Justification by Faith: A Catholic Doctrine Discovered by a Catholic Monk

The tragic reality of our post-Christian culture is that we are living in an age marked by growing secularism (practical atheism), false teachings, apostasy, "new" revelations from "new" apostles, growing legions of personalized deities, moral relativism, and so much spiritual and theological confusion and contention that the true God of the Bible has largely disappeared. In every generation the church is commanded to "contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" because once the faith is severed from biblical authority, including the historicity of the Genesis account, Christianity becomes malleable, open to rationalization and transformation into something amenable to the wants and desires of sinful men.

In the earliest centuries of the Christian movement heretics directed their most dangerous attacks upon who Jesus is, in what sense He is the Son of God, and how He is related to the Father and the Holy Spirit. In response, the Church moved quickly to vigorously affirm that both the full deity and full humanity of Jesus Christ are absolutely necessary to the Christian faith.

In his book, "The Disappearance of God," R. Albert Mohler describes the earliest creeds and councils of the church as emergency measures taken to protect the central core of Christian doctrine:

"At historic turning points such as the councils at Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon, orthodoxy was vindicated and heresy was condemned---and these councils dealt with doctrines of unquestionable first-order importance. Christianity stands or falls on the affirmation that Jesus Christ is fully man and fully God." (pp. 3-4)

The first-order doctrines that each and every person who calls himself or herself a Christian must affirm are clearly and simply outlined in the two great creeds of the Church---The Apostles Creed and the larger Nicene Creed:

"I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen" (Apostles Creed)

Mohler adds that in addition to these first-order doctrines--the Christological and Trinitarian doctrines---the doctrine of justification by faith must also be included among first-order truths:

"Without this doctrine, we are left with a denial of the gospel itself, and salvation is transformed into some structure of human righteousness." (p. 4)

The deepest split in the Church, one that has unleashed the most persecution, hatred, bloody wars and longest running feud was occasioned by a misunderstanding revolving---not around the doctrine--- but around key words used in respect to the doctrine. Hence in the essay, "Justification by Faith," Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., a professor of philosophy at Boston College and at the King's College in New York City opens his essay with a succinct, tongue-in-cheek summation of the Protestant Reformation:

"The Protestant Reformation began when a Catholic monk rediscovered a Catholic doctrine in a Catholic book." (catholiceducation.org)

The Catholic monk was Luther; the doctrine was justification by faith; and the book was the Catholic Bible---the King James, Geneva and other Protestant versions not arriving on the scene for many years.

How important is justification by faith? It "is nothing less than how to get to heaven," said Kreeft. Thus while the scandal of selling indulgences was the catalyst for the Reformation, its real cause was doctrinal:

"....one does not split the Church over a practice (i.e., selling indulgences); one splits the Church over a doctrine, for the Church can change its practice but never its doctrine. To change a practice, one stays in the Church; to change a doctrine, one must start a new Church." (Kreeft)

At the Council of Trent, the Church agreed with Luther concerning the sale of indulgences and forbade the practice. But along with St. Thomas Aquinas it also affirmed justification by faith in a clear and forceful statement that,

"... we can do nothing without God's grace, and that this grace, accepted by faith, is what saves us." (Kreeft)

The tragic misunderstanding arose because though the two sides agreed on the concept (justification by faith) they disagreed on certain key words. When Aquinas and Trent said we are saved by good works as well as faith, they meant by the word salvation,

"...the whole process by which God brings us to our eternal destiny and that process includes repentance, faith, hope, and charity, the works of love." (Kreeft)

On the other hand, when Luther taught that we are saved by faith alone, he meant by salvation the initial step, justification---- being put right with God.

Additionally, the word faith was also used in two different senses. With Luther it referred in a broad sense to the person's acceptance of God's offer of salvation which includes repentance, faith, hope, and charity. This is the larger sense Paul uses in Romans. However, in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul uses it in a more exacting sense as one of the three theological virtues, with hope and charity added to it.

In this narrower sense faith alone is not sufficient for salvation because it is an act of the intellect prompted by the will. Though necessary for salvation, faith---being an act of the intellect---is not sufficient by itself as even the devils have this faith, said James:

"Do you believe that there is only one God? Good! The demons also believe — and tremble with fear" (James 2: 19).

This is why James says,

"...it is by his actions that a person is put right with God, and not by his faith alone" (James 2:24).

Luther however, appears not to have understood James' point and called his epistle "an epistle of straw." Luther also eventually rejected many Catholic truths and important teachings handed down by the early Church Fathers, the historic link between Jesus Christ and His Apostles. Thus for example, because the contemporary mainline Protestant and Evangelical church are not in contact with the spiritual teachings of the Church Fathers they are susceptible to the drawing power of occult forces sweeping over and through our culture.

While faith is the necessary seed, hope is the necessary water that makes the plant grow while love is the flower---the visible product said Kreeft:

"The plant of our new life in Christ is one; the life of God comes into us by faith, through us by hope, and out of us by the works of love. That is clearly the biblical view, and when Protestants and Catholics who know and believe the Bible discuss the issue sincerely, it is amazing how quickly and easily they come to understand and agree with each other on this, the fundamental divisive issue. Try it some time with your Protestant friend."

Kreeft observes that from the council of Trent till our own age, Protestants have abandoned many precious truths taught by the Church while most Catholics have never been taught the most precious truth of all, that salvation is a free gift of grace, accepted by faith:

"I remember vividly the thrill of discovery when, as a young Protestant at Calvin College, I read Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Council of Trent on justification. I did not find what I had been told I would find, "another gospel" of do-it-yourself salvation by works, but a clear and forceful statement that we can do nothing without God's grace, and that this grace, accepted by faith, is what saves us."

Pride goes before a fall, and Dr. Mohler describes the contemporary Evangelical church as infected by pride. Among other rotten fruit, pride leads to the apathy, lack of commitment, contention and division currently tearing the Evangelical church apart. But in a larger and more urgent sense, pride divides the Catholic-Protestant Church against itself. Despite that both sides affirm the central core of Christian doctrine, a disunited Church cannot stand---not in the face of rapidly spreading secularism, abortion, and homosexuality tied to the destruction of the family nor in the face of rationalism, heresy, apostasy and occult spiritual warfare.

The Church divided can only heal and work together when both sides do the same thing and understand what they are doing:

"...discovering a Catholic doctrine in a Catholic book." (ibid)

To comment visit Exiles in Babylon: http://exilesinbabylon.com/2012/11/justification-by-faith-a-catholic-doctrine-discovered-by-a-catholic-monk/

@Linda Kimball