Jenson has noted, the matter is not nearly so simple:

In the historic discourse of the church, the phrase “the doctrine of justification” is severely multivocal. The phrase’s formulaic use, however, has regularly led into the unstated supposition that it must be univocal, that justification is the caption for some one problem together with its proposed solutions. This is not the case. At least three different questions with their own sets of proposed answers have, at various times, gone under the one title “justification.” Confusion would not have ensued if the three questions had been merely unrelated.

At a first locus of doctrine labeled justification, we have the apostle Paul’s question “How does God establish his righteousness among us?” together with his and others’ labor to answer it. For a second locus labeled “justification” we have Western Augustinianism’s several efforts to describe the process of individual salvation, to lay out the factors and steps of the soul’s movement from the state of sin to the state of justice. A third locus under the same label—the specifically reforming doctrine of justification—includes the body of teaching that the American Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue called “hermeneutic” or “metatheological” or “proclamatory.” This doctrine describes nothing at all, neither God’s justice nor the process of our becoming just. It is instead an instruction to those who would audibly or visibly speak the gospel, a rule for preachers, teachers, liturgists, and confessors. This instruction may be formulated: So speak of Christ and of hearers’ actual and promised righteousness, whether in audible or visible words, whether by discourse or practice, that what you say solicits no lesser response than faith—or offence. (Read the entire citation.)

Once we acknowledge the possibility that Paul and Augustine were asking and answering different questions, we will be cautious about assuming that agreement in historical-grammatical biblical exegesis means agreement in doctrine. We must, of course, do our exegesis. We must continue to study the Scripture and put our theological questions to it. But we will also push beyond the grammatical-historical reading of the texts to a reading that is truly theological, a reading grounded in the tradition of Christian proclamation, liturgy, theological reflection, and ascetical practice.

And so now to the questions that have been put to me:

First, in Luke 18:14 we read, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other.” (From the parable of the publican and the pharisee.) Now what has happened here? Is the “justification” of the publican—a type for all sinners—a definitive act, or has he only entered into a process which is less than complete? If it is the latter, how do you account for the perfect tense of the participle “justified,” and indeed, what would be the point of the parable?

My first reaction is that this parable contributes little to the Protestant-Catholic debate on justification. Jesus’ parables rarely fit into our doctrinal boxes and usually explode them. Clearly Jesus is concerned here to compare and contrast two attitudes of prayer. The pharisee, though observant to Torah and the halachic tradition, comes to God in a spirit of boasting, accomplishment, and judgment. Instead of rejoicing in the fact that the publican—precisely the sort of person who responded positively to Jesus’ message—has turned to God in repentance, humility, and prayer, the pharisee condemns him. He can only see a person who has less spiritual wealth than himself. As Luke Timothy Johnson comments, “The pious one is all convoluted comparison and contrast; he can receive no gift because he cannot stop counting his possessions.” Despite his external posture, his heart is turned not to God but inward to himself. The publican, on the other hand, has no spiritual wealth to boast about and so comes to God in a spirit of humility, poverty, repentance, and need. His vision is fixed on God. It is the publican, Jesus tells us, who returned home “justified” by God, not the pharisee.

What does “justified” mean here? John Reumann believes that in this context the word here is best understood as “found favor” or “accepted as righteous.” God approves and accepts the publican because of the penitential humility of his heart.

How does this parable speak to the Protestant-Catholic debate? Certainly it reminds all parties that God looks beyond our behavior into our hearts. We must not persuade ourselves that we are right with God merely because we have technically observed his commandments. It is possible to obey God’s commands in a spirit that contradicts and denies his love. This is a truth shared by all Christians. But may this parable be enlisted as support of the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith? Mr. Wells obviously thinks it may be; but I am skeptical. Clearly, the publican has no works of Torah to plead but only sins, yet still God approves him; but one could easily infer from the text that he was accepted because of the attitude of his heart, because he was penitent and humble. If this is why God justifies the publican, then, by the Reformation construal of justification, the publican has been saved by a “work.” Catholic apologist Robert Sungenis* makes this point in his book Not by Faith Alone:

One of the assumptions Protestants make when they interpret Luke 18:14 is that the justification of the tax collector is the single point in his life that he was justified. In contemporary understanding, it is as if the tax collector were walking up the aisle after saying the sinner’s prayer and finally receives the grace of God into his life and now he is a Christian. Once justified, the tax collector will now go home and lead a life of sanctification. … The context of the parable does not support this interpretation, nor is it consistent with the rest of Jesus’ teaching. … Granted that, regarding works, the parable does not refer to works specifically, but then neither does it specify the word faith. Rather, the emphasis is on repentance, which implies both faith and works. (p. 194)

Is Jesus here telling us that a specific kind of faith is a condition for salvation? The Catholic is comfortable with this question, as he confesses with the Church that justifying faith is faith informed by love and hope, and he sees this kind of faith well realized in the publican. Moreover, it must be noted that Protestants too can argue about the kind of faith necessary for justification. Is justifying faith a passive faith? a penitent faith? an obedient faith? a lively faith? a faith that works through love (Gal 5:6)? all of the above? Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, Wesleyans, and Pentecostals give different answers—and by their different answers advance different, and conflicting, versions of justification by faith.

But it seems to me that once we have put this question to the parable, we have missed its point.

Second, in Romans 5:1-2, we read “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand…” The Greek participle is not perfect but only aorist, I admit; but the results are clearly perfect: we have peace, we have obtained access, we stand. How do you interpret this verse?

I do not have a definitive interpretation of these verses. What precisely does Paul mean by the phrase “justified by faith”? Only a few verses later Paul declares that we are justified by the blood of Christ (5:9). I think we can all agree that here Paul is extolling the wondrous grace of God, who has achieved our reconciliation with himself through the death and resurrection of his Son. Christians now enjoy peace with God because they have latched onto Christ and seek to conform their lives to him within the life of the Church. They are precisely people of faith, in contrast to all who do not know Christ and do not follow him. I am skeptical about attempts to precisely delimit the meaning of “faith,” to define it, for example, as a trust that excludes repentance, obedience, intellectual assent, and love. I doubt very seriously that Paul was at all interested in such fine distinctions. Christians are people of faith because in faith they have left behind their former lives, confessed Jesus as Lord, and submitted themselves to the life of the Church. In faith they live in Christ and follow Christ. As I survey the New Testament, I see “faith” as enjoying a rich complex of interrelated meanings.

Note that if we push this text too hard, we find ourselves once again arguing whether faith is condition of salvation and therefore asking in what faith consists. Is that really what Paul was concerned about in Romans or his other letters? I do not know how far to follow N. T. Wright here, but I do believe he is correct that Paul’s primary concern is to justify the inclusion of Gentiles within the new Israel, without requiring them to become practicing Jews through circumcision and obedience to the Mosaic law. He simply was not asking and answering the questions of Augustine and Luther.

What precisely does “we have been justified” mean? Is Paul speaking here of an imputed righteousness or an effective righteousness? Need the former exclude the latter? When God declares us to be righteous, are we not indeed truly made righteous? Given the extensive research of Chris VanLandingham, recently published as Judgment and Justification in Early Judaism and the Apostle Paul, everyone should think twice before dogmatically declaring that dikaioô has an exclusively forensic meaning here and elsewhere in Paul. Why may we not agree with John Henry Newman when he states “to ‘justify means in itself ‘counting righteous,’ but includes under its meaning ‘making righteous;’ in other words, the sense of the term is ‘counting righteous,’ and the nature of the thing denoted by it is making righteous”? Why may we not agree with Thomas F. Torrance when he asserts “Justification is not only a declaratory act, but an actualization of what is declared”?

Does Rom 5:1-2 in any way call into question the Catholic construal of justification? Not that I can see. As a Catholic I would be delighted to preach on this text and declare to my congregation that in Christ we now enjoy peace and reconciliation with God.

Third, can you direct me to a single verse of the NT which speaks of justification as a process?

A single verse? How about the entire New Testament! Jesus, Luke, Paul, James, John—all speak of a cooperative relationship between God and his Church, between God and believers. This is why the Church Fathers are synergists with regards to salvation and why they assert conditional election through God’s prevision of freely-chosen disbelief and sin, Sts Augustine and Fulgentius being the most notable exceptions (see William Most). And of course there are those passages in the New Testament that speak of a future judgment based on deeds (again I reference VanLandingham).

But perhaps Wells’s concern here is grammatical or definitional. Since Augustine it has been customary for Catholic theologians to speak of justification as a process: the believer grows in acceptability by God as he grows in holiness. Justice and sanctity are thought together. But Protestant exegetes assert that in the New Testament a clear distinction is made between justification and sanctification. Some Catholic exegetes agree. Personally I find a verbal distinction between justification and sanctification helpful, as long as we remember that both words direct us to the indivisible reality of our new being in the incarnate and risen Son. Certainly the Catholic should not hesitate to assert that incorporation into Christ is a decisive event that does not admit of degrees. To be in Christ is to be simultaneously forgiven by the Father and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Newman elaborates:

The fact that we are the temple of God does not admit of more or less; such words have no meaning when applied to it. Righteousness then, considered as the state of being God’s temple, cannot be increased; but, considered as the divine glory which that state implies, it can be increased, as the pillar of the cloud which guided the Israelites could become more or less bright. Justification being acceptableness with God, all beings who are justified differ from all who are not, in their very condition, in a certain property, which the one body has and the other has not. In this sense, indeed, it is as absurd to speak of our being more justified, as of life, or colour, or any other abstract idea increasing. But when we compare the various orders of just and acceptable beings with one another, we see that though they all are in God’s favour, some may be more “pleasant,” “acceptable,” “righteous,” than others, and may have more of the light of God’s countenance shed on them; as a glorified Saint is more acceptable than one still in the flesh. In this sense then justification does admit of increase and of degrees; and whether we say justification depends on faith or on obedience, in the same degree that faith or obedience grows, so does justification. And again (to allude to a point not yet touched on), if justification is conveyed peculiarly through the Sacraments, then as Holy Communion conveys a more awful presence of God than Holy Baptism, so must it be the instrument of a higher justification. On the other hand, those who are declining in their obedience, as they are quenching the light within them, so are they diminishing their justification

For the Catholic, justification is a state into which one is brought at holy baptism. This state can strengthened by prayer and obedience, weakened and destroyed by grave sin, and renewed by repentance and sacramental absolution. Hence we may describe justification as both event and process.

Fourth, do you still maintain the claim that Luther added the word “alone” to the phrase “by faith”? If so, what do you make of Fr Joseph Fitzmyer’s writing in the Anchor Bible Commentary that Luther was anticipated in his “alone” by a long list of Church Fathers, including St Thomas Aquinas? Fr Fitzmyer is a Jesuit scholar, whose Catholic credentials are, I believe, fairly solid. He cannot be dismissed in the manner of Hans Kung.

I have never claimed that Luther invented the phrase “by faith alone,” nor do I dismiss Hans Küng’s important book on justification, which I have approvingly referenced repeatedly here on Pontifications. I gladly acknowledge that there are ways to formulate the sola fide in a manner acceptable to Catholic dogma. What is important is not Luther’s use of the phrase faith alone but what he and the other 16th century Protestant reformers meant by it. It is this meaning that is judged unacceptable by the Catholic Church.

Fifth, if the formula “justified by faith alone is incorrect,” then precisely what is faith combined with?

To think this from a Catholic perspective one needs to think of the whole process, or narrative, of salvation, beginning with conversion and baptism and culminating in the final judgment and glorification. The adult sinner hears the gospel. He is convicted of his sin and confesses Christ Jesus as his Lord and Savior. He is still not justified. Why? Because he has not yet been baptized! He must desire and ask the Church for baptism. Only then is he incorporated into Christ, reborn in the Holy Spirit, and united to the Holy Trinity—and thus made righteous. Before baptism, faith is not justifying; it is, as Newman writes, only the title to the justifying act that is baptism. It is baptism that makes faith justifying. The faith that brings us to baptism and receives baptism must itself die and be reborn in Christ and his vicarious faithfulness.

Once the sinner is baptized, he is justified. He has been made a member of the body of Christ and introduced into the state of grace that is life in the Trinity. Was he justified by his moral works? No, absolutely not. Moral works before baptism neither justify the sinner nor merit eternal salvation. The foundational significance of faith was solemnly declared by the Council of Trent:

And whereas the Apostle saith, that man is justified by faith and freely, those words are to be understood in that sense which the perpetual consent of the Catholic Church hath held and expressed; to wit, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and the root of all Justification; without which it is impossible to please God, and to come unto the fellowship of His sons: but we are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification—whether faith or works—merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle says, grace is no more grace.

Because it is faith that brings one to baptism and receives baptism, one can appropriately, though perhaps not with full accuracy, say that one is justified by faith alone. If a person were to die immediately after baptism, without any good deeds to his credit, he would be immediately translated into heaven. The Church also recognizes that faithful catechumens who die before baptism are also saved: they are saved by their desire for baptism. Following Scripture and holy tradition, Trent identified holy baptism as the instrumental cause of justification. Newman suggests that we speak of baptism as the external instrumental cause of justification and faith as the internal instrumental cause.

But most of us, of course, do not die immediately following baptism. God calls us to live the life of the Spirit within the world, in obedience to our Lord. What then is the salvific role of our ascetical, liturgical, and moral deeds? The Catholic Church recognizes that because it is possible for the justified believer to turn away from the love of God through grave sin and disbelief, our actions enjoy a salvific urgency and import. By our grace-enabled works we strengthen our union with God and maintain the state of justification. These works are accomplished in dependence upon Christ and therefore are accomplished in faith and by faith. Faith necessarily expresses itself in action. Faith lives in deeds. Because we are given the freedom to cooperate with the grace of God, and because our works deepen our communion in the Holy Trinity and form us into the image of Christ, we may speak of works as justifying and even as meritorious. It was, after all, an Apostle and brother of Jesus who declared, “A person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).

(*I have refrained from citing Robert Sungenis in my previous articles, because the guy appears to have gone off the deep end and become an embarrassment to the Catholic apologetics community; but I must say that I have found his book Not by Faith Alone to be quite helpful. He offers a consistent, reasonable, and well-argued Tridentine reading of the Scriptures.)

30 December 2006


The Catholic understanding of justification is difficult to state accurately. It must be, because so many folks, despite their best efforts, find it almost impossible to get it right. I understand. I’ve been in the same position. I think it’s one of those paradigm things. If one is used to thinking justification from within, say, a Lutheran simul iustus et peccator perspective, then the official Catholic position appears moralistic and Pelagian. Consider, for example, the latest effort of Chris Atwood at Three Hierarchies. Atwood writes:

So apparently, Catholic teaching explicit[ly] states that those are justified who merely believe, as a set of facts that has nothing essentially to do with their lives, the church’s creed, as long as they sincerely try to be a good person (as defined by Christian moral teachings) and avoid mortal sin. Such people we all know (and they are not uncommon in Evangelical churches either, sad to say, despite the vast efforts of the church and faithful pastors to disabuse them of any saving results from a purely historical faith).

This statement has generated lengthy discussion in the Three Hierarchies combox, as one might expect: it is an egregious misrepresentation of Catholic teaching. Atwood has attempted to engage this discussion and the criticisms offered, but still seems stuck on the traditional Catholic definition of faith as assent to revealed doctrine. If faith is assent, then it cannot be fiduciary. Part of the problem here is definitional, as pointed out by Peter Kreeft:

For another thing, the terms of the dispute are ambiguous or used in two different senses. When terms are ambiguous, the two sides may really disagree when they seem to agree because they agree only on the word, not the concept. Or the two sides may really agree when they seem to disagree because they agree on the concept but not the word. The latter holds true here.

When Luther taught that we are saved by faith alone, he meant by salvation only the initial step, justification, being put right with God. But when Trent said we are saved by good works as well as faith, they meant by salvation the whole process by which God brings us to our eternal destiny and that process includes repentance, faith, hope, and charity, the works of love.

The word faith was also used in two different senses. Luther used it in the broad sense of the person’s acceptance of God’s offer of salvation. It included repentance, faith, hope, and charity. This is the sense Saint Paul uses in Romans. But in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul uses it in a more specific sense, as just one of the three theological virtues, with hope and charity added to it. In this narrower sense faith alone is not sufficient for salvation, for hope and charity must be present also. That is the sense used by the old Baltimore Catechism too: faith is “an act of the intellect, prompted by the will, by which we believe what has been revealed on the grounds of the authority of God, who revealed it”.

This “faith”, though prompted by the will, is an act of the intellect. Though necessary for salvation, it is not sufficient. Even the devils have this faith, as Saint James writes: “Do you believe that there is only one God? Good! The demons also believe—and tremble with fear” (James 2: 19). That is why James says, “it is by his actions that a person is put right with God, and not by his faith alone” (James 2:24). Luther, however, called James’ epistle “an epistle of straw”. He did not understand James’ point (applied to Abraham’s faith): “Can’t you see? His faith and his action worked together; his faith was made perfect through his actions” (James 2:2 2).

Faith is the root, the necessary beginning. Hope is the stem, the energy that makes the plant grow. Love is the fruit, the flower, the visible product, the bottom line. The plant of our new life in Christ is one; the life of God comes into us by faith, through us by hope, and out of us by the works of love. That is clearly the biblical view, and when Protestants and Catholics who know and believe the Bible discuss the issue sincerely, it is amazing how quickly and easily they come to understand and agree with each other on this, the fundamental divisive issue. Try it some time with your Protestant friend.

Perhaps it would not be far from the truth to say that traditional Catholic reflection on faith has been guided by the Epistle to James. If it’s possible for the demons to believe, then clearly faith is not salvific in and by itself. Hence Catholic reflection, following Augustine, went on to analyze the self-communication of God to the sinner and the justifying transformation of the sinner through the infusion of the theological virtues, faith, love, and hope. The reformers, on the other hand, took their lead from the Apostle Paul and defined faith as trust in Christ Jesus in his saviing work and reliance upon his promises.

Atwood knows this yet is still not satisfied. And the reason he is not satisfied is because the traditional Catholic formulation does not say precisely what he wants it to say—specifically, it does not say that saving faith is trust in the gospel, i.e., trust in the announcement of the atoning sufficiency of Christ’s death upon the cross. Atwood elaborates: “But the difference is, justification in the traditional Catholic teaching consists of assent to general divine truths, love of God (not specifically as revealed in Christ) and man, and hope in eternal felicity through the variety of means placed at our disposal by God—no essential priority is given to faith in Christ’s death on the cross.”

I have to ask: Has Atwood read either the Catechism of the Catholic Church or its Compendium? Has he attended a Catholic Mass and listened to the prayers, especially the eucharistic prayers and the prayer recited by the congregation before receiving Holy Communion (“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed”)? Has he read those men and women whom the Catholic Church acknowledges as her doctors and saints? I ask these questions because I have to believe that if he were better acquainted with Catholicism as a living and historical reality, he would see how truly unreal and misguided his criticisms are. The Catholic Church is bigger and deeper, infinitely bigger and deeper, than the Catholic Encyclopedia. She is not confessional in the way that classic Protestantism is or used to be. She has defined dogmas, but these dogmas do not comprehend everything that she says and believes on any given question. Hence it is unwise, for example, to look to the Tridentine Decree on Justification for a comprehensive statement on the Catholic doctrine of justification. Dogmas are necessarily one-sided. They are promulgated to exclude serious error. As Michael Schmaus explains:

The treatment of grace in the pronouncements of the Council of Trent must be seen within the context of the Reformation debate. For a complete and systematic presentation of the Catholic doctrine on grace, the Tridentine teaching must be put together with the entire Catholic tradition as found in catechisms, in preaching, and in the whole of the Church. Since the council had no intention than to present the teaching of Scripture and tradition in accordance with the needs of the time, so its pronouncements must be seen in the light of Scripture and of history. To attempt an interpretation apart from this genesis would be to court the imminent danger of misinterpretation. (Dogma: Justification and the Last Things, VI:56)

The Council of Trent is no more the final Catholic word on justification than the Council of Nicaea is the final Catholic word on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It is a definitive word but not the final word. This no doubt can be frustrating for those looking for the Catholic construal of justification and grace; but in fact many such construals are advanced within the Catholic Church, bounded by the dogmas of Orange and Trent.

We therefore err if we confer finality upon the neo-scholastic reflections of the Catholic Encyclopedia, as instructive as these reflections might be. As J. H. Newman writes, “When the Roman schools are treating of one point of theology, they are not treating of other points. When the Council of Trent is treating of man, it is not treating of God. Its enunciations are isolated and defective, taken one by one, of course. If we desire a warmer exhibition of Christian truth than a treatise on justification admits, we may go to mystical writers such as Schram, whose doctrine on the Holy Eucharist … is the supplement to an account of formal causes. All theological definitions come short of concrete life. Science is not devotion or literature.” Scholastic reflection is but one way of doing Catholic theology. Newman himself is a good example of a Catholic theologian who did not do school theology. Sts Athanasius, Augustine of Hippo, Maximus the Confessor, Teresa of Avila, and Thérèse of Lisieux are five better examples.

I raise this because on the matter before us, i.e., the nature of saving faith, we are historically confronted by two different kinds of theology. For several hundred years Catholic theology, both before and after the Reformation, was dominated by scholastic analysis of the state of justification. What does the justified believer look like? How is he different from the unjustified sinner? But Martin Luther did not approach the question from this angle. For Luther, what is important is the confrontation between sinner and the proclaimed gospel. The gospel is word-event. God speaks to me his good news, and it is in the hearing of this good news that I am saved. Hence the Lutheran exhortation to the preacher to rightly divide law and gospel. The traditional Catholic approach has been described as metaphysical; the Lutheran personal-existential. It is not surprising, therefore, that faith is defined differently in the two systems. But this does not mean that they are necessarily mutually exclusive, nor does it mean that the Catholic is unable to articulate the faith of the Church in personalist categories. As an example, I cite the various ways faith is described in the Catholic Catechism:

Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. (150)

Faith makes us taste in advance the light of the beatific vision, the goal of our journey here below. Then we shall see God “face to face”, “as he is”. So faith is already the beginning of eternal life. (160)

By faith, man completely submits his intellect and his will to God. With his whole being man gives his assent to God the revealer. Sacred Scripture calls this human response to God, the author of revelation, “the obedience of faith”. (143)

It is then we must turn to the witnesses of faith: to Abraham, who “in hope… believed against hope”; to the Virgin Mary, who, in “her pilgrimage of faith”, walked into the “night of faith” in sharing the darkness of her son’s suffering and death; and to so many others. (165)

The Letter to the Hebrews, in its great eulogy of the faith of Israel’s ancestors, lays special emphasis on Abraham’s faith: “By faith, Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go.” By faith, he lived as a stranger and pilgrim in the promised land. By faith, Sarah was given to conceive the son of the promise. And by faith Abraham offered his only son in sacrifice. Abraham thus fulfills the definition of faith in Hebrews 11:1: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Because he was “strong in his faith”, Abraham became the “father of all who believe”. (145-146)

The Virgin Mary most perfectly embodies the obedience of faith. By faith Mary welcomes the tidings and promise brought by the angel Gabriel, believing that “with God nothing will be impossible” and so giving her assent: “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be [done] to me according to your word.” Elizabeth greeted her: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” It is for this faith that all generations have called Mary blessed. (148)

The transmission of the Christian faith consists primarily in proclaiming Jesus Christ in order to lead others to faith in him. (425)

“Believing” is an ecclesial act. The Church’s faith precedes, engenders, supports and nourishes our faith. The Church is the mother of all believers. (181)

Faith is a filial adherence to God beyond what we feel and understand. It is possible because the beloved Son gives us access to the Father. (2609)

Faith is personal, ecclesial, christological, and trinitarian. It is both personal adherence to the God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ by the Spirit and intellectual assent to the truths revealed by this God. The Lutheran may not find this formulation of faith satisfying, but he must remember that Catholic reflection on faith is not driven by the Reformation concern for the preached gospel.

Contemporary Catholic theologians are hardly unaware of the personal dimension of faith and are more than willing to speak of faith as more than intellectual assent. Consider this passage from Schmaus:

Faith is the movement towards Jesus Christ brought about by God. At the same time it is the act effected by God in which man holds fast to Christ, who is turning towards him and apprehended by him. Faith is the perpetual reaching beyond the self to Jesus Christ and the life of union with him. The encounter and union with Jesus Christ naturally implies an encounter also with the heavenly Father brought about by the Holy Spirit.

Included in the assent to Christ is the assent to his teachings, since the word of Jesus cannot be separated form his person. He is the Word of the eternal Father spoken in the world. The Father speaks his Word in history, clothed in the human nature of Jesus. The self-revelation of God transmitted to men by Jesus during his life is the translation into human into human speech of the Word personally spoken by the Father. To examine and accept Jesus’ words means nothing other than to ponder and accept the Word spoken by the Father (Jn. 1, 12). Thomas Aquinas’s definition of faith as an assent of the intellect moved by the will, as an acceptance on the authority of God of the truth of what God has revealed, is a correct definition but not an exhaustive one. For the holding as true is in reality the holding fast of the personal, incarnate Word of God himself. The believer does not simply or primarily assent in faith to truths or true statements, essential though this may be; rather, he assents to a living, personal Reality. He is not related to the content of his affirmation as subject to object; the relation is that of an encounter between persons—an encounter, to be sure, initiated by Christ. (VI:84-85)

This construal of faith as personal union with the living person of Christ is not identical to the Lutheran understanding as faith as passive reception, but it is certainly more than intellectual belief.

Are the Catholic and Lutheran models of justification incompatible? The ecumenical discussions of the past thirty years have examined this question in great depth. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification witnesses to the creative assimilation into Catholic reflection of many of the concerns of the Reformation. Though the declaration is not immune to criticism, by both Catholics and Lutherans, the fact remains that the document demonstrates significant convergence between the two traditions, a convergence that is publicly acknowledged by both the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation. I cite in particular the following common confession:

In faith we together hold the conviction that justification is the work of the triune God. The Father sent his Son into the world to save sinners. The foundation and presupposition of justification is the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. Justification thus means that Christ himself is our righteousness, in which we share through the Holy Spirit in accord with the will of the Father. Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works. (¶15)

We confess together that sinners are justified by faith in the saving action of God in Christ. By the action of the Holy Spirit in baptism, they are granted the gift of salvation, which lays the basis for the whole Christian life. They place their trust in God’s gracious promise by justifying faith, which includes hope in God and love for him. Such a faith is active in love and thus the Christian cannot and should not remain without works. But whatever in the justified precedes or follows the free gift of faith is neither the basis of justification nor merits it. (¶25)

This common confession belies the criticisms advanced by Atwood in his article and comments.

The Declaration on Justification should be read in conjunction with the statement and articles of the American Lutheran/Catholic dialogue on justification. I also strongly recommend the following essential Catholic works: Michael Schmaus, Dogma: Justification and the Last Things (vol VI); John Henry Newman, Lectures on Justification; Piet Fransen, The New Life of Grace; and Robert Gleason, Grace. Until they have read and digested these works, Protestants should really refrain from public criticism of the Catholic position on justification. Odds are, they don’t understand it.

I also commend the spiritual commentary on Romans by Raniero Cantalamessa: Life in Christ. Cantalamessa has been the preacher to the Papal Household since 1980. This book is a wonderful example of Catholic reflection that is both evangelical and catholic. Consider this passage on faith:

The key to everything is faith. But there are different kinds of faith. There is faith as assent of the intellect, faith as confidence and faith as stability, as Isaiah calls it (7:9). Which type of faith is involved where justification “in faith” is concerned? It’s a special kind of faith: faith as appropriation. On this point St. Bernard says: “What I can’t obtain by myself, I appropriate to myself (usurpo in the original text), with confidence from the pierced side of the Lord because he is full of mercy. The mercy of God is, therefore, my merit. So, if great is the mercy of the Lord (Ps 119:156), I too will abound in merit. And what about my righteousness? O Lord, I shall remember only your righteousness. It is also mine because you are God’s righteousness for me.” In fact, it is written that God made Jesus Christ “our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30). …

Imagine there has been an important wrestling match in a stadium. A brave man has fought against a cruel tyrant and with tremendous effort and suffering has defeated him. You did not have to fight, you neither struggled nor got wounded. But if you admire the brave man, if you rejoice in his victory, if you make garlands for him, provoke and excite the crowd for him, joyfully bow to the victor and shake his hand—if, all told, you become so delirious as to consider his triumph yours, you will surely participate in the victor’s reward. Moreover, let us suppose the victor does not need the prize he has won, but longs to see his friend honored and considers the crowning of his friend to be his prize, will that man not receive the crown without having fought or been wounded? Certainly he will! Well then, that’s what takes place between Christ and us. Even though we have not yet struggled or fought, even if no merit is ours yet, nevertheless, through faith we extol Christ’s battle, praise his victory, honor his trophy which is the cross and who deep and ineffable love for him; we make his wounds and death our own. (pp. 41-43)

I do not know how many Catholic preachers preach faith in this way. Perhaps only a minority. But what is important is that this preaching is possible and permissible within the Catholic Church. No dogma excludes it. No Pope prohibits it. This is the freedom of Catholicism.

29 January 2007

Gerald Hiestand has just published a two-part article on justication (part 1 and part 2). Hiestand seeks to defend St Augustine’s reading of St Paul on the question of effective justification. He concludes:

Thus ontological renewal is not ancillary to justification, but is in fact an essential (pun intended) element of justification. For Paul, the executive nature of justification does not look only to the resurrection of the body and the final reward of eternal life. We do not need to wait until we die to be “rewarded as righteous.” Paul very much views the present spiritual regeneration afforded through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as the in-breaking of this coming eschatological resurrection. So much so, that he can speak of us as having already been justified in the present—declared righteous and rewarded as righteous (i.e., spiritually regenerated). So in coming full circle, the Augustinian notion that justification involves ontological renewal is correct. God not only declares us to be righteous based upon our faith, but then actually treats us as righteous, making us recipients of the New Covenant and thus its promise of spiritual regeneration. To speak of justification without speaking at the same time of spiritual regeneration is to miss the whole point of Paul’s soteriology.

Hiestand’s article come at a timely moment. This afternoon, while smoking my weekly cigar at the local smoke shop, I continued my reading of N. T. Wright’s NIB commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. I just finished his discussion of chapter 8. Wright’s exegesis has confirmed my conviction that Romans 1-4 must be read in light of Romans 5-8. Justification, regeneration, and Church must be thought together. In the first four chapters of the letter, Paul argues that God has reformed his covenant people around the Messiah Jesus to include the Gentiles. Faith in Christ, not circumcision and submission to Torah, is now determinative for belonging to the community of righteousness. Paul is not wrestling with the questions of legalism, works-righteousness, and salvific insecurity that drove the reflections of Luther and Calvin. His concern is primarily ecclesiological. Wright explains:

This is the meaning of Paul’s doctrine of “justification by faith.” The verdict of the last day has been brought foward into the present in Jesus the Messiah; in raising him from the dead, God declared that in him had been constituted the true, forgiven worldwide family. Justification, in Paul, is not the process or event whereby someone becomes, or grows, as a Christian; it is the declaration that someone is, in the present, a member of the people of God. … We may remind ourselves of the triple layer of meaning in Paul’s “righteousness” language. The covenantal declaration, seen through the metaphorical and vital lens of the lawcourt, is put into operation eschatologically. The verdict to be announced in the future has been brought forward into the present. Those who believe the gospel are thus declared to be “in the right.” Christian faith is thus the appropriate badge of membership in God’s renewed people. It is accessible to all, not, like the Torah, restricted to Jews only. (NIB, X:468; also see my rumination on Rom 3:21-31)

If one were to stop one’s reading of Romans at chapter 4, one might perhaps be excused in construing justification in a purely forensic sense: God declares as righteous all who believe in Christ. But an exclusively forensic reading becomes impossible as soon as one continues one’s reading. In chapters 5-8 we discover that the new covenant community is a community in which believers have died with Christ in baptism and been raised to new life in the Spirit. Believers no longer live in Adam but now live “in Christ.” They have died to sin and become slaves to righteousness. The Old Testament lexical meaning of dikaioo cannot be determinative here. God has done a new work, and our inherited language must be remade if it is to become an adequate vehicle for the gospel. Paul breaks the language of imputation to express the eschatological reality of existence in Christ. To construe justification exclusively in legal terms would be equivalent to returning to slavery in Egypt. Justification cannot be merely a forensic reality, because the community in which one is declared righteous is not merely a forensic community. As E. P. Sanders notes:

The passive verb ‘to be righteoused’ in Paul’s letters almost always means to be changed, to be transferred from one realm to another: from sin to obedience, from death to life, from being under the law to being under grace. While some words beginning with dik are judicial in Paul, the passive verb seldom is (only in 1 Cor. 4:4; 6:11; Rom. 2:13), and it is the passive verb which bears the brunt of the argument in Galatians 2-3 and Romans 3-4. This is why ‘righteousness’ by faith is slightly misleading as a summary of Paul’s position. The noun ‘righteousness’ implies a status, while Paul’s verb has more the connotation of something which happens to a person. This is seldom legal acquittal. When Paul wrote that he and Peter, though previously not ‘Gentile sinners’, had been righteoused by faith in Christ (Gal. 2:15-16), he did not mean that they had been guilty but were now innocent. They had previously been innocent enough, not ‘sinners’. When they were ‘righteoused’ they were made one person with Christ (Gal. 3:28), or, as Paul put it in another letter, they have become part of a ‘new creation’ (2 Cor 5:17; see 5:21, ‘so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’). The passive dikaioun does not easily bear this meaning—changed, transferred, incorporated into another person—but Paul forced it to do so. (Paul, p. 48)

Believers in Jesus Christ are righteous not only because they have been graciously welcomed by God into the community of faith but because they have been transformed by the Spirit and made capable of living lives of love and holiness. Words must be ultimately understood in terms of the realities to which they point. John Henry Newman saw this clearly a hundred and fifty years ago: “To ‘justify’ means in itself ‘counting rightous’ but includes under its meaning ‘making righteous;’ in other words, the sense of the term is ‘counting righteous,’ and the nature of the thing denoted by it is making righteous. In the abstract it is a counting righteous, in the concrete a making righteous.” More recently, the great Reformed theologian T. F. Torrance has seen that effective justification flows from the bodily resurrection of our Lord:

The resurrection is the fulfilment of the decisive deed of justification, in rejecting sin and the status of the sinner and in establishing the sinner once more as God’s child. Justification is not only a declaratory act, but an actualization of what is declared. When Christ said to the paralysed man that his sins were forgiven, they were forgiven—as the word of healing made clear. It was not that the subsequent word of healing added something to the first word to make it complete, but rather that the full reality of the healing and recreating word spoken in forgiveness was manifested in the physical event of healing which followed the second word. The resurrection tells us that when God declares a man just, that man is just. Resurrection means that the Word which God sent on his mission does not return to God void but accomplishes that for which he was sent. (Space, Time and Resurrection, pp. 62-63)

To restrict justification to a forensic sense is to deny the profound change God has effected in believers by Holy Baptism, the sacrament of justification. “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” the Apostle asks. “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:9-11). By sacramental incorporation into the glorified body of Christ, the Church, God has taken the unrighteous and made them righteous, the ungodly and made them godly. That he has done so is our salvation.

13 March 2007


Francis Beckwith’s announced return to the Catholic Church has generated an avalanche of invective and revilement from evangelicals. I have been stunned by what I have read. It is clear that in the minds of many the Catholic Church remains the hated Antichrist. To enter into her communion is to abandon the faith of the Apostles and to jeopardize one’s eternal salvation.

But some evangelicals have responded with sobriety and directed their reflections to the important theological differences between Catholicism and evangelicalism. Guy Davies, a Welsh Reformed preacher, identifies justification by faith as the crucial difference between the two traditions:

The Roman teaching on justification is that we are justified by grace at baptism. But this initial justification must be improved by our works. Does this understanding of justification really have greater ‘explanatory power’ than the Protestant view? Where in the New Testament is justification related to baptism? In the teaching of Paul, we are justified by faith apart from works. God’s declaration that we are right with him in Christ cannot be improved upon. The Roman Catholic teaching is not straightforward justification by works, because it is held that we are graciously justified at baptism. But the notion that our justification by grace must be supplemented by works is at best semi-Pelagian. The Catholic teaching downplays the seriousness of sin and calls into question the the freeness of God’s grace. Perhaps the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement has had the effect of blurring the dividing lines between Rome and the Reformation over justification? The new perspective on Paul has had a similar effect.

Davies rightly notes that the Catholic Church teaches that sinners are justified by grace, decisively communicated to the person in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. But he asks, “Where in the New Testament is justification related to baptism?” Here we see the terrible reductionism of sola scriptura at work. Scripture is ripped from the eucharistic life of the Church and becomes a free-floating entity to which the beliefs and practices of the Church are then subjected according to alien hermeneutical criteria. For all within the eucharistic community the intrinsic connection between justification and baptism/Church is so manifest, so obvious, so clear, that no prooftexts from Scripture are needed. To be baptized is to be incorporated into the Church; to be incorporated into the Church is to be made a member of the body of Christ; to be made a member of the body of Christ is to be adopted as a son in the Son and regenerated in the Holy Spirit; to be adopted in sonship and regenerated in the Holy Spirit is to be elevated into the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. St Augustine saw clearly the union of justification and theosis:

It is clear that He calls men gods through their being deified by His grace and not born of His substance. For He justifies, who is just of Himself and not of another; and He deifies, who is God of Himself and not by participation in another. Now He who justifies, Himself deifies, because by justifying He makes sons of God. For to them gave He power to become the sons of God. If we are made sons of God, we are also made gods; but this is by grace of adoption, and not by generation. (Ennar. In Ps. 49.2)

Life in the Church is life in the Holy Trinity, and this simply is our justification. If a person cannot see this when he reads the New Testament, there can be only one response: read it again but this time read it with the Church and her Eucharist. It might also be noted that significant advances along these lines have been made in Lutheran-Orthodox ecumenical discussions (see One with God: Salvation as Deification and Justification by Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen).

But the New Testament is hardly silent on the relation of baptism and justification, though the relation between the two may not be as explicit and obvious as our evangelical brethren would like it to be. Peter Leithart notes two passages in particular:

At least twice, Paul makes a direction connection between baptism and justification. Having reminded the Corinthians that they had been the kind of people who do not inherit the kingdom, he goes on to remind them that they are no longer such people: “but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of God” (6:11). Is Paul taking about water baptism when he refers to “washing” or to some spiritual and invisible washing? I believe the former; the phrase “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” echoes the baptismal formulae of Matthew 28 and Acts, and the reference to the Spirit also links with baptismal passages (Acts 2; 1 Cor 12:12-13). This whole passage is in fact embedded in a baptismal formula: “you were washed . . . in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Note too that Paul marks the shift from what the Corinthians “were” to what they “are” by a reference to their baptism. They have become different folk by being baptized. What, though, is the relationship between the baptism and sanctification and justification? The connection here is not absolutely clear, but I suggest that sanctification and justification are two implications of the event of baptism. The pagan Corinthians have been washed-sanctified-justified by their baptism into the name of Jesus and the concommitant action of the Spirit.

Romans 6:7 is another passage where Paul links baptism and justification. He who has died, Paul writes, is “justified from sin.” And when, in context, does one die? “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (vv. 3-4). Baptism into Christ means baptism into death; those who have been baptized have been crucified with Jesus; and those who are dead in and with Jesus have been justified from sin. Here, “justify” carries the connotation of deliverance from the power of sin. Through baptism, we die to our natural solidarity and society with Adam and brought into solidarity with and the society of Jesus.

I cite Leithart because he is a Reformed scholar. Lutheran, Anglican, and Catholic testimony could be quickly produced, but would also be just as quickly dismissed by evangelicals. Having recently re-read Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, I truly wonder how anyone can miss the union of justification and baptism. Do evangelicals stop at Roman 4:25? How can they not see that Paul’s discussion of justification in the first four chapters must be interpreted in light of Paul’s subsequent discussion of the death and resurrection of the believer in baptism and his rebirth in the Holy Spirit? They do not see, because they are reading their Bible through evangelical spectacles. There is a blindness that only the healing of Eucharist and the authentic teaching of the Church can cure.

In the conclusion of his short article, Leithart makes a turn which Martin Luther would have thoroughly approved:

There is a key difference between the Word declared in the gospel, and the declaration effected by baptism. The Word offers the favor of God generally; baptism declares that God favors me in particular. If baptism is not the public declaration of justification, where does that public declaration take place? Is it ever heard on earth, about me in particular? Is it heard anywhere but in my heart? … It appears to me that justification by faith and forensic justification are difficult to maintain apart from a strong view of baptismal efficacy, without saying that in baptism God Himself says something about me in particular.

I would want to significantly expand the relation between justification and baptism (Leithart would also, I’m sure), but this is a good place to begin. As soon as one sees the intrinsic connection between justification and baptism, the New Testament begins to read very differently. Perhaps Dr Beckwith had this in mind when he wrote on his blog: “Even though I also believe that the Reformed view is biblically and historically defensible, I think the Catholic view has more explanatory power to account for both all the biblical texts on justification as well as the church’s historical understanding of salvation prior to the Reformation all the way back to the ancient church of the first few centuries.”

8 May 2007


Another way to think of justification: we are justified by being made sons of God in the Son of God.

Precisely as sons, we enjoy forgiveness of sin, regeneration in the Spirit, communion with the Father, and future inheritance of the Kingdom.

Matthias Scheeben writes eloquently of the graces of adoptive sonship in his book Mysteries of Christianity (1946):

According to Catholic teaching, the interior renovation does indeed consist in a change of will, an alteration of its bent. But it also consists in a transformation and elevation of the will through the infusion of the theological virtues, especially of the virtue of charity which, as the principle of a new supernatural life, transfers the will to an entirely new sphere. And this transformation of the will is essentially bound up with the inner elevation of our entire being by the grace of divine sonship and participation in the divine nature. Such a renewal of man necessarily and formally includes remission of the guilt, supplies a true basis and support for this remission, and invests it with a mysterious sublimity that it could have never have outside of its connection with supernatural elevation.

That is to say, as long as we think of ourselves merely as God’s creatures and bondsmen, we can be objects of the divine wrath and abhorrence on account of the guilt we have loaded upon ourselves, even though we are sorry for our sin. At least there is no intrinsic contradiction in the thought that we may repent of the sin and still be hated on account of it, especially in view of the fact that God is ever entitled to adequate satisfaction, which the creature himself can never render.

But if, instead of merely coming back to our offended Lord by our own activity, we pass from the condition of bondage to the bosom of God by a supernatural rebirth, that is, if we become God’s children, we immediately cease to be objects of God’s wrath and abhorrence. Among us men a son can be tragically at odds with his father and be an object of the latter’s anger without ceasing to be a son. This is impossible with the sonship of God. The children of God participate as such in the divine holiness of their Father, in His very nature. According, as they cannot grievously offend their Father without ipso facto lapsing from their filial relationship to Him, so also by the very fact that they enter into such relationship they must be so pleasing to God that He can no longer look upon them as His enemies, as objects of His wrath. The light of grace, belonging as it does to the divine order, can no more endure the darkness of sin than it can continue to shine, once sin enters.

In the presence of this light, the shadows are dissipated, shadows of sins that have been committed, those shadows that remained behind in the guilt and caused the sin to appear disfigured and repugnant in God’s sight. Grace joins the creature so closely to God that the soul, while it is in the state of grace, cannot be separated from God by any barrier of guilt. Grace, which bridges the infinite gap yawning between the creature and the divine nature, spans the still greater fissure caused by the upheaval of sin. By transforming man from a bondsman to a child of God, grace makes him also a friend of God, since God cannot but stand in a relation of friendship with His children as long as they remain His children. For this reason grace is called both gratia sanctificans (sanctifying grace) because it completely does away with all sinful disorder, and gratia gratum faciens (grace which renders one pleasing) because it makes the creature so pleasing in God’s sight that God must deal with him as His friend and child. …

We have pointed already pointed out that justice in our case must be supernatural; it must be a certain power and impetus infused into the faculties of the soul, enabling them to pursue and work for our supernatural end. The reason why this justice must be supernatural is that it is meant to be a justice not merely of human beings, but of God’s children. It is conferred on man to the extent that he is elevated to God’s sonship and for the reason that along with this grace of divine sonship he receives the gift of filial love for God and other powers needed for leading a divine life as it ought to be led by a child of God. Further, the justice in question is sustained and perfected by this same grace of sonship. The supernatural virtues make us pleasing to God because of the intrinsic excellence of the acts they enable us to perform, and also because of the fact that these acts are acts of an adoptive son of God, and give expression to his filial relationship to God. And so their power for meriting eternal glory rests no merely on the fact that they belong to the same supernatural order as heavenly glory itself, but especially on the fact that they are the acts of a person who, as a child of God, is entitled by his birth to receive that glory as his inheritance.

Accordingly, I cannot arrive at a true appreciation of the intrinsic excellence and value of the positive side of justification unless I realize that the grace of divine sonship is its root and prop. Owing to the grace of sonship, which is a participation in the divine nature and holiness, the justice rooted in that grace is clearly revealed to be a justice shot through with divine sanctity.

What do we conclude from all this? That both factors comprised in justification—the remission of sin and the assimilation to our supernatural end—are rooted in the grace of divine sonship and are based on that grace. At one and the same time the grace of sonship expels all guilt from us, and infuses into us a love for God which is the love of a child or a friend.

For this reason the Council of Trent, when propounding the true nature of justification, could confine itself to the statement that it is “a transference from the state in which man is born a son of the first Adam, to the state of grace and adoption of the sons of God.” (pp. 618-620, 622-623)

If we do not begin our reflections on justification with divine sonship, we are bound to get it wrong, says Scheeben. But if we begin our reflections with the wondrous grace of our adoption as children of God in Jesus Christ, then justification “emerges before our eyes with its greatness unimpaired” (p. 623).

9 May 2007


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.

4 June 2007

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