A Small Step of Faith
Introduction to The Gift of Salvation
by J. I. Packer
“The Gift of Salvation” (GS) (see below) continues the process that announced itself in the 1995 statement “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium” (ECT) and the explanatory book Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission (1995). Led by Charles Colson (Baptist) and Richard John Neuhaus (Roman Catholic), this process is a serious attempt by conservative leaders on both sides of the Reformation divide to build a platform of doctrinal and missional conviction on which they and their colleagues will be able to stand together so as to work cooperatively. ECT is explicit in hoping that the process will yield patterns of joint action. How realistic this is cannot yet be known, for the process has not yet gone far enough; however, as an Evangelical who could not be a Roman Catholic but cares about mission and identifies with both ECT, the ECT book, and GS, I urge that these are, at least, steps in the right direction.
It was, I think, Emil Brunner who first said that the Church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning, and the participants in the ECT process share this view. Earlier ecumenism was inward-looking, seeing mission as having to wait on the reunion of the churches. ECT ecumenism is outward-looking; it remembers that when Jesus prayed that his people might be one as he and the Father were one he was himself on a mission, at the Father’s sending and in the Father’s company, to save a lost world, and it rates cooperative social witness and evangelism as itself a fulfillment of the Savior’s prayer. ECT views mission as first and foremost obedience to Jesus Christ, this world’s risen Lord, the Savior whom all need and whom therefore we must seek to share with everybody, and the Pantocrator whose moral standards we must ever seek to uphold in community life. The ECT process is thus an application to mission of the so-called Lund principle, first enunciated a generation ago, that ecclesiastically divided Christians should not do separately those elements of service to Christ and the world that their consciences allow them to do together. What forms missional cooperation between Catholics and Protestants might one day take is currently beyond our ken; our question is, should we be trying now to spell out a basis for it? That is what the ECT process is up to, and the work goes on.
Technically, since its leaders are self-appointed and its membership self-recruiting, the ECT enterprise is unofficial, though official Catholic and Protestant leadership has taken some notice of it. Theologically, it is an association of mainstreamers, all of whom find themselves closer to each other than to the various Protestant and Catholic radicals with whom they also have to do. Empirically, as a consciousness-raising, opinion-shaping venture, ECT has already made waves and seems likely to make more, if only because GS is to have worldwide distribution while major evangelical leaders seem resolved publicly to oppose the ECT process all along the line. Tactically, since Protestants have always seen the doctrine of salvation as the area of fundamental cleavage between Catholics and themselves, there was need for the first of ECT’s promised detailed statements to address this theme directly, and to focus on God’s free justification of sinners by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and that alone. GS now sets before the Christian world what we who framed it have so far found ourselves able to say together as we tackled this task.
Since our ecumenism is one, not of concession and accommodation, but of conviction and confession, we have tried to avoid the ambiguity and vagueness of “weasel words” that have marred some ecumenical draftings in the past. GS honestly celebrates significant agreement while honestly noting matters important for the process which we have yet to explore.
I am an Episcopal Evangelical, who values beyond measure the truth of present justification stated in the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England: “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings.” To me, therefore, it was a special joy that our Catholic colleagues could see, and say, that GS’s account of justification (which is not a full statement of the doctrine), so far as it goes, echoes “what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide).” Key questions about justification that have not yet been discussed are listed (the meaning of imputed righteousness, the normative and critical role of the doctrine of justification in theology and in the Church, and the exact relation between justifying faith and works), and the Tridentine anathemas are not mentioned; GS is, after all, no more than, just as it is no less than, a report of work in progress. But I find the Bible-centered method, the Christ-centered thrust, and the justification-centered focus of the document matters for great thanksgiving and encouragement.
Cardinal Edward Cassidy, visiting from the Vatican, spoke our mind when he said that to know Jesus savingly in any Church is much more important than belonging to any one Church while lacking that knowledge, and that the aim must ever be to evangelize with rather than against each other. So we think, and the memory of the moment of grace that gave us GS last October points us forward; on, then, in Christ’s name we go. The ECT process continues. n
J. I. Packer is Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, Canada. He is the author of many books, such as Knowing God and A Quest for Godliness.
The Gift of Salvation
We give thanks to God that in recent years many Evangelicals and Catholics, ourselves among them, have been able to express a common faith in Christ and so to acknowledge one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. We confess together one God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; we confess Jesus Christ the Incarnate Son of God; we affirm the binding authority of Holy Scripture, God’s inspired Word; and we acknowledge the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds as faithful witnesses to that Word.
The effectiveness of our witness for Christ depends upon the work of the Holy Spirit, who calls and empowers us to confess together the meaning of the salvation promised and accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. Through prayer and study of Holy Scripture, and aided by the Church’s reflection on the sacred text from earliest times, we have found that, notwithstanding some persistent and serious differences, we can together bear witness to the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. To this saving gift we now testify, speaking not for, but from and to, our several communities.
God created us to manifest his glory and to give us eternal life in fellowship with himself, but our disobedience intervened and brought us under condemnation. As members of the fallen human race, we come into the world estranged from God and in a state of rebellion. This original sin is compounded by our personal acts of sinfulness. The catastrophic consequences of sin are such that we are powerless to restore the ruptured bonds of union with God. Only in the light of what God has done to restore our fellowship with him do we see the full enormity of our loss. The gravity of our plight and the greatness of God’s love are brought home to us by the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
God the Creator is also God the Redeemer, offering salvation to the world. “God desires all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). The restoration of communion with God is absolutely dependent upon Jesus Christ, true God and true man, for he is “the one mediator between God and men” (1 Timothy 2:5), and “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). He is the holy and righteous one who was put to death for our sins, “the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).
The New Testament speaks of salvation in various ways. Salvation is ultimate or eschatological rescue from sin and its consequences, the final state of safety and glory to which we are brought in both body and soul. “Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Romans 5:9, 13:11). Salvation is also a present reality. We are told that “he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy” (Titus 3:5). The present reality of salvation is an anticipation and foretaste of salvation in its promised fullness.
Always it is clear that the work of redemption has been accomplished by Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). Scripture describes the consequences of Christ’s redemptive work in several ways, among which are: justification, reconciliation, restoration of friendship with God, and rebirth from above by which we are adopted as children of God and made heirs of the Kingdom. “When the time had fully come, God sent his son, born of a woman, born under law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Galatians 4:4–5).
Justification is central to the scriptural account of salvation, and its meaning has been much debated between Protestants and Catholics. We agree that justification is not earned by any good works or merits of our own; it is entirely God’s gift, conferred through the Father’s sheer graciousness, out of the love that he bears us in his Son, who suffered on our behalf and rose from the dead for our justification. Jesus was “put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). In justification, God, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone, declares us to be no longer his rebellious enemies but his forgiven friends, and by virtue of his declaration it is so.
The New Testament makes it clear that the gift of justification is received through faith. “By grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). By faith, which is also the gift of God, we repent of our sins and freely adhere to the Gospel, the good news of God’s saving work for us in Christ. By our response of faith to Christ, we enter into the blessings promised by the Gospel. Faith is not merely intellectual assent but an act of the whole person, involving the mind, the will, and the affections, issuing in a changed life. We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide).
In justification we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, through whom the love of God is poured forth in our hearts (Romans 5:5). The grace of Christ and the gift of the Spirit received through faith (Galatians 3:14) are experienced and expressed in diverse ways by different Christians and in different Christian traditions, but God’s gift is never dependent upon our human experience or our ways of expressing that experience.
While faith is inherently personal, it is not a purely private possession but involves participation in the body of Christ. By baptism we are visibly incorporated into the community of faith and committed to a life of discipleship. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
By their faith and baptism, Christians are bound to live according to the law of love in obedience to Jesus Christ our Lord. Scripture calls this the life of holiness, or sanctification. “Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). Sanctification is fully accomplished at the beginning of our life in Christ, but is progressively furthered as we struggle, with God’s grace and help, against adversity and temptation. In this struggle we are assured that Christ’s grace will be sufficient for us, enabling us to persevere to the end. When we fail, we can still turn to God in humble repentance and confidently ask for, and receive, his forgiveness.
We may therefore have assured hope for the eternal life promised to us in Christ. As we have shared in his sufferings, we will share in his final glory. “We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). While we dare not presume upon the grace of God, the promise of God in Christ is utterly reliable, and faith in that promise overcomes anxiety about our eternal future. We are bound by faith itself to have firm hope, to encourage one another in that hope, and in such hope we rejoice. For believers “through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:5).
Thus it is that as justified sinners we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. All of this is the gift of God. Faith issues in a confident hope for a new heaven and a new earth in which God’s creating and redeeming purposes are gloriously fulfilled. “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9–11).
As believers we are sent into the world and commissioned to be bearers of the good news, to serve one another in love, to do good to all, and to evangelize everyone everywhere. It is our responsibility and firm resolve to bring to the whole world the tidings of God’s love and of the salvation accomplished in our crucified, risen, and returning Lord. Many are in grave peril of being eternally lost because they do not know the way to salvation.
In obedience to the Great Commission of our Lord, we commit ourselves to evangelizing everyone. We must share the fullness of God’s saving truth with all, including members of our several communities. Evangelicals must speak the Gospel to Catholics and Catholics to Evangelicals, always speaking the truth in love, so that “working hard to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace . . . the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God” (Ephesians 4:3, 12–13).
Moreover, we defend religious freedom for all. Such freedom is grounded in the dignity of the human person created in the image of God, and must be protected also in civil law.
We must not allow our witness as Christians to be compromised by halfhearted discipleship or needlessly divisive disputes. While we rejoice in the unity we have discovered and are confident of the fundamental truths about the gift of salvation we have affirmed, we recognize that there are necessarily interrelated questions that require further and urgent exploration. Among such questions are these: the meaning of baptismal regeneration, the Eucharist, and sacramental grace; the historic uses of the language of justification as it relates to imputed and transformative righteousness; the normative status of justification in relation to all Christian doctrine; the assertion that while justification is by faith alone, the faith that receives salvation is never alone; diverse understanding of merit, reward, purgatory, and indulgences; Marian devotion and the assistance of the saints in the life of salvation; the possibility of salvation for those who have not been evangelized.
On these and other questions, we recognize that there are also some differences within both the Evangelical and Catholic communities. We are committed to examining these questions further in our continuing conversations. All who truly believe in Jesus Christ are brothers and sisters in the Lord and must not allow their differences, however important, to undermine this great truth, or to deflect them from bearing witness together to God’s gift of salvation in Christ. “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Corinthians 1:10).
As Evangelicals who thank God for the heritage of the Reformation and affirm with conviction its classic confessions, as Catholics who are conscientiously faithful to the teaching of the Catholic Church, and as disciples together of the Lord Jesus Christ, who recognize our debt to our Christian forebears and our obligations to our contemporaries and those who will come after us, we affirm our unity in the Gospel that we have here professed. In our continuing discussions, we seek no other unity than unity in the truth. Only unity in the truth can be pleasing to the Lord and Savior whom we together serve, for he is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
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“A Small Step of Faith” first appeared in the January/February 1998 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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