With his doctrine of justification by faith alone, Martin Luther brought in a new kind of Christianity unlike anything that had gone before. Faith for a Catholic is an intellectual virtue based on belief in truth revealed by God and safeguarded by the teaching authority of the Catholic Church. For Luther it was instead an affective virtue, a sentiment of confidence in God’s favor. Religious feelings supplanted doctrinal orthodoxy and allowed emotional experiences to run riot at the expense of reason.
All man can do, ran the new teaching, is to trust in the mercy of God and believe with firm confidence that God has received him into his favor. As the Augsburg Confession, puts it, “Men are freely justified for Christ’s sake through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake.” This doctrine of justification by faith was the keystone of the whole Lutheran system and became the battle cry of the Protestant Reformation.
The most drastic consequences followed. An almost entirely self-centered individualism resulted, evangelical piety making personal conversion, guaranteed by feelings of assurance, the center of its work. Popular Protestantism urges the individual “to believe in Christ and be saved.” The sense of community and of corporate religion inevitably declined. No intermediaries—priests, sacraments, or saints—were needed. The individual was prior to the very Church itself, which had to be defined in a totally different way: no longer as a visible institution founded by our Lord but as a vague, invisible aggregate of the “saved,” known only to God.
The Catholic has the gospel set before him by his Church. He accepts the truth guaranteed for him by the guidance of the Holy Spirit operating within the Church; He repents of his sins. From the Church, the mystical body of Christ, he receives the very grace and life of Christ, a life he must make his own in accordance with Paul’s words, “I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). In Catholic teaching neither the individual nor the Church can be ignored; but Protestant theology, with its doctrine of justification by faith only, quite upsets this balance.
In the new interpretation of Christianity the sacraments could not be a means of grace. At most they could be “ordinances” to symbolize a favor already conferred. So they came to be regarded as more or less superfluous and to be neglected. Indeed, the logical end of the road was reached in the complete abandonment of liturgical worship and sacramentalism by such bodies as the Quakers and the Salvation Army. The effect on the spiritual life was calculated to have equally sad results. The theory of justification by faith alone could not maintain Christian standards of spirituality.
Luther had failed to find peace of soul in ascetic self-discipline and efforts at “good works.” He never declared a good life unnecessary. His “Pecca fortiter sed crede fortius” (“Sin boldly but believe still more firmly”) was not meant to be an encouragement to yield to sin without scruple. He intended simply that however great a sinner one may be, granted repentance, he can be justified solely by faith. But to be zealous for good works, thinking them to be a means to salvation, was to manifest a lack of faith in God’s power to save.
The popular results of this teaching were tragic. Men declared that good works prescribed in order to please God were utterly meaningless. It was an easy step from that to conclude that the observance of the moral law itself was not really necessary, still less any ascetical self-discipline for the sake of an imaginary and impossible “spiritual progress.”
If there is but an exterior imputation of the righteousness of Christ, there can be no such thing as a truly interior sanctification of the soul, and the one supreme task is to reinforce one’s feelings of assurance in one’s own personal salvation. And such feelings had no necessary connection with obedience to the laws of God or with duties in regard to one’s fellow men. True, the conduct of the vast majority of Protestants is better than their creed, but it is with the creed itself that we are here concerned, and logically that creed leads to the undermining of Christian standards of conduct and still more of all efforts to attain to higher degrees of holiness in one’s personal spiritual life.
The idea of “full, free, and present salvation” for those “justified by faith”—as if Christ had done all and the Christian had to do nothing toward his own salvation—led to the dreadful doctrine that it is belief and not behavior that matters—a doctrine that is the very basis of hypocrisy. Christ warned his hearers against imitating the Pharisees, of whom he declared, “They preach but they do not practice” (Matt. 23:3). Quite evidently he thought that not only what we believe matters but also how we behave.
It is true that all men, when they come to Christ, must admit that they are sinners and that he alone can redeem them. Those who turn to Christ must acknowledge his authority as God and as our supreme judge and that they are under condemnation for the sins they have committed and for which they cannot forgive themselves. Nothing of their own previous righteousness, if they had any, is of any avail here. Yet after they have repented of their sins and have obtained forgiveness, righteousness is expected of them. God is not indifferent as to how we live. We must show our antagonism toward evil by trying to live a holy life, and the will to do this is necessary for salvation. We cannot rely upon our salvation unless we fulfill that condition.
If that be so, what are we to make of Paul’s words, “For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, for it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man may boast?” (Eph. 2:8–9). Paul is there referring to the fact that before one’s conversion and attaining to the grace of Christ no “good works” can possibly deserve that grace and also to the fact that, even after one’s conversion, it is the grace of Christ that gives value to good works done under its inspiration and with its assistance. But Paul does not deny the value of good works performed under the influence of grace after one’s conversion as a means to eternal salvation.
Christ himself certainly went out of his way to stress the necessity of good works for our salvation. He warned us, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter into the kingdom of heaven, but he that does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). Praising good works, he said, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is very great in heaven” (Matt. 5:12). He declared that such good works, or the absence of them, will be a deciding factor in the Last Judgment. Then he will say, “Come, you blessed . . . for I was hungry and you fed me,” or “Depart you cursed, for I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat” (Matt. 25:34, 41). How can it be said that salvation is “wholly without works” if, for lack of good works, it can be forfeited?
Paul wrote, “I have fought the good fight . . . and there is laid up for me a crown of justice” (2 Tim. 4:8). That implies that good works done by those in a state of grace provide one with a just claim in Christ to eternal salvation. In the same sense Peter says, “Wherefore, labor the more, that by good works you make sure your calling and election” (2 Pet. 1:10). If we believe in the Bible we must believe in all of it, not concentrating on a few isolated texts and forgetting all else.
Here allusion can well be made to the case so often cited—that of the good thief to whom Christ said on Calvary, “This day you shall be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Since that thief had done no good works, how can we explain his salvation, if faith alone is not sufficient? To say that the good thief did no good works is to take far too narrow a view of what good works mean. We must not think only of being good to the poor or of other forms of humanitarianism. After all, the good thief publicly proclaimed the innocence of Christ and equally, with deep humility, acknowledged his own guilt. These were good works.
In any case, that the good thief did not have time to do further good works after his conversion could not affect the principle that good works are necessary, good works that the good thief would certainly have the will to do had he had the opportunity. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “In doing good let us not fail. For in due time we shall reap, not failing. Therefore while we have time let us work good to all men, but especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Gal. 6:9–10).
But even were we to grant that an exception was made in the case of the good thief, the exception proves the rule, and we cannot argue from the special dispensation in his case to what is normally required. Did not Paul tell the Galatians that we are “justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law; because by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified?” (Gal. 2:16).
But Paul was refuting the Judaizing Christians, those early converts to the Church who claimed that, in addition to their acceptance of the teachings of Christ and the fulfillment of his law, those baptized were obliged still to observe the prescriptions of the Jewish or Mosaic Law. Paul insisted that Christ had abolished the Mosaic Law, fulfilling it yet transcending it and making possible by his death on the cross and the power of grace a righteousness which observance of the Mosaic Law of itself could give man no power to attain.
But he did not by that intend that Christians, emancipated from observance of Jewish obligations, are to be saved merely by faith in Christ with out observing the law of Christ himself in our daily conduct. Paul teaches, of course, that even for Christians good works, while necessary, cannot of themselves be the cause of salvation. They need a value derived from Christ. Divine grace is indeed a communication of the very righteousness of Christ to our souls, giving a new value to all the good works we strive to do. It is this grace which enables us to fulfill the law, not according to the letter, but in the spirit. Thus Paul writes that “the justification of the law may be fulfilled in us who walk, not according to the flesh, but according to the spirit” (Rom. 8:4).
James, well aware of the mind of Paul, wrote most strongly on this subject. “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves” (Jas. 1:22). Again, “What shall it profit if a man if he has faith, but has not works? Shall faith be able to save him? . . . You believe that there is one God. You do well. But the devils also believe and tremble. But will you know, vain man, that faith without works is dead. . . . By works a man is justified and not by faith only. Even as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (Jas. 2:14, 19, 20, 26).
Let us now turn to the really dreadful doctrine that a felt assurance of salvation is the necessary sign that one has been “justified by faith alone.” This has truly been the bane of all the heirs of the Protestant Reformation. It has resulted in a self-centered and subjective individualism, divorced from all ideas of the Church incorporating us as members of the mystical body of Christ. People have tended to regard the whole of religion as consisting in their own interior and personal state of religious feeling.
It has led to the most extravagant and even morbid attempts to induce an artificial sense of security by periodical outbreaks of highly-charged emotional revivalism. In those converted at such meetings there has resulted only too often an almost sickening complacency in the thought of being among the “saved” that is as far removed as possible from the humility declared by the gospel to be a first condition of our rehabilitation in the sight of God.
Christ warns us to watch and pray lest we enter into temptation (Matt. 26:41); he makes us pray to be preserved from temptation (Luke 11:4). Surely such warnings are meaningless to the man who thinks himself already and permanently saved. Christ also said, “Blessed are those servants whom the Lord when he comes shall find watching” (Luke 12:37). He there implies that it is quite possible for one who believes in him to fall a victim to temptation and to be found unprepared to meet judgment when death comes.
These words are often quoted: “He who hears my word and believes him that sent me has life everlasting and comes not to judgment, but is passed from death to life” (John 5:24). But we must ask what these words signify. They mean simply that one who accepts Christ’s word in the sense of his total gospel and puts its precepts into practice passes from a “death-state” of sin into a “life-state” of grace. If he perseveres in that state of grace, and therefore in the love and friendship of God until death, then he will have no need to fear an adverse judgment but will inherit life everlasting. But the words quoted certainly give no guarantee that one who has attained at any stage in this life to the grace of God can never forfeit that grace by later sin. As people of bad will can develop a good will, so people of good will can lapse into bad dispositions, and all without exception need to fear their own weakness and even malice.
There is a difference between being a Christian and behaving as a Christian. It is most important to note that difference. “Being” comes before “acting.” We cannot “act” as human beings unless we first “exist” as human beings. One has to “be” a Christian before he can “act” as a Christian—although, of course, one might be a Christian yet not act as a Christian should, in which case he would be a bad Christian.
Luther’s idea of justification as a legal acquittal and an external imputation to the soul of the merits of Christ meant a change in God’s dispositions towards us, so that instead of looking upon us with disfavor he looks upon us with favor. Of itself this would imply no inner relationship with the Person of Jesus—such an inner relationship would involve the Catholic doctrine of interior grace.
Scripture insists that we must believe and be baptized (Mark 16:16) and, as Peter declared in his first sermon, “Repent and be baptized every one of you” (Acts 2:38). The significance of baptism was explained by Paul when he wrote, “As many of you as have been baptized in Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27).
Among Protestants we see a confusion between becoming a Christian and becoming a good Christian. To be a good Christian, one must recognize Jesus Christ as the Lord of life in practice, must be faithful to prayer, and must try to live up to the Christian ethic or moral standards of conduct. One becomes a more or less good Christian as he succeeds more or less in doing so. But he becomes a Christian by baptism. If one fails to live up to requirements in conduct, that does not mean that one is not a Christian. It means merely that he is not making all the effort he should in order to live as he ought.
One thing above all must trouble the souls of thinking Protestants. If no one can be a Christian without joining “the Church,” then the question of which Church one must join is as vital a problem as that of becoming a Christian at all. The only valid answer is, “The Catholic Church.” Protestantism, however modern its dress and of whatever denominational type it may be, is simply unable to give the final answers Christianity was intended to provide.
During the nearly five centuries that have elapsed since Martin Luther gave to the world his new theory of “justification by faith alone,” millions of good Protestants have de-scribed themselves as Christians saved by the grace of God. They have relied upon their own personal reading of the Bible, have regarded religion as a matter between their own individual souls and God, and have seen no need to become members of the Catholic Church. While believing in the Bible, they have not understood its teachings.
Apart from the fact that were it not for the Catholic Church they would have no Bible at all, that very Bible is opposed to their isolation from the Catholic Church. If there is one thing clearly taught in the New Testament, it is the doctrine of the Church as a divine society established by Christ, in which all believers should be united, professing the same faith, offering the same worship, receiving the same sacraments, and acknowledging the same religious authority.
We cannot ignore our Lord’s words, “I will build my Church” (Matt. 16:18). Nor can we conceive that he would do so if he did not intend that we should be members of it. Certainly his words, “If a man will not hear the Church, let him be to thee as the heathen” (Matt. 18:17) should make every sensible person ask “Which Church?”—and not rest until he has found the right one.
Paul, insisting on the necessity of our being united in the true Church instead of being led astray by independent individuals, wrote, “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing and that there be no schisms among you, but that you be perfect in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10). He came back to that same thought with the plea “that there might be no schism in the body, but the members might be mutually careful one for another. . . . You are the body of Christ” (1 Cor.12: 25–27).
Why are Protestants divided from Catholics throughout the world, not having the same mind and judgment, not speaking the same thing as the millions of all nations so remarkably united religiously within the unity of the Catholic Church? It is because they have inherited wrong principles from the very beginning of the Reformation, principles that were not the means appointed by Christ for the attaining of the truth. He established his Church, guaranteed its infallibility and perpetuity, and sent it to teach all nations. That Church is the Catholic Church, and the only road to the unity demanded by the New Testament is to belong to and be guided by that Church. It is only in the Catholic Church that one will be able to learn without error the teachings of the gospel and receive all the means of grace Christ intended us to have.