Dialogue w Baptist on Romans 1:1-3 & Justification

Dialogue w Baptist on Romans 1:1-3 & Justification September 5, 2018
[This material is from a short-lived e-mail exchange with a Baptist friend, in January 1997 (originally intended to be a comprehensive Bible study of Romans and later edited: on 11 August 2000). Her (selective) words will be in blue, but this is primarily my own contribution to the dialogue. Verses are from the NRSV Bible unless otherwise noted.]

Romans 1b-2 . . . the gospel of God which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures.

I think often in this respect of the famous OT passage concerning the New Covenant (Jer 31:31-34), which was stressed at the Lutheran Church where I first started seriously following Christ in the late 70s. I particularly love the phrase, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts……” (31:33). Perhaps this is the single clearest “promise beforehand” of the coming of Christ and His gospel — at any rate, in the sense of spiritual “result.” This (i.e., Jer 31:33) is a marvelous expression of the unspeakably precious closeness of God to us, in the Person of the Holy Spirit, as I think we can reasonably conclude is the meaning intended.

In my long paper on 700+ biblical proofs of the divinity of Christ, I listed 50 OT messianic prophecies fulfilled by Jesus Christ, inc., notably: Is 7:14, 9:1, 11:2, 32:3-4, 40:3, 49:7, Mic 5:1-2, Ps 2:6-7, 16:10, 22:1-18, 68:18, 69:21, 78:2, 110:1, 118:22, Zech 9:9, 12:10, 13:6-7, Dan 9:26, Mal 3:1, and of course, the remarkable Isaiah 53 (see also my paper Old Testament and Jewish Conceptions of the Messiah). One of my commentaries says there are about 140 altogether. I’ve heard the figure 300 mentioned before, too, although it seems a bit excessive to me.

I’ve always been intrigued wondering about what Jesus would have told the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35, esp. v.27). What a study that would be if we only had the transcript!!!! Why wouldn’t God have allowed such a definitive commentary by Himself to be in Scripture, I wonder {scratching head}? Talk about infallible interpretation!!! :-) One of the many fascinating “biblical silences” . . .

Incidentally, we Catholics (following St. Augustine and many other Church Fathers), observe a Eucharistic significance in the fact that Jesus – in the Emmaus passage — right after He “broke” bread (cf. Acts 2:42, 20:7, 1 Cor 10:16), “and gave it to them,” “vanished,” immediately as they “recognized him” (Lk 24:30-31). They could have noticed the nail marks in His hands as He broke bread, too.

Luther wrote that:

The most convincing and persuasive proof of the Gospel is the fact that it was witnessed by the Law and the Prophets……. He did all this, in order that when the promise would be fulfilled, men would realize that He was dealing with them in accordance with His predetermined counsel of salvation.

In this vein, he cites Prov 8:23, Amos 3:7, Is 48:5, and Titus 1:2. St. John Chrysostom (d.417) wrote:

Since the charge of bringing in novelties was brought against the Gospel, he shows that it was older than the Greeks, and long ago shadowed out in the prophets.

F. F. Bruce informs us that:

The OT background of the NT use of euangelion is found in the LXX of Isaiah 40-66 (esp. Is 40:9, 52:7, 60:6, 61:1), where this noun……is used of the proclamation of Zion’s impending release from exile. The NT writers treat this proclamation as foreshadowing the proclamation of the release from spiritual estrangement and bondage procured by the death and resurrection of Christ.

As for OT indications of the Gospel in general, Bruce cites cross-references in Romans 1:17, 3:21, 4:3,6 ff.

Romans 1:3 the gospel concerning his son, who was descended from David according to the flesh.

The biological lineage from David is clear in many OT passages (e.g., Ps 132:11, Is 9:6-7, 11:10, Jer 23:5-6, 33:15) and need not detain us here. What most interests me personally about this is the typological use of David-as-Messiah (Jesus) in many passages where the “kingly” function of the Messiah Jesus is referred to (see section XVI of my Trinity paper), such as Jer 30:9, Ezek 34:23-24, 37:24-25, and Hosea 3:5 (cf. Dan 7:13-14, Is 11:4-10, 24:23, Mic 4:3,7, 5:2-5, Zech 9:9-10, 14:9,16).

These sorts of verses used to constitute proof for me of premillennialism, but now I’m not so sure, as I have provisionally adopted an agnostic position on most eschatological questions (Catholics are amillennial, as far as I know, although I don’t know if this is required dogmatically or if latitude of belief is allowed).

I changed my views on this before I converted to Catholicism, having read some Reformed stuff by Oswald Allis and others. But the possibility of parabolic, allegorical, typological or symbolic language is not in the least unlikely, since Hebraic poetic motifs clearly dominate the “Prophets” and the “Writings.” One adopts a wooden literalism in OT hermeneutics only at their own peril!

Finally, we arrive at the crucial question of what exactly constitutes the “gospel.” In my written responses to anti-Catholic crusaders like John Ankerberg and John Weldon, James White, R. C. Sproul, and others, and in my notorious Open Letter to Anti-Catholics, I have taken up this question, drawing (as with this paper) almost exclusively from research and beliefs from my Protestant days, completed long before I ever considered Catholicism. It’s quite curious (as well as offensive) to me that so many Protestants want to define the “gospel” in the strict sense of “justification by faith alone,” when the Bible itself is very explicit and clear that this is not the case at all.

For example, we know what the gospel is because we have a record of the Apostles preaching it immediately after Pentecost. St. Peter’s first sermon in the Upper Room (Acts 2:22-40) is certainly the gospel, especially since 3000 people became Christians upon hearing it (2:41)! In it he utters not a word about “faith alone.” He instructs the hearers, rather, to “repent, and be baptized . . . so that your sins may be forgiven” (2:38).

So, immediately after the Resurrection, at the very outset of the “Church Age,” an Apostle teaches sacramentalism and baptismal regeneration – anathema to most evangelicals. St. Paul defines the gospel in Acts 13:16-41 as the Resurrection of Jesus (vss. 32-33), and in 1 Cor 15:1-8 as His death, burial, and Resurrection. When Paul converted, straightaway he also got baptized, in order to have his “sins washed away” (baptismal regeneration again).

Biblical factors such as these caused people like Luther and Wesley and their denominations, and other communions like the Anglicans and Church of Christ to retain this doctrine. Furthermore, when the rich young ruler asked Jesus right out how he could be saved (Lk 18:18-25), our Lord, accordingly, didn’t say “just believe in Me with faith alone.” No, He commanded him to perform a “work,” to sell all that he had. Jesus also rewards and grants salvation at least partially according to works and acts of charity, rather than on the basis of sola fide (Mt 16:27, 25:30-46 – note conjunction “for” in v.35).

So then, the explicit scriptural proclamations and definitions of the gospel strikingly exclude “faith alone,” while other actions by Jesus and the Apostles contradict it by force of example. Conclusion?: The gospel is — as Paul teaches — the death, burial and Resurrection of Jesus. This is the “good news,” not some technical soteriological theory, which is why Jimmy Akin pointed out that billboards say “Jesus Saves,” not “Jesus Justifies.”

Even common sense would dictate that this “good news” is comprised of Jesus’ redemptive work for us – the great historical drama of His Incarnation and Atonement, not forensic, “legal,” imputed justification! And the Prophets foretold these events, not a fine-tuned theory of application of those events to the believer — irregardless of whoever has the correct theory. How could a mere theological abstract reasonably be called “good news”?

It seems clear enough to me, yet otherwise brilliant, scholarly. learned people like Dr. Sproul (whom I enjoy very much on the radio) are blind to this and wickedly accuse ecumenical Protestants like Chuck Colson, Bill Bright, and J. I. Packer of “betraying the gospel” by their attempts to cooperate and have fellowship with Catholics as much as possible, and to find common theological ground (which is, of course, very considerable).

For these reasons and many others, it is wicked and unconscionable for Protestants such as the aforementioned to read Catholicism out of the Christian faith, since both sides fully accept all the supernatural facts of Christ’s divinity and man’s fallenness and believe that salvation comes solely as a result of His atoning work on our behalf — always ultimately His work of grace, whether or not works enter into the equation. The contrary is Pelagianism, which was condemned by the Catholic Church in the 6th century. Also, both sides agree that good works ought to be present in every Christian’s life, whether they are required for salvation, or done in gratitude for salvation already accomplished.

Jesus said that He could summarize the law and the prophets of the Old Testament in this statement:

Mark 12:30 And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment. 31: And the second is like, namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.

Very good! I really overlooked this one.

It is significant that Jesus concurs with the scribe’s retort in the passage following, and even assures him that he is “not far from the Kingdom of Heaven”. The scribe has recognized that the two great commandments are motivated by a love relationship between God and man, and not a legalistic attempt to fulfill a prescribed act.

Yes. As I’ve said, “works” in Catholic theology (i.e., soteriology) are never intended in the sense of mere “legalism” or in isolation from God’s prevenient and enabling grace (which view is the heresy Pelagianism). Being opposed to “faith alone” is not equivalent to the denial of “grace alone.” The latter we vigorously affirm, with you, as the cause, origin, and ground of every man’s salvation. The issue between Catholics and Protestants is thus not the all-encompassing and absolute necessity of God’s grace, but rather, the relationship of justification to sanctification, and the latter to eschatological salvation itself.

Matthew 5:20 For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

In the Old Testament, salvation was not a reward for keeping the Law, it was a gift to those who, with a heart of humility and awareness of their sin, sought repentance from their sinful state, and by faith in God alone found redemption from that very sin that held them captive. Old Testament salvation involved turning from sin to God, a choice to attempt to keep God’s law out of love of Him, not a choice to keep His law out of a manipulative positioning toward His possible good favor.

Excellent. Very well said, and of course I agree.

The schoolmaster of the Law (Gal 3:24: Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. 25 But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster…) was given to illustrate our inability to fulfill the Law perfectly, as only Christ, The Son of God, the Word Incarnate, could, would, and did by His finished work on the Cross.

In other words, salvation by grace alone through Christ alone……..

My stomach curdles with indignation at the “accepting Jesus” baloney that is so thick everywhere nowadays.

Good for you. A. W. Tozer wrote a lot about that, and so did Bonhoeffer, with his famous phrase of “cheap grace.”

When an individual repents of sin and turns to Jesus Christ, the Son of God for salvation, depending totally upon Him and Him alone, immediately the individual is declared righteous in God’s eyes.

We differ in that we call this initial justification, the beginning of a lifelong process. We believe many of these “forensic” benefits are received at baptism, as that is where we place regeneration (e.g., Jn 3:5 and at least 6 other passages which we would produce).

As I said previously, “You nailed it on the head when you said ‘what God declares, He produces’ “.

This is the commonality. God will produce it apart from our definitional and theological endeavors to explain how He does it. And this is the ecumenical point I’ve sought to make with many of my Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ online. We think good works are technically part and parcel of justification; you guys classify them under non-salvific “sanctification.” But by far the most important thing is that we both regard them as absolutely necessary in every Christian’s life (i.e., their existence, as opposed to their effect and meaning).

So the practical effect is the same, and I think that will be (at least partially) what Jesus looks for when He judges us on the last day, as indeed seems to be indicated by the “sheep and the goats” passage in Matthew 25. And that because the truly, eschatologically saved individuals will perform good works, according to either perspective. Theological precision will be secondary at that point, I believe strongly (not to say that it is ever unimportant!).

Does God draw us to Himself irresistibly?

Not without our consent, even tho He causes that, too (Phil 2:13). A paradox, one of many in this area…….

Is mankind totally unable to perform any act that would generate favor or mercy in God’s eyes? Yes, that is clearly taught in Scripture.

Agreed, if meant in the Pelagian sense of an exclusion of God’s prevenient grace. Disagree to the extent that you intend this to exclude meritorious action. Merit is simply “God crowning His own gifts,” as Augustine put it.

Are these facts exclusive and contradictory? Only in the fallible, limited eyes of man. God says both are true in His Word, so they both are true. To insist on pushing one facet of the doctrine to the exclusion of the other is folly.

Excellent. This is a refreshing acknowledgement of paradox and mystery, which is often present in true Christianity, but lacking in many individual Christians. Catholics routinely look at things in that fashion. This is the “both/and” philosophy I talk about, as opposed to a dichotomous “either/or.” C. S. Lewis said faith without works is like talking about which blade in a pair of scissors is more necessary. I would say the same about grace and free will / human cooperation, Tradition and Bible, and many other things which are thought to be intrinsically opposed to each other.

Extreme Arminianism produces a helpless god at the mercy of sovereign man,

As in JW’s and other cults, Copeland and Hagin, and Unitarianism, among many others…….

and the Calvinistic extreme produces a despotic god . . .

Of course they deny that, . . .


(originally January 1997; revised 8-11-00)

Photo credit: Saint Paul (c. 1619), by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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