Category Archives: Episcopalian/Anglican

Anglican blasphemy


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(I went to Anglican pre-school. No harm. No foul. This was 1970, though.)

-by Michael E. Daniel, a convert from Anglicanism, is schoolmaster at an independent school in Melbourne, Australia, where he lives with his wife, Helen, and baby daughter, Lydia.

“I was born in the late 1960s and raised in the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church, being a member of the Sunday school and later the Church choir. Soon after I joined the choir I developed an interest in both Christianity and history. In addition to Bible story books, we had some old British history readers at home, and I devoured these. My favorite period of history was that of the Tudor monarchs, and this brought me into touch with the Reformation. These histories presented the standard Protestant apologetic, anti-Catholic line, and for the first time I became aware of the differences between Catholics and Protestants.

My preparation for confirmation at age eleven was the first systematic catechesis Christian doctrine and ethics I received. Two of the lessons stand out in my mind. The first was on the “one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.” The Anglican church, it was explained, was a branch of the Catholic Church, since it accepted the three creeds (Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian), had the two sacraments (baptism and Eucharist), and retained the threefold order of ministry—bishops, priests, and deacons.

The other lesson was on the Eucharist, which we studied as we went through the Anglican catechism in the Book of Common Prayer. The vicar told us that although the elements still remained bread and wine, the faithful received Christ spiritually and grew in relationship with him. Transubstantiation was denied. I accepted this, but I remember feeling not entirely comfortable with it. Did not Christ say, “This is my body …This is my blood”? The explanation that this was symbolic language was not convincing.

Secondary education at an Anglican grammar school meant taking a course called Divinity. Here I first encountered theological liberalism. One of the masters, for example, questioned the Virgin Birth, suggesting Christ was probably the son of a Roman soldier. The liberal masters probably felt they were making Christianity reasonable to the modern mind, saving it from fundamentalism. Instead, it had the opposite effect: My classmates seemed to become even more contemptuous of Christian beliefs.

The religion preached by the school chaplain, an evangelical Anglican clergyman, was more traditional. His preaching and lessons included standard anti-Catholic rhetoric. So convinced was I that Rome was wrong that I remember being impressed with his concept of the “unity of Protestantism”: although there were many Protestant churches, the differences between them were slight; they were right on the essentials, namely, “the Bible alone” and “justification by faith alone.”

This instruction complemented what I was encountering in my evangelical Anglican youth group. The leaders reinforced my belief in “the Bible alone” as the rule of faith, for without this rule, Christians could invent any beliefs as the Catholics had done. They also emphasized “faith alone,” but, as I studied Scripture, that concept never gelled completely, since passages from James didn’t fit the matrix.

Sometime when I was in form five, a school friend who had become interested in Anglo-Catholicism took me to high mass at a leading Anglo-Catholic church. Anglo-Catholics are those members of the Anglican/Episcopalian church whose devotional life and beliefs are similar in many respects to Catholics. For example, they celebrate the Eucharist as if it were the Mass, with vestments, incense, and elevation of the host; they have devotions to Mary, benediction, confession et cetera. I was awestruck by the beauty, reverence, and transcendence of the liturgy.

Around the same time a new leader joined the youth group who was particularly anti-Catholic. He claimed Catholics were not even Christian and had to be rescued from Catholicism. Ironically, my Anglican father had chosen a practicing Catholic as my godfather. He had a good understanding of the Catholic faith and was able to answer my questions. I assumed Catholics were wrong, but all I knew about them was what Protestants had told me and what I had read in Protestant literature. Why not allow Catholics to speak for themselves? Their literature should not be too hard to disprove. What a shock I was in for.

Sneaking into a Catholic church, hoping I would not be seen, I purchased a few inexpensive pamphlets that were eye-openers. Catholics could actually present reasoned and intelligent arguments to defend their beliefs, and their arguments based on Scripture were just as compelling, if not more so, than Protestantism. I went back, got more pamphlets, and read them eagerly. Many of the ideas I encountered I discussed with my godfather, and his explanations underscored how logical and reasonable Catholic teaching seemed to be.

I gradually came to accept on an intellectual level most of the Church’s teachings, since they could be proven by Scripture. I was impressed by historical arguments, particularly by analyses of the writings of Church Fathers that supported Catholic teaching (to the detriment of Protestant interpretations). I realized that Catholics, contrary to what some Protestant literature stated, did not believe they could work their way to heaven or earn their salvation. This heresy, called Pelagianism, was condemned by Augustine and the Council of Trent. Both Catholics and Protestants believe that we are saved by grace alone; the differences were primarily in the relationship between faith and works (actions).

Justification by faith alone did not stand up to a comprehensive analysis of Scripture. It had been taught by no one before Luther, who added the word alone to Romans 1: 17, which should read, “The just shall live by faith.” Indeed, as has been pointed out in this magazine many times, the only time the phrase “by faith alone” appears in the Bible, it opposes the Protestant doctrine: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24, emphasis added).

The other important difference was that Catholics believe that grace is imparted rather than imputed-that is, the sinner is made righteous rather than merely being declared righteous. For Luther, man always remains sinful; when he was saved, Christ, as it were, covered the sinner with his cloak to make him appear righteous. Not only is the Catholic vision of salvation more merciful, it also explains the underpinning for beliefs such as purgatory, since most people die with imperfections on their soul that need to be purged before they stand before God, since nothing unclean or defiled can stand before the throne of God.

One text that kept coming back to me was Christ’s promise that the Holy Spirit would lead his disciples into all truth (cf. John 14:26). I wanted to find Christian truth, but where was it to be found? At the Last Supper, Christ prayed to the Father that his disciples should be one. Protestantism, through its insistence on the Bible alone as the rule of faith and private interpretation, in the belief that scriptural truths are self-obvious, had resulted in disunity. How could one logically talk about the unity of Protestantism when there are myriads of denominations, each of which claims it has the correct interpretation of the Bible?

Some Protestants attempt to argue that the Church, the Body of Christ, is an invisible entity, congregations being mere gatherings of like-minded believers. However, behind the New Testament writings was the presumption that the Church was a visible structure that had the power to teach. The visible nature of the Church and necessity of membership became increasingly clearer as I read early Christian writings.

As I accepted Catholic teachings, my devotional life changed. I began to receive Communion on the tongue (to the horror of the school chaplain) and go to confession. The impact of the rosary on my faith development cannot be underestimated. The hardest doctrines to accept were the Marian ones. I did not pray the glorious mysteries of the Assumption and the Coronation until I reflected on Revelation 12:1: “And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” If Mary is in heaven, I reasoned, then how did she get there unless she was assumed? Similarly, what woman other than a queen wears a crown?

As an Anglo-Catholic, I believed in the “branch theory,” which holds that the Catholic Church comprises three main branches: Rome, Canterbury, and Byzantium. The issue of women’s ordination, which the Anglican church was confronting, was a catalyst for me to re-examine the Anglican church’s claims. It was a departure from the constant practice of Christendom. Christ, at the Last Supper, had ordained only men.

Anglicans are by no means united on this issue. Although the Episcopal church prides itself on being inclusive, embracing a range of opinions and views, this impacts its unity severely. The situation could emerge in which one Anglican diocese had women priests when a neighboring one refused to recognize the validity of the orders of women priests. Furthermore, by ordaining women without the permission and agreement of the other two branches of the “Catholic Church,” the Anglican church was undermining its claim to be a branch of the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.

At the end of secondary education I joined an Anglo-Catholic parish. Inspired by my love of history and interest in the ancient world, I enrolled in Latin and ancient history at university. In my second year, I studied late Roman history and this, together with other private reading, raised the historical faith issues, particularly through my encounter with the Church Fathers.

On virtually every issue they confirmed the Catholic beliefs that I held as an Anglo-Catholic, particularly regarding the Eucharist, the Mass, purgatory, the intercession of saints, et cetera. For example, when writing to the Smyrneans, Ignatius of Antioch stated that Docetists, a group of heretics who denied the Incarnation, refused to receive the Eucharist because they failed to recognize it as the body of Christ. The formal definition of transubstantiation, a definition rejected by the Anglican Church, was reflected in Ignatius’s teaching. So who was right: Ignatius-a younger contemporary of the apostles who wrote well before the formulation of the canon of Scripture-or the Anglican Church?

As an Anglo-Catholic I held beliefs that were a contradiction to those of my Evangelical past and the contents of the Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles, which, together with the three creeds, are the doctrinal standards of Anglicanism. For example, Article XXXI states, “Wherefore the sacrifices of Masses, in which it was commonly said that the priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits.” Or Article XXII: “The Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardon, Worshiping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also the invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.” Article XXVIII forbids elevation of the elements at the consecration, procession, and benediction with the Blessed Sacrament-standard practices in my Anglo-Catholic parish!

At some stage while still an Anglican I had ditched sola scriptura or “the Bible alone” theory, since nowhere in the Bible does it state that the Bible is the only rule of faith. Similarly, the Bible grew out of the Church, whose members wrote the books of the New Testament and who compiled it. The canon of the New Testament started to take shape only in the second half of the second century and reached its final form at the end of the fourth. By this stage the Church clearly taught Catholic doctrines on a range of issues, such as the Real Presence, purgatory, and the Mass as a sacrifice. I f the Church was wrong on these issues, what guarantee was there that it had not erred in the formulation of the canon of Scripture?

My study of history and in discussions with legal student friends highlighted the necessity for any legal text to have an interpreter. St Peter’s second epistle itself contained warnings about misinterpreting Scripture and difficulties with interpreting some of Paul’s sayings. (cf. 2 Peter 3:15-16). Who was to be Scripture’s interpreter? Private judgement had produced a plethora of Protestant sects, and the Anglican Church could not arrive at a consistent position on issues such as women’s ordination.

But what powers did various churches have to settle doctrinal disputes that threatened their stability? How were Christ’s promises to be with his Church through all ages to be fulfilled? The Protestant churches simply splintered. By contrast, with Church councils and particularly with papal infallibility, the Catholic Church contained what could be called an emergency executive power. Reading early Church history, it became more and more apparent that the bishop of Rome enjoyed a special status. Irenaeus, writing at the end of the second century stated of the see of Rome, “For it is a matter of necessity that every church should agree with this church, on account of its preeminent authority.”

I read further only to realize that the concept of development of doctrine was consistent with the definition of the hypostatic union (the belief that Christ is one person with two natures, a human nature and a divine nature) at the Council of Chalcedon, which employed Greek philosophical ideas to underpin the definition. If Anglicans accepted development of doctrine up to A.D. 451 and the first four Church Councils, why not accept further development of doctrine and more Church councils? How would one expect the Church settle further doctrinal disputes?

Furthermore, in reading about Chalcedon, my attention was drawn to the role of Leo I at this council. In his famous Tome of Leo in 449 AD he stated correct belief concerning the person of Christ and his two natures. The Council fathers voted to accept the definition he offered with the accolade, “Peter has spoken through Leo.” The realization then dawned on me: If the Church accepted the leadership and role of the pope and accepted that Peter’s office and prerogatives were passed down to his successors, and if the Anglican church and other Protestant bodies accept the first four Councils, then why do they not accept the papacy?

After years of study, prayer, and reading I came to know, without any doubt, that the Catholic Church was the church founded by Christ. It alone could claim continuity with the upper room at Pentecost. I sought out a priest for instruction and three months later was received into the Church.”

Love & truth,
Matthew

Why I left the Anglican Church – ubi Petras, ibi ecclesia

““Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia” were the words written in the comments column of the visitors book. I had just spent the previous half hour wandering around one of London’s most beautiful Anglican churches, All Saints, Margaret Street. My school Latin was good enough to translate: “Where Peter is there is the Church.” It was a short phrase but the words came as a bullet into my soul. In one sense it brought a sense of exhilaration, but at the other extreme it was part of a nightmare which I seemed embarked upon. The quotation from Ambrose, bishop of Milan in the fourth century, was a bit to close to the truth for my liking.

Conversion has been described as a dying process, and no one wants to die. In that Latin phrase were the claims of the Catholic Church firmly set before me, and it was just not convenient. It interfered with my future plans and contradicted what I thought would be a vocation to the Anglican ministry. But why couldn’t I just bury those claims forever? Had not some of my friends warned me of their own disillusionment with the Catholicism of their childhood? Had I not seen through the wishy-washy nature of what passed itself off as post Vatican II Catholicism? Anyway, how could an archetypal anti-Catholic be driving himself quietly crazy over Catholicism?

The root cause of this disquiet was undoubtedly the Holy Spirit working on a personality that since childhood was inquisitive and determined to get to the bottom of the matter. The Anglican claim to comprehensiveness never appealed to my mind. The idea that Anglicanism was a middle way (via media) never attracted me. People who walk in the middle of the road invariably get knocked down! However I was to discover gradually and painfully that Anglicanism was not a reformed Catholicism, but Protestanism pure and simple.

While some proclaim Anglicanism as a bridge between extreme Protestantism and Rome, I found it by contrast to be a side track, which for years kept me from facing the issues of the historical claims of the Catholic Church and the issue of authority. Anti-Catholicism can come in many guises. With many Fundamentalists it is based on stereotypes and ignorance. Within Anglicanism, there exists much anti-Catholicism of a refined and subtle nature. First we have the “intellectuals,” who are basically freethinkers in clerical garb. They might wear cope and miter, but their theology runs into rationalist waters. They object to the dogmatism of the Pope, his “oppression” of women and refusal to ordain them. His totally “unliberated” view of human sexuality and his “rebuff” to the divorced and the homosexual.

Then there were the old-fashioned Evangelicals, still breathing the fire of the Reformation, supporting missions to Catholics whether they be in South America or Ireland. An example of this is the Anglican Irish Church Missions to Roman Catholics. Under the patronage of the Anglican Archbishop of Dublin, Evangelicals like these are firmly loyal to the Reformation and all it stood for, and deeply suspicious of ecumenical dialogue with the Church of Rome.

Out of this group has emerged more “tolerant” Evangelicals, accommodating of women’s ordination and divorce. They are prepared to enter into dialogue, and I well remember George Carey (the present (1998) Archbishop of Canterbury and member of this group) preaching in my former theological college about the Catholics having to clear their attic of junk. Subsequent statements by Carey on Catholics and birth control have been equally insensitive.

It was the inherent confusion within Anglicanism that led me to examine the claims of the Catholic Church. When I sought counsel on this confusion, I was told that the Anglican Church was comprehensive. As one shrewd Catholic author observed, “Comprehensive of men and not of Catholic truth and doctrine.” I was told that the differences between Anglicans were “tensions” and that in essentials Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics were agreed. I learned from my own experience that this was false.

I attended a lively Anglican Evangelical Church in Newcastle upon Tyne. The vicar, David Holloway, is one of the leading hard-line Evangelicals in the Church of England. There were about 500 people in the congregation, and Communion as the main service was celebrated twice a month. After one such service, I went into the church kitchen for a glass of water and saw the verger’s wife pouring the leftover Communion wine down the sink and putting the bread in the bin. This I later discovered was standard practice among Evangelical Anglicans, and I even knew of ministers who threw the crumbs to the birds in the churchyards. The distressing side to all this is that in the same Church there are Anglicans who believe that Christ is present in the sacrament and reserve the same communion elements for worship! To someone who had been exposed to the naked Protestantism of Anglicanism, this never rang true. I could not delude myself that the Reformation had been simply schismatic and that Cranmer and his cronies had not changed the Catholic teaching of the English Church.

Indeed at the time of my visit to the Anglican church in London that I describe at the beginning of this account, I had just visited the adjoining parish of All Souls, Langham Place. A thriving church of the Evangelical school, the curate there had informed me that because of the size of the congregation the bread and wine leftovers were thrown away. It seemed incongruous to me that the AngloCatholic Parish of All Saints had a tabernacle to reserve the sacrament, and less than a mile away it was molding away in a dust bin!

The logic and coherence of the Catholic position appealed to me. It seemed to stand as a rock in a stormy sea—just as our Lord predicted. Yes, there were dissenting voices in the Catholic Church, but they could not capture the castle. The gates were locked by the keys given to Peter by our Lord. All I could see within Anglicanism and “mainline” Protestantism was a nightmare world of doctrinal change. This change was not only the monopoly of the liberal, as even some Evangelicals were advocating the remarriage of the divorced, contraception, and the ordination of women. In parts of the Anglican communion, the debate was moving to the acceptance of “faithful gay” relationships and lay celebration of the Eucharist.

Even a conservative Evangelical such as John Stott manifested this subjective nature, when he decided to reject the idea of eternal punishment and substitute for it annihilation. Yet the same John Stott (clearly going against the tide of close on two thousand years of Christian exegesis and interpretation, which has affirmed the punishment of the wicked in hell) would turn in disdain to the gay lobby, which has “discovered” new meaning to the words of Paul on homosexuality! Such is the eclectic nature of the Protestant mind. John Stott and others may not realize it, but subjectivism and private judgment (the real hallmark of the Reformers) are ultimately the origin of theological liberalism. . . .

My one remaining obstacle was the role of the Virgin Mary. Why were Catholics, so orthodox in everything else, seemingly obsessed with her? When I heard Catholics reciting the rosary and endlessly invoking her name, it struck me as weird. I remember visiting the Catholic shrine at Walsingham and also visiting the church that some AngloCatholics had established in honor of Mary (it is regularly picketed by Anglican Evangelicals protesting idolatry!) and being left totally bemused. I can remember being close to conversion and entering a Catholic church where there was a shrine to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. I can remember reading the prayers to Mary and feeling inwardly repulsed. As an Anglican I knew very little of the communion of saints. As an Anglican I never had been taught that Mary was my mother. In fact I had been taught that to ask the saints for their prayers to God was unbiblical superstition and contrary to the teachings of the “reformed” Church of England. The Protestant in me took a long time to die.

A conversion can be an intellectual exercise up to a certain point, but then the supernatural element must take its course. There must be a submission of will and a becoming like a child. Questions still troubled me, but there was a growing conviction of inner peace that I had to convert and give it a try at the very least. So on Easter Sunday 1991 I was received into the Catholic Church. I decided I wanted to be in the Church of Christ, so clearly indicated by the presence of the successor of Peter. It was a marvelous occasion and the reception of my first Holy Communion a most wonderful and precious moment.

While there were many things within Anglicanism that I loved, such as the fine tradition of choral music and my family associations, I realized that I must not be like the rich young man who placed his wealth before total commitment to Christ. If a person remains within Anglicanism because of sentimentality toward a building or outward forms, he is in effect repeating the mistake of the rich young man. It is in reality a form of idolatry. The spiritual forces of wickedness will do all to prevent entry into the Catholic Church, and my appeal to all sincere Anglicans is to pray ultimately for the grace of God. At the end of the day, all true conversions can be accomplished only by that supernatural and unexplainable power.”

Love,
Matthew

Evangelical burnout

-by Howard Charest

“In the midst of a wild theological discussion, some Evangelical acquaintances asked me what I had gained by converting to Catholicism. I had embraced Evangelicalism for about five years, but its theological and spiritual inadequacies contributed to my nearly losing faith in Christ. Catholicism restored and deepened both my faith in and my love for Christ, and in so doing it began to fulfill my deepest spiritual and intellectual longings.

Raised at first as a Lutheran and then as a Presbyterian, by the time I finished high school I nevertheless had become an atheist of the scientific humanist sort. Scientific objections to Christianity, such as evolutionary theory, had been my primary stumbling block. But within a year of graduating from high school, during a personal crisis concerning the meaning of life and after I had made a commitment to embrace truth whatever it might be, I read How Should We Then Live? by the Evangelical thinker Francis Schaeffer.

His reasoned critique of humanism opened my heart to the gospel, and, recognizing myself as a sinner and morally guilty before God, I believed that through Christ’s sacrifice my sins had been forgiven. I identified my conversion experience as the “born again” experience I had heard so much about during high school, and my attitudes towards life truly began to change.

Schaeffer’s interpretation of Christianity left a decisive mark on me. On the positive side, I gained an interest in defending Christianity intellectually (especially through philosophy) and a fascination with the history of theology, philosophy, and culture. For this reason, he still remains a man I admire.

On the negative side, Schaeffer left me with the conviction that true Christianity equals Reformation Christianity, represented in the modern world by Evangelicalism. For the next five years I would assume, virtually without question, that Christianity stands or falls with Evangelicalism. However fascinating the Catholic intellectual and spiritual tradition might appear to be—and during the next few years I occasionally would feel a pull in this direction—intellectually I was convinced that Catholicism was an apostate religion.

Yet it was the expectations concerning Christianity raised by Schaeffer which ultimately would make my departure from Evangelicalism necessary. These expectations are best expressed by something Schaeffer wrote in The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century. He explained that Christianity is the true and highest mysticism, for it is a personal relationship with God which is grounded in rationality. In other words, Christianity is a rational answer to the question of the meaning of life, one which fulfills man’s deepest spiritual longings and resolves his deepest spiritual problems. Two developments would lead me to conclude that Evangelicalism could not fulfill these expectations and that, if Evangelicalism equals Christianity, I should have to abandon the latter as well.

First, a number of emphases within Evangelicalism would contribute to my having a spiritual burnout. Second, I came to believe that Evangelical thought, based ostensibly on the Bible as its sole authority, was incapable of meeting the many intellectual challenges facing it. I would come to the conclusion that Schaeffer’s defense of Reformation Christianity had serious limitations even though his critique of humanism contained important insights.

Ultimately, and much to my surprise, I would find that it is the Catholic intellectual tradition which fits the glowing descriptions Schaeffer had penned of Christianity’s intellectual viability and that it is Catholic spirituality which most adequately fulfills the Christian mysticism Schaeffer hinted at.

After my conversion experience, my first Evangelical involvement was as a member of a Lutheran church. I remained as such for two years, when, through the influence of Campus Crusade for Christ, I left to become a Baptist. Looking back, I realized that part of my discontent with Lutheranism came from this: Although Lutheranism acknowledges the importance of doing good works, it seems more interested in consoling sinners than in showing them how to overcome sin. One of the benefits of being a Catholic, I have found, is a spiritual discipline centered around mortification and penance. This discipline is powerful in overcoming sin.

In the same year of my conversion, shortly after I joined the Lutheran Church, I became involved in Campus Crusade. At first Campus Crusade benefited me greatly, both spiritually and socially. Crusade’s emphasis on the Spirit-filled life helped me grow in personal character, and I was encouraged to spend time reading the Bible daily.

This I loved to do, and I became an avid student of Scripture, eventually beginning a personal study of Greek in order to draw closer to the meaning of the New Testament. In addition to these spiritual benefits, Crusade’s emphasis on evangelism and discipleship helped me learn to communicate my beliefs with boldness, and through the love and acceptance I found in this group I progressed considerably in social maturity.

I immersed myself in the Crusade way of life, evangelizing frequently and conducting small discipleship groups. One semester I led the Crusade group at a local community college. But the overall spirituality and practice of Crusade worked to inflict on me an intense spiritual burnout, almost destroying my Christian life. And this spirituality and practice, I would discover, is fairly typical of large segments of Evangelicalism.

The major cause of this burnout was Campus Crusade’s emphasis on activity. I found that the genuineness of one’s spirituality was measured by his involvement in evangelism and discipleship. This pressure created in me an assumption that, if I did not have a personal ministry, I was not living the true Christian life.

In many ways this would have a corrupting influence on me, an experience which, I would insist, is shared by other Evangelicals. For example, the need to find opportunities to share our faith and win disciples would lead us to develop friendships with people—Christians and non-Christians alike—for an ulterior motive: the practical goal of fulfilling the Great Commission. People tended to become means for us to achieve our ministry objectives and this because our lives were dominated and motivated by an activist cause.

Perhaps the most corrupting effect was the way this activism turned me into a manipulator of people. It was bad enough that I felt manipulated by my fellow Crusaders, but it hurt me more that I began to manipulate others. People had applied subtle pressure on me to become involved, and as I sought my own disciples I put pressure on them. The great amount of recognition given to those with a successful ministry further fueled this manipulation.

I fell victim to this syndrome because my life had become identified with a cause and my participation in this cause was my primary source of satisfaction. It has required Catholic spirituality with its emphasis on the path of humility and on the performing of quiet deeds of mercy and charity to begin uprooting these tendencies from my heart.

One might wonder what became of the personal relationship with Christ so tirelessly preached by Evangelicals. Certainly Crusaders emphasized the importance of this relationship, but in my experience their practical orientation limited its development.

Scripture became a tool to be controlled by the reader to develop his character and increase his ministry. Absent was the Catholic understanding that through receptive, loving meditation on Scripture Christ is conceived in our souls and begotten into the world through deeds of love. Even our praising of God was strictly active, as we looked for attributes of God in Scripture for which we could praise him. Absent was the Catholic understanding of silent, loving adoration.

As my burnout developed, I dreaded the very idea of discipleship, and my Christian life became strained. I sought deeper roots in the Baptist church I had started attending, one of the finest Evangelical churches in my area. Unfortunately, this church could do little to help me regain a sound Christian life for the simple reason that its spirituality differed little from Crusade’s.

It really should not have surprised me that this church should have the same orientation as Crusade; after all, Evangelicals define themselves as Christians committed to the spread of the gospel. Their defining characteristic and reason for existing is commitment to a particular cause. This was shown vividly during a talk by a professor from Talbot Seminary. He explained we were put on Earth not to learn to worship God–after all, he reasoned, we will worship God better when we see him face to face in heaven–but to evangelize.

Evangelicals are limited by the press of practical activity. The efficacy of their public worship is crippled by its subordination to practical activity. I found that Baptist-type worship is essentially the same as Crusade’s: The singing and other activities are structured primarily to encourage enthusiasm in the congregants (and to evangelize non-Christians).

Both Crusade and contemporary Evangelicalism are descended from nineteenth-century revivalism. A hallmark of revivalism was the belief that excitement was necessary to spread and revive the true religion. Often Evangelical church services are conducted as if they were designed for entertainment; there is never any dead time. The congregation is fed songs, novel prayers, and preaching, with no opportunity for contemplative prayer.

Catholicism subordinates all causes to worship. In Catholicism, the summit of the Christian life is public worship of God in the liturgy, in continuity with the worship of God in heaven by the angels and saints. There is an essential continuity between our lives in heaven and on earth. This liturgical worship begins in receptivity—that is, in contemplation, which is nothing other than receptivity to reality and to God—and ends in sacrifice as we offer ourselves to God after receiving him deeper into our lives through the Eucharist.

This worship overflows into all of life, even the most active life, for even the most active life is subordinate to contemplative and sacrificial worship. From this overflow all of our activity is elevated to worship insofar as we become living sacrifices to God, expressed through our deeds of love. Evangelism is one form of these good deeds, an act of mercy to the souls of others as we, nourished by worship, draw others through their repentance and conversion into the true worship and adoration of God. Through the examples of Catholic saints such as Dominic and Catherine of Siena I have been filled with a new desire for the salvation of others. But Dominic in particular has shown me how to evangelize in accord with my own abilities and personality—through my love of learning—rather than according to the legalistic mold of Campus Crusade.

Thus for me the greatest benefit of Catholicism has been the restoration of a deep relationship with Christ, and I learned this through reading classical Catholic spiritual writers and theologians. Contrary to popular opinion, Catholic thinkers, such as Thomas Aquinas, always understood the need for a personal relationship with Christ.

They never used this term since, after all, even enemies can know each other personally, but explained instead that by justification we are made friends and lovers of God. And these Catholic writers understood what it meant to be a friend and lover of God better than any Evangelical writer I had ever encountered.

I learned from Bernard of Clairvaux and Catherine of Siena that the most fundamental form of prayer is the loving adoration of God, a prayer which exceeds the ability of words to express. Whereas Evangelicals often think of the Spirit-filled life as one in which the Spirit controls us, Catholic writers teach that being Spirit-filled means that, as we meditate on and contemplate Christ and the Trinity, the Spirit ignites our hearts with love, and thus we willingly obey God.

Evangelicals speak often of a relationship with God based on the gratitude felt when they realized that God loves the unlovable, but my gratitude and love for God has deepened as I’ve learned that God by his grace goes even further and makes us lovable in his sight. It is a commonplace among Catholic writers that God by grace beautifies the soul, adorning it with virtues; he does not leave us hateful to him, but dignifies us by enabling us through the grace of the indwelling Spirit of Christ to become worthy of eternal life.

The two aspects of Catholicism which Evangelicals most often claim are a hindrance to a personal relationship with Christ, ritual and hierarchy, have become for me a tremendous help in developing that relationship.

The sacrament of the Eucharist has created in me a deep awareness of my dependence on the grace of God. Genuflecting at Mass moves me to bow before Christ’s authority in all areas of my life, an experience which reflects the Catholic principle that bodily acts can influence the soul’s disposition.

The hierarchical elements of the Church have helped me draw nearer to Christ. Going to confession humbles me and helps uproot sinful tendencies from my heart. Obedience to the teachings and authority of the bishops and the Pope has helped free me from bondage to my own interpretations as the measure of truth. I believe my capacity to receive Christ has been deepened through this obedience. After all, Jesus said that whoever receives His messengers receives Him (Matt. 10:40).

Even though I value these spiritual benefits more than any other benefit, it was the intellectual struggles I went through which sealed my burnout and paved the way for my turning toward Catholicism. While in Crusade I spent much time in personal evangelism. As I shared my faith with other college students, intellectual objections to Christianity were hurled at me.

Being convinced that Christianity is not an irrational religion, I strove to find answers. I consulted commentaries and the writings of various Evangelicals to find solutions. Gradually, I began to find these answers inadequate and became disillusioned with Evangelical thought, wondering if my relationship with Christ was being maintained at the expense of truth.

The first category of intellectual difficulties comprised biblical passages which conflicted with Evangelical theology. For example, in preaching that we are justified by faith alone, I often encountered the objection that James, in the second chapter of his epistle, clearly states we are not justified by faith alone.

Evangelical commentators offered explanations of how this passage could agree with the Protestant interpretation of Paul’s doctrine of justification. I never found these interpretations satisfactory. I had the uneasy feeling that the passage was being explained away rather than explained.

Jesus’ emphasis on the role of works in salvation further disturbed me, while Paul himself never uses the phrase “faith alone.” In fact, the only time “faith alone” or “faith only” is used in Scripture is by James, and he conclusively rejects the concept: “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24). Schaeffer’s influence prevented me from finding a solution to this problem so long as I remained a committed Evangelical.

Many other passages I encountered seemed to conflict with the broad outline of Evangelical theology and spirituality. This left me with a feeling of unease, yet I was hopeful that by trying to be more objective I could develop a more accurate understanding of biblical theology and spirituality. I was never able to do this while an Evangelical.

As I realize now, the narrow confines of Protestant theology had constricted my ability to penetrate deep into the teachings of Scripture. Ironically, after I began to read Catholic writers, especially the Church Fathers and medieval writers, Scripture began to make more sense to me.

Catholic thought opened Scripture up to me in a way Evangelical thought never could. From my Bible study I knew many Bible verses, but as I now realize their rich meanings typically eluded me. The truly decisive intellectual problem for me centered around the second pillar of Evangelicalism, the doctrine of sola scriptura, the Bible as the sole authority of faith and practice. This problem would involve me in epistemology, the study of how we can have knowledge at all.

Several specific issues gradually wore away my belief in sola scriptura. First, in my Baptist days I became interested in evangelizing Catholics, even acquiring materials from Mission to Catholics for this purpose. Seeking to find and expose the errors in the Catholic view of tradition and Church authority, I studied passages of Scripture used by Evangelicals in their polemic against the Church. Ultimately I found these arguments wanting.

Evangelicals argue that the injunction in Revelation 22:18-19 against adding anything to the “words of the prophecy of this book” secured sola scriptura and precluded Catholic tradition. But this “book of prophecy” refers only to the book of Revelation. This book was written as an individual book, not as the last section of an already-compiled New Testament.

Furthermore, I encountered passages of Scripture which positively suggested the Catholic view. In John 16:13-15 Jesus tells his apostles that the Spirit will guide them into “all truth.” This presented a dilemma for me. If we allowed that this promise extended beyond the eleven apostles then present, the Catholic understanding of Tradition and the infallibility of the magisterium would become reasonable. If the promise applied only to those present and to no one else, then many of the New Testament writers, such as Paul, could not have been inspired.

One could reply that the original apostles could pass on the grace of this spiritual guidance to others, but this implies successors to the apostles—and that is precisely the Catholic position.

It is not enough to say, as some Evangelicals do, that the apostles, such as Peter, merely approved what non-apostles, such as Mark, had written. If Mark’s Gospel was only “approved” by Peter, then that Gospel is only accurate, not inspired. For it to be inspired, the grace of the Spirit described in John 16 must have been passed on to Mark so he too would be inspired. Furthermore, this Evangelical argument concedes that it required the authority of the Church, with the apostles as its spokesmen, to determine what should be included in Scripture.

The challenge of secularism and atheism, from which Christianity had originally rescued me, still haunted me. I decided as I finished my studies in English to pursue a second major in philosophy, hoping to work through the philosophical challenges I had encountered while evangelizing. My studies began with epistemology.

Exposed to the scourges of positivism and Humean empiricism, I sought a foundation for response in the thought of Carl F. H. Henry, a leading Evangelical thinker. He did not help much; conceding much ground to empiricism, he argues that reason cannot prove the existence of God. Instead, all theology must be based on a single presupposition: the living God revealed in his Word. Henry presupposes the truth of (Evangelical) Christianity and proceeds to show the flaws of every other system of thought.

This question-begging not only failed to convince me, but it also showed the impoverishment of sola scriptura. Henry claimed his theory of knowledge was the biblical view, but it really stems from Descartes and post-Cartesian philosophy. It became apparent that in practice even Evangelicals don’t follow sola scriptura.

I had some familiarity with the historical defense of the authority of Scripture proposed by John Warwick Montgomery, an important Evangelical theologian opposed to presuppositionalism. In his view, we become convinced by historical evidence that Christ is the Son of God and that he spoke of the inspiration and authority of Scripture. This historical approach suggested Catholicism rather than Evangelicalism.

In the next phase on my studies I began investigating the thought of philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato, Hegel, and Heidegger. These writers exhibited a depth of thought and, yes, spirituality I never had found as an Evangelical. Although I could not give up my love for Christ, I was taken captive by philosophy. Two parallel processes began. On the one hand, I moved in the direction of the liberal experience-based theology which originated with Schleiermacher in the nineteenth century. In this approach, theology is essentially reflection on personal experiences.

On the other hand, while doing research for my master’s, I began studying writings of the Church Fathers and medieval theologians and mystics. I was struck by the sublimity of their reflections on the Incarnation and the Trinity, for these doctrines–or rather the realities they express–were an integral part of Catholic spirituality, not simply doctrines that must be reluctantly defended, mere intellectual liabilities. I fell in love with these central Christian truths, but they were undermined by the man-centered spirituality of the liberal theology I had embraced.

Liberation from this new spiritual mire came though Catholic thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas, who had confronted philosophy and transformed it in the light of Christian revelation rather than retreating into an anti-intellectual ghetto. In doing this they were following the example of the apostle Paul, who exhorted us to bring every thought captive to Christ and who in his own preaching, as in Acts 17:28 and in his epistle to the Colossians, made use of Greek thought to communicate the gospel. This philosophical tradition helped me rediscover the reasonableness of the Christian faith and thus fulfilled the expectations raised by Schaeffer.

The final moment of my liberation from man-centered spirituality came with my discovery of Thomist realism, an alternative to empiricism and idealism. Three books especially helpful here were Ten Philosophical Mistakes by Mortimer Adler, Three Reformers by Jacques Maritain, and Leisure: The Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper. Realism allows us to reach beyond our sense impressions, unlike empiricism, and to be receptive to reality outside ourselves, unlike idealism. The receptivity of Catholic philosophy fully supports the receptivity of genuine Christian spirituality. Catholic philosophy and spirituality, I found, form an integral unity.

My spiritual and intellectual journey has taken me into Catholicism, where I have found the true and highest mysticism, in which there are no limitations to the depth of the loving relationship we can have with Christ, a relationship which allows us to live in accord with truth and rationality. Although I have only begun to grasp the riches of Catholic spirituality, I have no doubt that in finding Catholicism I found Christ in a more profound way than ever before in my Christian experience.”

Love,
Matthew

John Calvin’s total depravity. Why does evil exist?


-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.

“In John Calvin’s magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, he presents a view of man that is very much like Luther’s but contrary to what we find in the pages of Sacred Scripture. Calvin used texts such as Genesis 6:5—“The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”—and Romans 3:10ff—“None is righteous, no not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one ”—to prove that man is utterly depraved through the fall of Adam and Eve.

Calvin’s conclusion from these texts and others was to say, “The will is so utterly vitiated and corrupted in every part as to produce nothing but evil” (Institutes, bk. II, ch. II, para. 26).

What say we?

The context of the texts Calvin used actually demonstrates the opposite of his claim. For example, if we read forward just four verses in Genesis 6, we find: “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. . . . Noah was a righteous [“just”] man, blameless in his generation” (Gen. 6:8-9). While we Catholics agree that God’s grace or “favor” was essential for Noah to be truly “just” before God, nevertheless Noah was truly just, according to the text.

As far as the quote from Romans is concerned, the greater context of the entire epistle must be understood. One of the central themes of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans is the fact that it is through “the goodness of God” that we are led to repent (cf. Romans 2:4), to be justified (Romans 5:1-2), and persevere in the faith (cf. Romans 11:22). It is solely because of God’s grace that we become truly just:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through Him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God (Rom. 5:1-2).

Further,

For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death . . . in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:2,4).

Notice the emphasis on the fact that man is made truly just so much so that he can fulfill “the just requirement of the law.” It doesn’t get any more just, or righteous, than that!

Thus, Romans 3:10ff simply does not teach total depravity in a Calvinist sense. It cannot when the context is understood.

Moreover, if we examine the verses where St. Paul paints his picture of the wicked who have “turned aside” and “done wrong,” we find he actually quotes Psalm 14:3. The next two verses of this Psalm explain who these “evil ones” are:

Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the Lord? There they shall be in great terror, for God is with the generation of the righteous.

The Psalmist clearly refers to both evildoers and the righteous.

These and other passages from Romans tell us that Christ came to make us just, not that there are absolutely none who are just. We must stress again that it is because of the justice of Christ communicated to the faithful that their actions and, indeed, they themselves are truly made just. But they indeed are truly made just.

Little children, let no one deceive you. He who does right (Gr., ho poion tein dikaiousunein/ὁ ποιῶν τὴν δικαιοσύνην—“the one doing justice”) is righteous (Gr., dikaios estin/δίκαιός ἐστιν—“is just”) as He is righteous (Gr., kathos ekeinos dikaios estin/καθὼς ἐκεῖνος δίκαιός ἐστιν—“as He is just”). -1 Jn 3:7

Scripture couldn’t be clearer that the faithful are made truly just in their being and in their actions through the grace of Christ.

The problem magnified

More grave problems arise when we begin to follow the path Calvin lays for us with his first principle. Even when considering the unregenerate, Calvin is wrong about total depravity, because Scripture tells us even those outside of the law can “do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:14-15).

Though Catholics agree with Calvinists that grace is necessary even for those who are ignorant of the law in order for them to be just before God—in other words, this text is not saying these pagans can be justified apart from grace—the text does infer that nature is not totally depraved, because man can clearly act justly on a natural level and by nature.

But an even more grave error comes to the fore when we consider his notion of the depravity of the just.

“Depravity of the just?” Yes. That was not a typo. According to John Calvin, even those who have been justified by Christ “cannot perform one work which, if judged on its own merits, is not deserving of condemnation” (Institutes, bk. III, ch. 9, para. 9). What a far cry this is from “he that acts justly is just” (I John 3:7) or the plain words of the Psalmist, who uses similar words as found in Genesis with regard to Abraham being justified by faith: “[Abraham] believed the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). In the Psalms we read: “Then Phineas stood up and interposed, and the plague was stayed. And that has been reckoned to him as righteousness from generation to generation” (Ps. 106:30-31).

Clearly, Phineas was justified by his works and not only by faith. In other words, Phineas’s works are truly “just as he is just,” to use the words of I John 3:7.

There are a multitude of biblical texts that come to mind at this point, but here are only three:

“For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned”? (Matt. 12:37).

“By works a man is justified and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:24).

“But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:13-14).

These texts do not even come close to saying all of these works were “worthy of condemnation.” They say just the opposite!

We should be clear here: All “good works” man performs that contribute to his salvation are first and foremost God’s gifts, which, along with his cooperation, truly make him just and worthy to “walk with [Christ] in white; for [he is] worthy” (Rev. 3:4) by God’s grace and mercy. But we cannot escape the biblical fact that these works are truly just and they are truly the fruit of the just man himself.

Understanding the strange

When John Calvin says man is utterly dependent upon God for every single just thought in his mind (cf. Institutes, bk. II, ch. II, para. 27), Catholics will happily agree. And they would be correct: We do agree. However, appearances can be deceiving, because there is meaning beneath those words that Catholics cannot agree with.

With Calvin, there is no sense of grace aiding and empowering our wills as St. Augustine taught and the Catholic Church teaches. For Calvin, being “dependent upon God” means our free cooperation or free will has no part to play. God does not merely empower our wills; He operates them.

In the end, this may well be the most disturbing idea stemming from Calvin’s notion of total depravity: Man is essentially God’s puppet, a notion that led to Calvin attributing both the good and the evil actions of man to God.

And mind you, Calvin rejects and ridicules the Catholic notion of God merely permitting evil and working all things together for good. In his words:

Hence a distinction has been invented between doing and permitting, because to many it seemed altogether inexplicable how Satan and all the wicked are so under the hand and authority of God, that He directs their malice to whatever end He pleases” (Institutes, bk. I, ch. XVIII, para. 1).

Evildoers do not commit acts of depravity in spite of the command of God, but because of the command of God, according to Calvin (ibid., para. 4)!

Isaiah 45:7 and Amos 3:6 are used to teach that there is no evil that occurs that is not “impelled” by God’s positive command (ibid., para. 2).

God is the author of all those things that, according to these objectors, happen only by his inactive permission. He testifies that he creates light and darkness, forms good and evil (Is. [45:7]); that no evil happens which he hath not done (Amos [3:6]) (ibid., para. 3).

As Catholics we understand, as St. Paul teaches, “[S]ince they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct” (Rom. 1:28). This means God may well remove grace that is rejected. He may also hold back grace as well, but this is, as St. Augustine said, God’s “just judgment.”

But according to Calvin’s unbiblical teaching, God does not give grace in the first place and then “impels” men to act sinfully. As quoted above, according to Calvin, God causes evil. And we are not talking about physical evil here; we are talking about moral evil. That is categorically absurd! God cannot “do” or “impel” moral evil because He is infinitely and absolutely good.

God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:8, Numbers 23:19); “He cannot deny Himself” (2 Tim. 2:13) or act contrary to His nature. If God’s nature is one of love and pure being, it is absurd to say that He can “do” evil, which is by nature a lack of some perfection that ought to be present in a given nature. In fact, James 1:13 tells us that God not only cannot cause this kind of evil, He cannot even tempt anyone with evil. That is contrary to His nature.

The bottom line

When Isaiah 45:7 and Amos 3:6 say God “creates evil” and “does evil,” this must be seen only in a sense in which it does not contradict God’s nature and what is clearly revealed to us about God in Scripture. God can directly cause physical evil, such as the ten plagues he released against Egypt in Exodus. But this was an act of justice, which was morally upright and justified.

We can also say that God permits evil in view of the fact that He chose to create us with freedom. But even there, God permits evil only in view of His promise to bring good out of that evil, as is most profoundly demonstrated through the greatest evil in the history of the world: the Crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ. Through this greatest evil God brings about the greatest good: the redemption of the world. God did not kill Christ, nor did he “impel” anyone to kill Christ.

But by virtue of His Omnipotence, He brings good out of the evil acts committed.”

Love,
Matthew

Biblical anarchy


-by Trent Horn

“Different Protestants have different definitions of sola scriptura, but at its core, every definition makes Scripture a Christian’s highest authority. In doing so, it leaves no room for a divinely appointed Magisterium or Church that can authoritatively declare what Christians are obliged or forbidden to believe. This is evident in things like the 1978 Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, a popular statement among conservative Evangelicals, which says, “We deny that Church creeds, councils, or declarations have authority greater than scripture or equal to the authority of the Bible.”

But in practice, it is the authority of a person’s interpretation of the Bible that becomes the highest authority. This leads to what Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid called “a blueprint for anarchy.”

You get people like Matthew Vines, who earnestly contends that the Bible is divinely inspired and, when properly interpreted, does not condemn modern same-sex relationships. Or you get people like Brandan Robertson, who reject fundamental tenets of Christianity by saying Jesus committed the sin of racism when speaking to the Syrophoenician woman. And this isn’t just Robertson, either, as there are denominations like Christadelphians who believe that Jesus had a “sin nature.”

At this point, a Protestant could say: no matter how clearly you state things, you’re always going to have unsaved people twisting Scripture and misinterpreting it. When it comes to the claim that Jesus sinned, only a degenerate person trapped in the darkness of sin could fail to apply Hebrews 4:15’s clear teaching to the question: “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning.”

Sola scriptura is defensible, these apologists claim, because incorrect interpretations of Scripture can always be refuted by the correct interpretation true Christians can always locate within the pages of holy writ. But this pushes the problem back and assumes that everyone will nicely go along with a uniform understanding of what Scripture even is.

For example, how could you respond to someone defending Jesus’ sinfulness who says he doesn’t believe that Hebrews is Scripture? After all, the letter is anonymous, and although it has been traditionally attributed to Paul, several Church fathers questioned its canonicity. The early Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea said, “Some have rejected the Epistle to the Hebrews, saying that it is disputed by the church of Rome, on the ground that it was not written by Paul.”

Even if Paul did write it, why believe that Paul’s words were divinely inspired? Pastor Robertson says there’s reason to doubt that, given that Paul was never one of Jesus’ disciples during Jesus’ earthly ministry. Some Christians follow only the words of Jesus (similar to Bill Johnson’s Just Jesus movement). Others, like hyper-dispensationalists, take the opposite extreme and think Christians are bound to accept only some of Acts and the letters Paul wrote while he was in prison.

Without a Magisterium to appeal to, saying these views contradict Scripture assumes what the Protestant apologist is trying to prove—namely, which writings constitute Sacred Scripture. But because the Church has an authoritative teaching office, there is a way to set objective “ground rules” when it comes to understanding the meaning of Scripture.

A Protestant might offer three objections to this critique of sola scriptura. First, if the meaning of Scripture has been entrusted to the Church, then why hasn’t the pope or an ecumenical council infallibly defined every passage of Scripture and put all controversies to rest? For the same reason Protestants don’t have a divinely inspired biblical commentary: God chose not give this kind of revelation to the Church.

The Church hands on the Deposit of Faith, and, although a handful of biblical passages have been infallibly defined (such as John 3:5’s reference to water baptism), the Church allows biblical scholars a fair amount of latitude more generally when it comes to interpreting the Bible. The Church’s authority primarily presents itself in biblical interpretation by setting “guardrails” that make certain interpretations off-limits. For example, scholars might find new insights into the cultural interaction that took place between Jesus and the Canaanite woman, but they are prohibited from saying the interaction proves that Jesus is not fully divine or not free from sin.

Second, a Protestant might say the Catholic is kicking the can down the road: if there is “anarchy” when it comes to interpreting what the Bible says, then won’t a similar anarchy occur when people try to figure out what Church documents mean? In response, I would say this is a good reply to someone who says private interpretation can never be a part of the life of a Christian. That’s too narrow of a view, and the Catechism even says Christians must obey the dictates of a properly formed conscience (1790).

However, a more defensible position would be that interpretive clarity is at least far more feasible (or may even only be possible) through a living Magisterium. That’s because a Church that persists through history can teach doctrine through deliberate, repetitive acts that account for misunderstandings that arise in each generation. The static words of Scripture cannot articulate themselves anew for every generation.

Finally, a Protestant might point to the dissenters within the Catholic Church as evidence that having a Magisterium does not eliminate the problem of heresy. What about all the priests and lay people who argue for expanding the definition of marriage and the ordination of women? What good is a magisterium if it doesn’t prevent these voices from rising up in the Church?

Well, even when God directly spoke to his chosen people or his faithful angels, people rebelled. That’s the cost of giving creatures free will. But at least Catholic dissenters usually admit that what they’re peddling directly contradicts what the Church teaches. They may hope Catholic teaching will change in their favor, but they begrudgingly allow that their heresy is not Catholic teaching. A Protestant, on the other hand, who dissents from “traditional Christianity” can always say what he believes is what the highest authority in Protestantism has always taught, which others have simply failed to recognize.

So while dissenters and heretics will always afflict the body of Christ, Christ chose to protect his Church not by confining divine revelation to Scripture alone, but by instituting a Church. Jesus told his apostles, “He who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16). The same principle animates the authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church.”

Love & truth,
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