by William Webster
The Scriptures teach us that God communicates saving grace to those who believe. Faith is foundational to true Christianity and it involves knowledge, assent, trust and commitment.1 The object of faith is always God himself and its foundation is the Word of God. For faith to be truly biblical, it must involve more than just the assent of the mind to objective truth about God, Christ and salvation. Knowledge is vital, but it must always lead to trust and commitment to God as a person. This is what Scripture means when it says, 'But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name' (John 1:12).
This tells us that salvation is found, not in a Church and its sacraments, but through a personal relationship with Christ himself. Salvation is given directly by Christ to an individual, without the need for any other mediation. To be a Christian means to have personal knowledge of the Son of God, a knowledge which secures commitment to him as Lord and Saviour. More particularly, there will be an implicit trust in the sufficiency of Christ and his work alone, and a total repudiation of all attempts to merit or earn forgiveness and eternal life through works of any kind, be they social, moral, religious or sacramental. True biblical faith always repudiates works as a grounds for justification. Genuine faith always involves a turning from sin, self-will and self-rule, and a surrender of the heart to Christ's lordship, with the commitment to live for his will and his glory. Saving faith, in other words, is always accompanied by repentance which means a whole-hearted turning from sin and corresponding surrender of the life to Christ. Where these things are found, there is true saving faith. But for any of these basic elements to be perverted or distorted, is to encourage a 'faith' which is less than saving.
Biblical faith will always produce a life characterized by love, holiness and good works. These works do not save us, but equally, the Epistle of James warns us against a faith which is empty and vain; that is, one that acknowledges the objective facts of God, Christ and salvation to be true but negates or neglects the other essential elements of trust and commitment. The demons believe in that sense, but they perish (James 2:19). Intellectual assent alone is empty, James argues. It does not save for it does not bring a person into union with the source of salvation. Where there is true union with Christ there will be a transformed life as evidence of that union; where there is mere intellectual assent divorced from true trust and commitment there may be orthodox belief, but no life of true holiness and love, for the heart has not been sanctified to God and regenerated.
In what sense is the Roman Catholic Church's teaching on faith inconsistent with the biblical teaching? To understand this we must understand the teaching of Thomas Aquinas2, for it is his conception of faith which has become normative. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas gives an in-depth description of the nature of faith. His conception could be fairly summed up in the following way: Faith means the assent of the intellect to that which is believed.3 Faith is an assent to truth, by which he understood all the dogmas of the Church. Otherwise faith is lacking. The Scriptures are the foundation, but the Church alone is adequate to determine the correct interpretation of Scripture. Faith for Aquinas, and for the Roman Catholic Church, is thus viewed in purely intellectual terms. While related to the truth of Scripture, it is primarily centred in the Church itself. The major component of commitment and trust in the person of Christ himself is missing-instead, faith is belief in the teachings of the Church.
Yet the early Church did not have this limited conception of faith. In the writings of the Apostolic Fathers4, for example, the basic biblical elements of faith were emphasized. The object of faith was not truth as an end in itself, nor the Church, but the persons of Father and Son. The trinitarian nature of God, and the human and divine natures of Christ were generally spelled out, and Christ's atonement was emphasized. Faith was opposed to works, and repentance was held to be the necessary complement to faith if one was to appropriate salvation.
However, as the understanding of the work of Christ became distorted, and penance began to replace the biblical concept of repentance, 'faith' was reduced to knowledge and assent to doctrine, especially doctrine related to the Trinity and to Christ. The object of faith was no longer God and Christ as persons, but rather the truths about God and Christ. Ultimately, with the growing influence of the sacramental view of the Church, saving faith began to be defined as belief in the Church itself and its teachings. This is why the Roman Church calls itself the 'universal sacrament of salvation'. In this theological framework there can be no true union with Christ, for men are taught that the work of Christ is not sufficient to obtain forgiveness for all sin: their own works are necessary to procure God's favour and forgiveness; baptism is the means whereby Christ indwells the heart and the individual is united to him; and the eucharist is the means whereby his presence and this union are sustained in the heart.
The practical result is that the biblical meaning of faith is perverted. There is a false foundation of knowledge to which men are called to assent for the Church and its teachings are held up as the means of salvation. The individual's faith is not directed toward Christ himself so that a person trusts in him alone and commits one's life to him. In effect, it is commitment to and trust in the Church and its sacraments, rather than Christ himself.
This emphasis upon the intellectual aspect of faith, and the corresponding divergence from the biblical standard began in an innocent, subtle way. The need to protect true doctrine against heresy led to growing concerns to demand fealty to creeds or statements of faith. There is nothing innately wrong with creeds. They are useful aids to synthesizing important scriptural truth. The danger comes if men begin to think of Christianity primarily in terms of right belief, and it becomes nothing more than orthodox doctrine. Although the early Fathers such as Irenaeus used the term 'the rule of faith', faith to them was more than belief in a creed; it still included trust in and commitment to the person of Christ. But the doctrinal controversies of the first few centuries on the Trinity and the person of Christ involved a heavy emphasis on philosophical terms, and consequently faith began to be viewed primarily as having right belief about God and Christ. Over time, faith became defined as intellectual assent to the dogmas of the Church as they had been expressed in an orthodox consensus (based on the formulations of the creeds and the opinions of the Fathers as orthodox interpreters of Scripture).
This emphasis on intellectual assent to doctrine as the ground of faith gradually eliminated the other essential elements of commitment and trust in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ's work was slowly subverted by the Church's teaching on purgatory, the eucharist and good works. Penance eventually displaced repentance with the result that salvation was no longer found exclusively in a relationship with Christ alone but in one's relationship with the Church and through one's own works. More and more through time the Church drifted into externalism and religious materialism.
This was a catastrophic loss for the Church, effectively impoverishing it for centuries. Faith in Christ crucified and risen is God's chosen method of justifying his people. This is not to say that an individual is saved by faith, but it is through faith. It is not faith but Christ who saves and faith is merely the means which God has ordained for appropriating that salvation.
As we have repeatedly seen in different contexts throughout this book, men are justified through faith and not through their own good deeds:5
To be justified by God's grace does not mean that a believer is so influenced by grace that he or she can do good works and earn justification and eternal life. It means a complete repudiation of works of any kind as a basis for justification. This was reiterated by Paul in his letter of admonition to the Galatian church: 'You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace' (Gal. 5:4). The entire theme of that letter is Paul's reiteration of a crucial principle: to introduce any work, be it a ritual or a work of morality or of holiness, as a supplement to the work of Christ for justification, is to fall from the principle of grace. For those who do so, Paul warns that 'Christ will be of no benefit to you' (Gal. 5:2).
The common Roman Catholic interpretation is that the word law refers only to the ceremonial law of the Jews and not to the moral law, the ten commandments. Thus Ludwig Ott writes: 'When St Paul teaches that we are saved by faith without works of the law. . . by the works of the law he means the works of the law of the Old Testament, for example, circumcision.'6 But this is a misrepresentation of the truth. By the term, law, Paul often refers to the moral law of God. We know this to be the case because in Romans 3:20 Paul tells us that the function of the law is to bring an individual to a knowledge of personal sin and in Romans 7:7-13 he gives us an illustration of how that is accomplished, as well as defining for us what he means by the term 'law':
Paul defines the term 'law' here by the command: 'You shall not covet'. That is the tenth commandment and therefore the term 'law', as used by Paul, includes not only the ceremonial law but also the moral law, the ten commandments. It is essential to know this if we are to understand that justification is not based on moral or religious works of any kind.
The word 'justification' is primarily a judicial or legal term. Justification is declarative in nature; it refers to a person's right standing, or status, before God. To 'declare righteous' or 'to justify' are different translations of the same word and they are identical in meaning. Justification is the act of God whereby a sinner is accepted and set free from all judgment and condemnation on the basis of Christ's righteousness which is accounted to him (Rom. 5:1, 8:1). The righteousness which saves comes as a gift (Rom. 5:17) and is accounted to the believer, making it his own (2 Cor. 5:21). This is done because Christ, as the believer's substitute, has fulfilled perfectly every requirement of the law of God on his behalf. Christ has lived a perfect life and has borne the full penalty of God's judgment against sin.
It is this 'righteousness' or obedience of Christ which is imputed as a gift to all who come to him in faith. This is completely independent of the work of man. Righteousness is received by faith and it provides complete acquittal from the guilt of sin and a perfect legal standing before God (Rom. 4:1-8; Phil. 3:7-9). It is important to point out that when Paul describes the salvation he experienced in Philippians 3 he does not say that he received grace by faith which would enable him to work to be justified; he received an objective righteousness as a gift, outside of himself, by which he was justified. Scripture teaches that this righteousness is a completed righteousness because it is Christ's. Apart from our own works, or those of any other, Christ's righteousness is imputed to the believer: 'Just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works' (Rom. 4:6). Actually, it is a righteousness that is grounded in works, but it is the work of obedience accomplished by Christ and not by us. This righteousness is absolutely essential for an individual to possess because God demands a perfect righteousness for men to be accepted by him. Man's works, even at their very best, and even under the influence of grace, are unacceptable to God as a foundation for salvation, for they are never perfect. Only Christ has accomplished a perfect obedience and has rendered a perfect fulfilment of the law. Justification is a gift that is always related to the work of Christ alone, and never to the work of an individual.
Because justification is totally dependent on the work of Christ, it is perfect and permanent in nature. It is once-for-all. When an individual is justified, therefore, he cannot lose that grace-which is why Scripture speaks with such certainty about the assurance of eternal salvation:
This assurance is also seen in the fact that the words 'justification' and 'salvation' are often used in Scripture with reference to the past, signifying something that is an accomplished fact and not an on-going process that one works to attain.7
There are a number of other important benefits of a believer's union with Christ. Salvation is not simply a legal declaration of forgiveness and deliverance from an eternal hell. It is much more. It involves a variety of blessings: the regeneration of the individual so that he becomes a new creation; adoption into the family of God; and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the heart empowering him to pursue holiness. Because the individual receives a new heart he has new motivations and desires which manifest themselves in sincere love for God, Christ and men-his life is progressively transformed as he becomes more and more like his Lord and Saviour. This process is known as sanctification and is distinct from, although just as supernatural as, the justification of the believer. Some Roman Catholic apologists have claimed that the two terms are used interchangeably in Scripture but this is simply not the case. The Word of God always presents them as two separate concepts8-justification is the name given in the Bible to the changed status, not the changed nature. The same grace which justifies a man eternally in the sight of God is the grace which sanctifles him, but this sanctification is not in any sense part of his justification before God.
Roman apologists are fond of accusing the Reformers and Protestant believers of teaching a false view of salvation. They claim that Luther and Calvin taught that one need only trust in Christ for salvation and that this trust in no way affected the moral life of the individual. In other words, salvation is only a legal declaration of forgiveness which still leaves a man in his sinful condition. But this is a complete misrepresentation of their teaching.9 The Reformers were concerned to define accurately the true nature of justification as one particular aspect of salvation, but they never taught that salvation could be separated from a life of progressive sanctification. They emphasized the truth of justification because the Scriptures themselves emphasize it and because it had been so perverted.
The Roman Catholic Church's teaching on justification is quite different from that of the Scriptures. It uses biblical terms, but the definition it gives to them corrupts their original biblical meaning.10 The whole concept of justification has been redefined in Roman Catholic theology in order to harmonise with the rest of the Church's teaching on the work of Christ and the sacraments. Because salvation, according to Roman Catholic theology, is not a completed work and a final forgiveness of sins, it is necessary to participate in the sacraments and the fulfilment of penances and good works. Justification is not a finished act with permanent consequences, but a process in which an individual works to stay in what the Roman Church calls 'a state of grace'. If a person commits a mortal sin, then he loses sanctifying grace and forfeits the state of justification which must be regained through confession and penance,, the eucharist and good works. So justification ultimately depends on an individual's own personal works, though the Roman Church claims this is to be attributed solely to the merits of Christ and the grace of God.
Grace, according to the Roman Catholic Church, is an infused quality in the soul of a man, given by God. It enables him to perform righteous acts and thereby to continue on in the process of justification. As a man's sanctification or good works increase, so it is claimed his justification can increase. This infused grace is received with faith and baptism, and continues through participation in the sacraments and by the performance of meritorious works. Faith is not the appropriation of the person of Christ but the assent to truths taught by the Church. It is the sacrament which brings remission of sins, union with Christ, the indwelling of the Spirit, regeneration and adoption into the family of God. The individual is not taught to come to Christ directly in a personal relationship and to trust him completely for salvation, but to receive his grace through the sacraments of the Church. Those who are baptized as infants are told that in baptism all of the things mentioned above occurred to them and now they are responsible for maintaining the grace received through good works and the sacraments. There is no need to come to Christ for they have already been baptized.
In Roman Catholic theology sanctification is merged into justification and becomes part of the basis for our gaining and maintaining forgiveness and acceptance with God. Justification, in the Roman view, is not a legal declarative act of God based upon the imputed righteousness of Christ, but a process related to imparted grace by which a man, who has received grace to be justified, works to continue to be justified.
According to Roman Catholic theology justification is merited by human works. Roman Catholic theologian, Ludwig Ott, states:
Even though the Roman Church speaks of grace which alone can enable an individual to perform righteous acts, by adding human merit to grace in justification, it completely nullifies the biblical concept of grace as Romans 11:6 makes very clear: 'But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.' The Roman Catholic teaching of grace and justification is a perversion of the biblical teaching. For all its talk about grace, Rome, in the name of grace, has perverted and overthrown its true meaning.
The Roman Catholic Church characteristically defends its position by interpreting passages of Scripture which relate solely to sanctification as if they were speaking about justification. Philippians 2:12-13 provides an example: 'So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.' We are told specifically here to 'work out' our salvation. But Paul is writing to men and women who have already experienced justification he is exhorting them to a life of sanctification. He is not telling them to work for their salvation, but to work out what God has already worked in-'for it is God who is at work in you, to will and to do for his good pleasure'. Not only does the logic of the passage refute the Roman Catholic interpretation, but to accept the view that Paul is instructing the believers in Philippi to ensure their justification through their good works would make the apostle a liar, because elsewhere he told Titus and the believers in Ephesus, Galatia and Rome as well as these same brothers and sisters in Philippi that justification is not by works but by faith (Titus 3:5; Eph. 2:8-9; Gal. 2:16; Rom. 3:19-20; Phil. 3:3-9).
To teach that a man is justified in any way by works is legalism which is condemned in the Word of God. But to teach that a man can be saved or justified without his life manifesting the grace of sanctification is antinomianism, which is also condemned in Scripture. Justification and sanctification must both be emphasized as parts of salvation. But the works of sanctification are never the basis upon which a person is justified. The true believer will walk in holiness for the express reason that he is justified. Paul brings these two concepts together:
We are justified through faith and not through our own good works, but when we are made a new creation in Christ, we will then live a life of good works. The Word of God never makes sanctification the grounds for justification, and we must be careful to maintain the same distinction. The righteousness by which we are justified is not the righteousness of sanctification but the imputed righteousness of Christ which is received as a gift.
To shift the basis of justification from the imputed righteousness of Christ to a human righteousness is to pervert the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the very thing condemned by Paul in his epistle to the Galatians. It deceives men as to the nature of true salvation, for rather than being an exclusive work of God which men receive through faith as a gift by grace, it becomes a work of man. Man's work ultimately displaces the work of Jesus Christ. 'The praise of the glory of his grace' (Eph. 1:6) is silenced. The Church of Rome would do well to heed the warning of the apostle:
William A. Webster is a business man, living with his wife and children in Battle Ground, Washington. He is the author of: The Christian: Following Christ as Lord, Salvation, The Bible, and Roman Catholicism and The Church of Rome at the Bar of History. He is a founder of Christian Resources, Inc., a tape and book ministry dedicated to teaching and evangelism.
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