I can’t say that having an argument with a hard-core Reformation Protestant is on my Top 10 list of favorite free time activities. Maybe that’s why this post has taken a couple weeks to get out. Debating any theological issue that’s been debated for 500 years already is like banging your head against a brick wall hoping the wall cracks first. A lot of people are open to change. A whole lot of people aren’t. And I was one of them for a long, long time.
And the reason it can be so frustrating is because, not just when Catholics debate Protestants, but also when Protestants debate each other, the Bible is the final authority. Which we should all be happy about, right? I mean, base your Christian argument on the one objective text (i.e., the Bible) and you would imagine this would solve all our problems in Christendom. But as with trying to troubleshoot computer issues, the malfunction a lot of the time is not with the hardware, but the user. And nowhere is this more the case than when it comes to debates over what we call “the Gospel.”
What do I mean by the Gospel? The Gospel, for both Catholics and Protestants, is first the good news that we can spend an eternity in Heavenly bliss because of what Christ did on the Cross, and secondly, it’s the good news of how we get there. The rub between all Christians is not the first point. We all agree God has made a way for us to be saved. But the second is where all Hell breaks loose. How do we get to Heaven? What is the path?
That Christians should hotly debate this is not a bad thing. I want to say that early on. Of course this is important. It’s the most important question any human can ask. But I said further up that what is frustrating about this is that many Protestants want to run to the Bible alone to get their answers. Why is this a problem? Because while the Bible is lucid and easy to understand when it comes to many things, it is hard to understand when it comes to many things as well.* There are a whole host of theological points Christians of every stripe can agree on because we all take the Biblical text to be inspired by God – His very Word to us. But it’s that same devotion to Scripture that can often pit us one against another. Here’s how – when it comes to the Gospel.
Many traditional evangelical Protestants (and many not-so traditional ones) hold to this idea that getting to Heaven and being saved from the fires of Hell are simply a matter of believing in what Jesus has done for you on the Cross. I am a sinner. I deserve the worst. But Jesus has taken the worst for me on the Cross. He has become my substitute. He has taken my punishment for me in my place, so that instead of being condemned myself, I can be spared. And there is no adding to this. Believe and you are saved. Done.
A whole bunch of Bible verses can be cited to support this view. Here are a few:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.” Eph. 2:8-9
“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, though testified to by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God. They are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as an expiation, through faith, by his blood, to prove his righteousness because of the forgiveness of sins previously committed…” Romans 3:21-25
“We, who are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles, [yet] who know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” Galatians 2:15-16
The gist of the entire books of Romans and Galatians, when read in their entirety, sure do sound like they are saying that faith in Christ alone is what saves – without any effort on the part of the Christian.
The Catholic view of salvation agrees that salvation is a gift from God – something we can’t attain for ourselves. But our effort is definitely necessary. The way we like to put it is that we “cooperate with God’s grace.” It is God working in us to change us and make us fit for Heaven, but we have to work with that grace to grow in our faith so that we might get there.
A whole bunch of Bible verses can be cited to support this view. Here are a few:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” Matthew 25:31-46
“By your stubbornness and impenitent heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself for the day of wrath and revelation of the just judgment of God, who will repay everyone according to his works: eternal life to those who seek glory, honor, and immortality through perseverance in good works, but wrath and fury to those who selfishly disobey the truth and obey wickedness. Yes, affliction and distress will come upon every human being who does evil, Jew first and then Greek. But there will be glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does good, Jew first and then Greek. There is no partiality with God.” Romans 2:5-11
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” James 2:14
The entire gist of the book of James really seems to emphasize the need to live a holy life.
Looking on these passages, I realize my “Catholic salvation” verses are a lot longer. That’s not intentional, and I don’t mean to say that Protestants don’t have a strong case they can make from Scripture to support their view. My point is only that what typically ends up happening in arguments fought with Scripture is that both sides lob verse bombs at each other with no real ability to actually storm the gate. Protestants will read those Catholic “works” passages and interpret them through the filter of their own passages and come to the conclusion that good works and righteous living are not necessary for salvation, but only the fruit of it. Catholics, looking at the Protestant passages will funnel them through the filter of their own passages (and traditions) and so assume that works are necessary to be saved – works that we must do.
And the frustrating thing for both sides is that it is so difficult to get past our own confirmation biases. Or maybe I should say, it was difficult for me. I remember growing up reading those “works” passages and quietly ignoring them or assuming that Scripture is confusing in some parts and thanking God I have my good Protestant systematic theologies to navigate me through the treacherous waters of the Bible. “Sure does sound like Jesus is saying I’ll be damned if I don’t care about the poor, but thank goodness Paul cleared that up for me in Romans.” I don’t know how it is to be a Catholic person doing the same thing and overemphasizing works, but I’m sure it’s been done on that end, too. We’re human.
The unfortunate thing is that while going to the Bible to help solve these issues is certainly important, going to the Bible only is problematic. Why? Because if we are going to read Scripture alone (without trusting the help of the church at large throughout the centuries to help us understand it) in a lot of places the Bible will look incredibly confusing and, dare I say, contradictory. It makes perfect sense to me why someone would walk away from Romans thinking salvation is accomplished by simply believing Jesus died for you and nothing else. It also makes perfect sense to me why someone would walk away from Matthew 25 thinking we really need to do good works to be saved. Oftentimes, the authors of Scripture give no caveats. They assume the audience knows what they are talking about and can fill in the blanks. And back in the first century, the audience probably could. But we don’t have the luxury of living in the first century.
So I suppose this post is more about “sola scriptura” than “sola gratia.” But to bring it back around, after having said all that, if it is “Scripture alone” that you want to follow or feel you need to follow to be a faithful Christian, do this: before you read these and other passages on salvation, try to forget everything you think you know about the Bible. Read it with fresh eyes and be honest with yourself. Don’t ignore the difficult passages. Let yourself trip over them. I invite you to wonder why Jesus would say what He did about the last judgment. Contemplate why Paul in Romans 2 would say we will be judged according to our works and then, later on, say that we are saved by grace and not by works. Let the cogs start spinning, and don’t ignore any passage. Include them all.
And if you are up for it, try picking up books by theologians throughout the ages. Ask those in the second, third, and fourth centuries what they thought Paul and Jesus meant. Open your heart, and open your mind. You might be surprised at what comes to you.
*There are a few reasons for this, which I’ll try to get to in a later post.