30 November 2008

Pope Benedict on Justification

During a recent speech on St Paul’s teaching on justification, Pope Benedict said that Martin Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone is correct if ‘faith is not opposed to charity.’ (On St. Paul and Justification, www.zenit.org).

As an evangelical Christian, I am glad that the Pope corrected the caricature popularized by some irresponsible apologists that ‘sola fide’ (faith alone) implies freedom from doing good and license to sin (‘antinomianism’). The Reformers vehemently resisted and opposed the antinomian heresy. The Protestant concept of justification by faith alone never excluded good works in the life of the believer. On the character of genuine faith, Luther wrote: ‘Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn't stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever.’

The Pope noted that the apostle Paul ‘places at the center of his Gospel an irreducible opposition between two alternative paths to justice: one based on the works of the law, the other founded on the grace of faith in Christ.’ In other words, one cannot be saved by faith in Christ if he also attempts to be saved by ‘works of the law’. This is exactly what Protestants mean when we speak of ‘sola fide’ – we are justified by trusting in Christ and not on account of our works.

Does this mean that Catholics and Protestants are now in agreement on the doctrine of justification? Unfortunately this is not the case. The Pope’s speech highlights the sad reality that the modern Catholic Church is still insisting on the Council of Trent’s doctrine on justification by faith and works. The divide between the two religions remains as wide today as it was in the 16th century.

On one hand the Pope endorses Paul’s teaching of justification by faith, apart from works of the law; on the other, he insists that we can really be just in the eyes of God on account of our love for God and neighbor. That is justification by love, or, justification by human works, for how can we express love apart from doing good works?

In Catholicism, the faithful are urged to do works in the hope that they will eventually become ‘really’ just in the eyes of God on account of their ‘love to God and neighbour’; in Paul’s teaching, justification is by faith from beginning to end, and not on account of personal works and merits. In Catholicism faith is insufficient; it must be supplemented by works to really justify. In biblical Christianity, faith is sufficient, faith truly justifies the believer on account of Christ’s blood and righteousness, and having justified the sinner, faith then works by love (Galatians 5:6) to the glory of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ. In Catholicism justification is by faith and works – therefore it cannot be of grace (Romans 11:6); in biblical Christianity justification is by faith, that it might be of grace (Romans 4:16).