Against Justification

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.

This, I believe, is the Gospel doctrine, the apostolic doctrine, the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church and of the Orthodox Church, and a doctrine that would be espoused by most Protestant denominations and preachers.

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.


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  • Kasoy

    This issue of justification has clearly been explained by God to Catherine of Siena (The Dialogue). The simile used by God to illustrate this is door and key.

    Here is the simile.

    Before Christ died on the Cross to “justify” us, the “Door” of heaven was closed to all men (including the Old Testament Patriarchs eg, Adam, Abraham, Noah, Moses). Man is totally incapable (not justified) to enter heaven before Christ’s sacrifice no matter what he does – no matter what great good he may do.

    When Jesus died on the Cross, God gave ALL men the “Key” to Heaven’s “Door”. By Jesus’ sacrifice, all men now have the “Key” to open Heaven’s “Door”. This is the justification part – man receives the “Key” to Heaven, ie, he is now justified (capable) to enter heaven IF he wants to. (When Christ died, He came “down” to the place of the dead to bring the good news to all good men who died before Christ’s death eg, Abraham, and then brought them all to heaven. ) Man may already have the “Key” but he retains the free will to choose life or death (as God told the Israelites during their Exodus).

    So man has to believe [Faith] that he holds the “Key” and walk towards the “Door” and use the “Key” to unlock the “Door” in order to enter Heaven. The “walking” and the “unlocking” are the “works” required of man. [Faith without works is dead] It is useless to simply hold and keep the “Key” and not use it. Man cannot enter Heaven by just holding on to the “Key”. He has to exert some effort.


    Justification – man gets the Key to Heaven (by infinite merits of Christ’s sacrifice)
    Faith – man has to believe he has the Key
    Works – man has to “walk” towards heaven’s door and “unlock” it, then he can enter heaven

    So both faith and works are necessary to enter heaven.

    The next question now is: So by my faith and good works, I “merit” heaven?

    Again this is explained in the same book (The Dialogue). No man really merits heaven either by faith nor by works. Salvation is and will always be attained through God’s mercy and goodness. Faith is God’s gift. Grace or the inspiration and the strength to do good works is also God’s gift. Everything is God’s gift. Man only has to choose (free will) to follow God OR to reject His invitation to believe in Christ and to do good works.

  • mochalite

    What a way to start the day! Hallelujah!

    Maybe this confusion arose because some people are natural box-checkers and some are natural … idk, non-workers? Whatever. Get over it, people! It’s all Jesus. Romans 11:36 says, “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. Amen.”

    An old pastor I had once said that the only thing we bring to salvation is the sin that required it. I don’t even bring the faith, and I sure don’t bring the works.

    Galatians 2:20 says, “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” Notice that “of.” Even my faith isn’t my faith, it’s Jesus’ faith in God.

    Any faith I exhibit is pure joy in knowing Jesus, and any works I do are a teeny, tiny way of saying thanks and sharing Jesus with others.

  • Mike

    Excellent thanks.

    PS “this heresy that Christianity is a guide on how to get to Heaven.” – EXACTLY! If what you want is a philosophy you don’t want Christ, because life isn’t a philosophy or a contest or a quiz or an equation or a problem set. We live in a moral tangled messy universe that is more like a big extended family on a road trip than a mystic on a mountain or a scientist in a lab.

    PSS The “reward” in Heaven is not like money, like winning the lottery or getting the Nobel for solving the mystery of the physical universe but like the love and the peacefulness and Joy you experience when your prodigal child finally comes home or your parents finally stop fighting or you feel when you give something to someone who doesn’t deserve it (charity) and to someone who does (justice)…it’s human the reward and makes us more human and less whatever it is that tempts us away from our humble happy simple selves.

  • Casey Voce


    I would like to point out what I believe are a few misconceptions regarding penal substitutionary atonement.
    First, it is not “Calvanistic” in that Calvin came up with it (I know you probably already know this), nor do only Calvanists subscribe to it. Plenty of my Arminian brethren also believe it.
    Second, it does have to entail double imputation, though I believe in it, and will talk more on it in a second. Luther himself did not believe it.
    Third, we (or at least all of the Calvanists brethren that I know, including cessasionists) do not believe that God does not continue to work in our lives. As he first called us to regeneration, now he continues to conform us closer to the likeness of his son. I will struggle to be more and more perfect, as Christ is. But I will not achieve it. But that’s ok! I’m now free. Free to love radically, without fear, of making a mistake and adding a century in purgatory, of backsliding, and losing my spot in heaven; free for acts of charity, evangelism, and love.
    Because it’s not up to me! At some point, I will be asked why I should be in heaven. I will not utter a word on my behalf. I will point to Christ and say : “Because of what He did.”
    And with that assurance, I can try to be not like the wicked servant in the parable of the talents, sitting, watching the skies for his return. Instead, I can try to be like the good servants, about my Fathers’ s work. Luther said it best, when asked what he would do if he knew for a certainty that Christ was returning on the morrow. He answered “Plant a tree”.
    The reason I ranted was to show that I too, experience my faith as a 3-dimensional fully realised reality, not as a dry cardboard cutout, which is what you described. We should all remember that people experience their faith as they do, not as we think they do. To me, RD view still says “earn my way to heaven”, but I understand that’s not what you believe.
    Thanks for your patience.
    With love,

    Casey Voce

  • Brantly Millegan

    Hey, are you aware of the Vatican response to the joint declaration?

    Some progress was made, but neither document declared the issue resolved by any stretch. Luther’s doctrine of salvation by faith *alone* was clearly condemned at Trent, and was not affirmed in these documents.