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Pinpointing the Issues in the Conflict with Rome

Editor's Note:

We agree with Berkouwer, who says:
    The Reformation issue is as alive today as it was four hundred years ago. — G.C. Berkouwer, Faith and Sanctification, p.12.

    . . . at a time when everything seems to call for cooperation and union, the discussion again fully reveals the sharpness of the conflict. We do not regret this fact. It is the only way leading to decisions. The disposition to weaken the anathema sit (Latin: let him be cut off) or the damnamus (Latin: we condemn) would not be beneficial to the church. Any compromise would weaken the seriousness of the situation. The theological dispute penetrates the heart of religion. — G.C. Berkouwer, The Conflict With Rome, p.240.
Yet we should never allow a polemical spirit to distort or exaggerate the position of those whom we feel take the wrong side of the controversy. Not only would this be a sin against charity, but distortions only blind us to the real issues. For instance, it is wrong to charge Roman Catholics with teaching that a sinner can merit salvation by his own works. Responsible Catholics affirm that salvation is due to the work of God's grace. On the other hand, Catholics do not gain anything when they distort the real Protestant position. As Berkouwer says, "The ancient feud of Rome with the sola fide doctrine, based as it is on the view that sola fide is subversive to sanctification, must be called Rome's most fundamental error." — Berkouwer, Faith and Sanctification, p. 14. So the issue is not a simplistic matter of whether a man is justified by grace or his own works. Of course, any informed Catholic will say justification is by grace!

Let us therefore pinpoint some of the main issues:

1. The Justification/Sanctification Relationship  

    The issue is not the depreciation or even the denial of sanctification, but the definition of its character and place. . . . Therefore in the conflict between Rome and the Reformation we want to point out especially that with Rome justification is based on sanctification, or sanctifying internal grace. The judgment of pardon through divine justification was in principle understood as an "analytical judgment," i.e., a statement of that which was already found in man now or will be found in him in his future perfection later on. —Berkouwer, The Conflict With Rome, p.238.

In the case of the Reformers, justification is in no sense an "analytical judgment" based on the state of the believer, but rather is a judgment based on the imputed righteousness of the Mediator in whom the repentant sinner believes.

While Rome contends for a justification on the meritorious basis of God's work of grace imparted in man through the sanctifying indwelling Holy Spirit, Protestantism stands for a justification solely on the meritorious basis of God's work of grace in Jesus Christ's sinless life and atoning death on the cross. For Rome the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the sinner is meritorious. For the Protestant the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the sinner is not meritorious.

The justification/sanctification relationship may be expressed in terms of the for us / in us relationship. With Rome, justification is essentially a work of God's grace in us — a regenerating, renewing act within man. The work of the Holy Spirit in the heart therefore becomes the meritorious cause, or ground, of acceptance with God. With the Reformers, the sole meritorious ground of acceptance with God is what Christ has already done for us in the concrete historical acts of His sinless life, atoning death and resurrection. This means that one system has a subjective meritorious basis of justification while the other has an objective meritorious basis.

The justification/sanctification relationship finds its parallel in the relationship of the divine and human natures in the Person of Christ. Since Chalcedon, orthodoxy has maintained the distinct identity of the divine and human natures in the one Person of Jesus Christ. While there is union of the two natures, there is no fusion. Protestantism maintains that the principle of union without fusion holds good for soteriology as well as Christology.

That is to say, justification and sanctification must always be kept together, but not confused. Says Spurgeon in his sermon on "Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth":

    Let the knife penetrate between the joints of the work of Christ for us, and the work of the Holy Spirit in us. Justification, by which the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us, is one blessing; sanctification, by which we ourselves are made personally righteous, is another blessing.
And says James Buchanan:
    There is, perhaps, no more subtle or plausible error, on the subject of Justification, than that which makes it rest on the indwelling presence, and the gracious work of the Holy Spirit in the heart. — James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification, p.401.
If we have grasped the foregoing argument, we ought also to be able to recognize that if we preach the popular evangelical "gospel" of being saved by the new birth, we are in fundamental harmony with Rome. "The fundamental error of the Church of Rome consisted in substituting the inherent righteousness of the regenerate, for the imputed righteousness of the Redeemer."— Ibid., p.130.

2. Righteousness by Faith

The Roman Catholic understanding of the biblical "righteousness by faith" is summarized by Martin Chemnitz:

    (In Romanism), When it (obedience to the law) is done by the unregenerate, then it is called the righteousness of the Law, but the righteousness of faith is said to consist in this, that it leads the regenerate to the obedience and observance of those things which are written in the Law, so that the righteousness of faith is the obedience of the regenerate to the Law, when love, which embraces the whole Law, is infused into the believers through the Holy Spirit. —Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, p.528.
Then Chemnitz contrasts the true Protestant understanding of "righteousness by faith":
    . . . the righteousness of faith is by believing to appropriate to oneself what Christ has done for us. Therefore the works by which the regenerate do those things which are written in the Law, either before or after their renewal, belong to the righteousness of the Law, though some in one way, others in another.... but ... the obedience of Christ is imputed to us for righteousness. That glory cannot be taken away from Christ and transferred to either our renewal or our obedience without blasphemy. — Ibid., p.419.
The Reformers contended that the "indwelling of God is not the righteousness of faith." — See Book of Concord, p.254.

There are some Protestant groups who have fallen into the habit of including the operations of God's Spirit in the heart in the article of righteousness by faith. This, however, is a distinct Roman Catholic position. According to the Reformers, the righteousness which is by faith is outside the believer in the Person of Christ alone. Sanctification is neither a cause nor a part of our saving righteousness before God, but is rather the inevitable fruit of it.

3. The Acceptability and Merit of Good Works

No responsible Roman Catholic has ever contended that the "good works" of an unregenerate man are acceptable to God, satisfy the law of God, or merit salvation. But what is said is that when good works are truly the result of sanctifying grace (the indwelling of Christ), then they do satisfy the divine law and truly merit an increase of justification with God (although not the initial justification).

The Protestant position is well stated by Martin Chemnitz:

    It is indeed completely true that the Holy Spirit writes the Law into the hearts of the regenerate, so that by faith, through the Holy Spirit, they begin to keep the Law; but from Paul we add that the obedience to the Law, which is begun in us, is not that righteousness which we can plead against the judgment of God, in order that we may on account of it be justified before the tribunal of God to life eternal. For on account of the flesh it does not satisfy the Law in this life, because it is imperfect and defiled. — Chemnitz, op. cit., p.529.
The dispute with Rome was not so much about the value of works before regeneration, but the value of works done after conversion and the reception of the Holy Spirit. Chemnitz was quick to point out that this was the real issue in the church of Galatia too:
    Nor were the Galatians disputing about their works which they had done as unregenerate men before their faith and conversion, whether these would justify, but the dispute was about justification by means of their works which they had done after their conversion and after they had received the Holy Spirit. — Ibid., p.487.
Calvin, who certainly understood the real points of controversy, made this observation: "For on the beginning of justification there is no quarrel between us and the sounder school men." — John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. 3, chap. 14, sec. 11. Calvin went on to argue that the good works of the regenerate, even though performed under the impulse of the Holy Spirit, cannot satisfy the law's demand for perfect righteousness because they are always defiled by human imperfection.
    . . .our righteous deeds are foul in God's sight unless they derive a good odor from Christ's innocence. . . . Works can only arouse God's vengeance unless they be sustained by his merciful pardon. — Ibid., sec. 16.

    We have not a single work going forth from the saints that if it be judged in itself deserves not shame as its just reward. — Ibid., sec. 9.
Against Latomus, Luther declared:
    Every good work of the saints while pilgrims in this world is sin. — Martin Luther, Against Latomus, published in the Library of Christian Classics, Early Theological Works, p.318.

    . . .a good work in itself is unclean if the covering cloud of grace is removed, and only if God's forgiving mercy is there may it be considered pure, worthy of praise and honor. — Ibid., p.326.
Both Rome and the Reformers agreed that good works are only possible by the indwelling Spirit. Rome said that on that same account they are not tainted with sin and are therefore acceptable to God. The Reformers, however, had such a view of "original sin" in the regenerate that they said that good works are acceptable to God only through the imputed merits of Christ. Thus, while Rome posited some saving merit in the operations of God's Spirit in the heart, the Reformers insisted that there is saving merit only in the work of Christ performed on our behalf 2,000 years ago.
    This righteousness, — being the merit of a work, and not a mere quality of character, — may become ours by being imputed to us, but cannot be communicated by being infused; and must ever continue to belong primarily and, in one important respect, exclusively to Him by whom alone that work was accomplished. — Buchanan, op. cit., p. 334.
To summarize this point: If one says, "There is saving merit in my good works," he is neither Catholic nor Protestant, but pagan.

If one says, "All my good works, except those wrought in me by the indwelling of Christ, are defiled by sin and human imperfection," he is neither pagan nor Protestant, but Catholic.

If one says, "All my good works, even those wrought in me by the indwelling of Christ, are defiled by sin and human imperfection," he is neither pagan nor Catholic, but Protestant.

4. Perfectionism

"There is considerable agreement between Perfectionism and Catholicism." — Berkouwer, Faith and Sanctification, p.53. Rome contends that the grace given in baptism wholly removes "original sin"; only weakness and concupiscence remain. Therefore it is said that by the indwelling of Christ, believers are able to obey the law so perfectly that nothing of the nature of sin remains in their good works.

The whole Reformation was thoroughly anti-perfectionistic. It was undergirded by such a view of "original sin," even in the regenerate, that it was considered heresy to teach "that a Christian who is truly regenerated by God's Spirit can perfectly observe and fulfil the Law in this life." — Book of Concord, p.232. Chemnitz argues against the "papal rule, namely that the regenerate can in this life satisfy the Law of God." — Chemnitz, op. cit., p.343. He says that the regenerate, "through the Holy Spirit, . . . begin to keep the Law." But he adds, .... . on account of the flesh it [their obedience] does not satisfy the Law in this life because it is imperfect and defiled." — Ibid., p. 529.

Protestantism stands on the concept that life is not fulfilled in the historical process. Therefore the believer's completeness is realized only in Christ (Col. 2:10) and is possessed here and now by faith alone. Says Calvin:

    We accordingly teach that in the saints, until they are divested of mortal bodies, there is always sin; for in their flesh there resides that depravity of inordinate desiring which contends against righteousness. — Calvin, op. cit., sec. 10.
In his treatise, Against Latomus, Luther pinpoints a real difference between Rome and the Reformation in the understanding of the remnants of sin in the regenerate. Both agreed that something remains in the saints after baptism that is less than ideal. Rome called it concupiscence (evil inclinations and propensity); the Reformers called it sin. Both agreed that the believing saint is not condemned on account of what remains. The difference lay in the reason why the remaining depravity is not held against the saints. The Roman Catholic scholars maintained that it does not condemn them because it does not have in it the exact nature of willful sin. The Reformers said that it is truly sin and even evil inclinations and propensity would merit damnation except that God no longer imputes this remaining sin to the believer.

5. Emphasis

The greatest difference between the two streams of thought is not just in areas of specific points of soteriology, but in the matter of overall emphasis. This fact is often overlooked. Therefore it is entirely possible to subscribe to a Protestant creed in the formal sense, but be Catholic in overall spirituality — or vice versa.

In the case of Rome, the great emphasis always falls on the work of sanctifying grace within man. Romanism is therefore subjective, experience oriented and man-centered. In the case of true Protestantism, sanctification is not denied, but its central affirmation always remains God's work for us in Christ. Protestantism is therefore objective in its emphasis, gospel oriented and Christ-centered.

We should bear this principle in mind when we seek to evaluate the current religious scene, which makes the inward experience of the believer the supreme concern and central point of Christian witness.