I just got back from a nice Italian lunch with my friend Chris whom I met at The Shepherd’s Conference and a friend from his church who is attending this conference with him. We ate the meatiest pizza I’ve ever laid eyes upon. They don’t make pizza like that back home in Canada! Of greater significance, we seem to have found a restaurant that has significantly less traffic than the other local hangouts. This may serve us well through the remaining day-and-a-half of this conference.
This afternoon we have the privilege of hearing R.C. Sproul speak on “The Center of Christian Preaching: Justification by Faith Alone.” It seems to me that if we could want to hear any man in the world today speak on the subject of “justification by faith alone,” it would be Sproul. Few men have dedicated more time to understanding and preaching this critical doctrine. Few men are more qualified to speak to share with us this: the very heart of Christian doctrine.
Justification is the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls, and ultimately, the doctrine upon which you and I stand or fall. This doctrine is the “Atlas” upon which the whole of Christianity rests. Were Atlas to shrug, the entire structure of the Christian faith would fall to the ground and be shattered. This is not a common understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith alone in our day. It is now considered, tragically, the small print of the gospel. The battle over justification by faith alone is considered, by so many, a tempest in a teapot. Many have declared the Reformation to be over since Catholicism and Protestantism have supposedly mended their fences and now stand together. The New Perspective tells us that both sides completely misunderstood Paul’s true teaching on justification. Yet it should not be surprising that we see a minimalist attitude being expressed about this doctrine. Towards the end of his life, Martin Luther warned (rightly it seems) that in every generation the gospel will have to be reaffirmed because this doctrine, when proclaimed boldly and accurately, will produce conflict. We are those who, when faced with the options of fight or flight, prefer to flee conflict even if the stakes are as low as being burned not at the stake but at the payroll of a local church. With this increasing significance comes an eclipse of the understanding of this doctrine.
Dr. Sproul will discuss the Roman Catholic understanding of the doctrine of justification so we can understand the Reformation understanding up against the Roman Catholic.
Rome did teach and does continue to teach that justification is a sacerdotal matter. The grace of justification is administered by and through the church, by the priesthood, through the sacraments. Justification begins by the sacrament of baptism which functions by the working of the works (near-automatically) and in baptism the grace of baptism is infused into the recipient of the sacrament, which is to say it is poured into their soul. This grace is sometimes called “the righteousness of Christ.” This does not fully justify the recipient because the person needs to assent to and cooperate with this grace to such a degree that he actually becomes righteous. If you are righteous, then you will be justified and remain in a state of grace as long as you keep yourself from mortal sin. Mortal sin is defined as sin that kills the justifying grace that has been infused into the soul. A person who commits moral sin loses his justifying grace. When mortal sin occurs, and justifying grace is lost, that can and often does happen, while authentic, genuine faith remains. A person can have real faith and not be justified. Once mortal sin has been committed, the church requires the sacrament of penance which is called “the second plank of justification for those who have made shipwreck of their souls.” The sacrament of penance gains “congruous” merit, which makes it fitting that God once again restores a person to grace and gives him a new infusion of the grace that is needed.
Too often Protestants slander the Roman Catholic Church by not being accurate in regards to Catholic doctrine. Rome teaches that, in order to be justified, a person needs to have faith. The Church says that faith has three functions to perform in justification: the initiation of justification, the foundation of justification, and the root of justification. They maintain the importance of faith. It is a necessary condition for justification, but not a sufficient condition. Protestants believe that faith is a sufficient condition. The presence of genuine faith links you to Jesus and His righteousness and becomes the instrument by which you are justified. This distinction alone is enough to generate a reformation. The difference, then, is faith versus faith alone. Rome teaches grace plus merit. Christ plus your own righteousness is necessary to be redeemed. You cannot be justified without grace, but you also cannot be justified without merit.
A great debate during the Reformation was “the instrumental cause.” The church, beginning as early as Augustine, made us of Aristotle’s distinctions between different types of causes: material cause (the material out of which something is made), a formal cause (a blueprint or a plan), a final cause (the purpose for which something was made), and an efficient cause (the person who does the making). Rome says that the instrumental cause, the tool, is the sacrament of baptism followed by the sacrament of penance. They affirm that the efficient cause is God’s declaration. The Reformers said that the instrumental cause is faith. Faith is the instrument of our justification. This does not mean that faith is a work or carries its own merit. Christians–those who are justified–are at the same time righteous and sinners. The Catholic Church declared this a legal fiction.
Luther said that this is the heart of the gospel. God counted or reckoned Abraham as righteous by virtue of imputation–the single most important term in the debate. So much of the controversy focuses on this single idea of imputation. The meritorious cause that we have to be justified, the only ground of our justification, is the imputation of the righteousness of God to us. Don’t ever negotiation the imputed righeousness of Christ! This is not an abstract doctrine! It is not merely important for us to believe this, but to defend it and to contend with our all for this doctrine.
We are given a righteousness that is outside of us–apart from us. The only righteousness that will justify us is the righteousness of Christ. Without this we are naked and helpless. We need to be covered in Christ’s righteousness.
We are not justified by the doctrine of justification by faith. We can give assent to this doctrine and contend for it without having the faith that alone will justify you. Justification is not accomplished by a profession of faith. It is the posession of faith, not the profession of it, that saves. We must not give people a false sense of security by making them believe a profession is enough! The doctrine simply describes what it is that brings us into a state of justification.
Dr. Sproul recounted the testimony of his own conversion and shared how this doctrine leaves us as the publican, who cannot even lift his head but cries out “have mercy on me, a sinner!”
The gospel of Rome is no gospel at all. It saves no one. There is no other gospel than this one: justification by faith alone. This is a simple matter. It is not a difficult doctrine. But we must be careful. It is an easy doctrine to get into a head, but far more difficult to get into the bloodstream. For this reason we must hear this doctrine again and again and again. Satan constantly seeks to deceive us, thinking that we must add our own merit to Christ’s. But we must stand firm on this doctrine. “Do not move from that.”
Following Dr. Sproul’s speech, Bob led us in song again, singing “Before The Throne of God Above.” We will resume again with another panel session after a short break.