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The Timing of Jesus’ Trial


-Jesus about to be struck in the front of High Priest Annas, Jn 18:22, by José de Madrazo, 1803, Museo del Prado, Spain.  Please click on the image for greater detail.


-by Karlo Broussard

“Every year during Holy Week, Christians focus on those last and most important moments of Jesus’s life: his passion and death.

But for some, these gospel narratives aren’t historically reliable because they apparently contradict each other in certain places. We’re going to consider two alleged contradictions here, both of which involve the timing of Jesus’ trial.

First, some say John contradicts the Synoptics with regard to the day on which Jesus was taken before Pilate. Mark, Matthew, and Luke all affirm that Jesus was brought to Pilate the day after the initial Passover meal on 15 Nisan, the night on which the lamb was eaten and the Haggadah (or Passover liturgy) was recited (Matt. 26:17; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7). But in John 18:28 it seems Jesus was brought before Pilate on the day before the initial Passover meal was eaten, for John says the Jews who led Jesus to Pilate didn’t enter the praetorium “so that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover.” One possible way to resolve this apparent discrepancy is to say that the Jewish leaders were so preoccupied with the events of the previous evening that they put off celebrating the initial Passover meal until the following day.

There is a question, however, of whether Jesus’ arrest and the subsequent events would have begun early enough on Thursday evening to interfere with eating the initial Passover meal, which normally began soon after sundown.

But we know the chief priests and scribes were plotting to arrest and kill Jesus (Mark 14:1). It’s not beyond reason that their efforts would have been a catalyst to put off eating the initial Passover meal.

Also, Mark tells us that Judas led “a crowd . . . from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders” (Mark 14:43). This suggests the Jewish leaders may have coordinated this crowd to go and fetch Jesus. The time such coordinating activity would have taken could very well have interfered with eating the initial Passover meal on Thursday after sundown.

The uncertainty of when the group would bring Jesus to the Jewish leaders could be another reason why they put off the Seder meal. It makes sense they wouldn’t want their celebration of the Passover to be interrupted.

And speaking of eating the Passover, the substantial amount of wine that’s required to be consumed at the Seder meal could also have motivated the Jewish leaders to put off the celebration. They would want to be of sound mind to question Jesus once he was brought to them.

There’s another possible way to reconcile John and the Synoptics. The phrase “eat the Passover” (John 18:28) likely refers to other sacrificial meals eaten with unleavened bread during the seven days of the Passover festival.

The Old Testament uses the word “Passover” (Greek, pascha) in a way that extends beyond the initial Seder meal, and applies it to various animal sacrifices offered during the Passover week. For example, Deuteronomy 16:2 speaks of the “Passover [pascha] sacrifice” to the Lord “from the flock or the herd,” which was to be eaten with unleavened bread for seven days during the Passover festival (v.3; see also Num. 28:16-25).

So, it’s possible John refers to those Passover sacrifices offered during the seven-day festival when he speaks of the Jewish leaders needing to “eat the Passover.”

Three lines of thought further support this interpretation.

First, the Last Supper in John’s Gospel is a Passover Meal. New Testament scholar Brant Pitre lists several details that reveal it to be such, all of which are common aspects of a Jewish Passover meal: the reclining posture of Jesus and his disciples (John 13:23-25); the dipping of the morsel (John 13:26-27); the giving to the poor during a festal meal (John 13:29); and the last-minute purchase of something during the feast (John 13:29-30).

As Pitre argues, since John identifies the Last Supper as the Passover meal that takes place on 15 Nisan, his reference to eating the “Passover” in John 18:28 doesn’t appear to be a reference to the initial Passover lamb, but the sacrifices eaten during the seven-day festival.

Second, according to Leviticus 7:19-20, these festal offerings (called “peace offerings”) eaten during the seven-day paschal festival were also subject to ritual purity laws. This would explain why the Jewish leaders were concerned about defilement.

Third, as New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg points out, the Jewish leaders’ concern for defilement in John 18:28 doesn’t jibe with the interpretation that John places the initial “Passover” meal on Friday evening:

The ceremonial uncleanness that the Jewish leaders would have incurred in entering Pilate’s Praetorium would have lasted only until sundown, so that they would not have been defiled in eating an evening meal on Friday.

Blomberg argues that uncleanness would have been an issue if they were thinking of the above-mentioned sacrificial offerings they needed to eat on Friday during the seven-day festival. It could also be due to the fact that they were unable to eat the meal during the preceding night and now needed to eat it before sunset.

The second supposed contradiction has to do with how the Synoptics report the time of day that Jesus was tried by the Sanhedrin. According to both Mark (Mark 14:53-65) and Matthew (Matthew 26:57-68), the high priest questions Jesus Thursday night after Jesus is taken in the Garden of Gethsemane. Luke, however, places the high priest’s interrogation of Jesus early the next morning (“when day came”—Luke 22:66).

The first thing we can say is that there’s no contradiction in these reports, only a difference.

Consider that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree that Jesus was brought before the high priest late Thursday night at Caiaphas’s house (Luke 22:54; Matt. 26:57-58; Mark 14:53-54). All three also agree that, while there, Jesus was physically beaten and mocked. Matthew and Mark report Caiaphas questioning Jesus at that time, asking Jesus if He is the Christ.

Also, Matthew, Mark, and Luke all agree that the high priest, scribes, and elders convened again early Friday morning to consult each other about putting Jesus to death (Mark 15:1; Matt. 27:1; Luke 22:66). The difference is that Matthew and Mark don’t mention an interrogation of Jesus at this morning convocation, whereas Luke does.

For there to be a contradiction, Matthew and/or Mark would have to deny that the high priest interrogated Jesus at the Friday morning convocation. But they don’t do that. They’re silent on the matter. Therefore, there’s no contradiction.

But the question remains: “Who’s right and who’s wrong?” Did Matthew and Mark get it right and Luke got it wrong? Or, vice versa?

The answer is likely that they’re all right because it’s reasonable to hold that the interrogation happened Thursday night and early Friday morning. Since Matthew and Mark left out the Friday morning interrogation, Luke includes it. And since Matthew and Mark included the Thursday night interrogation, Luke left it out.

That Caiaphas would question Jesus immediately when the crowd brought Jesus to Caiaphas’s house late Thursday night is reasonable, especially in light of the their intent to destroy Jesus. Why else would Caiaphas demand Jesus be brought to his house if he didn’t intend to question him in a preliminary manner, before the morning’s more formal gathering?

The claim that Caiaphas would have questioned Jesus again Friday morning is also reasonable because, as Blomberg argues, the Thursday night interrogation and charge of blasphemy weren’t legally binding. The Sanhedrin only had legal authority to sit in judgment for capital cases during the day (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:1). This leads Blomberg to conclude, “it is quite probable that they repeated their questions to make at least some kind of show of legality when daylight first dawned.”

Differences among the gospels might be a stumbling block for some, but they need not be. Differences don’t entail contradictions. And when such differences can be plausibly explained, we have all that much more reason to trust the reliability of the reports.”

Love & His Passion,
Matthew

Mar 19 – St Joseph “dream, service, fidelity”


-by Giovanni Gasparro, “Chaste Heart of St. Joseph”, 2013, Basilica of St. Joseph the craftsman (Ex San Biagio d’Amiternum, XIII century), L’Aquila, Italy

“He did not do astonishing things, he had no unique charisms, nor did he appear special in the eyes of those who met him. He was not famous or even noteworthy: the Gospels do not report even a single word of his. Still, through his ordinary life, he accomplished something extraordinary in the eyes of God.

God looks on the heart (cf. 1 Sam 16:7), and in Saint Joseph he recognized the heart of a father, able to give and generate life in the midst of daily routines.  Saint Joseph comes to meet us in his gentle way, as one of “the saints next door”. At the same time, his strong witness can guide us on the journey.

Saint Joseph suggests to us three key words for each individual’s vocation. The first is dream. Everyone dreams of finding fulfillment in life. We rightly nurture great hopes, lofty aspirations that ephemeral goals – like success, money and entertainment – cannot satisfy. If we were to ask people to express in one word their life’s dream, it would not be difficult to imagine the answer: “to be loved”. It is love that gives meaning to life, because it reveals life’s mystery. Indeed, we only have life if we give it; we truly possess it only if we generously give it away. Saint Joseph has much to tell us in this regard, because, through the dreams that God inspired in him, he made of his life a gift.

The Gospels tell us of four dreams (cf. Mt 1:20; 2:13.19.22). They were calls from God, but they were not easy to accept. After each dream, Joseph had to change his plans and take a risk, sacrificing his own plans in order to follow the mysterious designs of God, whom he trusted completely. We may ask ourselves, “Why put so much trust in a dream in the night?” Although a dream was considered very important in ancient times, it was still a small thing in the face of the concrete reality of life. Yet Saint Joseph let himself be guided by his dreams without hesitation. Why? Because his heart was directed to God; it was already inclined towards him. A small indication was enough for his watchful “inner ear” to recognize God’s voice. This applies also to our calling: God does not like to reveal himself in a spectacular way, pressuring our freedom. He conveys his plans to us with gentleness. He does not overwhelm us with dazzling visions but quietly speaks in the depths of our heart, drawing near to us and speaking to us through our thoughts and feelings. In this way, as he did with Saint Joseph, he sets before us profound and unexpected horizons.

Indeed, Joseph’s dreams led him into experiences he would never have imagined. The first of these upended his betrothal, but made him the father of the Messiah; the second caused him to flee to Egypt, but saved the life of his family. After the third, which foretold his return to his native land, a fourth dream made him change plans once again, bringing him to Nazareth, the place where Jesus would begin his preaching of the Kingdom of God. Amid all these upheavals, he found the courage to follow God’s will. So too in a vocation: God’s call always urges us to take a first step, to give ourselves, to press forward. There can be no faith without risk. Only by abandoning ourselves confidently to grace, setting aside our own programmes and comforts, can we truly say “yes” to God. And every “yes” bears fruit because it becomes part of a larger design, of which we glimpse only details, but which the divine Artist knows and carries out, making of every life a masterpiece. In this regard, Saint Joseph is an outstanding example of acceptance of God’s plans. Yet his was an active acceptance: never reluctant or resigned. Joseph was “certainly not passively resigned, but courageously and firmly proactive” (Patris Corde, 4). May he help everyone, especially young people who are discerning, to make God’s dreams for them come true. May he inspire in them the courage to say “yes” to the Lord who always surprises and never disappoints.

A second word marks the journey of Saint Joseph and that of vocation: service. The Gospels show how Joseph lived entirely for others and never for himself. The holy people of God invoke him as the most chaste spouse, based on his ability to love unreservedly. By freeing love from all possessiveness, he became open to an even more fruitful service. His loving care has spanned generations; his attentive guardianship has made him patron of the Church. As one who knew how to embody the meaning of self-giving in life, Joseph is also the patron of a happy death. His service and sacrifices were only possible, however, because they were sustained by a greater love: “Every true vocation is born of the gift of oneself, which is the fruit of mature sacrifice. The priesthood and consecrated life likewise require this kind of maturity. Whatever our vocation, whether to marriage, celibacy or virginity, our gift of self will not come to fulfilment if it stops at sacrifice; were that the case, instead of becoming a sign of the beauty and joy of love, the gift of self would risk being an expression of unhappiness, sadness and frustration” (ibid., 7).

For Saint Joseph, service – as a concrete expression of the gift of self – did not remain simply a high ideal, but became a rule for daily life. He strove to find and prepare a place where Jesus could be born; he did his utmost to protect him from Herod’s wrath by arranging a hasty journey into Egypt; he immediately returned to Jerusalem when Jesus was lost; he supported his family by his work, even in a foreign land. In short, he adapted to different circumstances with the attitude of those who do not grow discouraged when life does not turn out as they wished; he showed the willingness typical of those who live to serve. In this way, Joseph welcomed life’s frequent and often unexpected journeys: from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census, then to Egypt and again to Nazareth, and every year to Jerusalem. Each time he was willing to face new circumstances without complaining, ever ready to give a hand to help resolve situations. We could say that this was the outstretched hand of our heavenly Father reaching out to his Son on earth. Joseph cannot fail to be a model for all vocations, called to be the ever-active hands of the Father, outstretched to his children.

I like to think, then, of Saint Joseph, the protector of Jesus and of the Church.  In fact, from his willingness to serve comes his concern to protect. The Gospel tells us that “Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night” (Mt 2:14), thus revealing his prompt concern for the good of his family. He wasted no time fretting over things he could not control, in order to give full attention to those entrusted to his care. Such thoughtful concern is the sign of a true vocation, the testimony of a life touched by the love of God. What a beautiful example of Christian life we give when we refuse to pursue our ambitions or indulge in our illusions, but instead care for what the Lord has entrusted to us through the Church! God then pours out his Spirit and creativity upon us; he works wonders in us, as he did in Joseph.

Together with God’s call, which makes our greatest dreams come true, and our response, which is made up of generous service and attentive care, there is a third characteristic of Saint Joseph’s daily life and our Christian vocation, namely fidelity. Joseph is the “righteous man” (Mt 1:19) who daily perseveres in quietly serving God and his plans. At a particularly difficult moment in his life, he thoughtfully considered what to do (cf. v. 20). He did not let himself be hastily pressured. He did not yield to the temptation to act rashly, simply following his instincts or living for the moment. Instead, he pondered things patiently. He knew that success in life is built on constant fidelity to important decisions. This was reflected in his perseverance in plying the trade of a humble carpenter (cf. Mt 13:55), a quiet perseverance that made no news in his own time, yet has inspired the daily lives of countless fathers, labourers and Christians ever since. For a vocation – like life itself – matures only through daily fidelity.

How is such fidelity nurtured? In the light of God’s own faithfulness. The first words that Saint Joseph heard in a dream were an invitation not to be afraid, because God remains ever faithful to his promises: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid” (Mt 1:20). Do not be afraid: these words the Lord also addresses to you, dear sister, and to you, dear brother, whenever you feel that, even amid uncertainty and hesitation, you can no longer delay your desire to give your life to him. He repeats these words when, perhaps amid trials and misunderstandings, you seek to follow his will every day, wherever you find yourself. They are words you will hear anew, at every step of your vocation, as you return to your first love. They are a refrain accompanying all those who – like Saint Joseph – say yes to God with their lives, through their fidelity each day.

This fidelity is the secret of joy. A hymn in the liturgy speaks of the “transparent joy” present in the home of Nazareth. It the joy of simplicity, the joy experienced daily by those who care for what truly matters: faithful closeness to God and to our neighbour.”

Rome, from Saint John Lateran, 19 March 2021, Feast of Saint Joseph

Francis

Gay marriage: when loving the sinner means saying “no”


-by Drew Belsky

“On Tuesday, the Vatican’s press office included in its daily bulletin a notice that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) had ruled a hard “negative” on the prospect of the Church giving “blessings [to] unions of persons of the same sex.” The Associated Press, covering the story, built its headline from a phrase in the second-to-last paragraph of the two-page document: “Vatican bars gay union blessing, says God ‘can’t bless sin.’”

God “does not and cannot bless sin.” This is strong language from the Holy See and from Pope Francis, who explicitly authorized it. It flies in the face of the efforts of some prominent churchmen to mainstream Catholic tolerance of same-sex relationships, including the German bishops’ conference; the Austrian Priests’ Initiative; and, most famously in the USA, Fr. James Martin.

In comparison with the secular media and some Catholic observers, Fr. Martin’s reaction to the CDF’s response was subdued. It was certainly less strident than past criticism of what he sees as Catholic discrimination against persons with same-sex attractions.

For example: “In the U.S.,” Fr. Martin said in a 2020 video message, “the Church must stop firing married LGBT people from their positions in Catholic institutions—because if you’re going to fire people for not following Church teaching, that would include a lot more than just married LGBT people. Otherwise, it’s not just enforcing Church teaching; it’s engaging in discrimination.”

And he wrote in America, the Jesuits’ flagship U.S. publication, in 2018:

Do you hold the LGBT community to the same standards as the straight community? . . . With LGBT people we tend to focus on whether they are fully conforming to the church’s teachings on sexual morality. So are you doing the same with straight parishioners—with those who are living together before being married or practicing birth control? Be consistent about whose lives get scrutinized.

“Even though Jesus condemns divorce outright,” Fr. Martin continued, “most parishes welcome divorced people. Do we treat LGBT people with the same understanding?”

Fr. Martin is right to call out hypocrisy when Catholics rail against some sins and not others—although he’s off base if he thinks parishes “welcoming” divorced people into their doors means giving unrepentant adulterers Communion. Singling out people who publicly persist in only one particular sin is bad pastoral practice. In fact, God “does not and cannot bless” any sin. Neither should the Church. Neither should we.

So let’s keep going with Fr. Martin’s excellent logic—for instance, by applying it to “those who are living together before being married.”

Many dioceses provide literature on how cohabitation ruins a marriage. Yet when a cohabiting couple approach a priest for marriage prep, too often he will allow them to cohabit up to the wedding day. (In my own experience in Pre-Cana, the otherwise upbeat priest-speaker, acknowledging the many cohabiting couples among us, apologized in a mournful tone for having to relay the Church’s teaching on living together before getting married.) A 2005 guidance for priests from the U.S. bishops pointedly reminds that “the couple may not be refused marriage solely on the basis of cohabitation,” and Pope Francis even spoke favorably about certain long-term cohabiting arrangements he’d seen in Buenos Aires, saying “they have the grace of a real marriage.”

Can you see a disconnect here? The loving course is to insist that couples live separately and faithfully entrust the consequences to God, who will not abandon them. It’s not loving to send them into marriage with the albatross of cohabitation around their necks. You could even say tolerating cohabitation “does and can bless sin.”

It doesn’t stop at marriage prep. When Catholic schools hire teachers who live in a state of public and unrepentant fornication or adultery (or, yes, a same-sex “marriage”), it’s not loving to scandalize all the kids who will see a destructive lifestyle and a grave offense to God boosted. And don’t forget the teachers themselves, now instantly made into hypocrites, expected to model fidelity to Catholic teaching but rejecting it in their personal lives. It’s not loving to set them up that way.

When priests and bishops are confronted with a public figure who broadcasts his support for sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance, it’s not loving to give that public figure the Eucharist. St. Paul is uncompromising about this: receiving Christ unworthily is a ticket to hell—and not only that, but everyone who watches that sinner consume our Lord can’t help but wonder if the sins he’s promoting really are so bad after all. This is why, as Pope Benedict XVI told ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick, pastors should deny Communion to anyone whose formal cooperation with sins like abortion and euthanasia “becomes manifest.” So you could say giving the Eucharist to a public, grave, unrepentant sinner “does and can bless sin.”

Those are three examples; there are many more. Whether it’s divorce or adultery or contraception or sodomy or whatever else, we don’t love our brethren in Christ by blessing their sin—expressly, or tacitly, or through omission—and thus making it easier for them to continue in that sin. The call to repentance may need to be gradual and gentle, as prudence dictates, and always done with charity at heart. But there is no charity in enabling grave sin in our fellow Christians. That can only be a form of hatred. It is the starkest possible way to say, “To hell with you.”

When Fr. Martin says we should treat “LGBT” sins the same as all the others, he’s right. So let’s do it—in Catholic hiring policies, in marriage prep, and beyond. Where these sins are private, pastors are wise to treat them privately. Where they are public, indeed even flaunted, the CDF leads the way: “the Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless” these things, because God “does not and cannot bless sin.”

“If you talk about chastity with LGBT people,” Fr. Martin admonishes in his 2018 America article, “do it as much with straight people.” That is a great idea. It’s a spiritual work of mercy. So, to love and save our neighbors, let’s fight sin—“LGBT” sins, yes, and all the others, too.”

Love,
Matthew

Patris corde

“…In our own lives, acceptance and welcome can be an expression of the Holy Spirit’s gift of fortitude. Only the Lord can give us the strength needed to accept life as it is, with all its contradictions, frustrations and disappointments.

We need to set aside all anger and disappointment, and to embrace the way things are, even when they do not turn out as we wish. Not with mere resignation but with hope and courage.

In this way, we become open to a deeper meaning. It does not matter if everything seems to have gone wrong or some things can no longer be fixed.  Christian realism, which rejects nothing that exists.

Reality, in its mysterious and irreducible complexity, is the bearer of existential meaning, with all its lights and shadows.”

The pope warned that we should not think of believing as “finding facile and comforting solutions. The faith Christ taught us is what we see in Saint Joseph. He did not look for shortcuts, but confronted reality with open eyes and accepted personal responsibility for it.

Joseph’s attitude encourages us to accept and welcome others as they are, without exception, and to show special concern for the weak, for God chooses what is weak (cf. 1 Cor 1:27).

The Lord is the “Father of orphans and protector of widows” (Ps 68:6), Who commands us to love the stranger in our midst.

APOSTOLIC LETTER
PATRIS CORDE
OF THE HOLY FATHER 
FRANCIS
ON THE 150th ANNIVERSARY
OF THE PROCLAMATION OF SAINT JOSEPH
 AS PATRON OF THE UNIVERSAL CHURCH

Given in Rome, at Saint John Lateran, on 8 December, Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the year 2020, the eighth of my Pontificate.”

Prayer for the Sorrows of St Joseph

I can’t help but notice the scars on your heart, how you suffered with love. You suffered darkness and confusion when Mary was found with child. You suffered the sacrifice of your flesh as you lovingly offered up the absence of bodily intimacy in marriage. You suffered a sword in your heart, with Mary, when Simeon foretold the Passion of your Son. You suffered stress and uncertainty when you had to escape with your family to Egypt and live as an immigrant. You suffered crushing anxiety when your 12-year-old Son was lost for three days. You daily suffered fatigue and bodily aches from your manual labor. Worst of all, your fatherly heart grieved at knowing that you could not be there for Jesus and Mary when their darkest hour would one day come.

St. Joseph, thank you for what you suffered in God’s service, in union with your Son, for my salvation. I love you, St. Joseph. Thank you for your yes. Now, please help me to suffer with love as you did. When I suffer, help me not to complain. Help me not to forget love. Help me not to forget others. Dear St. Joseph, through my suffering, watch over my poor heart: May it not harden but rather become more merciful. Help me to remember all God’s children who are suffering in the world, and help me to offer my suffering for them and for the good of the Church. I am counting on you, St. Joseph. I know you will be with me, helping me to suffer with love.

St. Joseph, who suffered with love,
 please help me also to suffer with a love like yours.”

Love,
Matthew

Miracles 2

“There are two ways to approach the historicity of Jesus’ miracles: a general way and a specific way. The specific assessment, which includes looking at each miracle in light of the criteria for historicity (clues that indicate an event or saying is historically reliable), is far too detailed for this booklet (xii). So we will discuss the general way.

It’s helpful to note first that the Gospel writers record things about Jesus’ miraculous deeds that are not beneficial for persuading people to believe. For example, Mark records the accusation that Jesus performs his exorcisms by the power of the devil: “He is possessed by Be-elzebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons” (Mark 3:22). It’s more probable than not the scribes made this accusation because it doesn’t make sense for Mark (or the other evangelists) to make something up that could undermine the reputation of Jesus.

Now, if that’s evidence that the accusation is historical (remember the “embarrassment criterion”), then it’s reasonable to conclude that Jesus’ contemporaries regarded him as a man with remarkable powers who performed remarkable deeds. Why else would they make such a charge? It’s hard to see why Jesus’ toughest critics would acknowledge him as having supernatural power unless there was wide agreement that he was performing exorcisms.

Another point to keep in mind is that the style of Jesus’ miracles was far different from the first-century milieu of wonder-workers, which for historians suggests that the wonders he performed were historical and not part of a local myth tradition. In his book, An Introduction to New Testament Christology, Bible scholar Raymond Brown identifies five unique characteristics of Jesus’ miracles compared with those found in ancient Greek and Jewish stories. We’ll look at two of them here.

One is that Jesus performs miracles by his own authority. If you read the Gospels carefully, Jesus doesn’t say things like, “In name of God, rise and walk” but simply “Rise, take up your pallet and walk” (Mark 2:9). When he raises Jairus’s daughter from the dead, he says, “Little girl, I say to you, arise.”

This is unlike Old Testament prophets such as Elijah and Elisha, who call on the power of God in order to raise the dead (see 1 Kings 17:17-22; 2 Kings 4:32-35). We find a similar style of miracle working—whether through magical formulas, paraphernalia, or prayers to the gods—among Greek and Roman sources (xiii). Jesus stands apart by working wonders through his own power.

A second characteristic that is unique to Jesus is that he doesn’t perform miracles for the sake of showing off. Where other ancient wonder-workers of that era aimed to astonish and solicit admiration (xiv). Jesus shied away from drawing attention to himself.

For example, when Herod asks Jesus to perform a miracle to show off his power, Jesus refuses to do so (Luke 23:8-12). Jesus was frustrated by the Pharisees’ constant requests for a sign (Mark 8:11-12). Even Satan tries to get Jesus to show off his power but Jesus refuses (Matt. 4:5-7).

Furthermore, when Jesus did perform his miracles, he did so in a way that drew attention away from himself. This is evident in his command that the healed leper remain silent: “See that you say nothing to any one; but go, show yourself to the priest” (Mark 1:44). In many other places in Scripture, Jesus can be seen admonishing others not to publicize his identity or his works.

It’s also reasonable to accept Jesus’ miracles as history because of how restrained the Gospel narratives are in describing them. These accounts are starkly different from the frivolous and exaggerated elements found in the fraudulent Gnostic Gospels that appeared in the early centuries of the Church.

Take for example Mark’s account of the Resurrection. It’s simple and unembellished—he doesn’t even describe Jesus’ rising. You would think that if he were making it up he would have embellished it to make it sell. Why not include extraordinary details like those found in the apocryphal Gospel of Peter—giant angels, a talking cross, a voice from heaven, and Jesus coming out the tomb as a gigantic figure whose head reaches to the clouds?

Or contrast the simplicity of the miracle narratives in the Gospels with that in another Gnostic text, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which depicts the child Jesus making clay sparrows fly and twice cursing other children to death—one for spilling water and one for bumping into Jesus on the street.

It’s amazing to think the Gospel writers did not give in to the temptation to exaggerate Jesus’ miracles, to make them more dramatic and appealing to potential converts. Their restraint, along with Jesus’ unique style and the testimony of his enemies, are all evidence for the historical reliability of the accounts of Jesus’ miracles.”

Love,
Matthew

Salvation

“Why do I need to be saved?

We all need to be saved because of sin. That’s what we need to be saved from.

People today sometimes hesitate to use the word sin. For some people, this word is a reminder of a religious upbringing that they would rather forget. For others, it’s a strong word—one that can come across as intimidating. But regardless of how we feel about the word, the reality of sin is all around us.

We all know this. It doesn’t matter whether one is religious or secular, liberal or conservative. All human beings have an innate recognition that something is wrong with the world, that people do things that they should not, and that we ourselves do wrong.

It doesn’t matter who you are: Think about the things in this world that make you angry—things like cruelty, injustice, and indifference to the suffering of others. Every one of us can become morally outraged when we encounter these things in their pure, unadulterated forms.

We also have an inner sense—our conscience—that is meant to warn us when we are about to do something wrong, or that makes us feel ashamed when we have done wrong.

Regardless of what you call it, sin is a reality that is in the world and within us as well.

We also sense that sin must have consequences. If there is justice in the world, then ultimately, people can’t simply get away with doing wrong.

It’s easy to sense this when we consider evil written large—horrible conflicts that have killed millions, examples of genocide, or cases of ethnic cleansing. The people who cause these things simply cannot be allowed to get away with them! If there is justice in the world then they must somehow—someday—be called to account.

Yet we know that there are people who committed horrible crimes and seemed to get away with them entirely. Others may have suffered ome consequences for what they did, but nowhere near enough, given the horrors they committed. Dictators, terrorists, and mass murderers—without repenting or being sorry in the least for what they have done— have either died peacefully in bed or suffered only a fraction of what they did to others.

This shows us that justice is not always done in this life. Yet our hearts tell us that there should be justice in the world. And so there is, but not always in this life. Christianity holds that, while villains may get away with their deeds for a time, they will ultimately have to stand before their Creator and be accountable to him for what they have done.

This opens up a new perspective. Thus far we have been looking at evil in terms of wrongs done by one person against another. But when we consider our sins with respect to God, we see that there is another dimension.

Everything we have—every ability, talent, and aptitude—is a gift from God, and that means that every time we sin, we misuse one of God’s gifts. Sin thus involves an offense against God, a failure to love him and honor him by using his gifts properly.

Because our sins aren’t just against our fellow men, but against our infinitely good, all-holy, and eternal Creator, they carry a special gravity—one that can have eternal consequences. This adds a special urgency to our need for salvation.

When our consciences tell us that we have done wrong, and when our sense of justice tells us that we will be held accountable for what we have done, we naturally desire mercy. Our hearts call out for it. This is true both when we think of the wrongs we have done against other people and when we realize that they are offenses against God. Fortunately, in both cases, mercy—or salvation from the consequences of our sins—is available.

The human heart thus contains powerful intuitions that form the backdrop to the drama of salvation—the intuitions that sin is real, that there is justice and so sin has consequences in this life or the next, and that mercy or salvation is available for those who repent.

The Christian faith acknowledges these intuitions of the heart and the realities they point to. It recognizes the realities of sin, justice, and salvation—and the importance they have for all of us.”

Love,
Matthew

Justification


– detail from the “Last Judgment”, by Giotti, Cappella Scrovegni, 1306, Fresco, 1000 x 840 cm, Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy, please click on the image for greater detail.

The chapel is entered from the west, the side on which the sun goes down. In accordance with an old tradition, the entrance wall of the chapel is filled by the depiction of the Last Judgment. This scene is as complex and crowded as the frescoes on the side walls are concentrated and reduced to essentials. This large painting occupies the entire west wall across several registers. The three-light windows of the façade also had to be incorporated into the composition.

This extensive depiction of the Last Judgment is dominated by the large Christ in Majesty at its centre. The twelve apostles sit to His left and to His right. Here the two levels divide: the heavenly host appears above, people plunge into the maw of hell below, or are led by angels towards heaven.

The way this large fresco is divided into registers is traditional. But if we look at Giotto’s invention in detail, then his novel attempts at visualizing different spheres, as well as abstract beliefs, become particularly apparent. In the center of the representation, Christ is enthroned as supreme Judge in a rainbow-colored mandorla. The deep, radiant gold background, the style of painting, and the delicate substance give the impression that the heavens have opened in order to reveal the powerful, extremely solidly modeled figure of Christ. Different levels are likewise alluded to when the choirs of angels disappear behind the real window, or when the celestial watch in the upper area of the picture rolls back the firmament, behind which the golden-red doors of the heavenly Jerusalem shine forth. The black and red maw of hell, which seems to anticipate Dante’s “Inferno”, is different again in its impact.


-by Jimmy Akin

“On October 31, 1999, the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed a historic document known as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JD). This document, the fruit of almost thirty years of ecumenical dialogue, without a doubt will be widely misinterpreted in both the secular and religious press. This article is intended to help the reader understand the most important things that the document does and does not say, so that he may better sift through the inevitable misrepresentations.

How We Got Where We Are

For many years after the Reformation, Protestants and Catholics frequently portrayed the other side in the least favorable light. Too often, neither side was interested in giving the other side a sympathetic hearing. To the extent they read the works of the other party at all it was to look for theological ammunition.

Today there is a growing willingness among theologians and scholars on both sides to give a more nuanced reading to each other’s theology. One of the good fruits this openness has borne is progress on the subject of justification. Among Protestant groups, the Lutheran view of justification has always been closest to the Catholic view in many respects. (For example, Luther taught the necessity of baptism for justification, the practice of infant baptism, and the possibility of losing one’s salvation.)

As scholars from the two communities read each other’s writings, it became clear that the two sides were not as far apart on justification as had been imagined. Some apparent disputes were due to differences of emphasis rather than contradictions of belief.

Since 1972, several Catholic-Lutheran ecumenical statements on justification have been released by local groups, and the degree of agreement has been such that the Holy See and the Lutheran World Federation decided to explore the possibility of issuing a joint declaration on the subject. Beginning in 1994, representatives of the Holy See and the Lutheran World Federation drafted and circulated the proposed text for such a joint declaration. It was finalized in 1997, and the Lutheran World Federation approved it unanimously on June 16, 1998.

Then came a surprise: The Holy See announced that it would be releasing a document titled Response of the Catholic Church to the Joint Declaration of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation on the Doctrine of Justification (Response). When this document was released a few days later on June 25, it did not endorse the Joint Declaration as it stood but expressed a number of reservations and indicated that certain points needed to be clarified.

This was an embarrassment. The drafting of the Joint Declaration had been a years-long process, and the text had already been finalized. The concerns that were announced on June 25 should have been brought up and the corresponding clarifications given before the Lutherans went out on a limb by voting to approve the declaration.

Though the Lutherans were taken aback by the Holy See’s sudden reticence, they summoned admirable tact to discuss the requested clarifications. The result was the drafting of an Annex to the Joint Declaration (Annex), which the two parties released the following year on June 11, together with the announcement that the formal signing of the Joint Declaration would take place October 31, 1999, in Augsburg, Germany.

Despite the embarrassing nature of the incident leading to the Annex, it demonstrates that the Joint Declaration is not the product of false ecumenism. The fact that the Holy See was willing to pursue a last-minute course of action so painful to both sides, and not proceed until clarifications were made, shows that the Holy See was determined that the document accurately reflect Catholic teaching.

The Big Picture

The Joint Declaration expresses its general conclusion a number of times, but perhaps most clearly when it says:

“The understanding of the doctrine of justification set forth in this Declaration shows that a consensus in basic truths of the doctrine of justification exists between Lutherans and Catholics. In light of this consensus the remaining differences of language, theological elaboration, and emphasis in the understanding of justification described in paragraphs 19 to 39 are acceptable. Therefore the Lutheran and the Catholic explications of justification are in their difference open to one another and do not destroy the consensus regarding basic truths. . . .

“Thus the doctrinal condemnations of the sixteenth century, in so far as they relate to the doctrine of justification, appear in a new light: The teaching of the Lutheran churches presented in this Declaration [emphasis added] does not fall under the condemnations from the Council of Trent. The condemnations in the Lutheran Confessions do not apply to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church presented in this Declaration” (JD 40-41).

In the 1500s the Council of Trent was faced with a bewildering array of mutually contradictory Protestant ideas on justification. What the Council did was to condemn the gravest errors, regardless of which Protestant or group of Protestants was advocating them. As a result, the condemnations issued by Trent did not, as a body, apply to any one Protestant or school of Protestantism.

Thus Trent never intended some of its condemnations to apply to Lutherans. The dialogue that has taken place since Trent has revealed that additional condemnations-which do condemn doctrinal errors regarding justification-do not apply to the teachings of Lutherans, at least not the Lutherans signing the Joint Declaration.

One of the most important sections in the Joint Declaration is titled “Explicating the Common Understanding of Justification.” This is the “meat” of the document when it comes to clarifying contentious issues, and it is divided into seven parts: (1) Human Powerlessness and Sin in Relation to Justification, (2) Justification as Forgiveness of Sins and Making Righteous, (3) Justification by Faith and through Grace, (4) The Justified as Sinner, (5) Law and Gospel, (6) Assurance of Salvation, and (7) The Good Works of the Justified. Let’s look at each of these.

1. Human Powerlessness and Sin in Relation to Justification

Lutherans have often used language suggesting not only that humans are powerless to seek justification without God’s grace (something with which Catholics agree), but that humans are unable in any way to cooperate with God’s grace, which they must receive in a “merely passive” manner. When Catholics have failed to go along with this extreme language, Lutherans have seen it as a denial of man’s inability to seek justification without God’s grace.

The Joint Declaration rectifies this misunderstanding, stating:

“We confess together that all persons depend completely on the saving grace of God for their salvation . . . for as sinners they stand under God’s judgment and are incapable of turning by themselves to God to seek deliverance, of meriting their justification before God, or of attaining salvation by their own abilities. Justification takes place solely by God’s grace. . . . When Catholics say that persons ‘cooperate’ in preparing for and accepting justification . . . they see such personal consent as itself an effect of grace, not as an action arising from innate human abilities” (JD 19-20).

Unfortunately, this section went on to use the Lutheran “merely passive” description of man with respect to justification (n. 21) without fully explaining it. The Response of the Holy See asked that this be further clarified. Consequently, the Annex to the Joint Declaration affirmed that “The working of God’s grace does not exclude human action: God effects everything, the willing and the achievement, therefore we are called to strive (cf. Phil. 2:12 ff)” (Annex, 2C).

2. Justification as Forgiveness of Sins and Making Righteous

A subject of perennial disagreement has been the nature of justification. Lutherans have frequently characterized it as only a forgiveness of sins, while the Church insists that it is more than this. The Joint Declaration states:

“We confess together that God forgives sin by grace and at the same time frees human beings from sin’s enslaving power and imparts the gift of new life in Christ. When persons come by faith to share in Christ, God no longer imputes to them their sin and through the Holy Spirit effects in them an active love. These two.aspects of God’s gracious action are not to be separated. . . .

“When Lutherans emphasize that the righteousness of Christ is our righteousness, their intention is above all to insist that the sinner is granted righteousness before God in Christ through the declaration of forgiveness and that only in union with Christ is one’s life renewed. When they stress that God’s grace is forgiving love (‘the favor of God’), they do not thereby deny the renewal of the Christian’s life” (JD 22-23).

This description of justification as both forgiveness of sins and inward renewal reflects Trent’s statement that justification “is not only a remission of sins but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man” (DJ 7).

Some Catholics have been concerned that this section of the Joint Declaration does not mention what Trent called the “formal cause” of justification, which refers to the kind of righteousness one receives in justification. According to Trent (DJ 7, can. 11), there is a single formal cause of justification, which consists of sanctifying grace (cf. L. Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 251-252). But the nature of sanctifying grace has not been finally determined. According to the common view (the Thomistic one), sanctifying grace is a quality God gives the soul and that always accompanies but is nevertheless distinct from the virtue of charity. The less common view (that of Scotists) holds that sanctifying grace and charity are the same thing.

The Joint Declaration does not raise this discussion. It is content to say that in justification God no longer imputes sin (i.e., he forgives or remits it) and that he creates charity in the believer. To construe the omission of the term “sanctifying grace” in favor of the term “charity” as an endorsement of the Scotist view would be a misreading of the document. It is not intended to settle questions that are still open for Catholics, much less intended to endorse the less common of two views.

3. Justification by Faith and through Grace

Two key Protestant slogans are “justification by grace alone” and “justification by faith alone.” (These do not contradict each other since they are speaking on different levels of what causes justification.)

Catholics have never had trouble affirming the first slogan, though Protestants commonly believe they do. But both Catholics and Lutherans often have wrongly thought that Catholics must reject the second slogan.

This confusion is based on a misreading of canon 9 of Trent’s Decree on Justification, which rejects the proposition that “the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will” (emphasis added).

As a careful reading of this canon shows, not every use of the formula “faith alone” is rejected, but only those that mean “nothing else is required,” etc. If one acknowledges that things besides the theological virtue of faith are required, then one’s use of the “faith alone” formula does not fall under the condemnation of Trent.

The classic Catholic alternative to saying that we are saved “by faith alone” is to say that we are saved by “faith, hope, and charity.” It is, however, possible for these two formulas to be equivalent in meaning.

Charity-the supernatural love of God-is what ultimately unites the soul to God. It therefore is recognized as the “form” of the virtues, the thing which binds them together and gives them their fullest meaning. Catholic theologians have historically talked about virtues like faith and hope being “formed” or “unformed” based on whether they are united with charity.

St. Paul tells us that charity “believes all things, hopes all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). Thus, if you have “formed faith,” you have not only faith, but hope and charity. This is why the two formulas-“faith alone” and “faith, hope, and charity”-can be equivalent. If you assert that we are justified by “faith alone”-and by that you mean formed faith-then there is no problem from the Catholic perspective. The phrase is not being used in a way that falls under Trent’s condemnation.

Different Protestants mean different things when they use the “faith alone” slogan. Some (rank antinomians) really do mean that one is justified by intellectual belief alone, without hope or charity. Others (many American Evangelicals) appear to believe one is justified by faith plus hope, which is trust in God for salvation. Many others (including the Lutherans signing the Joint Declaration) believe that charity, the principle behind good works, always accompanies faith, and so believe in justification by formed faith.

This is the sense reflected in the Joint Declaration, which states that “justifying faith . . . includes hope in God and love for him. Such a faith is active in love and thus the Christian cannot and should not remain without works” (JD 25).

It is this understanding that also lies behind statements in the Joint Declaration such as: “We confess together that persons are justified by faith in the gospel ‘apart from works prescribed by the law’ (Rom. 3:28)” (JD, 31).

However, it should be pointed out that the “faith alone” formula is unbiblical language. The phrase “faith alone” (pisteus monon) appears in the New Testament only once-in James 2:24-where it is rejected. For those who use this language, though, it can be given an acceptable meaning.

4. The Justified as Sinner

The section of the Joint Declaration that most concerned the Holy See was not, as some might have thought, the part dealing with justification by grace and faith. Rather, it was this section, which deals with the classic Lutheran expression that man is “at once righteous and a sinner” (simul justus et peccator).

The Holy See was concerned to uphold the Catholic teaching that “in baptism everything that is really sin is taken away, and so, in those who are born anew there is nothing that is hateful to God. It follows that the concupiscence that remains in the baptized is not, properly speaking, sin” (Response, Clarification 1).

This goes back to a dispute at the time of the Protestant breakaway, when Lutherans wished to say that the concupiscence (disordered desire) that remains in the individual after justification still has the character of sin. The Catholic Church has always taught that concupiscence “has never [been] understood to be called sin in the sense that it is truly and properly sin in those born again, but in the sense that it is from sin and inclines to sin” (Trent, Decree on Original Sin 5).

The Annex to the Joint Declaration responds by conceding that “it can be recognized from a Lutheran perspective that [concupiscent] desire can become the opening through which sin attacks” (Annex, 2B). This is fine. Concupiscence is a vulnerability that leads to sin but is not the sin itself.

Because concupiscence leads to sin, “we would be wrong were we to say that we are without sin (1 John 1:8-10, cf. JD 28). ‘All of us make many mistakes’ (Jas. 3:2). . . . This recalls to us the persisting danger that comes from the power of sin and its action in Christians. To this extent, Lutherans and Catholics can together understand the Christian as simul justus et peccator, despite their different approaches to this subject as expressed in JD 29-30″ (Annex, 2A).

5. Law and Gospel

Lutherans historically have drawn a sharp distinction between law and gospel, to the point that in Lutheran theology these seem to become abstract philosophical ideas. This is not the way the terms are used in Scripture. When the Bible refers to “the Law” it almost always means the Torah, the Law of Moses, which includes not only legal demands but promises God’s grace. Similarly, when the Bible speaks about “the gospel” it does not envision a set of unconditional promises. Salvation in Christ is conditional; it requires repentance and faith.

Lutherans have at times used language that suggests that Christ is only a Savior to be believed in, not also as a Lawgiver to be obeyed. To correct this, the Joint Declaration contains the affirmation: “We also confess that God’s commandments retain their validity for the justified and that Christ has by his teaching and example expressed God’s will, which is a standard for the conduct of the justified also” (JD 31).

Lutherans are sometimes suspicious of Catholic discussions of Christ as Lawgiver, thinking that this may reduce Christ to being just another Moses who brings demands rather than salvation. To address this concern, the Joint Declaration affirms: “Because the law as a way to salvation has been fulfilled and overcome through the gospel, Catholics can say that Christ is not a lawgiver in the manner of Moses. When Catholics emphasize that the righteous are bound to observe God’s commandments, they do not thereby deny that through Jesus Christ God has mercifully promised to his children the grace of eternal life” (JD 33).

6. Assurance of Salvation

This is one of the most misunderstood subjects relating to justification. Both sides have been needlessly polarized on the question of what kind of assurance one can have regarding salvation.

Too often, Lutherans have made it sound as if you can have absolute assurance that you will be saved. But they will admit that, due to the fallen nature of the human intellect and our capacity for self-deception (not to mention the possibility of falling from grace, which Lutherans acknowledge), you cannot have infallible certitude regarding salvation.

Too often Catholics have made it sound as if it is not possible to have any assurance of salvation. This is based on a misreading of the Council of Trent. The council stated only that one cannot “know with the certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to error” (DJ 9; emphasis added) and that one cannot know “with an absolute and infallible certainty, [that he will] have that great gift of perseverance even to the end, unless he shall have learned this by a special revelation” (DJ, can. 16; emphasis added).

So the two sides are really in agreement-assurance is possible, but not infallible assurance (barring special revelation). Thus the Joint Declaration affirms: “We confess together that the faithful can rely on the mercy and promises of God.

In spite of their own weakness and the manifold threats to their faith, on the strength of Christ’s death and resurrection they can build on the effective promise of God’s grace in Word and Sacrament and so be sure of this grace. . . . In trust in God’s promise [believers] are assured of their salvation, but are never secure looking at themselves. . . . No one may doubt God’s mercy and Christ’s merit. Every person, however, may be concerned about his salvation when he looks upon his own weaknesses and shortcomings” (JD 34-36).

7. The Good Works of the Justified

Lutherans have been suspicious for a long time that the Church’s discussion of good works means that one must do good works in order to enter a state of justification. This has never been the case. In fact, in Catholic teaching, one is not capable of doing supernaturally good works outside of a state of justification because one does not have the virtue of charity in one’s soul-the thing that makes good works good. Consequently, the Council of Trent taught “none of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification” (DJ 8).

The Joint Declaration thus stresses that good works are a consequence of entering a state of justification, not the cause of entering it:

“We confess together that good works-a Christian life lived in faith, hope, and love-follow justification and are its fruits. When the justified live in Christ and act in the grace they receive, they bring forth, in biblical terms, good fruit. . . .

“When Catholics affirm the ‘meritorious’ character of good works, they wish to say that, according to the biblical witness, a reward in heaven is promised to these works. Their intention is to emphasize the responsibility of persons for their actions, not to contest the character of those works as gifts, or far less to deny that justification always remains the unmerited gift of grace” (JD 37-38).

Important Cautions

The text of the Joint Declaration contains a number of important cautions to prevent the meaning and significance of the document from being misunderstood.

Neither side is retracting its position, going back on its history, or “caving in.” “This Joint Declaration rests on the conviction that . . . the churches neither take the condemnations [of the sixteenth century] lightly nor do they disavow their own past ” (JD 7).

The document does not cover all of the doctrine of justification. “The present Joint Declaration . . . does not cover all that either church teaches about justification; it does encompass a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification and shows that the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations” (JD 5).

The Catholic Church’s condemnations of the Reformation era were not wrong. “Nothing is . . . taken away from the seriousness of the condemnations related to the doctrine of justification. . . . They remain for us ‘salutary warnings’ to which we must attend in our teaching and practice” (JD 42).

The document does not cover all disagreements between Catholics and Lutherans. “There are still questions of varying importance which need further clarification. These include, among other topics, the relationship between the Word of God and church doctrine, as well as ecclesiology, authority in the church, ministry, the sacraments, and the relation between justification and social ethics” (JD 43).

Due to the remaining differences, the two sides still cannot unite. “Doctrinal condemnations were put forward both in the Lutheran Confessions and by the Roman Catholic Church’s Council of Trent. These condemnations are still valid today and thus have a church-dividing effect” (JD 1).

This declaration applies only to Catholics and Lutherans: This is so obvious, the document does not explicitly point it out. It is, however, important to understand that the Holy See is not saying that any and all Protestant views on justification share the same status as the ones described in the Joint Declaration. The Lutherans are the closest on justification in many respects, but others aren’t nearly as close.

Consequences for Apologetics

The Joint Declaration has great ecumenical significance, but it is a watershed as well in the history of Catholic-Protestant apologetics.

It will be unnecessary now for Catholic apologists to maintain a confrontational stance on this topic when the Church is taking a different tack. This is especially true concerning the seven topics from section 4 of the Joint Declaration, including the touchy subject of the “faith alone” formula. Catholics who insist on being confrontational on these issues will increasingly find themselves facing the rejoinder, “How can you say that when your own Church says something different?”

Consequently, it is better for the apologist to be conciliatory on justification. This will have a number of positive effects. It will keep our language in conformity with the language of the Church. It will force us to learn the Church’s theology of justification in greater depth, rather than simply repeating stock formulas. And, most importantly, it will make our message more appealing to Protestants who might be interested in converting.”

Love & unity,
Matthew

Once saved, always saved? 3


– detail from the “Last Judgment”, by Giotti, Cappella Scrovegni, 1306, Fresco, 1000 x 840 cm, Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy, please click on the image for greater detail.

The chapel is entered from the west, the side on which the sun goes down. In accordance with an old tradition, the entrance wall of the chapel is filled by the depiction of the Last Judgment. This scene is as complex and crowded as the frescoes on the side walls are concentrated and reduced to essentials. This large painting occupies the entire west wall across several registers. The three-light windows of the façade also had to be incorporated into the composition.

This extensive depiction of the Last Judgment is dominated by the large Christ in Majesty at its centre. The twelve apostles sit to His left and to His right. Here the two levels divide: the heavenly host appears above, people plunge into the maw of hell below, or are led by angels towards heaven.

The way this large fresco is divided into registers is traditional. But if we look at Giotto’s invention in detail, then his novel attempts at visualizing different spheres, as well as abstract beliefs, become particularly apparent. In the center of the representation, Christ is enthroned as supreme Judge in a rainbow-colored mandorla. The deep, radiant gold background, the style of painting, and the delicate substance give the impression that the heavens have opened in order to reveal the powerful, extremely solidly modeled figure of Christ. Different levels are likewise alluded to when the choirs of angels disappear behind the real window, or when the celestial watch in the upper area of the picture rolls back the firmament, behind which the golden-red doors of the heavenly Jerusalem shine forth. The black and red maw of hell, which seems to anticipate Dante’s “Inferno”, is different again in its impact.


-by Tim Staples, Tim was raised a Southern Baptist. Although he fell away from the faith of his childhood, Tim came back to faith in Christ during his late teen years through the witness of Christian televangelists. Soon after, Tim joined the Marine Corps.

“Some 1,600 years ago, St. Augustine wrote:

“In that one [Adam], as the apostles says, all have sinned. Let, then, the damnable source be rebuked, that from the mortification of rebuke may spring the will of regeneration—if, indeed, he who is rebuked is a child of promise,—in order that, by the noise of the rebuke sounding and lashing from without. . . . God may by his hidden inspiration work in him from within to will also. If, however, being already regenerate and justified, he relapses of his own will into an evil life, assuredly he cannot say, “I have not received,” because of his own free choice to evil he has lost the grace of God that he had received (On Rebuke and Grace, ch. 9).”

The word “IF” is the most important little word in human discourse. St. John says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all iniquity” (emphasis added). Notice, St. John includes himself in that “we”!

What happens if we refuse to confess our sins? Will God forgive them anyway? Not according to Scripture (see Matthew 5:14, 12:31-32; I John 1:9, etc.). And the Bible is unequivocable that no sin can enter into heaven (see Habrews 1:13, Revelation 21:8-9, 27).

St. John goes on to say:

“As for you, let that which you have heard from the beginning abide in you. If that abide in you, which you have heard from the beginning, you also shall abide in the Son, and in the Father (I John 2:24, emphasis added).”

We are not talking about a few isolated examples of our salvation being contingent upon our actions. There are “if” and various other forms of contingency clauses throughout the New Testament used in the context of our salvation. Colossians 1:22-23:

“And you, whereas you were . . . enemies . . . now he has reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unspotted, and blameless before him: If you continue in the faith, grounded and settled and immoveable from the hope of the gospel which you have heard.”

I Corinthians 15:1-2:

“Now I make known unto you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you have received, and wherein you stand; By which you are saved, if you hold fast after what manner I preached unto you, unless you have believed in vain.”

But did they really know him?

In the discussion of the perseverance of the saints, it is inevitable that the point will be made that whenever the Scripture talks about people falling away from grace and from God, the people “falling away” never really knew Christ to start with. Let’s take a look at two texts that are usually used in this regard.

I John 2:19:

They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us.

“You see?” a Protestant will say. “If they were truly Christians, ‘born again,’ and if they really knew Jesus, they would endure until the end. God will not allow anything else.”

That is certainly going beyond what is actually written here. The text doesn’t say they were never with the Lord. St. John may just be saying these folks who left Christ bodily had already departed from him in their hearts some time before. That would be a more literal rendering of the words of the text.

Matthew 7:21-23:

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 see?” the Protestant will say. “Jesus plainly says; he never knew them! They were never Christians to begin with!”

I believe it was C.S. Lewis who said that Christ here was saying he never knew the people that these had become, not that he never knew them at all. This is analogous to a woman who leaves her husband after years of marriage and says, “I never knew you!” It is not that she never loved her husband nor is she saying she never had an intimate relationship with her husband. She does not know the man with whom she is parting ways. This is certainly a valid interpretation of this text.

However, my take on this text is different. I like to point out here that Jesus said many people. He did not say all people. The same could be said of I John 2:19 as well. There will be “many people” who will be lost who never even heard of Jesus at all, or those who were indifferent to Christ and certainly never “prophesied in [his] name” or “cast out demons in [his] name.” For the Calvinist, this text at very best tells us only that some people who parade around and proclaim the name of Christ are not true and obedient believers.

The bottom line is this: Scripture may well indicate that many who will be lost will have never known the Lord. That is to be expected. But Scripture also indicates to us that there are at least some who will have known Christ and then fall away from him. II Peter 2:20-22 is an example of this:

“For if, flying from the pollutions of the world, through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they be again entangled in them and overcome: their latter state is become worse than the former. . . . For, that of the true proverb has happened to them: The dog is returned to his vomit: and, the sow that was washed, to her wallowing in the mire.”

This text hardly needs comment. The Greek word here for “knowledge” is epignosei. Gerhard Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament explains the importance of this word: “[A]n opinion can be correct [or possess the aleitheia, or “truth”], but only the ginoskon has the certainty that he grasps the aleitheia” (truth). Moreover, “It relates to the knowledge acquired in experiences both good and bad” (vol. 1, 690.).

And when we consider the persons in the text have “escaped the pollutions of the world” through this “experiential knowledge” of Jesus, we would have to conclude that only a personal relationship with the Lord could have the effect that is being described.

And note the image Peter uses in verse 22: the sow that had been washed in water. Water is the symbol St. Peter uses for baptism in I Peter 3:20-21. The connection seems obvious. The sow that was cleansed, representing the person cleansed from sin, returns to the mud as the penitent may return to his sin later in life. His “last state has become worse . . . than the first” (II Peter 2:20).

Moreover, when we back up in the text to II Peter 1:2-4 to establish an even better context, we note how Peter begins his epistle with a description of Christians:

“Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge [the Greek word is epignosei, the same word used in 2:20] of God, and of Jesus our Lord . . . that . . . ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped [the Greek word for having escaped is “apophugontes“, the same word used in 2:20] the corruption that is in the world [Greek: en to kosmo, the same word used in a different form in 2:20] through lust.

The same words used to describe what Christians have been freed from in chapter 1 are used to describe the person in chapter 2 just before he goes back to his old state and ends worse than he was before he ever knew Jesus. I don’t see how St. Peter could be any clearer on this point.

The Bible really is clear

There are literally scores of biblical texts we could use to demonstrate the fallacy of “once saved, always saved.” But for lack of space, I’ll list a dozen.

1. In Matthew 6:15 Jesus tells us “if you do not forgive men, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you your offenses.” I don’t care how “born again” you are or how many experiences you may have had, if you don’t forgive others, you will not be forgiven, according to the text. And there will be no people in heaven God refuses to forgive (see Revelation 21:27; Hab. 1:13)!

2. Galatians 5:4 says Christians can “fall from grace.” You have to be in a state of grace in order to fall from it.

3. In John 15:1-6, Jesus uses the metaphor of a vine and branches for himself (the vine) and Christians (the branches). And yet, he would then say if a Christian “does not abide” in the vine, he will be “cast forth as a branch . . . gathered, [and] thrown into the fire” (v. 6).

4. Romans 11:18-22 tells us we can be “cut off” from Christ and be lost. Verse 22 says, “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off.”

5. Revelation 22:18-19 warns us that God can “take away [our] share in the tree of [eternal] life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”

6-10. The sacred text assures us over and over again that if we commit certain sins and we do not repent of them, we will not go to heaven (see Matthew 5:44-45, 10:32-33; Ephesians 5:3-5; I Corinthians 6:9-11; Galatians 5:19-21; Revelation 21:6-8). It makes no sense, if we are justified by faith alone, that what we do would be so plainly said to be the cause of eternal damnation.

11-12. Hebrews 12:14-16 tells us we can “sell [our] birthright,” or our “inheritance” in the image of Esau. And both Hebrews 12:14 and Romans 8:14-17 teach our “inheritance” to be eternal life.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Once saved, always saved? 2


– detail from the “Last Judgment”, by Giotti, Cappella Scrovegni, 1306, Fresco, 1000 x 840 cm, Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy, please click on the image for greater detail.

The chapel is entered from the west, the side on which the sun goes down. In accordance with an old tradition, the entrance wall of the chapel is filled by the depiction of the Last Judgment. This scene is as complex and crowded as the frescoes on the side walls are concentrated and reduced to essentials. This large painting occupies the entire west wall across several registers. The three-light windows of the façade also had to be incorporated into the composition.

This extensive depiction of the Last Judgment is dominated by the large Christ in Majesty at its centre. The twelve apostles sit to His left and to His right. Here the two levels divide: the heavenly host appears above, people plunge into the maw of hell below, or are led by angels towards heaven.

The way this large fresco is divided into registers is traditional. But if we look at Giotto’s invention in detail, then his novel attempts at visualizing different spheres, as well as abstract beliefs, become particularly apparent. In the center of the representation, Christ is enthroned as supreme Judge in a rainbow-colored mandorla. The deep, radiant gold background, the style of painting, and the delicate substance give the impression that the heavens have opened in order to reveal the powerful, extremely solidly modeled figure of Christ. Different levels are likewise alluded to when the choirs of angels disappear behind the real window, or when the celestial watch in the upper area of the picture rolls back the firmament, behind which the golden-red doors of the heavenly Jerusalem shine forth. The black and red maw of hell, which seems to anticipate Dante’s “Inferno”, is different again in its impact.


-by Tim Staples, Tim was raised a Southern Baptist. Although he fell away from the faith of his childhood, Tim came back to faith in Christ during his late teen years through the witness of Christian televangelists. Soon after, Tim joined the Marine Corps.

“The reformed “Westminster Confession,” ratified in 1647, gives us a pithy statement that sums up well what is meant by “the perseverance of the saints,” or “once saved, always saved,” the fifth and final of the five points of Calvinism’s TULIP (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints):

God doth continue to forgive the sins of those that are justified, and although they can never fall from the state of justification, yet they may, by their sins, fall under God’s fatherly displeasure; and in that condition they have not usually the light of his countenance restored unto them, until they humble themselves, confess their sins, beg pardon, and renew their faith and repentance (Westminster Confession, ch. XI, “Of Justification,” para. V).

So true believers can never fall from the state of justification. Yet their sins need to be forgiven or else they can “fall under God’s fatherly displeasure.” But they would still go to heaven, even if they die in this state of “God’s fatherly displeasure.” So, are the sins already forgiven—before they are forgiven again when they are confessed? Or are they really “forgiven” when they are confessed?

The answer for Calvinists is “Yes—and, no.” James White, a Calvinist apologist writes:

This remission of all sins is not limited to past sins only, but to all sins, past, present, and future. . . . The problem with accepting this fact is easy to see: how can we speak of sins being forgiven when they haven’t even been committed as yet? And why do we read that we as believers are to confess our sins? Yet, on the other hand, it seems far more difficult to understand how Christ’s death is insufficient to bring about full pardon of all sins, but has to be “re-applied” repeatedly (The God Who Justifies: A Comprehensive Study of the Doctrine of Justification, 98-99).

I don’t find it hard in the least to understand how Christ’s sacrifice has to be “re-applied” to our lives “repeatedly.” And this doesn’t mean it is “insufficient to bring about full pardon of all sins,” either.

First of all, I John 2:2 plainly reveals the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice: “[Jesus Christ] is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also the sins of the whole world.”

But what White and Calvinists in general do not understand is, yes, the blood of Christ must be applied to our lives repeatedly through faith and obedience to the word of God:

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (I John 1:7-9).

According to St. John, the fact that the blood of Christ must be “re-applied” to our lives “again and again” does not mean it is “insufficient.” It simply means that the objectively all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus Christ must be applied subjectively to each of the faithful through his willing cooperation.

Among the errors we could consider at this point, perhaps the central misstep is found in Mr. White’s assertion that all sins are forgiven, “past, present, and future.” Not only does the Bible not teach this but on the very next page of Mr. White’s book he quotes the famous Calvinist theologian, Charles Hodge:

So that it would perhaps be a more correct statement to say that in justification the believer receives the promise that God will not deal with him according to his transgressions, rather than to say that sins are forgiven before they are committed (The God Who Justifies, 100).

So which is it? Are all sins forgiven, or are they just “not dealt with?” And this is not to mention that no proponent of either of these two scenarios has ever given a coherent accounting for I John 1:8-9: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Why do our sins have to be forgiven if they have already been forgiven?

For the Catholic it’s simple. We believe that we must confess our sins in order to be forgiven of them, as the Bible says. And if we refuse to confess our sins, then we will not be forgiven.

The more difficult texts

There are two crucial texts that we must deal with in order to understand and be able to respond to this notion of “once saved, always saved” from a Reformed perspective: Romans 4:8 and I John 5:13. These are not the only two, but they are perhaps the most important.

Romans 4:7-8: “Blessed are those who iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.”

In Institutes of the Christian Religion, bk. 3, ch. 11, John Calvin begins his section on “Justification by Faith,” and this is one of the first texts he uses. Charles Hodge, quoted above, was referring to this text when he claimed that God “will not deal with [the justified] according to his [future] transgressions.” So, then, according to Hodge, the “forgiveness” of I John 1:9, is not really forgiveness. St. John really means God just doesn’t deal with the Christian’s sins?

I think the text of St. John speaks for itself. But is this what St. Paul is saying in Romans 4? If, for example, a man who is justified commits adultery, he is as just after committing this sin as he was before?

Actually, Romans chapter 4 says nothing of the sort. In 4:7-8, St. Paul quotes Psalm 32:1-2—a psalm of David written in the context of his having confessed his infamous sins of murder and adultery. The reason God “would not reckon” David’s sins against him was because David had confessed his sin and been forgiven! Psalm 32:5 says:

I acknowledged my sin to thee, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord”; then thou didst forgive the guilt of my sin.

This text does not even come close to saying David’s sins were forgiven (or they are not reckoned as sin) before they were confessed! According to the inspired author, David “acknowledged [his] sin,” and “then [God forgave] the guilt of [his] sin.”

St. Paul makes clear to Christians that God doesn’t simply “not deal with” their sins:

But immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints. Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving. Be sure of this, that no immoral or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience (Eph. 5:3-7).

St. Paul here eliminates any possibility of getting around the fact that if believers commit these sins and do not repent, they will not go to heaven. Yet, according to John Calvin and the Westminster Confession, these sins that St. Paul says will exclude someone from the kingdom of heaven will not do so if that someone is a Christian. That is why, again, according to the Westminster Confession, these sins will only bring about God’s “fatherly displeasure” in a temporal sense.

I John 5:13: “These things I write to you, that you may know you have eternal life, you who believe in the name of the Son of God” (emphasis added).

Rooted in this text and others, the Westminster Confession claims that believers can have

. . . an infallible assurance of faith, founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God (Westminster Confession, ch. XVIII, ”Of the Assurance of Grace and Salvation,” para. 2).

The fact is: one cannot have infallible certainty without an infallible teacher. None of the authors of the Calvinist creeds—or Calvin himself—ever claimed the charism of infallibility. A thinking person would then have a real problem with the Calvinist use of the term infallible in the first place. The truth of this supposed “certainty” would be closer to the “burning in the bosom” of a Mormon, then true “infallible” certainty.

But what about I John 5:13 and the claim that we may know that we have eternal life?

The Greek word for knowledge (from the verb oida) in I John 5:13 does not necessarily mean an absolute certainty is being expressed.[1] We use the verb to know similarly in English. For example, I may say, “I know I am going to get an A on my Greek exam tomorrow.” Does that mean I have metaphysical certainty of this? No! I may in fact get a B or worse. Ever freeze up during an exam? What I mean and what the verb to know can be used to mean is that I have confident assurance of an A, because I have studied and know the material thoroughly.

The next two verses after I John 5:13 demonstrate this to be the usage of oida in I John 5:13:

And we have this confidence in him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us, and if he hears us we know [again, a derivative of oida] that what we have asked him for is ours.

Do we have absolute certainty that we will receive everything we ask of the Lord? No. Psalm 66:18 says, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” I John 3:22 says, “And whatsoever we ask, we shall receive of him: because we keep his commandments and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.” We cannot be absolutely certain that we have not “cherished iniquity” in our hearts or done a thing or two that has displeased the Lord.

But most importantly, we must acknowledge that God is sovereign. In the end, we must trust God as his children that he will grant what is best for us. Sometimes what we just know is best for us isn’t. Or, as the unrighteous discover at the last judgment, according to Matthew 25:41-46, what they just knew was just for them actually was not. “Lord, when . . . ?”

[1] Another example of this usage of “knowledge” is found in Acts 20:25. Here St. Paul says to the elders of Miletus, Ephesus, and other areas of Greece and Asia Minor: “I know that all you among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom will see my face no more.” And yet, we know he was both later, during his imprisonment in Rome, hopeful that he would return there (see Philo. 1:10,22; Phil. 2:24, 1:1-2, 13-14), and that he actually did return because in his last inspired letter he writes of a later visit to Miletus where he left Trophimus there ill (II Tim. 4:20). Trophimus continued with him after the earlier trip where St. Paul made his statement that he “knew” he would never return or see them again (see Acts 20:4, 21:9).”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Is justification ongoing?


– detail from the “Last Judgment”, by Giotti, Cappella Scrovegni, 1306, Fresco, 1000 x 840 cm, Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy, please click on the image for greater detail.

The chapel is entered from the west, the side on which the sun goes down. In accordance with an old tradition, the entrance wall of the chapel is filled by the depiction of the Last Judgment. This scene is as complex and crowded as the frescoes on the side walls are concentrated and reduced to essentials. This large painting occupies the entire west wall across several registers. The three-light windows of the façade also had to be incorporated into the composition.

This extensive depiction of the Last Judgment is dominated by the large Christ in Majesty at its centre. The twelve apostles sit to His left and to His right. Here the two levels divide: the heavenly host appears above, people plunge into the maw of hell below, or are led by angels towards heaven.

The way this large fresco is divided into registers is traditional. But if we look at Giotto’s invention in detail, then his novel attempts at visualizing different spheres, as well as abstract beliefs, become particularly apparent. In the center of the representation, Christ is enthroned as supreme Judge in a rainbow-colored mandorla. The deep, radiant gold background, the style of painting, and the delicate substance give the impression that the heavens have opened in order to reveal the powerful, extremely solidly modeled figure of Christ. Different levels are likewise alluded to when the choirs of angels disappear behind the real window, or when the celestial watch in the upper area of the picture rolls back the firmament, behind which the golden-red doors of the heavenly Jerusalem shine forth. The black and red maw of hell, which seems to anticipate Dante’s “Inferno”, is different again in its impact.


-by Mark Brumley

“Romans 5:1 (“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through Jesus Christ”) is often cited in defense of the Reformed view that justification is a once for all declaration by God; justification can neither be increased nor lost. Paul’s use of the aorist tense in Greek (“we have been justified”) supposedly demonstrates that justification is exclusively a “past, completed act” which confers a state of justification unalterable by a subsequent act of the believer.

Why won’t this argument work? Because the aorist doesn’t function the way the Reformed argument presupposes.

Although the Bible speaks in Romans 5:1 of justification as a “past, completed act,” this doesn’t mean it can’t be altered, for better or worse, by what we do. To say an act has been completed needn’t imply that no further development or change is possible.

Consider the biblical teaching about sanctification. (Most proponents of the Reformed position see justification and sanctification as two distinct things; Catholics see them as complementary ways of talking about the same thing—being “in Christ”).

Paul speaks of sanctification as a “past, completed act”—in the aorist tense—in 1 Corinthians 6:11. He tells his readers, “You have been washed, you have been sanctified, you have been justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of God.” At the same time, Scripture teaches sanctification or holiness is something into which we can grow.

In 2 Corinthians 7:1 Paul says we should “purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit and strive for perfect holiness out of fear of God.” The writer to the Hebrews exhorts us to consider our trials as discipline from our heavenly Father, “in order that we share his holiness” (Heb. 12:10). We’re advised to “strive for that sanctity without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb.12:14).

If sanctification means to make holy, then Christians are progressively sanctified or made holy as they strive, by the grace of God, to attain “that sanctity without which no one will see the Lord.” Christians can also fall into sin and impurity—into “unsanctity.” This is the point of Paul’s repeated warnings to believers not to return to the sinful lifestyles they left behind (1 Cor. 6:9-10; Gal. 5:16-21; Eph. 5:3-5):

“It is God’s will that you should be holy; that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you” (1 Thess. 4:3-7).

Sanctification, then, is both a “past, completed action” and something which believers can increase or from which they can fall away through sin. This leads us to ask, “If Paul’s use of the aorist with respect to sanctification doesn’t preclude progress or regress, why should it do so with respect to justification?”

To this advocates of the Reformed view reply, “Because the gratuitousness of justification would be undone. If we could increase our justification or righteousness through our obedience, even through grace-empowered obedience, this would contradict Paul’s teaching that we’re ‘justified by faith apart from works of the Law’” (Rom. 3:28).

This answer neglects three key points: (1) In Romans 3:28 Paul is speaking of initial justification rather than righteousness in the ongoing life of the believer; (2) when he speaks of the works of the Law, Paul is concerned with Mosaic observances such as circumcision, not acts of Christian obedience; (3) human cooperation doesn’t undermine the gratuitousness of God’s work in us, but can be an expression of it. Consider each point in turn.

Our works of obedience as Christians don’t earn our initial justification. How could they, since such deeds follow and flow from it? The Council of Trent says as much when it observes that “we are therefore said to be justified gratuitously, because none of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification” (Session Six, Chapter VIII).

At the same time, works of Christian obedience contribute something if the term justification is used to refer not merely to our initial justification, but to our growth in righteousness as regenerated children of God. This is the justification to which James refers when he writes that “a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24).

When Paul contrasts faith with works, it’s clear from the context (Romans 3:1; 4:9-12) he means works of the Mosaic Law—ritual prescriptions such as circumcision given to identify one as a Jew, to convict of sin, and to point to the Redeemer who would remit sin. This is different from works of Christian obedience which lead to righteousness (Rom. 6:16). With respect to the latter, even faith itself can be spoken of as obedience (Rom. 1:5; 16:26).

If the gratuitousness of sanctification isn’t undermined by its capacity for increase through obedience or loss through disobedience, why should justification be? Only by assuming that justification is unalterable—an assumption grammatical arguments about the aorist tense will not uphold—could we conclude that increasing or decreasing in justification is, per se, incompatible with justification by grace.

Works of obedience which contribute to our sanctification are as much the result of grace as is our faith. This is why Paul can say, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to work” (Phil. 2:12). As Augustine puts it, “When God rewards our merits, he rewards his own gifts to us.”

Although sanctification is a more dramatic refutation of the Reformed position regarding justification and the aorist tense, there are other biblical examples which could be cited, each equally deadly to the thesis. Space doesn’t permit us to examine each of these; let’s consider just two poignant cases.

In John 11:14 Jesus tells his disciples Lazarus has died. The word used in this passage is apethanen—the third person, singular, second aorist active, indicative form of apothnesko (“I die”). Lazarus’s death was certainly a “past, completed act,” yet his condition wasn’t unalterable. After all, Jesus raised him from the dead (John 11:43-44).

In 2 Peter 2:20 the first pope mentions lapsed Christians who, “having escaped the defilement of the world through a full knowledge of the Lord and savior Jesus Christ,” return to their old sinful ways. The word for “having escaped” is apophugontes. This is the second aorist, active, participial, nominative, plural, masculine form of apopheugo (“I flee from” or “I escape”).

If use of the aorist automatically means an unchangeable “past, completed act,” then those having lapsed would have been incapable of falling away at all. A “past, completed act”—in this case, having “escaped the defilement of the world”—is changed by subsequent apostasy.

Of course staunch advocates of the Reformed position, holding as they do the doctrine “once saved, always saved,” contend these lapsi were never truly Christians in the first place. Yet the text indicates otherwise, for it describes these people as having “escaped the defilement of the world through a full knowledge of the Lord and savior Jesus Christ.” Surely only true believers could be described as possessing “a full knowledge of the Lord and savior Jesus Christ.”

Even granting (but not conceding) that Peter isn’t talking about authentic believers who have lapsed, the grammatical point regarding the use of the aorist in the passage still stands. People who once escaped the defilement of the world, regardless of whether this means they were true Christians or not, are said to have returned to it. There’s nothing in the aorist tense which prevents them from having done so.

Back to Romans 5:1. Even though Paul refers to believers as those who “have been justified through faith,” his use of the aorist doesn’t rule out a change in the state of justification by subsequent behavior, any more than other biblical uses of the aorist preclude a “past, completed” state of affairs from being altered by subsequent events.

Nothing we do as believers after our initial justification can change the fact that “we have been justified through faith” at some time in the past, but this doesn’t mean we can’t our alter justification in the present, whether by increasing it through “working out” our salvation (Phil. 2:12) or by forfeiting it through sin (1 Cor. 6:7-10; Gal. 5:21; Eph. 5:1-5).”

Love & truth,
Matthew