This is the third of three posts reflecting on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. In these reflections I’ve benefited tremendously from a book called Was the Reformation a Mistake?. In this book, Catholic scholar Matthew Levering and Protestant scholar Kevin Vanhoozer exchange ideas on a full array of issues. I have picked three that separate Catholics and Protestants, with the desire to – as much as is possible – dispassionately analyze what I think each side gets right and wrong. In the first post I looked at the matter of authority, and in the second post I examined the subject of baptism. In this third post I want to look at the topic of justification.

To set the stage for this post, let me begin by quoting two passages that mention justification. In Romans 3:28, the apostle Paul says that “one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” In James 2:24, the brother of the Lord says that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”  The tension between these two passages (and others like them) explains in part the difference between Catholics and Protestants on the issue of justification. Does God declare us “in the right” (that’s what justification means) on the basis of faith rather than works, as Paul seems to say, or do our works play a role in God’s declaration, as James asserts?

Before we tackle this question, let’s take a moment to look at the historical background to the issues raised by Luther and the other Reformers.

Luther and Indulgences

By the time of Martin Luther (1483-1546), Catholic teaching had developed two dogmas that are crucial to understand what sparked the Reformation. The first was the concept of Purgatory, a temporary state after death in which believers are purged from their sins before they go into the presence of God. The second was the sacrament of Penance, in which those who sin make some kind of restitution in order to reflect the change of heart that genuine repentance produces. One form such penance can take is charitable giving, reflecting (on this view) a selfless love that manifests a transformed heart. Such gifts are called Indulgences, and the practice is still a part of Catholic teaching:

“An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1471)

Combined with the notion that the body of Christ is the union of all Christians, dead and alive, Catholic teaching holds that indulgences may not only accrue benefit for the one who offers them, but also for other Christians – even those who are dead and going through the temporal punishments of Purgatory:

In the communion of saints, “a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things.” In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1475)

With this background in mind, here is what sparked Luther’s protests. A fellow Catholic priest named Johann Tetzel was commissioned by the Pope Leo to sell indulgences in Germany. In this particular case, the proceeds were to be devoted to building a basilica in honor of Peter. According to various accounts, Tetzel even created a “jingle” as part of his campaign:

“As soon as the coin in the coffer rings
The soul from Purgatory springs.”

In other words, by purchasing indulgences, you could offer satisfaction for the sins of loved ones in Purgatory.

This is what led Martin Luther to post his famous list of debate propositions (the Ninety-Five Theses). If you look them up, you will see that Luther had Tetzel in his crosshairs. Consider theses 27 and 28:

27. They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.

28. It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.

Luther began to question the much larger framework in which the practice of indulgences emerged, and eventually became convinced that the sacramental system of works was flawed, and that justification is by faith and not works. This led Luther to add the word “alone” to his translation of Romans 3:28: “for we reckon a man to be justified by faith alone without deeds of law.”

But what about James 2:24? Luther was troubled by this passage in light of his newfound understanding of justification by faith alone, so much so that he called the legitimacy of the Book of James into question. In his original preface to his translation of the New Testament, Luther referred to James as a “strawy epistle,” and disputed its apostolic authority.

So what are we to make of all this? Is there any room for Catholics and Protestants to find common ground on the issue of justification? I believe each “side” has something important to say. To see why, let’s look at how Paul and James can be reconciled.

Justification By Faith That Works

The teaching of Paul and James is complementary, not contradictory. In the first place, Paul is dealing with “justification” in the sense of God’s initial declaration of right standing. This is clear in Romans 4:3, where Paul refers to Abraham’s justification by faith toward the beginning of the story of the great patriarch in Genesis 15:6. James, on the other hand, is dealing with “justification” in the sense of vindication, the proof that God’s initial verdict was indeed correct. That’s why he alludes to a much later account from Abraham’s life – the offering of Isaac in Genesis 22 – to support his claim that Abraham was justified by works (James 2:21). Just as a defendant on trial may be found “not guilty” by the jury, and later on be vindicated by the discovery of new evidence, God’s declaration that Abraham was justified because of his faith in Genesis 15 was later vindicated by Abraham’s evidence of faithfulness in Genesis 22.

Second, Paul is talking about “faith” in the sense of the sinner’s initial trust in Christ for redemption, as Romans 3:24-25 makes clear. James, on the other hand, is not talking about those who are coming to Christ to be saved, but those who claim they already are saved, that they possess “faith.” They are professed Christians, in other words.

And third, when Paul speaks of “works,” he has something very specific in mind – the works of the Law of Moses (observances like circumcision, Sabbath keeping, and the dietary code). This is why his comments about faith and works in Romans 3:28 are followed by a reference to the Jew/Gentile divide:

 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. (Romans 3:28-30)

When James speaks of “works,” however, he does not have in mind the observances of the Law of Moses. He has in mind the visible demonstration of living faith, as the context of James 2 makes clear:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2:14-17)

And on this matter, Paul and James are in complete agreement. We do not earn our salvation – it is by grace and through faith. But salvation has a purpose – to make us new people, transformed by God’s grace to do good works. Those works are not the root of our salvation, by they are its fruit.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

In this text Paul says that the purpose of salvation by grace through faith is creation in Christ “for good works.” That is precisely what I think James is teaching in James 2. And, it turns out that this is something Catholics and Protestants can agree on.

Areas of Disagreement and Agreement

There are some aspects of the question of justification in which there is a great gulf fixed between Catholics and Protestants. In particular, the doctrines of Purgatory and Penance (and the corollary of Indulgences) are, from my point of view, unbridgeable gaps between Catholics and Protestants. It is hard for me to find any way to reconcile the practice of indulgences with the scriptural testimony regarding personal justification before God (2 Corinthians 5:10).

On the other hand, just as the language of Paul and James is more harmonious than may appear at first glance, I do think that Catholics and Protestants share a great deal in common on the relationship of works to justification. I found myself heartily in agreement with Matthew Levering’s summary of his understanding of justification:

The right relationship to God given by faith in Jesus Christ includes the indwelling Spirit and the transformation of the heart so that we do works of love…This does not mean that faith and justification are not the unmerited gifts of God; of course they are. It means only that, as the Lord foretold through the prophets, the cleansing from sin would be accompanied by a new “heart of flesh.” As Paul puts it, “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). (Was the Reformation a Mistake? p. 137-138)

Not only do I find common ground here, but others have as well. Over the last 20 years various Protestant traditions have concurred with a statement called the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, originally developed as a dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans. One paragraph of that statement says:

37. We confess together that good works – a Christian life lived in faith, hope and love – follow justification and are its fruits. When the justified live in Christ and act in the grace they receive, they bring forth, in biblical terms, good fruit. Since Christians struggle against sin their entire lives, this consequence of justification is also for them an obligation they must fulfill. Thus both Jesus and the apostolic Scriptures admonish Christians to bring forth the works of love.

It seems to me that the only Protestants who would disagree with this statement would be those who accept – for lack of a better term – the “easy-believism” all too common in pop evangelicalism. By this I mean the view that all a person has to do to be saved is offer a “sinner’s prayer,” and then that person is saved forever, regardless of any evidence of transformation or discipleship. Or, in the view of Charles Stanley, regardless of whether the person even continues to believe in Jesus! In his book, Eternal Security, Stanley says:

The Bible clearly teaches that God’s love for His people is of such magnitude that event hose who walk away from the faith have not the slightest chance of slipping from His hand. (p. 74)

I believe Paul, James, and Jesus would find this version of the gospel simply unrecognizable.

God does indeed take me “just as I am,” as the old hymn says. But his grace doesn’t leave me as I am. It changes me and transforms me. To the extent that Catholicism veers from the personal nature of this transformation with practices like indulgences, I believe it misses the mark. And to the extent that Protestantism ignores this transformation altogether, it misses the mark. We are saved by grace through faith and for good works, transformed by God’s grace into Christ-likeness, imperfectly now, and perfectly in eternity.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14)