Some other general thoughts about the sola fide dispute
21. Methodological Protestantism – sola fide is an interpretive paradigm that is read into all of scripture rather than being read out of scripture.
We all use hermeneutical systems when we interpret language, and especially the Bible. Catholics see 3 main theological principles in the interpretation of biblical texts: 1) the content and the unity of all of sacred Scripture; (2) the living Tradition of the whole Church; and (3) the analogy of faith.1
But, since Holy Scripture must be read and interpreted in the sacred spirit in which it was written, (9) no less serious attention must be given to the content and unity of the whole of Scripture if the meaning of the sacred texts is to be correctly worked out. The living tradition of the whole Church must be taken into account along with the harmony which exists between elements of the faith. It is the task of exegetes to work according to these rules toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture, so that through preparatory study the judgment of the Church may mature. For all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God. (10)2
— Dei Verbum
The main Protestant hermeneutic seems to be to read everything in terms of sola fide. Here is from an LCMS church document that explains how a key rule of a typical Lutheran approach to scriptures is to read everything in light of sola fide.
To interpret Scripture in light of the rule of faith (principle 4) is unique to scriptural interpretation. It is, together with the fifth, sixth, and seventh principles, directly connected to what we have emphasized earlier about the role that knowing Christ and His justifying work—that is, the Gospel—plays in one’s approach to Scripture.3
There is no doubt that each hermeneutical system we use colors our interpretations of scripture. These hermeneutical lenses, themselves, should be examined to make sure they aren’t causing us to see something in scriptures that isn’t really there. Reading scriptures in light of tradition, especially, can be one of our greatest aids in this task of evaluating our own hermeneutical systems.
The sola fide lens does not seem to me to be in sync with the traditions of the historic church. Rather, it seems to cause one to read into passages things that aren’t there just to fit the system. This is what Francis Beckwith calls methodological Protestantism.
As I more deeply delved into the issue of justification, I was struck by how the Catholic view seamlessly tied together the teachings of Jesus with the teachings of the New Testament found outside the Gospels. It is a testimony to the hegemonic influence of the Reformation’s reading of Paul’s epistles, and its assumed canonical and interpretative priority, that forensic justification colors every apparently contrary text with which I had come in contact during my Protestant days. (I call this “methodological Protestantism.”) It is no wonder, then, that it was only when I began to reconsider Catholicism that I consulted, with an openness to be corrected, the teachings of Jesus, the larger context in which the Pauline Protestant proof-texts rested, and those New Testament passages that seemed “Catholic” but were often “reinterpreted” to fit the Reformed theological system…Once I ceased approaching the biblical text with methodological Protestantism, it was nearly impossible for me to get forensic justification from the teachings of Jesus. At the Last Judgment, for example, the difference between the sheep and the goats is between what they did and did not do (Matt. 25:31–46). There is no indication that Jesus is thinking of the sheep’s “works” as “evidence of justification.” But rather, these works serve in some way as the basis on which his judgment of their eternal fate is made.4
— Francis Beckwith
21.1 The Law/Gospel hermeneutic doesn’t work without imputed righteousness. It doesn’t fit the scriptural data or mesh well with the traditions of the Church.
Applying the sola fide lens to scriptures lead the early Lutherans to see the whole of the Bible as distinguished into the Law (God’s demands) and the Gospel (God’s promises to save us by faith alone). Here, Philip Melanchthon says as much in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession.
5] All Scripture ought to be distributed into these two principal topics, the Law and the promises. For in some places it presents the Law, and in others the promise concerning Christ, namely, either when [in the Old Testament] it promises that Christ will come, and offers, for His sake, the remission of sins justification, and life eternal, or when, in the Gospel [in the New Testament], Christ Himself, since He has appeared, promises the remission of sins, justification, and life eternal.5
Melanchthon goes as far to say that Catholics err because they seek salvation from the Law, which is a great distortion of Catholic teaching.
7] Of these two parts the adversaries select the Law, because human reason naturally understands, in some way, the Law (for it has the same judgment divinely written in the mind); [the natural law agrees with the law of Moses, or the Ten Commandments] and by the Law they seek the remission of sins and justification.6
This Law/Gospel way of reading scripture really is a false hermeneutic once it becomes clear imputed righteousness is not taught in scriptures. Instead, when we see justification as the inner transformation of the person, it becomes apparent the Law isn’t something bad or simply a set of external demands that we can’t possibly keep. Rather, the Law is good; it is living in accord with the inner transformation that God made in us (Ezekiel 36:25-27, Romans 5:5). Following the Law of Christ (Gal. 6:2) which is the law of the New Covenant (Jer. 31:33) is what is good for us and will bring us true happiness. It is simply fulfilling our telos (Ephesians 2:10). If we do not live in accord with the gifts of justification, we lose it (See section #23 and also Romans 2:13, Romans 2:6, 2 Cor 5:10, James 2:24-26, Matthew 7:21-23, Revelation 20:11-15, Matthew 25:31-46, etc.).7
As I have hopefully emphasized enough throughout, this is all only accomplished with God’s grace. Our justification is initially received only by a gift of God through faith in what Jesus did on the cross. This faith, too, is a gift of God. Our ability to keep the Law after our transformation in initial justification is only done through the graces God pours into our heart (Rom. 5:5). Again, this is why St. Augustine said “God does not crown your merits as your merits, but as His own gifts”.
21.2 The Law and Gospel are not completely distinct. Scriptures, themselves, show us they do mingle with eachother.
Lutherans also claim that we cannot, under any circumstances, mingle the Law and Gospel as seen here in the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord.
27] Now, in order that both doctrines, that of the Law and that of the Gospel, be not mingled and confounded with one another, and what belongs to the one may not be ascribed to the other, whereby the merit and benefits of Christ are easily obscured and the Gospel is again turned into a doctrine of the Law, as has occurred in the Papacy, and thus Christians are deprived of the true comfort which they have in the Gospel against the terrors of the Law, and the door is again opened in the Church of God to the Papacy, therefore the true and proper distinction between the Law and the Gospel must with all diligence be inculcated and preserved, and whatever gives occasion for confusion inter legem et evangelium (between the Law and the Gospel), that is, whereby the two doctrines, Law and Gospel, may be confounded and mingled into one doctrine, should be diligently prevented. It is, therefore, dangerous and wrong to convert the Gospel, properly so called, as distinguished from the Law, into a preaching of repentance or reproof [a preaching of repentance, reproving sin]. For otherwise, if understood in a general sense of the entire doctrine, also the Apology says several times that the Gospel is a preaching of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Meanwhile, however, the Apology also shows that the Gospel is properly the promise of the forgiveness of sins and of justification through Christ, but that the Law is a doctrine which reproves sins and condemns.8
But again, this is a false hermeneutic. The New Covenant is that God transforms us from sinners to saints in justification on account of Christ’s merit for His sacrifice on the cross. Justification is the inner transformation from the infusion of sanctifying grace inside of us which then allows us to keep the New Law that is written on our hearts (Ezekiel 36:25-27). Our ability to keep the Law of the New Covenant does play a part in our final salvation (Romans 2:13, Romans 2:6, 2 Cor 5:10, James 2:24-26, Matthew 7:21-23, Revelation 20:11-15, Matthew 25:31-46, etc.).
The Gospel isn’t a purely unconditional promise to save us by faith alone. It is a conditional promise that God will save us at the final judgement if we don’t throw away his gift of justification through sin, but instead return His love by keeping his commandments – “If you love Me, keep My commandments”( John 14:15).
Rather than fulfilling the Law of Moses, Paul points us toward fulfilling the Law of Christ: “To those outside the [Mosaic] law I became as one outside the [Mosaic] law—not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ—that I might win those outside the [Mosaic] law” (1 Cor. 9:21). He wrote also, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).9
— Jimmy Akin
In God’s new Covenant with us we are given the gift of salvation at our initial justification, we are engrafted into Christ and transformed interiorly enabling us to obey the Law of Christ. This new Law of Christ is simply to love as Christ loved. We are empowered by the Grace of God to fulfill the Law through love (Rom. 8:4-8, Rom. 13:10).
The New Law also provides something that the Old Law did not: the grace of the Holy Spirit, who empowers individuals to keep the New Law in a way that those under the Law of Moses were not able to keep it. This internalization the New Law was prophesied by Jeremiah: “this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer. 31:33).10>
— Jimmy Akin
And Dr. Christopher Malloy puts the same concept like this:
This Catholic teaching is thus not alien to the genuine Lutheran concern that the experience of sin should lead the believer to trust in God alone for mercy. In proclaiming with Paul that the baptized are a ” new creation” (Gal 6: 15), the Catholic Church does not wish to dilute this trust. And yet there is another reason for trust, also not alien to Lutheran piety: filial devotion. The Johannine and Pauline teachings that believers become children of God thwarts the reduction of Christian life to a Law-Gospel dialectic. Children are without the law because they are a law unto themselves, having it etched into their hearts (Ezek 36:26-28). They are not his children, however, who do not follow that law (I Jn 3:4-10). They who do ” not submit to God’s law” are still ” in the flesh” (Rom 8:7).11 [Emphasis mine]
— Christopher Malloy
21.3 The New Law is a part of the Gospel, it is the Law of the Gospel.
Here are a few highlights form the Catholic Catechism (section 1950-1986) explaining the New Law of the Gospel:
CCC 1968 The Law of the Gospel fulfills the commandments of the Law. The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, far from abolishing or devaluing the moral prescriptions of the Old Law, releases their hidden potential and has new demands arise from them: it reveals their entire divine and human truth. It does not add new external precepts, but proceeds to reform the heart, the root of human acts, where man chooses between the pure and the impure,22 where faith, hope, and charity are formed and with them the other virtues. The Gospel thus brings the Law to its fullness through imitation of the perfection of the heavenly Father, through forgiveness of enemies and prayer for persecutors, in emulation of the divine generosity.23
CCC 1970 The Law of the Gospel requires us to make the decisive choice between “the two ways” and to put into practice the words of the Lord.26 It is summed up in the Golden Rule, “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; this is the law and the prophets.”27
CCC 1972 The New Law is called a law of love because it makes us act out of the love infused by the Holy Spirit, rather than from fear; a law of grace, because it confers the strength of grace to act, by means of faith and the sacraments; a law of freedom, because it sets us free from the ritual and juridical observances of the Old Law, inclines us to act spontaneously by the prompting of charity and, finally, lets us pass from the condition of a servant who “does not know what his master is doing” to that of a friend of Christ – “For all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” – or even to the status of son and heir.3112
The entire Law of the Gospel is contained in the “new commandment” of Jesus, to love one another as he has loved us.28 [emphasis mine]
Catholics agree with Lutherans that we do not recieve initial justification based on any of our works (CCC 2010), but this isn’t true about our final justification. While it is all empowered by grace from start to finish, there is some aspect of our own human agency that takes part in this too.
He who made you without your doing does not without your action justify you. Without your knowing He made you, with your willing He justifies you, but it is He who justifies, that the justice be not your own.
— St. Augusitine Serm. clxix, c. xi, n.13
It is the imputed righteousness/sola fide paradigm that seems to cause this false Law/Gospel hermeneutic to arise in scriptures which just isn’t otherwise there. It is infused righteousness that allows one to make sense of all the places in scriptures that speak of the Law being written inside of us, how grace enables us to fulfill the law of love, and why our final salvation is conditioned on us keeping the New Law.
21.4 Luther knew his Law/Gospel paradigm was not found in the Church Fathers. He just thought he had it right and they all had it wrong.
There is not much that needs to be said here, Luther speaks it all for himself.
Of this difference between the Law and the Gospel nothing can be discovered in the writings of the monks or scholastics, nor for that matter in the writings of the ancient fathers. Augustine understood the difference somewhat. Jerome and others knew nothing of it. The silence in the Church concerning the difference between the Law and the Gospel has resulted in untold harm. Unless a sharp distinction is maintained between the purpose and function of the Law and the Gospel, the Christian doctrine cannot be kept free from error.
— Luther, Matin. Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians. Chatper 3, v. 19. (1535).
And Luther again says he rejects Augustine here in favor of his own novel view of justification by faith alone:
No. 347: Augustine at First Devoured, Then Put Aside, Summer or Fall, 1532
“Ever since I came to an understanding of Paul, I have not been able to think well of any doctor [of the church]. They have become of little value to me. At first I devoured, not merely read, Augustine. But when the door was opened for me in Paul, so that I understood what justification by faith is, it was all over with Augustine. [LW 54:49-50, WATR 1:140 (347)].
— Martin Luther (comment from Table Talks)
22. Competing interpretations – there is a logical case that can be made for both the Catholic and Lutheran reading of scripture. How can we decide who is right when there is so much at stake? Without an authoritative ecclesiastical authority, we cannot ever settle these interpretive disputes.
This isn’t to say that Protestant interpretations are completely irrational. Far from it. I think the way Lutherans have constructed a systematic theology makes a very coherent system for most everything in the Bible. However, the Catholic interpretations made sense to me too, and also dealt with more areas of scripture that I didn’t pay much attention to before that don’t seem to make as much sense on a sola fide reading.
There are several interesting examples of these competing interpretations that would be great to look into in-depth, but in the interest of space, I will just briefly discuss Romans 3:28 and point to some other resources on this topic. One particular resource that I found very helpful is Does the Bible Teach Sola Fide?13. This article does a great job walking through the main verses usually said to teach sola fide (Romans 3:28, Eph. 2:8-10, several in Galatians, and others) and show that they are not trouble verses for the Catholic position at all.
I think this raises the question, did God really leave us in a state of epistemological confusion where we all are supposed to argue over the meaning of scriptures until the end of time? Is there no interpretive authority to decide on arguments over key doctrine? So many Christians come to incommensurate conclusions on key doctrines like we are discussing here. I struggle to think God would leave His church in this state.
We will deal with this question of interpretive authority more in the next two posts. In the meantime, let us first examine my claim that the typical Lutheran proof texts for sola fide have an equally, if not more compelling read in Catholicism by looking at Romans 3:28, one of the key proof texts for sola fide.
22.1 Catholics have never been bothered by Romans 3:28, nor interpreted it to mean sola fide as Luther did.
Romans 3:28 (ESV)
28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
Lutherans read their concept of imputed righteousness into this verse. As we shall see in a moment, this is not a trouble verse for Catholics at all and they have used it as a teaching tool throughout church history. This is just one of many examples where the Lutheran Confessions use Romans 3:28 to argue for sola fide through imputed righteousness.
11] This faith is a gift of God, by which we truly learn to know Christ, our Redeemer, in the Word of the Gospel, and trust in Him, that for the sake of His obedience alone we have the forgiveness of sins by grace, are regarded as godly and righteous by God the father, and are eternally saved. 12] Therefore it is considered and understood to be the same thing when Paul says that we are justified by faith, Rom. 3:28, or that faith is counted to us for righteousness, Rom. 4:5, and when he says that we are made righteous by the obedience of One, Rom. 5:19, or that by the righteousness of One justification of faith came to all men, Rom. 5:18. 13] For faith justifies, not for this cause and reason that it is so good a work and so fair a virtue, but because it lays hold of and accepts the merit of Christ in the promise of the holy Gospel; for this must be applied and appropriated to us by faith, if we are to be justified thereby. 14] Therefore the righteousness which is imputed to faith or to the believer out of pure grace is the obedience, suffering, and resurrection of Christ, since He has made satisfaction for us to the Law, and paid for [expiated] our sins. 15] For since Christ is not man alone, but God and man in one undivided person, He was as little subject to the Law, because He is the Lord of the Law, as He had to suffer and die as far as His person is concerned. For this reason, then, His obedience, not only in suffering and dying, but also in this, that He in our stead was voluntarily made under the Law, and fulfilled it by this obedience, is imputed to us for righteousness, so that, on account of this complete obedience, which He rendered His heavenly Father for us, by doing and suffering, in living and dying, God forgives our sins, regards us as godly and righteous, and eternally saves us.14 [Emphasis mine]
Romans 3:28 verse can be read in multiple ways and it appears that there have been a couple typical readings throughout the history of the Church. One is that works of the law pertain only to the mosaic law and another that it pertains to the entire moral law. Either way, there is no challenge to the Catholic view of the gospel.
If Rom 3:28 is a statement about the complete process of justification, then the first meaning of “works of the law” fits best. That is, the ceremonial, mosiac laws play no role at all in justification; the whole thing, from start to finish, takes place without them. However, the same cannot be said about the moral laws, such as the Ten Commandments, which Paul expects believers to observe (13:8–10; 1 Cor 7:19) if they would be justified at the last judgment (Rom 2:13). However, if Rom 3:28 is a statement about initial justification, then the second meaning of “works of the law” seems preferable. Paul would then be saying that justification, which takes place when one believes and is baptized, is absolutely gratuitous; not a single work of obedience to God’s law could ever give us a claim on the grace we receive at this moment. Yet the conditions of our first justification must be distinguished from the conditions of our final justification, which requires Christians to be doers of the law (2:13) and to perform the “good works” that God has prepared for us (Eph 2:10). That both interpretations are found in ancient and modern scholarship should not surprise us, since both in their different ways touch on authentic facets of the Christian gospel.15
John Bergsma has been doing recent work in this area and uses the Dead Sea Scrolls to argue the Jewish understanding of the phrase “works of the law” at the time of the writing of the Bible would have been the ceremonial law specifically.16
Also, Paul’s “Works of the Law” in the Perspective of Second-Century Reception by Matthew J. Thomas is an important recent book that is making very big waves with theologians interested in the historical development of the doctrine of justification as it argues that there is a consensus in 2nd century Church Fathers on the phrase “works of the law” to mean faithfulness to living out the ceremonial laws of the Jewish people. As such, this is another strong indicator that Paul was not at all trying to exclude the need for Christians to keep the moral law, he was just excluding the need for keeping the Jewish ceremonial laws. This also shows that Luther and Calvin were reading Paul very differently than the early Church and their views of the Gospel via sola fide were new developments in theological thought unique to them.
It seems to me the problem for the sola fide interpretation is this is not how the Catholic Church interpreted this verse for 1500 before Martin Luther. In fact, as seen in many of these resources below, the Church went to great pains to argue against others that sometimes tried to say we were saved by faith alone. Especially see St. Augustine’s book, On Faith and Works, which strongly argues against a faith alone view.
- Does the Bible Teach Sola Fide? by Dr. Bryan Cross
- Faith and Works. The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible: The New Testament. (2010). (p. 443).
- Romans. (P. S. Williamson & M. Healy, Eds.) (p. 53). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic: A division of Baker Publishing Group.
- St. Augustine on Faith and Works.
- St. Augustine On Grace and Free Will Chapter 1817
- A homily of St. Augustine on Matthew xxv: 31-46.18
- Pohle, J., & Preuss, A. (1919). Grace, actual and habitual: A dogmatic treatise(3rd, Revised Edition ed.). Toronto: W. E. Blake & Son, Limited.Toronto, Canada. p. 248,
23. Judged by deeds: obedience to the law after justification is necessary for salvation
Lutherans don’t deny that we should have love and obedience to God as justified Christians. However, they don’t think this is a part of justification nor is our final salvation contingent in any way on these things, it is only our faith alone that determines salvation.
 Love and works must also follow faith. Therefore, they are not excluded so that they do not follow faith, but confidence in the merit of love or of works is excluded in justification.19
39] 3. That neither renewal, sanctification, virtues nor good works are tamquam forma aut pars aut causa iustificationis, that is, our righteousness before God, nor are they to be constituted and set up as a part or cause of our righteousness, or otherwise under any pretext, title, or name whatever to be mingled in the article of justification as necessary and belonging thereto; but that the righteousness of faith consists alone in the forgiveness of sins out of pure grace, for the sake of Christ’s merit alone; which blessings are offered us in the promise of the Gospel, and are received, accepted, applied, and appropriated by faith alone.20
As I researched the Catholic position more, there ended up being several verses that taught we are judged by our deeds at the final judgement that, as a Lutheran, I must admit I was just not familiar with. They just didn’t register with me when I read through them before. Others, I had used my sola fide lens to read back things into them that simply weren’t there. The necessity of obedience to God’s law after justification and the contingency of our salvation upon our obedience is just a blatant expression of scripture. Here are a few of the key verses that really seemed to tip the scales majorly towards the Catholic view that we are judged by our deeds, not faith alone, at the final judgment as well.
Matt. 7:17–23 NRSV
In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”
Matthew 25:31-46 (RSV)
The Judgment of the Nations
31 “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Romans 2:6 (RSV)
6 He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.
Romans 2:13 RSV
13 For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.
Revelation 20:11-15 (RSV)
The Dead Are Judged
11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who sat upon it; from his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; 15 and if any one’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
23.1 An example of the necessity of obedience: The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35)
Here is a parable from Jesus showing that we must always forgive those that have sinned against us. Jesus shows us that this isn’t an optional command or merely a suggestion for living a good life. It is a command that our salvation is contingent upon.
In this parable, we see a servant who had an enormous debt forgiven that he owed the Lord of his land. It was an enormous debt that he would likely never had paid off, so the Lord of the land was exercising great mercy by forgiving the debt. This servant, then in turn, did not show mercy to another person that owed him a much smaller sum of money. His punishment? He was thrown in prison until every penny of his original debt was paid. Jesus said this parable applies to all of us, so that if we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven by our Father in heaven.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.[g] 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.[h] 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant[i] fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii,[j] and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers,[k] until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Here is how Pope Francis explains the necessity of forgivenss for all Christians in this passage.
This parable contains a profound teaching for all of us… In short, we are called to show mercy because mercy has first been shown to us… For us Christians it is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves. At times how hard it seems to forgive! And yet pardon is the instrument placed into our fragile hands to attain serenity of heart. To let go of anger, wrath, violence, and revenge are necessary conditions to living joyfully…
— Pope Francis: The Face of Mercy, no. 9
This is another spot in scriptures that is blatantly showing us something other than faith that our salvation status is contigent upon. Once agian, we see it is not simply faith alone that we will be judged by at the final judgement.
23.2 The Early Church taught that obedience is necessary for the justified
Here, we see St. Irenaeus (180 AD) speaking of justification in terms of obedience and real righteousness. There is nothing in here about faith alone or imputed righteousness. This seems much more inline with the Catholic view of justification being made righteous and then our obedience to God’s command to love being how we stay justified or even grow in our justification.21
For when He perceived them neglecting righteousness, and abstaining from the love of God, and imagining that God was to be propitiated by sacrifices and the other typical observances, Samuel did even thus speak to them: “God does not desire whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices, but He will have His voice to be hearkened to. Behold, a ready obedience is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.” (1 Sam. 15:22) David also says: “Sacrifice and oblation You did not desire, but my ears have You perfected; burnt-offerings also for sin You have not required.” He thus teaches them that God desires obedience, which renders them secure, rather than sacrifices and holocausts, which avail them nothing towards righteousness; and [by this declaration] he prophesies the new covenant at the same time. … Then, lest it might be supposed that He refused these things in His anger, He continues, giving him (man) counsel: “Offer unto God the sacrifice of praise, and pay your vows to the Most High; and call upon Me in the day of your trouble, and I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me;” rejecting, indeed, those things by which sinners imagined they could propitiate God, and showing that He does Himself stand in need of nothing; but He exhorts and advises them to those things by which man is justified and draws near to God. This same declaration does Esaias make: “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? Says the Lord. I am full.” (Is. 1:11) And when He had repudiated holocausts, and sacrifices, and oblations, as likewise the new moons, and the sabbaths, and the festivals, and all the rest of the services accompanying these, He continues, exhorting them to what pertained to salvation: “Wash you, make you clean, take away wickedness from your hearts from before my eyes: cease from your evil ways, learn to do well, seek justice, relieve the oppressed, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow; and come, let us reason together, says the Lord.”
For it was not because He was angry, like a man, as many venture to say, that He rejected their sacrifices; but out of compassion to their blindness, and with the view of suggesting to them the true sacrifice, by offering which they shall appease God, that they may receive life from Him. … From all these it is evident that God did not seek sacrifices and holocausts from them, but faith, and obedience, and righteousness, because of their salvation. [Emphasis mine]
— St. Irenaeus (Against Heresies, IV.17.1-4)
23.3 The final account we give of our lives will not included imputed righteousness, it will be what did we do with the interior gifts God gave us? Did we return love, or did we waste God’s graces?
This excerpt from St. John Henry Newman (1801-1890 AD) really makes the final judgement take on a sense of added realism for me. Based on the Bible verses mentioned above (Matt. 7:17–23, Matt. 25:31-46, Romans 2:6, Romans 2:13, Revelation 20:11-15), I just don’t see how faith alone fits the warnings of scripture and St. Newman here:
“Each of us must come to the evening of life. Each of us must enter on eternity. Each of us must come to that quiet, awful time, when we will appear before the Lord of the vineyard, and answer for the deeds done in the body, whether they be good or bad. That, my dear brethren, you will have to undergo. … It will be the dread moment of expectation when your fate for eternity is in the balance, and when you are about to be sent forth as the companion of either saints or devils, without possibility of change. There can be no change; there can be no reversal. As that judgment decides it, so it will be for ever and ever. Such is the particular judgment. … when we find ourselves by ourselves, one by one, in his presence, and have brought before us most vividly all the thoughts, words, and deeds of this past life. Who will be able to bear the sight of himself? And yet we shall be obliged steadily to confront ourselves and to see ourselves. In this life we shrink from knowing our real selves. We do not like to know how sinful we are. We love those who prophecy smooth things to us, and we are angry with those who tell us of our faults. But on that day, not one fault only, but all the secret, as well as evident, defects of our character will be clearly brought out. We shall see what we feared to see here, and much more. And then, when the full sight of ourselves comes to us, who will not wish that he had known more of himself here, rather than leaving it for the inevitable day to reveal it all to him!”22
— St. John Henry Newman
23.4 Lutherans/Protestants sometimes try to use the living faith vs. dead faith distinction to make sense of the necessity of obedience. On close inspection, this just doesn’t seem to fit the sola fide paradigm or the biblical data, though.
There are many things in the bible that speak of types of sin that will not allow one to inherit salvation.
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
1 Corinthians 6:9-10
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
There are also places in scripture that speak of some sins that lead to death, which the Catholic Church teaches are mortal sins. These are sins that can cause one to lose their salvation as they are of a grave nature and destroy our relationship with God.
1 John 5:16-17
16 If you see any brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that you should pray about that. 17 All wrongdoing is sin, and there is sin that does not lead to death.
CCC 1855 Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.
Most Protestants and Lutherans deal with this and the aforementioned scriptures speaking of obedience to God’s Law by acknowledging, in some form, the idea that some people have a living faith or a dead faith (James 2:14-26).
17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
23.4.1 It seems to me there are only 2 options for keeping a sola ﬁde view of salvation and the possibility of losing your salvation through disobedience. Both of these options seem inadequate, though.
1. The only way to lose your salvation is through apostasy, or losing your faith.
The first view would require the possibility that people can commit the grave sins listed in St. Paul’s list and not lose their salvation if they have faith. This idea can be seen in some of Martin Luther’s writings:
3.8 See, how rich therefore is a Christian, the one who is baptised! Even if he wants to, he cannot lose his salvation, however much he sin, unless he will not believe. For no sin can condemn him save unbelief alone. All other sins — so long as the faith in God’s promise made in baptism returns or remains —all other sins, I say, are immediately blotted out through that same faith, or rather through the truth of God, because He cannot deny Himself. If only you confess Him and cling believing to Him that promises. But as for contrition, confession of sins, and satisfaction — along with all those carefully thought out exercises of men — if you turn your attention to them and neglect this truth of God, they will suddenly fail you and leave you more wretched than before. For whatever is done without faith in the truth of God, is vanity of vanities and vexation of spirit. [Emphasis mine]
— Martin Luther. A Prelude by Martin Luther on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church.
This view just seems to directly contradict what the Bible clearly speaks about with grave sins and losing your salvation. It seems to lead directly to a type of antinomianism, the idea that Christians with a living faith have no obligation to the Law of God and can sin without ever losing their salvation as long as they have faith.
Theologians who take this view that only apostasy will cause a loss of salvation often go to great lengths to show they are not advocating for a full antinomian view of the Law. It just seems unavoidable, though. Luther, himself, wrote works against antinomians but then he also had many places where what he advocated for was the same thing as antinomianism even if he didn’t call by that name.
If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here [in this world] we have to sin. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness, but, as Peter says, we look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. It is enough that by the riches of God’s glory we have come to know the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world. No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day. Do you think that the purchase price that was paid for the redemption of our sins by so great a Lamb is too small? Pray boldly—you too are a mighty sinner [LW 48:281-282]. [Emphasis mine]
— Martin Luther
I am not claiming Martin Luther outright advocated for antinomianism. He clearly didn’t. It seems to me his view is just convuluted and confused, though, and ends up contradicting himself. Antinomianism seems unavoidable on this view. This view is just not biblical or logical.
2. Those who have a living, saving faith would not ever commit a grave sin. If you do, you have a dead faith.
Here is an example of Phillip Melanchthon giving this view:
115]Nor, indeed, is this faith an idle knowledge, neither can it coexist with mortal sin, but it is a work of the Holy Ghost, whereby we are freed from death, and terrified minds are encouraged and quickened.
— Apology of the Augsburg Confession IV
This second view may seem somewhat logical at first, but its first inadequacy is it requires sola fide to be read back into all the bible verses about obedience.
More importantly, it seems to remove any possibility of the certainty of salvation, for one could never know if they have a living faith or not. And yet, the assurance of salvation was something the original Lutherans often attacked the Catholic Church over.
[CHAPTER III]: FAITH IS A SURE CONFIDENCE, CONTRARY TO THE POPISH DOGMA OF DOUBT
Luther says on Genesis 41 [ Luther’s Works, Amer. Ed., 7.155]: “It was a horrible blindness and an error which must be execrated by all means, even if there had been nothing else in the papal doctrine than the fact that they taught us to be unsure and to waver in indecision and doubt about our salvation. For this uncertainty removes from me my Baptism and grace.”
Yet so enormous is the arrogance of our adversaries that even under the most brilliant light of the Gospel they do not hesitate in the public decrees of the Council of Trent to foist upon the church this pernicious and blasphemous dogma under the denunciation of the anathema.
— Martin Chemnitz. Theological Loci II-III. Locus XIII. Chapter 3.
Sola fide doesn’t seem like it can give certainty of salvation without an antinomian view of the Law, though. This is because if we use the living/dead faith distinction one could easily be mistaken, thinking they have a living faith and are not committing any grave sins but, in fact, they are. Sin, by its very nature clouds our judgement. It is a lack of reason so that we can trick oursleves into thinking we are not sinning gravely when actually we are.
There are countless examples one could give, but for one, imagine someone living in some kind of addiction who also claims to have saving faith. If they really don’t have a living faith, this shows one could easily deceive themselves into thinking they have a living faith when they, in fact, don’t. If they do have a living faith and are still saved, then we are right back to antinomianism.
We also run into the problem about Christians who disagree what these lists of grave sins mean. Many Christians think homosexual acts are fine and find ways to reinterpret these scriptures to fit their ends. How can anyone be sure if they have a living faith or not if you can’t even be sure about your interpretation of scripture?
23.4.2 Distinguishing between a living and dead faith on the sola fide paradigm creates some serious problems, especially when we consider mortal sin and the assurance of salvation.
This all seems to make what was supposed to be a simple idea of being saved by faith alone very convoluted. On the other hand, the Catholic view can easily make sense of a living and dead faith because faith is just one aspect of salvation. The Catholic view can easily incorporate the scriptural ideas of obedience to the law and the hope for salvation. This view of salvation just seems so much more biblical and logically consistent than the sola fide view.
Once again, the real problem underlying this is the idea over the formal cause of justification. When one sees justification as imputed righteousness, the idea we get a blanket of Jesus’ perfect righteousness through faith, one can easily fall into all the troubles just described above with dealing with obedience, mortal sin, and the assurance of salvation. Imputed righteousness artificially divorces the act of justification from any kind of works or sanctification that follows it because justification is purely extrinsic to the person on the sola fide paradigm.
If we see, instead, justification as infused righteousness, it is much easier to make sense of all the scriptures dealt with that require obedience to the God’s eternal moral Law, even for those who are justified. On the Catholic view, justification is a past, present, and future event that requires our participation. God gives us the gift of faith and the resulting initial justification through dwelling inside of us, infusing us with sanctifying grace. But we then must work with God’s grace to keep this infused grace and even grow in it by our obedience to His commands. Matthew 7:21-23 or Matthew 25:31-46 clearly shows us what happens if we don’t – our salvation is contingent on our obedience.
24. Sola Fide is contrary to so many things in the Gospels
As seen by many of the verse discussed in section #23, I was surprised when I went back and read the gospels knowing how Catholics view salvation that I ever thought Jesus taught sola fide. Jesus talked again and again about the necessity of keeping God’s law:
“Be perfect as your Father in heaven”
“if you love me, keep my commandments”
“Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.”
You have to read sola fide into so many teachings that clearly teach the opposite.
Preaching, catechizing, evangelizing and my own meditation kept me in contact with the Gospels, and I noticed how Jesus’ methods of evangelism were not like the training I received. Jesus did not preach “salvation by faith alone” the way folks usually understood that phrase.
Indeed, in hindsight, it amazes me how this emphasis on salvation by faith apart from works is so contrary to the preaching of Jesus in the Gospels. One can take any Gospel, start reading, and find passage after passage in which Jesus teaches things that contradict the whole sola fide mind-set.23
— John Bergsma
24.1 St. Pope Gregory the Great, in 592, explains that the Parable of the Wedding Feast shows a prime example of Jesus teaching we need more than faith alone for salvation, we also need charity.
Matthew 22:1-14 (ESV)
The Parable of the Wedding Feast
22 And again Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, 2 “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, 3 and sent his servants[a] to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”’ 5 But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. 7 The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ 10 And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11 “But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. 12 And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Here is Pope Gregory the Great’s teaching on the parable. Pope Gregory notes that Jesus teaches us that some get into the wedding feast by faith alone, but if they lack the wedding garment of righteousness, which he teaches are works of charity, they will be kicked out of the feast. Pope Gregory shows, yet again, another instance where Jesus teaches us in the Gospels that works of charity are necessary for salvation, not just faith alone.
But since you owe to the bounties of the Lord to have already entered the house of the wedding, that is to say in the holy Church, take care, my brothers, that the King, on entering, find nothing blamable in the habit of your soul. Indeed, we must consider with great fear what the text adds immediately after: “The king entered to see those who were at the table, and there he saw a man who was not wearing the wedding garment.”
What symbolism Shall we attribute, dear brothers, to this wedding garment? Shall we say that it represents baptism, or faith? But who could have entered the wedding hall without baptism or faith? For he who has not yet believed is by the very fact outside [of the Church]. What must we understand by the wedding garment, if not the charity? He indeed enters for the wedding, but he enters without the wedding garment, the one who is in the holy Church and has faith, but lacks charity.
It is with good reason that charity is called a wedding dress, since our Creator wore it when it came to the wedding to unite with the Church. Is it not by virtue of his only love that God sent his only Son to unite the souls of the elect? Hence the word of John: “God so loved the world that he gave us his only Son” (Jn 3:16). He who came to men out of love made it known that his love is the wedding garment.
All of you who belong to the Church and believe in God have already entered the wedding hall, but if they did not keep the grace of charity, they did not come with the bridal dress.
— Gregory the Great (Homily 38 on the Gospels. February 10, 592)
24.2 St. Augustine explains that Matthew 25:1-12 and the Parable of the Ten Virgins shows us the necessity of good works to enter into the feast of heaven
Matthew 25 has three successive parables all that teach explicitly against the idea of sola fide. The first is The Parable of the Ten Virgins which demonstrates that it is not just faith alone that gets you into heaven, but it is good works.
Matthew 25 (ESV)
25 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ 7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
I have heard Lutherans say that the oil in the lamps represents our faith. If God fills our lamps with faith, we will get into heaven. But this doesn’t really add up. The 5 virgins do eventually come to the door with oil in their lamps but Jesus tells them “I do not know you”. If the oil is faith and we are saved by faith alone, why would Jesus turn them away? The answer is that the oil isn’t representative of faith, it is representative of good works. Here is St. Augustine’s explanation of what the oil means.
They are both virgins, and yet half are rejected. It is not enough that they are virgins but that they also have lamps. They are virgins by reason of abstinence from unlawful indulgence of the senses. But they have lamps by reason of good works. Of these good works the Lord says, “Let your works shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16). Again he said to his disciples, “Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning” (Luke 12:35). In the “girded loins” is virginity. In the “burning lamps” is good works. (Augustine, Sermon 93.2; trans. in M. Simonetti, p. 217)
— St. Augustine
Here is Dr. Brant Pitre expounding a bit on what St. Augustine is saying as well from Pitre’s Mass Readings Explained series for Year A 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, found at www.catholicproductions.com.
I think it’s a really brilliant insight on Augustine’s part. What he’s doing is he’s interpreting the image of a lamp in the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25 in light of the image of a lamp in Matthew 5, the Sermon on the Mount. So if you go back to the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:16, sure enough, this is the passage when Jesus says “you are the light of the world.” And he says “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” So if the lamp is a symbol for good works in the Sermon on the Mount, the same thing is true about the lamp of the five wise virgins in the parable in Matthew 25. The reason they’re able to light their lamps and let their light shine before men is because they have good works, because they’ve done good deeds, because they’re actually living in accordance with the Gospel. They are following the will of the Father in heaven. So this is just one more example — and I hope you seen this over the course of our study of Matthew’s Gospel — of why the Catholic Church does not accept the doctrine of sola fide. In other words, that we are saved by faith alone and that our works don’t matter, that they don’t play any role in our sanctification or in our final judgment; because over and over and over again in the Gospel Matthew, Jesus keeps driving the point home, time after time, that yes, faith is important; yes, believing him is essential; yes, having a relationship with him is essential; but we express that faith and we express that relationship through what he explicitly calls in Matthew 5, good works. That’s our lamp that we shine before men.
— Dr. Brant Pitre
Time and time again, in the Gospels we get teaching from Jesus Himself, that we are not saved by faith alone. He teaches again and again that it is faith that brings us into God’s kingdom but it is our love (demonstrated through good works) that keeps us in it (Matthew 7:21-23). Of course, we can only love God and do any good works because he gives us the grace to do so (John 15:5). But we are required to cooperate with God’s grace and freely give our love back in response to the infinite love He shows us. Only with God and His grace is this possible (Matthew 19:26).
25. Suffering is required for salvation
The theology of suffering is a very interesting topic. It is another area that I didn’t realize was talked about so much in the Bible, in the sense that we are called to suffer along with Christ as part of the process of salvation. Of course, from everything we have already seen on a sola fide view of salvation, there is no room for saying that our suffering plays a part in our final salvation.
17 we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
Philippians 3:10-11 (RSV-CI)
that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Philippians 1:29 New International Version (NIV)
29 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him
One highly interesting verse that I really hadn’t noticed before is Colossians 1:24. This verse states:
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.
What is lacking in Christ’s afflictions? Was his redemption on the cross lacking something? No! Here is another example that shows something other than faith plays a part in the process of salvation. We are called to participate in Christ’s saving work on the cross:
Aquinas explained, this should not be misinterpreted as indicating the heretical position that Christ’s passion “was not sufficient for our redemption, and that the sufferings of the saints were added to complete it.”11 Instead, the passage indicates that Christ’s body, the Church, must participate in the work of her head, Christ himself.
What is “lacking” according to Colossians 1 is not Christ’s sufferings on the cross, but the Church’s full participation in his redemptive work. Each member contributes to the growth of the whole body by suffering. In this, believers actually suffer with Christ for others, that is, the other members. Paul can thus say in Colossians that his sufferings are “for your sake” (Colossians 1:24).24
— Michael Barber
26. God wants to divinize us. This is a part of the broad view of justification.
Another aspect that I thought was downplayed as a result of sola fide and imputed righteousness is the call to the the spiritual life. God wants to make us partakers of the divine nature, a process often called divinization or theosis (2 Peter 1:3-4). Jesus became man, as St. Athanasius said, “so that we might become [like] God.”25
CCC 460 The Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature”:78 “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.”79 “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.”80 “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.”81
CCC 1996 Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.
God isn’t just saving us from something (hell), He is saving us for something – to be partakers in His divine nature. This divinization process is something we are called to partake in right now, though. The Protestant world seemed to me to downplay this call to the spiritual life.
One of the books that was the most influential on me in the past year was The Three Ways of the Spiritual Life by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. Here, I learned that there has actually been an entire science formed around progressing in the spiritual life (i.e., through the 3 stages: purgative, illuminative, and unitive). There are many tried and tested ways to give up sin and advance in prayer and virtue as we move along in the process of divinization and towards full communion with God and receive the beatific vision.26
This isn’t to say that these things are impossible in the Protestant world. They just aren’t emphasized for obvious reasons pertaining to the idea of being saved by faith alone. When you read the great spiritual writers of the Catholic Church (e.g. St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Teresa of Avila, or St. John of the Cross), you see that this spiritual life isn’t just for a select few spiritual warriors. No, we are all called to the spiritual life. If we aren’t making progress towards heaven there is, sadly, a good chance we are in fact making progress towards hell.
CCC 2013 “All Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity.”65 All are called to holiness: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”66 (915; 2545; 825)
In order to reach this perfection the faithful should use the strength dealt out to them by Christ’s gift, so that … doing the will of the Father in everything, they may wholeheartedly devote themselves to the glory of God and to the service of their neighbor. Thus the holiness of the People of God will grow in fruitful abundance, as is clearly shown in the history of the Church through the lives of so many saints.67
CCC 2014 Spiritual progress tends toward ever more intimate union with Christ. This union is called “mystical” because it participates in the mystery of Christ through the sacraments—“the holy mysteries”—and, in him, in the mystery of the Holy Trinity. God calls us all to this intimate union with him, even if the special graces or extraordinary signs of this mystical life are granted only to some for the sake of manifesting the gratuitous gift given to all. (774)
27. Luther had good intentions. It seems to me he was just wrong.
I don’t mean for anything written above to imply that I think Luther was malicious in his attempt to change Church teaching. Having read a decent amount of Lutheran theology and Luther himself, I think it is safe to say he genuinely thought the Catholic Church was teaching grave theological error and he felt it his duty from God to stand up for the truth. My research has lead me to believe that Luther was, unfortunately, mistaken and this has had disastrous consequences for the Church and the world at large.
I think it is also safe to say that many people misunderstand Luther a lot. When speaking of imputed righteousness, Luther isn’t saying there isn’t any inner transformation of sinners or that sanctification doesn’t happen. People like Dr. Jordan Cooper and Tuomo Mannermaa who started the Finnish School of Lutheran thought have done a lot of important work to bring back ideas from Luther of mystical union and even push towards ideas of divinization/theosis that was just discussed above. Luther clearly argued for some sort of an ontological change in the justified, but his version wasn’t what the Catholic Church taught.
At the end of the day, Luther’s idea of sola fide always excludes any part of this divinization from justification and artificially brackets it off into sanctification. It seems his over scrupulous reading of the law made him want to find something completely outside himself for maintaining righteousness before God rather than letting any part of human effort play a part in the process. I think Dr. Christopher Malloy’s work is indispensable in noting these very important nuances in Lutheran thought as shown in this excerpt here:
Thanks to recent ecumenical dialogue it has been widely recognized by Catholics and others that both Luther and his followers always maintained that God does sanctify and renew the pilgrim person. The caricature of justification as “snow covering dung” is false to Luther’s teaching.8 On the contrary, Luther offers his readers rich marital imagery of the soul united with Christ. This marvelous image can be found in works spanning his career. In his 1520 Freedom of a Christian, he writes most beautifully, “If a touch of Christ healed, how much more will this most tender spiritual touch, this absorbing of the Word, communicate to the soul all things that belong to the Word…. Just as the heated iron glows like fire because of the union of fire with it, so the Word imparts its qualities to the soul.”9
Bolstered in part by the Finnish recovery of Luther’s thought and the labors of among others many German and American theologians, the “Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” (JDDJ), among its other contributions, has helped Catholics recognize this transformational aspect of Lutheran soteriology, an aspect somewhat obscured by Lutheran confessional documents contained in The Book of Concord. Notwithstanding the many positive elements of Luther’s thought, there exists, precisely with his doctrine of justification sola fide, a profound divide between his teaching and the doctrine of the Catholic Church. It is crucial that theologians take serious cognizance of this divide. Although the divide between Luther and Catholic teaching is not tantamount to a divide between sundry Lutheranisms and Catholic teaching, a sober evaluation of the state of ecumenical progress requires precise knowledge about Luther’s own teaching. Nonetheless, not this divide, but genuine hope, must have the last word. In fact, the very divide itself is premised upon a shared set of convictions. Leaving tacit the obvious points of contact known to all, I would focus on two convictions central to Luther and Catholicism. Above all, there is supreme appreciation of genuine love towards God. Second, there is deep appreciation, in view of human sinfulness and fragility, of man’s desperate need for lifelong hope in God’s infinite mercy.
My aim in this article is to demonstrate the existence of these common premises and to argue that common appreciation for them may point a way beyond the not negligible divide.10 In the course of my argument I hope to show how Luther, wittingly or unwittingly, filters his appreciation of genuine love toward God through a scrupulous reading of the law, distorting the meaning of that love, and thus finds man utterly corrupt before God. An utterly corrupt sinner has no alternative, demands Luther, but justification sola fide, lest he fall into the pride of self-righteousness or the pit of despair.27
— Dr. Christopher Malloy
27.1 Luther’s philosophical errors lead to his theological errors
I am going to put in a bit of a challenging quote from Bishop Robert Barron here, for I feel like it gets right to the heart of Luther’s mistake. It is heavy on some philosophical concepts, but it may be helpful for those who have an acquaintance with scholastic theology. Again, Luther seems to have meant well, but his philosophical upbringing in the nominalist schools unfortunately resulted in his errors that sparked the Reformation and changed the world forever.
When I was a seminary professor, I taught the course in the Reformation, so I had the guys read a lot of Luther and a lot of Calvin, who’s so much like Aquinas in many ways. Then we’d read the decrees of the Council of Trent and so we’d look at the great 16th century debates and we could revisit all those, issue by issue, and justification and original sin and so on and so forth. But what always struck me was, underneath these great debates [of the Reformation], there’s a fundamental difference and I identify it as the shift from an analogical conception of being to a univocal conception of being. In Thomas Aquinas is a prime example of this. You have an analogical conception of being, whereby God is ipsum esse, God is what it means “to be” in the full sense, and then creatures are participants in the “to be” of God; they derive their being in its entirety from the sheer act of existing which God has. Therefore, we name God in an analogical way from creatures, but the analogical conception of being is this participative understanding whereby the world is never in competition with God because the world and God are not beings against the same ontological background if that makes sense.
…So Aquinas, for example, will say God is not in any genus, not even the genus of being. It’s an extraordinary thing to say, right? You think at least he’s in the genus of being, right? There’s you and me and there’s God. We’re all beings and Thomas says, no, no, God does not belong in the genus even of being. Why? Because he’s not one being among many. Okay, that’s a quick summary of Thomas Aquinas.
Well, then go up through Scotus, go especially into Ockham, and you see the shift from an analogical conception of being to a univocal conception of being; namely that being, the word “to be”, means the same whether it’s applied to a creature or to God. That means that it is true that God is a being among many. Now come up from Ockham into nominalism and then into the nominalism that shaped, undoubtedly, Luther and Calvin and many of the reformers.
And so I always sense behind the great debates about justification, and so on, is this fundamental shift from what I would call a non-competitive understanding of the divine/human or divine/creature relationship to a competitive one. If God is a being among many, supreme being alongside of other beings, well then it’s hard to say God gets all the glory without saying and I get no glory. You know God does everything, therefore I have to do nothing.
And see as a Catholic, I always balk at that when I read it in the Reformers. I think, well no. You can say both those things. You should say both those things and I’d go back to Irenaeus, right, the gloria de homo vivens, the glory of God is a human being fully alive and so what glorifies God is when we are fully participating in his way of being that we are, I’ll use catholic language, cooperating with his grace with tremendous panache and enthusiasm.
And that’s what I’ve always intuited behind the 16th century debates. But it’s a more fundamental disagreement about the way God relates to the world non-competitively or competitively. I think if you read Thomas Aquinas you’ll get that idea; you’ll get the analogical conception of being, which in turn, makes a huge difference.28
— Bishop Robert Barron
And then later he reiterates the same idea of the non-competeive relationship we have with God as it relates specifically to the doctrine of Divine Simplicity:
[William Lane Craig and I] had a very interesting day together. It’s a couple years ago, and we had an academic exchange and we had a more popular talk in the evening, but the academic exchange was all about the idea of God’s simplicity…And I was again presenting the Thomistic idea, which not just Thomas but I mean really most of the great tradition holds to God’s simplicity which is simply a way of saying that in God essence and existence coincide. To be God is not to be any particular thing. To be God is to be “to be”. That’s the way a contemporary Catholic theologian puts it. To be God is to be the sheer act of existence and that means he’s simple metaphysically because in any creature you have, even an angel, you have at least the distinction between what the angel is and that the angel is. Those are distinct and that’s why we call an angel a creature. But in God they’re not distinct. To be God is to be “to be”; that’s the ground of an analogical conception of being.
Now all creaturely forms of being, from angels to insects, would be participations in, they’d be reflections of the pure act of existence which is God, and so they don’t exist competitively. If we increase in being it doesn’t threaten the “to be” of God. How could it? Because our being, in its entirety, comes from God. And so if I find glory, even in my own moral works that glorifies God, it doesn’t take glory away from God. And that’s why I always balk at when I read Luther, with all his tremendous rhetorical power and tremendous theological insight, but I always balk at that point; as though he’s always caught in that dilemma of I can’t give anything to the creature because it’ll take away from God. And I’m like no, I don’t think you have to play that game. 29
— Bishop Robert Barron
To sum up, Bishop Barron seems to advocate that Luther and the other Reformers missed some key metaphysical ideas for how we relate to God – how God works in and through us. Because we all derive our being from God, and He is not a being like everything else but the wholly-other-source-of-everything, we can and must cooperate non-competitively with God in our salvation. This is what God created us for – to know God and freely love Him (cooperate with Him).
It is a sign of God’s infinite power and infinite love that He created free creatures that can cooperate with Him or not. All God wants is for us to freely love Him.
In an effort to give all glory to God, Luther created a hard distinction in salvation, removing any cooperation from man, an idea that was never seen in the Church before. And yet, Luther’s denial of the cooperation of man with God, ironically, denies much of scripture that attest to the contrary and also run into a great deal of metaphysical and philosophical problems.
Luther should have continued to have debates with people on these issues, not started a new Church. He should have gone through the proper channels when he was being corrected by his superiors. If so, like I have heard Barron say elsewhere, instead of the Lutheran Reformation the Lutherans might have ended up being another of the great orders of the Church, one that had a heavy emphasis on the primacy of God’s grace. Instead, Luther seems to have overreacted to many of the problems in the Church of his day and started the gears of the Reformation which quickly spun out of his control and left us with the chaos and endless divisions within the Church we see today.
Conclusion: Sola Fide is a Theological Novum
In conclusion, I will simply reference again Alister McGrath, in one of the most in-depth studies ever undertaken on the history of justification in Christian thought, who concludes that Luther’s idea of imputation and sola fide was a break with what came before him. It was, in fact, a theological novum (a new theology).
Despite the astonishing theological diversity of the late medieval period, a consensus relating to the nature of justification was maintained throughout …. It continued to be understood as the process by which a man is made righteous …. The essential feature of the Reformation doctrine of justification is that a deliberate and systematic distinction is made between justification and regeneration … where none had been acknowledged before in the history of the Christian doctrine. A fundamental discontinuity was introduced into the western theological tradition where none had ever existed, or ever been contemplated, before. The Reformation understanding of the nature of justification [as imputation] must therefore be regarded as a genuine theological novum.30
— Alister McGrath
After all my research into what the Catholic Church teaches on justification, I now completely agree with the Catholic view. Now that I realize what Catholics teach is not heresy, it also seems to me that the Catholic view of justification builds a much stronger case accounting for all the biblical data and the historical data of the Church Fathers. I see no reason to take the position of the Reformers and their new idea on justification that arose 1500 years after Jesus.
Everything is grace: omnia gratia!
Matthew 5:48 (ESV)
48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
John 15:5 (ESV)
5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
Matthew 19:26 (ESV)
26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
TOP RECOMMENDED RESOURCES ON SOLA FIDE
- Sola Gratia, Solo Christo: The Roman Catholic Doctrine of Justification by Dr. Richard White
- Paul, a New Covenant Jew: Rethinking Pauline Theology by Brant Pitre (Author), Michael P. Barber (Author), John A. Kincaid (Author), Michael J. Gorman. Especially chapter 5.
- Engrafted in Christ by Dr. Christopher Malloy
- Paul’s “Works of the Law” in the Perspective of Second-Century Reception by Matthew J. Thomas
- Sola Salus. Fides Catholic N.2 2008. Dr. Christopher Malloy paper on justification issues with Luther and Catholicism.
- Dr. Brant Pitre. Mass Readings Explained. Weekly scripture reflections on Catholic Productions website.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church. Especially sections 1997-2029.
- Grace & justification: an evangelicals guide to Catholic beliefs by Stephen Wood
- St. Augustine: On Faith and Works, On Nature and Grace, On Grace and Free Will, and On the Spirit and the Letter.
- Dr. Michael Barber’s contribution to Four Views on the Role of Works at the Final Judgment (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology)
- Does the Bible Teach Sola Fide? By Dr. Bryan Cross. Called to Communion website.
- Did the Council of Trent Contradict the Second Council of Orange? Dr. Byran Cross. Called to Communion website.
- Three Ways of the Interior Life by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange
- For more indepth analysis on Catholic exegiss principles, see: Vatican II and the Interpretation of Scripture by Thomas McGovern. ↩
- Dei Verbum #12. Vatican II documents. ↩
- See Commission on Theology and Church Relations – LCMS. In Christ All Things Hold. p. 106-107 for a discussion on common hermenuetical methods. Of these common methods is to interpret scripture in light of the rule of faith, or in other words in light of sola fide. ↩
- Beckwith, F. (2009). Return to Rome confessions of an Evangelical Catholic. United States: Brazos Press. loc. 189 ↩
- The Defense of the Augsburg Confession. Article IV (II): Of Justification. ↩
- ibid. ↩
- Once again, I fully realize there is much that could be said here about the Luthern idea of the third use of the law. There is certainly some overlap with what I am saying about the teleological/pedogocial view of the Law. However, we shall see next that the third use of the law view creates an artificial distinction between the Law and the Gospel that isn’t in the Bible or the traditions of the Church. This is a novelty of the reformation and was constructed to fit the sola fide hermeneutic. I would also point out, though, that many Lutherans reject the third use of the law all together and we thus have another example of what happens without an ultimate ecclesial authority – endless division over interpretations of the Bible. This is even true within Lutheran denominations over what the nature of the law is, one-half of the supposed key hermeneutic for a proper understanding the entire Bible. ↩
- The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord. V. Law and Gospel. ↩
- Akin, Jimmy. The Law of God. Catholic Answers Magazine. 10/1/2000. ↩
- ibid. ↩
- Malloy, C. J. (2005). Engrafted into Christ: a critique of the Joint Declaration. New York: P. Lang. p. 285 ↩
- Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1950-1986 ↩
- https://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/09/does-the-bible-teach-sola-fide/ ↩
- Formula of Concord. Strong Declaration. III The Righteousness of Faith. ↩
- Hahn, S. W. (2017). Romans. (P. S. Williamson & M. Healy, Eds.) (p. 53). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic: A division of Baker Publishing Group. ↩
- Bergsma, John. Stunned by Scripture. Our Sunday Visitor. Kindle Edition. p. 142 ↩
- https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1510.htm ↩
- http://www.rosarychurch.net/answers/ap021997.html, ↩
- Apology of the Augsburg Confession IV. ↩
- Formula of Concord. Strong Declaration. III The Righteousness of Faith. ↩
- For more on this, see Dr. Bryan Cross’s article St. Irenaeus on Justification. https://www.calledtocommunion.com/2012/07/st-irenaeus-on-justification/#jbf ↩
- p.101 AN EXCERPT FROM A Year with the Saints ↩
- Bergsma, John. Stunned by Scripture. Our Sunday Visitor. Kindle Edition. p. 136 ↩
- Barber, M. P., & Pitre, B. J. (2019). Salvation: What every Catholic should know. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press. loc. 201 ↩
- St. Athanasius, De inc. 54, 3: PG 25, 192B. ↩
- see also Burke, Dan . Navigating the Interior Life: Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God . Sophia Institute Press. Kindle Edition. loc. 1214 ↩
- Malloy, Christopher. Sola Salus. Fides Catholic N.2 2008. p.379-380* ↩
- Bishop Robert Barron on Catholicism, Beauty, and Exorcisms (full interview). Streamed live on Sep 22, 2020. 21:30 – 28:47. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9Iw5yHM6aY&t=7s ↩
- ibid. ↩
- Alister McGrath – Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification. Vol. I. Pg. 186 ↩