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.

17 thoughts on “Saved by Faith: A Modest Proposal for Protestants

  1. Great piece, Joseph. Quick question. Whose faith justifies? If it is our faith, then is that not a ‘work’? Or are we justified by Christ’s faith – which is Grace to us?

    • It’s our faith, which is God’s grace to us (Eph 2:8). And yes, it’s also a “work” by the strictest understanding, especially according to the Protestant understanding of “works.” Which is one major reason why sola fide is contradictory to itself. In the Catholic reading of Paul, he is usually referring specifically to works of the Jewish Torah.

    • If works don’t justify then what sense does it make for someone else’ works to justify us? I mean, Paul is very clear that it is his opinion that the works of the Law cannot justify — and yet Protestants, claiming to be following his opinion, assert that we are justified by Christ’s Lawkeeping being imputed to us. If the works of the Law cannot justify, then they can no more justify when Christ does them than when we do them — so its all just a big mess. Ultimately that mess is owing to the fact that Paul himself was confused.

      • What gives you the standing to judge that any part of Paul’s thought is merely “opinion” (and “confused” opinion at that)? Does he say he is speaking only his opinion? If we presume that we are free to dismiss any part of Holy Scripture as mere “opinion,” then where do we draw the line? Who are we to say that Jesus didn’t only rise from the dead in the opinion of the Evangelists? No, Paul speaks as one with authority through the revelation of the Holy Spirit.

        That the “works of the Law” (i.e. Torah) do not justify us in Christ is a fundamental Christian doctrine, based on not only the “opinion” of Paul, but on the lack of any foundation for such a doctrine in the Gospels or anywhere else in Scripture. Nearly every author of the New Testament, as I cited above, indicates that we are justified primarily by faith. Now, the Protestant doctrine of imputation is wrongheaded in my opinion and unsupportable from Scripture, but even Protestants don’t suppose that it is merely Christ’s keeping of the Torah that is imputed to us. It is Christ’s work on the Cross that fulfilled the requirements of the Law, He becoming our sacrifice for the propitiation of our sins (1 John 2:2, Hebrews 9:26), and the mediator of a New Covenant (Hebrews 9:15). On that, Scripture is clear and Catholics and Protestants again have no dispute.

    • For “anyone with a brain,” Christian orthodoxy requires the acceptance of the whole of Scripture as divinely inspired. If you intend to dismiss any part of it — especially of Paul, who is the larger part of the New Testament — as “Gnostic” (i.e. heretical) or “opinion” — then I’m afraid you’re running off the path, friend.

      How do you suppose that Paul’s views on predestination are “Gnostic,” anyway

  2. Joseph,
    I found your blog recently and am really enjoying your posts! I wish they would link to your blog at New Advent! Thank you so much for the time and terrific scholarship you put into your posts (at the expense of finishing your thesis!).
    God bless you!

      • You will finish! My husband wrote his dissertation while being a stay at home dad, writing it during our one year old’s brief naps. Then the following year he was working again and could only write during his daily lunch hour. But he finished it! As he used to say, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!” 🙂

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