Swimming the Tiber 8: Justification by Faith

Ah, yes, the war of faith and works! That great debate between St. Paul and St. James! Where even the apostles disagree, surely we will find no common ground!

I hope this is not the case. It may be said that more ink has been spilled on this topic than almost any other since All Hallows’ Eve in the year of our Lord 1517. As you well know from this very series, we have now recently had the 499th anniversary of that day, and from the time of Luther up to now, in nearly half a millennium, Protestants have declared again and again the fallen nature of the Catholic Church on this doctrine: that Catholics believe they are saved by works, a sure-fire recipe for damnation.

A lot of Scripture deals with this question directly, and there is always a danger in this discussion that it will devolve into fruitless proof-texting back and forth until we run out of Bible pages and have come no closer to an understanding of each other. But my view of this false dichotomy came much earlier than my conversion to Catholicism: when I really began to study the Scriptures, the truth of the matter became clear to me.

My goal, then, is to communicate what I believe: that St. Paul and St. James do not disagree and, in fact, share in a common understanding that permeates the Scriptures. Let me first put forward this notion logically, and then I will point out how Scripture supports (and does not oppose) it.

We know (and do not doubt) that our salvation is by God’s grace above all else. The main point of contention between Catholics and Protestants is how that salvation enters our lives. Soteriology (the study of salvation) is often broken into subgroups, especially justification and sanctification. Justification is the legal declaration by God that we are freed from sin and preserved for righteousness. Sanctification is the actual process of making us holy (“sanctification” is from Latin sanctus, meaning “holy”), that is, righteous (so that we are not only freed from sin, but free of sin, meaning we are not only absolved of wrongdoing, but also never do it again).

Sanctification is a discussion for another time. The crucial matter in the question of faith vs. works is justification.

Now, we all know that justification is by God’s grace. Without His grace (that is, without the atonement accomplished through Christ on the cross), justification is impossible, regardless of what else is true about ourselves or our circumstances. (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1987-2005, and pretty much any Protestant declaration of faith.) But how do we cooperate with that justification? Why isn’t it just freely given to everyone?

Well, if you’re Calvinist, it’s because some people are elect and some people aren’t; just get used to it. For the rest of us, though, the question usually comes down to faith. (Faith is, of course, a gift of God from His grace, so it’s not quite that easy to untangle, but let’s try to stay focused on the issue at hand.) It is our faith which differentiates us as recipients of God’s grace; through faith, we accept the gift and we are justified. Simple as that. Right?

But what does it mean to accept the gift? What does it mean to have faith? Is it merely an intellectual assent? How can any reasonable Christian assert that Christ is Lord and then indulge in everything Christ has commanded us not to do? Is he really our Lord if we do not obey him? Have we really accepted his gift if we do not follow his commands? Can a person offer intellectual assent at the existence and authority of a commanding officer, but refuse to obey the orders given by that officer? Perhaps, you say, if the officer is corrupt or has given bad orders, but do we say this of Christ’s commands? That they are bad orders from a corrupt official, to be disobeyed? Of course not.

This is where Protestants and Catholics fail to communicate. Because most Protestants that I know say that when justification occurs, our hearts are changed, and we are made new–but as long as we are in this world, we struggle against it. So we sin and fall short while we wait to be sanctified, but we have to keep getting back up, striving to become what God wants us to be.

And the Catholic Church says that when justification occurs, when we accept that grace, our hearts are changed (we are “converted,” literally turned together toward the doctrines of Christ), and we are set on a new path–but as long as we are in this world, we struggle against it. So we sin and we fall short, but we keep getting back up, being converted anew to God’s way, striving to become what God wants us to be.

So… why do we disagree about this, again?

(Before I continue, you may want to review the Scripture supporting this position. See the footnotes about that.)

Let’s face it: the number of Protestants who actually advocate “sinning boldly” is all but negligible. Even Luther, from whom we get that phrase, sincerely believed that genuine faith produced good works; the phrase “sin boldly,” or “let your sins be strong,” actually meant that I should not pretend that I am not a sinner, but freely admit it, and let God’s grace save me from that sin (by producing in me faith, which produces good works).

So when people object to Catholicism’s “salvation by works,” to what are they actually objecting? I think that most people who complain about this have long since twisted the truth (or had it twisted for them), and they don’t know what they’re talking about–but I’m a firm believer that most misunderstandings started with an incomplete understanding somewhere along the line. In this case, I think the Protestant objection to Catholic “works” comes down to two things:

  1. The Catholic Church “forces” its members to do certain things, and that’s Bad. Whereas for Protestants, being good and going to church are important and advocated, for Catholics, missing Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation (!!) are sins. And you know what? I work hard, I try, and sometimes, I just can’t get to church–what’s the big deal?

    Well, think about it like this. If God is our Father and Christ is the King and the Church is his Bride, that makes the Church, mystically, our mother. And it is a mother’s duty to raise her children in the faith, in order to save their souls. So when the Church tells us to stop sinning and go to Mass, is it really any different from when I tell my son to stop hitting his brother and share the toys? It’s about moral development in an immoral world. It’s about raising Christian people, whether they’re 5 or 65. All Christians call bad behavior “sin.” Why should the Church, which has the God-given authority to bind and loose sins (see Matthew 16:19; 18:18), not do the same?

    So when we don’t do as the Church tells us we should, we have committed a sin. And that means we have to repair the relationship between us and the Church and God. Which brings us to point number 2.

  2. Catholics don’t believe in the doctrine of the “perseverance of the saints.” The phrase you have probably heard more often is “once saved, always saved.” This is a very common Protestant doctrine, and the theological term for it is the perseverance of the saints, though that term is most often associated with Calvinism.

    Perseverance of the saints is intrinsically linked to two other doctrines, and usually, if you hold one of these, you hold perseverance of the saints (even if you don’t hold both).

    One is the idea of irresistible grace. “Irresistible grace” is the notion that God chooses the elect (cf. Matthew 24; Mark 13; Romans 11:7-8; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14; 2 Peter 1:10) and we have no say in the matter. Who could resist the grace of the Almighty God, anyway? And if grace is irresistible, then there is no way to escape it, no matter our sins.

    The second is the idea of total depravity. “Total depravity” is the notion that we are completely incapable of genuine righteousness without God’s grace. It frequently (though not necessarily always) maintains that, even after receiving God’s grace, we necessarily cannot stop sinning until after this life has passed (that is, complete and thorough sanctification is impossible on earth). If we cannot be wholly purified from sin–that is, if we are incapable of becoming sinless regardless of God’s grace–then any denial of salvation because of sin refutes the idea of salvation altogether. Since God says that He has, does, and will save us, we must not be able to “lose” our salvation.

    The Catholic Church doesn’t teach either of these doctrines. First, Catholicism is a champion of free will. See Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraphs 1730-1748; consider especially Sirach 15:14 (recall that the Book of Sirach is canonical); John 8:31-38; Romans 8:21; 2 Corinthians 3:17; and Galatians 5. (This is not, I will admit, a thorough refutation of the doctrines of predestination, but let it serve as a primer; I may return to it sometime later.)

    In the second place, the Catholic Church teaches that God’s omnipotence exceeds our fallenness. To be sanctified in this life is beyond difficult, but nothing is impossible with God (cf. Luke 1:37). We are, in fact, called to sanctification by Christ and the Church: cf. Matthew 5:48; Romans 6:15-23; 12:1-2; 2 Corinthians 13:5-10; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17; Hebrews 6:1-2; 7:11-28; 10:1-14; 11:39-40; James 1:22-27.

    Fortified by so many and such powerful means of salvation, all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord, each in his own way, to that perfect holiness whereby the Father Himself is perfect.

    Lumen Gentium (The Light of Nations), paragraph 11.

    And how do we achieve this sanctification? Several of these verses indicate it, and the Catholic Church affirms it: Virtue is like a habit, or a muscle. Only by repetitive use does it improve. In common parlance, we call this repetition “work,” and whether our work is material or spiritual, it contributes to our holiness, provided we do all work in right communion with Christ (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2427).

    But of course, we admit that complete sanctification is, at best, very unlikely. Are the rest of us damned? Of course not. The Catholic Church teaches that, after death, we are purified by God’s grace and sanctified unto holiness, that we may enter into his Presence. (I can limit myself to just a few tangents each post, don’t worry; there’s a whole post dedicated to Purgatory coming up later.) Nevertheless, we know that some can lose their place by God’s side, though the Church has never insisted on the damnation of any particular soul (unlike her assertions of the salvation of particular individuals, whom we call the saints).

    How do we know that some can know Christ, have faith in Christ, and still fall away? Scripture is pretty adamant about it.

    Listen! Behold, the [one] sowing came out [in order] to sow. And it happened in the sowing [that], [the seed] which fell upon the road, also the winged [things] came and wolfed it down.1 And another fell upon the rocky [places] where [it] did not have much earth, and [it] sprang up [and] out straightaway on account of not having a depth of earth; and when the sun sprang up, [the seed] was scorched, and on account of not having a root, [it] dried up. And another fell into the thorns, and the thorns mounted up and pressed it closely, and [it] did not give fruit. And another fell into the earth, the beautiful [earth], and [it] was giving fruit, mounting up and increasing, and [it] was bearing [fruit] in thirty and in sixty and in a hundred. … And these are the [ones] sowed upon the rocky [places], who, whenever [they] hear the word, [they] seize it straightaway with joy, and [they] do not have a root in themselves, but [they] are temporary; then, with pressure or persecution having come about [on a particular occasion], [they] stumble on account of the word.

    – Mark 4:3-8, 16-17, my translation; cf. Matthew 13:3-8, 20-21; Luke 8:5-8, 13

    Not every [one] saying to me, “Lord, lord,” will enter into the kingdom of the heavens, but the [one] doing the will of my father, [who is] the [one] in the heavens. Many will say to me in that day, “Lord, lord, were [we] not prophets in your name, and did [we] not throw out demons in your name, and did [we] not do many powers in your name?” And then [I] will say the same [thing] to [each of] them, that, “And [I] never knew you; go away from me, [you ones] working at lawlessness.”

    – Matthew 7:21-23, my translation

    Wherefore, having sent forth the word of the beginning of Christ, let us bear [down] upon the perfection, not again throwing down a foundation of a repentance from dead works, and of faith upon God, of a teaching of baptisms, and of an application of hands, and of a resurrection of [the] dead, and of an eternal judgment. And [we] will do this [thing] especially if God yields [it to us]. For [it is] an impossible [thing] [to renew] the [ones] once having been illuminated, and having tasted of the gift, the heavenly [gift], and having become partakers of a holy spirit, having tasted both a beautiful saying of God and powers of a destined age, and having fallen aside, to renew [them] unto repentance, [with them] crucifying for themselves the son of God and making a spectacle [of him]. For earth, the [earth] having drunk the rain coming many times upon it, and having begotten a well-arranged plant for those on account of whom [it] is also cultivated, [the earth] partakes of a blessing from God; but the [earth] carrying out thorns and thistles [is] counterfeit and near [to] curses, of which the end is burning.

    – Hebrews 6:1-8, my translation

    Translation Footnotes:
    1 Idiomatic reflection of the actual verb. Whereas we say “eat up,” the Greeks said “eat down.” “Devoured it” is an acceptable translation also.

    Though these passages, too, can be debated endlessly, I think they are clear: seek perfection, as your heavenly Father is perfect, and do not hold back, but run the race as if to win (1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Hebrews 12:1-2). Do this out of love for God, but at the very least, do it out of fear of hell, where the wicked and the lawless are burned, no matter how many times they may say, “Lord, lord.”

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Swimming the Tiber 1: Introduction and Definitions

On this Reformation Day, marking 499 years since Martin Luther set the snowball rolling on what would eventually become Protestantism, I have decided to begin a series on my own Counter-Reformation. You see, of late I have been feeling a conviction of the Spirit that I have been too taciturn about my faith. Part of that is wanting to avoid a misrepresentation leading to misunderstandings; I may well do the topic a disservice. Part of my reticence, too, is avoiding the modern trend of getting fired for expressing my beliefs too publicly, too loud, or too obnoxiously.

But those reasons fall flat when examined. Careful exposition on the reasons for my conversion is not bad presentation; and if someone will be offended by my conversion, they will likely be so regardless of what time I mention it. Most employers (some excepted) do not fire good employees on account of a mild expression of their faith, even if that faith contradicts the opinions held by managers and executives at that company (and since I do not plan to use slurs or other grotesque terminology, legitimate reasons for my firing are not likely to come up); and besides that, even if I am fired on these grounds, I shall “offer it up”–that is, I shall adhere to Colossians 1:24.

The astute and frequent site visitor may doubt my resolve in beginning a long series. You’ve likely noticed that I haven’t reviewed many books lately, and that my translations of Romans have been inconsistently timed. This slow-down is due almost entirely to my busy schedule: two toddlers (or a toddler and a baby, depending on how much denial I’m in about the passage of time), a full-time job, graduate classes in computer science, and my work on The Aegipan Revolution (sequel to The Chimaera Regiment). In all of that, I don’t really have time to read regularly (which is a shame).

“But wait!” you interrupt. “If you don’t have time to read, why would you have time for a new series of blog posts?” Good question! The answer is that I probably don’t. Taking this up will likely deter some other hobby, but that’s okay. Like my translations of Romans, I think this is important enough to let other hobbies (especially those that are the least productive) fall by the wayside.

What, then, is this series about? I have mentioned it obliquely already: my conversion to Catholicism. It will not follow exactly the route I did; my path from Southern Baptist to Catholic was non-linear, darting from one topic to another without logical progression, until finally everything fell into place in a moment of clarity. Instead, I will try to provide structure, building upon each topic to establish the next. I don’t intend to cover every possible objection to the Catholic Church (an endeavor that would surely take a lifetime), but only those which I had myself (and a couple that are tangentially related). Even so, assuming I can post these on a weekly basis (which is my current plan), this series will take me the better part of a year to complete.

Before I get started, let me quickly say that, if you want your apology from someone more intelligent, more humorous, more structured, and more precise, go out immediately and read St. Francis de Sales’ The Catholic Controversy, which is a series of letters he wrote to his diocese as it became Protestant around him. (He succeeded in converting a great many souls back to the Church, and this is the book I blame more than any other for my own conversion.) More than a few of the points I will present come directly from St. Francis’ work. (You can read my review of it here, if you want an overview. And if you don’t want to buy it, though I recommend you do–taking notes is optional, but probable–there is an English translation available online.)

The first step in any good discussion is an agreement of terms. Disagreeing on definitions is the largest hurdle in any conversation about theology and it is the one most often missed or ignored. Simply put, Catholics and non-Catholics do not use the same terms in the same way, and assuming that they do creates a false understanding of the others’ teaching. I am endeavoring, in this first post of the series, to lay out the terms on which Protestants and Catholics frequently disagree so that these misunderstandings are minimized.

(It is probable that I shall edit this post in the future when I think of more terms that need to be defined.)

to pray
To ask or request. Compare once-common English usage, “Pray tell!” in which the speaker asks that the listener provide more information on a subject. Compare archaism “prithee,” literally, pray thee, used by Shakespeare 228 times to have one character ask another something. In Catholic circles, does not mean “to worship.” (In Protestant circles, excluding usages as in Shakespeare, means almost exclusively “to worship,” and praying can only be done to God. This is a linguistic oddity more than a theological one; Protestants use “pray” for its original meaning so infrequently that laypeople are rarely even aware of that definition.)
to worship
As a general rule, Catholics mean the same thing as Protestants when they say, “to worship,” but sometimes, very rarely, they mean it in a literal way: “to apply the appropriate worth to” something or someone. With this usage, it can be applied to just about anything. Because of the rarity of this usage, I prefer never to engage in it, but in case you come across someone saying, “We worship X, Y, Z (not-God),” don’t automatically say it proves that all Catholics are idolaters. It’s just another linguistic alteration over time, and some folks haven’t caught up yet.
works
I will delve into the soteriological implications of “works” in a later post, but for now, suffice it to say that the term needs to lose its baggage for a good conversation. For Protestants, this word often means that you have fallen into a paganesque method of rote behavior, thinking you can build a stairway to heaven; for Catholics, this word mostly means “labor,” “effort,” or “action.” Attributing more meaning to it will confuse a Catholic and infuriate a Protestant.
holy / holiness
More than a few Protestant evangelical friends of mine have defied usage of the term “holy” in one direction or another. Either “holy” is something that only God is, and therefore we should not apply it to people of any stripe (no matter how good they may be), or “holy” is something all Christians are, and therefore we should not restrict it to certain people. For Catholics, “holy” (synonymous with “saintly”) tends to be held in reserve for both God and the saints. I will delve into the saints in a later post, but for now, suffice it to say that the saints are those “set apart” by God in heaven. Catholic doctrine does not preclude the definition used by Paul (meaning “the faithful” or “Christians in general”) in Romans 15; I Corinthians 6; 2 Corinthians 1; and other places, both in the New and Old Testament. But rather, it favors the definition used by Paul (meaning “the ideal” or “those delineated as holy by God” or “those by the side of God”) in Romans 1; 8; Ephesians 5; and other places. Which of these is the more appropriate meaning can be debated, but the modern usage of Catholics has more than a thousand years of history behind it at this point.
The Five Solas
These belong to Protestantism, and the five solas are: sola Scriptura (Scripture alone is the final authority on God’s plan for salvation), sola gratia (men are saved by grace alone), sola fide (that grace comes through faith alone), solus Christus (that faith is in Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (creation gives glory to God alone). These are not uniquely Protestant, in that some can be interpreted through a Catholic lens and be entirely accurate (most easily the last), but especially the first is peculiarly Protestant (excluding Anglicans, whose three-legged stool of faith gives no primacy to Scripture). To read more about the five solas, here’s a randomly selected website.

 
That’s all for now. Look forward to more posts in the future. The first topic will be Sacred Tradition, and will involve the daunting task of disagreeing with sola Scriptura. This may seem a very challenging place to begin, but without it, much of the Catholic Church may be dismissed by those who ignore her historical authority.

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