Catholics and Protestants: Can There Be Unity? (Part 3)
Sorry for the delayed response. I wanted to read through both of those articles you sent me from the Catholic Encyclopedia and then offer my comments. I'm glad you and Mike were able to talk about these things.
I'm confused about the double message I'm hearing. On the one hand you yourself are saying (as was Kreeft) that the whole Protestant/Catholic controversy is based on a misunderstanding, and that we actually believe pretty much the same thing. On the other hand, the two articles (1, 2) you gave me, which draw heavily upon the Council of Trent, denounce what I believe as heresy, and they do so quite unequivocally, in no ambiguous terms. Everything that I read in those articles makes it clear that I do not believe in the Catholic doctrine of justification, and that Catholics do not believe in the Protestant doctrine of justification. We are dealing with two totally different understandings, and I cannot see how they can be reconciled.
Now for some thoughts on what has been said:
You wrote, "Mortal sin indicates that the movement of faith has passed away." Yet notice what the Council actually said:
"In opposition also to the subtle wits of certain men, who, by pleasing speeches and good words, seduce the hearts of the innocent, it is to be maintained, that the received grace of Justification is lost, not only by infidelity whereby even faith itself is lost, but also by any other mortal sin whatever, though faith be not lost." (Chapter XV)"
Even if the person has faith, and yet sins, they have lost justification. I cannot accept this tenet as Biblical, for Scripture plainly declares, "For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law." (Rom. 3:23-24, 27-28) Justification is bestowed freely upon the sinner who falls short of the glory of God, and it is bestowed through faith apart from any works whatsoever. Nor is Paul referring to a mere "Jewish Law" or to "pagan good works" but to all moral law whatsoever as is evident from the context. An abundance more Scripture can be cited that simply does not agree with Trent.
I am not trying to be combative. From what I read in those articles, the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification is convoluted and lacks the savor and freeing power of the plain Biblical gospel message. It did not feel like I was reading the apostles; it felt like I was reading Roman Catholic apologists, complete with their own literary aura and Latin fetish. Protestant writings possess the savor of the Jesus I know from the Bible, the realistic and life-giving power of the gospel message. The gospel proclaims forgiveness for the sinful, not on account of their becoming not-sinful first, nor on account of a coinciding not-sinful renovation, but that the forgiveness from God pours down abundantly upon the heads of the wicked and the filthy through unmerited favor. If we are only assured that we are forgiven after we stop sinning then there will never be the assurance of sins forgiven (as the Catholic doctrine so forcefully conceded!). What sort of good news is that? It is not the good news I am familiar with in the Bible, where such powerfully freeing verses as these are found:
"Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins." (Colossians 1:12-14)
"And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses." (Colossians 2:13)
"Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, Happy are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Happy is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin." (Romans 4:6-8)
These are glorious statements of assurance which makes happy the believer. Far from forgiveness being a thing that is "uncertain", the entire force of the gospel is that it brings to sinners hope, joy and peace in believing, that thereby they may produce good fruits. As I have said before, it is not works that bring assurance, but it is assurance that brings works, and assurance can only come when we cease looking to our own works and righteousness for assurance but look only to the righteousness that is accounted to us by faith in Jesus Christ because of His atoning sacrifice.
Justification is a forensic thing. It is something that is accounted to us in the heavenly books. When the Scripture talks about sins being "blotted out" it does not mean from our behavior but from the books in heaven, where God keeps a record of all men's deeds (Job 10:14, Rev. 20:12). If it were not so, who then is justified? Who can say their sins have been blotted out from their behavior? If one's own personal righteousness is the measure of one's justification before God, then who can stand? This is why the belief in purgatory is a necessity for Roman Catholics, and what a sad dis-annulling of the atonement of Christ it is. If you yourself must pay for your own sins, what is the point of the One who paid for our sins on the cross?
"If Thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? But there is forgiveness with Thee, that Thou mayest be feared." (Psalm 130:3-4) Indeed, God does not count our sins against us, but forgives us. If He did count our sins against us none would stand. Forgiveness does not mean that if God were to judge us we would be found actually sinless. Forgiveness means that though we can not stand before God, He has not counted our sins against us. This is the glorious truth of the cross of Christ: "To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him." (2 Corinthians 5:19, 21) Christ, who was actually not sinful, was treated as a sinner for me on the cross (became sin for us), so that I, who am actually not righteous, can be treated as righteous by faith in Him (made the righteousness of God in Him). This is the mystery of the gospel. We were each treated in the way we did not deserve.
Rather than opening the doors for sin and reckless behavior in the believers, this doctrine of justification by faith actually is the only thing that has the power to put a stop to sinning. This is the entire argument of Paul in Romans 6, 7, and 8 when he is confronted with that most common of all objections: "If this doctrine be true, will we not continue in sin that grace may abound?" Paul's answer is heavenly and mysterious: "Sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace." (Rom. 6:14) It is precisely because we are not under obligations to keep the commandments that sin shall not have dominion over us, for it isthe law itself that causes us to sin (Rom. 7:5), and grace alone severs that root and arouses in us a life of thankfulness and holiness. This teaching of Paul on sanctification by grace is so profound it is probably even more misunderstood than his teaching on justification by grace, which itself is incredibly profound. They are profound because they grind against our natural religious intuitions and have their source in the cross, which is of God and not of man, whose thoughts are higher than the earth. "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are myways higher than yourways, and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:9) God brings the wisdom of man to nothing (1 Cor. 1-2).
As for Luther and how the Catholic Encyclopedia says that he originated the doctrine of justification by faith because of his fearfully convicted conscience, I only have two things to say. One, the doctrine of justification by faith never originated with Luther but, as the article itself testifies, many "heretics" before him had believed it (most of which were persecuted) simply because that is what the Bible itself teaches. As one theologian well-noted: "Protestantism as it emerged in the 16th century was not the beginning of something new, but a return to Bible Christianity and to the simplicity of the Apostolic church from which the Roman church had long since departed." Second, if Luther found peace of conscience through the gospel of grace, that is precisely the point of the gospel! It brings peace of conscience to those who are burdened down by the weight of guilt. One in-obscured look to the crucified Savior and at once the sinner is relieved, just like the Israelites who looked to the bronze snake in the wilderness. That's the whole point. Perhaps this is something self-righteous people who think they are good will never understand. If we saw our sins as Luther saw them, as we should see them, we too would rejoice in the gospel of justification by faith. Luther discovered the truth about the gospel and couldn't help but share it with others. And he was not the only one.
In the 16th century and up to today the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith has set millions of souls free from guilt and set them off worshipping Jehovah with ardent desire. Far from producing slothfulness in holiness, men and women who have known the grace of God in truth (not merely who have been catechized) are witnesses of the freedom from guilt Jesus Christ's blood brings and the transformation of life that accompanies such a faith. It is no small sect that broke off from the Roman Catholic Church, but a movement that continues to grow and bear fruit, though it be not institutionalized. That's because the power is in the good news, not the institution.