Thursday, April 23, 2009


Sola Fide and Catholicism

It’s good to hear from Pastor Allen, also “my true father in the faith.” I too have been thinking about “Evangelical Catholics”. While Pastor Allen’s comments are helpful, I think the essential issue is being missed:

If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. (Psalm 130:3,4)

If one does a Google search on "Martin Luther Psalm 130", one will get many references and, in many of them, one will see the assertion that this was Luther’s favorite psalm. Most of us know enough about Luther to associate “justification by faith” with him. So the following excerpts from his commentary on this psalm will give some notion of why this was his favorite, together with giving us an opportunity to refresh ourselves on the meaning of “justification” and how important it is:

The beginning of the introduction to his commentary on this psalm:

This Psalm we do also account amongst the most excellent and principal Psalms; for it sets forth the chief point of our salvation, our justification I mean, and righteousness before God. The true and sincere knowledge whereof is it which maintains and preserves the church; for it is the knowledge of truth and life. Contrariwise, where the knowledge of our justification is lost, there is no life, no church, no Christ, neither is there any judgment left either of doctrine or spirit, but all is full of horrible darkness and blindness ...

Commenting on verse 4:

... herein alone the conscience finds rest and comfort, when altogether naked and without any addition of her own worthiness, it commits itself to the naked and bare mercy of God, and says, O Lord, I have thy promise that righteousness comes of mercy alone, which righteousness is nothing else but thy free pardon, that is to say, that thou wilt not mark our iniquities.

I commend, therefore, to you this definition of righteousness which David here sets forth, that to mark sin, is to condemn. Again, not to mark sin, is to justify or pronounce a man righteous. And this is true righteousness indeed, when sins are not marked, but pardoned and not imputed. Likewise in another place, also, he defines a blessed man; and Paul alleges the same definition very aptly: “Blessed is the man (says he) to whom God imputes not his sin.” He does not say, blessed is the man who has no sin, rather to whom the Lord does not impute that sin which he has ...

For this doctrine makes all men alike, and before God leaves no difference. For if by imputation only we are righteous, it follows not only that we are all sinners, but that also there is no difference between the learned and unlearned, the wise and the simple, the married and unmarried, the prince and the ploughman, &c ...

Thus David sets forth in this verse the sum and effect of all true Christian doctrine, and that sun which gives light to the church. For while this doctrine stands the church shall stand and flourish. But when this doctrine fails, the church must needs fail and fall to ruin ...

This passage ends with the statement with which the dictum that “justification by faith is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls” is associated. The passage cited from the introduction makes the point even more dramatically: Take this doctrine away, and all that is left in the church is horrible darkness and blindness.

In addition to making these points about the importance of this doctrine, Luther here gives very clear guidance on just what this “justification” is which alone can save us: It is (as he puts it in the introduction to his commentary on Galatians) an “alien righteousness”. It is Christ’s righteousness, imputed to those who trust in him, and apprehended by faith, and by faith alone.

For by grace you have been saved through faith,and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God,not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph. 2:8-10)

All this is offered as a preliminary to an important point about the Church of Rome: It is constitutionally forbidden to assent to this “doctrine on which the church stands or falls”. The Sixth Session of the Council of Trent (held January 13, 1547) produced the “Decree on Justification” which (since, in their view, the Council could not err) binds Rome. Chapter X of that Decree is “On the increase of Justification received”. It deals with what follows after either one’s baptism as an infant, or what they term “the initial justification of the impious.” Since it’s a short Chapter, it’s worth quoting in its entirety:
“Having, therefore, been thus justified, and made the friends and domestics of God, advancing from virtue to virtue, they are renewed, as the Apostle says, day by day; that is, by mortifying the members of their own flesh, and by presenting themselves as instruments of justice unto sanctification, they, through the observance of the commandments of God and the Church, faith co-operating with good works, increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified, as it is written: He that is just, let him be justified still; and again, Be not afraid to be justified even to death; and also, Do you see that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. And this increase of justification holy Church begs, when she prays, ‘Give unto us, O Lord, increase of faith, hope, and charity.’”
If a lot of that seems very familiar--and desirable!--to evangelicals, that’s because much of it deals with what we call “sanctification”. And the crux of the matter in this Chapter is that it essentially says that “justification” is only begun by faith, and must be completed by a sanctified life. (Because of this view, the preceding Chapter, "Against the vain confidence of the heretics", declares that what we call "assurance of salvation" is an impossibility in this life.) As Luther puts it more than once, what Rome taught both before and after Trent (and to which it definitively committed itself at Trent), is that we are not “justified by faith alone”, but rather we are “justified by faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6 is a favorite with Rome, because they use it this way.)

This is not to say that this Chapter does not raise some questions which would be profitable for us to consider: How seriously do we take sanctification? What do we do with the 2nd Chapter of James? What do we say when we see no fruit in the life of someone who professes Christ? The list could go on.

But the most fundamental question that it should ask us is, “Do we stand with Luther or with Rome”? If we stand with Luther, that is, if we believe that, God accepts us as righteous, “not for anything wrought in us, or done by us, but for Christ’s sake alone ... we receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith”, and we believe that this is “the doctrine on which the church stands or falls”, then we’re constrained to be realistic about the whole idea of “Evangelical Catholics”: There may be true believers in the Roman Church, but that “church” is a fallen one, and is committed to staying that way. Otherwise put, there may be “Evangelical Catholics”, but there is no “Evangelical Catholicism”, just an organization that excommunicated itself almost 500 years ago, “no life, no church, no Christ.”

It may not feel good to be so constrained, but there it is.


  1. Do we stand with Luther or with Rome? The question makes it seem as if there are only two options . . . each of which excludes the other. If one stands with Luther, I have heard Catholics say that person stands condemned. If a person stands with Rome, I have heard Protestants, that person stands condemned.

    Talk about an demonic-inspired impasse to unity!

    But I wonder if there might be a third option. Might Luther and Rome both have valid points, points that not only support each others, but also are necessary to each other and (more importantly) necessary for salvation?

    I suppose we will never know so long as we cast barbs at each other.

    I confess to not having as extensive knowledge of Church history as some who have posted here, and as a consequence of my relative ignorance, I will not attempt to answer questions which are rooted in history.

    However, I do have extensive knowledge of Scripture, and it is from that position that I am happy to discuss questions of faith and doctrine.

    Several posts ago I mentioned some of the biblical texts that swayed me toward the Catholic Church. For example, why do many non-Catholic Christians consider Jesus' words in John 6:46-69 (especially vv. 51-58) symbolic, and not literal, especially when coupled with 1 Corinthians 10:16-17)?

    And why do many non-Catholic Christians not view the words of Jesus in Matthew 16:18-19 as a commission to Peter to lead His Church, especially in light of the Lord's comment to Peter in John 21:15-18?

    And how do many non-Catholics interpret the obvious role of Church authority and the authority wielded by the apostles over the various churches in Acts and the epistles, and in light of the comment about the Church being the "pillar and support of the truth" in 1 Timothy 3:15?

    Discussions about Mary and purgatory and confession and prayer (allegedly) to the Saints (as itemized in the penultimate post) are all worthy of discussion, and I would welcome discussion based on Scripture. But those items are, IMO, Straw Men because the arguments against the Catholic positions on those subjects are (in my experience) often rooted in hearsay, misunderstandings, mischaracterizations,and not in a willingness to, at the very least, hear the Catholic interpretations of Scripture related to those doctrines. (After all, Luther and Calvin each differed -- as do their spiritual progeny -- about certain texts, often the same texts. Why are Catholics not given the same privilege to interpret texts differently? But I digress).

    But, back to the choice between Luther and Rome.
    When will it ever happen that we will put aside our swords and seek to learn from each other and stand with each other against the real enemy? Does anyone read the news? Our nation has fallen into a moral and social abyss, and sinker deeper almost everyday. We have a president and congress ramming down the throats of the Church (especially of those in the Church who voted for those political canditates) . . . ramming down
    our throats every kind of moral depravity, and what are God's people doing?

    Arguing who is of Luther and who is of Rome.

    Maranatha, Lord Jesus.

  2. Thanks for the response, Rich.

    We all acknowledge that "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work." (2 Tim. 3:16-17)

    But given that, it remains that some passages are foundational:"For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.'" (Rom. 4:2,3). Paul regarded that truth as the heart of the gospel he preached to the Galatians, and made the issue involved very clear to them: "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed." (Gal. 1:8) Moreover, I think that the confrontation with Peter recounted in Gal. 2:11-21 makes it clear that, even if Paul had shared the view that Mt. 16:18,19 had commissioned Peter as Christ's "Vicar on Earth", had Peter persisted in the error with which Paul confronted him, essentially denying the gospel, he would have had to say, "Let him too be accursed".

    Justification by faith is that important a truth. I think the judgment that "this is the issue on which the church stands or falls" is correct, and that a "church" which commits itself to denying that truth is no real church at all. There may come a day that the Church of Rome will repent of its error. I pray that it will. But, until that day comes, while I can acknowledge many who worship there as brothers in Christ, it would be dreadfully wrong not to acknowledge that the "church" where they worship has fallen.

  3. I really do NOT mean to seem confrontational with my response. The written word loses a lot in the translation because the reader cannot also "read" my tone (which is calm) or my body language (also calm).

    So, let me respond to your comments in some order.

    First, based on your comments about the error of the Catholic Church, I then MUST be judged also in error -- grave error -- because I accept and believe and teach the same position of the Catholic Church. Following that logic, I therefore should not be considered a brother in Christ because, just as the Catholic Church is a "fallen" church, I too am fallen. If that is true, then the term applied to people such as I -- "evangelical Catholic" -- is an oxymoron.

    Second, I agree with some of your statements. However, you also make accusations to which I choose to not yet respond because, frankly, you did not respond to my questions regarding some of the NT texts which give great support to Catholic faith.

    I think the like to think our Catholic interpretation of those texts invite the response of those who believe Catholics are in error -- if, of course, such dialogue is intended to illuminate toward understanding and, even for reconciliation.

    Otherwise, we will continue to rehash the same straw men enlivened by hearsay and mischaracterizations.

  4. Thanks again, Rich.

    I answered as I did, not because I hold any of issues you raised in contempt - since I do not - but first, to attempt to keep my focus on justification by faith alone, and, then, in responding to specific Scriptural texts you cited, to attempt again to retain some sort of focus: You mentioned quite a few.

    I'll broaden things again by one step, since it allows me to make precise what I mean by "stand with Luther": You asked about John 6 and its implications in regard to the Lord's Supper.

    It may be that very few contemporary believers have given this much thought, but it is certainly not the case that the reformers gave it no thought, or that they did not wrestle with the meaning of John 6. I'm not sure what Zwingli made of that chapter, but his "memorial" view of the sacrament is probably the one most American believers hold, if unconsciously. Luther's view - "consubstantiation" - involved a "real physical presence", one so radical that it is often associated with a doctrine of the "ubiquity" of Christ's physical presence. Calvin's view - and he hoped that this would satisfy both the Zwinglians and the Lutherans - involves a "real Spiritual presence". The confessions which follow this tend to say our Lord is "sacramentally" present. As it happened, this satisfied neither of the other parties. The Lutherans were especially vehement in rejecting it, and the term "sacramentarian" was used by the early Lutherans as a derogatory epithet. Some men who held to Calvin's view actually lost their lives in Lutheran principalities in the 16th and 17th centuries over this very issue.

    I mention all that because my personal view is that Calvin was correct. So I certainly don't "stand with Luther" where the doctrine of the Lord's presence in the sacrament is concerned. Moreover, it's my personal view that Luther's refusal to shake hands with Zwingli at Marburg over this issue, pounding on the table, and chanting, "This is my body", was shameful. I view him as having been "the Elijah of the Reformation", but view him also as having been often intemperate and capable of doing shameful things. So, when I said the that whether we "stand with Luther or stand with Rome" was the crux of the matter, I meant that just in connection with "justification by faith alone".

    As for regarding anyone (and you, in particular) as not a brother in Christ, because he holds what I'd consider an heretical view on justification, I do not, though I understand why John Bunyan did (as any careful reader of Pilgrims Progress can see): It's a dangerous position to hold, since, if it leads to its natural conclusion, it will come to pride and salvation by works. However, my view of a "church" and its "ministers" who preach such a position is less accomodating. Even then, I would not presume to pass judgment on the "minister", though I believe his danger is even greater. As for the "church", however, I think a judgment is warranted: It has fallen.

  5. Presbyter, thanks for the clarification.


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