Faith and Works, Plus a Bar Fight

The Fight

A Catholic bishop and a Presbyterian preacher walk into a bar. Seeing that they were both teachers of Scripture, they began talking theology over drinks. The discussion soon got heated when they got to the topic of justification by faith. Before anyone knew what had happened, both men lay dead on the floor, beaten and bruised.

In an instant they found themselves before God. They were told by an angel to be patient while God prepares to declare their destinies. But they couldn’t control themselves and blurted out, “Who was right, Lord? Are we justified instantly by faith alone or progressively by faith and works?”

Immediately God responded, “Neither of you are justified by either faith or works, for in your dispute you’ve both proven not to be my children! Depart from me, you workers of iniquity, for I never knew you.”

Just-As-If-I’d Never Sinned

What is the point of this little story? Well, it doesn’t have much of one, I just wanted to start with a story, especially if I could use the classic bar setup. But it is related to the topic of this post, namely the relationship between faith, works, and justification.

From an average Protestant perspective, we have the doctrine of sola fide, aka justification by faith alone. In this account, while we start legally on the hook for our sin and guilty in God’s court, when we put our faith in Christ God immediately declares us righteous, giving us a not-guilty verdict and acquitting us of the charges against us. Thus we are saved from God’s wrath. From that point on our faith naturally produces works through the Spirit.

From a Catholic perspective (which I hope I am presenting accurately), justification is a state bound up with sanctification (becoming holy). When we become Christians, we start becoming sanctified and so also justified because God infuses us with grace that creates faith and works if we are willing to make use of it. As we make use of God’s grace provided through the Holy Spirit, we become more holy and therefore find ourselves increasingly in right standing before God. In most people, though, death comes before we are completely holy and completely justified, so we must undergo cleansing in Purgatory until the process is complete.

The Part Where I Define Stuff

What both of these positions have in common is underlying grace. For the usual Protestant view of sola fide, we can only be acquitted because Jesus takes our condemnation for us out of sheer, undeserved grace. We can’t earn His sacrifice, but merely say “yes” to it. Likewise for the Catholic, we can only be sanctified and justified by grace. All of our faith and works which justify us can be traced back to God’s grace provided through the Spirit.

Of course, it is important to consider what faith and works are to discuss this issue. We can’t think of faith as just plain belief, thinking something is true. After all, even the demons have that kind of faith, and they are doomed. Saving faith, according to James especially, is an active thing which demands to be made real through works. Without works, we are taught, faith is dead and useless, totally incapable of justifying anyone.

What are works, though? That depends what we’re talking about. Works can usually refer to three things: actions which are done in order to fulfill the Law, anything good anyone does at all, or the good things we do by the power of the Holy Spirit. The first kind is the mostly blatantly ruled out as having anything to do with justification. Paul goes on and on about how following the Law can’t fix anything. All Christians must categorically deny the possibility of being justified by keeping the Law to avoid falling under Paul’s stern condemnation of the Judaizers.

The other two kinds of works are where things get less clear cut. There is a difference between works we manufacture on our own to be good and works the Spirit creates in us. The former is clearly excluded from justification when Paul rules out all boasting in our own righteousness. If we are saved, we do not get credit. No one can say that he earned or performed his own way into a right standing with God, otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

On the other hand, there are the good deeds done because of the Holy Spirit living in us. Most Protestants would still deny that these have any role in our justification, even though they come solely by God’s grace. Proponents of something called the New Perspective on Paul would generally argue that these works do play into our final justification, but that even then we are promised this end when we believe. Catholics would include all these good works in the process of becoming holy, which is what carries our justification.

Speaking Different Languages

Much of the divide between Protestants and Catholics, but not all of it, on justification can be traced back to miscommunication regarding these three kinds of works. When the average Protestant hears the Catholic say we are justified by both faith and works, he assumes the first and/or second kind of works, so they hear “We are justified by faith and keeping the Law” or “we are justified by faith and our own efforts to do good.” When Catholics hear us claim that justification comes apart from works, many hear that people who live fruitless lives of clearly dead faith will be saved as long as they agree with the facts of the Gospel.

So when we understand faith as a living, active, life-changing kind of belief, the kind of trust in Jesus which bears fruit through the Holy Spirit, there are indeed many Catholics who would more or less agree that this faith alone justifies. Likewise, if we understand the works Catholics say contribute to justification as the good we do because of the Holy Spirit in us, caused entirely by grace, then while not all Protestants would agree, most would drop the charge of a “work your way to heaven” heresy.

Neither position is without its weaknesses, though. Sola fide will never quite feel snuffly fitting with James 2 (especially verse 24), and it actually does lead and has led many people to think that fruitless “Christians” are assured of salvation, or that believing facts and praying a prayer are enough. The Catholic view I think sometimes stumbles through Paul and lends itself to many abuses, such as legalism, self-righteousness, performance-based spirituality, and even superstition in combination with any ambiguous form of their sacramental theology.

Resetting the Focus: Grace is a Person, Not a Thing

I, personally, take a step back from the standard Protestant and Catholic views to focus on what—actually who—they have in common. We all agree that Jesus is the true cause of our salvation and that we owe it all to Him. When it comes to the issue of justification, Jesus already lived a life of perfect faith and perfect works in our place. He trusted the Father, did good deeds, kept the Law, and made all around flawless performance on our behalf. When we meet Him in the Gospel through the Holy Spirit, all we do is nothing. By simply not resisting Him, we are spiritually united to Him, with His own faith coming into our hearts and His own works flowing out through our hands. Christ Himself is the grace behind all faith and works we do. Jesus’ life flows into us through faith and out of us through works.

In this way, we receive both justification and sanctification from Jesus’ own innocent status and perfect holiness. In one moment we are united to Christ in faith and so become right with God and set apart for Him, while we spend the rest of our lives being transformed to live Christ’s right life before God and become purely holy all the way through.

I think if we keep Jesus the main thing, looking at it all through the light of His own person and work instead of impersonal versions of grace, faith, justification, and holiness, then we’re in good shape. While I do think sola fide, when given proper nuance and focus, is a superior way to speak of our right standing before God over the Catholic articulation, that is secondary to saying our salvation is all of Christ. In the end what matters is if we agree that we are accepted not because we are worthy in ourselves, but because of what Christ has done and still does for us, in us, and through us. Amen?

All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Romans 3:24

(I am aware, my more theologically minded readers, that I did not really interact with at least one other important view on justification, namely the New Perspective on Paul, especially as proposed by N. T. Wright. But this post is long enough as it is, and the NPP, while certainly important to this discussion, would not greatly affect what I have to say.)

Why I Defend What I Don’t Believe

If you read my blog, and even more so if you know me in real life, you’ve probably noticed that I tend to be unusually defensive about doctrines I don’t agree with and people I think are wrong. My recent post on Catholicism makes a decent example.

Some might assume this is because I’m secretly leaning to my opponents’ ways or maybe I’m some kind of relativist who thinks everyone’s interpretations are equally valid. Neither of those ideas would be true. Instead, I simply am committed to clarity and charity.

To get what I mean, follow the link below to a blog post on Reformedish. He explains the same behavior in the author of a book I really want called Deviant Calvinism.

Why Argue For a Position You Don’t Hold? Clarifying Crisp’s Deviant Calvinism | Reformedish

Why I’m Still An Evangelical Protestant

Before I get into the meat of this post, I’ll define my terms for any readers who don’t know exactly what Evangelical Protestant refers to. “Protestant” encompasses all churches descended from the Reformation, when Martin Luther and others concluded there was rampant intuitional and doctrinal corruption in the Catholic Church. They tried to reform it, but wound up breaking off into their own churches. Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, and most other non-Catholic churches fall under this label. While there’s a lot of diversity among Protestants, we all agree that the Roman Catholic Church is not the one true church, and that their Pope, Magisterium, and Tradition do not have special/infallible teaching authority.

The other part of this label—”Evangelical”—is harder to give a simple definition for, but really applies to churches which, after the fundamentalist/liberal wars of the 20th century, carried on most of the fundamentalist theology with an emphasis on evangelism and Bible. Baptists and Pentecostals make up most of the Evangelical demographic, along with non-denominational churches, and smaller portions from the Lutheran, Reformed, and even Catholic traditions.

Most of you, my readers, are probably Evangelical Protestants, too (though I know I have a few filthy Papists reading!). If you’re Baptist, I guarantee you are one of us. If there’s any further confusion, what I’m going to say in a moment will clear it up more.

So why am I writing this? For two reasons. For one, in the wider world of Christendom, Evangelicalism gets a bad name. We’re viewed as immature, shallow, and ignorant. But while there are several valid critiques by people both inside and outside Evangelicalism, I think much of the disdain is also undeserved or at very least exaggerated. We have strengths which offset and I daresay outweigh our weaknesses, and they deserve a fair hearing. The second reason for this post is to reassure you all that I really am still an Evangelical at heart. I frequently criticize the Evangelical world, and I often also defend other traditions, but I want to clarify that I only do this because Evangelicals are my own flesh and blood. Evangelicalism is still my home, and as such I’m more aware of its flaws than those of any other group. Who do you criticize more than your own family? But as family, however critical I may be, I’ll defend my Evangelical brethren to the death.

So, without further ado, here are the things that I think Evangelical Protestantism gets right, the things which keep me from leaving home.

Biblicism
We Evangelicals have a unique respect for the authority of Scripture. Radical fundamentalists treat Scripture like the Pharisees with their actually unbiblical rules and regulations. Liberal Protestants treat the Bible as an inferior thing to their modern and postmodern values, eschatologies, and science. Catholics give their own so-called “Sacred Tradition”equal weight to Scripture and give their leaders the ability to set interpretations in stone. As far as I’ve seen, only Evangelicals consistently try to live under the Bible, taking it at its word as best as we understand. Even when we let other stuff mess up our understanding of Scripture, there’s always a willingness to simply follow what it says.
Relationship
However much the term “personal relationship with Jesus” is overused and abused, there remains a very legitimate concept that each of us must have intimate fellowship with the Father through the Son through the Spirit. We emphasize the personal: you do not inherit union with Jesus from your parents or culture but must embrace Him yourself. We pound hard on the relationship: Jesus is personally invested in us with a great love and seeks for us to reciprocate. Prayer, Scripture, and all Christian acts bring us to know our Savior.
Passion
Nothing says “passion” like a big gathering of Evangelicals, especially teenagers. Sure, some of its hormones and shenanigans, but there’s real stuff, too, because in Evangelicalism we teach people to own their faith and let it drive their lives. Challenges and energy define our events and movements. While passion alone can be misplaced or fizzle out, when used properly it is a valuable asset for Christianity, moving people to really carry forth the love of Christ in the Gospel in a visible and impactful way.
Cultural Engagement
I’m not a fan of full-blown efforts to be/become “relevant,” but if there’s one place Evangelicals stand out most obviously it is in attempts to contextualize the truth and use popular culture and media to spread the Gospel. Sure, it’s usually done awkwardly and sometimes even embarrassingly, but that’s precisely why we need to keep people in Evangelicalism: so that theologians, data experts, and other people with necessary skills can round out the group in such attempts.
Evangelism
Last, but far from least, Evangelicals practically have a monopoly of the namesake, evangelism. As far as I know, no other tradition comes close to matching Evangelicals on the priority of taking the Good News about Jesus to those who haven’t heard. The Southern Baptists practically rule the missionary world. We’re not the only ones who believe in Hell, but we probably take it the most seriously. Plus, while most of the other traditions are talking about the importance of social justice, meeting needs, and solving problems in society (usually over the importance of evangelism), we Evangelicals are often out incorporating those very things into our mission work, spreading the Gospel while improving the world. And this, I believe, is of the utmost importance. After all, what was is the martyrs who Catholics so revere died doing? To what cause did Peter, supposedly their first Pope, devote his life?

I could probably extend this list a bit, but I think what I’ve mentioned so far, especially the first and last points, is enough to make my point. Despite all my theological musings, perplexities, and wanderings, these qualities of Evangelical Protestantism have kept me here. I honestly believe this is the best tradition for these reasons, even if I offer plenty of criticism, too. I only complain because I want to see us become the best and most Christian we can really be. And again, it’s these first and last points that really hold me in. I cannot conceive of doing Christianity that it’s robustly and ministerially Biblical, and emphatically evangelistic (even if in my personal life I don’t always live these out). So I plan on sticking around. And unless God decides to seriously throw me off, I expect that’s just what I’ll do.

(P. S. The Frances Chan featured image is because I think he’s one of the best we Evangelical Protestants have to offer.)

In Defense of My Catholic Brethren

Are Catholics Christians? To phrase it better, is Catholicism truly Christian, a thing which genuinely preaches and follows our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ? Do faithful, educated Catholics actually know Him?

I do believe the answer is “yes.”

I’ve wanted on some level to make a post on this for a very long time, but in all honesty fear has held me back, fear of how my evangelical Protestant friends, relatives, and other readers will react. I believe this was wrong of me, because if I am right that Catholics and Protestant are united as children born from the Father, then I should be willing to own my brothers instead of be ashamed.

So why do I believe that Catholicism is a legitimate part of the Christian religion, that Catholics are as born again as Protestants? Well, I’m not a Catholic apologist, so I won’t bother answering common objections about Mary, prayer to saints, images, transubstantiation, or baptismal regeneration. I don’t believe in these things, and I do think they’re problematic. My research and discussions with Catholics have at least led me to believe, though, that they are far from damnable heresies.

Where I believe things count the most, Catholics agree with us. We follow one God in the three persons of Father, Son, and Spirit. We agree that Jesus Himself was/is that Son, God become human for us and for our salvation. We believe He died and rose to set us free from sin and for Him. We believe in the coming final judgment and resurrection of the dead.

The core of this all is Jesus. Unlike every cult, false religion, and demonic ideology out there, Catholics get Jesus right. They trust in the one and only Mediator, the God-man, who lived and died to bring salvation to the human race. They preach Jesus the crucified Messiah and risen Lord. What else must we ask of them?

The truth is that God never listed for us certain doctrines about salvation, or the church, or praying which we absolutely must believe to be a Christian. He only says to throw ourselves on His Son as our only hope. Our good doctrine or bad doctrine, just like our good and bad works, are not the ground of our salvation. That is Jesus Himself. And as long as He alone is our hope and trust, we are promised that we will never perish but have eternal life, even if you’re Catholic.

None of this is to say that right beliefs are unimportant, or that there are no Catholic practices that are legitimately wrong. But the same goes for us. We all have something wrong, and probably all have some big stuff wrong. From what I see of Jesus in the Scriptures, and from the history of His Church, we are in no place to judge others for what we do ourselves on this matter.

The reason I bring this up at all is because I’m convicted about unity. Paul repeatedly commanded believers to have one heart and one mind, pounding unity over and over in his letters. John insisted that everyone born of God must show love to all of his brothers and sisters. Jesus Himself prayed to the Father asking that the coming church would be one just like He and the Father are one. This radical call to unity in Jesus our Savior means it is shameful, even sinful, for me to hide my belief that Catholics are fellow participants in God’s eternal life.

Unfortunately, in the average evangelical Protestant church, no one really knows or understands what Catholics actually believe and why they believe it. So we resort to inaccurate one-liners, gossip, and misrepresentations to maintain the wall of separation. This is clearly a shame. Because of this, I plan to ask some of my Catholic friends to continue guest posts to help give you more of their perspective on things, so that we can at least unite around the common love we have for Jesus and understand each other, even where we disagree.

In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas.