How to inherit eternal life

Here is an exchange between Jesus and a certain young man.

And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’ ” And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have observed from my youth.” And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” At that saying his countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions. (Mark 10:17-22, NJB; emphasis added)

Once again, and not for the first time, Jesus’s words about how one may obtain eternal life do not come close to anything like the Protestant idea of sola fide, according to which we are saved by trusting in Christ alone, with nothing else added. But in this passage with the rich young man, the subject of faith is never even mentioned, never mind made the focus of justification. No. Jesus tells the man what he must do in order to be saved, and it is not “trust Me, that’s all.” It is not “You don’t have to do anything. Just have faith in Me.” It is “sell your stuff, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Me.”

We could conceivably argue all day about whether or not follow Me is crypto-speak for having faith. And as I have said before, I am by no means saying that faith is unnecessary. But it is flatly absurd to look at a passage like this one and then deny that whether we obtain eternal life or not depends to some extent on what we do. It can’t rationally be done.

Oh, and as an aside…did you notice how, when the young man said he had kept the commandments his whole life, Jesus did NOT contradict him? Our Reformed friends would have us believe that no one ever does good, but here we see Him accept without question the claim to having obeyed one’s entire life. That was not the problem. It baffles me how the Reformed can claim that this passage does not blast their doctrine of total depravity into tiny little jots and tittles.

Another sola fide holiday

Here is another passage from the gospels that I honestly do not know how to fit into the Protestant sola fide model of justification:

Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it. What, then, will anyone gain by winning the whole world and forfeiting his life? Or what can anyone offer in exchange for his life? ‘For the Son of man is going to come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and then he will reward each one according to his behaviour. (Matthew 16:24-27, NJB; emphasis added)

Notice the two things that I have highlighted in this passage. First, Jesus does not in any way refer to sola fide when He tells us what is necessary to be His disciple. On the contrary He tells us things to do. We must forsake our attachments to this life, prepare to suffer, and follow Him (to the Crucifixion? Hmmm…) And in case anyone is missing the point, at the end He says that He “will reward each one according to his behaviour.” Note: He does not say that faith will even be among the categories for judgment. There will be a single category according to which we shall be judged: our behavior.

What we do matters. Our sins must be forgiven in Christ, but we are not free to live however we wish after that. If we love Him, we will keep His commandments.

Forgiveness and sola fide

Protestants would have us believe that we are justified — saved from hell — by the exercise of faith in Christ plus nothing else. In fact, at least some will deny that the exercise of faith constitutes a human action, but that seems either completely irrational or like a grand exercise of special pleading.

But I digress.

I have been writing a series of posts in an effort to answer the question whether the Protestant version of sola fide is consistent with the Bible. I will of course allow the reader to decide for himself, but I think that it is increasingly clear that the basis for this doctrinal novelty is slim at best. On the other hand (as we have been seeing) there are masses of passages throughout the Bible which contradict the Protestant viewpoint. Here is another.

Then Peter went up to him and said, ‘Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times. ‘And so the kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a king who decided to settle his accounts with his servants. When the reckoning began, they brought him a man who owed ten thousand talents; he had no means of paying, so his master gave orders that he should be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, to meet the debt. At this, the servant threw himself down at his master’s feet, with the words, “Be patient with me and I will pay the whole sum.” And the servant’s master felt so sorry for him that he let him go and cancelled the debt. Now as this servant went out, he happened to meet a fellow-servant who owed him one hundred denarii; and he seized him by the throat and began to throttle him, saying, “Pay what you owe me.” His fellow-servant fell at his feet and appealed to him, saying, “Be patient with me and I will pay you.” But the other would not agree; on the contrary, he had him thrown into prison till he should pay the debt. His fellow-servants were deeply distressed when they saw what had happened, and they went to their master and reported the whole affair to him. Then the master sent for the man and said to him, “You wicked servant, I cancelled all that debt of yours when you appealed to me. Were you not bound, then, to have pity on your fellow-servant just as I had pity on you?” And in his anger the master handed him over to the torturers till he should pay all his debt. And that is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart.’ [Matthew 18:21-35, NJB; emphasis added)

You see, sola fide on the Protestant model is a dead-end road. If we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us. Forgiveness is Mandatory. Yes, I have written about this passage before. It is important! It is so important that the Lord Jesus included this subject in the prayer He taught His disciples: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And He goes on to exposit the prayer after teaching it, and He has just one thing to say about it:

Yes, if you forgive others their failings, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours; but if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failings either. (Matthew 6:14-15, NJB; emphasis added)

Not all the Protestant sola fide in the world will get us around this duty of love. If we have the love of God in us, then we will exercise it in forgiving those who have harmed us.

The Sermon on the Mount and Sola Fide

The Sermon on the Mount winds up on a note that emphatically lacks the fragrance of the Protestant sola fide doctrine:

Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’ (Matthew 7:21-23, RSV2CE)

If we are actually justified by faith alone as we are told, then Lord, Lord ought by rights to be all that is necessary to open the gates of heaven. Jesus says otherwise here (and in the parable of the sheep and the goats). Please note that the people referred to here didn’t just prophesy in His name, but also cast demons out. The only record we have of an unbeliever attempting this does not end well, yet these people say they did cast out demons. It seems difficult to imagine, then, that they were not genuine Christians.

And they lost their salvation.

This should not be surprising to us. We have seen it recently in Ezekiel too. What we Christians do matters. If we live lives of disobedience toward God, Jesus may indeed say to us, “I never knew you.”

Justified by … what?

Here is what Jesus says.

I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12:36-37, RSV2CE)

Nothing is said here about sola fide. Instead Jesus says we will be justified (or not) based upon our words.

Let us be generous and concede that this passage does not eliminate the necessity of faith. But another thing it flatly doesn’t do is teach justification by faith alone. What we do and say matters for our eternal destiny, even for Christians.

How to become a child of God

Here is what the Lord Jesus says about the way that one becomes a child of God:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:43-45, RSV2CE; emphasis added)

The phrase so that is an adverbial particle that expresses purpose in Greek, as is indicated by the English above: in order to be a son of God you must love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. He does not say “so that you can remain a son of God” nor “so that you can show you are a son of God, but rather so that you may be a son of God.

Obviously this passage does not play well with the Protestant idea of sola fide. There is nothing about faith in this passage, and certainly nothing about faith alone. As we have said before, this doesn’t mean that faith is irrelevant: that would be an argument from silence. But we can say that our works are associated with our justification before God in some way, because that is just what is said in the passage above. It does not seem that one can reasonably say that Christ is talking about something that happens after justification, because the language of the passage refers to purpose and not to result.

Reconciliation and the Visible Church

The CCC says in §1445:

Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God.

Reconciliation with God and with the Church go together. You can’t have one without the other. Why is that? The answer, I think, is to be found in the Incarnation, and particularly in the doctrine that the Church is the Body of Christ. There is no controversy associated with the idea that the Church is Christ’s Body; it is repeatedly proclaimed to be true many times in the New Testament, as for example in Ephesians 5:29-30:

A man never hates his own body, but he feeds it and looks after it; and that is the way Christ treats the Church, because we are parts of his Body. (NJB; emphasis added)

This being the case, it ought to be obvious why exactly reconciliation with the one cannot be separated from reconciliation with the other: In Christ, the Son of God has taken on a human nature forever. Consequently reconciliation and union with the one necessitates the same with the other.

This seems relatively uncontroversial for anyone who accepts the orthodox dogmas of the Incarnation. But it becomes a bit more interesting when we ask exactly how one is reconciled with God and the Church? Jesus tells us:

If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained. (John 20:23, NJB)

In short, reconciliation with both God and the Church is accomplished through one and the same act: the priestly sacrament of penance, confession or reconciliation. But this fact demands a follow up: who is empowered to perform the sacrament? The same passage from John’s gospel answers this question as well: the priests of Christ’s Church have the authority from Him to perform this sacrament.

If this is the case then it goes without saying that Christians and those who want to be Christian must be able to identify His Church, and this implies that His Church must be visible. All this is a long way of saying that reconciliation with Christ and His Church — as the Catechism says are mutually necessary — makes the Protestant doctrine of the invisible church rationally impossible. Why? Because if the Christian (or prospective Christian) is unable to identify where the Church actually is, he has no certain access to the reconciliation that Christ promises in John 20. The Protestant may object that he may confess to God directly, but that act only accomplishes half of what the Church says is necessary and half of what seems logically required by the Incarnation: reconciliation with the Church is no less necessary than reconciliation with God. They go together. But the idea of the invisible church offers the Christian no certainty about that reconciliation. This being the case, it seems clear that the Protestant doctrine does not pass the smell test.

Thwarting God’s Will

Presbyterians and other Reformed folk like to use the acronym TULIP as a thumbnail for certain views they hold which are at least somewhat unique among Protestants (at least when held together). The I refers to their belief in Irresistible grace, according to which the Elect are inevitably compelled (not, perhaps, a word they would apply, but I think that it fits) to receive the grace of God and consequently are absolutely assured of salvation.

When we consider the pages of Scripture, however, the picture is considerably more blurry.

All the people who heard him, and the tax collectors too, acknowledged God’s saving justice by accepting baptism from John; but by refusing baptism from him the Pharisees and the lawyers thwarted God’s plan for them. (Luke 7:29-30, NJB; emphasis added)

How can God’s plan for their redemption be thwarted by them if the I in the TULIP is true? I submit that the Reformed schema is a poor explanation for passages like the one above, as well as this one:

today you must make up your minds whom you do mean to serve, whether the gods whom your ancestors served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now living. As regards my family and me, we shall serve Yahweh. (Joshua 24:15, NJB; emphasis added)

There are quite a few passages like the latter, and they are difficult enough, but Luke 7:29-30 presents quite a different problem, because there we see men who are said to thwart God’s plan. How can this be reconciled with the Reformed schema? I do not see how it can.

But it is not as though the Reformed are entirely wrong with respect to predestination, something that the Catholic Church likewise affirms. The Church also affirms human free will, however. It would, after all, be unjust to be condemned for actions over which one has no genuine control. How can these two be reconciled? In the end, we may simply have to say that it is a mystery which we receive by faith because God has revealed both to be true.

St. Thomas Aquinas offers one way of integrating the two, in the Summa Theologiae and the Summa contra Gentiles. He proposes that God’s providence is worked out in accordance with the natures of His creatures, not contrary to them. So rather than compelling us, Aquinas would say, God works out His purposes for men by means of their free wills. How exactly that can be remains a mystery still (at least to me), but it makes sense that God works with the natures of His creations, rather than working against them, to achieve His purposes.

Ezekiel and sola fide

We return once again today to our relentless (tedious?) series on biblical passages that present problems for the Protestant (especially Reformed) view of justification by faith alone. By way of overview: there are many passages that either flatly contradict or which do not seem terribly amenable to a sola fide interpretation. We are far from done yet, but the series may be found here. My hope with respect to these posts is to persuade the reader that the Protestant sola fide view is mistaken; I would be satisfied with the more modest end that the reader agrees with me that the Protestant view is scripturally problematic at the very best.

In today’s episode we shall take a look at a longish passage, Ezekiel 33:10-20:

“And you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, Thus have you said: ‘Our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?’ Say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel? And you, son of man, say to your people, The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses; and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall by it when he turns from his wickedness; and the righteous shall not be able to live by his righteousness when he sins. Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trusts in his righteousness and commits iniquity, none of his righteous deeds shall be remembered; but in the iniquity that he has committed he shall die. Again, though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is lawful and right, if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has taken by robbery, and walks in the statutes of life, committing no iniquity; he shall surely live, he shall not die. None of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him; he has done what is lawful and right, he shall surely live.

“Yet your people say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just’; when it is their own way that is not just. When the righteous turns from his righteousness, and commits iniquity, he shall die for it. And when the wicked turns from his wickedness, and does what is lawful and right, he shall live by it. Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, I will judge each of you according to his ways.” (RSV2CE)

There is quite a bit here, so for ease of reference I’ll offer my remarks in a bullet list.

  • As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked… At least some of the Reformed say that those who are “reprobated” go to hell because it pleased God to fulfill His will in this way. They will explain this by claiming that it pleases God to do this according to His “decretive will” but that according to His “permissive will” He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. They make this distinction in order to save the appearances, for unless they do so their monergistic notions of salvation break down (“monergistic” refers to their claim that our salvation is 100% completed by God, without any human cooperation whatsoever). This approach is problematic, inasmuch as it contradicts the dogma of divine simplicity (which even at least some Reformed accept) to suggest that there are two competing, conflicting wills in God. It likewise creates an opportunity for the objector to say things like “no good God would allow so much suffering in the world; therefore there is no God.” A second problem it creates is that the Reformed man interprets this verse in Ezekiel according to verses of his preference so as to attempt to maintain the coherence of his theology. Letting Scripture interpret Scripture is not illegitimate in itself, of course, but why would we not let God’s own explicit declaration here in Ezekiel guide our interpretation of other related passages? He says that He has no pleasure in the death of sinners. Why does He allow it? Because free will is fundamental to our human nature as rational beings. Yes, He loves us, but He does not compel our love in return (which would be a contradiction anyway: there is no genuine love by a rational creature where that so-called love is compelled).
  • …turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel? First, this part of the passage reaffirms what He has already said: He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, so God urges them to repent. Second, it reaffirms the fact that we have been created with free will. Paraphrasing Aquinas on this subject: God’s providence governs all that occurs in creation, but it does so according to the nature of things. We have free will, and so God’s will for us is achieved by means of our free will. If we have free will but God “manages” it then we cannot be genuinely responsible for our own actions and it would be unjust (as St. Augustine says) to punish us for evil or to reward us for good. The greatness of God’s providential authority extends at least as far as achieving His purposes without breaking or contradicting the natures of created things.
  • The righteousness of the righteous shall not deliver him when he transgresses; and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall by it when he turns from his wickedness: This contradicts the Reformed doctrine of “total depravity,” according to which there are no righteous people whatsoever. Therefore this Reformed notion is incorrect. Alternatively the Reformed man might attempt to avoid this difficulty by saying that the righteous in view here are the elect, but that only opens two other lines of criticism: first, that approach would mean that (according to this passage from Ezekiel) the elect may lose their salvation; and secondly that the reprobate (the wicked in this passage, according to this argument) can actually attain salvation. Both of these outcomes are impossible according to the Reformed. So there seems to be no way that the Reformed can salvage their system of doctrine in the face of this passage from Ezekiel. At any rate I can think of no way to do so. For what it is worth, God apparently wants to drive this point home, because He goes over it so thoroughly: the righteous may “blow it” and wind up in hell, while the wicked may repent and enter into God’s presence in heaven.

In any case, this passage seems to do quite a number upon the Protestant doctrines of sola fide and assurance: throughout these verses the emphasis is that one’s standing before God is measured by what he does. The righteous may fall; the fallen may rise; in both cases the measure is the same: his works.