Assurance for Today: God works through the Sacraments

I’ll be honest: I’m not sure about this post. It comes across as more critical than I meant it to be. I do not mean to “bash” anyone’s faith; only to point out what I see to be honest, practical difficulties in particularly Evangelical Protestantism, as I’ve witnessed and I myself experienced. As usual, if I miss the mark on something, please call me on it.

Return of the Prodigal Son, by Batoni

Return of the Prodigal Son (1773), by Pompeo Batoni.

Reading back over my recent posts, there is a point I wanted to touch on but didn’t quite hit in my post on “Catholicism and Assurance of Salvation.”

It is this: Unlike the Evangelical, who might struggle with uncertainty and doubt as to whether he is “really saved,” seeking a “confirmation” of the “assurance” of his salvation — the Catholic can be assured from the very beginning, from the moment of his Baptism, in the promises of Christ, that God’s grace has done what Scripture promises it will do: that his every sin has been washed away (Acts 22:16); that he has been born again in Christ (John 3:3,5; Romans 6:3–6; Titus 3:5); that he has received God’s Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38, 19:5–6). From the moment he receives absolution in the Sacrament of Confession, he can be sure that God has forgiven his sins (1 John 1:9), that he has been healed and restored in grace (James 5:15), because this is what Scripture promises. From the moment he receives the Lord in the Holy Eucharist, he can be sure that he has encountered Christ, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity (1 Corinthians 10:16), and that His grace and eternal life have flooded his soul (John 6:54) — because this is what Jesus Himself promised.

Hillsong Church, Sydney, Australia

Hillsong Church, Sydney, Australia.

From a practical standpoint, speaking as someone tending to approach situations from the perspective of feeling (I am a textbook INFP) — and, as the other night, having witnessed this in my friends — the Evangelical approach tends to place much emphasis on feelings and emotions: “I have assurance that I am saved because I feel assured.” And vice versa: “I wonder if I am really saved, because I don’t feel it.” Salvation, in this tradition, seems to depend also on our human understanding: I have heard many times, “I thought I was saved; I went to church, was baptized, worked in outreaches, sang in the choir — but then I realized that I didn’t really ‘get it,’ and wasn’t really saved at all.” “Getting it” often depends not only on an intellectual comprehension, but an emotional appreciation. I have heard from so many people — and I can testify to this myself — that “I went down [to the altar call] every week, prayed the ‘sinner’s prayer’ again and again — but I just didn’t feel saved.” “Feeling saved” does not necessarily mean that one is, nor does “not feeling” mean that one is not, but the experience of these feelings certainly has a lot of bearing on one’s assurance and security. The idea of “assurance of salvation” depends on the apprehension of something subjective; something one feels one has or not; something that can be thrown into doubt by sin or scrupulosity.

I suspect this phenomenon is particular to the Evangelical Protestant tradition, possibly only to certain sectors of it, and may have more to do with one’s own scrupulosity and insecurity than anything inherent to the tradition; but that door is very often left open, and I don’t see an easy remedy. Was not Luther’s initial concern his scrupulosity, his not feeling justified? Other forms of Protestantism may or may not suffer from this same problem, or at least not to the same degree. But this emotionalism, this subjectivity, is the extreme end, it seems to me, of one of the basic theological differences between Catholic theology and Protestant theology: differing understandings of the mode of grace working through the Sacraments.

The Workings of Grace

Rembrandt , The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626)

The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626), by Rembrandt.

One of the fundamental disagreements of the Protestant Reformation concerns the mode of the working of the Sacraments: how it is that the grace of the Sacraments is accomplished; in what mode the Sacraments are efficacious. According to the Catholic understanding, first formulated by the medieval scholastic theologians, the Sacraments work ex opere operato, “from the work having been worked”: the efficacy of the Sacrament comes from the very fact that the work was done (by God). The opposing Protestant view can be summed up as ex opere operantis, “from the work of the one working”: that is, the efficacy of the Sacrament depends upon the spiritual disposition of the one receiving it, namely, upon his faith.

The Catholic view understands the Sacraments to be instruments of God through which He immediately acts upon the believer, conferring His grace — one of the gifts of which is saving faith. One of the major concerns of this doctrine, dating from the earliest centuries of the Church, is that the efficacy of the Sacrament does not depend at all on the holiness of the minister — since God can work through even the instrumentality of a sinful priest. The requirements of the Sacrament are only that it be carried out in the correct matter and form, by a minister with the power and the intention to perform it. The graces of the Sacrament flow from the working of the Sacrament itself. In order for the recipient to receive these graces, he must be properly disposed — e.g. having faith in Christ, sincere repentance, the intention to receive the Sacrament, with no obstacle or impediment to it. But whether he receives the graces or not, they are present, ex opere operato. Thus, the recipient of the Sacrament has the positive expectation that the Sacrament has done what it was supposed to do, what God promised: it does not depend subjectively on either the minister or the recipient, apart from the requirement that they have the necessary disposition — which is more often formulated as a negative: the Sacrament can be presumed to have been valid unless there existed some impediment.

Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526.

Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526.

On the other hand, the Protestant view understands the Sacraments to be aids to the mind, which enable it, by faith, to approach God and receive grace. The efficacy of the Sacrament depends solely on the believer’s disposition — that is, on faith alone. Faith is the instrument by which the soul reaches out to apprehend the redemptive work of Christ and procure the grace of justification from God.

Both positions agree that grace comes from God alone. The difference is this: Does God actively and immediately administer grace to the believer through the Sacraments, this grace being efficaciously applied so long as the believer has the proper disposition? Or does the believer, through the Sacraments, reach out to God to obtain His grace by faith? To abstract a step further: Is the immediately active role in justification played directly by God Himself, or by the faith of the believer (which is given by God)? Are we actually justified by faith alone, apprehending salvation, or is it a necessary disposition, to which God gives the grace of saving faith? Does grace depend subjectively on the faith of the believer, whether it apprehends the saving work of Christ, or objectively on the believer, whether he is properly disposed to receive God’s saving work by God’s own hand and agency?

In the case of the Evangelicals with whom this discussion began — they generally have no belief in “Sacraments” at all. Baptism and the Eucharist are merely symbolic acts of faith which convey no grace in and of themselves. But the Protestant principle nonetheless formed a foundation for the Evangelical understanding: Rather than the faith of the believer reaching out to God by means of the Sacraments as aids, his faith reaches out to God with no aid but faith itself. The uncertainty and insecurity of whether faith has apprehended anything at all is thus understandable — like shooting for the moon with only dead reckoning as a guide.

Works’ Righteousness?

Pietro Longhi (1701-1785), The Confession

Pietro Longhi (1701-1785), The Confession (WikiArt.org).

The doctrine of grace being received from the Sacraments ex opere operato is another target for the common anti-Catholic charge that Catholics believe in “works’ righteousness.” The idea that a believer can be baptized, confirmed, partake of the Eucharist, be absolved in Confession — and out of those works themselves, receive grace — seems to all but confirm the accusation. The believer performs a work in exchange for grace.

But this is a misunderstanding. While it is true that the Sacraments are active in working, it is in fact God alone who works in the Sacraments — the believer only passively receiving His grace. Ironically, it is the Protestant position in which grace depends on the work of the believer (ex opere operantis) — on his faith actively apprehending the grace of Christ’s saving work. It is true that faith is not a human work, but a gift of God — so the charge of “works’ righteousness” does not properly apply to the Protestant view any more than it does to the Catholic. But whether one is “saved,” in the Protestant view, depends on whether the believer has apprehended, by faith, the truths of the Gospel. How the understanding of saving faith is framed can vary widely across traditions, but it seems to be inherently subjective. As seen in the Evangelical experience, being “really saved” can be understood to depend on “really getting it,” that is, truly grasping the message of the Gospel, by the head and by the heart.

This at once presents difficulties: If being “saved” depends on the believer’s understanding — and this view seems to be wider than the Evangelical tradition — for example, I frequently hear charges, particularly from the Reformed, that “Catholics cannot be saved unless they have faith in Christ alone,” to the exclusion of the Sacraments, “works,” etc. — i.e. In this view, salvation depends upon the intellectual understanding of a particular doctrine, and any other understanding can nullify faith in Christ — then how can small children be saved? What about the mentally disabled? What if a person can never apprehend the Gospel by faith at all? I have heard Protestant leaders (notably several prominent Reformed ones) say, flat-out, that children cannot be saved. I do not suppose that all Protestants, or even all Reformed, feel this way — but an understanding of salvation that makes grace dependent on the subjective faith of the believer as an intellectual understanding and emotional appreciation naturally runs into such questions.

Assurance for today

Sacred Heart

Pompeo Batoni. Il Sacro Cuore (The Sacred Heart) (1740).

So, to return to the initial, practical concern: The faithful Catholic who participates in the sacramental life of grace has assurance that he is indeed receiving the grace of the Sacraments — for this is what Jesus promised. Despite any charges of “works’ righteousness,” the state of grace in a Catholic depends not on his own working, but objectively on the working of God in the Sacraments, by the saving work of Christ; in contrast to the Protestant, whose assurance is subjective, dependent on whether he has grasped the truths of God by faith. The Catholic’s assurance is not an eternal assurance: he cannot know the future, whether he will have the grace of final perseverance or not; but he has assurance for today, in the daily bread that Jesus provides.

A comment aside: It is really difficult to find artwork to illustrate Protestant theological concepts!

The Faith of Abraham

The post I meant to make before I was distracted by Luther.

Rembrandt. The Sacrifice of Isaac. 1635.

Rembrandt. The Sacrifice of Isaac. 1635.

This Lent I’ve been re-reading the Pentateuch, since the last time I read it was before I was Catholic and before I had the benefit of Catholic Bible commentaries or an elementary knowledge of the Hebrew language. In reading the story of Abraham in Genesis, I got to thinking about the nature of Abraham’s faith:

“And [Abraham] believed the Lord; and [the Lord] reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)

Justified by Faith

The Apostle Paul prominently appeals to this verse in his discourses on the doctrine of justification in his epistles to the Galatians and Romans (Galatians 3:6, Romans 4:3). It is an especially important verse to the Protestant concept of imputation, the idea that when a sinner comes to faith in Christ, the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the sinful believer, “covering” his sins like a cloak rather than actually transforming him; that the righteousness of Christ is credited to his account by a forensic, legal declaration only, such that he is considered “righteous” by God’s juridical reckoning on account of Christ’s righteousness, despite God still seeing the sin that fills his life. Per Luther’s argument, even “a little spark of faith,” a “weak” or “imperfect” faith, the “firstfruits” of believing in Christ, was sufficient to bring about this imputation, counting a sinner righteous once and for all.

Marc Chagall. The Sacrifice of Isaac. 1966.

Marc Chagall. The Sacrifice of Isaac. 1966.

In Paul’s context, he argues that Abraham was counted righteous before God not because of any works he performed, but because of his faith in God’s promises. And, it’s true, both in the Hebrew of Genesis and the Greek of Paul’s letters, the verb translated “reckoned” is one of reckoning or perception: Abraham’s faith was counted as righteousness.

But then, it begs the question: if Abraham’s faith was imputed to him as righteousness, and this imputation is analogous to a believer’s justification by faith in Christ, what kind of faith did Abraham have? Was it a “weak” or “imperfect” faith? Did the imputation to Abraham of righteousness that followed his faith belie and cover an otherwise sinful state in the man? And, once this faith was imputed to Abraham as righteousness, was he then “counted as righteous” from then on, he being unalienably in God’s favor from that point forward? If the faith of Abraham and its imputation to him as righteousness is an analogy to the justification of a Christian believer, then we should expect both the faith and the imputation to be similar.

A Total Commitment

It’s clear, however, that the faith of Abraham that was counted as righteousness was not an weak or imperfect, not an initial and insecure belief in God’s promises, as Luther would present, but instead a total commitment of his life and his destiny to God’s plan. The reference to Abraham’s faith being reckoned as righteousness occurred only after he had obeyed God and left his home far behind for a distant land. And his position before God was not that of a lost and abject sinner, but of a man who had dedicated himself in faith to total obedience to God’s commands. If his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness, then surely it was because wholly committing himself in faith to God’s promise was a righteous thing to do.

Josef Molnar. Abraham's Journey. 1850.

Josef Molnar. Abraham’s Journey. 1850.

An Active Faith

And was Abraham’s reputation as righteous then permanent and irrevocable, because of his singular act of faith? Was he then forevermore in God’s favor, to be considered blameless even if he should fall away and reject God’s promises? In fact, God made a covenant with Abraham, binding Abraham to a set obligations.

And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised” (Genesis 17:9–10).

By the nature of a covenant, God’s promises to Abraham were contingent on Abraham’s remaining faithful to it. Abraham continued to be counted as righteous because he continued to keep his faith with God. In fact, we find very clearly, elsewhere in Scripture, that Abraham’s faith was considered righteous because it was an active faith:

Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered his son Isaac upon the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by works, and the scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”; and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:21–24).

Caravaggio. The Sacrifice of Isaac. 1603.

Caravaggio. The Sacrifice of Isaac. 1603.

The Works of Torah

What, then, was Paul talking about when he said that Abraham was justified “by faith … apart from works”? What “works” was Paul rejecting, “that none should boast”? It’s clear from Paul’s context that he refers very specifically to the works of the Law — νόμος (nomos), which in a Jewish context, referred almost exclusively to the Torah (the word θεσμός [thesmos] being the more common word in Greek for human laws, rules, rites, or precepts):

The promise to Abraham and his descendants, that they should inherit the world, did not come through the Law but through the righteousness of faith (Romans 4:13).

In particular, the work of Torah with which Paul is most concerned is circumcision, which in the case of Abraham, had not even been commanded yet, when “he believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” In Paul’s context, circumcision was being preached by the Judaizers as a necessity for salvation in Christ. In other words, Christ was the Messiah of the Jews, and to become a follower of Christ, per their argument, one must first become a Jew. Not so, said Paul:

For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of Law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith (Romans 3:28–30).

With a Faith Like Abraham

What Paul is saying, then, is that to inherit the covenant promises of God, one does not have or be a descendant of Abraham according to the flesh, either by blood or by circumcision (Romans 9:8). Rather, it is the children of the promise, who follow in the faith of Abraham — with a faith like Abraham — who inherit: a total commitment of one’s life and destiny; a placing of all one’s faith and hope in God’s promises; a faith active in love (Galatians 5:6).

Luther, Imputation, and Sin: Surprisingly Irrational

This was supposed to be a post about Abraham’s faith and righteousness, but instead I started reading Luther, and was unexpectedly carried away with other observations.

Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery, 1565 (WikiPaintings).

Now, I freely acknowledge that I may be missing something. Am I somehow misunderstanding Protestant theology? Please, someone correct me if I am. Because today, in seeking to understand, I’ve been reading Luther’s Commentary on Galatians, and, forgive me for saying so, but it comes across as the ravings of a lunatic. I say this not because I’m predisposed to oppose Luther; I read him because I’m seeking to understand his theology, not to condemn him as a person.

But what I read is a man obsessed with his own sin, going out of his mind to find a way how he could be acceptable to God and still be sinful; interposing every other paragraph with wild aspersions against “meritmongers” and “popist sophisters,” charging that they, “seek righteousness by their own works,” that in this they “think to appease the wrath of God: that is, they do not judge him to be merciful, true, and keeping promise, etc., but to be an angry judge, which must be pacified by their works.” Luther is the one so consumed by the thought of a wrathful God! I struggle to understand how someone so well educated in Catholic theology could so wholly and thoroughly misunderstand it — unless he either be intentionally misrepresenting it, or be genuinely mentally deranged. Indeed, he goes so far as to argue, repeatedly, that “faith killeth reason, and slayeth that beast which the whole world and all creatures cannot kill”; that reason is “the most bitter enemy of God,” a “pestilent beast,” “the fountain and headspring of all mischiefs” — to argue intentionally and consistently that faith and reason are wholly opposed, that his own theology and all true faith defies all reason, and that reason instead is the sole purview of “popish sophisters and schoolmen,” who “kill not reason … but quicken it.” I didn’t set out to write this — but really, I am shocked. I never expected Luther to be so irrational.

Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526.

Luther, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1526.

So if I understand correctly, Luther argues that “God accounteth this imperfect faith for perfect righteousness” — that he even having a “weak faith,” God imputes to him the “perfect righteousness” of Christ, that he is then “covered under the shadow of Christ’s wings,” that he can then “dwell without all fear under that most ample and large heaven of the forgiveness of sins, which is spread over me, God [covering] and [pardoning] the remnant of sin in me,” and from then on God “counteth [his] sin for no sin,” indeed He “winketh at the remnants of sin yet sticking in our flesh, and so covereth them, as if they were no sin.” I knew that this was the upshot of what Protestants believed; I never knew that Luther stated it so boldfacedly! God looks on sin and accepts it instead as righteousness. And what’s more, that this a one-time, once-and-for-all, irrevocable occurrence.

I was a Protestant not so very long ago. I accepted this! Now, perhaps it’s my Lent-addled state, but I can no longer understand where Luther could rationally have derived such a doctrine, let alone how he could square it with the rest of Scripture. I suppose, by reckoning that he could be simul justus et peccator, at the same time righteous and a sinner, he can dismiss scriptural warnings against sin and judgment upon it as not applying to him, whether he actually be a wanton sinner or not, he being “righteous” by imputation: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Corinthians 6:9). But on the other hand, Paul writes, to members of the Church, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21), without regard to their having been once-justified or not.

Even more surprising than all this, though, is the tone with which Luther argues. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I could ramble on about this for some time, so I will bring this to a close. If you have any criticism, please give it. I would like to make sense of this.

Justified by Faith: Paul and Baptism (Baptism in Depth)

Guido Reni, The Baptism of Christ (1623)

The Baptism of Christ (1623), by Guido Reni.

Part of a series on Baptism in Depth.

A few days ago, I had a startling realization about St. Paul.

I’ve always been frustrated by Paul’s lack of emphasis on Baptism. If Baptism is what saves us (1 Peter 3:21), why does Paul so seldom mention it in conjunction with salvation? Reformed Protestants are quick to point out that according to Paul, we are saved “by grace through faith … not because of works” (Ephesians 2:8–10) — and Baptism, according to them, is a “work”; and they stand on this to the exclusion of all other Scripture, even the words of Jesus Himself, demonstrating the necessity of Baptism (Mark 16:16, John 3:5). Many times I’ve had niggling doubts: What if the Protestants are right about Paul — about “salvation by faith alone” (sola fide)? What if the critics are right about Paul, that he teaches a different message than Jesus?

But then the other day, it hit me like a Roman chariot:

Paul takes for granted that all of his readers have already been baptized.

de la Tour, St. Paul (1620)

St. Paul (1620), by Georges de la Tour.

Of course! Just as Jesus exhorted us to believe and be baptized, believing and being baptized formed two inseparable halves of the same thought and action for the earliest Christians. In the Acts of the Apostles, Baptism immediately followed a believer coming to faith in Christ in every single case of conversion, as I showed yesterday. Believing and being baptized were so inextricably connected in the apostolic mind that one even came to imply the other. The idea that a believer could come to believe in Christ and not be baptized was unthinkable.

Each of Paul’s letters presume a Christian audience. They are not evangelistic in nature, but written rather to existing Christian communities to counsel, instruct, and correct. Therefore Paul assumes that all of his recipients are baptized Christians:

But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:25–27)

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3–4)

Rembrandt , The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626)

The Baptism of the Eunuch (1626), by Rembrandt.

For St. Paul, just as for St. Luke in the Book of Acts, believing and being baptized were inextricably connected. Just as being baptized implied that one had come to believe, believing entailed that one had been baptized.

And so it is only with this crucial context that Paul’s declarations regarding salvation by faith can be properly understood:

We ourselves … who know a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified. (Galatians 2:15–16)

For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. … God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of their faith and the uncircumcised through their faith. (Romans 3:28–30)

The essential response to having faith in Christ is being baptized. Paul understood that his recipients had already come to faith in Christ and been baptized. The two are inextricably connected — and so a crucial component of being justified by faith, the operative component, is Baptism.

The Doctrine of Justification: Augustine is Catholic

Iustitia Dei by McGrath
Today is the feast day of St. Augustine, and though I have a lot of other things on my plate today, I thought it was an opportune time to make a first post in a matter that’s been boiling over in my head for a while. A couple of months ago I finished reading Alister McGrath’s Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, a compelling and masterful work on that subject of such importance to the ongoing schism of the Protestant Reformation. In only a few hundred pages, McGrath surveys the whole Western theological tradition, cutting to the crux of major theologians and theologies from Augustine to Barth, and digging to the root of the disagreements and controversies. He shows a thorough command of the literature, especially into the voluminous corpus of St. Augustine, but also likewise into a number of important medieval thinkers, and into Luther and Calvin. (In the second edition which I read, he was even so hardcore as to leave primary source quotations in their original Greek, Latin, and German. In the third edition, more accessible to a general audience, he does translate these quotations — which, brushing aside the vestiges of my academic snobbery, is a welcome relief. Reading it the first time was a world of brainhurt!)

McGrath is an honest and insightful historian, and so thoroughly versed in his material that this work should be considered the authority on the matter. I would like to give a full review — or even share a series of posts on some of the important points — but I think that will have to wait a little while. For today, I would like to share a few quotes from McGrath’s chapter on Augustine, whom he calls the “fountainhead” of the doctrine of justification, the first western theologian to devote his substantial energies to it, and the one in whose wake all later theologians would follow. In McGrath’s words, “All medieval theology is ‘Augustinian’, to a greater or lesser extent,” and even the Protestant Reformers attempted to stake a claim to an Augustinian heritage. But I felt vindicated as a Catholic in discovering that, by the judgment of even a Protestant scholar, Augustine’s theology is thoroughly catholic, and that the teachings of the Catholic Church on justification have been, have never ceased to be, and are still today, essentially Augustinian.

St. Augustine

St. Augustine (c. 1645-1650), Philippe de Champaigne.

Giving only a few quotations will be difficult — since I have most of the chapter highlighted! — but I will pick out a few passages highlighted in red: those that I found to be the most piercing and profound.

In rejecting the teachings of Pelagianism — that man has the power to save himself by his own free will apart from grace — Augustine did not reject that man has free will. He was careful to distinguish between liberum arbitrium (free will) and liberum arbitrium captivatum (free will taken captive or enslaved by sin). It is only by grace that our will is freed to pursue God. “Grace, far from abolishing the free will, actually establishes it.”

In a firm rejection of the Calvinistic notion of “monergism,” and in full accord with Catholic teaching, McGrath states:

For Augustine, the human liberum arbitrium captivatum is incapable of desiring or attaining justification. How, then, does faith, the fulcrum about which justification takes place, arise in the individual? According to Augustine, the act of faith is itself a divine gift, in which God acts upon the rational soul in such a way that it comes to believe. Whether this action on the will leads to its subsequent assent to justification is a matter for humanity, rather than for God. ‘The one who created you without you will not justify you without you’ (‘Qui fecit te sine te, non te iustificat sine te’). Although God is the origin of the gift which humans are able to receive and possess, the acts of receiving and possessing themselves can be said to be the humans’.

McGrath continues:

To meet what he regarded as Pelagian evasions, Augustine drew a distinction between operative and co-operative grace. God operates to initiate humanity’s justification, in that humans are given a will capable of desiring good, and subsequently co-operate with that good will to perform good works, to bring that justification to perfection. God operates upon the bad desires of the liberum arbitrium captivatum to allow it to will good, and subsequently co-operates with the liberum arbitrium liberatum to actualise that good will in a good action.

I wonder where he ever got an idea like that?

Regarding Augustine and the doctrine of merit, McGrath quotes:

The classic Augustinian statement on the relation between eternal life, merit and grace is the celebrated dictum of Epistle 194: ‘When God crowns our merits, he crowns nothing but his own gifts.’

Concerning the “righteousness of God,” the namesake of the book, he writes:

Central to Augustine’s doctrine of justification is his understanding of the ‘righteousness of God’, iustitia Dei. The righteousness of God is not that righteousness by which he is himself righteous, but that by which he justifies sinners. The righteousness of God, veiled in the Old Testament and revealed in the New, and supremely in Jesus Christ, is so called because, by bestowing it upon humans, God make them righteous.

Finally, dealing a deathblow to any inkling that Augustine ever held a doctrine of “justification by faith alone”:

Regeneration is itself the work of the Holy Spirit. The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, which is given to us in justification. The appropriation of the divine love to the person of the Holy Spirit may be regarded as one of the most profound aspects of Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity. Amare Deum, Dei donum est. [To love God is the gift of God.] The Holy Spirit enables humans to be inflamed with the love of God and the love of neighbours — indeed, the Holy Spirit is love. Faith can exist without love, on the basis of Augustine’s strongly intellectualist concept of faith, 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 [the love of God] 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.

But what of Paul’s references to justification by faith?

So how does Augustine understand those passages in the Pauline corpus which speak of justification by faith (e.g., Romans 5:1)? This question brings us to the classic Augustinian concept of ‘faith working through love’, fides quae per dilectionem operatur, which would dominate western Christian thinking on the nature of justifying faith for the next thousand years. The process by which Augustine arrives at this understanding of the nature of justifying faith illustrates his desire to do justice to the total biblical view on the matter, rather than a few isolated Pauline gobbets.

Ouch!

In summation to this point:

It is unacceptable to summarise Augustine’s doctrine of justification as sola fide iustificamur [we are justified by faith alone] — if any such summary is acceptable, it is sola caritate iustificamur [we are justified by love alone]. For Augustine, it is love, rather than faith, which is the power which brings about the conversion of people. Just as cupiditas is the root of all evil, so caritas is the root of all good. The personal union of individuals with the Godhead, which forms the basis of their justification, is brought about by love, and not by faith.

The word “love” is used in Scripture more than 500 times, versus about forty times the words “justifiction” or “to justify” are used. It is no accident that the greatest commandments, according to Jesus, are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27); or that, in Paul’s teachings, “Love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10). I think that in focusing so heavily on a “few isolated gobbets” of Paul, and fixating on the doctrine of justification to the detriment of the rest of Scripture, the Protestant Reformers may have missed the boat entirely.

(And this only gets me about halfway through the chapter! I will have to pick up the rest next time.)

Saved by Faith: A Modest Proposal for Protestants

Hello brothers and sisters. I pray you were blessed on the Lord’s Day. Here’s a little something I wrote up this morning in response to a particularly hardboiled Calvinist. I recommend it for all my Protestant brethren, as a proposal of how our positions are not quite so contradictory as many seem to think. I would appreciate any responses in answer to my earnest questions.


John Calvin, by Titian

John Calvin, by Titian (This blog). I am thrilled to find this! I had no idea Titian painted Calvin! I love it when my favorite people cross paths!

It is quite simple, really. We both believe that we are justified by faith in Christ, in His Resurrection and by His grace — do we not? Scripture consistently teaches this again and again and again, in the teachings of Christ Himself and of nearly every author of the New Testament (Matthew 9:22; Mark 5:34; Luke 7:50, 8:48, 17:19, 18:42; Acts 16:31; Romans 3:26-30, 5:1; Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8-10; Hebrews 11:7; James 2:8-26, 5:15; 1 Peter 1:9; 1 John 5:4; etc.). You believe, so you claim, that we are justified “by faith alone.” The Catholic Church actually agrees with that, with a qualification: that it is only in our initial justification, our first acceptance of God’s grace, when we are still dead in our sins and unable to grasp God’s grace at all (for it is only by grace that we can even grasp grace) that the Holy Spirit acts to regenerate us by our faith alone (“When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which 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,” Titus 3:4–7). I believe, so you word it, that we are also “justified by works.” That is not how I would characterize the Catholic position, but okay. Despite your wording, you seem to understand the Catholic position better than most: we believe that our works are done only “in the power of the Holy Spirit by grace,” such that they are not really our works at all, but God’s (“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them,” Ephesians 2:10), and such that all grace, our every justification and sanctification, even our every good deed, finds its source in the “merits of Christ” and in His Cross.

Now, suppose you are right, and we are justified “by faith alone.” You have faith, and are justified by that faith. I have faith, too — am I not also justified by that faith? Will not “every one who has faith be justified”? (Romans 10:4) How is your faith, by which you are saved, different than mine, by which I am damned? We both “confess with [our] lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in [our hearts] that God raised him from the dead” (Romans 10:9) — will we not both be saved? What is it about my faith that warrants damnation? Where in Scripture do you find the condition that “if you believe that anything else at all is an aid in your sanctification, you will be damned”? Is not such a requirement contrary to the very idea of justification “by faith alone”? If I believe that I am also “justified by my works,” done through God’s working in me (Philippians 2:12–13), and if I am wrong — then what? At worst, from my perspective — then I am wrong. So what? I think we both agree that it is only by the grace of God that we are able to work at all; so if I’m wrong, then at worst I’ve done a bunch of good works by His grace that will not be rewarded. Okay; my Lord and His salvation is the only reward I seek anyway. But these works that I’ve done through grace, in love (my “faith working in love,” Galatians 5:6), which I believed were the path to my sanctification, could not have hurt me, could they?; in fact, by doing good works, I seem to have been, as best as I was able, keeping His commandments (Matthew 19:17; John 14:15; Romans 13:9-10; 1 John 2:1-6; 2 John 6; Revelation 14:12, etc.) and following the precepts of the Gospel (Matthew 5:16, 25:35-40; Romans 13:10; Ephesians 2:10; James 2:8-26, 3:13; 2 Peter 1:5; etc.). At the very worst, my works cannot even be said to have done nothing — they have, no matter what I intended them to do, despite my misunderstanding, nonetheless helped to sanctify me, by my resolution to follow Christ and live His Gospel. Am I going to be damned despite my faith, because I did good works? That seems to be just as contradictory to the plain teachings of Scripture (Matthew 10:42, 16:27-28, chapter 25; Mark 9:41; Luke 6:35; Romans 2:7; 1 Corinthians 3:14; 2 Corinthians 5:10; James 2:18-26; 1 Peter 1:17; 1 John 3:11-17, etc.) as the Judaizers’ heresy that we are “[not] saved by faith, [but] by the works of Torah” (Galatians 2:16).

Saint Augustine in His Study, by Botticelli.

Saint Augustine in His Study (1480), by Botticelli (Wikipedia).

Or, on the other hand, suppose I am right, and good works done in love are necessary for salvation, following our initial justification by faith, and in concert with that saving faith (cf. Galatians 5:6, James 2:18-26, and all the rest I cited above). Having that saving faith, and striving, through His grace, to be sanctified and “to be holy as He is holy” (1 Peter 1:16) — but ever falling upon His mercy and grace for the many times that I fall (Matthew 6:7-15; Mark 11:25; 1 John 1:8-10, 2:1-6) — I have a living hope in Him for my salvation (1 Peter 1:3, 1 John 3:3, etc.), and I pray, when I stand before the throne of God, that I will not be found wanting (Daniel 5:27). Now, most Protestants, in my experience and in my understanding, believe, according to their reading of St. James (James 2:18-26), that good works, if not necessary for salvation, are the necessary fruit of salvation — that is, you cannot be “saved” and fail to produce good fruit; such is God’s grace working in the believer. If you are “saved,” then, you will produce good works in love; if you appear to be “saved,” and yet fail to produce good works, you were never really “saved” to begin with. Am I understanding you? Please correct me if I’m wrong. In any case, I hope and pray that you do have true, saving faith in Christ, brother, and I hope that you do produce good works, as the fruit of that faith. If, again, my view is correct, I believe with a firm heart and likewise living hope that you, having been justified by your faith and regenerated by Baptism (I hope and pray), and having likewise striven through God’s grace to follow Christ’s commandments and live the Gospel, will be judged worthy by our loving and merciful Lord and God. It matters not a whit that you believe that you are “justified by faith alone,” so long as you take that faith and work with it in love (Galatians 5:6), and continue to follow Him and His commandments.

Christianity and Doctrinolatry

John Calvin

John Calvin (1509-1564)

So lately I’ve been following the inner turmoil that is rocking the Southern Baptist Convention over, of all things, Calvinism. I admit that I don’t understand all of the intricacies of the debate, but it seems that the Calvinists within the SBC — a contingent that has been ever-growing of late — are demanding more theological rigor in the doctrinal statements of the denomination, while those less Calvinistic or even Arminian want a more moderate path, one that stresses evangelism and outreach and the basic Gospel truth that Jesus saves.

Now I have complained before about Calvinists and their tendency to stress rigid, uncompromising doctrine to the point that they value doctrine over Christian unity. In a time when our cultural battles as Christians are more critical than ever, when we are facing major losses almost every day, our Lutheran, Anglican, Orthodox, and even many of our evangelical brethren are drawing closer to us and laying down their disagreements to join us in our common fight; but many Calvinists would rather continue fighting the theological battles of 500 years ago than stand alongside Catholics to face the onslaught of modernity. Leading Calvinists such as R.C. Sproul place such a high value on Reformation doctrine that they refuse to acknowledge Catholics and Orthodox as Christian brothers and sisters; they deny that we even believe the Gospel of Christ. To R.C. Sproul, and to many other Calvinists, the Gospel is sola fide (justification “by faith alone”). “Without a clear understanding of sola fide and the doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, you do not have the gospel or gospel unity.”

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1533), by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

The most ironic thing is, nobody had ever heard of sola fide prior to the Reformation. By declaring that “the Gospel is sola fide,” Sproul is denying the salvation of every Christian from the first century to the sixteenth — arguably even the Apostles. I am not going to get into a biblical argument here, but the fact is, considering all the ages of theological literature from the earliest Church Fathers to the Reformation, that Luther’s and Calvin’s doctrines of sola fide and especially of justification by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, external to ourselves, represented genuine theological novelties: complete breaks with every theological tradition of the Christian Church from the beginning until their time. Protestants look for antecedents among earlier theologians, especially Augustine; but when it comes in particular to the manner of justification Luther proposed — this imputation of an external righteousness — there are none.* But they don’t really need antecedents, because their own interpretation of Scripture is sufficient. Even if no one else in history ever believed or taught sola fide, the Calvinistic interpretation of Scripture is absolute and indisputable, even if that means rejecting everyone who believes otherwise.

* I am almost through Iustitia Dei, Alister McGrath's history of the doctrine of justification — the work of an Anglican, a Protestant — and then I will bring it.

Tintoretto, The Resurrection of Christ (1565)

The Resurrection of Christ (1565), by Tintoretto.

And I have to ask, Who is it that saves? Is it not Christ? How does He save us? Is it not by faith? Jesus commands us to believe in Him (John 6:29, John 3:16), to follow Him (Matthew 16:24), to love Him and love our neighbor (Luke 10:27). Is this not the Gospel? Is it not the Gospel truth that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, took on human flesh, was crucified, and rose again from the dead, that we might be forgiven of our sins by His grace and have eternal life with Him? Paul delves deeper into the mechanics of salvation, of justification — but the fact is that Jesus didn’t really talk that much about it. Paul only wrote about justification at any length in a couple of his letters. In the earliest centuries of the Church, nobody was really all that concerned about justification; it was only St. Augustine who brought it to the fore. But now, apparently, the Gospel is justification? Not just justification, but justification sola fide? — a doctrine that, no matter how “perspicuous” Protestants insist it is, nobody in the first 1,500 years of the Church had ever found, and the majority of the people today calling themselves Christians still cannot find?

We are saved by faith — faith in Christ, not in sola fide. Whether or not salvation is by “faith alone” or otherwise, all Jesus asks us to do is have faith in Him and follow him. I do not argue for a moment that doctrine is not important — but it is the ultimate hubris to think that a doctrine itself is the Gospel; to think that the intellectual understanding of a human interpretation of Scripture is the sine qua non of salvation; to think that Jesus is unable to save someone who lacks an intricate understanding of your favorite doctrine, or even lacks any understanding at all. Is it not a childlike faith and trust that Jesus asks us to have (Matthew 18:3)? Catholics don’t have the exact same understanding of justification that Protestants do — we think, in fact, that Protestants are quite wrong in some important respects — but we do have the exact same understanding of Who Christ is and what He did for us. We affirm with all our hearts that whoever believes in Christ, who loves Him and follows Him, will be saved. Why can’t others do the same? The Gospel is not that complicated. Calvinists are, in effect, adding another requirement to the Gospel, based on something more than faith in Christ.

The Rub with Protestant Theology: Why I teach what I teach

El Greco, Christ (1585)

El Greco, Christ (1585)

I’ve been mulling for the past hour or two, thinking of my new Christian friend and how she might take that last post, and I feel I should make a quick follow-up.

Why do I gripe so much about Protestant theology? Is it because I think it’s all wrong and that believing it means one is automatically damned? Not at all. Is it because I have some innate drive to prove myself “right” and prove everyone else “wrong”? I do fear there’s sometimes a trace of that, and it’s pride: Lord, have mercy. But no, there are two main reasons.

First, I see these doctrines — especially sola fide (justification by faith alone) and sola scriptura (by Scripture alone) — as the main obstacles standing between the reunion of all Christians; the main matters dividing us. I guess there’s not really any hope of my making an irrefutable case that will convince everybody and singlehandedly bring about reconciliation, but I hope that maybe I can convince one or two, who might go and spread the message.

Saints Peter and Paul, by El Greco

Saints Peter and Paul (between 1605 and 1608), by El Greco.

Second, and even more important: Though I don’t believe that all Protestant theology is irredeemably wrong — I affirm, with the Catholic Church, that many Protestant communities retain elements of Christ’s truth and sanctification — I do believe that some Protestant doctrines are very wrong, and even dangerous.

If you believe in Jesus Christ and all that Christians have traditionally believed, and strive to live your life for Him, then I don’t think there’s any major problem. I think, through the grace of God, He works salvation in the lives of Protestants, as long as they do the things Christians are supposed to do, as the Bible teaches: repent of their sins and turn to God, confess Christ is Lord, and live their lives according to the Gospel.

Bible

But there are some teachings that have the potential to lead people into serious error. What is meant to convey love and hope can be turned to weapons of the enemy. They can give false assurance that one is “saved” and has eternal security of that salvation, no matter how they live their lives or what sins they commit — when the Bible teaches repeatedly that those who continue in sinful lifestyles are not children of God (1 John 3:6, Galatians 5:21, Romans 2:8, etc.). God is just and faithful to always forgive our sins if we repent of them and ask forgiveness (1 John 1:9) — but if we keep on living that way, we are throwing away the grace that God has freely given (1 John 3:8–9).

Likewise, the teaching that man is “totally depraved” and “hopelessly sinful” — the false idea that no one can pursue righteousness — can easily lead to apathy and complacency in sin, or despair that one can’t ever be better. “God knows I’m a sinner, and he forgives me; there’s no way I can be righteous, so I guess this is okay” — that’s the trap I fell into for so long. We are called to pursue lives of holiness (1 Peter 1:14–16, Hebrews 12:14, Ephesians 4:17-24).

And that’s why I teach what I teach: to guide others to the truth, and to spare them from the many mistakes I’ve made, and that I see so many others making, that have the potential to lead them to destruction. And I want to always teach in love. I know I’m not always good at getting that across.

Luther’s Innovations

de la Tour, St. Paul (1620)

St. Paul (1620), by Georges de la Tour. (WikiPaintings.org)

Here’s an attempt at a brief little post:

I do intend to pick up my series on the Sacraments, soon — but to do them in the right order (that is, starting with the Sacraments of Initiation and proceeding to the end of life), I need to cover the Eucharist next — and how can one write a brief post on the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith? Where do I even begin? I guess my general theme has been the Catholic view of the Sacraments, and how Protestants have or have not received them. That will be a starting point. But the hurdle is writing a post on “the Catholic view of the Eucharist”!

I have acquired some Catholic commentaries on Scripture recently, and have been immersing myself in them and in the Word: especially a close study of St. Paul, in particular his Epistles to the Galatians and Romans, which Protestants have appropriated and used to justify their doctrine of sola fide. As a nascent Catholic, I was rather wary of these letters, fearing the all-too-familiar Protestant interpretations would lull me back; but now that I’ve matured a little bit, I’m finding just how little support there is for those understandings.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1533), by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

I’m coming to the realization that Martin Luther did not so much “rediscover” “the doctrines of grace” or justification by faith, as is often credited to him — the Catholic Church has always affirmed those, and continues to. What Luther did that was new was read innovations into those doctrines: in particular the idea that justification is by faith alone — which the text never says or even implies (in fact it says the opposite); and that the “works” of which St. Paul is writing are more than just the works of the Mosaic Law — which is the clear context — but any “works” at all; anything that man does in an effort to please God.

John Calvin

John Calvin (1509-1564)

Later Protestants, particularly Calvinists, erred in applying this interpretation of “works” to the Sacraments, which are the “works” of Christ, not man, and in which man only participates by the grace of God, through faith (cf. CCC 1999–2001). Luther himself taught that the Sacraments were the means of grace. Calvinists’ unscriptural aversion to “works” can be taken to extremes, such that sinners should logically make an effort not to do anything, lest they appear to be relying on their own “works” for salvation.

Protestants have grown so accustomed to these interpretations that when they read St. Paul, their minds fill in the gaps with Luther’s false assumptions, such that they are completely unable to read the text on its face. They read “by faith alone,” whether the text says it or not. They understand “works” in the broadest definition possible, no matter how narrowly Paul applies the term. It’s the blind spot in one’s vision that one has lived with for so long that one forgets what it’s like to really see; the cherished rug that has covered one’s floor for so many ages that one forgets what the floor looks like, or that there’s even anything underneath.

Okay. Well, that wasn’t what I intended to write when I sat down to write; but there you have it — a (relatively) brief little post.

See my follow-up to this post, “The Rub with Protestant Theology: Why I teach what I teach.

Justification by faith alone, or what? What do Protestants think Catholics believe?

Le Sueur, The Preaching of St. Paul at Ephesus

The Preaching of St. Paul at Ephesus (1649), by Eustache Le Sueur. (WikiPaintings.org)

For Protestants, one of the cries of the Reformation, one of the staples of Protestant faith, is sola fide, justification by faith alone. Many Protestants, especially the Reformed, hold this point to be so crucial and integral to the message of the Gospel that they label any other view (that is, the Catholic or Orthodox views) to be “heresy” or even “apostasy.”

As you know, this troubles me deeply. The Catholic Church teaches salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), the gracious and unmerited favor of God on the sinner, just as uncompromisingly as any Protestant community. So Catholics and Protestants agree on the source and the cause of grace; what we disagree on with regard to sole fide amounts to merely the mechanics by which that grace is received. To my view, our theologies even on this disputed point are much closer to each other than either side generally admits, resulting in what appears to me to be a difference of mere wording and nuance.

Velazquez, St. Paul

St. Paul (c. 1619), by Diego Velazquez. (WikiPaintings.org)

So the charge that the Catholic Church teaches a “different gospel” than Protestants (and a false one) is entirely incomprehensible to me. And so, the question occurs to me — and I sincerely hope for some dialogue with Protestants here: What is it that Protestants, particularly Reformed Protestants, think that the Catholic Church teaches, that is so antithetical to the Gospel? that would warrant denying fellowship with their Christian brothers and sisters, and even accusing them of “apostasy”? I am not at this time attempting any positive argument for Catholic position; I am merely trying to understand the Protestant charge.

The unspoken assumption of sola fide — by faith alone — is the rejection of the idea that “works” play any role in salvation. As St. Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9). These verses comprise one of several linchpin passages in sola fide theology — but what exactly does Paul mean here by “works”? I have often heard the accusation that Catholics (or Arminians, or anyone not Calvinist) teach “works’ righteousness” — the doctrine that by our “works” we are saved: that somehow, anything we can do can win God’s favor, merit our salvation, or in our own deeds make us righteous. As I’ve demonstrated, this isn’t what Catholics believe at all. I have heard the charge that Catholics are “Pelagian” or “semi-Pelagian”: Pelagius taught that Adam’s original sin did not taint human nature and that man was capable, in himself, of choosing good over evil without the grace of God. The Catholic Church denies this, and always has.

Ribera, Saint Paul (1637)

Saint Paul (1637), by Jusepe de Ribera. (WikiPaintings.org)

This line of sola fide reasoning apparently interprets that the “works” of Paul’s argument means any act of doing somethingany work accomplished, ἔργα or facta. The belief, then, that doing something, anything, any action at all other than having faith, is necessary for salvation, is therefore construed as a contradiction: Certainly the practice of the Sacraments or the belief that Baptism is necessary for salvation fall into this category, but taken to the extreme, this opposition to “works” (that is, having to do anything to be saved) includes even the simple act of praying a prescribed prayer.

So is that it? Is it this teaching that one has to do something in order to be saved that is so gravely contradictory to the Gospel, and that makes Catholics “apostate” (that is, having willfully turned one’s back on and denied Christ)? Or is there something else I’m overlooking? Because the something that Catholics believe one must do to be saved, at a most basic understanding, is merely to accept God’s freely offered grace. All other actions — Baptism, the Sacraments, good works of charity proceeding — are merely the result of God’s grace working in our lives, both giving us the will and empowering us to work (Ephesians 2:10, Philippians 2:12–13).

Where in this is the denial of Christ? If I believed that in any sense I was abandoning Christ’s Gospel, I would not have made this journey. I would like to understand the positions of Protestants who would label this “apostasy.”