Justification by Faith Alone


Galatians 1:1-9

In our series of sermons on the contemporary challenge of Roman Catholicism we considered first the place of the church, especially the established, mainstream church in the history of salvation, reminding ourselves of how often and how regularly the church became an enemy of the gospel rather than its defender, how God had to send reformers to her and how badly those reformers were usually treated, and how this history of the church in the world undermines the Roman Catholic claim that its antiquity and its stability as an ecclesiastical institution are somehow evidence that it is the true church and its teaching most faithful to the truth.  We then considered the fundamental issue of authority for faith and life and the Roman Catholic claim that that authority lies in two places, not one: not the Bible alone, but the Bible and the Church and its tradition.  We pointed out why neither the Bible nor the history of Roman Catholic tradition supports the Roman Catholic claim that the church has authority from God to generate new doctrines and laws for the people of God.

But the real issue, the central issue dividing Roman Catholicism from evangelical Protestantism is and has always been the question of the justification of a sinner before God, or what we might call “the way of salvation.”  It was this issue, before all others, that led to the original division between what we now know as Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity.  It was this issue that created the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century and it has been ever since the first thing that Protestants always raise in objecting to Roman Catholicism.  Protestants charge Roman Catholicism with a subversion of the gospel, a betrayal of the principle of salvation by grace, or salvation as a free gift, because they reintroduce human works and human righteousness into the matter of the justification of sinners before God.  Roman Catholics speak of human beings meriting justification, of increasing their righteousness before God by their good works, and even, as in the Canons of the Council of Trent, of penitent Christians “redeeming their sins” through Christ.  All of this sounds to Protestant ears as a denial of what Paul so emphatically teaches, that justification — a sinner’s acceptance with God — depends upon God’s grace and not our works and upon Christ’s righteousness received by faith and not upon our righteousness, our doing of good, in any respect.

Now, Roman Catholics in turn protest that Protestants caricature and misrepresent their view and, further, that Protestants are not themselves faithful to the teaching of the Bible.  Now, it will probably not surprise you to learn that the question is more complicated than either many Protestants or many Roman Catholics suppose.  Protestants can often speak as if Roman Catholics believe simply in salvation by works and not by grace and it is easy for Catholic apologists to disprove that charge.  Roman Catholics will often themselves admit that too many Roman Catholics have too often spoken in ways as to confirm Protestants’ worst suspicions.  Cardinal Ratzinger, presently the chief doctrinal officer of the Roman Catholic church, has admitted that Martin Luther encountered the church in his day as the adversary of salvation.

I’ve listened to two very lengthy debates between the advocates of the Protestant view of justification and the advocates of the Roman Catholic view.  In each case there have been complicated discussions about the meaning of Greek words and arcane arguments about the opinions of church fathers.  If I attempted to summarize these discussions and evaluate them in a single sermon, I am sure I would leave the most of you totally confused and entirely unedified.  You will not be surprised of course to hear that I do believe that Protestant biblical and historical scholarship gets the best of these arguments.  Even prominent Roman Catholic biblical scholars have admitted as much.

But, what you might not have expected to hear was the passion with which the advocates of the Roman view of justification argue their case from the Bible.  They make their stand on many texts in which Christians are described as righteous in connection with their behavior, many texts that teach that an obedient life is a necessary part of our salvation, that faith without works is dead, that we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of the deeds done in the body, that is, that the final judgment will consider our good works or the absence of good works in our lives as Christians.

Without a doubt the Bible says all of this.  So the question comes to this:  who has accurately and faithfully related all of this teaching to what the Bible says about the justification, the pardon and the acceptance of sinners before God?  I want to answer that question in a way that is clearest and most helpful, and I think the best way to do that is to answer it in respect to two questions that arise from Paul’s teaching about justification, especially in Galatians and Romans where his clearest, his most emphatic, substantial, systematic and polemic teaching about justification is found.

  • The first question then is: which view of justification best satisfies the tremendous polemic of the Apostle Paul, especially in Galatians, against the notion of human works contributing to a sinner’s justification? And my answer is that Protestant doctrine is a much more faithful representation of Paul’s mind, teaching, and spirit, than is Roman Catholic doctrine on justification.

In the debates that I listened to about justification, the defenders of the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification all were at pains to defend their doctrine against the charge of works-righteousness or justification by works.  (There clearly was a sensitivity on this point.  They have felt the force of the Protestant charge that they preach and teach a justification by works.)  One catholic theologian began his presentation by pointing out what the Roman Catholic doctrine had in common with the Protestant doctrine.  He listed four respects in which they were the same.  These were:

  1. That the faith by which a sinner is justified is a gift of God’s grace;
  2. This gift is given us on no other basis than the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection for our salvation, so that all good works that follow from faith likewise have no other basis than the work of Christ;
  3. That the faith that justifies works through love and so is necessarily connected to sanctification and good works;
  4. And, since sanctification — or the renewal of our lives in holiness and love — is part of our salvation, good works are a necessary part of our salvation, but they are not the ground or the basis on which or the reason for which we are saved. (Whether that last statement is an entirely accurate summation of RC teaching is a question. The former evangelicals, of which this theologian was one, seem to me driven to place the most evangelical interpretation possible on the Catholic position.)

Then he went on to describe the difference that remains between the two views.  Roman Catholicism, he said, saw justification and sanctification as two ways of looking at the same thing, whereas Protestantism separated them.  Justification in Catholic thought is a process of making the sinner righteous, not a matter of declaring the sinner righteous and it is based on Christ’s righteousness in us, making us righteous, rather than Christ’s righteousness imputed or reckoned to us as our righteousness.  Our justification is then suspended on this righteousness which is now also our righteousness, these good works that we perform through faith and which, without God’s grace, we could not perform.  We are not right with God because Christ’s righteousness is counted as ours, is reckoned to our account, as if we had died his death and lived his life.  We are right with God because we have become righteous through Christ and are now declared righteous because we are in fact righteous.  Indeed, our justification, in the Roman system, waxes and wanes.  We can have more or less of it depending upon how righteous we are at any point, we can even lose our justification entirely by the commission of mortal sin. (Conc. Trid. Sess VI, c.7)

Now, someone might very well think — and through the centuries some have thought:  It seems to me that this dispute is overblown; we are making too much of it.  The Roman Catholics say that justification is by grace and by faith and so do the Protestants. The Roman Catholics say that there must be works for justification, but the Protestants say that faith must lead to works.  What is the big difference?  Why can’t we just accept the measure of our agreement and leave the theologians to argue about the details?

Well, Galatians is the reason.  Paul in Gal. 1:6-9 is the reason!  It may seem to someone unfamiliar with the debate that the difference between the two positions is too small to matter.   But, in matters of doctrine and faith the difference between the opposing systems — both of which are competing for the loyalty of folk who profess to believe the same faith, to give their loyalty to the teaching of the same book, and to look back for their hope of eternal life to the same historical events — I say, the difference between the views is often reduced to a line a sharp as a razor’s edge, yet on one side of that line there is God’s truth and on the other a departure from it.  [Buchanan, Justification, p. 136]  So it was in Galatia when Paul wrote to the churches there.

Think back to that situation for a moment.  The judaizers against whose teaching Paul wrote that fiery letter to the Galatians were Christians by their own profession.  They believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, the Messiah, and the Savior of the world.  They believed that his death was for our sins and the basis of our salvation.  Without the slightest doubt they believed that he had risen from the dead. They preached faith in Christ! They believed that, as Christians, they should serve the Lord with their lives and proclaim his name to those who were not yet his followers.  There is nothing whatever to suggest that they would not have argued that a believer’s obedience and good works were possible only by the grace of God.  Without a doubt that is what they would have said. The Jewish rabbis of their day said that! The only difference was that in the matter of justification they held that what Christ had done had to be “pieced out” by the believer’s own keeping of the law.

I can very easily hear one of those judaizers putting the difference in terms that seemed to suggest that on almost all points they were in complete agreement with Paul.  And we can easily imagine certain Christians arguing that with the whole world to be won Paul should apply to them the great principle of Christian unity and not allow this technical theological debate to interfere with their common cause.  But Paul in fact did nothing of the kind.  He replied furiously to the doctrinal position of the judaizers and claimed that the entire gospel was at stake in this codicil the judaizers were seeking to add to the gospel of justification by faith alone.

[By the way, let me mention as an aside, the apologists for Rome all make a major point of saying that the Bible doesn’t ever say that justification is by faith alone and that James, in fact, in James 2:24 says that a believer is justified by his works and not by faith alone.  But Paul makes a mighty point of saying that justification is by faith “from first to last” and that is by faith and not by works which is all that Luther meant by saying that it was by faith alone.  Further, it is not hard to show that James and Paul are talking about justification and its relationship to works from two different vantage points.  Paul is talking about the ground, the basis for a sinner’s acceptance with God and how sinners receive that acceptance through faith in Christ and not through their works; James is talking about the nature of that justifying faith as a faith that works through love.]

In Galatians, at any rate, Paul said that the difference which divided him from the judaizers was no mere theological subtlety, but the very heart and soul of the religion of Jesus Christ.  [This and some of the above from Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, pp. 23-25]  But, and here is the point, the doctrine he so mightily contends against in Galatians seems to be substantially the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification.

The Roman Catholic reply to this charge was, in both of the debates I listened to, spectacularly unconvincing.  They argued that Paul in Galatians is not talking about the question of the relationship between works and justification in general, but only specifically about the question of the Jewish ceremonial law.  He’s not talking about any law, or all law, but only Jewish ceremonial law.  He’s not arguing that all works are excluded from our gaining acceptance with God but only Jewish ceremonial works!  Hardly!  Paul’s point in Galatians, Romans, and Philippians is not that certain works of the law, Jewish ceremonial works, are excluded from justification, but that any and all works are excluded.  He poses justification by faith over against justification by works because they represent contradictory principles of salvation.  He says this often and emphatically, as in Gal. 3:10ff. where he points out that obedience to the law cannot be the ground of justification both because we are incapable of an adequate obedience and the Bible has said from the beginning that justification comes not by works but by faith, not on the basis of our works but on the basis of Christ’s work for us.  In Romans 2-3 the impossibility of justification by works of love is based on our comprehensive sinfulness and inability to keep the law of God — any and all of it! No one can be justified by keeping the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin!

The NIV’s translation of Gal. 3:2-3 is not strictly literal, but it perfectly capture’s Paul’s meaning:  the contrast is between what God does and what you do, and Paul’s point is that justification is in no respect based on what you do, even what you do as a Christian!  The point is still more striking in 5:4 where he speaks of those attempting to be justified by law having fallen away from grace.  The problem is not the Jewish ceremonies per se.  He speaks of circumcision in v. 3, but Paul had no problem with circumcision.  Many of his converts were circumcised.  The Jewish Christians continued to be circumcised.  The problem was a principle of works righteousness that lurked beneath the demand that Gentile converts be circumcised.  On what ground could that demand be made except that law keeping, that such a good work as circumcision was somehow connected with a sinner’s justification.  No, says Paul.  The believer’s law keeping and justification are not connected.  He or she will have laws to keep, to be sure, but not for his acceptance with God.

Fact is, none of the Roman Catholic works I have read or defenses of Roman Catholic teaching on justification I have heard have at all convinced me that their doctrine is not virtually identical in spirit and in principle with that doctrine that Paul so categorically condemns as a false gospel in Galatians.  Human achievement, good works — on whatever ground, in whatever spirit, by whatever means contribute nothing to a sinner’s acceptance with God.  Deny that and you have denied the gospel.  But Roman Catholicism does, in fact, deny that.  And so I say that Roman Catholicism has no answer and cannot evade the tremendous polemic of the Apostle Paul in Galatians.

  • The second question is: which view of justification best satisfies the flow of Paul’s argument, especially in Romans where Paul gives the most systematic presentation of the doctrine of justification that we have in the Bible? And my conclusion is that the Roman Catholic teaching does not faithfully reproduce Paul’s argument about justification.  Only the Lutheran/Reformed or Protestant doctrine does.

Now, it is a complex and lengthy presentation of justification that we have in Romans 1-5 and so I want to reduce the issue to but one point, the point I think that is easiest to make and, in my judgment, most devastating for the Roman Catholic idea that the believer’s works of righteousness contribute to, even merit his justification even if, as Catholic apologists insist, those works of righteousness are made possible by grace, performed by faith, and offered to God through Christ.

Here is the problem.  Paul, when he has completed his exposition of justification, anticipates in the opening verse of chapter 6, an objection that he is sure people will have to his teaching.  The objection is that people will say that his doctrine, his teaching about the way sinners are made right with God undermines moral living.  “What shall we say, then?  Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?”  That is, if I am made right with God by what Christ did for me and not by what I do; if I am justified by faith in Christ and not by my own good works; if my standing with God rests not on my moral accomplishments to any degree but solely on Christ’s for me and in my place; if the good works I do before or after I become a Christian have nothing to do with my being a child of God and do not make me a child of God, then what is to keep me from kicking up my heels and enjoying my sins.  In a way, the more I sin I only make Christ’s righteousness and God’s grace seem the greater, for there is more sin for Christ to cover, more guilt for him to remove.  Paul says, you will think that my view of justification cuts the legs out from under the demand to live a holy life, because you have just heard me say that how you live has nothing to do with your acceptance with God.  You will think that I am left with no motive for a life of holiness and love.

Now, Paul has an answer for that.  He is going to say that sanctification and justification are inseparable in the salvation God gives to man.  God works not only to justify but to renew and restore, not only to change a person’s status before God (justification) but to transform his heart and life (sanctification).  But that is not my point.  My point is that Paul thought that folk would naturally object to his doctrine of justification because it seems to undermine moral living.  And here is the point: No one objects to the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification for that reason.   And the reason is that the Roman Catholic teaching is not subject to that objection.  Precisely the reverse.

Take another example.  Paul in Romans 9 argues that people are going to object to his doctrine of sovereign grace on the two grounds that it seems to make God unfair and it seems to nullify human responsibility.  That leads us to conclude that if our doctrine of divine grace does not seem to be subject to those objections, our doctrine is not what Paul taught!  One of the reasons we object to Arminianism is that it is not subject to those objections, no one has ever objected to it on those grounds, and, indeed, it is a theological system developed precisely to avoid those objections.  That leads us to conclude that Paul was not an Arminian, because he knew people would take offense at his doctrine on those grounds:  that it seemed to make God unfair and seemed to nullify human freedom and responsibility.  In a similar way we can argue about justification from Romans 6:1.

The Roman Catholic doctrine is that your justification absolutely depends upon your continued good works.  Without them you lose the justification you received at your baptism and only with them can you keep it.  Your justification is based on those works you perform — from whatever source they come — and so your acceptance with God is a matter of your continuation in good works.  Well no one would say that that doctrine of justification undermines moral living.  Quite the contrary, it requires moral living as its basis.  That leads me to conclude that Paul was not a Roman Catholic.  His doctrine he said was subject to the objection that justification was so much of grace, so much of faith alone, so much of Christ’s own righteousness imputed or reckoned to us as if it were ours, that people might well wonder if a believer then had to care at all about living morally.  No one thinks that about the Roman Catholic doctrine.

Why, in one of the debates I listened to, one of the Protestants had pointed out that in Romans 5:1 and 8:1 Paul characterized justification not as a continuing process but as a once-for-all action that forever alters a sinners status before God:  “there is therefore now no condemnation to the man who is in Christ Jesus.”  One of the Roman Catholic spokesman, responding to that argument said simply, “Well, ‘now’ there is no condemnation, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be tomorrow!”  In other words, unless you keep up your works your justification withers and may disappear.  But, not only is that a horrible misinterpretation of Paul in Romans, once again it fails the test of Romans 6:1.  That doctrine, that you keep up your justification by your good works, is not subject to the objection that it seems to make good works unnecessary.  And if it doesn’t seem to make good works unnecessary, it is not Paul’s doctrine of justification which he knew would be objected to on precisely the grounds Roman Catholics object to the Protestant doctrine today — that it undermines morality.

You see, I can as a Reformed Protestant, find a place in my view of salvation for all the texts the Roman Catholics cite concerning the necessity of obedience, the last judgment evaluating our works, the necessity of faith working through love.  But they cannot find a place in their system for the texts we cite from Paul about a finished justification, about justification in no way suspended upon human works, even believing works, and about justification being so free as to seem to suggest that obedience and holiness of life are unnecessary.

In Thomas Howard’s new book, On Being Catholic [p. 138], Howard attempts to minimize the difference between the evangelical and Protestant conceptions of salvation.

“At the time I was received into the Catholic Church, I came to know an old woman named Sarah who came to daily Mass.  At that same time, my octogenarian mother was living at our house.  My mother, being a Protestant Evangelical who spent many house with her Bible open in her lap, might have wondered about the sense in which it could be urged that Sarah was saved, not that my mother would have doubted Sarah’s humility and sincerity… But Sarah would have done poorly with a certain set of questions my mother might have put to her.  ‘Are you saved?’ Blank.  ‘Well-are you born again?’  Confusion.  ‘Right.  Have you accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Savior?’ Consternation.  Just as my mother is concluding that her long-held fears about Catholics seem indeed to be well-grounded, I interfere.  I lead the two ladies over to a crucifix on the wall, and in my mother’s hearing, I ask Sarah who that is.  Jesus.  Who is he?  The Son of God.  What is he doing?  Suffering death.  Why?  For our sins.  And suddenly my mother has heard Sarah make a confession that qualifies Sarah for the category ‘saved.’  Sarah has believed all of this all along, and her trust is in this gospel, just as is my mother’s.  But left to themselves, the two ladies might have gone off deeply perplexed about each other’s Christian credentials.”

Well, not quite so fast.  Quite apart from the fact that Sarah, as a faithful member of a supposedly Christian church, should easily be able to answer the questions Howard imagines his mother putting to her, for, after all, they are fundamentally important questions raised in the Bible itself, fact is, the judaizers in Galatia could have said with the truest sincerity all that Howard imagines Sarah saying in front of the crucifix.  None of that was in dispute — who Christ is or what he did on the cross or why.  But despite all of that, they were bringing and believing a different gospel that was no gospel at all.  How one understands the relation between Christ’s righteousness and my own:  that is the key Paul says.  Is Christ’s righteousness the only righteousness by which I am justified, or is it Christ’s righteousness and my own, even my own Christian righteousness which comes into my life by faith and grace?  Those are two positions so different that one is good news and the other is death!  So said Paul himself.

Are there Catholics who are saved despite this unbiblical doctrine of justification?  Of course there are.  There are many, no doubt, and have been through the ages that have not been distracted by the church’s bad theology from relying wholly for their righteousness with God on the finished work of Christ.  And are their evangelicals who turn their doctrine of justification into an excuse for sinning and who thus prove that their faith, because it does not produce good works, is dead.  Of course there are.

But those facts do not set aside the terrible emphasis that Paul, the apostle of the Lord, lays on the life and death importance of understanding that a sinner is and can be justified or made right with God on no other basis than the righteousness of Jesus Christ himself received by faith alone; that justification comes to us by means of another’s righteousness, so perfect, so complete, so sufficient to cover all our sins, that it can seem, at first glance, that anyone who has received this righteousness by faith would be free to sin all he or she wanted and still be right with God!