The Bad Boys of Protestatism
The Sixteenth-Century Reformation pivoted on two points. The first point was about authority. What is the final authority on which we rest to know what God would have us believe about him and to know what God requires us to do? Please note the italics on FINAL. Also, please note the CAPS on final… okay, I’ll stop now. The Protestants held to church authority and to the authority of tradition, but held that the final court of appeal for both church authority and tradition was the Scripture alone – hence, the famous Reformation slogan sola scriptura. The Roman Catholics rejected the principle of sola scriptura not because they supposed the Bible was uninspired or full of errors. Not at all. The Roman Catholic view of what the Bible is is very similar to the historic Protestant view (indeed, the historic Christian view – inspired and inerrant). It is the Roman Catholic view of how the Bible functions that is significantly different. According to Rome, the Bible is one deposit of divine revelation. Church tradition is another source of revelation. In the Bible, we have the written apostolic traditions and teachings. Additionally, in the traditions of the church, we have the unwritten traditions and teachings. These two sources, in Roman Catholic thought, together form the fullness of divine revelation. Thus, the final appeal of a Protestant is to the Bible alone, but the final appeal of a Roman Catholic is to the written and/or unwritten tradition: the Bible and tradition. Okay, that’s the first pivot point of the Reformation, and the second flows directly from it.
The second pivot point is the doctrine of justification. Martin Luther’s reputed to have said that this doctrine is the one on which the church stands or falls. Whether he actually said that or not, I think that his teaching and life testify that he thought it true. So, what’s the deal with justification? Why is it so important and can someone please explain to me (in simple terms) how Rome and Protestantism differ on it? I’m here for you, baby. I got yer back. I’ll do for you, but in reverse order. First, I’ll (in simple terms) explain the difference. Second, I’ll appeal to a couple biblical texts on which the Protestant doctrine is founded. Finally, I’ll say a couple of words (few but profound) as to why this doctrine is so important. So, go get a beer or glass of wine (maybe even have a backup round on deck), get comfy, and let’s see if we can’t make some sense out of this.
Roman Catholicism maintains that justification is “the transforming of the sinner from the state of unrighteousness to the state of holiness and sonship of God.” For the RCC, justification is actual transformation of a sinner into a state of holiness. Justification is a process, which, according to the Council of Trent, involves “sanctification and renovation of the interior man.” So, for Rome, justification is a process by which God works in sinners to make them holy, which necessarily includes both the inner disposition of a person as well as his works or actions which flow from that disposition.
>Protestants have historically held to what is articulated by the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A #33 (slightly modernized by Captain Studly, here):
What is justification? Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received by faith alone.
Let’s unpack that briefly: Justification is an act (as opposed to a process). It’s an act that consists of two things: 1) A complete pardon of sins, and 2) a divine accepting of us as righteous in his sight. These two things can be stated even more succinctly: 1) not guilty before God, and 2) counted completely righteous before God. Neither God’s pardon nor his accepting us as righteous are based upon our own righteousness, but upon Jesus Christ’s perfect righteousness. His perfect righteousness is “imputed” or accounted to us. Imputation is opposed to an actual impartation or infusion of righteousness into the person. Thus, in the Protestant view of justification there’s no process of actually making the sinner holy. The Protestant doctrine of salvation certainly includes personal righteousness and eventual perfection in righteousness. Salvation certainly includes good works and living a converted life before God and man. While those things are included in the broader doctrine of salvation, they are necessarily excluded from the narrow and specific consideration of justification. Finally, this wonderful blessing of pardon and imputed righteousness is received by the sinner though faith alone. So, again, relative to justification specifically, the Protestant view excludes all human works and efforts.
Okay, if you were able to make it though that, then the question comes down to which one of these views is true. I’d suggest you pick up a Bible and read Romans 3-4 and Galatians 2-3 for starters. Here’s a taste:
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” Rom. 4:1-8
We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law,because by works of the law no one will be justified. Gal. 2:15-16
So, we know that Protestants and Catholics are still divided over these issues. These debates are at least five hundred years old, but are they still relevant? I say they are absolutely relevant and still wildly important. How we relate to God and how we view ourselves are tied in very tightly to our view of justification. If justification is a process that includes our works, then it has us looking (at least in part) to ourselves and our own efforts to attain it. If justification is a simple act of God, then it has us look to Christ completely; it has us seeking our “forgiveness and righteousness before God” in Christ alone, and not in our own actions at all. Simply, the Roman Catholic teaching mixes up Christ and ourselves in justification. The Protestant teaching sets up Christ as quite distinct from us. His righteousness isn’t infused into us, it is simply counted to us, and that through faith alone. We trust Christ and, in him, we’re justified. It’s that simple. More aspects of salvation flow from justification, which Rome also includes under the rubric of justification. Protestants, following the biblical language, keep these other aspects distinct from justification, but affirm that they always come with justification. To the point, we know that justification is not according to our works or efforts, but that it’s a simple divine pardon and an accepting of us as righteous before God. God’s declaring a sinner to be righteous is in his grace alone, based upon Christ alone, and is received by faith alone. Hence a few other Reformation slogans: sola gratia, solus Christus, et sola fide.
Soli Deo gloria
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