This is a sermon I gave on Jesus’ teaching of the parables from Mark 4:1-25. Follow the link to listen:
This is a sermon I gave on Jesus’ teaching of the parables from Mark 4:1-25. Follow the link to listen:
The patristic writers all the way up through the Reformers were fond of stating the gospel in terms of participation and sharing. Athanasius’ wording perhaps is the most famous: God became man that man might become God. That is not to say that men become gods; rather, through salvation, mankind is thereby enabled share in God’s own life. Calvin and Luther had gospel formulations akin to this as well. For instance, Calvin, in his section on the Lord’s Supper in the Institutes, says this: becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him.
The point here is that Jesus becomes what we are that we might become what he is. Or put another way, salvation is all about sharing. God shares in our humanity, in our suffering, in the consequences of our sins, that we might share in his infinitude and righteousness.
Kallistos Ware, in his The Orthodox Way, explains it this way:
The Christian message of salvation can best be summed up in terms of sharing, of solidarity and identification. The notion of sharing is a key alike to the doctrine of God in Trinity and to the doctrine of God made man. The doctrine of the Trinity affirms that, just as man is authentically personal only when he shares with others, so God is not a single person dwelling alone, but three persons who share each other’s life in perfect love. The incarnation equally is a doctrine of sharing or participation. Christ shares to the full in what we are, and so he makes it possible for us to share in what he is, in his divine life and glory. He became what we are, so as to make us what he is.
St Paul expresses this metaphorically in terms of wealth and poverty: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that through his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Christ’s riches are his eternal glory; Christ’s poverty is his complete self-identification with our fallen human condition. In the words of an Orthodox Christmas hymn, “Sharing wholly in our poverty, thou hast made divine our earthly nature through thy union with it and participation in it”. Christ shares in our death, and we share in his life; he “empties himself” and we are “exalted” (Phil 2:5-9). God’s descent makes possible man’s ascent. St Maximus the Confessor writes: “Ineffably the infinity limits itself, while the finite is expanded to the measure of the infinite”…
Christ who is the Son of God by nature has made us sons of God by grace. In him we are “adopted” by God the Father, becoming sons-in-the-Son. (p 73-74)
Patrick Henry Reardon, in his new work, Reclaiming the Atonement, argues that the incarnation was an integral and necessary part of mankind’s redemption. In other words, the incarnation was not a step along the way to the “real saving work” of the cross. Rather, the incarnation was of primary importance in the schema of redemption.
His initial starting point is the assumption that the end goal of humanity is not simply moral uprightness, obedience etc; rather, the end goal of humanity at-one-ness with the Triune God. Man was created to be in a vital, living union with his Creator; to be initiated into the love-community of Father, Son and Spirit. Having this union broken through man’s apostasy, God’s redemptive goal is once again to be at one with his creatures. This at-one-ness is accomplished first through the union the Son with human nature in the incarnation and completed in his death and resurrection.
In the scholastic theology known to me, the Incarnation was essential to our redemption, not so much as an act [but] as a condition. That is to say, the Incarnation was not, in itself, redemptive; it made redemption possible.
In the Church Fathers, however, I began to discover another perspective. I learned that, if the goal of redemption is the union of man with God, then the Incarnation was far more than a condition for our salvation. It served, rather, as the effective model and exemplar of salvation. The Church Fathers insisted that the “full humanity” of Jesus Christ was essential to man’s redemption, because “whatever was not assumed was not redeemed.”
“Whatever was assumed was not healed” is a quote from Gregory of Nazianzus, who in response to the Apolloniarian controversy, argued that Christ’s incarnation of full humanity was pertinent to mankind’s redemption and renewal. If the entire human nature is fallen and corrupted through the fall, then God must redeem and sanctify all of human nature in the incarnation. Therefore, the incarnation is a necessary element of salvation.
Reardon goes on to explain:
“Whatever was not assumed was not healed.” This assertion, which came to be accepted as a principle, meant that the Son’s full assumption of our human nature was required for the work of redemption. A qualified or limited Incarnation would not satisfy. If God’s Son had not become a full human being, he could not have been a Mediator between God and the human race. In other words, only the Word’s full assumption of human experience could satisfy what was needed for human beings to be saved…
If the fact of the Incarnation means that the Word adopted the fullness of human experience— sin excepted, says the Epistle to the Hebrews— then nothing human can be excluded from the study of redemption. The Word, embracing our humanity, took possession of all of it in order to redeem all of it…
Reardon’s last point is paramount in my estimation: nothing human can be excluded from the study of redemption. If the incarnation means that Christ assumes a human nature, then the incarnation must fall under the category of redemption. Put another way, it is not right to parse out “soteriology” from “Christology” or “anthropology”. They are all intimately connected to one another. And they all fall under “soteriology”. Reardon spells this out by highlighting that the early fathers of the church originally headed soteriology under the “part of Christology; its foundational thesis declared that what Jesus accomplished on our behalf, and for our benefit, depended entirely on who He was”.
Reardon goes on to cite several early fathers who understood the incarnation of Christ to be the initiatory process through which humanity was being healed of sin and corruption. One central part of Christ’s life is his baptism at the Jordan river. During the baptism, the Spirit is said to “remained” on Christ. Reardon explains the significance of this:
Among the gospel references to this event (Jesus’ baptism), only John explicitly stresses the permanence of the Holy Spirit’s descent on Jesus: “He remained (emeinen) upon Him”—“ remaining (menon) on Him.” This Johannine detail of the Spirit’s descent has long been the object of Christian observation and comment. In the second century, for example, St. Irenaeus of Lyons regarded it as indicating the spiritual renewal of the human race. He wrote on this point by way of commentary on Isaiah 11: 2, “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest (anapavsetai) upon him.”
Irenaeus also commented that the Holy Spirit
“descended on the Son of God— who was made the Son of Man— becoming accustomed with Him to reside (skenoun) in the human race and to abide (anapavesthai) among men and to reside in the workmanship of God, accomplishing in them the will of the Father and renewing them from what is old to the newness of Christ.”
The Holy Spirit’s “abiding” on Jesus, for Irenaeus, referred to a renewed state of humanity by reason of the Incarnation.
Almost three centuries later, St. Cyril of Alexandria pursued Irenaeus’s interpretation of the text, but he placed it within the Pauline theology of the New Adam. Into the body and soul of the first Adam, wrote Cyril, God had “impressed, like a seal, the Holy Spirit, that is, the breath of life.” Because of this creative activity, man’s nature was “established for every kind of excellence, by virtue of the Spirit given to dwell in it.” The old Adam, however, had failed to safeguard this state of grace. He and his seed had lost the presence of the Holy Spirit conferred at Creation. What was needed, Cyril believed, was a Second Adam, who would not forfeit the gift of the Holy Spirit. From the old Adam the Holy Spirit “flew away” (apepte), but on the Second Adam He came down and remained. The Spirit descended on Jesus, wrote Cyril, “that He might become accustomed to remain (menein) in us.” Thus, the Holy Spirit, descending on Jesus at His Baptism, found a permanent and completely suitable dwelling in the human race.
The point here is that the incarnation began the initiatory process of human redemption. We may call the cross the climax, but not the beginning. It starts with the incarnation.
In his book Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, NT Wright attempts to outline his understanding of Christian salvation, particularly on the meaning and significance of justification. He is a proponent of the “new perspective on Paul” (NPP), which is an attempt to place the writings of Paul within his first century context, and to stop demonizing Judaism.
While the NPP is and has been a controversial movement within the Protestant world, I do feel that what Wright et al are attempting to do is helpful. In particular, Wright’s attempt to place Paul’s understanding of justification, and Christ’s work, in the context of the larger narrative of Israel, and covenant, and what Wright calls “God’s single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world” (98), is incredibly illuminating. In my opinion, it opens up the doctrine of salvation to the entire narrative of scripture. Indeed, Wright explains that justification — like any biblical doctrine — must have its context. And when taken out of that context, it loses its biblical, even Jewish, emphasis.
There is one section in this book that is especially helpful. In this section, Wright explains that to understand the gospel, and justification, one must understand Christology; that is to say, one must understand who Christ is, and what he was about. Then we can get what justification is.
Paul uses Christos, designating Jesus as the Messiah, in conscious belief that the Messiah is one in whom two things in particular happen:
- “The Messiah” is the one who draws Israel’s long history to its appointed goal…The single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world was designed…to culminate in the Messiah, who would fight the victorious battle against the ultimate enemy, build the new temple, and inaugurate a worldwide rule of justice, peace and prosperity. Paul of course, saw all of these as being redefined, granted that the Messiah was Jesus; but none of them lost
- The Messiah is therefore the one…in whom God’s people are summed up, so that what is true of him is true of them. To belong to the people over whom David, or David’s son, was ruling was spoken of in the Old Testament as being “in David” or “in the son of Jesse”. Paul can therefore speak of Christians “entering into the Messiah” through baptism and faith, as being “in him” as a result. He is the “seed of Abraham”, not simply as a single person but because he “contains”, as the goal of God’s Israel-plan, the whole people of God in himself. (103-104)
Wright makes the point that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah who came for the explicit purpose of summing up and completing Israel’s long history: he is the true and faithful Israelite. He is Israel itself realizing God’s Abrahamic promise to bless the nations! Consequently, Wright also explains that all who believe in Christ are caught up “in Christ”, and thus participate in him as the true Israel. Put another way, we are taken up in the faithful Israelite, such that we constitute the new Israel in him.
Salvation then — for Wright at least — is being caught up into the new Israel, into Christ himself, and entering into the new fulfilled people of God. It is constituting the new, eschatological, people of God.
Wright will go on to say that while justification is a distinctly juridicial term — he defines it as a declaration that believers are “in the right”, it is a “status that someone has when the court has found in their favor” (90) — it is a term which must be placed within the Israel, or covenantal context. Put simply, believers are declared to be in the right because of the reality that they are in Messiah, who is in himself faithful Israel, who has fulfilled God’s promises for the world.
When Adam and Eve sinned against the Lord and ate of the fruit, it says in the Genesis account that their “eyes were opened”. Their eyes were opened to their own sin and shame. We know this, because they immediately tried to cover themselves with fig leaves. This of course did not resolve the problem, because what they had seen was a spiritual shame, a separation from God’s very life.
Joseph Ratzinger, in his Spirit of the Liturgy, sees a parallel between this “seeing” of sin and shame, and the episode of the Emmaus road in Luke 24. After his resurrection, Christ met with two of his disciples on the Emmaus road, and that “their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (vs 16). They could not see Christ as he was; it was only after Christ ate with them that they could see.
Luke goes on to say that Jesus “took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (vs 30-31). Ratzinger sees this, first, as a reference to the Lord’s Supper, and second, as a parallel to the “eating” and “seeing” in the Genesis account of the fall.
[A]t the breaking of bread they experience in reverse fashion what happened to Adam and Eve when they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: their eyes are opened. Now they no longer see just the externals but the reality that is not apparent to their senses yet shines through their senses: it is the Lord, now alive in a new way.
The Lord’s Supper then is a “reverse seeing” from shame and sin, to redemption and resurrection. The Lord’s Supper is meant reverse the effect of the fall: to open our eyes and unite us to life itself, the risen Lord.
Sacrifice is a concept found quite literally everywhere in the scriptures. In fact, throughout every major story in the Bible, we find instances of sacrifices. While it is readily apparent that the concept of sacrifice finds its fulfillment, its telos, in Christ, it is not readily apparent what the meaning of sacrifice is.
Joseph Ratzinger, in his Spirit of the Liturgy, has an interesting discussion on its meaning. He begins by noticing that the “common view is that sacrifice has something to do with destruction. It means handing over to God a reality that is in some way precious” (Kindle version, loc. 250). Put another way, one way to view sacrifice is that destroying something is a means of “acknowledging God’s sovereignty over all things” (loc 250), as worshipping him as supreme over all things.
Ratzinger however disagrees with the concept: “belonging to God has nothing to do with destruction”, he says (loc 250). Instead, he brings in Augustine’s definition of sacrifice. He says,
The true ‘sacrifice’ is the civitas Dei, that is, love-transformed mankind, the divinization of creation and the surrender of all things to God: God all in all” (loc 258).
What Ratzinger means by this is that sacrifice, rather than being about destruction, is about the giving of oneself in totality to God. It is “losing oneself” in total surrender to God, and thereby finding life in God’s own life. It is giving oneself in love to God to the point of being completely eclipsed by the divine love, and becoming “divinized” with his life.
To clarify his meaning, Ratzinger references creation: he points out rightly that creation itself is a divine act of self-giving love. God, out of the sheer gift of his own self, gives in the act of creation: he gives mankind life and creaturely freedom. And man in his freedom has two choices: he can receive this sheer gift of grace and give himself wholly back to God; or, he can retreat into himself and collapse into selfishness.
God’s free act of creation is indeed ordered toward [a return]…Sacrifice in its essence is simply returning to love and therefore divinization (loc 313, 321)
Man as created is meant to receive God’s love and in his own gift of freedom, give himself wholly back to God’s love and life. The more he gives, the more he participates in God’s own life. So then, Adam was given creaturely freedom in order that he might give himself totally back to God. Instead, he retreated from God and preserved himself.
This is, Ratzinger says, sin at its essence: it is the retreat of oneself into the self, into self-preservation, into finitude, into death. Ratzinger says:
Original sin, so hard otherwise to understand, is identical with the fall into finitude, which explains why it clings to everything stuck in the vortex of finitude” (loc 305).
In his fallenness, rather than giving of himself to God, man clings to himself, and collapses into “the vortex” of finiteness. This condition of finitude, or turning in toward oneself, is what every man must thus be redeemed from. He is called to sacrifice, to give of himself, and yet, he cannot! He is utterly unable, tangled in the mess of his own selfishness. And thus he destroys himself.
Consequently, this is why Israel’s animal sacrifices were so insufficient, and called for a better sacrifice: Israel sacrificed bulls and goats. At best, these offerings were a part of the self, a gift of remorse and thanksgiving. However, at worst, they were a replacement of the self, a substitution of the self. Ratzinger explains:
Temple sacrifices was always accompanied by a vivid sense of its insufficiency… Already in 1 Samuel 15:22 we meet a primordial word of prophecy that, with some variations, runs through the Old Testament before being taken up anew by Christ: “More precious than sacrifices is obedience, submission better than the fat of rams!” In Hosea the prophecy appears in this form: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings (6:6) (loc 391-99)
The blood of goats and bulls was not only insufficient, but detestable by the completion of the Old Testament, precisely because it was Israel herself that God wanted. Israel at her worst gave the sacrifices in place of herself. Their hearts were far off from God, even when offering the sacrifices! This called for a true sacrifice, which could give mankind fully to God.
Taken into the New Testament, this is precisely why Christ’s self-sacrifice is sufficient: it is in the cross that Christ offers himself — the perfect man — fully and without reserve to God the Father. God the Son, in the incarnation, takes humanity to himself, and offers it to God to the point of death; he gives himself in totality to the divine love, and thereby becomes divinized; or, put biblically, he is raised imperishable. Finitude no longer has a say, for the divine love has illuminated mankind through the self-offering of Christ.
This is also why Christ is called the new Adam. He is the true man, who gives himself back in love to God. And it is through this self-sacrifice that humanity is thus welcomed into the life of the Godhead. Ratzinger explains:
The vicarious sacrifice of Jesus takes us up and leads us to that likeness with God, that transformation into love, which is the only true adoration (loc 502)
Being united to his sacrifice through faith, we are brought into the life and love of God; and being united to the Godhead, we are then called to “take up our cross”, to “love ourselves not, even unto death”:
It is man, conforming himself to [Christ] and becoming [Christ] through faith, who is the true sacrifice, the true glory of God in the world” (loc 478)
Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his controversial well-known work called, Dare we hope that all be saved?, espouses a certain type of “Christian hope” for the salvation of all men. In the first two chapters, he covers and rejects Origen’s and Barth’s absolutist universalism, saying that the certainty of all people’s salvation must be rejected. However, Balthasar does espouse a softer position, saying that a Christian can reasonably hope for all men’s salvation.
Now, why can we reasonably hope for this?
Essentially, what Balthasar says is that hope in and of itself demands that all men could be saved. In other words, if we hope for someone’s salvation, what we are saying is that it is at least possible. So then, universalism is at least reasonably possible. And while we can never truly know if all would be saved, we can be equally uncertain that any will be damned.
If someone asks us, “Will all men be saved?” we answer in line with the Gospel: I do not know. I have no certainty whatsoever. That means just as well that I have no certainty whatsoever that all men will not be saved. The whole of Scripture is full of the proclamation of a salvation that binds all men by a Redeemer who gathers together and reconciles the whole universe. That is quite sufficient to enable us to hope for the salvation of all men without thereby coming into contradiction with the Word of God.
So Balthasar cannot definitively know that any will be damned or saved. And while this may seem like a sort of agnostic universalism, what Balthasar argues is that Christian hope cannot and must not limit itself. If we are to hope that anyone would be saved, what we are implicitly saying is that their salvation is at least possible. If God wills that all men be saved, it must be possible, right? For Balthasar, hope demands this possible end.
Citing Aquinas, Balthasar says,
On to the virtue of hope, [Aquinas] establishes that one “has to believe of whatever one hopes that it can be attained; this is what hope adds to mere desire. Man can, namely, also have desire for things that he does not believe he can attain; but hope cannot exist in such circumstances.”
In other words, what is hoped for must at least be possible. Hope “cannot exist” if what is hoped for cannot be attained. To Balthasar, this is simply logical. So then, Balthasar concludes that universalism, while not absolutely certain, is possible.
As a necessary corollary, Balthasar argues that the doctrine of unconditional election limits Christian hope and love. Covering Augustine’s doctrine of the “massa damnata” (mass of the damned = the non-elect), Balthasar says,
[I]f someone thus sees mankind as a massa damnata from the outset, how can he still adhere to the effective truth of Christ’s statement that, on the Cross, he will draw all men to himself? …
… If one believes in the twofold predestination advocated by Augustine and adheres, on the basis of that, to the certainty that a number of people will be damned, one might object that love would have to stop at this barrier.
Balthasar brings in two arguments here: The first is that unconditional election flattens the universal offer of the gospel. How can Christ “draw all men” to himself if he only draws some? How can the invitation of the gospel be liberal if only some are elected? I’ve heard this argument too many times to count.
However, Balthasar brings in a second argument that is novel to me. Balthasar says that if unconditional election is true, then “love would have to stop at this barrier”. Put another way, Christians are responsible to love only those who are elect. Why? Because that is who God has chosen to love. Should the Christian’s love be more liberal than God’s?
Next, Balthasar cites German theologian Verweyen, saying,
Hans-Jürgen Verweyen…puts forward the thesis: “Whoever reckons with the possibility of even only one person’s being eternally lost besides himself is unable to love unreservedly.” And he stresses here, above all, “the effect of this idea on my practical actions. It seems to me that just the slightest nagging thought of a final hell for others brings on moments in which human togetherness becomes especially difficult, as does leaving the other to himself. If there may, in fact, be people who are absolutely incorrigible, why, then, should not those who make my life on earth a hell perhaps also be of that sort?”
So then, election restricts liberal love. If we are certain that God has not chosen some, or, if we are certain that a mass of sinners will inhabit hell, then for what reason should we love them?
How should we Calvinists answer this question? At this point, it might be helpful to respond to and correct Balthasar’s first point: that election certainly cannot restrict the universal call of the gospel — rather, election limits response to the gospel. In other words, believers preach to every creature, and are sure the elect will say “yes”, but are not sure who they are! With this clarification in view, one should see how universal love plays a part. We love everyone regardless of their election; and pray for their salvation, regardless of their place in God’s salvific plan. Why? Because we don’t know who is who in God’s drama of salvation. We share the gospel, knowing that no one is beyond salvation, and knowing that God will irrevocably draw all whom he wills to himself. This is the part we play in God’s mystery plan of salvation.
With that said, Balthasar’s complaint should be heard. And I’ve seen and known many Calvinists, who seem to struggle to love beyond God’s sovereign choice, which is unacceptable. It assumes a vantage point that is not our own, but only God’s. On the same note, I’ve known many Arminians who feel much of the same, even without the election bit.
Perhaps, ending on this warning by Balthasar (which I agree with) will help in humility for people on either side:
How can anyone equate hoping with knowing? I hope that my friend will recover from his serious illness—do I therefore know this? But: if I hope for you, for others, for everyone, then in the end I am also allowed to include myself. (Not the reverse: I hope for me; but I do not know with certainty whether you are among the chosen.)
[W]oe is me if, looking back, I see how others, who were not so lucky as I, are sinking beneath the waves; if, that is, I objectify hell and turn it into a theological-scientific “object” and begin to ponder on how many perish in this hell and how many escape it. For at that moment everything is transformed: hell is no longer something that is ever mine but rather something that befalls “the others”, while I, praise God, have escaped it…
…And at once the prayer is on [my] lips: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Lk 18:11). Then one goes on to populate hell, according to one’s own taste, with all sorts of monsters: Ivan the Terrible, Stalin the Horrible, Hitler the Madman and all his cronies, which certainly results, as well, in an imposing company that one would prefer not to encounter in heaven. It can be taken as a motif running through the history of theology that, whenever one fills hell with a massa damnata of sinners, one also, through some kind of conscious or unconscious trick (perhaps cautiously, and yet reassuredly), places oneself on the other side.
We might ask the great Augustine, the teacher of grace and love who has the greater portion of mankind destined to eternal hell, whether—with his hand on his heart—he ever worried, after his conversion, about his eternal salvation.
I wrote a POST earlier, describing the main difference between Catholicism and Protestantism. And what I said essentially, was that justification was the doctrine that distinguished the Reformers from the Catholicism of their day. And it really isn’t different nowadays.
What I want to consider in this post, is how justification in either position deals with “works”, or state differently, how works are connected to a believer’s justification.
Catholics commonly say that justification, or final salvation, comes through faith and works. Now, to a Protestant, this rubs against the core of the solas. Justification, even final justification, is by faith alone!
OK… But, why do Catholics argue this? Is Catholicism a dry religion, where you earn God’s love? Well, not quite. Let’s review the Catholic understanding of justification quickly to understand:
For Catholics, justification is not merely declarative. Or legal. Justification does involve a status change; but there is an added element. Justification, in the Catholic scheme, is an infusion of Christ’s righteousness within the believer; what I mean is that in salvation, Jesus’ righteousness is actually infused into the believer by union with him; that by faith / sacraments, the believer contains actual, “ontological”, “corporeal” righteousness from Jesus. And this righteousness grows in the believer as they cooperate with God in the sacraments, and live out that righteousness.
What all of this means is that final justification is dependent on the believer’s cooperation with this gift of Christ’s righteousness. And through cooperation, Christ’s life increases in the believer, enabling them to be “actually righteous”. As they partake more and more in the corporeal life of Christ, in union with him, they grow to become more and more “justified”, or “saintly”. This is why Catholics say that final justification is by faith and works. Faith is the initial thing which gives the gift of righteousness; but, because Christ’s righteousness is by nature ontological, the believer must cooperate and grow in that righteousness. In other words, Catholics view justification and sanctification (growth in justification) as one big thing.
Catholic Peter Kreeft says,
Catholic theology teaches that justification and sanctification, faith and works, are not separated, as Luther thought. Rather, “ ‘[j]ustification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man’ 6 ” (CCC 1989) (source, pg 126)
Catholic Taylor Marshall says,
As a Catholic, I understand [justification to be] juridical [or legal] AND transformative. A sinner “becomes righteous” [actually, or ontologically] and this is why the Greek word was rightly translated as iustificatio—“making just.”
I’m saying that a legal, declarative change is not merely what God does for us. Salvation involves a union with Christ to the sinner and that union transforms the sinner into a new creation.
I was not merely “declared righteous” through faith, rather I “became righteous,” because Christ washed away my original sin and my personal sins so that I was a new creation. Grace filled my soul and the Holy Spirit came upon me (source)
That being said, it’s not quite fair to call Catholicism “works-based”, as many Protestants do. But, because of their sort of “corporeal” understanding of Christ’s righteousness, meaning that it is infused in the believer, and because that believer must cooperate with that righteousness, there is a reality to the claim that salvation is by a sort of “working faith”. The Catholic Catechism even has a theology of “merit”, whereby the believer, cooperating with Christ’s infused righteousness, “merits” eternal life. Granted, it’s not by the believer’s own righteousness. It is by Christ’s righteousness.
So, Catholics see faith and works as one big thing, whereby justification is a gradual process (sanctification) as the believer cooperates with the grace of God.
Now, how does this contrast with Protestant theology?
In the Protestant scheme, justification is not the ontological infusion of righteousness. Rather, it is the legal imputation of righteousness. Now this might seem like a small change, but it’s actually important, as I said in my last post. Rather than righteousness being actually infused, righteousness is accredited to the believer; and the believer is righteous not by cooperation with that righteousness, but solely on the basis of Christ’s perfect righteousness. The righteousness that is the believer’s, is only their’s because Christ himself is righteous. In other words, God accredits the believer with the perfect account of Jesus, and they are thereby legally righteous in a complete sense. Nothing lacks. Justification then, is a once-for-all declaration. It is a finished, closed reality. And the believer doesn’t need to grow in righteousness for final salvation, because the righteousness of Christ, which is imputed / accredited, is complete already.
That being said, how do good works come into play in the Protestant scheme? Do they come into play at all. Why, yes!
What a Protestant would say is that good works are necessarily involved, but only insofar as they blossom, or grow out of that once-for-all justification. In other words, good works are a fruit, a confirmation or justification, not part of justification. Protestants want to be careful to separate “justification” and “sanctification”. They see them as separate realities.
Justification is a closed reality. And sanctification is proof that one has experienced that reality. Good works mean that God has already justified that person. And a person who has good works has been justified.
OK, got it. But why is that true?
The reason is because justification, while being a legal reality, leads to and causes ontological realities. What does that mean? What I mean, is that once God declares a sinner “righteous”, he doesn’t just stop there! He also forgives, regenerates, and indwells that person. And what is regeneration, but God creating new life within that person? And when the Spirit indwells the believer, what can happen but a change in lifestyle?
In other words, justification is but the start of many changes within the believer. And if the believer has spiritual fruit, or obedience to God, what can it mean but that they have been justified? So someone who claims to have a living faith proves it by living out new-creation realities. As RC Sproul says, “true faith will absolutely and necessarily yield the fruits of obedience and the works of righteousness” (source). That sounds awfully Catholic! Well, OK. We aren’t saying that good works aren’t important. Catholics and Protestants agree, they are.
We just disagree about why they are important.
So while Catholics say that justification and sanctification are one process, Protestants say that justification is one thing, and that sanctification necessarily follows, but is not that same one thing. These are small differences, but as you can hopefully see, they diverge as the believer attempts to live out their spiritual life. While I believe that Catholics and Protestants can call one another “brothers”, they do have some important differences.
As Paul closes his letter to the Galatians, he sums up his entire letter, in a way, in Galatians 6:11-14.
In this entire letter, Paul has been trying to contrast the difference between the true gospel, and a false gospel (Gal 1:4-10).
The reason is because there were some false teachers who had come in, and were preaching a gospel of “Jesus-plus-something-else”. Essentially, these false teachers were saying, “Yes, Jesus helps you get saved, but you must also work for your salvation. You must also earn it. You must do something to earn your stay“.
And Paul was writing to combat this false gospel, with the true gospel, which says that the only reason Christians are saved is because of Jesus plus nothing else. Jesus is a Christian’s only hope.
And at the end of his letter, in Galatians 6, Paul wants to finish by pointing out the ultimate difference between a false and the true gospel. In other words, what is at the heart of a false gospel verses the true gospel? What is at the foundation?
And in essence, what Paul says is that the difference between the two is what you boast in. Or, to say it another way, what is your ultimate security? Where is your ultimate worth found? Where is your identity and self-image found?
Paul says that the ultimate “boast” of a false gospel is found in what you do. He says in verse 11, that the false teachers only desired to “make a good showing in the flesh”. And what he means by this is that the false teachers believed that their entire worth, their boast, was in what they did. They believed that all of God’s love was predicated and conditioned on something that they did. And so their entire mission was to make a show. Their whole goal in life was to do well, to make themselves look good on the outside. To follow all the rules. To be a “good” Christian person. And they did this, because their gospel said that their entire worth was bound up in it. Their entire destiny was tied up in how good they acted for God. If they did well, God would accept them. If they did bad, God would be upset with them. Their whole identity was founded on that.
In contrast, Paul says that the ultimate boast of the true gospel is in what Christ has done. Paul says in verse 14, “but far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”. And what Paul means by this is that the true message of the gospel says that a Christian’s worth is not bound up in what they do. If it were, every person would be doomed to hell, because “by works of the law no person [can be] saved” (Gal 2:16).
Instead, a Christian’s entire identity is tied up in what Christ has done on their behalf. For the Christian, God’s love and acceptance for them is no longer based on what they do. It is no longer based on whether they are good or bad. It is no longer based on how holy they are. Rather, the security of the Christian is based solely on how holy Jesus is. It is based on the perfect work of Christ. Because in the gospel, Jesus obeyed where we should’ve obeyed, and was cursed where we should’ve have been cursed. And because of this, Jesus’ identity is our identity. And so, the Christian’s boast is found in the cross, and in nothing else.
Tim Keller, from his commentary on Galatians, expounds on this, saying:
Ultimately, Paul says, the heart of your religion is what you boast in. What, at the bottom, is the reason you think you are in right relationship with God?
If the cross is just a help, but you have to complete your salvation with good works, it is really your works which make the difference between your being headed to heaven or not headed to heaven. There, you “boast in your flesh” (v. 13), your efforts. What an attractive-sounding message: to be able to pat yourself on the back for having reserved a place for yourself in heaven!
But if you understand the gospel, you “boast” exclusively and only in the cross. Our identity, our self-image, is based on what gives us a sense of dignity and significance — what we boast in. Religion leads us to boast in something about us. The gospel leads us to boast in the cross of Jesus. That means our identity in Jesus is confident and secure — we do “boast”! — yet humbly, based on a profound send of our flaws and neediness.
… [The gospel leads me to realize that] I am saved solely and wholly because of Christ’s work, not mine. He has reserved a place in heaven for me, given freely to me by him. I “never boast” — I take no credit for my standing with God — “except in the cross”; what Christ has done is now something I “boast” in.
Where is your boast? Where is your security? Is it in Christ alone, or in something that you do? The difference is the difference between the true gospel and a false one.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul had entered into a discussion on the function, and the purpose of the law. Apparently some Jews had been teaching these Galatians that obedience to the Mosaic Law was necessary for salvation.
For Paul, this was spiritual suicide. He said in Galatians 3 that “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse”, because “cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the law” (3:10). In other words, trying to be justified by the law is impossible, because the law demands perfect obedience (abiding by all things). And because all men are enslaved to sin, anyone trying to obey all things written in the law is attempting the impossible. They are committing themselves to a standard that they will never live up to, even fall constantly short of. Paul concludes by saying that “no one is justified before God by the law” (Gal 3:11).
Of course, a question naturally arises from this whole discussion: why did God give his law? If the law does not and cannot save anyone, then what is its purpose? Why would God give a standard impossible to meet? What was his purpose in giving it?
Paul takes up this question in the next section of Galatians 3. Paul himself asks, “why then the law?” (Gal 3:19). He answers by saying that the law “was added because of transgressions until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made…” (Gal 3:19). Now, what does Paul mean by this? And in what way is the giving of the law connected to the coming of Christ (the offspring)?
James Boice answer this question, saying,
On the surface the [verse] is ambiguous. The phrase [“was added because of transgressions”] can mean either that the law was given to restrain transgressions (which is the natural function of law) or that the law was given to make the transgression known, even in one sense to encourage them or to provoke them to a new intensity. In view of Paul’s choice of word “transgressions” rather than “sin” in this context and of his discussion of the purpose of the law elsewhere, the latter is the only real possibility. In Romans, Paul argues that “through the law we become conscious of sin” (Rom 3:20) and that “where there is no law there is no transgression” (Rom 4:15). The point is that though sin was in the world before the giving of the law, sin was not always known as such. The law reveals sin as sin. Hence, it may be said that it is the law that turns sin into transgression — transgression of law — and even accentuates it (Rom 5:20). In this act, law performs the function of showing man’s need of a Savior.
In other words, the law makes us aware of our sin. Paul himself says in Romans 7:7, “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet'”. The law functioned in making Paul aware of his covetousness. In this way, the purpose of the law is to make us aware of our own transgressing of God’s commands. And in making us aware of our transgressions, it makes us aware of our need for a Savior.
Phillip Ryken adds,
When [Galatians 3] says that the law was “added”, it literally says that the law came in by a side road. The law feeds into the promise [of the gospel]; it is the on-ramp to the gospel highway. [The reason for this is because] the more we know the law, the more we see our sin, and the more we see this, the more we confess that we need a Savior. “The law was given”, wrote Calvin, “in order to make transgressions obvious, and in this way to compel men to acknowledge their guilt”. And it is only when we see our guilt that we see how much we need Jesus. The law is the law so that Christ can become our Savior.
In this way, the law came alongside the promise of Christ. The law was never opposed to the promise of the gospel. Rather, the burden of the law serves to make sinners more and more aware of the exceeding sinfulness of their sin! And then, it leads sinners straight to the gospel, in which the whole curse of the law is lifted and placed on Christ.