Wednesday, August 31, 2011


I was reading this post on justification at Gospel Coalition. I thought as a Catholic there would be something to debate. The post zeros in on the protestant understanding on Rom 3:28
Having been convicted of our personal sin, the second fundamental thing Lloyd-Jones argues must be understood “is God’s way of salvation in Christ.”  The gospel.  At the heart of the gospel, according to Romans 3, is the imputation of Jesus’ righteousness to the sinner by faith in Jesus’ work on the cross and resurrection.  We stand righteous before God through an alien righteousness credited to our account.  We are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, apart from any works of our own.  Understanding this, Lloyd-Jones contends, unlocks the key to spiritual joy and increasing victory over spiritual depression.  Without this basic understanding, spiritual depression will continue to reign in the lives of those who are nominally Christian and unconvinced of their sin.
The funny thing is that this is all right. As a Catholic I don't agree with the language. It can be misleading but the point is valid and Catholic. We must understand the depth of our sin and our powerlessness to do anything about it without the grace of God. If we don't get that then we tend to think of God as a coach or a teacher. Someone who helps us improve ourselves. Gives us a hand. We tend to divide life up. I am OK in this area but I need help over here. Why does that lead to depression? Because we are not OK anywhere. Everything we have that is worth anything is by grace.

People who have been raised in a Christian faith have a tougher time with this. Partly because often they have not sinned as badly as some others and they want to hold onto that as something in their favor. God should be pleased with me because I have been a good person. But why were you good? Isn't it just because God has granted you more grace growing up? Given what you have received should you not be a lot holier than you are? This is the point the Jews in Rome were missing. The Roman gentiles were into some pretty serious sexual sins and the Jews mostly stayed away from them.  But the Jews sinned in different ways and Paul shows from the Old Testament that God is not impressed with their lives either.

The truth about sin is so humiliating that people being raised in the church stop hearing it. Even when it is preached over and over they never really contemplate it on a personal level. I know I didn't for long periods of my growing up. It is much more pleasant to believe you are just a bit holier than most people. Sure you need grace but not as much as some people you know.

The fact is that nothing here contradicts the fact that salvation by grace needs to produce works. That the imputed righteousness is also infused and your heart and mind are transformed by that grace to the extent you cooperate with it. In fact, it seems like many of the problems he describes would be less serious for Catholics. We would still have them but the Catholic distinctives seem like they would help rather than make them worse.

First you have mortal sins. The teaching that certain sins break your relationship with God. Often people look at their life and compare it to other people. The distinction between mortal and venial sins gives us a standard that does not depend on the people around us. When we fail we can't minimize it. We are a serious sinner. We need confession. We need to tell a priest what we did. It is humiliating. We get the same treatment as a murderer would get. We are entirely dependent on God's mercy.

Secondly there is the increased focus on Jesus' suffering. When we look at a crucifix we start to understand how great our sin is and how great God's love is. Same with the sorrowful mysteries or the stations of the cross. Even the mass, when we experience it as a sacrifice, it humbles us. I need to have this perfect sacrifice offered to God for me because I have sinned.

The idea of justification as a one time thing seems like it would make this problem worse. We become aware of our sin more and more over time. We need constant conversion. We need to keep going back to God and desiring more grace and greater graces. If you think salvation was somehow done somewhere in your past then you might not be as quick to go back to square one.

Still the remarkable thing about reading this was how little disagreement there is. They say the two main issues are Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura. The more I think about Sola Fide the more I understand it to be a minor issue. Most of the differences are misunderstandings and much of what the reformers thew out has been reconstructed in some other form.

I see the opposite with Sola Scriptura. The more I think about it the more I see how deep and how serious the problem is. How many doctrines are effected. How much the cause of Christ has been damaged by it. How much it makes people self-centered when they are trying to be Christ-centered. They might be the two pillars of protestantism but they are not equal.

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