(This is the fifth part of John Gerstner’s Primer on Justification. In this article he discusses the Roman Catholic understanding of justification)
Faith + Works → Justification
This was the great issue of the Reformation. Romanism and Protestantism were agreed on the other great essentials of faith: the Trinity, deity of Christ, His vicarious death, even the necessity of faith in Christ. The great and crucial difference came in answer to the question, “How is the sinner justified by Christ?” Romanism said, “By our works which flow from faith in Christ.” Protestantism said, “By faith in Christ alone.”
As you can see from the formula, Rome has all the right ingredients of justification: faith, works, justification. No italics. No minuses.
Note the “faith.” This means that the sinner must believe in the Christ who was incarnate by the Virgin Mary and was a sacrifice for our sins. Rome is quite orthodox here. Though her faith is too purely intellectualistic, and not clearly fiducial, it is, as liberalism’s is not and neoorthodoxy’s is not, directed to the one and only true object.
Rome’s “works,” too, are essentially sound. They include obedience to the Ten Commandments and the new commandment of Christ as well. There is no essential error in this area. To be sure, Rome adds duties not in the Bible, such as confession to a priest, conforming to a penitential system, observance of holy days; but what the Bible does require, she, too, apart from Sabbath observance, also requires. Rome’s “justification” (“second justification’’) is fatally faulty. The Bible’s justification is a reckoning or imputing of the righteousness of Christ to the believer. Rome’s justification is an infusing of righteousness into the believing worker who thereby becomes righteous. It was the desperate, but futile, effort of the monk Martin Luther to achieve justification this way that led him to realize that justification is a gift from God and not an achievement of man. He realized that no one could ever achieve the justification that Romanism mistakenly taught as Christian doctrine. Rome’s most obvious error, implicit in her false doctrine of justification, is the position of the works before and not after justification. There is no “minus” before works; that is good. But there are works before justification, and that is fatally bad. Works have become the foundation of justification. How so? Justification is by faith, says Rome, attempting to be loyal to Scripture. Faith is the radix or root of justification according to her Council of Trent. That means that true faith leads to good works (which is a correction of the antinomian error); but, alas, the good works become the title to etemal life.
In other words, through Christ the believer is enabled to achieve his own justification. That teaching is absolutely false in two ways. First, it depreciates the perfection of the atonement. By insisting on our works as the title to justification, it denies it to Christ’s work alone. Second, supposing that our works could ever entitle us to eternal life grossly overestimates our most perfect works—if we could do such, which we cannot. Christ, in the parable of the worker in the field who then serves his master in the house (Luke 17:7ff.), accentuates this point. If a man served his heavenly Master perfectly all the time he should say, “I am an unprofitable servant. I have only done my duty.” Man’s obligation is to be perfect. For so being, he would not even deserve thanks, much less a reward, not to mention an eternal reward. Yet Rome, turning her back on the all-sufficiency of the work of Christ for everlasting felicity, trusts in the works of men who could not earn thanks if they were perfect. (Incidentally, if he as a person thought he were perfect, he would, as John said, deceive himself and could not pray, as his Lord tells him, “Forgive us our debts.”)
So all Rome’s error is in putting works before justification, but how fatal the error! The theological cart is hopelessly before the theological horse. Neither works nor justification can function. Meritorious works are no works and an achieved justification is no justification.
“Evangelical Catholic” (that contemporary expression) is a contradiction in terms. If evangelical, one cannot be (Roman) Catholic; if Catholic, one cannot be evangelical. Is a Catholic evangelical a happy inconsistency? It is an inconsistency, but not a happy one. A person never has a right to be inconsistent. If a Roman Catholic who is evangelical sees that he is inconsistent, then he must, of course, stop his inconsistency. An inconsistent person is a dishonest person. He is saying one thing and doing another thing. In this particular case, a Roman Catholic, by virtue of his affiliation, says that he believes justification is brought about by the works he does. At the same time, he professes to be an evangelical, which means that he believes justification is not brought about by works, but purely by the work of Jesus Chris and is received by faith alone. So an evangelical Catholic is a dishonest Catholic or a dishonest evangelical. Either his evangelicalism is true and his Catholicism is false, or his Catholicism is true and his evangelicalism is false. He must make up his mind. He cannot say both of those things at the same time. Let him decide whether he is indeed Roman Catholic and repudiate his evangelicalism, which may God forbid, or let him decide that he is truly evangelical and repudiate his Catholicism, which may God grant. A Benedictine monk heard me deliver a half-hour address on justification following the formulae of this booklet. After the address, he said, ‘‘Dr. Gerstner, I’d like you to know that I agree with everything you said.” I was delighted and asked if that included my critique of his own church’s doctrine and defense of the evangelical. He said that it did.
“Good,” I replied. “Then you will join with us.”
‘No,” he surprisingly answered.
“Then,” said I, ‘‘you really don’t agree that your church is in error and evangelicalism is the true gospel, do you?”
“Yes, I do,” was his even more surprising reply, “but we have changed!’’
That surprised me even more, and I reminded him that Roman Catholicism was supposed to be “semper idem” (always the same) and her dogmas “infallible” and “irre-formable.” He responded simply, but apparently puzzled, ‘‘I will have to think about that.’’
Every ‘‘evangelical Catholic” will have to think about that. If he does, he will have to be one or the other. He cannot honestly be both. May he come with evangelicalism saying, ‘‘The just shall live by faith.”
Excerpted from Primitive Theology by John H. Gerstner.