By Robert M. Zins
There is within the Roman Catholic community an unwritten testimony that may be summed up in the formula, "I am not bad enough to go to Hell, and I am not good enough to go to Heaven." Everything about Roman Catholicism lends support to this tacit understanding of the way things are. In Rome, original sin is washed away in the waters of baptism but the desire to sin remains, giving rise to actual sinning. This actual sinning must be forgiven through auricular confession, penance and partaking of holy communion, and the desire to sin must be lessened through faithful participation in the grace-dispensing sacraments of the Roman Catholic religion. Sin is messy, and life is one long series of failures and clean-ups through the Roman system. The real hope for the Roman Catholic is to go to Purgatory, which for Catholics is the fair middle ground where both boastful pride (e.g., I am not bad enough to go to hell), and false humility (e.g., I am not good enough to go to heaven) can co-exist peacefully It is in Purgatory where the Romanist awaits until God cleans him up to heaven's standard of holiness. Purgatory, oddly enough, is a place of safety since it is designed to launder its inhabitants of things left unclean, and is by design, temporary.
Christians recoil at the prospect of living a life wherein they are constantly being told to pay the penalty due their sin and to perform religious rituals to get the grace to sin less. The entire concept of cleansing oneself through somebody's religious system is foreign to the Body of Christ and all those born from above. The thought of such nonsense as Purgatory makes a Christian indignant. The testimony of the Christian is, "I am bad enough to only go to Hell and I can never be good enough to go to Heaven." Having been freed, forgiven and justified from the chains of guilt and penalties of sin (which used to dominate his life), by the blood of Christ, the Christian looks with horror upon all man-made institutions that essentially sell Heaven at a price. Recoiling from any and all "merit" based systems of religion, the Christian proclaims the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The good news is that Jesus paid it all and justification is by faith apart from works of any religious system (Romans 3:28). Faith in the finished work of Christ is all one needs to be fully assured of eternal life. There is no better news than this. Hence, Christians are always trying to show Romanists that Rome has missed the Gospel. The Gospel eliminates Rome's religious rites with the lovely news that faith in Christ, apart from works, is the means through which the Christian is justified before God. All Romish dogma on penance, mass, confession and purgatory falls in the light of this Gospel.
There is no theological gulf so great as the contrast between justification by faith apart from works, and justification by faith plus works (or any other formula that turns works into faith and faith into works). The apostle Paul devotes his life to underscore the difference, for by so doing, he preaches the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Lord has seen fit to stamp out forever the notion that our justification is conditioned on any definition of works. Whether works are defined as originating from the mind of mankind or alleged to be "works" of faith, "works" of grace. "works of condign merit or "works" of congruous merit, it all amounts to works and they cannot be the ground of justification before God. Rome loves to say, "our works are not of us, they are of God and hence we are not justified by works." This clever way of giving God the glory for works that He produces in us has a measure of truth in the already justified man. However, it is another gospel when placed as the way in which God justifies the ungodly. For to assert simultaneously that God justifies man based on the godly works produced in him, and that God justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:6), is quintessentially oxymoronic. We see through this ruse when we ask Rome, "what God-produced good work in us is ever placed before God as the ground of justifying the lost?" Rome harps that God assembles works within a person, and then finds pleasure in justifying that person on the basis of the work manufactured by God. This is how they contort the clear statement of Paul:
Theirs is a foul distortion. The Scriptures testify that justification is settled upon the twofold pillars of grace and faith. Works have no interest in the obtaining of justification.
It has long been the deceit of Rome to construct a system of merits which lead to nowhere and then attribute this aimless scaffolding to God as His gracious gift to mankind. In so doing, Rome imagines works to be "of grace" and merit to be "of grace" and human suffering to be "of grace," leading to a mythical Purgatory of suffering, which is said to be "of grace." In Rome, all terror and guilt and punishment for personal sins is said to be "of grace." Thus, true grace is run through the mud and muck of Romanistic Popery. This is what makes this religion so offensive to the Gospel of Christ.
To answer a similar mind-set of the first century Pharisees, the apostle Paul struck at the heart of their religious pride by showing that Abraham was justified by faith and not by works. This ruined Judaism and ripped out the soul of self-admiration which so flagrantly dismissed the death of Christ and sought to maintain an insufferable system of merit and works for eternal life.
To the surprise of the Pharisees, the apostle further disposed of their mistaken understanding that Abraham's faith was a meritorious act. Leaving no room for the miscalculated conclusion that Abraham's faith was itself the "good work" that God required for justification, the apostle carefully dismantled this felonious interpretation of his own kinsmen according to the flesh:
In the undoing of faith itself as the "good work" of faith, the apostle settles for all time the question of the righteousness contemplated by God in His verdict of justification. The righteousness contemplated by God in justifying the ungodly cannot be "works of law," "works of faith," the "work of faith" or "faith itself," for all these things are evidences of godliness! It must be something else that serves as the basis of justifying the ungodly. That this "something else" is the righteousness of Christ given as a grace gift by God is the lucid testimony of the Word of God:
It is at this point where modern evangelicals fail to protect the gospel from Rome and leave the highway back to Rome clear of any gospel road blocks. Sensing Paul's absolute abhorrence to the Pharisaic notion that Abraham merited justification, the modern evangelical has tended to champion faith itse/f as the work that God requires. Hence, not fully understanding the apostle's zeal to kill all hopes of a merit justification, evangelicals have put faith in the place of works as the ground of justification. This is a common error in light of Paul's arguments.
It appears here that "faith itself" is the ground of justification by this and other passages in the context.
However, upon closer inspection and a comparison with the rest of Scripture, we find that "faith itself" cannot be counted upon as the ground of justification. In the first place, the text tells us that Abraham believed and it was reckoned to him unto righteousness. It was not reckoned as righteousness as though the act of believing found such favor with God that justification of life was due to the act of believing. The Greek word used here, eis, is better translated as 'unto' signifying that faith only 'takes in' the promises of God. All of Scripture gives faith the instrumental role that comprehends and grasps the sure Word of God. Faith is always 'through or by' and never 'because of' or 'on account of' in its relationship to justification. This is born out by the careful eye which sees that, even in the context of Rornans 4, where faith is raised to thc heavens in comparison with works, that the apostle is quick to say:
There is a righteousness that is given, i.e., imputed to David and all Christians, which is not "faith itself." Rather, it is given through faith. Faith often is spoken for the thing it receives:
But all know that faith void of grasping the righteousness of Christ, as revealed in the Gospel, is an empty boast. It is the faith of devils (James 2:19).
We believe the apostle Paul argues as strongly against moderns who view faith as the righteousness contemplated by God in the verdict of justification as he did against the pharisecs of his day who wanted to see Abraham's justitication accomplished by the work of faith, rather than through the faith given. We must learn to defeat Rome with blows that reach their target. It is not only a mutilation of the gospel to substitute "faith itself" for works -- it also plays into the hand of Rome. Rome has from long ago blurred the line between works and faith. Thus, works and faith are commingled in Rome as the righteousness which God accepts for justification. The fact that Rome repudiates all but God-constructed works is no solace to the loss of the Gospel. The Gospel of God admits no other righteousness contemplated, in the verdict of justification, than the righteousness of Christ. His righteousness -- obtained by faith, received through faith and trusted via faith—is the ground of justification. Hence, all attempts to put faith or works up as the foundation of justification fly in the face of the Gospel.
It is with this is mind that we ask all elders, pastors, teachers and missionaries to define carefully the role of faith and not fail to give faith that which is accorded to it in the Bible. We are concerned with evangelicals who would lift faith too high (that is, to make faith the ground of justification or the "work" that merits salvation). We are equally concerned with evangelicals who would fight Rome on no other basis than their faith being of a greater quality or having deeper depth of soil. To have faith in one's faith is no better than having faith that one's work, done in faith, is the substructure of justification. Both lead to a miserable end and neither represent the faith spoken of in the Bible.
(This article originally appeared in the 3rd Quarter, 1997 issue of "Theo~Logical," published by A Christian Witness To Roman Catholicism. Used by permission)
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