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No Love Lost

How Catholics (and Some Protestants) Go Wrong on Good Works

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

One way to approach the historic division between Roman Catholic and Reformation teaching about justification is to focus on how justification by faith relates to ongoing practical love and righteousness in the Christian life.

Even though the Reformers affirmed that justification by faith alone would always be followed by practical love and righteousness, the leaders of Roman Catholicism saw in the Reformers’ doctrine a threat to the holiness of Christian living and the undermining of Christian love.

One classic text of the Reformation that tried to protect against this misunderstanding of justification by faith was the Westminster Confession of Faith’s statement on justification:

Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love. (11.2)

Or to use the words of James: “Faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:26). “Faith apart from works is useless” (James 2:20). It does not justify.

What the Roman Catholics Warned Against

But sixteenth-century Roman Catholics saw the danger as more serious. The Council of Trent (1545–1563) was convened as a kind of “counter-reformation” to the Protestant Reformation. Here the Catholic views of justification were expressed so as to protect against the errors and dangers perceived in the Reformers’ teaching. You can hear their concern in these excerpts from the Council’s Decree on Justification:

No one, how much soever justified, ought to think himself exempt from the observance of the commandments. (Chapter XI)

If any one saith, that nothing besides faith is commanded in the Gospel; that other things are indifferent, neither commanded nor prohibited, but free; or, that the ten commandments nowise appertain to Christians; let him be anathema. (Canon XIX)

If any one saith, that the man who is justified and how perfect soever, is not bound to observe the commandments of God and of the Church . . . let him be anathema. (Canon XX)

If any one saith, that Christ Jesus was given of God to men, as a redeemer in whom to trust, and not also as a legislator whom to obey; let him be anathema. (Canon XXI)

Two Different Ways to Secure the Place of Sanctification

All four of those statements are legitimate warnings against an unbiblical view of justification by faith alone. This is not where the difference lay. Both Reformers and Roman Catholics were zealous to preserve the biblical connection between justification by faith and a life of obedient love and righteousness — that is, both aimed to preserve a necessary connection between justification and sanctification.

The difference lay in how this connection would be conceived and preserved. Roman Catholicism conceived and preserved it by defining justification so that it includes sanctification. The Reformers conceived and preserved the connection by defining justification as the forgiveness of sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness through faith — while pointing out that this faith is of such a nature that, by the Holy Spirit, it sanctifies (Acts 26:18).

Or to put it another way, the necessary connection between justification and sanctification was preserved in Roman Catholicism by saying justification is the infusion or the inherence or impartation of Christ’s blood-bought gift of righteousness in the believing soul. And the Reformers preserved the connection by saying that justification was the imputation of Christ’s righteousness by means of a faith that would necessarily lead to sanctification. For the one justification is sanctification. And for the other justification leads to sanctification.

Trent’s Definition of Justification

For example, the Council of Trent in the Decree on Justification puts it like this:

Justification . . . is not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace. (Chapter VII, emphasis added)

That righteousness which is called ours, because that we are justified from its being inherent in us, that same is (the righteousness) of God, because that it is infused into us of God, through the merit of Christ. (Chapter XVI, emphasis added)

Thus Roman Catholicism speaks of believers as being “made righteous” through justification, as opposed to “counted righteous”:

If they were not born again in Christ, they never would be justified; seeing that, in that new birth, there is bestowed upon them, through the merit of His passion, the grace whereby they are made righteous. (Chapter III)

It follows, then, that our justification, like sanctification, is progressive. It may grow. We may be “further justified” since justification consists in our own measure of goodness brought about by new birth.

They, through the observance of the commandments of God and of the Church, faith co-operating with good works, increase in that righteousness which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified. (Chapter X)

Three Reasons the Reformers Rejected the Roman Catholic View

The Reformers considered this a very serious error. First, it was not what the Bible taught about justification. Second, contrary to its own designs, it did not serve hope or holiness in God’s people. Third, it obscured the full glory of what Christ actually achieved for his people.

1. Conflating Justification and Sanctification Is Unbiblical

What the Bible teaches about justification is that it is an act of God experienced by the “ungodly.” In other words, justification is not the infusion of godliness, but the declaration that an ungodly person is counted righteous.

Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. (Romans 4:4–5)

This does not mean that “believing” is an ungodly act. It means that when a person is “born of God,” and brought from spiritual death to living faith (1 John 5:1), in that instant God’s justifying act does not treat believing as a meritorious virtue, but as a receiving of Christ, in whom the believer is counted righteous. How we experience faith, which is a good experience, and are in that moment of justification considered “ungodly,” Andrew Fuller explains:

This term [“ungodly” in Romans 4:5], I apprehend, is not designed, in the passage under consideration, to express the actual state of mind which the party at the time possesses, but the character under which God considers him in bestowing the blessing of justification upon him. Whatever be the present state of the sinner’s mind — whether he be a haughty Pharisee or a humble publican — if he possesses nothing which can in any degree balance the curse which stands against him [Galatians 3:10], or at all operate as a ground of acceptance with God, he must be justified, if at all, as unworthy, ungodly, and wholly out of regard to the righteousness of the mediator.” (Andrew Fuller: Holy Faith, Worthy Gospel, World Mission, 51)

Righteousness Not Our Own

Paul is at pains in Philippians 3:8–9 to distinguish his own righteousness from the righteousness that we have in union with Christ by faith.

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.

In this text, the righteousness we have “in him” and the righteousness we have “through faith in Christ” are the same. Therefore, we understand that faith is the instrument by which God unites us to Christ, where there is a righteousness not our own.

I infer, therefore, that when Paul says that God “justifies the ungodly” (Romans 4:5), he is implying that justification is not sanctification. It is not a process of developing godliness. It is an instantaneous act of declaring acquittal and vindication. It is an act of instantaneously counting a person perfectly righteous who is not righteous in and of themselves. The ground of this declaration is not in us, but in Christ.

As by the one man’s disobedience the many were appointed sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be appointed righteous. (Romans 5:19)

The perfect obedience of Christ is counted as ours.

David speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works. (Romans 4:6)

Imputation and the Perfect Obedience of Christ

This “counting” is what the Reformers meant by “imputation.” The reason we need to be counted or imputed righteous by means of the perfect obedience of Christ is that God’s law does demand perfection, and we are hopeless without it. Of course, the law, understood in its wider sense (the Pentateuch, or even the entire Old Testament), made provision for imperfection by means of the sacrificial system. But that system was necessary because the law demanded perfection.

All who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Galatians 3:10)

Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. (James 2:10)

Therefore, God’s way of justification is to direct our attention entirely away from our flawed godliness and totally toward Christ. Here is how Paul says it radically:

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. (Galatians 5:2–3)

In other words, if we put the slightest reliance for justification on an act that we perform, then we will have to rely entirely on our law-keeping. And he has already said that is hopeless (Galatians 2:16; 3:10). This means that justification by faith alone is not synonymous with, nor inclusive of, sanctification. The writer to the Hebrews expresses this reality without using the word “justification”:

By a single offering Christ has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. (Hebrews 10:14)

Here is a sharp distinction between Christ’s act of once-for-all perfecting, that has already happened, and his act of progressive sanctification, which is ongoing. Whom has Christ once-for-all “perfected” in an instant (that is, justified)? Those who are “being sanctified.” Justification and sanctification are not the same. The ongoing process of being sanctified is the evidence of being once-for-all “perfected.”

2. Conflating Justification and Sanctification Ruins Both

This leads us to the second reason the Reformers considered the Roman Catholic view a serious error: namely, it does not serve hope or holiness in God’s people. There are other serious problems with the way Roman Catholicism teaches the pursuit of holiness — for example, their view of penance, priestly confession, sacramental impartation of grace (as in the mass), the role of Mary and the saints, the authority of the church, and so on. But their claim that justification includes sanctification is one of the most serious problems.

Our Only Hope

In the New Testament, the only hopeful and Christ-exalting pursuit of practical righteousness is based on the confidence that I am already perfectly righteous in Christ. Charles Wesley put it like this: “He breaks the power of canceled sin.” The first thing that has to happen in my warfare with sin is that all my sins must be canceled because of Christ. All of them — forever. This happened at the cross.

God forgave us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. (Colossians 2:13–14)

The entire record of debts that could have damned a believer is canceled at the cross. Therefore, all warfare with sin is against canceled sin.

Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. (1 Corinthians 5:7)

Dig out the leaven of sin in your life because, in Christ, there is no leaven in your life. You are unleavened. Christ has died for you. This is our only hope of victory. Another way to say it is that the only hopeful, gospel-based, Christ-exalting way to pursue sanctification is to pursue it on the basis of justification. Not as part of justification.

The Crux of Sanctification

Here is the crux of the matter: if we pursue sanctification (which we must, Hebrews 12:14) without relying on the completed work of God in justification, then we fall into the trap Paul warned against in Galatians 5:2, and begin to establish our own righteousness — our own justification.

This is hopeless. If we try to defeat an unforgiven sin — that is, if we try to conquer our sin before it is canceled — we become our own saviors; we nullify the justification of the ungodly (Romans 4:4–5); and we head straight for despair and suicide.

The good news of the Reformers, contrary to what the Roman Catholics thought, is not that sanctification is optional. There is no final salvation without the confirmation of justification in a life of holiness (2 Peter 1:10; 2 Thessalonians 2:13). Rather, the good news is that the fight for holiness is hopeful because it is based on the completed and final work of justification. “Those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). This is going to happen. The fight for holiness would be hopeless without the assurance of this finished justifying work of God.

3. Conflating Justification and Sanctification Obscures the Glory of Christ

Which points to the third and final reason the Reformers thought the Roman Catholic conflation of justification and sanctification was a serious error. It obscures the full glory of what Christ actually achieved for his people.

Perfection Is Ours

To be sure, Roman Catholicism emphasizes that there is no sanctification without Christ’s blood and righteousness. But it does not accord Christ the achievement of a justifying righteousness that provides for the complete acquittal and vindication of all God’s people the instant they believe.

This is a glorious achievement of Jesus: namely, that he has so worked, in life and death, that in the twinkling of an eye, at the first occurrence of saving faith, every sin is forgiven (Acts 10:43), and eternal perfection (Hebrews 10:14) is counted as ours. Roman Catholicism attributes to Christ many great and wonderful attributes and achievements, but this is not one of them.

Faith Is Not Alone

In our conversations with Roman Catholics, it will always be wise to emphasize how seriously we regard the necessity of sanctification for final salvation. It will not be surprising if they are puzzled. Many evangelicals stumble over the claim that justification is by faith alone (Romans 3:28), and yet final salvation has the prerequisite of holiness (Hebrews 12:14). But this is centuries-long Reformed teaching.

My own opinion is that the Reformed movement has not, in general, gone as deeply into the dynamics of sanctification as we might in order to explain why justifying faith must produce a life of love. This has probably caused many Roman Catholics to be skeptical about our effort to keep justification and sanctification together.

It is heartening to hear Luther say,

Faith is something very powerful, active, restless, effective, which at once renews a person and again regenerates him, and leads him altogether into a new manner and character of life, so that it is impossible not to do good without ceasing. (Sermon on Luke 16:1–9)

And it is true when the Westminster Confession says,

[Faith is] not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love. (11.2)

These kinds of statements can be multiplied by the hundreds in the Reformed tradition. But far fewer are the explanations why faith has this necessary effect on life. It is not enough to say that faith unleashes the Holy Spirit to do his sanctifying work, though this is true (Galatians 3:5). What needs attention is the actual, experiential processes of thought and feeling and willing that move us from justifying faith to habitual love.

Enter Christian Hedonism

Christian Hedonism (whose central tenet is: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him”) pushes into these processes. For example, suppose we say rightly with Andrew Fuller,

Whatever other properties faith may possess, it is as receiving Christ, and bringing us into union with him, that it justifies. (Andrew Fuller, 50)

Christian Hedonism presses in and asks, What is this experience of receiving Christ really like? Is it like receiving a blow? Is it like receiving a gift you need, but don’t want? Is it like receiving desired help from someone you dislike? Is it like receiving a package from the postman you scarcely know or care to know?

Christian Hedonism presses into the affectional dimension of “receiving” Christ, because it knows from the Bible and from experience there are many ways to “receive” Christ that are not saving ways. The people in John 6 received Jesus as king and Jesus escaped them (John 6:15). The brothers of Jesus received him as a miracle worker and Jesus said they had no saving faith (John 7:5). The people at the feast “believed” on him in one sense, but Jesus would not entrust himself to them (John 2:24). Simon was ready to receive the Holy Spirit, and Peter told him, in essence, to take his money and go to hell (Acts 8:20).

Receive Christ as a Treasure

Therefore, Christian Hedonism presses into the actual experience until it discerns what this “receiving of Christ” is. And what it finds is that receiving Christ is saving if he is received not only as a Savior and Lord, but as a supreme Treasure.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” (Matthew 13:44)

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:37)

I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. (Philippians 3:8)

No Heaven Without Jesus

In other words, receiving Christ in a saving way means preferring Christ over all other persons and things. It means desiring him — not only what he can do. His deeds on our behalf are meant to make it possible to know and enjoy him forever. We do not receive him savingly when we receive him as a ticket out of hell or into heaven. He is not a ticket. He is a treasure — the greatest Treasure. He is what makes heaven heaven. If we want a pain-free heaven without him there, we do not receive him; we use him.

Therefore, in speaking about sanctification and justification, it is helpful to insist that justifying faith means receiving, welcoming, embracing Jesus for all that God is for us in him. This is true even though we cannot now see all that God will be for us in Jesus. We have seen enough of the glory of God in Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6) that we know we would like to spend eternity discovering more and more of the God who gives himself to us in Jesus.

Justifying Faith Severs Sin’s Double Power

In this way, Christian Hedonism draws attention to the nature of justifying faith that goes a long way toward explaining why it is true when Luther says that it is impossible for justifying faith not to do good. And why it is true when the Westminster Confession says that faith “is no dead faith, but works by love.”

When we experience justifying faith as being satisfied with all that God is for us in Jesus, this new spiritual satisfaction in God severs the root of sin’s double power. Sin has power by making threats of what pain we may encounter in the path of obedience, and by making promises of what pleasure we may encounter in the path of disobedience.

But justifying faith has found all that God is for us more satisfying than all sin’s promises, and safer than all sin’s threats. Therefore, the behaviors that flow from this faith will be God-honoring, sacrificial behaviors of love.

Keys to Holiness and Love

Perhaps, then, in your conversations with Roman Catholic friends, you will be able to remove one obstacle to their seeing the beauty of justification by faith alone. You will be able to show them that you are not indifferent to holiness or to a life of love. Instead, your doctrine of justification by faith holds the double key to such holiness and love. The first key is that the biblical path to practical holiness in the eyes of man starts with the confidence that we are perfectly holy in the eyes of God. The second key is that justifying faith contains a superior satisfaction in God that severs the root of sin’s threats and promises.

Roman Catholicism does not need to conflate justification and sanctification in order to secure a place for sanctification in the Christian life. Indeed, that conflation cannot secure such a place. A better, more biblical, more hopeful, more Christ-exalting path is to affirm the imputation of Christ’s achievement through faith alone, and to see that faith as a glad receiving of Christ as the supreme Treasure that he is.