Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Justification: "Works" vs. "Works of the Law"

As you may have seen (or been a part of), there has been a fairly zesty debate between Roman Catholics and Protestants that has taken place over the past few weeks on this blog. Of the issues raised, debated, re-raised, and rebutted, none has been more important to me than the issue of true saving faith. Roman Catholics believe that we are justified by faith and works. At this, some of my Roman Catholic friends scoff or tell me that I don’t understand Catholicism, but to say that one is born again (regenerated, saved, or whatever specific word they want to use) at baptism and at the same time say that works do not save us, is (in my understanding) the height of self delusion. Catholics do tend to say that the ongoing works in the life of a baptized Catholic are the effect of Christ working through the person, but the problem is that this ongoing work then achieves the possibility of an eventual justification…maybe…that is based upon the merits earned during the individual’s life, and not solely on the basis of the righteousness of Christ and His finished redemptive work that was completed in His death and resurrection.

Well, the debate rages on. Both sides ardently opposing one another while adamantly stating, “Nothing that I believe contradicts the Bible. I have nothing to fear from the Bible and correct exposition.” Obviously two completely contradictory views on the basis of true Christian faith cannot both be the correct conclusion from the pages of scripture. So, in these recent discussions, the Catholics that have been trying to show me the error of my soteriology have trotted out James 2:17 “faith without works is dead” and used that as the trump card to slap down any “faith apart from works” or “faith alone” claims. Interestingly enough when I quoted Ephesians 2:8-10 as showing that faith is what is required I was accused of taking this verse out of context.1 But it is absurd to say that the whole context of Ephesians 2 when we are talking about grace and faith with works being excluded as being out of context. I am trying to stay away from the careless throwing about of the accusation “Out of context!” so I refrained from responding by saying that he was misinterpreting (taking out of context) the passage in James 2.

So instead of tackling both Ephesians 2 and James 2 (which I plan on doing in the future), I want to tackle this issue from a different angle. And possibly, this way of dealing with this specific Catholic objection just might clear up the issue. The Catholic objection (that I have been presented with) to using passages that refer to faith as the requirement for salvation at the exclusion of works is that these passages are talking about works of the law. “The ‘works of the law’ Paul taught about in Ephesians 2:8-9 and elsewhere referred to the Mosaic Law and their legal system that made God obligated to reward them for their works.” The Mosaic Law is defined as referring to the laws governing “moral, legal, and ceremonial” affairs.2 It is on this understanding of the “works of the Law” that I would like to briefly focus upon.

When Christ was asked to tell which commandment from the Law of Moses was the greatest, he responded by saying, “`YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.' "This is the great and foremost commandment. "The second is like it, `YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.'” (Matthew 22:37-40) In this text he was referencing Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18, and not creating a new standard. I began to think…what good thing could a person do that doesn’t fall under either of these two summaries of the commandments? I think that the answer is, plainly, nothing. Therefore, I think that it is a false distinction that Catholics try to make between James’ “works” and Paul’s “works of the law” regarding their role in our justification.

I thought that there would be a lot more to say, but there isn’t. If we are not justified by any works of the law (which I agree that we are not), and that anything that could be considered a good work would fall into either the category of loving or serving God or of loving others, then James and Paul must be harmonized in a way that doesn’t imply that our contemporary works actually justify us. Our works do show that we are saved, but they do not cause us to be justified nor do they maintain or regain our justification if it is lost (you cannot be “unjustified” once you have been declared righteous).

The works of a believer are proof that he or she has been justified, but they do not play any part in attaining, maintaining, or losing of that justified state.

Sola fide. Soli Deo gloria.




Michael Joseph said...

Hi EJ,

Interesting post, though I think you may be mischaracterizing the Catholic view of salvation, which is far more flexible than you permit. I did a recent post on my own blog, which gives the Catholic view of how grace saves:

A Catholic Understanding of how Grace and Faith Save

Remember, for Catholics it is not faith and works that save. Rather, grace alone saves through faith (Eph 2:8-9). Unfortunately, some of the Catholics you have been dealing with likewise misunderstand this crucial point made by the Council of Trent.

EJ said...

How I long for people to understand the truth of Salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. That is the glorious gospel of Christ. However, I do believe that it was Trent that anathematized the view of salvation that I have articulated - that works are the result of justification, but they do not contribute or “add to” our righteousness or make our standing before God better. I'll look for the exact cannon information later.

Michael Joseph said...

You are almost correct...Trent rejects salvation by "faith alone", but certainly not by "grace alone" or "Christ alone". The problem with saying we are saved by "faith alone" is that you give partial credit to yourself, since faith is a human act. This is why Scripture never tells us "faith alone". To choose to believe is a human act, and if you are saved by faith alone, then you may boast. However, what Trent always clarifies (and the Catholic Church continues to teach) is that salvation is by grace alone through faith. You cannot say salvation is by grace alone and by faith alone, because neither grace nor faith is actually "alone" since they are always accompanying one another. Besides "salvation by faith alone" is a human tradition, not a biblical tradition. Rather, salvation is by grace through faith (Eph 2:8-9), not by faith.

EJ said...

Solid word clarification on the "through" instead of "by", and I agree with Eph 2. However, I do not believe, nor did I ever say, that faith was of me, or a "human act". All humanity is dead in sin and can do absolutely nothing because of Adam and his sin. So, since we are dead – a dead man cannot express any faith nor do anything to save himself – it is all of God. So, if you truly want to get down to the nitty-gritty of it, I believe that God causes the person to be regenerated, making them a new creature in Christ, and then this new life is one that allows the person to place their faith in Christ (but, I would say that these basically happen simultaneously). It is a completely divine work. If you are not familiar with this concept, it is referred to as the doctrines of grace or Calvinism. That is why the traditional reformation view of justification (which I have been trying to articulate in recent posts) and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the elect, and the imputation of the elect’s sins to Christ is so important to soteriology.

If you understand the “faith alone” position of the reformation as stating that works accompany salvation only as the fruit of that state of being justified and that true faith will always show itself in the outworking of a believer’s life and reject it, then we have a serious disagreement. And I do not know how one cannot reject this understanding while, at the same time, affirming baptismal regeneration.

Michael Joseph said...

And I would argue that doctrine of grace you relate here is thoroughly Catholic and does not come from Calvin, but Augustine. Not to mention the fact that both Anselm and Thomas Aquinas held similar views of grace--all Catholics. The "faith alone" doctrine was imported by Luther. He did not find it in Scripture. He believed he found the idea in Scripture, but what Luther believed and what is actually true are often two very different things.

EJ said...

As for the Augustinian roots to the Doctrines of grace - I totally agree. As to the part contrasting the beliefs of Luther with that of Scripture - I totally disagree.

Unfortunately, my friend, it seems to me that it comes down to our disagreement over how we understand the works in James 2 relating to salvation or how we understand the ordinances ("sacraments") of baptism or the Lord's Supper (the Catholic "Eucharist"). I am sure that we disagree on things like Baptismal-regeneration, transubstantiation, the veneration of Mary, the prayer to Mary and the Saints, the Pope and the Primacy of Peter, Tradition, the Magisterium...things like that, but the "grand-daddy" of them all is our soteriology.

"The old truth that Calvin preached, that Augustine preached, that Paul preached, is the truth that I must preach to-day, or else be false to my conscience and my God. I cannot shape the truth; I know of no such thing as paring off the rough edges of a doctrine. John Knox's gospel is my gospel. That which thundered through Scotland must thunder through England again." —C. H. Spurgeon

EJ said...

a clarification - by "roots" I do not mean, nor I am sure that you do, that the doctrines of grace "began" with Augustine. They are totally Christian as seen in the Bible, and therefore they are ultimately from Christ Himself.

Jeff said...

Maybe a helpful distinction:

Catholic theology maintains justification by faith AND works

whereas biblical theology maintains justification by faith UNTO works

Good works are the RESULT of having been justified, but NOT the ground or cause of justification.

Sola Fide

Copyright © 2005-2010 Eric Johnson