POPE BENEDICT ON
Pope Benedict said that Martin Luther’s doctrine of
justification by faith alone is correct if ‘faith is not opposed to charity.’
The Pope said this during a general audience in a speech on St Paul’s teaching
on justification. (Vatican, November 2008)
I am glad that the Pope corrected the false idea popularized
by some irresponsible apologists that ‘sola fide’ (faith alone) implies freedom
from doing good and license to sin (‘antinomianism’). The Reformers vehemently
resisted and opposed the antinomian heresy. The Protestant concept of
justification by faith alone never excluded good works in the life of the
believer. On the character of genuine faith, Luther wrote: ‘Faith cannot help
doing good works constantly. It doesn't stop to ask if good works ought to be
done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them
without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an
Moreover the Pope also said that faith means to trust in
Christ. ‘Faith is to look at Christ, to entrust oneself to Christ…’. In
traditional Catholic theology, faith is defined as the assent of the intellect
to divine truth. Protestants emphasized trust (‘fiducia’), in addition to
knowledge and assent, as the essential element of saving faith. It is not enough
to know God’s Word, or even to be convinced that it is factually true – to be
saved, one must entrust himself to Christ, resting on him alone for salvation.
The Pope noted that the apostle Paul ‘places at the center of
his Gospel an irreducible opposition between two alternative paths to justice:
one based on the works of the law, the other founded on the grace of faith in
Christ.’ In other words, one cannot be saved by faith in Christ if he also
attempts to be saved by ‘works of the law’. This is exactly what Protestants
mean when we speak of ‘sola fide’ – we are justified by trusting in Christ and
not on account of our works.
By Faith and Works
Does this mean that Catholics and Protestants are now in
agreement on the doctrine of justification? Unfortunately this is not the case.
The Pope’s speech highlights the sad reality that the modern Catholic Church is
still insisting on the Council of Trent’s doctrine on justification by faith and
works. The divide between the two religions remains as wide today as it was in
the 16th century.
On one hand the Pope endorses Paul’s teaching of
justification by faith, apart from works of the law; on the other, he insists
that we can really be just in the eyes of God on account of our love for God and
neighbor. That is justification by love, or, justification by human works, for
how can we express love apart from doing good works?
The Pope argues that faith unites us with Christ, enabling us
to love God and others, and in so doing, we fulfill the law and become really
righteous. He said that ‘the double love of God and neighbor the whole law is
fulfilled. Thus the whole law is observed in communion with Christ, in faith
that creates charity.’ He concluded his speech by saying that ‘transformed by
his love, by love of God and neighbor, we can really be just in the eyes of
To be sure such works of love are not done by our natural
abilities; we must have faith, we must be united with Christ to really love. But
ultimately, it is on account of these personal works that we are justified by
God, according to Catholicism.
Works of the Law
How does the Pope resolve the contradiction between Paul’s
teaching and Catholic doctrine? Didn’t Paul clearly state that ‘we hold that a
man is justified by faith apart from works of law’? (Romans 3:28).
In effect the Pope says that Paul was only referring to the
Torah, the first five books of Moses. The Torah included rituals and cultural
observances, in addition to ethical and moral principles, which distinguished
and guarded Israel from the false religions of the pagans. But since the coming
of Christ, those observances are no longer necessary. Thus when Paul says that
we are not justified by the works of the Law, he was really saying that we are
not justified by the Law of Moses, but he does not exclude that we are justified
by the works of love. That’s the Pope’s argument in a nutshell.
The Pope rightly points out that in his epistles Paul
discusses the division between Jews and Gentiles, and that now all believers are
united in Christ irrespective of the ethnic background. But that was not his
only concern. Paul also addresses the universal human tendency to
self-righteousness, that is, our attempts to gain favour with God on account of
personal works and merits.
We agree that when Paul spoke about the Law, he was thinking
particularly of the Torah, the Law of Moses, and not of the law in general. But
that does not mean that we can dismiss his argument as irrelevant since we are
no longer required to obey to Jewish ceremonies and rituals. The Torah did
indeed include ceremonial and civil precepts, but it also included moral laws.
Jesus summarized the Law of Moses as the supreme love for God and love for our
neighbor, and said that ‘on these two commandments hang all the Law and the
Prophets’ (Matthew 22:37-40).
What then, if the Mosaic Law - with its ceremonial, civil and
moral laws – could not justify, how can we now become just in God’s eyes if we
take away the ceremonial and focus on the law’s moral teaching, namely love? Can
we obey the law perfectly?
The problem is not with the Law of Moses; Paul declares that
‘the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good’ (Romans 7:12). The
problem is with us, sinners by nature, and even after regeneration, the
remaining corruption prevents the most mature Christians from reaching moral
perfection on this side of eternity. If the Jew could not be justified by the
works of the perfect Law, no-one could be justified by the works of any law.
After all did not the Gentiles, though ignorant of Moses, also have ‘the law
written in their hearts’ (Romans 2:14)? Yet they too were unable to be justified
The Law of Moses served the purpose of keeping God’s covenant
people, Israel, distinct from pagan idolatry, as the Pope said. But the moral
aspects of the law, whether written on tablets of stone or on the human
conscience, also served to expose our depravity, guilt and helplessness.
‘Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for
by the law is the knowledge of sin’ (Romans 3:20).
By Faith, Not Works
Moreover Paul could not have limited the concept of ‘works of
the Law’ to the Torah. He presented the Patriarch Abraham as the primary witness
to his doctrine. He wrote:
What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found
according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has
something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture
say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”
Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to
him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his
faith is accounted for righteousness. (Romans 4:1-5).
In this context ‘works’ could not refer exclusively to
obedience of the Torah, for Abraham lived many centuries before Moses. It is
therefore wrong to force Paul’s concept of ‘works of the Law’ exclusively to the
Law of Moses. Clearly Paul applies the same principle to works in general.
Abraham could not boast before God because he was justified faith and not by
works. The same applies to us all.
Paul then gives an example from ordinary life – when a worker
receives his payment at the end of the month, could it be considered as grace, a
free gift, a favour? Certainly not! The worker has every right for the money he
earned by his labour.
But justification is not based on the principle of merit. The
very opposite is true. Justification is by grace, pure and underserved grace.
Only he is counted as righteous by the divine Judge who ‘does not work’ but
‘believes’ God. That is grace!
Faith Working Through Love
Once more it must pointed out that the question is not about
the propriety and necessity of good works in the life of believers. On this
point, Paul, Luther and the Pope are in agreement. The question, though, has to
do with the purpose of such works.
In Catholicism, the faithful are urged to do works in the
hope that they will eventually become ‘really’ just in the eyes of God on
account of their ‘love to God and neighbour’. In Paul’s teaching, we are not
justified on account of any personal works, but by faith; good works follow
after faith and justification. In Catholicism faith is insufficient; it must be
supplemented by works to really justify. In biblical Christianity, faith is
sufficient, faith truly justifies the beliver on account of Christ’s blood and
righteousness, and having justified the sinner, faith then works by love
(Galatians 5:6) to the glory of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ. In Catholicism
justification is by faith and works – therefore it cannot be of grace (Romans
11:6); in biblical Christianity justification is by faith, that it might be of
grace (Romans 4:16).
Here then is the dividing line between Luther and Trent,
Protestantism and Catholicism, the true gospel and its counterfeit. May God give
us the grace to believe in Jesus his Son, and being justified by faith alone, to
give ourselves to love God and our neighbour from our hearts.