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“By Faith Alone?” Part I

We have all met the good and sincere religious enthusiast who is ready to inform everyone willing to listen that he is “only a sinner saved by grace.” He is a believer in “justification by faith alone.”

Given the opportunity, he would undoubtedly go on to say that he believes in “full, free, and present salvation”: full salvation because Christ has done all on his behalf, free salvation because he need not and in fact cannot do anything of himself toward it, present salvation because he is already saved.

True, he is still a “sinner”; nothing can alter that. But provided he has faith, in the sense of trust in Christ, he is in God’s grace, not that there is any reality called grace within his soul in that sense he is a “graceless” being still – but because God looks upon him now with “favor” where before he had been the object of God’s “disfavor.” The change is solely in God’s disposition toward him because he has complied with the condition “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31).

Religious enthusiasts who speak in such a way are staking all on the one single doctrine which, more than any other, accounts for the separation of millions of professing Christians throughout the world from the Catholic Church. Ultimately, all other differences in teaching or worship or discipline can be traced back to this one particular belief, the Protestant theory of justification by faith alone.

Not without reason, therefore, did a film in the early 1950s, Martin Luther, introduce as one of its dramatic highlights the scene where Luther wrote with a flourish in the margin of his New Testament, and underscored with grim determination, the famous word “solam,” meaning “alone,” opposite the text from Romans 3:28, “For we account a man to be justified by faith.” Martin Luther, having added the word ” solam,” said “he would have it so” and thus laid the foundation of the Protestant tradition which still survives after four and a half centuries, but about which ever-increasing numbers of those committed to it are becoming unhappy.

There is no room for doubt that the central core of the message given to the world by the Protestant Reformation is the doctrine of justification by faith alone. It is true that among many modern Protestant theologians there is a move toward a recovery of the Catholic outlook. But such theologians constitute only a minority voice among Protestants generally, or at least among Evangelicals, the vast majority of whom lag far behind their leaders and take for granted their inherited tradition, absorbed by the one idea of justification by faith alone and making it almost the whole of their religion.

No Easy Task

For their sakes an examination of this basic Protestant doctrine is still necessary. But it will not be an easy task. The problem is a subtle and complicated one. All that can be promised is that every effort will be made to reduce things to the simplest terms in order to meet popular needs, talking the language of ordinary people, not that of advanced theologians who do not necessarily represent the thinking of the rank and file among the adherents of their respective churches.

To gain any worthwhile understanding of this subject, it is necessary to have at least a working knowledge of its historical setting, and that leads to the hero of the film already mentioned, Martin Luther. There will be no room for more than the barest outline of his career. Our interest is not so much in his person as in the one basic teaching which led to all else in his new religion.

Martin Luther was born in 1483, entered an Augustinian monastery in 1505, was ordained a priest in 1507, and engaged in teaching biblical theology from 1512 till 1517, lecturing chiefly on the epistles of Paul.

A crisis in his life had begu n to develop almost from t he very commencement of his monastic life. Highly-strung, a prey to constant fears and scruples, he sought peace of mind in severe penances and other ascetical practices, although these alternated with periods of complete laxity which plunged him into still deeper anxiety and despair. He wanted at all costs to “feel good,” and he “felt bad.”

At first he had no particular intellectual difficulties about the Catholic religion; his crisis arose out of a practical emotional need. And it was in 1508 that he first glimpsed what he persuaded himself might well be the solution of all his troubles.

Please read, in Romans 1:16-17, those words of Paul which so struck Luther: “The gospel of Christ. . . is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth . . . for therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.”

Luther’s “Discovery”

The thought came to him that Paul meant nothing less than that the righteousness of God could be made” our own simply by trusting in the righteousness of Christ. Luther thought he had been wasting his time and his efforts in trying to do for himself what Christ had already done for him. A feeling of immense relief swept over him. He felt that he was saved and that he could be saved in no other way than this.

When he began to teach theology, in 1512, he put forward his theory of justification by faith alone, of God’s forgiving love freely bestowed upon all who simply repent of their sins and trust in Christ. He convinced himself that that was the true faith of the Catholic Church, and he tried to combine his new-found doctrine with all other teaching of Catholic theology.

Gradually, however, Luther encountered opposition to his new theory of justification by faith alone. On October 31,1517 he published his 95 Theses, declaring that indulgences destroyed the true spirit of repentance. Called to account, he refused to recant his views unless refuted by biblical evidence itself, refusing to accept the authority and traditional teachings of the Church as reliable sources of doctrine.

The Final Break with Rome

In 1520, he definitely broke with the Catholic Church, substituting for its authority that of the Bible as interpreted by each reader for himself. In a book called The Liberty of a Christian Man he issued his proclamation that men are justified by faith alone and that every Christian is his own priest, having direct access to God and needing neither a visible Church nor the mediation of any other priests.

He translated the Bible into German so that people could read it for themselves. (Luther’s Bible was not the first German Bible.) He was supported by some powerful German princes, and he became the acknowledged leader of the Protestant Reformation on the continent of Europe.

There are innumerable.aspects of this subject, whether bearing on the personal character and experiences of Martin Luther himself, upon the conditions prevailing among the clergy and laity of the Catholic Church at the time, and upon the political circumstances favorable to the propagation of the new religion.

But with those we are not here concerned. The origin and development of the one new doctrine which led up to all else that went into the making of the Protestant outlook as contrasted with that of the Catholic Church provide us with the vital question we have to solve. Was Luther right in his interpretation of Romans 1:16-17, an interpretation which has had such tremendous consequences in the lives of so many millions of people during the past four and a half centuries?

The Catholic Teaching

All centers upon the nature of the righteousness, justice, or goodness to which man can attain and upon the nature of the faith required in order to do so. Let us take first, therefore, the question of righteousness.

The Catholic Church teaches that at baptism (John 3:5) the soul passes from a state of original or inherited sin to a state of grace (Rom. 6:23). God does not merely declare the soul to be righteous or just in his sight. He makes the soul ‘holy in itself by producing within it, through the activity of the Holy Ghost, a supernatural quality of spiritual goodness which is a true regeneration, renewal, or renovation (Tit. 3:5, 1 Pet. 3:21).

This spiritual quality incorporates us in Christ as his very members (1 Cor. 6:15), makes us live by him as the branches exist by the very life of the vine to which they belong (John 15:5), and through him enables us to become in a mysterious way sharers in the divine nature itself (2 Pet. 1:4).

The goodness, justice, righteousness, or holiness of a soul in a state of grace is, therefore, a reality and not merely a fiction. It is imparted to the soul by God, sanctifying it in its very nature. It is not merely imputed to the soul by God, leaving the soul still contaminated by the filth of sin.

This ennobling and consoling doctrine, the true teaching of the New Testament, Luther altogether rejected. Concentrating on the one text of Romans 1:16-17, and on others which he thought he could fit in with it, he overlooked all other.aspects of Christian doctrine taught elsewhere in the New Testament. He declared . that the Greek word used by Paul for righteousness (dikaiosune) means simply “acquitted,” as one is acquitted or declared not guilty in a court of law. Such a decree, he said, makes no change in the acquitted person. He remains exactly as he was before. He is merely told that the law does not regard him as a criminal.

Therefore, according to Paul, argued Martin Luther, man’s justification means that he is reputed or accounted as righteous in the sight of God, although he remains as sinful in his very nature as ever. The change is in God’s disposition toward man, not in man himself. Henceforth God looks upon him with favor instead of disfavor, attributing to him the righteousness of Christ which is in no way really possessed within the soul.

Now it is quite true that Paul made use of a word which in the Greek language had the technical meaning of legal acquittal. And if the word can have no other meaning than that, one could scarcely dispute the interpretation of justification as implying no more than to be accounted as righteous or not guilty in the sight of God.

Luther’s Scholarly Limitations

But Luther had not the advantages of modem scholarship. He belonged to an age when it was thought that the real meaning of the New Testament could be best ascertained by discovering the exact sense of the Greek language in which its books were originally written. Now even Protestant scholars are beginning to know better, for the Greek words took on a special sense when they were used by the New Testament writers to express Christian doctrines.

The pagan Greek language was itself practically “baptized,” the Christians from the very beginning using it to express revealed, supernatural, and spiritual truths nowhere to be found in classical Greek literature. To understand New Testament Greek, then, it is not enough to have a Greek dictionary in hand; it is necessary to keep in mind the whole religious outlook of Christians according to the teachings given them by the apostles.

What, then, did Paul have in mind when he spoke of the soul’s “justification”? He was indeed thinking of liberation from heathen darkness for the Gentiles, and from bondage to the Jewish Law for the Jews, as a consequence of embracing Christianity and giving one’s wholehearted allegiance to Christ. But that was not the whole of his doctrine.

For him such a liberation was simply a presupposed condition of one’s becoming a “new creature in Christ” (2 Cor. 5-17). A transforming process from a state of sin to that of sanctifying grace takes place in the soul, a simultaneous deliverance from guilt and an admission to a new and supernatural spiritual life.

In his denial of this Luther contradicted divine revelation as well as reason. The great emotional stress under which he was laboring when his new doctrine first dawned upon him blinded him to practically all else save the one thing by which he was so fascinated. As a matter of fact, when, later, others implored him to listen to reason, he replied contemptuously that reason is but a “prostitute” bent on seducing mankind.

But it was not only of the human intelligence that he took a gloomy view. He held that man has been so totally depraved by the Fall of Adam, that his heart and will have been so completely contaminated by inherited original sin, as to be rendered quite incapable of any good at all. Is it any wonder that he went on from such views to an entire repudiation of the Catholic doctrine in this matter?

Where modern unbelievers dishonor God by holding that man does not need redeeming at all and that he can manage quite well without God, Luther dishonored God by holding that the divine image is so utterly defaced in man that God himself cannot restore that image. The most God can do is to cover up his failure by a fiction, accounting a filthy soul righteous by covering up or hiding its evil condition with the garments of the righteousness of Christ.

The Catholic doctrine, on the other hand, neither dishonors God nor robs man of every vestige of human dignity. It declares man subject to sin and therefore in need of the redemption unbelievers reject, but it also declares that man is not so corrupt as to be incapable of a truly interior and spiritual renewal by grace.

From Justification to Faith

So much, then, for the doctrine concerning the nature of justification in itself. Now let us turn to the means by which it is claimed that it is brought about – faith.

Those Protestants who follow Martin Luther accuse Catholics of regarding faith merely as a form of knowledge or assent to doctrine instead of seeing it in the biblical and Protestant sense of confiding trust and the commitment of one’s whole life to Christ. It would be a very great mistake to think that Catholics do not believe that, besides having faith in Christ, one should have also a confident trust in him and commit one’s whole life to him. We Catholics insist that all three are necessary. It is an equally great mistake to imagine that the idea of faith as an assent to doctrine is unbiblical and to think that the only biblical sense of the word is the one Protestants maintain. Such notions are the result of a confusion of ideas which badly need clarification.

In the Greek language the word faith can mean either belief in a statement on the authority of another person or belief in a person in the sense of trusting him or even of entrusting oneself to him. But we must recall here what was said earlier about new meanings acquired by Greek expressions on their “baptism” into the service of the Christian religion. In biblical usage, both the senses of the Greek which we have just mentioned are at times employed, but other and more comprehensive meanings are elsewhere intended.

Sometimes the word faith is used to designate the whole objective message to be believed by Christians and at all costs to be kept intact. Paul uses the word in that sense when he speaks of preaching “the faith which he once impugned” (Gal. 1:23), as does also Jude when he urges Christians “to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

Faith as Intellectual Acceptance

Secondly, the word faith is used at times strictly to denote intellectual acceptance of the doctrines belonging to “the faith,” understanding the word in the preceding sense. Thus Paul, after proclaiming the facts and truths and promises of the gospel, said, “So we preach and so you have believed” (1 Cor. 15:11). He declared that his task was to bring “into captivity every understandin g unto the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). In these cases what is obviously involved is intellectual acceptance by faith in the authority of Christ as our divinely-accredited teacher of all that God has revealed. This is that strict sense in which Catholics normally understand the word faith.

In a third class of texts the sense is simply one of confidence or trust, as, for example, where Paul speaks of Abraham as strong in faith and giving glory to God, “most fully knowing that whatsoever he has promised, he is able also to perform” (Rom. 4:21). Or again, where he says of himself, “I know whom I have believed, and I am certain that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him, against that day” (2 Tim. 1:12).

Wide Meaning of “Saving Faith”

Finally, speaking not merely of faith as such, but of “saving faith,” Paul uses the word in a very broad and comprehensive sense, not excluding any of the above meanings, but including them all and much else besides. He views the faith that justifies as the complete embracing of the Christian religion in practice, with the whole man engaged, heart and soul, intelligence, will and conscience. This is not merely an indefinite trust or mystic self-surrender. It means primarily the intellectual acceptance of truth by faith in the authority of Christ who declares it. Such belief in Christ gives rise to complete confidence in him, love of him, self-donation to him, and a resultant obedience to his law and devotedness in all good works for his sake.

It is in this last sense that faith is counted unto us for righteousness, and it is the sense which Paul intended when he wrote, “Being justified therefore by faith, let us have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). He knew quite well that he was not there using the word faith in the strictly literal sense of the word.

Such “saving faith” included trust or confidence in Christ, which arises from the virtue of hope and excludes the extremes of both presumption and despair. It also included a self-giving to Christ proceeding from love or charity. That Paul knew how to distinguish between these different virtues when occasion demanded it is evident from his great declaration: “Now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three, but the greatest of these is charity” (1 Cor. 13:13).

Catholics are in full agreement with Paul. When they declare faith to be, in the strict and primary sense of the word, an intellectual acceptance of doctrines on the authority of Christ, they do not hold that to be of itself “saving faith.” If such faith be not enlivened by trust in Christ, love of him, obedience and self-donation to him, they are quite prepared to describe it as “dead” faith, as does James (Jas. 2:17).

Protestants, at least Evangelicals, on the other hand, do fall into error when they restrict the meaning of faith to trust in Christ and simple acceptance of him as Lord and Savior almost to the exclusion of everything else. To the vast majority of such Protestants, to have faith in Christ has come to mean one thing and one thing only, trust in Christ with an emotional experience of assurance that they are saved, while remaining practically indifferent to sound Christian doctrine in all its many vital.aspects. As Adolf von Harnack, the famed German Protestant scholar, remarked, “Luther set up evangelical faith in place of dogma.”

Read Part II here

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