Sunday, June 26, 2005

Sola fide-2

vii) SOLAGRATUITOUS. Protestants sometimes describe Romanism as a grace-plus-works scheme. It is important to keep in mind that in Pauline theology, the grace-principle and the merit-principle are mutually exclusive (Rom 11:6; Gal 2:21; Tit 3:3-7). The problem with Catholic theology is not simply that it tries to add works to grace, but that, as a matter of principle, works-righteousness can only subtract from grace—or rather, retract the entire principle. The grace-principle is totalitarian in scope. Grace isn’t dispensed in fractions and percentiles.

Another major rationale for justification by faith alone is that God claims all the glory for the salvation of sinners (Rom 4:2-5; Eph 2:8-9). This isn’t a divine ego-trip, for God is inherently sovereign. It isn’t a role he can share with the creature, much less the sinner. Moreover, knowing God is the highest good, for God is the summum bonum, and this includes a knowledge of his justice and mercy.

The Augustinian tradition affirmed that justification was by grace alone. For this reason, ecumenists sometimes claim that both Rome and Geneva affirm the sola gratia character of justification. But this is misleading:

a) When Augustinians referred of the grace of justification, they meant infused grace. By contrast, the Lutheran and Reformed theologians define this grace in strictly forensic, vicarious and relational terms.

b) The Augustinian tradition affirms the fully sovereign character of saving grace. However, that tradition was never codified in official dogmatic teaching. To the contrary, Rome has always struck a semi-Pelagian stance. As a consequence, then, both of (a) and (b), the comparison rests on an equivocation of terms.

viii) ETERNAL. Are the elect justified in time or eternity? Reformed theologians divide on this issue. I would say that both perspectives are correct. The agent of justification (God) exists outside of time whereas the object of justification (the elect) exists within time. The divine act of justification is timeless, but the effect is temporal.

On the one hand, justification is a divine act (e.g. Rom 8:33b); hence, the elect were justified before time from the divine side of the transaction. Again, although faith is ordinarily prior to justification in terms of its concrete application to individuals, the judicial warrant for the grace of faith presupposes the union of Christ with the elect in the decree. And if, moreover, God’s elective purposes include some subjects who die before the age of discretion (e.g. 2 Sam 12:23), then their justification before God falls outside of time since they cannot comply with the existential condition of faith. This same line of consideration may also be extended to those regenerate from the womb (Lk 1:15). They are in a state of grace prior to the age of discretion. By the grace of immediate regeneration, they have a predisposition to believe the gospel, but the exercise of saving faith requires a conscious object and a certain level of cognitive development.

Lutherans believe in infant faith. But the Bible recognizes an age of discretion (Deut 1:39; Isa 7:15-16). Of course, this isn’t a fixed age, but varies with the aptitude of a given child, some being precocious. Again, the issue is not whether babies are capable of exercising trust in individuals. As one theologian has pointed out, if you take a baby away from its mother, you quickly find out that a stranger is no substitute for the original! But this is knowledge by acquaintance rather than description, whereas saving faith is propositional (e.g. Rom 10:9-10,14-15).

On the other hand, justification is ordinarily contingent on the exercise of faith, which is an existential condition. Of course, the God who decrees justification also decrees faith, so the external and existential perspectives are not in tension. By way of objection it is sometimes said that eternal justification would erase the transition from wrath to a state of grace (e.g. Eph 2:1-6). If the transitional phase disproved eternal justification, it would also disprove eternal election. So this is not a sound objection, for it fails to draw several distinctions:

a) The idea of justification presupposes that its objects were deserving of wrath, so it is misleading to treat grace and wrath as in all respects contrary, without further qualification.

b) Except in the special cases cited above (infant regeneration; elect infant mortality), there is a real transition from being dead in sin to being alive in Christ. Moreover, the Father’s eternal work in electing the heirs of justification, the Son’s past work in supplying its judicial grounds, and the Spirit’s ongoing work in ingenerating justifying faith, do not belong to the same time-frame.

c) The objection would be valid if we one-sidedly affirmed eternal justification in opposition to temporal justification. But the two perspectives are complementary rather than antithetical—for they attach to different subjects (God as the justifier, man as the justified) and different actions (God’s eternal decree and its mundane execution).

As John Girardeau remarks:


There is a distinction which is not strangely neglected, but to which Calvinistic theology ought to be recalled, as vital to its consistency and completeness...the import of it is that, on the one hand, the elect were, in mass, justified in foro Dei, in the justification of Christ as their federal head and representative; and, on the other hand, they are severally justified in foro conscientiae, when, in the period of their earthly history they actually exercise faith in Christ. In the first instance, they are conceived as justified constructively, federally, and representatively; in the second, subjectively and consciously. In the first, they were justified independently of their voluntary conscience; in the second, they are justified through their conscious exercise of faith...there is a federal oneness of Christ and his seed...His representative acts and experiences, in relation to that end [justification’, were theirs...What hinders, then, that we should hold that when he was justified, they were justified with him?...Inasmuch as no justification at God’s ban is conceivable except upon the ground of a perfect righteousness, it is obvious that the elect seed of Christ must have been, in some sense, adjudged righteous in order to their virtual their virtual justification....Here then we have a case of “antecedent and immediate imputation” of righteousness—antecedent since the imputation preceded the spiritual birth of the elect; immediate, since it was not conditioned by or mediated through inherent and conscious holiness.

The Life Work of John L. Girardeau (Sprinkle Publications, n.d.), 179,180.


ix) COORDINATED WITH SANCTIFICATION. Catholic theologians charge the Protestant doctrine with being antinomian. This calls for a couple of comments:

a) The very same accusation was leveled against Paul’s doctrine of justification (Rom 3:31-32; Gal 2:17). It is only because the Protestant version is true to the Pauline paradigm that it is even vulnerable to this charge.

b) Regeneration is a precondition both of faith and sanctification (e.g. Jn 3:3-8; 1 Jn 2:29; 3:9; 4:7; 5:1,4). And in Reformed theology, God preserves the elect in faith and fidelity throughout life. So there’s no justification without sanctification. The unilateral and irresistible grace of regeneration predisposes the subject to repentance and faith, and motivates him to a life of holiness. But sanctification is not a precondition of justification. It doesn’t supplement the merit of Christ or supply the warrant for our justification. In terms of judicial warrant, justification is prior to regeneration, sanctification, and faith. This also brings into relief a relation that is otherwise neglected, for justification doesn’t just supply an initial condition for the subsequent process of sanctification, but also serves “as the continuing basis of sanctification and as the source of comfort and confidence when the imperfect state of our sanctity here below is keenly felt” (Dr. William Young, private correspondence, 5/24/99).

More broadly, redemption is coordinated with the original sin. This event resulted in two distinct liabilities: (a) demerit, and (b) depravity. The former is concerned with our moral standing, the latter with our moral state. The soteric categories are naturally adapted to address and redress both of these liabilities. Redemption, justification, propitiation and adoption bear on the former condition, while regeneration, calling, sanctification and glorification bear on the latter. Moreover, there’s a certain asymmetry between these two categorical classes inasmuch as it is the objective (forensic) work of Christ that lays the judicial basis for the subjective work of the Spirit.

C. Tridentine position:

Trent’s position consists in some of the following elements:

i) Justification presupposes the sin of Adam and sway of the devil (6:3,7). The Tridentine Fathers believed in the historicity of Adam and existence of a personal devil. But given the inroads of modernism in the contemporary Catholicism, infecting its leading theologians and Bible scholars, and reaching the highest ranks of the magisterium, these presuppositions are moribund at best.

ii) God’s redemptive designs can be and often are frustrated by lack of cooperation on the part of its objects (6:3,5; canons 4,23,27). Canon 27 is framed in misleading terms. Justification by faith doesn’t imply that a Christian can live like the devil incarnate. By the grace of the Spirit, Christians are motivated to lead lives that bring honor and glory to God. They may continue to struggle with besetting sin or fall into grievous sin. And a critic can toy with hypothetical scenarios which take one doctrine to such a logical or psychological extreme that it come into conflict with another doctrine, such as the relation between assurance and sanctification. But the elements of salvation are not an aggregate of autonomous principles or forces that God wound up and left to run off in different directions based on their internal dynamics.

iii) Trent seems to feel that the Protestant doctrine of providence lays the blame for human iniquity squarely at God’s doorstep (canon 6). This calls for four comments:

a) Trent acts as if the Protestants ought to exert more control over the content of their theology. But a theologian is not like an editor who enjoys creative license over a contributor’s manuscript. His doctrine of providence is a theological construct derived from the witness of Scripture. A Protestant theologian doesn’t have to offer a philosophical apologetic for his position before he is justified in presenting it. Scriptural warrant is sufficient.

b) Trent tries to exculpate God’s role in the problem of evil by limiting his agency in the commission of crime, assigning good deeds to God’s “proper” agency while relegating evil deeds to God’s “permissive” agency. But what does that distinction amount to? Did the Fall just happen to happen apart from any divine causality? Is God’s world a runaway train which he passively views as it goes careening towards destruction? Is that Scriptural? Is that a solution to the problem of evil?

iv) Penitence is a prerequisite for baptism (6:6)—and just how this relates to infant baptism poses a nice question—while baptism is an instrumental cause of justification (6:7). Note here how justification is contingent on preparatory works.

v) Except in rare cases, a Christian cannot enjoy the assurance of salvation in this life (6:9,12-13; canon 16). Here Trent skews the Protestant position by insinuating that the Protestant is presumptuously prying into God’s hidden decree. But the Protestant isn’t trying to divine God’s secret will; rather, he is taking his cue from God’s revealed will. God has disclosed that he chose a people before the foundation of the world to receive salvation in time, and he has further disclosed that if certain conditions are met, a professed believer is entitled to the assurance of God’s fixed favor towards him. Indeed, a whole book of the Bible is devoted to this theme (1 John).

vi) Divine commands presuppose the ability to keep those commands (6:11; canon 18). This is the Pelagian principle of morality, glossed by assisting grace.

vii) Justification is repeatable through Penance and sundry other works— prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and other spiritual exercises (6:14; canon 29).

viii) By God’s grace, the Christian is enabled to “truly merit eternal life” (6:16; canon 32). While the face-saving reference to divine grace lends this claim a semblance of piety, it should be remembered that the grace producing these meritorious works is already a contingent grace that can be thwarted by freewill. Again, canon 32 insists that good works are not gracious to the exclusion of human merit. So this grace has already been diluted by synergism.

ix) It is anathema to claim that we are justified by faith alone, apart from the cooperation, preparation, or disposition of the will (canon 9). One problem with this canon is that the Tridentine Fathers don’t seem to grasp the position they’re opposing. Protestant theology maintains that we’re justified by faith alone, not that we’re sanctified by faith alone. Insofar as the Catholic position folds sanctification into justification, it means something different by the same term, and so its contrast suffers from equivocation. But if ecumenical councils are infallible, we should not encounter this sort of straw man argument.

This same systematic equivocation also beclouds the intended contrast in canons 11 (against imputed righteousness), 12 (against justifying faith as trust, exclusive of hope and love) and 14 (against faith alone). It also confuses the category of “infused” righteousness. There’s a sense in which sanctification could be spoken of in terms of infused righteousness, although even here the imagery of “infusion” tends to reduce the agency of the Spirit to an impersonal energy force, as if God were injecting virtuous antibodies into the bloodstream. Again, Protestant theology would further distinguish a state of sanctity from a meritorious status. Even though Trent is trying to distinguish its position from Protestant theology, it fails to sort out the respective positions in order to draw an accurate set of distinctions.

An especially confused example is in canon 4, which denies that the subject is passive in justification, unable to cooperate or withhold its consent. What position is it opposing? Whether the subject is active or passive in justification cannot be answered in the affirmative or negative, for it depends on what aspect of justification is in view. With respect to justification as a divine act, the subject is passive; with respect to justifying faith, the subject is active.

Moreover, the activity of the subject does not entail an ability to withhold its consent. These are not correlative concepts. The existential dimension of justification is contingent on faith, and faith is contingent on regeneration. God has foreordained and coordained these elements in his decree. Thus, the human response is subordinate to the unilateral causality of the decree, in a cause-and-effect relation.

x) Justifying faith includes hope and love (6:7; canon 12). Protestants traditionally analyze justifying faith into knowledge, trust, and assent. The problem with the Tridentine definition is that it sanctifies faith so that faith will have a meritorious quality on account of which God then justifies the believer. So this is just another scheme to smuggle in works-righteousness through the back door.

xi) It is anathema to claim that justification is reserved for the elect while the reprobate are truly called but unable to respond since they’ve been predestined to evil (canon 17). This way of representing the Protestant doctrine of predestination is misleading:

a) It equivocates over the meaning of the call. Does this have reference to the preaching of the gospel? Or is it a Pauline metaphor for regeneration? Which vocation is in view?

b) It implies that the gospel invitation would be unethical unless God were to supply sufficient grace. By that same logic it would be wrong to prohibit child rape if the pedophile suffers from an irrepressible urge to molest little children. I’ll leave it to the reader to judge whether this is a self-evident principle.

c) It implies that reprobation is an arbitrary and malicious fiat, as if God damns people for the fun of it:

α) While demerit is not a sufficient condition of reprobation, it is a necessary condition. God doesn’t damn anyone irrespective of guilt or innocence.

β) Reprobation is not an end in itself. The reprobate are an object-lesson of God’s justice and mercy,

γ) Τhe reprobate are not a bunch of zombies. They know the difference between right and wrong, and choose evil anyway. The decree is a hidden decree. It doesn’t force anyone to act against his will. Although the deck is stacked, the reprobate don’t know the order of the cards, so Judas plays the hand he’s been dealt without any sense of constraint. He isn’t free to choose his hand, but he’s free to play his hand. Even if the deck were randomly shuffled, a player can only work with the hand he’s been dealt. The concept of freewill was introduced into historical theology by the Greek Fathers in opposition to the astrological fate. It is a human construct rather than a revealed datum.

xii) It is anathema to claim that the works of the unbeliever are damnable (canon 7). In Protestant theology, any unatoned sin would merit damnation. In principle, all sin is mortal sin apart from redemption. Put another way, “all sin merits damnation, while there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ.”

xiii) It is anathema to claim that the works of the Christian are damnable apart from justification (canon 25).

xiv) Good works, which are produced by grace, merit an additional infusion of grace (canon 32).

xv). Justification does not cover the penalty of venial sin. This must still be discharged in purgatory (canon 30). It is important to notice in this connection that the Tridentine rationale for purgatory is penal rather than remedial. Nowadays it is more fashionable to defend purgatory as if it were charm-school for the heaven-bound.

Observe how official teaching has quietly shifted the ground to this more politically correct rationale, cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1030-1031.

D. Comparison & contrast:

Let us now summarize some of the differences between the two views on justification:


Reckoned righteous…………………………..rendered righteous

Objective (forensic)…………………………...subjective


A status………………………………………….a state



A divine act………………………………………a synergistic process

By faith only..……………………………………by faith+works+baptism &/or penance

Justifying faith=knowledge/trust/assent…justifying faith=love

By invincible grace…………………………….by vincible grace

By the merit of Christ only..…………………by the combined merit of Christ
""..............................................................& the Christian

Existential and eternal………………………..existential and ephemeral

Coordinated with sanctification……………blended with sanctification

A basis for absolute assurance……………..there is no basis for absolute assurance

A basis of good works………………………..a basis of meritorious works

Works of the unbeliever are damnable… of the unbeliever are not necessarily damnable

Works of the believer are damnable………works of the believer are not damnable
apart from justification.............................apart from justification

Nullifies purgatory…………….………………necessitates purgatory

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