When people assert that there are now no real differences between the Church of Rome and the Protestant churches it is difficult to know what they mean, because the central difference which led to the Reformation itself, justification by faith, remains unresolved and, to my mind, never can be resolved except by one side or the other giving up its position. Perhaps there are those Protestants who are prepared to do this, but that must surely be because they do not understand the worth of what they are so ready to surrender. If on the other hand we understand our heritage rightly then we are not free to give it up, because we cannot do as we like with the truth.
'How can I be right with God?' is the first and most important question in religion, and the doctrine of justification by faith alone is the answer to it. If you have ever asked that question yourself then you will realize how vital the right answer is. The wrong answer is disastrous. We dare not pretend that the difference is not important, or assume that we have license to change its meaning, however slightly, in order to come to some arrangement with the Church of Rome.
We have a very clear statement of the Protestant doctrine in Article XI of the Church of England, which follows closely the Augsburg Confession:
We are accounted righteous before God only for the merits of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, by faith, and not for our own merits or deservings ...
First, we must notice the word 'accounted'. This means that God counts or reckons us as righteous even though we are not righteous in ourselves, even though we are full of sin, and have never done anything good to deserve such reckoning. This righteousness which God imputes to us, Paul makes clear in Romans, is not our own at all, it is the free gift of God to sinners, to those who are unrighteous and undeserving. The whole point of Paul's argument is that God justifies not the good but the bad, not the righteous but the unrighteous, not the godly but the ungodly. If God merely justified the godly there would be nothing new or surprising in that. It would not have been a message which Paul could call a Gospel. But here he is declaring something that is simply astonishing both to himself and others, that God accepts sinful men as righteous, just as they are, without them becoming righteous in themselves first. That is a Gospel for those who know and feel themselves to be sinners and incapable of doing the least of God's commandments as it should be done.
Faith lays hold on this amazing declaration of God in the Gospel and says, I believe that it is true and accept it, because God says it, even though I find it astonishing. Such faith is not the mere assent of the mind to certain propositions, it is trust in God, trust in the promise that He has made in the Gospel. Faith of this kind contributes nothing to our salvation, it only enables us to accept the precious gift of justification. The ground on which God accepts us is not found in ourselves; it is in the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ. As the Article puts it '... only for the merit of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ'.
So justification owes nothing to us at all. It comes to us as a free gift, perfect and complete. It is counted to us at the beginning of our Christian lives, when we first believe in Christ, before we have done anything or can do anything to serve or please God, and remains perfect and complete throughout our entire lives and we can do nothing to improve or increase it. We can grow in holiness, in consecration to God, but we cannot improve or add to our justification for it is not strictly ours at all, it is the righteousness of Christ.
Faith will, of course, bring a new relationship with God, a new desire to please him and keep his commandments, for the Holy Spirit who is given to believers will move us to love and serve God. But none of this will be part of our justification. That depends from the beginning to the end of our lives upon Christ. God accepts us for no other cause, but only for the merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
The Roman Catholic Church does not teach this. It disputes the word 'accounted', and argues that we are not accounted or reckoned righteous by faith in Christ, but that we are made righteous in ourselves, and that this inherent righteousness is the ground of our justification. This raises the question of how we are made righteous, and their answer is, by receiving grace and strength through the sacraments so that we can do good works. At baptism they say the slate is wiped clean, as it were, and grace is then given to lead a Christian life. If mortal sins are committed then the individual loses his justification, but he can be restored by the sacrament of penance. But clearly such justification is something at which the individual has to work and it depends upon his effort, his obedience, his goodness. This is a legalistic doctrine and more akin to the state Paul found himself in under the Jewish religion, rather than the freedom he came to know under the Gospel. It is certainly something totally different from the Biblical doctrine found in the Protestant faith. It is what Paul calls in Galatians 1 'another Gospel'. It turns our gaze from Christ, our righteousness, to ourselves, to our good works and deservings. It militates against the tenor of the of the true Gospel, as preached by Paul, and replaces the spirit of love with the spirit of fear.
We return to the first and fundamental question of religion: 'How can I be right with God?' Are we justified by our own righteousness or the righteousness of Christ? The answer the Bible and Protestantism give is unequivocal: We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, by faith, and not for our own merits or deservings.
When I say the answer Protestantism gives, I mean of course the classical Protestantism of the Confessions. Popular Protestantism today has largely forgotten about these things and has become a stranger in its own home, alienated from its own heritage. Nowadays many theological students betray almost entire ignorance of the meaning of the doctrine of justification by faith. But this fact must be evident in our churches where the subject is rarely mentioned from the pulpit. Thirty years ago I never heard it preached and only discovered it myself by reading the Reformers. The result of this is that popular Protestantism has repeated the mistakes of Roman Catholicism. In fact, it preaches a message not dissimilar. Put very simply it is this: Believe in Jesus and he will help you to be good. This in essence is no different from believing that the sacraments give you grace to live a Christian life. In both cases man's justification before God resides in himself, in the change that grace is able to work within. And in both cases the Lord Jesus Christ is only the means to an end, man's own righteousness.
It is not surprising that many Protestants today should find their own position and that of the Roman Church almost indistinguishable. But that is not because the Gospel has changed, or the truth of Protestant doctrine has changed, but because they have lost touch with it, or never knew it in the first place. But the seeds of recovery and renewal are within Protestantism itself, in its doctrines and Confessions. Within the Church of Rome there is only the formal and systematic denial of the truth.
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