Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Quote of the Day

The issue of salvation sparked the Protestant Reformation and split the church. It seemed to both sides at the time that Protestants and Catholics taught two radically different gospels, two religions, two answers to the most basic of all questions: What must I do to be saved? Catholics said you must both believe and practice good works to be saved. Luther, Calvin, Wycliffe and Knox insisted that faith alone saves you. Unfortunately, both sides have been talking past each other for 450 years. But there is strong evidence that it was essentially a misunderstanding and that it is beginning to be cleared up.

Both sides used key terms, faith and salvation, but in different senses.

1. Catholics used the term salvation to refer to the whole process, from its beginning in faith, through the whole Christian life of the works of love on earth, to its completion in heaven. When Luther spoke of salvation he meant the initial step -- like getting into Noah's ark of salvation -- not the whole journey.

2. By faith Catholics meant only one of the three needed 'theological virtues' (faith, hope and love), faith being intellectual belief. To Luther, faith meant accepting Christ with your whole heart and soul.

Thus, since Catholics were using salvation in a bigger sense and faith in a smaller sense, and Luther was using salvation in a smaller sense and faith in a bigger sense, Catholics rightly denied and Luther rightly affirmed that we were saved by faith alone.

Catholics taught that salvation included more than faith, just as a plant includes more than its roots. It needs its stem (hope) and its fruits (love) as well as its root (faith). Luther taught that good works can't buy salvation, that all you need to do and all you can do to be saved is to accept it, accept the Savior, by faith.

Both sides spoke the truth. Since truth cannot contradict truth, the two sides really did not contradict each other on this most important of all questions. That assessment may sound unduly optimistic, but it is essentially what Catholic and Lutheran theologians said publicly in their "Joint Statement on Justification" a few years ago. Pope John Paul II said the same thing publicly to the German Lutheran bishops. It both astonished and delighted them.

Such real agreement in substance beneath apparent disagreement in words should not be surprising, for both Catholics and Protestants accept the same data, the New Testament. The New Testament teaches both points: both the 'Protestant' point that salvation is a free gift, not earned by works of obedience to the law; and the 'Catholic' point that faith is only the beginning of the Christian life of good works, that 'justification' (being made right with God) must, if it is real, lead to 'sanctification' (being made holy, saintly, good), that 'faith without works is dead.'

Regarding that last point, the Scottish Presbyterian preacher George MacDonald wrote, 'The notion that the salvation of Jesus is a salvation from punishment for our sins is a mean, selfish, low notion. He was called Savior because he would save us from our sins.'

The official teaching of Catholicism (as distinct from the popular misconception) is that salvation is a totally free gift that we can do nothing to 'buy' or produce. The Council of Trent's 'Decree on Justification' is as insistent on the gratuitous nature of grace as Luther or Calvin. So is Aquinas in the Treatise on Grace in the Summa Theologiae, the bottom line of which is that we can do nothing without God's grace -- not be saved, not deserve grace, not even ask for grace.

It would be as absurd for Catholics and Protestants to disagree about this fundamental point of how to be saved as for two astronomers to disagree about whether stars exist. The answer is not in doubt because it is not in our theories but in our data, the Scripture.

Scripture clearly says both that salvation is a free gift to be accepted by faith (Romans and Galatians) and that 'faith without works is dead' (James). 'Works' means 'love,' and 'love' means 'the works of love,' for Christian love (agapē) is not a feeling, like worldly love (eros, storgē, philia); if it were, it could not be commanded.

Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli
Handbook of Christian Apologetics

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