Monthly Archives: November 2008

Did the Pope Really Say What I Think He Said?

Sola Fide

On Wednesday, November 19, 2008, during Pope Benedict’s general audience in St. Peter’s Square, the Pope made the most remarkable statement:

That is why Luther’s expression, sola fide, is true if faith is not opposed to charity, to love. Faith is to look at Christ, to entrust oneself to Christ, to be united to Christ, to be conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence, to believe is to be conformed to Christ and to enter into his love. That is why, in the Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul develops above all his doctrine on justification; he speaks of faith that operates through charity (cf. Galatians 5:14).

Read whole document.

In the Roman Catholic Church, this is the Year of the Apostle Paul. Pope Benedict XVI during this weekly audience is teaching the faithful about Paul’s life, mission, and theology. This particular Wednesday audience focused on the Apostle Paul’s understanding of justification. Simply, justification is the biblical teaching on how we are made right with God.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him, we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Rom 5:1-2 ESV).

In a most extraordinary declaration, Pope Benedict XVI not only expounded the Apostle Paul’s understanding of justification, but also, he agreed with Martin Luther’s interpretation of that doctrine.

Martin Luther’s views have long been a point of conflict between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Luther’s focus on sola fide, faith alone (as opposed to faith and works) as the instrument by which we are granted right standing with God has long been a source of contention between these two great bodies of believers.

Baptist theologian, Wayne Grudem explains:

A right understanding of justification is absolutely crucial to the whole Christian faith. Once Martin Luther realized the truth of justification by faith alone, he became a Christian and overflowed with the new-found joy of the gospel. The primary issue in the Protestant Reformation was a dispute with the Roman Catholic Church over justification. If we are to safeguard the truth of the gospel for future generations, we must understand the truth of justification. Even today, a true view of justification is the dividing line between the biblical gospel of salvation by faith alone and all false gospels of salvation based on good works.

[Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1994), 722.]

Justification by faith alone is the seminal Protestant doctrine: Luther stated that it is by this great doctrine that the Reformation stands or falls. Justification is God’s acceptance of me, a believer to be in right standing with him by the righteousness of Jesus Christ being credited to me a sinner. Christ’s righteousness is accounted to me by faith when I trust in the finished work on the Cross. To be credited as righteous is to be conferred the legal standing of Christ’s sinlessness. This theological truth is called imputation. This imputation is twofold: we receive Christ’s holiness and forgiveness and Christ takes upon himself our guilt and judgment. The imputed righteousness of Christ is a gift; it cannot be earned. Christ’s righteousness can only be received from a grateful heart by faith alone.

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (Gal 2:15-16 ESV).

I recognize that Roman Catholic and Lutheran theologians officially signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification on Sunday, October 31, 1999, which agreed between the two great churches to a common understanding of justification. The official signing ceremony was held in Augsburg, the date that Protestantism annually observes as Reformation Day. However, I was never impressed by this document: several important theological problems were not addressed and many of the key terms used in the document could be defined differently as each signing party desired. Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. brilliantly analyzes these concerns in his essay, “Two Languages of Salvation” which was published in First Things journal shortly after the signing. My observation is that two parties agreed to the document, but they meant two different things when writing the same words. “The Joint Declaration, helpful though it is, has not overcome all difficulties. More theological work is needed” (Avery Cardinal Dulles).

This is why last Wednesday was theologically important-Pope Benedict XVI stated clearly that he agreed with Martin Luther’s understanding of justification by faith alone and he said so without ambiguity. Yes, here is a small caveat about faith alone not opposing charity. However, Martin Luther’s favorite verse was, “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Last Wednesday was a theologically significant day for me and for all believers who desire to observe once again the visible unity of Christ’s Church (John 17: 20-21).

Yes, the Pope really did say what I think he said.

Gospel-Driven Sanctification

Our Acceptance Before God

Our day-to-day acceptance with Father is not based on our performance, but based on Christ’s performance on the Cross.

Gradually over time, and from a deep sense of need, I came to realize that the gospel is for believers, too. When I finally realized this, every morning I would pray over a Scripture such as Isaiah 53:6,” All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all,” and then say, “Lord, I have gone astray. I have turned to my own way, but you have laid all my sin on Christ and because of that I approach you and feel accepted by you.”

I came to see that Paul’s statement in Galatians 2:20, “The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me,” was made in the context of justification (see Gal. 2: 15-21). Yet Paul was speaking in the present tense: “The life I now live ….” Because of the context, I realized Paul was not speaking about his sanctification but about his justification. For Paul, then, justification (being declared righteous by God on the basis of the righteousness of Christ) was not only a past-tense experience but also a present-day reality.

Paul lived every day by faith in the shed blood and righteousness of Christ. Every day he looked to Christ alone for his acceptance with the Father. He believed, like Peter (see 1 Pet. 2:4-5), that even our best deeds–our spiritual sacrifices–are acceptable to God only through Jesus Christ. Perhaps no one apart from Jesus himself has ever been as committed a disciple both in life and ministry as the Apostle Paul. Yet he did not look to his own performance but to Christ’s “performance” as the sole basis of his acceptance with God.

So I learned that Christians need to hear the gospel all of their lives because it is the gospel that continues to remind us that our day-to-day acceptance with the Father is not based on what we do for God but upon what Christ did for us in his sinless life and sin-bearing death. I began to see that we stand before God today as righteous as we ever will be, even in heaven, because he has clothed us with the righteousness of his Son. Therefore, I don’t have to perform to be accepted by God. Now I am free to obey him and serve him because I am already accepted in Christ (see Rom. 8:1). My driving motivation now is not guilt but gratitude.

Jerry Bridges, “Gospel-Driven Sanctification” Modern Reformation Magazine (May/June, Vol. 12, No. 3, 2003),13-16.

“The Risen One Is Always the One Who Has Been Crucified”

Pope Benedict XVI on St. Paul and the Cross

A selection from Pope Benedict XVI’s teaching catecheses delivered yesterday, October 29, 2008, in St. Peter’s Square.

The Holy Father continued today the cycle of catecheses dedicated to the figure and thought of St. Paul:

In the personal experience of St. Paul, there is an indisputable fact: While at the beginning he had been a persecutor of the Christians and had used violence against them, from the moment of his conversion on the road to Damascus, he changed to the side of Christ crucified, making him the reason for his life and the motive for his preaching.

His was an existence entirely consumed by souls (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:15), not in the least serene and protected from snares and difficulties. In the encounter with Jesus, he had understood the central significance of the cross: He had understood that Jesus had died and risen for all and also for [Paul], himself. Both elements were important — the universality: Jesus had truly died for everyone; and the subjectivity: He had died also for me.

On the cross, therefore, the gratuitous and merciful love of God had been manifested. Paul experienced this love above all in himself (cf. Galatians 2:20) and from being a sinner, he converted to being a believer, from persecutor to apostle. Day after day, in his new life, he experiences that salvation is “grace,” that everything descended from the love of Christ and not from his merits, which in any case, didn’t exist. The “gospel of grace” thus became the only way to understand the cross, the criteria not only for his new existence, but also the answer for those who questioned him. Among these were, above all, the Jews who placed their hope in works and hoped to gain salvation from these; the Greeks as well, who opposed their human wisdom to the cross; finally, there were certain heretical groups, who had formed their own idea of Christianity according to their own model of life.

Read the entire message here.