Are We Justified By Faith Alone? – What Still Divides Us: A Protestant & Roman Catholic Debate
Referring to the schism of the 14th and 15th centuries, one scholar observes,
I hope that the credibility of this historical assessment will not be called into question, as it comes to us from the pen of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, current head of the Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith for the Church of Rome. (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, trans. by Sister Mary Frances McCarthy, S.N.D. (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1989) p.196).
As the gavel came down to close the final session of the Council of Trent in 1563, Rome had officially and, according to her own commitment down to the present moment, irreversably, declared that the Gospel announced by the prophets, revealed in and by Christ, and proclaimed by the apostles, was actually heretical. The most relevant Canons are the following:
It was, therefore, not the evangelicals who were condemned in 1564, but the evangel itself. The ‘good news,’ which alone is ‘the power of God unto salvation’ was judged by Rome to be so erroneous that anyone who embraced it was to be regarded as condemned. Let us now consider the key questions and passages relating to this doctrine.
What Is Justification? Infusion or Imputation, Process or Declaration?
In the Roman system, as we have seen, justification is sanctification. Through baptism, we are renewed and by cooperating with grace infused we merit final justification.
The long and short of this was that on the eve of the Reformation itself, there were many different interpretations of this doctrine, but the decisive moment occurred not with Luther, but with the Roman Catholic humanist, Erasmus, to whose criticism of the Latin text of Scripture we have already briefly alluded.
The Latin Vulgate, Jerome’s 4th century translation of the Scriptures, had been the official translation throughout the middle ages, and its integrity was generally assumed. But then came the Renaissance, a recovery of classical learning that included a return to the original Greek text of Scripture. As Oxford theologian Alister McGrath observes, the best example of the errors in the Latin Vulgate, corrected in tail end of the Renaissance, concerns its translation of the Greek word ‘dikaiosune,’ which means ‘to declare righteous.’ It is a legal term, a verdict. But the Latin Vulgate had translated ‘dikaiosune’ with the Latin word iustificare, which means ‘to make righteous.’ Erasmus and a host of classical scholars recognized that the Greek text required an understanding of justification that referred to a change in status rather than to a change in behavior or mode of being. Again, Erasmus had no doctrinal stake in this matter. He was not only a loyal son of the Roman church; he had engaged in heated polemics with Luther over free will. Nevertheless, he was Europe’s leading authority on the classical languages and could not overlook the glaring mistranslations. For this reason it has been said that Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched.
It is quite remarkable that the Roman Church would continue to embrace its erroneous view of justification, given the advances in scholarship by their own best minds.
This is true not only of the 16th century; many Roman Catholic biblical scholars of our own day recognize that the Roman position is untenable in the light of the biblical text. I am not only referring to such controversial theologians as Hans Kung, but to the accepted interpretations of Roman doctrine.
Bearing the nihil obstat and Imprimatur of the Roman Church, Sacramentum Mundi is a modern encyclopedia of Roman doctrine. In its article on Justification we read that justification ‘implies a relation with a judgment rather than a mode of being.’ The term for Paul,
Furthermore, arguably the two most widely respected Roman Catholic biblical scholars, J. A. Fitzmyer and Raymond Brown, have recognized that justification is understood in the biblical text to mean legal acquittal and not a process of growth in inherent righteousness. ‘Justification in the Old Testament,’ writes Fitzmyer, ‘denotes one who stood acquitted or vindicated before a judge’s tribunal…This uprightness (righteousness) does not belong to human beings (Rom. 10:3), and is not something that they produced or merited; it is an alien uprightness, one belonging to another (Christ) and attributed to them because of what that other had done for them…This justification comes about by grace and through faith’ (Romans, AB 33, pp.116-19).
But we can even go a step beyond Sacramentum Mundi and Fitzmyer, citing an article that our opponents will no doubt respect, since it is published in their magazine, This Rock (April 1995). After attacking the Protestant doctrine of ‘faith alone,’ Leslie Rumble concedes, ‘Now it is quite true that Paul made use of a word which in the Greek language had the technical meaning of legal acquittal. And if the word can have no other meaning than that, one could scarcely dispute the interpretation of justification as implying no more than to be accounted as righteous or not guilty in the sight of God.’ But alas, ‘Luther had not the advantages of modern scholarship.’ ‘He belonged to an age when it was thought that the real meaning of the New Testament could be best ascertained by discovering the exact sense of the Greek language in which its books were originally written.’ Rumble evidently thinks that the meaning of the biblical text cannot be discerned in the same manner as Homer or Aristotle.
Having conceded that the New Testament Greek text agrees with Luther, Rumble nevertheless rejects this view on the basis that ‘the whole religious outlook’ takes precedence over the fine print. Although he admits that this interpretation is at odds with the Scriptures in their original language, we are supposed to take Rumble’s word for it that ‘the whole religious outlook’ of the Bible endorses the Roman position, even though its actual words contradict it.
The verbal ending of dikaiow is declarative; if the biblical writers intended by ‘justification’ a process of moral transformation, there is a perfectly good verbal ending for that sort of thing in Greek: adzo rather than ow. For instance, ‘to make holy’ is translated from the Greek verb, ‘hagiodzo,’ and this word is never rendered ‘to justify.’ When the biblical writers refer to justification, they use the declarative ending; when they refer to sanctification, they use the progressive ending. If it is good enough of a distinction for the biblical writers themselves, surely we should have not trouble with the Bible’s own language.
Furthermore, it is an imputation of an ‘alien righteousness’ rather than an infusion of righteous into the soul. It is not, as it has been caricatured, a ‘legal fiction,’ as if God could judge contrary to the facts. We maintain that God’s judgment is strictly according to the facts, but that it is Christ’s righteousness imputed to our account that allows God to be both ‘just and the justifier of those who believe.’ It is not a legal fiction because Christ’s righteousness is real and perfect and it has been truly credited to the account of the believing sinner. Let me illustrate the point: 11 yrs. ago now, I went to Europe with a group of college friends. It will come as no surprise to parents everywhere that by the last week, I had run out of money and had to phone home. My parents graciously transferred funds from their account to mine and I was saved from disaster. Was that my money? In the sense that it was in my account, surely it was my money. But had I earned it? Certainly not. The only reason that my account showed a full credit instead of a deficit was because my parents, who had earned that money, had transferred it to my account. Was this a ‘banking fiction’?
In the same way, God’s judgment that we are righteous before him even though we are not inherently righteous in ourselves is not a ‘legal fiction.’ The perfect righteousness of Christ is credited to the believer’s account as though the believer had never sinned and had perfectly loved God and his neighbor with all of his heart, soul, mind, and strength. The account not only lacks any debt; it shows a balance of perfect righteousness. Luther’s phrase was ‘simul iustus et peccator,’ ‘simultaneously justified and sinful.’ God judges a believing sinner righteous not because the individual is actually righteous, but because Christ is actually righteous and the believer is covered in his righteousness. That is not to say that the believer is not being made righteous, but it is to say that this process is sanctification rather than justification; it is the effect of justification rather than its cause.
How Is One Justified? Faith Alone or Faith And Works?
Our opponents will argue that there is no single text that explicitly bears the words, justification by faith alone. They are correct, but I am certain that they would regard as simplistic the suggestion that the Scriptures do not teach the doctrine of the Trinity simply because the term is not used. The Scriptures are hardly ambiguous in excluding all human activity from being the instrument of justification with the exception of faith. This is the same as saying ‘faith alone.’ Or, to put it another way, if the Scriptures teach that we are justified by faith and not by works, then they teach ‘faith alone.’
The Gospel is announced first in Genesis, after the Fall, where God finds Adam and Eve in their guilt and self-righteousness. Their fig leaves cannot hide their shame from God, but the Redeemer God sacrifices an animal and clothes them in its skins, anticipating ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ Already the Gospel is announced not as divine assistance in producing an inherent righteousness, but as God’s covering of the believer with the righteousness of another. It is external to the believing sinner.
In God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen.15), we learn again that sinners can only be justified through faith in God’s gracious promise: ‘Abram believed the LORD, and he credit it to him as righteousness.’ In Habakuk 2:4, we read that while the unbelievers are ‘puffed up’ with their own righteousness, the believer ‘by his faith shall live.’ The impossibility of being justified by an inherent righteousness–that is, by works, runs throughout Scripture. As the writer to the Hebrews insists (Hebrews 11), all of the great Old Testament saints were justified by faith, not by their own deeds. But why is it impossible for works to play any part in justification? The Scriptures declare that it is because even our best works are sinful–in fact ‘as filthy rags’ (Is. 64:6), and the Psalmist declares, ‘no one living is righteous before you’ (Ps.143:2). Thus, our only hope is the good news that we find in Psalm 103:10: ‘He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.’ Isaiah foretold the day when the Messiah would ‘justify many and he shall bear their iniquities’ (53:11).
In his earthly ministry, therefore, our Lord was regularly confronting the religious leaders with their confidence in their own works. While he offered the Gospel to the prostitutes who knew their sinfulness, he first offered the Law to those who did not. He came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it and he held up to the self-righteous Pharisees the standard of divine perfection: ‘For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ Now imagine the force of that. The Pharisees were so concerned to follow God’s Law in every detail that they even set up elaborate rules to avoid the slightest transgression. Were Jesus to have said that our righteousness must surpass that of the prostitutes, we could have understood his point, but how could the common and rather vulgar fisherman like Peter attain a purity that exceeded that of the most righteous men in Israel? The Apostle Paul answered that question in Philippians 3. He says that if anyone had any reason to boast about his own inherent righteousness, it was he: circumcised on the 8th day, an Israelite of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; ‘as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness of the Law, blameless.’ And what is Paul’s response? ‘Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ…I regard these as dung, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the Law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith’ (Phil.3:5-9). Notice the Apostle’s placement of ‘the righteousness from God based on faith’ and the ‘righteousness of my own’ in opposition. Justification by an inherent, internal righteousness is deemed absolutely contrary to a justification that comes through faith.
This is why Jesus threatened the religious leaders with the Law itself. Although they thought that their inherent righteousness–their obedience to God’s commands, was justifying them before God, they could only maintain this charade so long as they did not really know what the Law required. Therefore, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells them what it really means to fulfill the Law, that is, to love God and neighbor perfectly. Anyone who hates his neighbor is a murderer; adultery is committed not only in the physical act, but in lust. The young Pharisee who thought he had fulfilled the Law since he was a child was told by Jesus to sell everything he had and to give it to the poor, but the man went away sad. He had not truly loved his neighbor as himself after all. When Jesus told his disciples how perfect their righteousness had to be in order to merit eternal life, they replied, ‘Who then can be saved’? ‘Jesus replied, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Mt.19:24).
Echoing these words, St. Anselm in the 11th century wisely counseled, ‘You have not yet considered how great your sin is,’ and to those who trust in their own inherent righteousness, the realization of God’s purity sends them away sad, angry, or more determined to try even harder to attain righteousness by their own works. Some, however, like the disciples, will relinquish their own works and, like Paul, place them in the ‘debit’ rather than ‘credit’ column and their despair will turn to joy in the all-sufficient merit of Christ.
Jesus taught justification by faith alone throughout his earthly ministry. First he would preach the Law so powerfully that his hearers despaired of being able to be saved by their own obedience. But then he offered the Gospel of free justification. When he healed the paralytic, for instance, forgiveness stand out as even greater than the healing itself. ‘When Jesus saw their faith,’ we read–not when he saw their love or their works or the direction of the hearts, but ‘when Jesus saw their faith, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven.” The Pharisees were incensed at Jesus for presuming to have the right to forgive sins. In the presence of the Pharisees, Jesus forgave a prostitute, telling her, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace’ (Lk.7:50).
In Luke 18:9, we find another one of those situations in which Jesus antagonized the religious leaders: ‘To some who were confident in their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a day and give a tenth of all I get.’ ‘But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”’
Notice the contrast Jesus makes here between these two people. First, the parable is told, says Luke, to ‘some who were confident in their own righteousness.’ To the extent that Rome even speaks of meriting justification, there is a one-to-one correspondence between the Pharisee in this parable and our friends in this debate. ‘But,’ our friends will protest, ‘we attribute our inherent righteousness to God. It is his work in us.’ But the Pharisee, too, thanked God for this inherent righteousness. He pointed to his own spiritual disciplines–fasting, tithing, and so on, but he thanked God for it all. This, however, seems to have meant nothing, as Jesus sets his example beside that of a notorious sinner. Even before this tax-collector could have begun to fast, tithe, or engage in spiritual duties, he was already declared righteous. And how? He simply acknowledged his own helplessness and cried out for God’s mercy. Mercy, not merit, was this man’s plea. And what is the point of Jesus’ story? He concludes, ‘I tell you that his man [the tax-collector] rather than the other, went home justified before God.’
Jesus even insisted that the faith itself with which we claim the righteousness of Christ is a gift of God, since ‘no one can even come to Me unless it is given by the Father’ (Jn.6:44). He declared repeatedly that he did not come to save the righteous, but sinners. In his High Priestly Prayer, with the Crucifixion just over the horizon, Jesus prayed concerning his people, ‘For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.’ He fulfilled all righteousness, not in order to save himself–for he was sinless, but in order to merit for us salvation by his obedience to the Law. He sanctified himself–he perfectly obeyed the Law and satisfied God’s righteous requirements, so that we too may be acceptable to God in him.
This is why, especially in John’s writings, we are told, ‘I write these things to you who believe in he name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life’ (1 Jn.5:13). And Jesus stated, ‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life’ (Jn. 5:24). It is just this confidence that is denied by the Roman system and by all gospels of works-righteousness. Ask our friends today if they can know that they have eternal life, and they will answer that they can only know that they are now in a state of grace, but cannot be certain about whether they will be condemned in the end. Jesus declared, speaking of himself in the third person, ‘Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.’ It is Jesus himself who employs the legal language of justification and condemnation, acquittal and judgment. In fact, he adds, ‘This is the verdict.’ From our Lord’s own mouth, we are repeatedly told that everyone who believes is justified and everyone who does not believe is condemned. Works flow from faith, but it is faith alone that leads to acquittal.
In Acts 13:39, we read, ‘Through Christ everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses.’ In Acts 15:9, we are told that ‘he purified their hearts by faith.’
But we have not even yet given our attention to the teaching of St. Paul, whose letters were written especially to oppose false gospels and confirm believers in the Gospel of free grace. Where is the addition of ‘alone’ necessary when Paul so clearly declares, ‘For in the Gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The just by faith shall live”? If it is by faith ‘from first to last,’ it is by faith alone. Like Jesus, Paul first confronts his readers with the Law’s demands and concludes that Jew and Gentile alike are unrighteous and helpless. ‘No one is righteous, no not even one,’ he declares, not even the person who is attempting to obey God. This is especially interesting in the light of Vatican II’s pronouncement that all who seek to obey God, even apart from Christ, will be saved. Furthermore, like Jesus, Paul contrasts a righteousness that is by faith and a righteousness that is by works: ‘But now a righteousness from God, apart from Law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. The righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe’ (Rom.3:21). Notice what Paul says: It is a righteousness that comes to us as a gift, not as an infused disposition; further, it is a righteousness that is received by faith, apart from Law. The two ideas are diametrically opposed.
In Romans 4, Paul reaches the heart of his argument, appealing to the example of Abraham. ‘What then shall we say that Abraham our forefather discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about–but not before God. What does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ In other words, a salary isn’t a gift; the company owes it to you. Rome actually argues that we merit (de congruo) justification by cooperating with grace. But merit is precisely what Paul is excluding here. ‘However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.’ In one fell swoop, Paul destroys every plank in the Roman doctrine of justification. Rome says that justification is merited; Paul says it is a gift. Rome says that it is given to those who work for it; Paul says it is given to those who do not work for it. Rome says that God only justifies those who are truly holy inherently; Paul says that God only justifies those who are truly wicked inherently. Rome says that justification is a process of attaining righteousness; Paul says that justification is a declaration of imputed or ‘credited’ righteousness.
Furthermore, Paul cites David’s example. ‘Blessed is the man to whom God will not impute sin.’ Justification for Paul therefore has nothing whatever to do with a process of moral improvement; it is concerned with imputation. Then he goes back to Abraham: ‘Under what circumstances was [righteousness] credited [to Abraham]?’ Paul asks. ‘Was it after he was circumcised or before?’ This is the heart of our question today. ‘Under what circumstances does God justify?’ Is it before or after we begin in holiness? Rome answers that this justification is declared on the basis that the sinner is no longer a sinner, but has already begun in holiness. But Paul answers that it is before the new obedience begins. Abraham, Paul observes, was justified before he obeyed God in offering Isaac. ‘So then he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them…It was not through the Law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise…, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.’ And why is the righteousness that comes by Law opposed to the righteousness that comes by faith? Paul says it is ‘because the law brings wrath,’ since it can only render a ‘guilty’ verdict in our case.
If we are justified by a process of cooperating with grace, we can only have peace with God when we no longer sin. But Paul writes, ‘Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand’ (Rom.5:1-2). Paul drives this point home further in verse 9: ‘Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!’
In the latter half of Romans 5, Paul unpacks the legal, forensic character of justification he has defended. Adam’s sin was imputed to the entire human race. We were made guilty before God not by a process of sin being infused into us, but by a declaration of our solidarity with Adam as our representative head. In exactly the same way, Paul says, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to all believers by virtue of their union with him. The imputation of righteousness is just as forensic or legal as the imputation of sin: ‘The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification.’ Are our opponents really willing to argue that condemnation is a moral process? Jesus said that he who does not believe stands condemned already, just as the one who believes ‘has passed from death unto life.’ Where is the process that leads to acquittal? From the mouth of our Lord and his apostles, the justification is as declarative as the condemnation. As a result, Paul confidently announces, ‘Therefore, there is now’–not at the end, if one cooperates with grace, but ‘there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Rom.8:1).
In 1 Corinthians, Paul tells us that the Gospel, though foolishness to those who are perishing, is the wisdom and power of God. For Christ has been made ‘our righteousness, holiness, and redemption.’ Here, Paul is simply picking up a recurring Old Testament Gospel announcement. For instance, we read in Is.61:10: ‘I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness.’ Jeremiah prophesied of Christ, ‘In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness.’ Christ does not merely infuse me with righteousness; he is my righteousness. This is the meaning of the animal skins with which God clothes Adam and Eve and the robe that the father places over the prodigal son. And yet, this is precisely what Rome denies: God cannot, we are told, judge me to be righteous while I am unrighteous simply by transferring Christ’s righteousness to me. But this is precisely what Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Paul are arguing.
But it is in Paul’s letter to the Galatians where one finds the apostle’s magisterial defense of the Gospel in the crucible of controversy. It is especially relevant in view of the fact that the church fathers themselves offered contradictory views on the way of salvation. In his epistle to the Corinthians, Clement, Bishop of Rome just a few decades after Paul’s letters to the same church, wrote, ‘So we too who by his will have been called in Christ Jesus are justified not of ourselves nor through our own wisdom or understanding or piety, nor yet through anything that we have done in purity of heart, but through that faith through which almighty God has justified all men from the beginning, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.’ Justin Martyr, John Chrysostom, and other Fathers concur. The Fathers said some good things and some bad things, but always sent us directly and finally back to Scripture.
If a prominent church founded by the Apostle Paul could fall so quickly into a false gospel of works-righteousness, we should not be surprised at the confusion of the early church. ‘I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel–which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even is we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!’
Paul describes his public controversy with Peter, which would have been a rather remarkable thing had Peter been the first infallible pope. But Peter did, in the end, come around and in his own letters acknowledged Paul’s writings as Scripture. If Peter could be corrected by Scripture, one would have hoped that those who claimed to be his successors might have imitated him. In fact, Peter himself declared that there is a heavenly inheritance reserved in heaven for those ‘who through faith are shielded by God’s power’ and assures his readers, ‘you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls’ (1 Pet. 1:5). Peter opens his second epistle with the greeting, ‘To those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours.’ In Galatians, Paul declares that ‘by observing the Law no one will be justified…for if righteousness could be gained through the Law, Christ died for nothing.’ The apostle could not have been more aggravated: ‘You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?…All who rely on observing the Law are under a curse…Clearly no one is justified before God by the Law, because ‘The righteous will live by faith.’ The Law is not based on faith; on the contrary.’ In Rome, one is justified by faith and obedience, but for Paul, justification by faith is contrary to justification by obedience. For the next several chapters, Paul labors this contradiction. ‘So that Law was put in charge to lead us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith,’ he declares in 3:24. After having been freed from the bondage of legalism, ‘How is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles?’ he wonders in astonishment. ‘You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen from grace.’
The famous passage in Ephesians 2:8, 9 could not be clearer: ‘For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and none of this is of yourselves; it is all the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.’ It is by grace through faith, not of works! This parallels Paul’s statement in Romans 11: ‘For if it is by grace, it is not of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.’
To Timothy, the Apostle writes, ‘God has saved us and called us to a holy life–not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace’ (2 Tim.1:9). God has called us to a holy life, to be sure, but this is the goal, not the cause, of our justification. Our opponents will say that whenever Paul refers to ‘works’ or ‘law’ as contrary to faith, he is referring to the ceremonial law of the Old Testament, but here we have one of many obvious examples that Paul intends to exclude all works by saying that it is ‘not because of anything we have done.’ Surely that includes all works, ceremonial or moral. It is by faith alone.
In the Scriptures and throughout church history, proponents of this view have been charged with opening the door to loose-living. It was the Apostle Paul himself who realized the full impact of this Gospel when, after announcing that ‘where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more,’ he anticipated his readers’ shock: ‘What shall we say, then? Shall we continue in sin so that grace may abound?’ His answer, and ours, is ‘Heaven forbid! How shall we who have died to sin live any longer in it.’ We do not deny regeneration and sanctification, we simply do not regard this as the basis for our acceptance before a holy God. While the Apostle Paul knew that the Gospel he preached would raise the objection that this would lead to loose-living, Rome has never had to worry about this accusation concerning the gospel she proclaims.
Why would we ‘hunger and thirst after righteousness’ if it is already imputed?, one may ask. It is precisely because it is already imputed that we hunger and thirst after obedience to God in gratitude for our redemption. It is similar to asking why a foster child would want to obey if he is already adopted. We are sons, not slaves; we serve God out of gratitude, not fear of judgment or hope of rewards. Tell me that I have to sufficiently love God and my neighbor before I can enjoy God’s favor and the last thing I will want to do is love God. What I must hear if I am to end my war against God is that he forgives the wicked. He makes sons out of his enemies. He declares those to be righteous who in themselves cannot love God and their neighbor. Then I will lay down my weapons and accept the truce.
In Protestant theology, ‘salvation’ is a broad word, encompassing not only justification, but election, atonement, regeneration, sanctification, adoption, and final glorification. In these debates, a recurring error on the Roman Catholic side is to assume a false antithesis: Either the Bible teaches that justification and sanctification are identical or the Bible teaches that there is no such thing as sanctification. This debate, therefore, is not over the question of whether God renews us and initiates a process of gradual growth in holiness throughout the course of our lives. ‘We are justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone,’ Luther stated, and this recurring affirmation of the new birth and sanctification as necessarily linked to justification leads one to wonder how the caricatures continue to be perpetuated without foundation. For instance, in the magazine published by Catholic Answers, This Rock, Leslie Rumble (April, 1993) makes the astounding claim concerning Luther that the German Reformer denied that a change takes place in the person who is justified. ‘He remains exactly as he was before’ and the believer is never transformed. This demonstrates a remarkable lack of familiarity with the Protestant position. We affirm conversion and the life-long process of growing in sanctifying grace.
This is why we do not find a problem with James, although Roman Catholics find great problems with the rest of Scripture on this subject. For Paul, speaking to new converts who have been steeped in legalism and paganism, the content of the Gospel is uppermost. For James, addressing believers who gloried in what they called ‘faith,’ but did not seem to think that works were a necessary consequence of saving faith, justification was a matter of making your claim to being justified stand up in a court of law. For Paul, the court of law is God’s and it is heavenly; for James, it is man’s and it is earthly. For Paul, the fact of justification is in view; for James, the proof of justification is the concern. Therefore, when James declares that faith is dead if it is alone, how could one object? Luther himself said that we were justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. This is James’ point: Anything that you call faith that does not love or serve is not really justifying faith, but is ‘dead.’ Of course, this faith– ‘dead’ faith, cannot save anybody. Only living, active, working faith is the genuine article. However, it is not the fruit of faith that justifies. It does not justify in acting, working, loving, or serving, but in believing and receiving Christ’s gift of righteousness. The faith that Paul described is not the faith the James sees in those antinomians who thought that faith was nothing more than an assent to certain facts.
But is this doctrine fundamental to our faith? Isn’t it simply a matter of fine-tuning things? In our day zeal is more important than knowledge. As long as people ‘love the Lord’ and seek to live the Christian life, such doctrinal debates as these can only serve to distract us from our common mission in the world. And yet, Paul tells us that his fellow-Israelites were zealous indeed. ‘For I can bear witness of them that they have a great zeal for God, but it is not according to knowledge.’ Knowledge of certain things is essential for salvation, and the particular piece of knowledge Paul has in mind is the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone: ‘Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not accept God’s righteousness. Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes’ (Rom. 10:1-4).
Dr. Michael Horton is the vice chairman of the Council of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and is associate professor of historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. Dr. Horton is a graduate of Biola University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in California (M.A.R.) and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (Ph.D.). Some of the books he has written or edited include Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, Beyond Culture Wars, Power Religion, In the Face of God, and most recently, We Believe.