The Gospel According to Church History (PART 4) By Nathan Busenitz

In part 3 of this series, we saw that the gospel of grace was both proclaimed and preserved in the earliest decades of church history. It was overwhelmingly affirmed by the apostles at the Jerusalem Council (in Acts 15), such that Paul could later tell the Ephesians, “By grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9).

Shortly after the Jerusalem Council, Paul wrote a letter to the churches he had planted on his first missionary journey. That letter, known as the book of Galatians, admonished its readers not to acquiesce to the works-righteousness of the Judaizers. To do so, Paul stated, would be to embrace another gospel—one which was not really good news at all (Gal. 1:6–9). The apostle went on to clearly explain that justification is not based on keeping the law, but is only granted by grace through faith in Christ (cf. Gal. 3:1–14). Given the theme of that epistle (justification by faith vs. justification by works), it is not surprising to learn that Galatians was Martin Luther’s favorite book of the New Testament, because in that text he found the gospel of grace so clearly revealed.

Having looked at the biblical text in some detail (in previous parts of this series), we can now draw some comparisons between what happened at the Jerusalem Council and what took place fifteen hundred years later during the Protestant Reformation. In both cases, the primary issue at stake was the nature of the gospel. With the Jerusalem Council, the question was this: “Are we saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, or are we saved by faith plus circumcision plus the Law of Moses?” The Reformers were asking that same essential question, comparing the biblical gospel of grace with the sacramental system of works-righteousness created by Roman Catholic traditionalism.

Upon comparison, it becomes apparent that uncanny parallels exist between the false gospel of the Judaizers and the soteriology of the Roman Catholic Church. Consider, for example, this short section from the Catholic Catechism (paragraph 2068), talking about the teachings of the Council of Trent and the Second Vatican Council. It says,

“The Council of Trent teaches that the Ten Commandments are obligatory for Christians and that the justified man is still bound to keep them [fn, Cf. DS 1569–1570]; the Second Vatican Council confirms: The bishops, succors of the apostles, receive from the Lord … the mission of teaching all peoples, and of preaching the Gospel to every creature, so that all men may attain salvation through faith, Baptism and the observance of the Commandments” (P 2068; ellipsis in original; emphasis added).

Notice what the Catholic catechism is asserting. How can a sinner attain salvation? According to the catechism, is through faith plus baptism plus the observance of the Ten Commandments. It is not through faith alone.

The Judaizers taught salvation through faith, circumcision, and the observance of the Mosaic Law. The Roman Catholic Catechism similarly teaches that salvation is attained through faith, baptism, and the observance of the Ten Commandments. The parallel becomes even more apparent when we consider that, according to the Roman Catholic Church, baptism is the New Testament equivalent of circumcision. And what are the Ten Commandments? Are they not the heart and summary of the Mosaic Law? So when the Catholic Church teaches that salvation can be attained “through faith, baptism, and the observance of the [Ten] Commandments,” they are repeating the very same error of the Judaizers.

Just to be clear, evangelicals would readily acknowledge that Christian baptism is an important act of obedience to Christ; as is the desire to follow all of God’s commandments as taught in the Bible. But here is the point: Those works don’t save us. They are the fruit of our salvation, not the root of it. They are the result of justification, not the reason for it.

It is precisely at that point where the Roman Catholic Church gets the gospel wrong. They make salvation partly contingent on the sinner’s good works—advocating a synergistic soteriology in which they confuse the fruit of justification with the root of it. But that is not what Scripture teaches about justification. Our righteous standing before God is based solely on the finished work of Christ on the cross. The true gospel is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone—and even our faith is a gift of God’s grace (Eph. 2:8). To add any human works is to frustrate grace and preach another gospel altogether.

In addition to baptism and the keeping of the Ten Commandments, the Catholic Church also insists that the other sacramental actions are necessary for salvation; and that through penance and Purgatory the sinner purifies himself and makes satisfaction before God for his own sins. Hence, the Catholic Encyclopedia, in an article entitled “Sanctifying Grace,” states that the sinner “is formally justified and made holy by his own personal justice and holiness” such that “over and above faith other acts are necessary for justification” including acts of charity, penance with contrition, and almsgiving. Catholic author, John Hardon agrees, “According to the way God has willed that we be saved the sacraments are necessary for salvation.” And the Catholic Catechism (in paragraph 1459) adds, “Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must ‘make satisfaction for’ or ‘expiate’ his sins. This satisfaction is also called ‘penance’.”

By trying to hold to both “grace” and “works,” the Catholic Church promotes a gospel that is hopelessly confused and inherently contradictory. Note, for example, the muddled language of this explanation from the Catholic Answers apologetics website:

Even though only God’s grace enables us to love others, these acts of love please him, and he promises to reward them with eternal life (Rom. 2:6–7, Gal. 6:6–10). Thus good works are meritorious. . . . Our faith in Christ puts us in a special grace-filled relationship with God so that our obedience and love, combined with our faith, will be rewarded with eternal life (Rom. 2:7, Gal. 6:8–9).

Notice the confusion Catholic theology portrays in trying to maintain a gospel of both grace and works. On the one hand, the Catholic church asserts that believers do not earn their salvation through good works. On the other hand, it contends that God rewards good works with eternal life. But those two concepts are contradictory and mutually exclusive. Is eternal life a free gift (received by grace) or is it a reward (received on the basis of good works)? It cannot be both.

Sadly, Roman Catholics do not seem to be aware of the critical contradiction. Hence, the Catholic Catechism asserts that heaven is “God’s eternal reward for the good works accomplished with the grace of Christ” (P 1821). In other words, heaven is offered on the basis of both God’s grace and the sinner’s good works. Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott, in his Fundamentals of Catholic Doctrine, perpetuates that inherent contradiction by contending that eternal life is both a gift of God’s grace and a reward for human good works. He writes, “The Council of Trent teaches that for the justified eternal life is both a gift or grace promised by God and a reward for his own good works and merits” (p. 264). Ott continues, “As God’s grace is the presupposition and foundation of (supernatural) good works, by which man merits eternal life, so salutary works are, at the same time gifts of God and meritorious acts of man” (ibid.).

Thus, while the Roman Catholic theologians claim to teach a gospel of grace, they deny that it is a gospel of grace alone. Instead, they teach a gospel of grace plus works. And that is exactly what the Judaizers did. But this runs contrary to the biblical gospel. As Paul explained so clearly in Romans 11:6, “If it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.” In other words, it is impossible to have a gospel of grace plus works, because once works are added, grace is removed.

The realization that salvation is only by grace, and not by our own efforts, is what liberated the Reformers from the bondage of guilt and the system of works righteousness and traditional sacramentalism in which they had been trapped. But what about the early leaders of Christianity who lived in the centuries after the apostles? Did they also understand justification to be by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone?

When we survey the early patristic literature, we quickly find that the church fathers embraced the same gospel as the apostles at the Jerusalem Council and as the Reformers in the sixteenth century. The Reformation was not the invention of something new; rather it was the recovery of something very old. Just as the Reformers taught, the root of justification is grace alone through faith alone based on the righteous work of Christ alone. The fruit of justification then, is seen in a transformed life.

As the famed church father Augustine (354–430) explained:

If Abraham was not justified by works, how was he justified? The apostle goes on to tell us how: What does scripture say? (that is, about how Abraham was justified). Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness (Rom. 4:3; Gen. 15:6). Abraham, then, was justified by faith. Paul [in Romans 4] and James [in James 2] do not contradict each other: good works follow justification. . . . The two apostles are not contradicting each other. James dwells on an action performed by Abraham that we all know about: he offered his son to God as a sacrifice. That is a great work, but it proceeded from faith. I have nothing but praise for the superstructure of action, but I see the foundation of faith; I admire the good work as a fruit, but I recognize that it springs from the root of faith. (John E. Rotelle, O.S.A., ed., WSA, Part 3, Vol. 15, trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.B., Expositions of the Psalms 1–32, Exposition 2 of Psalm 31, 2–4 [Hyde Park: New City Press, 2000], pp. 364–365)

In other words, Augustine taught that justification is by grace through faith alone, but saving faith is never alone. The root of salvation by grace through faith will always produce the fruit of a changed life. That was precisely how Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers understood the gospel. It is how we, as evangelicals today, understand the gospel as well.

Was Augustine alone in that understanding? Absolutely not. In Part 5 of this series, we will survey a chorus of pre-Reformation voices from church history who affirmed a biblical understanding of the gospel of grace.

Pulpit Magazine Vol. 02. No. 1 January 2013

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