July 1, 2019

This is one of the latest charges from Novus Ordo Watch: a sedevacantist venue. In an article dated 6-14-19, entitled, More “Papal” Heresy: Francis the Lutheran denies Catholic Dogma on Merit, it claims:

[H]e revealed that he denies the Catholic dogma on the possibility of supernatural merit before God by the justified.

The heretical ramblings of the false pope, who goes by the stage name of Francis, were reported by the Vatican’s in-house propaganda arm, Vatican News:

Christian life, said Pope Francis, is lived gratuitously. “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give,” he said, was how Jesus described the core of salvation.

He said salvation cannot be bought, because God “saves us free of charge” and “requires no payment”.

As God has done with us, so we are to do with others, he said.

“Realize that the Lord is full of gifts for us. He asks just one thing: that our hearts be open. When we say ‘Our Father’ and we pray, we open our heart, allowing this gratuitousness to enter. Often when we need some spiritual grace, we say: ‘Well, now I will fast, do penance, pray a novena…’ Fine, but be careful: this is not done to ‘pay’ or ‘buy’ grace. We do it to open our hearts so that grace might enter. Grace is freely given.”

All God’s gifts, said Pope Francis, are given without cost. And he warned that sometimes “the heart folds in on itself and remains closed”, and it is no longer able to receive “such freely given love”.

We should not bargain with God, he said.

“In our spiritual life we always run the risk of slipping up on the question of payment, even when speaking with the Lord, as if we needed to bribe the Lord. No! That is not the correct path… I make a promise, in order to expand my heart to receive what is already there, waiting for us free of charge. This relationship of gratuitousness with God is what will help us to have the same rapport with others, whether it be in Christian witness, Christian service, or the pastoral work of those who guide the people of God. We do so along the way. Christian life means walking. Preach and serve, but do not make use of others. Serve and give freely that which you have received freely. May our life of holiness be permeated by this openness of heart, so that the gratuitousness of God – the graces that He wishes to give us without cost – may enter our hearts.”

(Devin Watkins, “Pope at Mass: ‘Serve others freely, as God freely loves you’”Vatican News, June 11, 2019; italics removed . . .)

What we see here is a clever attempt to instill heresy in the souls of the hearers by means of half-truths, which are the most dangerous kinds of lies. Like most heretics, Francis is not ashamed even to hijack a passage found in Sacred Scripture to serve as the foundation of his denial of dogma; in this case, Mt 10:8: “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out devils: freely have you received, freely give.”

It is evident that Francis denies the possibility and value of the justified meriting graces and even Eternal Life itself. . . .

Yes, yes, perhaps a Jimmy Akin or Dave Armstrong can find ways to spin what Bergoglio said into something resembling orthodoxy. But the plain sense of the words is what it is, and that’s how people will understand them, and that’s exactly what Francis counts on; because had he wanted to preach clear orthodoxy, well, he could simply have done so.

Pope Francis was simply talking about the primacy and absolute necessity of grace, which precedes and brings about any merit that we obtain.  As St. Augustine famously stated: “merit is God crowning His own gifts.” The article notes Catholic teaching on grace alone, but claims that Pope Francis would deny meritorious actions leading to an increase of grace and justification, after regeneration.

He doesn’t directly address those things in these excerpts, so we must look elsewhere:

Saint Bernard goes on to ask: But what can I count on? My own merits? No, “My merit is God’s mercy. I am by no means lacking merits as long as he is rich in mercy. If the mercies of the Lord are manifold, I too will abound in merits” [On the Song of Songs, 61:5]. (Homily on Divine Mercy Sunday, 7 April 2013, section 3)

We share in the merits and joy of the saints, even as they share in our struggles and our longing for peace and reconciliation. Their joy in the victory of the Risen Christ gives us strength as we strive to overcome our indifference and hardness of heart. (Message for Lent 2015: 4 October 2014)

And if I do merit something do I believe it is through Jesus Christ and what he has done for me? (Morning Meditation, 15 October 2015)

Blessed are those who remain faithful while enduring evils inflicted on them by others, and forgive them from their heart. Blessed are those who look into the eyes of the abandoned and marginalized, and show them their closeness. Blessed are those who see God in every person, and strive to make others also discover him. Blessed are those who protect and care for our common home. Blessed are those who renounce their own comfort in order to help others. Blessed are those who pray and work for full communion between Christians. All these are messengers of God’s mercy and tenderness, and surely they will receive from him their merited reward. (Homily in Sweden, 1 November 2016)

In recent weeks, I was particularly struck by a Collect of the Lenten Season (Wednesday of the Fourth Week), which somehow seems to summarize these reflections. I shall share it with you so that we can make it our prayer and way of life:

O God, who reward the merits of the just
and offer pardon to sinners who do penance,
have mercy, we pray, on those who call upon you,
that the admission of our guilt may serve to obtain your pardon for our sins”.

(Address to the Missionaries of Mercy, 10 April 2018)

The New Testament strikingly nearly equates our meritorious works and God’s grace, or His work (synergy): so closely are our works and His enabling grace tied, in a “both/and” outlook:

1 Corinthians 3:8-9 (RSV) He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

1 Corinthians 15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me.

1 Corinthians 15:58 Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

Ephesians 2:10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Philippians 2:12-13 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

2 Peter 1:10 Therefore, brethren, be the more zealous to confirm your call and election, for if you do this you will never fall;


Photo credit: Peasant woman binding sheaves (after Millet) (1889), by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


May 17, 2019

From my book: Bible Proofs for Catholic Truths (2009): available for only $2.99 as an e-book. All passages are KJV unless otherwise indicated. The words below are all from Scripture.


Matthew 5:11-12: Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.[12] Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.

Matthew 6:3-4: But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: [4] That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly. (cf. 6:5-6, 16-18)

Matthew 10:41-42: He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and he that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. [42] And whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward.

Matthew 19:21: Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.

Matthew 19:29: And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.

Mark 9:41: For whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward.

Mark 10:29-30: And Jesus answered and said, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my sake, and the gospel’s, [30] But he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life.

Luke 6:35, 38: But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil . . . Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom. For with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.

Romans 15:17-18: I have therefore whereof I may glory through Jesus Christ in those things which pertain to God. [18] For I will not dare to speak of any of those things which Christ hath not wrought by me, to make the Gentiles obedient, by word and deed, (RSV: “In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has wrought through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed,”)

1 Corinthians 3:6-9: I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. [7] So then neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase. [8] Now he that planteth and he that watereth are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labour. [9] For we are labourers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building.

2 Corinthians 9:6: But this I say, He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully.

Ephesians 6:8: knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. (cf. Matt. 16:27)

2 Timothy 2:15: Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.

2 Timothy 4:8: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.

Hebrews 6:10: For God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labour of love, which ye have shewed toward his name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister.

Hebrews 10:35: Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompence of reward.

Hebrews 11:6: But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.

James 1:12: Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him.

2 John 1:8: Look to yourselves, that we lose not those things which we have wrought, but that we receive a full reward. (RSV: “may win a full reward”)

Revelation 2:10: Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that ye may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.

Revelation 3:11-12: Behold, I come quickly: hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown. [12] Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.


(originally 2009)

Photo credit: Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images [Blue Diamond Gallery]

March 2, 2019

This is another discussion (posted one yesterday) with my friend, Deacon Steven D. Greydanus, from my Facebook page. It came about spontaneously today, and so (as with most of my debates), I am sharing it more widely, so that others can ponder two sides of a given debate and use their own critical faculties to see where they stand. This is what I love about back-and-forth dialogue. His words will be in blue.


The Great Dealmaker got no deal from Kim Jong-un and came home empty-handed — but Kim continues to get praise and strokes from the leader of the free world. 

“He’s sharp as you can be, and he’s a real leader,” Trump told Hannity the day before yesterday. “He likes me, I like him. Some people say ‘you should not like him.’ I say, ‘Why shouldn’t I like him?’ I like him. Get along great.”

Why shouldn’t Trump like Kim? He doesn’t know. He can’t understand it. Why shouldn’t one like an extremely brutal tyrant who leads one of the most repressive regimes in the world? 

A man who has literally executed government officials for such offenses as falling asleep in meetings or adopting “disrespectful posture.” Who has murdered his own family members, and innocent family members of his enemies, including children. 

A man who leads a regime in which whole populations are deliberately starved and political prisoners are raped and tortured. Where Christianity is deemed a very serious threat — the worst nation on earth for Christians, according the watchdog group Open Doors. 

Trump said out can’t think why he shouldn’t like, admire, and praise this man. 

But yeah, he’s “pro-life.” And a strong leader. And a great dealmaker.

You clearly know little about diplomacy on a world scale and what it entails. If you did, you couldn’t possibly write this comment as it is.

But we know that Trump would be trashed no matter what he did. When he had great success last time it didn’t matter. The missiles were flying two years ago, Now they aren’t. Remains of our servicemen are being sent home. The Korean War may officially end. South Korea (i.e., the nation at great risk in a potential war) was ecstatic about it. Now that he walked away, like Reagan did with Gorbachev (ultimately to succeed), he’s trashed. It matters not what he does.

Yeah, Gorbachev and the Soviet Union did all these things and probably worse. That’s precisely why we attempted to talk to them and make whatever deal we could. It’s why we talk to China (with its horrible views on religious freedom and one-child policies and forced abortion). We’re not in these high-stakes talks with England or Canada.

Would you say, don’t talk at all to anyone who doesn’t lead a saintly society? We murder 3000 children a day here. Who the hell are we to look down our noses at non-Christian countries? We claim to be so “enlightened” and Christian. That’s why I argued in print over 15 years ago that we are arguably the wickedest country of all time. By biblical and Christian standards, I think we are.

The biggest obvious difference is that Obama and several Presidents before him (from both parties) sat on their butts and kicked the Korean can down the road. Clinton actually enabled N. Korea to get nukes in the first place, with his (typical) liberal fallacies and naiveté about dictatorships: seen again In Obama’s treaty with Iran. Trump actually tries to do something about it.

And the thanks he gets from Never Rational Never Trumpers like you (who admit to being sorely tempted to literally hate him) is what we see above. You should be ashamed of yourself.

He could cure cancer and get North Korea to destroy all their nukes, and it wouldn’t make a whit of difference. There is so much invested now in hatred of him that it can never change. It’s here forever. Total / largely irrational and clueless demonization . . .

That is ridiculous spin. No one can imagine Obama, Bush, Clinton, Bush 41, or Reagan talking like this. No one would say they could except out of desperation to defend the indefensible. Anyone with any common sense knows this is true.

[I linked two articles about Reagan praising Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Union in 1988, and about Obama’s and the left’s “love affair” with Castro and Obama’s relationship with the Iranian dictator Khamenei]

Once again, it matters not what Trump does. When he was talking about “fire and fury” and “rocket man” (talking tough) he was roundly criticized. Now that he is using the usual niceties of diplomacy, he’s roundly criticized. Reagan, of course, did both, too. He was excoriated for talking about the “evil empire” but then he engaged in successful diplomacy. He was supposed to start World War III, like Trump is supposed to. Somehow it never comes.

The only constant factor is that the media and the Never Rational Never Trumpers must hate and lie about Trump and apply relentless double standards.

LOL. We’ve talked before about this. Your need to find moral equivalence obliterates your ability to distinguish carefully worded objective statements of fact from emotional statements of approbation. It’s obvious to most people.

I don’t “need” to find anything. Very typical of my reasoning is analogical argumentation (I got my love of that from Cardinal Newman, and it was key in my conversion). You’re trying to make out that Trump is an absolute idiot, different from anyone before him. So I use straightforward analogies showing that, no, he’s scarcely different from diplomatic strategies and words employed by both Reagan and Obama.

If I’m asked whether Trump exaggerates things more than they (including within diplomacy), I would say yes. But I don’t see that as the damning indictment that you do. Not my cup of tea, but not earth-shatteringly scandalous and disgraceful. Just . . . different. Ho hum. Yawn . . . ZZZzzzzzzz . . .

My friend Al Kresta has a great saying about others, with whom we may not agree on all particulars: “I prefer his way of doing things to my way of not doing them.” Trump has been very successful on many levels. So, more power to him. As I’ve said from the beginning, he is a pragmatic / can-do centrist. America has a long history of that. In fact, it’s very typically American.

It’s just that we’re so far left today and so many Republicans are in bed with liberalism and its failed and stupid (and often, outright immoral) ideas and policies, that they can’t see this in the light of history.

As I’ve said before, I think you’re beyond rationality in talking about Trump. You’re incapable of doing it objectively and fairly. And in my opinion, it’s because (as I’ve seen so often in many areas in my hundreds of debates on a myriad of topics) you despise the man and even sometimes fall into flat-out hatred: as you yourself freely admitted.

You said it, not I. But it confirmed what we basically knew about virtually all Never Trumpers. This goes beyond mere policy differences: to extreme derision and contempt. And that clouds one’s reasoning ability.

You are brilliant in theological analysis, as I’ve happily noted many times (I praise you a lot more than you’ve ever praised me, so there is no personal animus here at all). But when you discuss Trump, forget it. Thus, presently, you are reduced essentially to laughing mockery — sans any strong or persuasive argument — both of Trump and of myself.


Photo credit: ralfskysegel (8-31-16). Trump graffiti in Melbourne, Australia [PixabayPixabay License]


January 29, 2019

This is an installment of a series of replies (see the Introduction and Master List) to much of Book IV (Of the Holy Catholic Church) of Institutes of the Christian Religion, by early Protestant leader John Calvin (1509-1564). I utilize the public domain translation of Henry Beveridge, dated 1845, from the 1559 edition in Latin; available online. Calvin’s words will be in blue. All biblical citations (in my portions) will be from RSV unless otherwise noted.

Related reading from yours truly:

Biblical Catholic Answers for John Calvin (2010 book: 388 pages)

A Biblical Critique of Calvinism (2012 book: 178 pages)

Biblical Catholic Salvation: “Faith Working Through Love” (2010 book: 187 pages; includes biblical critiques of all five points of “TULIP”)


IV, 14:10-11


Book IV



10. Objections answered. Illustrated by a simile.


In this way, also, we dispose of certain objections by which some anxious minds are annoyed. If we ascribe either an increase or confirmation of faith to creatures, injustice is done to the Spirit of God, who alone ought to be regarded as its author. But we do not rob him of the merit of confirming and increasing faith; nay, rather, we maintain that that which confirms and increases faith, is nothing else than the preparing of our minds by his internal illumination to receive that confirmation which is set forth by the sacraments. But if the subject is still obscure, it will be made plain by the following similitude: Were you to begin to persuade a person by word to do something, you would think of all the arguments by which he may be brought over to your view, and in a manner compelled to serve your purpose. But nothing is gained if the individual himself possess not a clear and acute judgment, by which he may be able to weigh the value of your arguments; if, moreover, he is not of a docile disposition, and ready to listen to doctrine; if, in fine, he has no such idea of your faith and prudence as in a manner to prejudice him in your favour, and secure his assent. For there are many obstinate spirits who are not to be bent by any arguments; and where faith is suspected, or authority contemned, little progress is made even with the docile. On the other hand, when opposite feelings exist, the result will be, that the person whose interests you are consulting will acquiesce in the very counsels which he would otherwise have derided. The same work is performed in us by the Spirit. That the word may not fall upon our ear, or the sacraments be presented to our eye in vain, he shows that it is God who there speaks to us, softens our obdurate hearts, and frames them to the obedience which is due to his word; in short, transmits those external words and sacraments from the ear to the soul. Both word and sacraments, therefore, confirm our faith, bringing under view the kind intentions of our heavenly Father, in the knowledge of which the whole assurance of our faith depends, and by which its strength is increased; and the Spirit also confirms our faith when, by engraving that assurance on our minds, he renders it effectual. Meanwhile, it is easy for the Father of lights, in like manner as he illumines the bodily eye by the rays of the sun, to illumine our minds by the sacraments, as by a kind of intermediate brightness.

An increase of faith can be ascribed to creatures as long as we don’t deny that God is the ultimate cause of this. Calvin’s “either/or” mentality doesn’t allow him to be able to ascribe anything to human beings: not even, apparently, a cooperative effort initiated (yes indeed), by God, but still given assent to by the creature. Scripture is clear in many ways about our participation in the entire process.

This is evident, for example, in the supreme emphasis on works and what we do, in biblical passages having to do with Judgment Day. It’s apparent again in many passages asserting the existence of our own work even with regard to salvation:

Acts 2:40-41 And he testified with many other words and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.”
[41] So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. 

Philippians 2:12-13 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; [13] for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. 

1 Timothy 4:16 Take heed to yourself and to your teaching: hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

Also, we can note many passages that assert meritoriousness of human acts and differential rewards (something that Calvin vehemently denies):

Matthew 5:11-12 Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you. (cf. Mk. 9:41; Jas. 1:12; Rev. 2:10, 3:11-12)

Matthew 19:29 And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life. (cf. 19:21)

Luke 6:38 give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back. (cf. 6:35; Col. 3:23-24)

1 Corinthians 3:6-9 I planted, Apol’los watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. (cf. 3:14; 2 Cor. 9:6; 2 Tim. 4:8)

2 Corinthians 6:1 Working together with him, then, we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain.

Ephesians 6:8 knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. (cf. Matt. 16:27)

Hebrews 10:35 Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. (cf. 6:10; Matt. 20:4; 2 John 8)

11. Of the increase of faith by the preaching of the word.

This property our Lord showed to belong to the external word, when, in the parable, he compared it to seed (Mt. 13:4; Luke 8:15). For as the seed, when it falls on a deserted and neglected part of the field, can do nothing but die, but when thrown into ground properly laboured and cultivated, will yield a hundred-fold; so the word of God, when addressed to any stubborn spirit, will remain without fruit, as if thrown upon the barren waste, but when it meets with a soul which the hand of the heavenly Spirit has subdued, will be most fruitful. 

God’s grace causes all hearts to respond, but it is not without human cooperation. We have the free will to resist God’s grace. It is not irresistible, as Calvin and Calvinists teach.

But if the case of the seed and of the word is the same, and from the seed corn can grow and increase, and attain to maturity, why may not faith also take its beginning, increase, and completion from the word? Both things are admirably explained by Paul in different passages. For when he would remind the Corinthians how God had given effect to his labours, he boasts that he possessed the ministry of the Spirit (1 Cor. 2:4); just as if his preaching were inseparably connected with the power of the Holy Spirit, in inwardly enlightening the mind, and stimulating it. 

Exactly. There is the human-divine cooperation, or “working together” (as St. Paul expresses in 2 Cor 6:1):

1 Corinthians 2:4-5 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, [5] that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

But in another passage, when he would remind them what the power of the word is in itself, when preached by man, he compares ministers to husbandmen, who, after they have expended labour and industry in cultivating the ground, have nothing more that they can do. For what would ploughing, and sowing, and watering avail, unless that which was sown should, by the kindness of Heaven, vegetate? Wherefore he concludes, that he that planteth, and he that watereth is nothing, but that the whole is to be ascribed to God, who alone gives the increase. 

Of course. No one (including Catholics) who understands biblical soteriology in a non-Pelagian way disagrees with this.

The apostles, therefore, exert the power of the Spirit in their preaching, inasmuch as God uses them as instruments which he has ordained for the unfolding of his spiritual grace. Still, however, we must not lose sight of the distinction, but remember what man is able of himself to do, and what is peculiar to God.

Indeed. Now, if Calvin could only figure out that Catholics agree with him insofar as Pelagianism (man saving himself apart from God’s grace) is false . . . .


(originally 10-19-09)

Photo credit: Historical mixed media figure of John Calvin produced by artist/historian George S. Stuart and photographed by Peter d’Aprix: from the George S. Stuart Gallery of Historical Figures archive [Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]


November 10, 2018

I’ve already noted how He did this in the case of the rich young ruler: which passage appears immediately before the one we will shortly examine:

Now here is what our Lord and Savior and His disciples say after that famous incident:
Luke 18:26-30 (RSV) Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” [27] But he said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” [28] And Peter said, “Lo, we have left our homes and followed you.” [29] And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, [30] who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”
This is also biblical evidence in favor of the evangelical counsels, and the heroic sacrifices of priests, monks, and nuns, and any individual who voluntarily renounces anything good in and of itself, for the sake of the kingdom. St. Paul teaches: “The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife” (1 Cor 7:32b-33) and says that the single state would secure an “undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Cor 7:35).
The most striking thing in the passage above (one of many) is how the acts are directly tied to salvation itself.  It starts with an inquiry about salvation and how to attain it, and ends with a proclamation that those who do the things mentioned will receive eternal life. But it’s not a denial of the importance of accompanying faith (I hasten to add). I would contend that faith is clearly implied in the act or forsaking things in order to follow Jesus as a disciple (i.e., in the context of His three-year ministry).
That said, what is specifically mentioned is leaving things in order to follow Jesus (house, wife, brothers, parents, children) and “for the sake of the kingdom of God”. These are, of course, good works, but of a particular kind: penance or renunciation or voluntarily suffering for the kingdom. And they are meritorious: with rewards not only in heaven but also “manifold more in this time.”

All of this is very Catholic indeed, over against Protestant teaching, which renounces merit, good works as directly tied to justification and salvation (in grace and with faith), and also the notion of penance and redemptive suffering. But there it is in Scripture, and it is not an uncommon theme at all, as I have shown in several other related papers:

Paul vs. Calvin: “Doers of the Law” Will be Justified 


Armstrong vs. Collins & Walls #8: Heretical Tobit? (Alms & Salvation)

St. Paul on Grace, Faith, & Works (50 Passages)

Grace, Faith, Works, & Judgment: A Scriptural Exposition

Bible on Participation in Our Own Salvation (Always Enabled by God’s Grace) 

Bible on the Nature of Saving Faith (Including Assent, Trust, Hope, Works, Obedience, and Sanctification)

Justification: Not by Faith Alone, & Ongoing (Romans 4, James 2, and Abraham’s Multiple Justifications)

St. Paul’s Use of the Term “Gift” & Infused Justification

New Testament Epistles on Bringing About Further Sanctification and Even Salvation By Our Own Actions

Philippians 2:12 & “Work[ing] Out” One’s Salvation

“The Lord Helps Those Who Help Themselves” [National Catholic Register]


Photo credit: Calling of the Apostles (1481), by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


October 7, 2018

A Catholic correspondent wrote to me:
The person with whom I am debating is Jim McCarthy, author of The Gospel According to Rome. He quotes Dogmatic Theology for the Laity by Matthias Premm as follows, 

    It is universally accepted dogma of the Catholic Church that man, in union with the grace of the Holy Spirit must merit heaven by his good works . . . we can actually merit heaven as our reward . . . Heaven must be fought for; we have to earn heaven.

This is apparently from page 262. In the letter to me, Mr. McCarthy quoted this phrase in response to my saying that we Catholics do not believe that we earn heaven. The “earning” of heaven seems like strong language even when put in context of “in union with grace.” Others I have read specifically say we don’t earn heaven. I am wondering if there is a larger context to this quote or if this is a misquote or if this Matthias Premm is just plain wrong. 

I replied:

This is easily explained in context. I will give you that below. First, though: some preliminary observations. As usual, McCarthy (along with many other Calvinist anti-Catholics) is unwilling or unable to understand the relationship of human free will to God’s grace. We believe we can cooperate with God’s grace in order to “merit.” Yet that very merit is itself completely an act of God’s grace. Here is some more relevant information to consider:

The Second Council of Orange (529 A.D.), accepted as dogma by the Catholic Church, dogmatically taught in its Canon 7:

If anyone asserts that we can, by our natural powers, think as we ought, or choose any good pertaining to the salvation of eternal life . . . without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit . . . he is misled by a heretical spirit . . . [goes on to cite Jn 15:5, 2 Cor 3:5]

Likewise, the ecumenical Council of Trent (1545-63): Chapter 5, Decree on Justification:

. . . Man . . . is not able, by his own free-will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in His sight.

Canon I on Justification:

If anyone saith that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema.

The existence of a measure of human free will in order for man to cooperate with God’s grace does not reduce inevitably and necessarily to Semi-Pelagianism, as Luther, Calvin, and present-day Calvinists wrongly charge. The Catholic view is a third way. Our “meritorious actions” are always necessarily preceded and caused  and crowned and bathed  in God’s enabling grace. But this doesn’t wipe out our cooperation, which is not intrinsically meritorious in the sense that it derives from us and not God . . . Second Orange again:

The reward given for good works is not won by reason of actions which precede grace, but grace, which is unmerited, precedes actions in order that they may be accomplished meritoriously.

Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott describes the Catholic view:

As God’s grace is the presupposition and foundation of supernatural good works, by which man merits eternal life, so salutary works are, at the same time gifts of God and meritorious acts of man. (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books, 1974 [orig. 1952], 264)

St. Augustine wrote:

What merit of man is there before grace by which he can achieve grace, as only grace works every one of our good merits in us, and as God, when He crowns our merits, crowns nothing else but His own gifts? (Ep. 194, 5, 19; in Ott, 265)

The Lord has made Himself a debtor, not by receiving, but by promising. Man cannot say to Him, “Give back what thou hast received” but only “Give what thou hast promised.” (Enarr. in Ps 83, 16; in Ott, 267)

The concept of merit and its corollary reward is well-supported in Scripture (Mt 5:12; 19:17, 21, 29; 25:21; 25:34 ff.; Lk 6:38; Rom 2:6; 1 Cor 3:8; 9:17; Col 3:24; Heb 6:10; 10:35; 11:6; 2 Tim 4:8; Eph 6:8).

So, with that background, let’s look at the Premm quote (Dogmatic Theology for the Laity, Rev. Matthias Premm, Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books and Publishers, 1977 [orig. 1967, by the Society of St. Paul] in broad context (pp. 261-264 — emphasis in original — , with McCarthy’s citations bracketed and in blue):

In discussing the work of the Holy Spirit, we have seen that he sanctifies the world. We have shown how he sanctifies each individual [p. 262] soul by his actual and sanctifying grace, and his other gifts. Man, for his part, in order to arrive at full sanctification, must cooperate with the grace of the Holy Spirit through faith, hope, love of God and neighbor, and prayer; but he must also perform other ‘works.’ [It is universally accepted dogma of the Catholic Church that man, in union with the grace of the Holy Spirit must merit heaven by his good works]. These works are meritorious only when they are performed in the state of grace and with a good intention . . .Through these and similar works [we can actually merit heaven as our reward]. There are few truths so infallibly attested by Scripture. Christ himself has promised: ‘Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven’ (Matt 5:12) . . .

[Premm goes on to cite 1 Cor 3:14; Heb 10:35; 2 Cor 9:6; Matt 16:27; [p. 263] Mk 9:41; Heb 6:10; Matt 20:4; 2 Tim 4:6-8]

. . . . The Catholic Church was right in maintaining against Luther, at the Council of Trent, that heaven is merited by our good works, because this is the clear teaching of revelation. “We have shown that according to Holy Scripture the Christian can actually merit heaven for himself by his good works. But we must realize that these works have to be performed in the state of grace and with a good intention . . .

Jesus himself tells his disciples: ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me (by the state of grace), and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit (for heaven). If a man does not abide in me (by mortal sin) . . . he can do nothing’ – he can bear no fruit for heaven; just as the branch that is cut off from the vine cannot produce any grapes.

By sanctifying grace we are children of God. Only by sanctifying grace do we have a right to heaven as our heritage. By purely natural good acts, such as even the sinner can perform, heaven cannot be merited as a reward; we must be in the state of grace, a child of God. Only after human nature has been united to God by grace and raised up above it’s own nature can good acts, which proceed from this supernaturally elevated nature, be directed towards the possession of God in the hereafter. Only in this way can we merit the vision of God in heaven, since it completely surpasses the powers of our pure human nature.

By sanctifying grace we become living members of the mystical body of Christ, one with Christ our Head. Thus our acts become acts of Christ, who, in an incomprehensible way, is living and working in [p. 264] his members. Through this intimate union with Christ, our Mediator before the Father, we merit the happiness of heaven.

Finally, sanctifying grace makes us temples of the Holy Spirit, who compels us to good works (Rom 8:14). St. Francis de Sales writes that the Holy Spirit performs good works in us with such consummate skill that the works belong more to him than to us. He works with us and we work with him. In this activity we use our free will. By our free will we submit all our human activity to the grace and will of God. By this act of reverence and worship, our good acts redound to the glory of God. Our will could also take a stand against God’s will, and commit sin.

[Heaven must be fought for; we have to earn heaven]

I don’t see the preceding quote anywhere in the immediate context (I may have missed it), but it is entirely consistent with Premm’s other statements, and the understanding of merit and salvation outlined above. Thus, the meaning of the passage is quite different in context. Premm is absolutely orthodox. By isolating sentences (the classic and quintessential anti-Catholic methodology) which emphasize man’s cooperation and effort, it appears that McCarthy had hoped to leave a false impression that we believe we can get to heaven on our own power, pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, without God’s enabling grace. But this is the heresy of Pelagianism, which both Catholic dogma and Premm (even in immediate context) clearly condemn.

This is, therefore, apparently deliberate misrepresentation on McCarthy’s part, and that is a serious sin — a violation of the Ten Commandments and even basic pagan and secular ethical precepts. Whatever McCarthy or other anti-Catholics think of our theology, their own Christian tradition (as well as Jesus Himself) condemn them for slander and lying, whether we are Christian “brothers” or not, in their thinking. As we indeed are their brothers in Christ, their sin is all the greater. McCarthy’s polemical anti-Catholic video has also been clearly shown by Catholic apologetics magazine This Rock to be slanderous and grossly inaccurate. Let us hope and pray that he will repent, for his sake, and for the sake of the thousands he is leading astray.

James 3:1 (RSV) Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.


(originally 1997)

Photo credit: George Washington, as a boy, telling his father Augustine Washington that it was he who cut down the cherry tree. This lithograph was engraved in 1867 by John C. McRae after a painting by G. G. White. [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


June 19, 2018

Good discussion on how “merit” is defined and understood by the Catholic Church. Many misconceptions are cleared up.
This exchange was originally from the Pontifications blog. Chris Jones’ words will be in green; Nathan’s in blue.
* * * * *

To distinguish is not to separate, and Sola Fide does not separate justification and sanctification. It does distinguish them, precisely in order to clarify that it is the work of Christ that is the sole ground of our salvation – not any of our works, either before or after regeneration. This in turn allows us to afford the works of faith their proper role in sanctification, without allowing those works to be regarded as contributing any merit towards our salvation. This (regarding our works as meritorious towards salvation) is the key error of the Tridentine soteriology.

I have a post (Forensic justification, imputed righteousness, and theosis) on my weblog from a few months ago which expands on this. I invite your comments on it. 

Chris, I did read your post referenced above. You wrote in it:

In the end, it is all one: justification is sanctification is salvation. Salvation is accomplished by His all-sufficient sacrifice, and worked out in our lives with our cooperation with grace, by grace.

But this is the Catholic position (a very eloquent statement of it, I might add), so if you somehow think it is not, then you are laboring under a misconception. The good news is that Catholic soteriology is closer to what you say is the Lutheran position than you supposed. That is, it would be “good news” if you desire more doctrinal unity and better mutual understanding among Christians, as I do. Catholic “merit” would pretty much be the equivalent of “cooperation” above.

You cannot earn your salvation … (because you are justified by faith) … but you must most assuredly work for it (because, being justified, you are to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, doing by grace the works that God has prepared for you to walk in).

This would also be identical with the Catholic position, with one revision: change “faith” into “grace.” “Work out” above would be the equivalent of our “merit.” We are given grace to work: that work is in turn meritorious because of (and ultimately only because of) the grace given to us by God to enable us to do them in the first place. Our view is exactly that of Augustine’s in this regard.

So what is it that you claim we disagree on here besides the usual endlessly-discussed abstract differences (“are works organically connected to salvation or are they merely done in gratefulness to God for an already-received salvation,” etc.) which I personally find boring. I think Lutheran and Catholic soteriology is actually quite close. It is the “faith alone” part that is different and un-patristic.

I think what Chris Burgwald wrote recently in another forum likely applies to a considerable degree to this present discussion:

My doctoral dissertation . . . [was] on justification in Lutheran-Catholic dialogue, and found — with plenty of others who have gone before me — that many apparently theological disagreements between traditions boiled down to differing theological languages & thought-forms. In other words, there are instances in which things could have been cleared up simply if each side recognized that the other was using a term or concept in a manner different from their own usage.

Sounds much like the filioque controversy, doesn’t it?

I am arguing that there is a true and fairly significant difference regarding “faith alone” in its abstract sense but there is great commonality between Catholics and Lutherans in terms of sola gratia, non-Pelagianism, the necessity of works in the Christian life (however it is construed), the organic relationship of faith and works, per James, rejection of antinomianism and double predestination, etc. One of the sticking-points seems to be merit, but I believe that the Catholic doctrine is possibly being misunderstood by some, and I would like to see clarification on that, myself.

But this is the Catholic position (a very eloquent statement of it, I might add)

Thank you for your kind words. My intent in the post I linked to was to acquit the Eastern Orthodox of teaching salvation by works; if it acquits the Roman Catholics of it into the bargain, so much the better.

But I must confess that I doubt it. Nothing about Orthodox synergism implies that any of our cooperation with grace makes us deserving of salvation; but the plain sense of canon 32 of Trent, which I cited above, says precisely that. Your simple equation of “merit” and “cooperation” does not do justice to the substance of the points at issue. The Lutheran Confessions (FC SD II.65ff) speak of cooperation in terms similar to the canons of 2d Orange and the (Eastern Orthodox) Confession of Dositheos; but none of these teaches, as Trent does, that this cooperation merits our salvation.

Alright; let’s try this again. What is the difference between (any of) the following statements?:

Chris: “In the end, it is all one: justification is sanctification is salvation. Salvation is accomplished by His all-sufficient sacrifice, and worked out in our lives with our cooperation with grace, by grace.”

Trent: Decree on Justification, Chapter Five: “. . . without any merits existing on their parts, they are called; that so they, who by sins were alienated from God, may be disposed through His quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace: in such sort that, while God touches the heart of man by the illumination of the Holy Ghost, neither is man himself utterly without doing anything while he receives that inspiration, forasmuch as he is also able to reject it; yet is he not able, by his own free will, without the grace of God, to move himself unto justice in His sight. Whence, when it is said in the sacred writings: Turn ye to me, and I will turn to you, we are admonished of our liberty; and when we answer; Convert us, O Lord, to thee, and we shall be converted, we confess that we are prevented by the grace of God.”

Trent: Canon I on Justification: “If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema.”

2nd Orange, Canon 20: “Man does no good except that which God brings about that man performs.”

2nd Orange, Canon 9: “As often as we do good, God operates in us and with us, so that we may operate.”

St. Augustine: “What merit of man is there before grace by which he can achieve grace, as only grace works every one of our good merits in us, and as God, when He crowns our merits, crowns nothing else but His own gifts?” (En. in Ps. 102,7; cited in full agreement by the Catholic Catechism at the beginning of its section on “Merit”: #2005-2006: “in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts”)

Catholic Catechism (#2007): “With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man.”

Catholic Catechism (#2008): “The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.”

Catholic Catechism (#2009): “Filial adoption, in making us partakers by grace in the divine nature, can bestow true merit on us as a result of God’s gratuitous justice. This is our right by grace, the full right of love, making us ‘co-heirs’ with Christ and worthy of obtaining ‘the promised inheritance of eternal life.’ The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness. ‘Grace has gone before us; now we are given what is due. . . . Our merits are God’s gifts.’ [Augustine] ”

Catholic Catechism (#2011): “The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace.”

Martin Luther: “We must therefore certainly maintain that where there is no faith there also can be no good works; and conversely, that there is no faith where there are no good works. Therefore faith and good works should be so closely joined together that the essence of the entire Christian life consists in both.” (in Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther, 246)

Matthew 5:12: “your reward is great in heaven” [when you are persecuted and lied about]

Matthew 19:21: “go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven . . .”

Philippians 2:12-13: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Now, what is the difference between any of these statements (i.e., the biblical and Lutheran ones over against the supposedly different Catholic ones)? I don’t see any. Perhaps you’ll be so kind as to point out where it is. If you are determined to find Pelagianism under every “Catholic rock,” when in fact is isn’t there, then you’ll “find” it by forcing it into the texts, I suppose, but nevertheless, it still isn’t there. Yet the Lutheran confessions falsely accuse us of it.

It is true, that despite seemingly miniscule differences, if any, here, Lutherans and Catholics find it difficult to totally agree on this. Hence, the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Statement on Justification by Faith (my statement is from a 1985 book, which may be an earlier draft) acknowledges:

Thus the essential intentions behind both the Catholic doctrine of merit ex gratia and the Lutheran doctrine of promise may be compatible, but the two sides have difficulty in finding a common language . . . Lutherans are primarily intent on stressing the saving character of the unconditional promises God addresses to human beings and on preventing Christians from being left to their own resources, whereas the Catholic preoccupation is to make sure that the full range of God’s gifts, even the crowning gift of a merited destiny, is acknowledged. Both concerns reflect aspects of the gospel, but the tension nevertheless remains. (section 112 of “Merit”)

I don’t think it is worth fighting over (yet here I am clarifying how I think there is little difference because I do think it is important to show that there is scarcely any difference here). Catholics are not Pelagians and Lutherans aren’t antinomians. We meet in the sensible middle ground, with some difference in abstract nuance, terminology, and emphasis.

I have been very clear on where I part company with the Roman Catholic Church on this issue: canon 32 of the Tridentine decree on justification. The Catholic position, as I understand it, is that, apart from grace, we are unable to earn our salvation; but grace is given in order that we may be enabled to earn our salvation. When canon 32 says that “the justified, by the good works which he performs … truly merit[s] increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life”, that tells me that grace is given so that we may come to deserve eternal life, on account of the good works that grace enables us to do.

That’s the difference: one view is that we receive eternal life by grace, because we can never deserve it or earn it; the other view is that we receive grace so that we can and do earn, and deserve, eternal life. Canon 32 of Trent teaches the latter view. Orthodoxy does not teach that; 2d Orange does not teach that; and the Lutheran Confessions do not teach that. You may regard that as a “miniscule difference”; I do not. 

If the merit itself is entirely a gift of God and only possible because of God’s grace, and all merit is, is God crowning His own gifts (Augustine, and echoed by the Catechism), then where is the beef? I continue to not see any essential difference.

Your problem is that you are unnecessarily and unbiblically dichotomizing. You insist on isolating man’s merit so that it will appear to be a man’s salvation: the dreaded salvation by works that the Lutheran confessions think they see in Trent and Catholicism, and not a free gift of God. But our theology takes the greatest pains to emphasize that this is not what the teaching means. If you say that Augustine was correct on this, and we specifically agree with him in our explication of merit, then we agree with you! It’s simple logic:


1. Chris (A) agrees with St. Augustine’s teaching (B) on merit.

2. The Catholic Church (C) agrees with St. Augustine’s teaching (B) on merit.

3. Therefore, Chris (A) agrees with the Catholic Church (C) with regard to merit.

A = B
B = C
A = C

You want to quibble over the terminology of “deserve” and “earn” and “merit” and “reward” – as if those things are utterly foreign to a biblical worldview as concerns salvation? That won’t fly, because Scripture is clear:

2 Timothy 4:8: I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award me on that Day . . .

Matthew 19:29: And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.

Luke 6:38: give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.

1 Corinthians 3:6-9: I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. (cf. 2 Cor. 9:6)

1 Corinthians 3:14: If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. (cf. Mk 9:41)

1 Corinthians 9:24-27: Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

Ephesians 6:8: knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. (cf. Matt 16:27)

Colossians 3:23-24: Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you are serving the Lord Christ.

Hebrews 6:10: For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love which you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do. (cf. Matt. 20:4)

Hebrews 10:35: Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.

Hebrews 11:6: And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

James 1:12: Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him.

2 John 8: Look to yourselves, that you may not lose what you have worked for, but may win a full reward.

Revelation 2:10: Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.

Revelation 3:11-12: I am coming soon; hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. He who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God; never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.

The notion of merit is also taught by the Church fathers:


St. Justin Martyr (d. c. 165)

We have learned from the prophets and we hold it as true that punishments and chastisements and good rewards are distributed according to the merit of each man’s actions. Were this not the case, and were all things to happen according to the decree of fate, there would be nothing at all in our power. If fate decrees that this man is to be good and that one wicked, then neither is the former to be praised nor the latter to be blamed. (First Apology 43 [A.D. 154])

St. Theophilus of Antioch (late 2nd cent.)

He who gave the mouth for speech and formed the ears for hearing and made eyes for seeing will examine everything and will judge justly, granting recompense to each according to merit. To those who seek immortality by the patient exercise of good works [Rom. 2:7], he will give everlasting life, joy, peace, rest, and all good things, which neither eye has seen nor ear has heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man [1 Cor. 2:9]. For the unbelievers and the contemptuous and for those who do not submit to the truth but assent to iniquity . . . there will be wrath and indignation [Rom. 2:8]. (To Autolycus 1:14 [181])

St. Irenaeus (d.c. 202)

[Paul], an able wrestler, urges us on in the struggle for immortality, so that we may receive a crown and so that we may regard as a precious crown that which we acquire by our own struggle and which does not grow upon us spontaneously. . . . Those things which come to us spontaneously are not loved as much as those which are obtained by anxious care. (Against Heresies 4:37:7 [196])

St. Cyprian

[Y]ou who are a matron rich and wealthy, anoint not your eyes with the antimony of the devil, but with the collyrium of Christ, so that you may at last come to see God, when you have merited before God both by your works and by your manner of living. (Works and Almsgivings 14 [253])

St. Cyril of Jerusalem

The root of every good work is the hope of the resurrection, for the expectation of a reward nerves the soul to good work. Every laborer is prepared to endure the toils if he looks forward to the reward of these toils. (Catechetical Lectures 18:1 [350])

St. Jerome

It is our task, according to our different virtues, to prepare for ourselves different rewards. . . . If we were all going to be equal in heaven it would be useless for us to humble ourselves here in order to have a greater place there. . . . Why should virgins persevere? Why should widows toil? Why should married women be content? Let us all sin, and after we repent we shall be the same as the apostles are! (Against Jovinian 2:32 [393])

St. Augustine

He bestowed forgiveness; the crown he will pay out. Of forgiveness he is the donor; of the crown, he is the debtor. Why debtor? Did he receive something? . . . The Lord made himself a debtor not by receiving something but by promising something. One does not say to him, “Pay for what you received,” but “Pay what you promised”. (Explanations of the Psalms 83:16 [405])

We are commanded to live righteously, and the reward is set before us of our meriting to live happily in eternity. But who is able to live righteously and do good works unless he has been justified by faith? (Various Questions to Simplician 1:2:21 [396])

What merits of his own has the saved to boast of when, if he were dealt with according to his merits, he would be nothing if not damned? Have the just then no merits at all? Of course they do, for they are the just. But they had no merits by which they were made just. (Letters 194:3:6 [418])

What merit, then, does a man have before grace, by which he might receive grace, when our every good merit is produced in us only by grace and when God, crowning our merits, crowns nothing else but his own gifts to us? (Ibid., 194:5:19)

St. Prosper of Aquitaine

Indeed, a man who has been justified, that is, who from impious has been made pious, since he had no antecedent good merit, receives a gift, by which gift he may also acquire merit. Thus, what was begun in him by Christ’s grace can also be augmented by the industry of his free choice, but never in the absence of God’s help, without which no one is able either to progress or to continue in doing good. (Responses on Behalf of Augustine to the Articles of Objections Raised by his Calumniators in Gaul 6 [431-432])

Second Council of Orange

[G]race is preceded by no merits. A reward is due to good works, if they are performed, but grace, which is not due, precedes, that they may be done. (Canons on Grace 19 [529])

Your problem, then, is not only with the Catholic Church, but also with the Bible and with the Church fathers. You disagree? Then I would be very curious to see how you would interpret the above Scripture and patristic citations.

Hello. I am just getting caught up in this discussion. I like how much everyone around here thinks so much.

No doubt, too much for our own good. LOL

I think I understand these issues and perspectives pretty well and am looking to, as you say, really get a handle on the practical differences. Let me put forward what I think is the ultimate biggee, and which is the actual root of the whole faith vs “faith and good works” debate: present assurance that one is in a state of grace.

Now that is a good way to put it: saying “assurance that one is in a state of grace” rather than “assurance that one has achieved eschatological salvation.” On this we can all agree.

I realize that this is introducing what may seem to be a new topic here, but I doubt this is the case – I think everything in the Christian life really comes down to this.

. . . I submit the primary difference is that, for Luther, truly good works before God can only come about when a person is certain that in Christ he already has full salvation and is merely working it out.

How can one “have” something yet still be working it out? If they have it, it makes no sense to keep working on obtaining it. And if they are working to obtain it, obviously they don’t have it yet. If you’re courting a woman in the hopes of winning her over, you don’t have her yet, do you?! But if you “have” her (ring, wedding date, etc.), then you’re not still courting; you are now planning. You’re no longer “dating to figure out”; rather, you are “figuring out a date.” :-) So the statement above is incoherent. Insofar as it truly represents Lutheran or Reformed thought, they are incoherent, too.

In other words, this person has absolute confidence that because of the completed work of Christ on the cross, if they were to drop dead at that very moment, they would die in a state of grace – ie, they would at the very least make it to purgatory, which of course means that they would eventually make it to heaven. Only when a person has a trust or confidence in Christ in this way does He perform any work that is pleasing to God.

This is a relatively better way to put it, because you are talking about “right now” rather than in the remote future. We simply don’t know the future, but we can have a significant assurance in the present, and this is where Lutheranism and Catholicism converge — again in a practical sense. There will always be differences in abstraction surrounding these issues. People want to argue endlessly over those, whereas I am much more concerned about practical implications for living the Christian life and faithfully serving Jesus.

Secondly, though Luther is wrong to say that no work can be good at all unless a person is “saved,” etc., it is a true that any good that can come from a work must be because the performer is in a state of grace. This is Catholic teaching, too. Hence, Matthias Premm, in his Dogmatic Theology for the Laity (New York: Society of St. Paul / Alba House, 1967; reprinted by TAN Books and Publishers, 1977, 263-264):


By sanctifying grace we are children of God. Only by sanctifying grace do we have a right to heaven as our heritage. By purely natural good acts, such as even the sinner can perform, heaven cannot be merited as a reward; we must be in the state of grace, a child of God. Only after human nature has been united to God by grace and raised above its own nature can good acts, which proceed from this supernaturally elevated nature, be directed towards the possession of God in the hereafter. Only in this way can we merit the vision of God in heaven, since it completely surpasses the powers of our pure human nature.

By sanctifying grace we become living members of the mystical body of Christ, one with Christ our Head. Thus our acts become acts of Christ, who, in an incomprehensible way, is living and working in his members. Through this intimate union with Christ, our Mediator before the father, we merit the happiness of heaven.

[this also ties into theosis, which I have written about: Theosis and the Exalted Virgin Mary]

Finally, sanctifying grace makes us temples of the Holy Spirit, who compels us to good works (Rom 8:14). St. Francis de Sales writes that the Holy Spirit performs good works in us with such consummate skill that the works belong more to him than to us. He works with us and we work with him . . .

For our works to be meritorious, it is not enough that they proceed from the state of grace; they must also be done with a good intention . . . good works must proceed from faith and love, and must be directed to the honor and glory of God . . . (1 Cor 10:31).

To clarify further: our works, which God has given to us to do in Christ in His grace, only merit imperishable heavenly rewards, not heaven (ie, the relationship with God – knowing God – see John 17:3) itself.

In the sense that we are saved by grace through the cross, absolutely. As I have argued, merit is only comprehensible if it is understood to be itself a gift of God’s grace: God crowning His own grace.

So Chris in #74 is right on with his comments: “that tells me that grace is given so that we may come to deserve eternal life, on account of the good works that grace enables us to do.” (note its “eternal life” that he’s talking about). I also note that all of the Biblical and Patristic citations you note, only talk of rewards, but not eternal life (ie, the relationship with God itself, certain now and after death of course). Interesting…

I still await Chris’s reply to my many biblical citations and patristic evidences. But in any event: first of all, your generalization is simply not true. It’s not possible to make a complete dichotomy between works and the rewards of heaven itself and of differential rewards in heaven. This must always be understood in the above sense, as elaborated upon by Premm (and as St. Augustine taught): works as the fruit of grace and good intentions: simultaneously God’s and our own works.

In the passages I cited, one notes that there is scarcely a word about faith alone, assurance, and other Lutheran/Protestant distinctives. That’s all you want to talk about as regards salvation, yet the Bible approaches the subject very differently. It is almost always tying works in somehow with salvation.

To drive the point home, I see it is time to again make a Revised Protestant Version of the Bible (RPV), to illustrate how St. Paul and other biblical writers got it wrong, and should have taken a crash course at a RPC or LCMS or Southern Baptist seminary, so that he would know how to present salvation in the appropriate terms. So how should the above passages read if Protestants are right on this matter?:

2 Timothy 4:8 (RPV): I have striven to achieve faith alone, I have finished the race of gratefulness for faith alone, I have kept to the dogma of faith alone. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award me on that Day . . .

Matthew 19:29 (RPV): And every one who has believed in faith alone and absolute assurance of salvation, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.

Luke 6:38 (RPV): believe, and salvation will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the faith you believe will be the salvation you get back.

1 Corinthians 3:6-9 (RPV): I believed, Apollos had faith, but God gave the salvation. So neither he who believes nor he who preaches the gospel is anything, but only God who gives salvation. He who believes and he who has faith are equal, and each shall receive salvation according to his acceptance of faith alone. For we are not God’s fellow workers; you are a snow-covered dunghill. (cf. 2 Cor. 9:6)

1 Corinthians 3:14 (RPV): If the faith which any man has believed on the foundation survives, he will receive salvation. (cf. Mk 9:41)

1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (RPV): Do you not know that in life all men compete, but only the one who exercises faith alone receives salvation? So believe that you may obtain it. Every good Protestant exercises faith in faith and faith in absolute assurance of salvation. They do it to receive salvation. Well, I do not believe aimlessly, I do not believe as one beating the air; but I work only out of gratefulness to God for salvation already obtained, lest after failing to exercise faith alone I myself should be damned.

Ephesians 6:8 (RPV): knowing that however much faith alone one musters up, he will receive salvation from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. (cf. Matt 16:27)

Colossians 3:23-24 (RPV): Whatever your denomination, believe heartily, as believing in the Lord and not men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you are serving the Lord Christ.

Hebrews 6:10 (RPV): For God is not so unjust as to overlook your faith and the love which you showed for his sake in believing in him, as you still do. (cf. Matt. 20:4)

Hebrews 10:35 (RPV): Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which proves you are saved.

Hebrews 11:6 (RPV): And without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and have absoloute assurance that he is saved.

James 1:12 (RPV): Blessed is the man who strongly believes with faith alone, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him.

2 John 8 (RPV): Look to God, because you cannot lose what you have believed in, and must win salvation.

Revelation 2:10 (RSV): Believe with faith alone unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.

Revelation 3:11-12 (RPV): I am coming soon; hold fast to your faith, so that no one may seize your assurance. He who believes in faith strongly enough, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God; never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.

Moreover, it is also true that in every passage I could find which discussed judgment at the end of time, works were discussed and regarded as the criteria for entrance into eternal life, not faith at all. Surely this must be significant. This is how God (not the Council of Trent) chose to present the matter. See: Final Judgment & Works (Not Faith): 50 Passages.

Not to get off topic at all here though – I want to talk about and rivet on assurance. From what I’ve read and from my email conversations with Catholics, this is the huge elephant in the room. Dave, can you tell me what your view of assurance of salvation looks like?

. . . my question is – and I think its somewhat connected to your thoughts in this quote above and probably essentially at issue in the justification-works debate – how do you, as someone who is serious about Catholic teaching, understand the issue of assurance of salvation?

As I noted above, practically speaking, Lutherans and Catholics have substantial agreement (the greater difference is between either of us and Calvinists, with their double predestination). I feel no less “confident” of my ultimate salvation than I did as a Protestant, when I believed (much like the Baptist eternal security position) that nothing could take my salvation away except a literal rejection and trampling upon Christ.

The Catholic believes that he has a “moral assurance” by examining his conscience and life to determine whether he is in mortal sin or not. If he is not, he has every bit as much of an assurance at that moment of heaven as any Protestant, no matter what the Protestant claims.

If we are in good graces with God right now, then we can be confident that if we die right now, we will be saved (though we probably will have to endure purgatory before we get to heaven). We can’t know the future. We can’t know for sure whether we will fall away from this faith in Jesus and belief in Him. We are constantly warned in Scripture to be vigilant against falling away, which doesn’t jive with “absolute assurance”:


I would argue that this Catholic approach is precisely that of the Apostle Paul. I cited my friend Al Kresta in my book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism (p. 41):


Unlike the modern evangelical Protestant revivalistic preaching tradition, the Apostle Paul was not preoccupied with his acceptance as a sinner before a holy and righteous God. That was Luther’s crisis. Protestants have tended to read Paul through the lens of Luther’s experience.

1. . . . Luther said he feared God but clung to the Apostle Paul. All the constitutive elements of the classic Luther-type experience, however, are missing in both the experience and the thought of the Apostle.

Unlike Luther, Paul was not preoccupied with his guilt, seeking reassurance of a gracious God. He was rather robust of conscience, even given to boasting, untroubled about whether God was gracious or not (Philippians 3:4 ff.; 2 Corinthians 10, 11). He knew God was gracious. He never pleads either with Jews or Gentiles to feel an anguished conscience and then receive release from that anguish in a message of forgiveness . . . Paul’s burden is not to “bring people under conviction of sin” as in revival services. Forgiveness is simply a matter of fact.

When Paul speaks of himself as a serious sinner, it is . . . very specifically because . . . he had persecuted the church and missed God’s new move – opening the covenant community to the Gentiles (1 Corinthians 15:9-10; Ephesians 3:8; Galatians 1:13-16; 1 Timothy 1:13-15).

What is now set right in his life is not that he is no longer trying to work his way to heaven, abandons self-exertion and now trusts Christ; it is rather that he now sees that God has inexplicably chosen him to reveal this new and more inclusive covenant community made up of Jew and Gentile . . . (Ephesians 2:11-3:6).

2. Paul’s arguments against works of the law are not fundamentally arguments against human participation in or human cooperation with the saving purposes of God but arguments against Judaistic pride that sought to define membership in the covenant community by reference to Jewish marks of identity, such as circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, etc. and not fundamentally faith in Jesus as Messiah . . .

Again, this, I think – is really all about assurance. Dave — I have listened to you (Catholic Answers) and read some of your stuff — it would be an honor to speak with you and get your expertise here. I’ve done a little research on the topic and had many conversations on it — but I really would love to get your take on it.

Well, you’re too kind. Hope my thoughts have been helpful to you, in order to work through the issues and rightly understand where we agree and disagree.


I still await Chris’s reply to my many biblical citations and patristic evidences.

And I still await your explanation why, if the Lutheran view of justification is now acknowledged to be identical to the Roman Catholic view, Dr Luther was excommunicated.

[I gave 50 reasons why Luther was excommunicated. As of five days after that was posted, not a peep has been heard in reply from Chris]

I haven’t the time to reply in detail to your biblical and patristic catena. You seem to have more time than I to produce voluminous and detailed comments. I’ll just make a few general remarks.

First of all, there is no “Protestant view”, nor is there a “Lutheran/Protestant” view. To the extent that such a thing as “generic Protestantism” could be identified and meaningfully spoken of, its essence is Reformed, not Lutheran. Your discussion of these matters does not seem to be based on an understanding of the differences between Lutheranism on the one hand, and the Reformed and their intellectual and theological heirs on the other.

I am a synergist; I recognize an appropriate role for human cooperation with grace in the economy of salvation. (There are some of my fellow Lutherans who take me to task for this; they are not as familiar with the Formula of Concord as they ought to be.) I believe that grace is absolutely necessary (against Pelagianism), and that it is both logically and temporally primary (against semi-Pelagianism). I recognize that the Catholic Church agrees with me about these things. This is the position that your Biblical and patristic catena establishes, and I agree with it.

But St Paul makes a distinction in 1 Co 3 between the foundation and what we build on it. That corresponds to the distinction (not separation) which we Lutherans make between justification and sanctification. When I deny that a man may, even by grace, come to “deserve” eternal life, I am saying that our works form no part of the “foundation” which St Paul talks about in 1 Co 3.10-11 (For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ). I do not see canon 32 of Trent as consistent with this.

I acknowledge that both Scripture and Fathers are rife with the language of “reward”. But what is that reward, which is said to follow from our works? Is it the forgiveness of sins? Is it eternal life? If those are now to be dependent on our works, what has become of grace? The ground of our forgiveness and of our eternal life is the work of Christ alone; and none of the Scripture, and none of the Fathers, that you have quoted says otherwise. But canon 32 of Trent does. 

Eric Phillips (like Chris Jones, a Lutheran) added:

If every merit a just man has is implanted in him by the grace of God, for Christ’s sake, then it is alien merit. He does not “truly merit” eternal life; Christ does, on his behalf. What is more, if the weakest brother and the greatest saint both get to heaven, though separated greatly in terms of their good works, it is clear that so far as the question of heaven is concerned (leaving to the side the fact attested to in most of your quotations, that reward in heaven will be greater for some than for others), the question of merit is purely binary: either one has been joined to Christ, or one has not. And this is why we confess sola fide, and see it as bound up inextricably with sola gratia.

We’ll have to agree to disagree. I continue to believe that we are closer on this than you make out, and I think that is a good thing (if true, as I believe it is). I don’t see the point in continuing to try to find differences where there really are none, or where they are insignificant except for “how many angels on a pin?” abstractions which make little difference in the Christian life. We can all unite on the following propositions:

1. We are saved by grace through faith.
2. Semi-Pelagianism is false.
3. We are not saved by works; we cannot save ourselves.
4. Good works are a necessary component in the Christian life, as we serve God and love our fellow man.
5. Sanctification is a necessary part of the Christian life.
6. Antinomianism and “cheap grace” are false.
7. We are “co-laborers” with God and must “work out our own salvation.”
8. Faith without works is dead.

Catholics and Orthodox and Protestants agree on all these things. We can quibble about merit and penance and faith alone and predestination and the nature of justification and apostasy and theosis and Methodist and pentecostal perfectionism, the spiritual gifts, and all the rest of the endless disputes all we like, but if we unite on these tenets, then there isn’t a bit of difference in our day-to-day Christian walk with Jesus, in the Spirit, united to God the Father in baptism, with God indwelling us, that all the other fine-tuned discussions make.

Go be a good Lutheran and I’ll try to be a good Catholic, and we can fully agree (I think) on the eight propositions above and rejoice in this agreement. I will continue to work for as much unity among Christians as I can find (even if not identical beliefs in some areas), and also point out differences (defending Catholicism, of course) where we disagree in good faith and all sincerity. I do both things: always have; always will.


(originally 4-2-06)

Photo credit: image of blue ribbon by Clker-Free-Vector-Images  (7-21-14) [Pixabay / CC0 Creative Commons license]


March 12, 2018

I’ve noticed these motifs coming up again and again in reviews of this book and in comments opposing critiques of it (such as my own):

Fallacy #1: Lawler’s Temperament: Phil Lawler is a mid-mannered, temperate, easy-going, moderate, non-fanatical, non-extremist, measured, deliberate, objective, non-reactionary, scholarly person.

Example: Dr. Samuel Gregg (The Catholic World Report, 3-2-18):

The power of Lawler’s narrative was derived from its calm tone, a meticulous attention to facts, a refusal to overstate or downplay how bad things were, . . . 

But one of his book’s strengths is that it tries, at every point, to give Francis the benefit of the doubt. In addition to avoiding the hyperbole, polemics, and more bizarre theories about Francis which populate some of the internet’s weirder outposts, Lawler prudently distinguishes between the pope’s words and actions, and the more flagrantly outrageous statements of some of the garrulous characters surrounding him.

This judicious approach won’t save Lawler from the barrage of insults, frenetic name-calling, splenetic tweets, conspiracy theories, and limp non sequiturs which, alas, we’re come to expect from some of Francis’s defenders.

Great. Glad to hear that Lawler is calm, cool, and collected. He’s the Catholic journalist equivalent of NBA star Stephen Curry. But this has exactly zero relation to the question of whether his arguments are correct or not. A person can outwardly be as mild-mannered as Clark Kent, but still believe in false things.
All this proves is that Person A has Temperament B. It doesn’t follow that Person A’s opinion on Issue X is correct because he possesses pleasant Temperament B. It’s sort of the reverse of the “poisoning the well” fallacy (Person A is wrong on Issue X because he is a scoundrel and overall rascal). That’s not true; nor is it true that a person’s opinions are true because the person may have favorable characteristics (a variant of the genetic fallacy, which is one of the large category of ad hominem attacks).

Fallacy #2: Lawler’s Reluctance: Phil Lawler took such a long time to arrive at his negative conclusions regarding Pope Francis, and was very reluctant to adopt it; therefore, his judgment is either a) true, or 2) more likely to be true.

Example: in his glowing Facebook review of Lawler’s book (12-23-17), Karl Keating stated:

Unlike some of the most vocal critics of this pope, Lawler took his time and gave him the benefit of every doubt. The result is 256 pages that lay out recent history well, without exaggeration or histrionics and with enough to substantiate Lawler’s reluctant conclusions.
This clearly has no relation to the truth of a given opinion or proposition. One could take a long time to come to any number of conclusions, and the chance that one is wrong (broadly speaking), is just as much as the chance that one is right. Cardinal Newman took about six years to become a Catholic. We Catholics obviously agree with his final judgment on that score. But of course there are Catholics who gradually forsake the faith, taking a long time to do it, and we disagree with their conclusion. In both cases, the length of time involved doesn’t in the least prove the conclusion arrived at. All it proves is that said person was careful, deliberate, and took his or her time to change their mind. We can say that that is admirable, but in any event, it doesn’t prove the correctness of the eventual conclusion.

One could turn this around, too, and say, for example, “Dave Armstrong remains unconvinced that Pope Francis is a ‘lost shepherd’ and the new Attila the Hun. He’s been studying and defending him for almost five years, and taking a great deal of time to arrive at a negative conclusion, because he is so deliberate and non-fanatical and not given to jumping to conclusions.” Thus far I haven’t come to the conclusion that Phil Lawler has. But (like what he is presently being praised to the skies for) I’m very careful in making judgments and changing my mind. Therefore, I am very much like Phil Lawler is said to be! Ergo, I should be praised for my reluctance, not excoriated for it.

After all, I may agree with Phil’s view in a few months’s time. If I do that, people will say, “See! Dave Armstrong took a long time to agree that the pope is Vlad the Impaler; therefore, his conclusion must be profoundly true!” I haven’t so concluded, but on the same basis that Lawler is lauded, I should be, too. Both views are entirely fallacious. The truthfulness of a proposition is based on evidence, reason, logic, and persuasive argumentation, not the care we may have taken to ultimately espouse the proposition.

Fallacy #3: Popularity / Currently Fashionable: Everyone and their third cousin’s banker and lawyer and psychiatrist agree with the conclusions of Lawler’s book, and the book is ripping up the Amazon Catholic charts; therefore it must be compelling and true!

This is, of course, the ad populum fallacy, or notion that a lot of people believe X; therefore it must be true. Lots of people believe lots of things, but they can still simply be wrong. People are sheep. They love to follow and believe what their friends are following and believing, so they can be popular and fit in with the crowd. It’s tough to go against the grain and be a nonconformist. That’s why very few people are that (and why we often celebrate the ones who are: as “glorious exceptions to the rule”).

It’s quite obvious and unarguable that people can be wrong en masse.  The consensus of scientists before Copernicus was that the sun went around the earth. They were wrong. The consensus of all the “smart people” and the pundits regarding the presidential election of 2016 was that Hillary Clinton would win. They were wrong. The vast majority of Germans in 1936 thought Hitler was great and was a positive influence in the future of their country. If we had polled scientists 50 years ago as to whether we would have discovered extraterrestrial life by now, I would venture to guess that 80-90% of them would have said yes. If so, they would have been wrong.

Right now, at least in certain circles, it’s very popular and fashionable to be “anti-Francis”: even though Pew Research informed us (January 2018) that Pope Francis has an 84% favorable rating in America. Just as the pope is not proven to be good and right due to the 84% approval, likewise, he’s not proven to be wrong and heretical because Phil Lawler’s book is the most popular thing since sliced bread, and because everyone’s currently jumping on the bandwagon, slobbering all over themselves, praising it. Neither thing is true, and it’s because they are both variants of the ad populum fallacy.


The alternative to all these logical fallacies (and others in play, too, no doubt) is to judge the book by its actual arguments. Very few of the gushing reviews do that. They make general statements in agreement, while not providing many (or, usually, any) particulars or reasons. I’ve written a series of reviews in which the actual evidence that Lawler produces for his conclusion that the pope is deliberately seeking to subvert Catholic tradition and teaching, is scrutinized (and found wanting). See all my efforts in this regard, listed in the final section of my Papacy and Infallibility web page. One person so far (Stephen Phelan) has actually examined and attempted to interact with my arguments (and only very briefly at that, and with gratuitous insults). I replied to him at length yesterday.
Phil Lawler himself made it clear (personally, to me) that he was not interested in interacting with my critiques: even before I wrote them. Yesterday I had a random encounter with him on Patrick Coffin’s public Facebook page. Here it is:

Phil Lawler: I responded at length to you, privately, about your critiques. You ignored my response, and continued to mischaracterize my ideas. That’s why I see no point in continuing an exchange.

Me: Hi Phil,

All your responses (unless I am forgetting something) were posted publicly on my page, and I replied. Here is the last public exchange, originally posted on my site and Karl Keating’s. I recall you sending a short note when you sent me the book file.

I don’t recall any lengthy personal letter about my critiques. I certainly would have responded, as you see I have been doing many times (the latest, today, vs. Stephen Phelan). It may be, then, that I never received a private lengthy letter. Was that sent in email or in a PM? By all means, send it again, and I will reply point-by-point and post everything on my blog (with your permission).

[after 14 minutes pass] Is this exchange already over, too, before it begins?

[after 89 more minutes] Phil Lawler: Don’t troll, Dave; you’re better than that.

So he claims he has answered my critiques and that I ignored them and keep mischaracterizing him. I say, please send it again; I never received it, and he refuses to do so. How compelling . . . How indicative of a strong confidence in his own position . . .

Later in the day, his wife, Leila, on her public Facebook page, repeated the same “attack and avoidance” mentality:

Leila Marie Lawler: As it happens, Dave Armstrong misrepresents Phil and doesn’t hesitate to ascribe opinions to him that are not supported by the text. So if you prefer something that is about one man’s desperate attempt to avoid reality, well there is nothing I can do about that. . . . He’s a good man. But he is very wrong about Phil’s book.

Me: I’d be glad to be shown where I am wrong, and will modify portions of my reviews accordingly, if this is demonstrated. Phil just claimed earlier today that he sent me a long private letter in response to my critiques that I ignored, continuing to supposedly misrepresent him.

I never received such a letter. I asked him to send it to me so that I can hear his thoughts and interact with them. Now he appears reluctant to send it. Why?

Leila Marie Lawler: Frankly, Dave, your comments here and elsewhere are amounting to trolling — I’ve already had to delete a comment on a post that was downright sneering — perhaps you will remember it, as it was a mean-spirited response to my request that people leave reviews on Amazon, which you had already done and yet found it important to sort of gloat at your negativity. If you continue this way, I will block you.

It is clear to anyone who reads all the comments here and on Phil’s posts that we are fine with comments and even with arguing. But this is too much. In answer to the comment above I have tried to be evenhanded and give you the benefit of the doubt. Yet you come on the very page where I am basically defending you, to be on the attack. I’m done.

So much for serious adult discussion with Phil and his wife! So it seems that there is no dialogue to be had about the actual merits of the arguments contained in the book. I’m trying to address those (at least some of them), and no one (save Stephen Phelan in a very limited way) is willing to have that discussion, including the author, who wants to make charges against me while studiously avoiding any serious, normal discussion with me: between two orthodox Catholic writers.

President Trump can talk to the madman dictator of North Korea, but two orthodox Catholic writers and authors cannot constructively dialogue with each other, because one of them is utterly unwilling to do so. As they say, “you can take the horse to the stream, but you can’t make it drink.”


Photo credit:  Promotional image of Leonard Nimoy as Spock from Star Trek: The Original Series (1967) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
January 16, 2018

Gleaners (Works)

Merit is, as St. Augustine said, “God crowning His own gifts.”

My understanding of Catholic soteriology is not that we are somehow coming up with a “righteousness of our own” at all. The Catholic Catechism cites this very utterance. We understand God’s grace and our appropriation of it, as of a piece (not opposed to each other), according to biblical verses such as the following:

1 Corinthians 3:8-9 He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

1 Corinthians 15:10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me. (cf. 15:58; Gal 5:6, 6:7-9)

Ephesians 2:10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Philippians 2:12-13 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (cf. Titus 3:5-8)

2 Peter 1:10 Therefore, brethren, be the more zealous to confirm your call and election, for if you do this you will never fall;

We argue that Protestants often make the mistake of an excessive either/or outlook, whereas the Bible presents a paradoxical picture of God doing all, but we ourselves participating in that “all” inasmuch as we are included (as every believer is) in God’s plans and His will. I think there is quite ample biblical justification for this (no pun intended), as seen above.

In fact, the Council of Trent, in its canons on justification, condemned the notion that there is any righteousness of our own apart from Jesus:

Canon 1 If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema.

Canon 2 If any one saith, that the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, is given only for this, that man may be able more easily to live justly, and to merit eternal life, as if, by free will without grace, he were able to do both, though hardly indeed and with difficulty; let him be anathema.

Canon 3 If any one saith, that without the prevenient inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and without his help, man can believe, hope, love, or be penitent as he ought, so as that the grace of Justification may be bestowed upon him; let him be anathema.

Canon 10 If any one saith, that men are just without the justice of Christ, whereby He merited for us to be justified; or that it is by that justice itself that they are formally just; let him be anathema.

One might describe the difference in approach as follows:

Reformed / Calvinist outlook: God does all, therefore it is senseless and heretical to speak of man doing anything as regards to grace and salvation, and to do so is at least a semi-Pelagian position, detracting from God’s sole work in salvation.

Catholicism / Bible / “Both / and” outlook: God does all and enables all, pertaining to grace and salvation, yet man can also cooperate with God and in a non-Pelagian sense “participate” in the process.


(originally 7-8-07)

Photo credit: The Gleaners (1857), by Jean-François Millet (1814-1875) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


October 16, 2017





[L]ove grows by works of love, and man becomes better . . . (The 95 Theses, #44; 31 October 1517; translated by C. M. Jacobs, 1915)

Sin and evil inclination must be recognized as truly sin; that it does not harm us is to be ascribed to the grace of God, Who will not count it against us if only we strive against it in many trials, works, and sufferings, . . . (Treatise on Baptism, Nov. 1519; translated by C. M. Jacobs, 1915)

But they who in such suffering trust God and retain a good, firm confidence in Him, and believe that He is pleased with them, these see in their sufferings and afflictions nothing but precious merits and the rarest possessions, the value of which no one can estimate. For faith and confidence make precious before God all that which others think most shameful, . . . (Treatise on Good Works, March 1520; translated by W. A. Lambert, 1915)

[W]e cannot boast of many merits and works, if they are viewed apart from grace and mercy, but as it is written, 1 Cor. 1:31: He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord, . . . (Smalcald Articles, 1537; Pt. III, Art. XIII; translated by W. H. T. Dau and F. Bente in 1921)


If you believe in Christ and in his advent, it is the highest praise and thanks to God to be holy. If you recognize, love, and magnify his grace and work in you, and cast aside and condemn self and the works of self, then are you a Christian. . . . Do you desire to be a part of the holy Christian church and communion of saints, you must also be holy as she is, yet not of yourself but through Christ alone in whom all are holy. (Sermon for the First Sunday in Advent; Matthew 21:1-9, 1521, tr. E. H. Caselmann; in Serm., v. 1)

For this life is nothing more than a life of faith, of love, and of sanctified affliction. But these three will never be perfect in us while we live here on earth, and no one possesses them in perfection except Christ. He is the sun and is set for our example, which we must imitate. For this reason there will always be found among us some that are weak, others that are strong, and again some that are stronger; these are able to suffer less, those more; and so they must all continue in the imitation of Christ. For this life is a constant progress from faith to faith, from love to love, from patience to patience, and from affliction to affliction. It is not righteousness, but justification; not purity, but purification; we have not yet arrived at our destination, but we are all on the road, and some are farther advanced than others. (A Sermon on Confession and the Lord’s Supper; 1524; in Serm., v. 2)

Christian experience . . . must feel and prove, must test and ascertain, whether one is prompted by a sincere and gracious will. He who perseveres and learns in this way will go forward in his experience, finding God’s will so gracious and pleasing he would not exchange it for all the world’s wealth. He will discover that acceptance of God’s will affords him more happiness, even in poverty, disgrace and adversity, than is the lot of any worldling in the midst of earthly honors and pleasures. He will finally arrive at a degree of perfection making him inclined to exchange life for death, and, with Paul, to desire to depart that sin may no more live in him, and that the will of God may be done perfectly in himself in every relation. In this respect he is wholly unlike the world; he conducts himself very differently from it. (Sermon for the First Sunday After Epiphany; Romans 12:1-6, 1525; in Serm., v. 7)

It is true of Christ’s kingdom that his Christians are not perfectly holy. They have begun to be holy and are in a state of progression. . . . we are in a state of progression; but during the progress much of the old and as yet untransformed nature is intermingled. (Sermon for the Fifth Sunday After Epiphany; Colossians 3:12-17, 1525; in Serm., v. 7)

. . . sanctification, deals with the work of the Holy Spirit. The people are to be taught to pray that God rule and protect us by his Holy Spirit, and are to be shown how weak we are and how miserably we fail if God does not draw us to himself and keep us through the Holy Spirit. (Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors in Electoral Saxony, Jan. 1528, tr. Conrad Bergendoff; in LW, v. 40)

[A]fter death sin will have completely passed away and then the Holy Spirit will complete his work and then my sanctification will be complete. . . . the Holy Spirit will sanctify me and is sanctifying me. . . . He begins to sanctify now; when we have died, he will complete this sanctification . . . (Sermons I, ed. and tr. John W. Doberstein; Sermon on the Creed, Dec. 1528; in LW, v. 51)

[T]he Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth . . . (Small Catechism, 1529; II; tr. W. H. T. Dau and F. Bente; in BC)

[B]y His grace we believe His holy Word and lead a godly life here in time and yonder in eternity. (Ibid., III)

[W]e have allowed the people to go their own merry way without amending and changing their lives. (Admonition Concerning the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Lord, Oct. 1530, tr. Martin E. Lehmann; in LW, v. 38)

[T]he entire man, both as to his person and his works, is to be called and to be righteous and holy from pure grace and mercy, shed upon us [unfolded] and spread over us in Christ. (Smalcald Articles, 1537; Pt. III, Art. XIII; tr. W. H. T. Dau and F. Bente; in BC)

For we need the Decalog not only because it tells us in legal fashion what we are bound to do, but also in order that we may see in it how far the Holy Ghost has brought us in His sanctifying work, and how much we still fall short, so that we may not become careless and think that we have now done all that is required. Thus we are constantly to grow in sanctification and ever to become more and more “a new creature” in Christ. . . . the Holy Ghost is here, and He sanctifies men’s hearts, and brings these fruits out of good, fine hearts, . . . (On the Councils and the Churches, March 1539; tr. C. M. Jacobs; in W5)

But life, which should daily direct, purify, and sanctify itself according to doctrine, . . . as long as it is in the process of purification and sanctification, . . . is graciously excused, pardoned, and forgiven for the sake of the word, through which it is healed and purified . . . (Against Hanswurst, April 1541, tr. Eric W. Gritsch; in LW, v. 41)

Abbreviations / Sources 

BC Book of Concord (Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church: German-Latin-English (Published in 1917 by resolution of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921; translated by W. H. T. Dau and F. Bente.

LW Luther’s Works, American edition, edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (volumes 1-30) and Helmut T. Lehmann (volumes 31-55), St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House (volumes 1-30); Philadelphia: Fortress Press (volumes 31-55), starting in 1955.

Serm. Sermons of Martin Luther, The Church Postils; edited and partially translated by John Nicholas Lenker, 8 volumes. Volumes 1-5 were originally published in Minneapolis by Lutherans of All Lands, 1904-1906. Volumes 6-8 were originally published in Minneapolis by The Luther Press, 1908-1909.

W5 Works of Martin Luther, Volume V (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Co. and The Castle Press: 1931).


Photo credit: image by “andibreit” (Nov. 2016) [Pixabay / CC0 Creative Commons license]


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