Faith Without Ethics
Not by Faith Alone: A Biblical Study of the Catholic Doctrine of Justification
reviewed by S. M. Hutchens
John Henry Newman somewhere remarked that it was impossible to be deep in history and remain a Protestant. I would modify his observation to suggest that it is hard to maintain a high view of the integrity of the received canon of Scripture and remain a “good” Protestant. I speak here in particular of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, frequently alleged to be the article upon which the Reformed churches stand or fall. Although I have been a Protestant all my life, I can never remember believing in justification by faith alone, even though it has been taught vigorously in most of the churches I have attended. Gifted by my father with skepticism about preachers’ opinions, when James’s Epistle taught with pristine clarity that “by works is a man justified, and not by faith alone,” even as boy I saw reason to mistrust those who ignored James or treated him strangely to assert what they claimed was Pauline doctrine.
The intuitions of my youth about the sheer wrongness of solifidianism have been powerfully reinforced in adult life, to the place where I believe it is a terrible error that must be strongly opposed by teachers of the Christian faith. In an era when men like the Southern Baptist President Clinton, unrestrained and undisciplined by his church, spout holy platitudes at Washington prayer breakfasts, then return to their chairs to execute thousands of children aborning with a vote or a pen stroke, when new churches continually appear asserting the gospel of faith alone apart from works, but break God’s rules wherever they see an advantage, when the principal churches of the Reformation, dead in the countries of their birth and dying elsewhere, have shown themselves to be devoid of the fear of God and rotten at their dogmatic and ethical heads, when black churches in America, full of religious noise, look the other way or blame others for the rampant illegitimacy and criminality in their flocks, when the white suburban churchgoers compete with secular statistics for serial marriages, when the polls indicate that having a personal conversion experience by no means puts a stop to immoral opinions and acts, one begins to more than suspect that one of the most powerful motives behind it all is the belief that all one has to do to be saved is “have faith in Jesus” in the sense that so many lawless Christians profess to have. Faith in this sense, even when it is defined as firm conviction with ethical result, is nothing more than a mood when not built firmly of the good works without which no man is saved—this being precisely the gospel that our religious but debased age needs to hear. One can see precisely whence James’s cutting irony comes: The devils also believe—and do better than men—for they, at least, tremble. It is time to remind those who would be Protestants that one does not stand righteous before God by faith alone, but that a man is justified by the faith of his works, that Paul and James must be honestly reconciled, or one of them must go.In fact the reconciliation is not difficult.
The majority of Christians have managed it quite nicely. When St. Paul said that we could not be justified by works, he quite clearly meant the works of the law. To put it concisely, a sinner cannot by his unaided efforts attain to the righteousness of God—a point upon which Catholics and Protestants agree. But this does not mean we are not justified by works. On the contrary, it is the works of faith that justify, and we are not justified without them. This does not mean that faith comes chronologically first and then come its works, as some Protestants who wish to salvage James without giving up misinterpretation of Paul aver. It means that in biblically informed religion it is not only that works acceptable before God are works of faith, but also that faith is a work and that acceptable work is the work of faith. They are not even as far divided as the two sides of a single coin, but are two aspects of the same thing. One cannot work in this sense without exercising justifying faith, and one cannot exercise faith without working. Those who preach that we are justified by faith must, to protect their integrity as teachers of orthodox faith, also preach that we are justified by works.Ultimately the faith and work by which we are justified is wholly that of Christ, in whom also justifying faith and works are undivided. (One might clarify the question of chronology by asking the faith-then-works people which came first in the Lord.) It is from this belief that Roman Catholics have extracted their doctrine of merit, and while we might entertain skepticism on the details, we must admit it to be based on a truth that Christians are bound to share. In saying these things, I do not defend every Roman Catholic elaboration. I am simply saying I believe Rome has been, from Trent onward, formally and essentially right on the nature and relation of faith and works in justification, while Protestantism, in its typical denial that we are justified by works, has been formally wrong.
For those who require an exhaustive exposition of the point, the best book I have found is Robert A. Sungenis’s Not by Faith Alone: A Biblical Study of the Catholic Doctrine of Justification. Sungenis is a Roman Catholic, and if I understand the autobiographical references in his book, yet another vocal and articulate convert from the strongly Reformed Protestantism of Westminster Theological Seminary, of which he is an alumnus. I cannot think of a significant stone left unturned in this more than 800-page analysis of the biblical and historical arguments put forward by the advocates of justification by faith alone. Clearly needing to be convinced very thoroughly that what he had been taught was flawed, Sugenis began with appropriate skepticism of the arguments on both the Catholic and Protestant sides, and was cleanly won by the Catholic. This chronicle of his research and thought is written in an earnest but engaging and gentlemanly way, with little evidence of the classical symptoms of “convert’s disease” (triumph, rancor, condescension, self-serving generalization, and stereotyping).
Sungenis begins with a more than 200-page discussion of the biblical seats of the controversy, first of Paul and James, then the teachings of Jesus. He moves from these to a discussion of whether justification is a one-time event or a gradual process, and whether it involves imputed or infused righteousness. I do not feel party to what Sungenis identifies as either the typically Protestant or traditionally Catholic answers in the latter discussion. While it seems wrong to say that righteousness is merely imputed at a certain time in a believer’s life, there seems to be a confusion on this point having to do with a probable misunderstanding about time. The mind out of which the Scriptures arose does not think about time and tense quite the way we do in the modern West. Infused righteousness, viewed punctiliarly, looks very much like imputation (we should not get carried away with the legal metaphor, for it tends to cement the single time-point aspect, when the point in its singleness is manifold); the accession of righteousness over time, viewed in the same way, looks like a one-time event. The life of the believer has an “aoristic” or “eternal present” or “perfect” quality in which all times are a single time and can be spoken of as such. A single moment can be spoken of as though it contained the whole life or age, the whole life or age as though it were defined in a single moment or event. (Many of our differences on the relation between baptism and regeneration would profit from thinking along these lines.) I would not deny the essential concepts of either imputed or infused righteousness, for both would seem to be applicable in their manner of discourse, rather than one true exclusive of the other. There seems, however, more room in the Catholic doctrine of infusion for imputation than there is in Protestantism for infused righteousness, for the Protestantism I have known has been intent not just to affirm imputed righteousness, but to deny its infusion.
The remainder of the book discusses justification in the context of free will and predestination, the final justification in judgment, and gives a careful overview of Protestant teaching on justification, beginning with Luther and Calvin, and moving through the controversies of our own day, including the sad burlesque of the “Lordship Salvation” controversy, and the debate over the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document. Especially poignant is the account of Norman Shepherd, a Westminster professor who, after more than twenty years of teaching theology at that school, was forced from his post for teaching that good works are necessary for justification. Sungenis has also made us privy to his working notes in some very helpful and clearly written appendices. This reviewer thinks he has successfully made the point he started out to make, and that if one remains a Protestant after reading it (as I do) it will be vastly more difficult to mount his protest on the basis of belief that we are justified by faith alone apart from works, principally because the Scriptures say otherwise, but not least (Sungenis is too polite to say it, but I am not) because the theological and ethical experiment the belief produced has failed.
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. email@example.com
“Faith Without Ethics” first appeared in the September/October 1998 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Click here for a printer-friendly version.
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.