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Thursday, July 30, 2015

What Is Meant By "Justification By Faith Alone"?

We were asked about this in our Reformed and Catholic dialogue group; one PCA elder mistakenly believes that yours truly does not understand his position. Well, when I was in fact Reformed, the words from Chapter XI of the Westminster Confession of Faith were my own:

 Those whom God effectually calls, He also freely justifies; not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith; which faith they have not of themselves, it is the gift of God.
II. Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love.


[Me again] This is shockingly clear. If this is true, Roman Catholicism cannot be, soteriologically speaking. They are denying the very basis for co-operation in salvation, which is "faith formed by agape," which is made possible by infusion, according to the Catholic Church. What is the motivation for denying this synergy, this co-operation? The prior commitment of what we might call "total inability," from the so-called "5 Points of Calvinism." I hesitate specifically to use its more familiar title, "Total Depravity," because it introduces confusions that often serve to misrepresent the Reformed position on this point. In any case, the Reformed assert that the Fall has so profoundly affected man that none of his faculties are free from the taint of sin. That is the Reformed meaning of the term, or shall we say, one accepted meaning within the tradition. I myself did not subscribe to the popular notion that humanity, or one person in particular, was maximally wicked all the time. In any case, this accounting of the situation on the whole makes perfect sense, if the supposition about the human nature post-Fall is correct. If man is unable to co-operate with God in his own salvation, the sacramental system that suggests and commends this co-operation is a farce. In basic terms, this is heresy according to the Catholic Church, because that supposition is not correct.

A few notes here, before we turn back to Catholic theology. We should notice the denial of infusion in the first paragraph. We should notice that pardon of sin happens immediately; that is, without any ecclesial or sacramental mediation that is standard Catholicism in every age. "Accounting and accepting" is synonymous with the imputed righteousness of Christ; he accounts you righteous, when in fact you are not, according to this document. What's the Christocentric motive for this assertion? God does this because you *can't* do it, even if you wanted to. When in His good pleasure, he saves you, you are supposed to understand that any pursuit of holiness that you undertake is all "to the praise of His glorious grace." This is where--if you will pardon the insensitivity--Catholics and Reformed must temper their joy at concurring that grace is primary, because we mean different things. For the Reformed, grace is the flip-side of sin; it is God being and doing everything we are not; it is essentially the favor which denies our disfavor. The work of grace in the life of a believer is evidence of His sovereign mercy, above all else. There is only participation in the most indirect sense, that the elect are willed to receive that which Christ deserves in strict justice. This is why these men added, "not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ's sake alone."

Let's make the Catholic point, and then explore. Salvation is almost entirely about what God has "wrought in them." In a certain sense, sanctification and justification are the same thing, in the Catholic mind, not simply tending toward the same end, which is God. Let's chat with CCC, 1993, and see what she has to say:

Justification establishes cooperation between God's grace and man's freedom. On man's part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent:
When God touches man's heart through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, man himself is not inactive while receiving that inspiration, since he could reject it; and yet, without God's grace, he cannot by his own free will move himself toward justice in God's sight. (Their emphasis, not mine)

 [Me talking] Faith is assent to what God has revealed; giving that assent invites us to conversion; it is not synonymous with conversion in toto. That's the difference. The Holy Spirit gives charity or agape, which constitutes saving or living faith when present. The Catechism says 2 things here which sound absurd to the Reformed: 1. Man is not passive when touched by the Holy Spirit; and 2. he can reject whatever inspiration the Holy Spirit has given, and even the Holy Spirit Himself, and finally, at that.

Your average intelligent Reformed person believes that article II here in his Westminster Confession answers the challenge posed by the Catholic in regard to charity and sanctification,--and the charge of antinomianism that often follows,-- because they affirm, "and is no dead faith, but works by love." Not so, actually, because it doesn't describe "dead" faith at all, or suggest it as a real possibility. Because the man cannot co-operate in the Reformed system, agape can't be a necessary ingredient in justification; it can only be the fruit or result of what has already occurred. In the justified, I understand that agape comes with the faith which alone justifies. This is why the Reformed must question whether election has taken place; man cannot do or undo what is taking place. In any case, there is a real soteriological difference between the Catholic and Reformed, and it will not do to suggest that I or anyone else are exaggerating it for divisive purposes. I find it ironic that the same person who dares to suggest that our difference is not significant will at the same time profess the Reformed soteriology as a reason not to be Catholic! I hope and pray that the dissonance of that contradiction will lead him and others to re-consider the whole matter, and seek full communion with the Church.


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