A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article explaining why I believe Pope Francis is a false teacher. This generated a fair bit of controversy and brought many responses (most of which were, thankfully, both measured and kind). One critique I heard several times was this: “You do not understand the Roman Catholic view of justification; if you understood Catholic theology you would see the pope as a defender of truth rather than an opponent of truth.” I do not wish to say that I know Catholic theology better than my Catholic friends, so I would like to try something different today.
I believe there is a vast gulf between justification as the Bible teaches it and justification as Rome teaches it. We agree on the problem: we are sinful people who have alienated ourselves from God and are thus in need of salvation. But we disagree in very significant ways as to how sinful people can receive that salvation. The thing is, Rome believes this too. The Catholic Church understands that there is a gulf between us and they deem it every bit as serious as I do.
What I would like to do today is put aside my understanding or misunderstanding of Roman Catholic theology. Instead, let’s look at the way the Roman Catholic Church understands what I believe. What I have found is that the Roman Catholic Church understands my theology very well. Many years ago the Council of Trent closely examined the doctrine of the Protestant Reformers and responded to it with a series of canons. As they did that, they declared my faith anathema, an abomination to God. While Trent happened a long time ago, the canons have never been rescinded. Vatican II, despite its emphasis on ecumenicism, did not nullify or modify the canons of Trent (see here for an explanation from Catholic Answers).
So instead of having me explain Catholic theology and point out concerns, let’s allow Roman Catholicism to explain my Protestant view (using EWTN’s translation of the canons).
If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema. (Canon 9)
I believe that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required and nothing else needs to be cooperated with, to obtain the grace of justification. Rome understands exactly what I believe here and rejects it. (Rom 3:20-28, Eph 2:8)
If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence in divine mercy, which remits sins for Christ’s sake, or that it is this confidence alone that justifies us, let him be anathema. (Canon 12)
I believe this! I believe that justifying faith is confidence in God’s divine mercy which remits sin for the sake of Christ and on the basis of the work of Christ. It is this—faith—and nothing else that justifies us. (Rom 3:28, John 1:12)
If anyone says that man is absolved from his sins and justified because he firmly believes that he is absolved and justified, or that no one is truly justified except him who believes himself justified, and that by this faith alone absolution and justification are effected, let him be anathema. (Canon 14)
This may require some nuance, because I do not believe that I am absolved from sin because I believe I am absolved from sin; however, I do hold, as the Council says here, that faith in Christ alone does absolve sin and justify sinners. (Rom 5:1)
If anyone says that the justice received is not preserved and also not increased before God through good works, but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not the cause of its increase, let him be anathema. (Canon 24)
I believe that good works—works that bring glory to God—are the fruit and proof of justification. I deny that they are in any way the cause of justification’s increase and preservation. (Gal 3:1-3, Gal 5:1-3)
If anyone says that after the reception of the grace of justification the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out to every repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be discharged either in this world or in purgatory before the gates of heaven can be opened, let him be anathema. (Canon 30)
I believe this precious truth and will fight to the death for it! I believe that at the moment of justification the sinner’s guilt and punishment are removed to such an extent that no debt remains to be discharged in this world or in purgatory before he can enter into heaven. (Rom 5:1, Col 2:13-14)
If anyone says that the Catholic doctrine of justification as set forth by the holy council in the present decree, derogates in some respect from the glory of God or the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ, and does not rather illustrate the truth of our faith and no less the glory of God and of Christ Jesus, let him be anathema. (Canon 33)
This is the heart of the issue, isn’t it? The Roman Catholic doctrine of justification, as laid out by the Council of Trent, and as systematized in the canons, does that very thing—it diminishes the glory of God and the merits of Jesus Christ. It adds to Christ’s work. To add anything to Christ’s work is to destroy it altogether.
As I read the canons of the Council of Trent I see a systematic explanation and thorough denial of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. I see that Rome understands what I believe and declares it anathema. Of course it is her right to do this, but let’s not miss some important implications: Whatever else Rome teaches, she will not teach that we are justified solely by grace through faith in Christ Jesus. If she teaches a gospel that adds to the work of Christ, she teaches a false gospel, doesn’t she? And if Francis is the head of the organization that states this as official doctrine, if he is her chief defender and propagator, I must judge him a false teacher. What else could I do?
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