Many today insist that the old Reformation divide between the Roman Catholic Church and Protestants (Lutherans, Anglicans, Reformed, and evangelical free Churches) over justification is over. The argument goes something like this: that today, given the ecumenical movement and threats to orthodox Christianity from liberal theology, LGBT, secularism, and other religions, we can see that Catholics and Protestants have now adopted congruent and complementary truths on justification. So, Protestants might stress grace and faith but do not deny the place of transformation and works in the Christian life, while Catholics might stress transformation and works, but do not deny grace and faith.
The problem with the view that Protestants and Catholics have adopted compatible truths on justification is that it ignores the vast structural and systematic differences between the two theological systems at a deep and significant level.
Let’s start with the Roman system. For Rome, according to the decree of the Council of Trent, justification is one doctrine among many, such as the Trinity and the authority of the Roman church. In Catholic theological view, “grace” as a substance to be imparted and infused into the human by God. It means an ontological change in the person. Grace merely adds to the work of God in creation.
For Rome, justification is the long process of salvation that starts with baptismal regeneration and ends when the human has become totally righteous (that is, after a long time in purgatory) and thereby fit for heaven. Of course, the human response of justification is based on “faith”, but “faith” is defined as mere “belief” in God and Catholic doctrines. “Faith” in the Roman sense is a human free-will choice. For the human, the journey to justification continues with “faith” (belief) being “formed” or completed by the internal transformation of the human soul, and good works, like love, through the sacraments of the church, the intercession of Mary and the Saints, leading to the godly person being made righteous and having “merit” or fit for heaven.
The Roman view is rather like seeing the human soul like a car. The car has a few scratches and dents in it (through sin) but is basically road worthy. The car needs weekly fuel top-ups through the infused grace of the sacraments of the Roman church. This car with its fuel top-up of grace, then is driven to heaven.
The Protestant view (as seen in Article XI and the Homily on Salvation) is radically different. Justification is not only one doctrine among many, the but the true doctrine that defines the real Gospel and tests all other doctrines. It is the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls. “Grace” is not a substance, but the merciful and benevolent favour of God in Christ to corrupt sinners who are deserving of hell. Before God’s judgement throne, the sinner is declared or imputed “right” or “justified” in God’s law-court because Christ’s external righteousness, since he has paid the penalty for sin, and clothed or imputed the sinner with his own righteousness. Justification is not an inner process, but God’s end-time verdict, which is brought forward in history. God’s great gift of justification is grasped by faith alone, excluding good works, human righteousness, free-will, religion, the church, merit, and anything else which is not Christ.
“Faith” is defined not as mere “belief” but is God’s gift, and means as a confident, personal, and relational “trust” with Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour., which unites us with him, and leads of life-transformation and assurance based on the external relationship with Jesus. The transformation of the believer is not based on an inner ontological change, but on a new relationship with the Jesus Christ who is outside of us, and yet to whom we are united.
The Christian is both justified and sinner, which does not merely mean that there is both godliness and sin in the Christian, but rather that, before God, the Christian is wholly and absolutely righteous, and yet is also wholly and absolutely the Sinner in need of divine mercy.
The Protestant view can be illustrated like this: the human soul is like motor car. But radical and original Sin means that we have crashed the car, and the car is a write-off. Yet the Christian is covered for the car-crash because of the guaranteed insurance policy taken out and paid for by Jesus Christ. All we need to do is trust the promise of the insurance policy.
The two positions outlined above are not simply different – they are radically incompatible in structural terms. They give different answers to different questions. Any one, like Michael Nazir-Ali, who has converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, and thinks that one can adopt both the Protestant and Catholic views, has just not realised the utter incompatibility of these two systems of the thought at the structural level. If one converts from Anglicanism to Rome, then you must, logically, repudiate the Protestant Gospel of justification, and anyone who converts from Rome to the Protestant view, must logically reject the Roman view. They are as different as chalk and cheese. Ultimately, they are different Gospels, and Paul maintains in Galatians 1–4 that a Gospel other than justification by faith alone is a false Gospel. That is what is at stake.
Dr Rohintan Mody, NT Lecturer, Evangelical Theological College of Asia, Singapore