Grounded in Grace
From Gospel Translations
The historic debate between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism frequently is framed in terms of an argument over works vs. faith and/or merit vs. grace. The magisterial Reformers articulated their view of justification through a theological shorthand device of Latin slogans, and the phrases they used — sola fide and sola gratia — have become deeply entrenched in Protestant history. Sola fide, or “faith alone,” denies that our works contribute to the ground of our justification, while sola gratia, or “grace alone,” denies that any merit of our own contributes to our justification.
The problem with slogans is that in their function as theological shorthand they are capable of being misunderstood easily or of being used as licenses for oversimplifying complex matters. Thus, when faith is sharply differentiated from works, various distortions easily creep into our understanding.
When the Reformers insisted that justification is by faith alone, they did not mean that faith is itself a work of any kind. In seeking to exclude works from the ground of our justification, they did not mean to suggest that faith contributes anything to justification.
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
It may be said that the heart of the sixteenth century debate over justification was the issue of the ground of justification. The ground of justification is the basis on which God declares a person just. The Reformers insisted that the biblical view is that the only possible ground for our justification is the righteousness of Christ. This is an explicit reference to the righteousness achieved by Jesus in the living of His own life; it is not the righteousness of Christ in us but the righteousness of Christ for us.
When we keep the issue of the ground of justification squarely before us, we see that sola fide is a shorthand slogan not only for the doctrine of justification by faith alone but also for the notion that justification is by Christ alone. It is in, through, and by the righteousness of Christ alone that God declares us just in His sight.
To say that justification is by faith means simply that it is by or through faith that we receive the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to our account. Thus, faith is the instrumental cause, or the means, by which we lay hold of Christ.
Rome teaches that the instrumental cause of justification is the sacrament of baptism (in the first instance) and the sacrament of penance (in the second instance). Via the sacrament, the grace of justification, or the righteousness of Christ, is infused (or poured into) the soul of the recipient. Thereupon, the person must assent to and cooperate with this infused grace to such an extent that true righteousness actually inheres in the believer, at which point God declares that person just. For God to justify a person, the person must first become just.
Thus, Rome believes that for a person to become just he needs three things: grace, faith, and Christ. Rome does not teach that man can save himself by his own merit without grace, by his own works without faith, or by himself without Christ. So what was all the fuss about?
Neither the debates of the sixteenth century nor the recent discussions and joint declarations between Catholics and Protestants have been able to resolve the key issue of the debate, the issue of the ground of justification. Is it theimputed righteousness of Christ or theinfused righteousness of Christ?
In our day, many who confront this centuries-old conflict merely shrug their shoulders and say, “So what?” or “What’s the big deal?” Since both sides affirm that the righteousness of Christ is necessary for our justification, and that grace and faith are likewise necessary, to probe more deeply into other technical issues seems like a waste of time or an exercise in theological pedantic arrogance. The whole debate looks to more and more people like a tempest in a teapot.
Well, what is the big deal? Let me try to answer that from two perspectives, one theological, the other personal and existential.
The big deal theologically is the essence of the Gospel. Deals don’t get much bigger than that. The Good News is that the righteousness God demands from His creatures was achieved for them by Christ. The work of Christ counts for the believer. The believer is justified on the basis of what Jesus did for him, outside of and apart from him, not by what Jesus does in him. For Rome, a person is not justified until or unless righteousness inheres in him. He gets the help of Christ, but God does not reckon, transfer, or impute Christ’s righteousness to his account.
What does this mean personally and existentially? Rome’s view strikes despair into my soul. If I have to wait until I am inherently righteous before God will declare me righteous, I have a long wait in store for me. In Rome’s view, if I commit a mortal sin, I will lose whatever justifying grace I presently possess. Even if I regain it via the sacrament of penance, I still face purgatory. If I die with any impurity in my life, I must go to purgatory to have all impurities “purged.” That may require multiple thousands of years to accomplish.
What a radical difference from the biblical Gospel, which assures me that justification in the sight of God is mine the moment I put my trust is Jesus. Because His righteousness is perfect, it can neither be increased nor diminished. And if His righteousness is imputed to me, I now possess the full and total ground of justification.
The issue of imputed vs. infused righteousness never can be resolved without repudiating one or the other. They are mutually exclusive views of justification. If one is true, the other must be false. One of these views declares the true biblical Gospel; the other is a false Gospel. They both simply cannot be true.
Again, this issue cannot be resolved by some middle ground. The two incompatible views may be ignored or minimized (as the modern dialogues do through historical revision), but they cannot be reconciled. Neither can they be reduced to a mere misunderstanding — both sides are too intelligent for that to have happened for the past 400 years.
The issue of merit and grace in justification is clouded by confusion. Rome speaks of believers having two kinds of merit: congruous and condign. Congruous merit is gained by doing works of satisfaction in connection with the sacrament of penance. These works are not so meritorious that they impose an obligation upon a just judge to reward them, but they are good enough to make it “fitting” or “congruous” for God to reward them.
Condign merit is a higher order of merit achieved by saints. But even this merit is defined by Rome as being rooted and grounded in grace. It is merit that could not be achieved without the assistance of grace.
The Reformers rejected both congruous and condign merit, arguing that our situation not only is rooted in grace, it is gracious at every point. The only merit that counts toward our justification is the merit of Christ. Indeed, we are saved by meritorious works — Christ’s. That we are saved by someone else’s merit imputed to us is the very essence of the grace of salvation.
It is this grace that must never be compromised or negotiated by the church. Without it, we are truly hopeless and helpless to stand righteous before a holy God.