Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Drawing Distinctions

In the last post I asked the rhetorical question, "How many Catholics can make the distinctions that this last paragraph glosses over?" So I thought I would actually write a post that does that.

Once they find that works are not a necessary condition for salvation (Rom. 4:5; Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:3-6) but that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, they will make great evangelical Christians.  They will realize that we can’t work for grace but that we do work from grace.
First of all, works are necessary for salvation but they are not a condition in the true sense of the word. God gives us the grace to be holy. All we need to do is cooperate with that grace. We don't need to and are not able to do anything to earn that grace. But that cooperation involves works. It can't be purely an intellectual assent.

A lot of time it is just a matter of language. Somebody might say, "I heard the gospel and I walked the aisle and said the sinners prayer. I just knew I was saved right then. I didn't need to do any works." But that person did do a work. He walked down the aisle and said a prayer. If he felt God's grace pushing him to do that and stayed in his seat then any intellectual Yes he might have given would have lacked seriousness because he failed to cooperate with the grace and act.

So what about the passages he cites? Rom 4:4-5 says:

Now to anyone who works, their wages are not credited to them as a gift, but as an obligation.  However, to anyone who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.
The works Paul is talking about are those works we might think would earn us our salvation. Catholics don't believe God is obligated towards us based on our works. We do believe we need to trust God to justify us. The question then is what does that justification look like? It involves the covering of sins. But there is more. It involves a change to our heart, mind, and will. That needs to be lived out in our works. Nothing Paul says here denies that. His focus is on faith as the first step but not every verse is going to give the complete picture.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Eph 2:8-10
Again we add one verse for context and it becomes clear Paul is not saying grace implies that works are not involved in any way. It is not by works but works are the product. In fact, it says good works are the reason we are created in Christ Jesus. So if they are the reason then how can they be optional? Does God sometimes do things for a reason and not accomplish that goal?

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior. Tit 3:3-6
 This one just shows he does not understand the Catholic doctrine of justification. I know some protestants who have an OK understanding of it and still think Rom 4:5 and Eph 2:8-9 contradict it. They don't but when they are read through protestant glasses you can understand how people might think that. This one isn't like that. It is just what Catholics believe. It only contradicts a caricature of Catholic doctrine and not the doctrine itself. It even uses strongly sacramental imagery connecting salvation with the washing of baptism. Beautifully Catholic and yet sadly used effectively to show Catholicism is wrong.

Getting back to the original paragraph. The next phrase is "we are saved by grace alone through faith alone." This is almost in Eph 2:8. The only word that is not there is "alone." The bible never uses the phrase "faith alone" except to deny that salvation is by faith alone in James 2:24. But every time the bible uses the word faith the protestant thinks faith alone. Luther famously did that when he translated Rom 5:1. They don't do it in the translation anymore but they don't need to. They are trained to interpret it just like the word "alone" is there. Pastors will often rephrase the verse immediately after reading it and insert the word in the rephrase.It is so automatic they really feel Catholics are getting all technical when they point out that verse does not actually say "faith alone."

The other thing to know is that Faith Alone or Sola Fide is a slogan and not a doctrine. It does not have a precise definition. Some understandings of Faith Alone are actually acceptable for Catholics. So we can't say it is wrong. What we can say is it is not biblical language. It has the potential to be misleading so there is good reason not to use it.

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