R.C. Sproul. Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995.
evangelical recommended this book to me out of the clear blue sky years
ago, so I decided to buy it. It laid on my shelf for years before I
finally read it.
Why did I decide to read it this past week?
Well, I'll be giving a sermon about Martin Luther at my church in a
little more than a week, and I realized that I did not have a clear idea
in my mind about what Catholics believe about justification. I knew something
about the topic, mind you, for I used to listen to debates that James
White had with Catholics, I had a friend who was converting to
Catholicism, and, in a class about Paul that I took as an undergraduate,
a couple of students were debating about what sort of righteousness
Paul was talking about in Romans (imputed or infused and practical).
But I wanted a firmer grasp of the topic, and I thought that Sproul's
book would provide me with that. I haven't listened to Sproul's radio
program for some time, but I used to admire his professorial way of
talking about issues, as I could hear him writing on his chalkboard.
Sproul's book looked like a fairly easy read, and I saw that it tackled
questions head on, such as the differences between Protestant and
Catholic understandings of justification, faith and good works, and
merit. Thus, I decided to read it.
The back cover contains two
endorsements that, at least on the surface, appear to be contradictory.
One endorsement says that Sproul "writes with clarity", whereas another
endorsement states that Sproul's book "is not a light read". I found
both to be true. Sproul is good at teaching and explaining issues, and
yet I had to concentrate in reading his book. It was an exhausting
read, yet it was worthwhile.
Sproul's agenda in writing this book
did not particularly resonate with me, for the book is essentially his
criticism of the Evangelical-Catholic dialogue that led to the 1994
document, Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.
This document was signed by such renowned evangelicals as J.I. Packer
and Charles Colson. Sproul's main problem with it is that he believes
that it compromises the Protestant doctrine that one is justified by
faith alone, apart from works. Sproul goes out of his way to argue that
the Protestant and Catholic views on justification are neither
compatible nor merely semantically different, but rather are
incompatible and substantively different. For Sproul, the Reformed
understanding of justification is the Gospel, whereas the Roman Catholic
view is not. Later in the book, Sproul seems to imply that even some
Catholics, in supporting Evangelicals and Catholics Together,
are compromising, for the Catholic Council of Trent in the 1500's, which
affirmed the Catholic view of justification, was far from inclusive in
its view of Protestants who believed in justification by grace through
I'm not a fan of exclusivist "we're in and you're
out," "we're saved and you're not" mindsets. Sproul does not use those
exact words, but that seems to me to be his message. I have a hard time
seeing God as so petty that God excludes or damns people who don't have
their doctrine exactly right.
Moreover, even after reading
Sproul's book, my impression is that the differences between Protestants
and Catholics on justification are largely a matter of semantics.
According to Sproul, the classic Protestant perspective is that God
draws a person to Christ, the person exercises saving faith, God
declares the person righteous on the basis of Christ's merit, and the
person does good works that are still sinful (since he or she lacks a
perfect motivation), and yet God out of grace will still reward them.
Sproul stresses that the saving faith is one that works in love, and so
Sproul is not an antinomian who believes that good works are optional,
and he appears to side with Lordship salvation (see my post about
Lordship salvation here).
Roman Catholics, according to Sproul, believe that human beings who
cooperate with God's influence arrive at a state of faith in Christ and
receive baptism, and God then infuses in them Christ's righteousness,
making them (on some level) actually righteous (not just declared
righteous). They go to mass and confession as means to justification,
thereby receiving God's empowering grace and keeping their slate clean,
and they do good works that earn them merit. If they stay on this path,
God at the last judgment will declare them to be righteous.
suppose that these understandings look different in areas, but, in my
mind, they are largely two ways of saying the same thing. Both classic
Protestants and Catholics believe in the need for God's grace and faith
in Jesus. They (except for the antinomian Protestants) do not think
that a person will enter the good afterlife without some good works. So
what if Catholics include in justification what Protestants would label
as sanctification? That doesn't mean they're presenting radically
different pictures. Maybe Catholics believe that there is a little more of a human element in the salvation process, since they hold that humans cooperate with God's grace in coming to believe, whereas classic Protestantism (according to Sproul) depicts God drawing people
to Christ, putting the agency solely on God, since human beings are
presumably so sinful that they cannot by themselves decide to believe.
(Sproul bases his characterization of Catholicism here on the Council of
Trent, but he notes that Trent here is contradicting what was declared
at the Council of Orange, which condemned semi-Pelagianism.) But I have
a hard time excluding Catholics from the category of Christian on
account of that nuance.
While I do not sympathize with Sproul's
agenda, I do appreciate that his agenda has motivated him to write a
book that effectively delineates the Protestant and Catholic
understandings of justification. Overall, I think that he does so
fairly, and he quotes Catholic documents such as the Council of Trent's
declaration. At the same time, I believe that Sproul's agenda sometimes
gets in the way of his task of explanation. In his push to show how
Protestantism and Catholicism differ, and why Protestantism is biblical
on justification while Catholicism is not, Sproul at times fails to
explain why Catholics have the position that they do, or how
they respond to Protestant criticisms of their perspective. For
example, I was curious about how Catholicism addresses Paul's
interpretation of Genesis 15:6, for Paul concludes from that passage
that God credited righteousness to Abraham due to Abraham's faith,
before Abraham was even circumcised. That looks like imputed
righteousness to me! Does Catholicism view it as infused
righteousness? As far as I could see, Sproul does not go into detail on
this, perhaps because he does not think that this issue fits in with
his overall agenda, which (as far as I can tell) is not so much to understand
Catholicism as a scholar, as it is to show that classical Protestantism
is right on justification, whereas Catholicism is wrong.
discussion on whether Paul and James differed on justification was all
right, I guess. Sproul maintains that they are in agreement, and I tend
to believe that, overall, Paul and James are saying the same thing,
only with different words. I seriously doubt that Paul would believe
that all one has to do to be saved is to intellectually accept certain
propositions about God, for Paul also talks about a new creation and
doing what is righteous. Both Paul and James believe in faith and doing
good works, in short. At the same time, I also have a hard time
accepting that Paul and James had the exact same understanding of
justification. Paul seems to believe that Abraham was justified
(declared righteous) when he believed God's promise in Genesis 15,
whereas James affirms that Abraham's justification occurred later at the
akedah, when Abraham was obeying God by being willing to sacrifice his
son. Sproul says that James agrees with Paul because James quotes
Genesis 15:6, and Sproul thinks this indicates that James believes that
Abraham was justified at his moment of faith in Genesis 15, long before
the akedah. But Sproul here disregards the interpretation of Genesis
15:6 within the history of biblical interpretation, for there were
interpreters who applied Genesis 15:6 specifically to the akedah, or who
affirmed that the akedah was when Abraham truly became God's friend.
(See my post here.) My impression is that, for James, Abraham was justified at the akedah, where he put his faith into practice.
argument that Sproul made about James that slightly rubbed me the wrong
way was that James was not taking about Abraham's justification before God,
but rather before human beings: the idea here is that Abraham showed
other people that his faith was genuine by being willing to sacrifice
his son. I flinch at the notion that I somehow have to convince human beings
that my faith is genuine. Human beings, especially religious human
beings, can be extremely judgmental. A number of them would probably
say that I'm not truly born again because I am not an extrovert, since
extroversion is their definition of "love." Why should I be trying to
convince those jerks? Perhaps we should all focus on our own faith,
rather than judging others! I tend to identify with Psalms, or even the
Book of Job (on some level), where there's a picture of people who are
questioning a person's spiritual state, and yet that person still clings
to God and God's love.
That said, I enjoyed this book! It will
probably help me in terms of my sermon, even if I probably won't go too
deeply into the differences between Catholics and classic Protestantism
The Only One
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