Recently, there was a debate between various learned people about “The Future of Protestantism,” which I watched with interest. Although the (Roman Catholic) Church was not the main focus of discussion, it inevitably came up, and the participants agreed that the two main things separating Protestantism from Rome were the doctrine of justification by faith alone and the doctrine of Sola Scriptura.
This was frustrating, because I view the issue of justification by faith as resolved since the (in)famous among ecumenical circles Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation. Hey, Luther: you won! Our liturgy is in the vernacular, and we’re justified by faith. Come back!
Now (and this might be an understatement), not everybody agrees with me that this issue stands resolved. Here’s what might be a representative example. No, of course the JDDJ did not set aside Trent, since that is impossible. But, thankfully, Trent did not condemn the doctrine of justification by faith, it just condemned certain versions of it (it’s almost as if the Trent Fathers were…inspired, or something). But one gets the sense that the insistence that the Roman Catholic Church renounce Trent is based not on zeal for the Gospel but on a much more human and worldly desire to see Rome kneel and say “I was wrong.” And since, again, this remains impossible, it’s hard to believe that this (understandable in some ways) desire is compatible with a genuine desire for Christian Unity.
Because all of this was going on, and because I have a great interest in Christian Unity, I’ve started digging around and reading various theological treatments of the question of justification. But as all this was happening, I was also reading the Bible. I reread the four Gospels over the Paschal Triduum, Acts after that, then Romans, then James, since it was his Feast Day last weekend.
Doing those readings in parallel was striking and disheartening, because I was just floored by the extent to which those theological treatments obscure the to me very crystal-clear message of the Gospel.
Yes, we are justified by faith in Jesus Christ, apart from the works of the law. Yes, salvation is by sheer grace of the All-Incarnate God who condescends and reaches down to the innermost of our fallenness and lifts us up.
But faith, true faith in Jesus Christ, the Man-God of the Cross, is not assent to a doctrine or agreement that historical facts occurred. True faith in Jesus Christ is a sword, one that slashes through our very being and crucifies the old self on the Cross of Love and issues in a new life through the Spirit, so that, indeed, “faith without works is dead”, indeed “faith without works” is no faith at all.
How can anything else stand in the way of this magnificent, terrible Cross of Jesus Christ, this Cross which destroys the old life and brings the joy that cometh in the morning? How can we miss that once we understand faith, understand it the way Paul met it–was crushed by it–on the road to Damascus, the way it rains down from his pen of fire, to say that we are “justified by faith alone” and we are “justified by faith and works” is the same thing?
There is a Calvinistic cartoon version of the Biblical message, this bloodless legal transaction where in exchange for believing something Christ’s righteousness is “imputed” on us, as if this sort of language could capture the world-changing reality of the Cross and the Spirit of Fire. There is a, perhaps more damaging in practice, Catholic cartoon version of the Biblical message, this detestable legalistic Pharisaism where salvation is the work of a long list of box-checking–just go to Mass on Sunday and don’t commit any mortal sins, or if you do go to confession (and go to confession anyway), and you’re home free. Yes this might be technically true–and this alone should be evidence of the boundlessness of God’s grace–, but where is the Cross? If this is how you view the Christian life you will spend a long time in Purgatory, but not as long as the priests who let you believe this. The life of the saints testifies to the fact that this was never the true message of the Catholic Church but this false teaching has long roamed among us like a wolf among the sheep.
But this focus on justification itself is, in my view, a symptom of what might be the most grievous heresy in the life of Christianity, one that has been with us for 2,000 years and will not leave until the Eschaton, this heresy that Christianity is a guide on how to get to Heaven.
No! Christianity is an encounter with Jesus Christ. He is the end-all be-all. Literally! The Alpha and the Omega. Christianity is the way of the Cross. Christianity is to be radically transformed by this Jesus, by this God-saves, this God-saves-at-any-cost. Do you crave Heaven? Do you crave a reward for good behavior? Or do you crave Jesus? If you truly, truly put your faith in Jesus Christ, truly abandon yourself to Him the way he abandoned Himself to you, will you not even stop caring about your ultimate reward, or only insofar as it means union with the Beloved Bridegroom?
To talk too much about justification is to not talk enough about Jesus. Christ is Risen! Death has been crushed! The Lord of Hosts, the King of Kings, is your lover into death and new life. Arise, O Jerusalem, and proclaim His victory. And for everything else, put your trust in Him.