Monday, February 8, 2010
The theological relationship between faith and works is a divisive topic within Christianity. While other issues such as papal authority, Marian devotion, and prayers to the saints attract negative attention among non-Catholic Christians, nothing compares to the passion and zeal undergirding a theology of justification.
The great irony in the divisiveness of this doctrine exists in the fact that Christ’s message of salvation was intended to unite all of the nations under the one Lord, Jesus Christ. Israel’s covenant with God was no longer to be exclusive to Israel but rather the time had come for Israel to be what she was destined to be: a light to the nations and a means for universal salvation through the long awaited Messiah, Jesus Christ. Thus, it is with all the more sadness that we must acknowledge that humanity’s sinfulness has twisted that which was intended to unify to that which now factions Christ’s church into more than 30,000 denominations.
Luther himself acknowledged that the doctrine of justification would be the pillar by which the Church stood or fell. In a very real sense we must acknowledge that we have fallen. Such factions do more to dissuade the seeker of faith than to persuade. Countless are the times I’ve spoken with non-believers who simply could not believe the truth of Christianity since there were thousands of Christians all proclaiming a different “truth.” If we desire to make the Christian faith contagious, we must strive for Christian unity. If we want to achieve Christian unity with our non-Catholic brothers and sisters then we must equip ourselves with the tools necessary to unify all Christians in their understanding of Christ’s saving mission, which is expressed most concretely in the doctrine of justification.
Since Justification is intimately entwined with the work of Jesus Christ, one most proceed delicately with this doctrine. Any explicit ignorance or casual treatment of the doctrine will be interpreted as ignorance of the Gospel and looked upon as trivializing the very mission of Jesus Christ by a faithful Christian. In other words, such a thing is not taken lightly by any devout Christian. In light of such intense treatment to the doctrine, it is no wonder so many non-Catholic Christians vehemently oppose the Roman Catholic view of justification by faith and works. The Protestant’s objection often goes something like this: The Roman Catholic view of justification deems Christ’s merits on the cross insufficient for salvation. They believe they must do good works in addition to the grace they receive from faith. This means that Catholics believe the cross only partially saves, and that works must be added to grace for salvation.
While the Protestant’s objections are noble in that they defend the soteriological/salvific value of Christ’s death on the cross, in my opinion they are nevertheless a gross misrepresentation of Catholic theology and thus the truth. To begin, such an objection creates a false dichotomy between works and grace. Roman Catholicism does not believe salvation by “grace alone” necessitates a salvation by “faith alone.” Both Catholics and Protestants agree that salvation is by grace alone, but this agreement comes to an abrupt halt when Protestants reduce salvation to a faith alone concept.
Those who know me well know that I have a particular fondness toward this doctrine. Justification is the doctrine that ripped me away from my Catholic faith, but it is also the doctrine that brought me back into solidarity with my Catholic heritage two years later. In hope to offer a foundational—yet far from exhaustive—understanding of the Church’s doctrine of justification, I will be writing five additional columns that will address this beautiful and very complex doctrine. The next column will correct the Protestant error in thinking that Justification is a one-time event as opposed to the Catholic position that Justification is in fact a process. The third column will build upon the second by correcting the Protestant error in thinking that Justification is simply a declaration of righteousness, and show how the Catholic position is the most reasonable and biblical as it professes a Justification that is more than declarative; that it is a transformative event that actually makes the believer righteous rather that just declaring the believer righteous. The final three columns will examine the particular doctrine of justification by faith and works through the words of Jesus, the words of St. Paul, and from the epistle of James in that order.