The Fragile Doctrine of Justification
As all but cave-dwellers know, this coming Tuesday, October 31st, is the 500th anniversary Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses to door of the castle church in in Wittenberg. Many have commented that the Reformation is over, and that the similarities between Rome and Protestantism are such that the two sides should pursue a shared future. But this is wishful thinking at best, and willful ignorance at worst. The two sides are by no means in agreement on fundamental issues of salvation and grace, to say nothing of ecclesiology. What has changed is that individual Roman Catholics and even the Pope himself have declared solidarity with Luther on justification by faith. But due to the nature of authority in the Church, this has created an odd situation. Who speaks for the official church? If it is the hierarchy and the magisterium, then Rome and Protestantism are still very far apart. If it is the Pope and his pronouncements, these are in contrast to official teaching. In short, Rome has its own authority problem.
For any who may wonder about the difference in justification, the following diagram illustrates this.
Justification for the Protestant/Evangelical believer is a crisis followed by a process. We are justified by faith in Christ. This faith is personal and individual. Each believer must exercise it. This is why baptism follows faith. It is a picture of dying with Christ, being buried with him, and being raised to new life. Baptism is not saving, it does not put one into the body of Christ. It is a picture, a powerful one to be sure, of a spiritual reality. But it does not impart grace or spiritual life. It is a step of obedience on the part of a believer.
Sanctification is the process of making us more like Christ. It is a life-long process, but importantly, while it makes us more like Christ, sanctification does not alter our standing with God. It alters our condition, but never our position with God. Our position is based on the finished work of Christ, and can never be altered. This is why salvation is often portrayed as new life, new birth, a new creation. Eternal life is just that – never-ending. NO man can pluck us from Christ’s hand, nor can our sin. Our sin – all of it – was paid for on Calvary, and the resurrection is God’s resounding affirmation of his satisfaction in his son.
The Roman Catholic understanding of salvation is very different. Baptism starts this process, and indeed, puts one into the Church, and imparts eternal life. Without this rite, salvation is not possible. The fact that an infant cannot express faith is entirely unimportant. Grace is infused throughout the life of a believer as they partake of the sacraments, and as they persevere in works the Church has defined as necessary. The chart above shows references from Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), but it should be noted, the Catechism is a passel of ambiguity and contradiction. Some things can be read as entirely congruous with evangelical doctrine, other things are wholly at odds with biblical teaching. This is, no doubt, by design, because the Church ultimately reserves the full understanding of any teaching to itself, to its hierarchy.
The most striking difference is that with Rome, righteousness is not imputed to the believer as a once and for all act, following which we grow into greater likeness to Christ. Rather, righteousness is granted to the believer as a result of cooperating with grace throughout a life of obedience. In other words, it is by works, by what we do, can be lost. It is therefore not eternal life, but probational life. One’s position in heaven will only be attained if one’s condition is good enough. Justification and sanctification become intertwined, and if you’re not sanctified enough, then you will not in the end be justified!
This is exactly the opposite of the New Testament teaching on what it means to be “In Christ.” When we are in Christ, our position is with him in the heavenly places. If we sin, we grieve the Holy Spirit, our fellowship is broken, but we do not lose our eternal life. Because our position is based on his work and not ours, our sins do not put us outside of Christ. Nothing can.
When people tell you that Catholics and Protestants really believe the same thing about salvation, don’t believe it. This is a reminder that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is always – and once again – under attack. I do not say Roman Catholics are attacking it, but the enemy of our souls is because he hates these truths and the freedom and peace that they bring. It is a fragile doctrine if we are not good stewards of these truths. At this half-millennium anniversary of the Reformation, let everyone who understands these truths re-commit to their clear proclamation.
A word to any Roman Catholics reading this – I pray that you would consider what the Scriptures say about eternal life. Regardless of what the Church may say, search the Scriptures and see if these things are so. Those of us who understand and value the incredible truths of justification by faith pray that you, too, would understand what Jesus has already done to purchase your salvation.