The Pope a Protestant?

About once a week, the Bishop of Rome, Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger), holds a ” general audience” in St Peter’s Square in which he gives instruction (catechesis) to Roman Catholics. In three of the more recent of these catechetical audiences he has sounded themes that might be taken as Protestant.

On 29 October, in honor of Reformation Day perhaps, he spoke on the “theology of the cross.” At least some of the message actually seemed to understand some of Luther’s concerns. The fact, however, that he delivered these remarks while acting as the ostensible “vicar of Christ” representing the same entity that anathematized the gospel and condemned Martin to eternal perdition adds only a little irony to the situation. What hath papal pomp (check out the Vatican website) to do with a lowly and crucified Savior?

On 19 November, as part of a larger series on Paul’s theology, he gave the first of two brief addresses on justification. He begins by asking the most important question: “How does man become just in God’s eyes?” Then there is a remarkable sentence, one which many erstwhile “Protestants” seem loathe to utter: “The alternative between justice by means of works of the Law and that by faith in Christ thus became one of the dominant themes that run through his Letters….”

He defines “law” in Paul to mean, “For St Paul, as for all his contemporaries, the word “Law” meant the Torah the five books of Moses. The Torah, in the Pharisaic interpretation, that which Paul had studied and made his own, was a complex set of conduct codes that ranged from the ethical nucleus to observances of rites and worship and that essentially determined the identity of the just person.” For Paul, before the Damascus Road encounter, the law was a boundary marker (my summary) to protect Jews from that “which not only threatened the Israelite identity but also the faith in the one God and in his promises….”

According to Benedict’s summary of Paul, with the resurrection of Christ, everything has changed. Now the dividing wall has been broken down (he cites Ephesians). He even continues by saying, “For this reason Luther’s phrase: “faith alone” is true…..” At this point, doubtless many readers will be tempted to stop reading and to rejoice that the Reformation is over. Noll and Nystrom seem to be vindicated. That would be a mistake. As I often tell my students: “keep reading.” He continues by saying, that Luther’s “faith alone” is true “if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love” [emphasis added].  That conditional, that “if,” makes all the difference in the world. That one little conditional is the difference between Rome and Wittenberg. Why? After all, Protestants affirm that faith alone is not opposed to charity (love) or sanctification. That’s certainly true, but the question here is whether the Benedict means by “faith” what we mean by it and whether we’re talking about the same justification and the same role of faith? For us Protestants, charity is the fruit and evidence of justification. Is it so for Benedict? If so, he’s abandoned his own catechism and magisterial Roman dogma since 1547. That would be remarkable indeed!

Read in its broader context (Roman dogma since 1547) and in its immediate context it becomes clear that he has not capitulated to Luther. The little expression “faith in charity” is a shorthand way of expressing the Roman doctrine that it is “faith formed by love” that justifies, i.e. faith justifies because and to the degree that it sanctifies. The “supreme pontiff” (so much for the theologia crucis) knows what he’s doing. He’s a German theologian.

Let’s let him explain what he means by “justification.”

Being just simply means being with Christ and in Christ. And this suffices. Further observances are no longer necessary. For this reason Luther’s phrase: “faith alone” is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love. Faith is looking at Christ, entrusting oneself to Christ, being united to Christ, conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence to believe is to conform to Christ and to enter into his love. So it is that in the Letter to the Galatians in which he primarily developed his teaching on justification St Paul speaks of faith that works through love.

We agree that being just means being “with Christ” and “in Christ” by faith alone, i.e., by a “certain knowledge and a hearty trust,” by “resting and receiving” Christ and his perfect righteousness imputed by the unmerited favor of God alone. This is not what Benedict means.

We agree that “observances are no longer necessary.” We agree that faith is “looking at Christ, entrusting oneself to Christ, being united to Christ” but that’s not all Benedict says. He adds the qualifier, “conformed to Christ, to his life.” Oops. Justification by faith alone absolutely results in becoming gradually conformed to Christ, but the supreme pontiff has it that justification is predicated upon our being “conformed to Christ.” There’s more. “And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence to believe is to conform to Christ and to enter into his love.” Then he quotes Gal 5.* Well, no one can disagree with Gal 5 but we can disagree vehemently with the use to which Rome (and Benedict is being classical Roman Catholic here) puts it. When he says “form” thats the signal that he’s interpreting Gal 5 as they have long done, “formed by love.” “Formed by love” means “made a reality by sanctification.” “Love” here is a synecdoche for all the graces which we confess in WCF 11 “accompany” justification. For Benedict, and for Rome, these graces do not merely “accompany” and give witness (James 2) to the reality of faith and justification, they are the ground and instrument of justification. This is what Benedict means  when he says, “to conform to Christ, and to enter his love.” This is code for “to be gradually sanctified and gradually justified.” For Protestants, sanctification is gradual but justification is a definitive event, it is the divine announcement that sinners have been declared just on the basis of the actual, real, righteousness of Christ imputed to them.

This is precisely why, on Gal 5:6 Calvin wrote, “When you are engaged in discussing the question of justification, beware of allowing any mention to be made of love or of works, but resolutely adhere to the exclusive particle.” (Commentary on Galatians 5.6, 1548).

This is not mere hard-nosed Protestant carping. His holiness continues in the next paragraph: “Thus in communion with Christ, in a faith that creates charity, the entire Law is fulfilled. We become just by entering into communion with Christ who is Love.” Please don’t miss the expression, “We become just by entering into communion with Christ who is love.” There is a Protestant way of reading this, if we isolate it from what went before and what went after but the Pope isn’t a Protestant and we would not be dealing honestly with what he said. The Pope remains a faithful and loyal teacher of the Tridentine dogma of progressive justification through progressive sanctification and that by grace and cooperation with grace. That much is clear as he closes his message with this modification of Luther’s “faith alone”: “Thus, at the end of this Gospel we can almost say: love alone, charity alone.” That’s the Roman dogma. “Faith” becomes “charity.” “Trusting” alone in Christ alone is not sufficient for justification. For Rome there must be a realistic basis within the justified, on the basis of which God may rightly say, “just.”

Let this also be a warning to those Reformed fellows who think they are helping the cause by trying to answer Rome with the claim, “but there is a realistic basis within us by virtue of a our existential union with Christ which is logically prior to justification.” Are they really helping the Protestant cause by locating a realistic justice, by virtue of union with Christ, logically prior to justification? No! Not at all. Why not? Well, first of all Paul says that Christ justifies “sinners.” The rationalistic Roman system cannot have Christ’s realistic righteousness imputed as the ground. Those who want to introduce to Reformed theology a realistic righteousness by virtue of existential union logically prior to faith are playing right into the pontiff’s hands.

We should also note that Benedict speaks of “communion” and “union” five times in this message and each time sounds a not unlike the revision of the doctrine of union that is urged upon the Reformed Churches: He says, “Thus in communion with Christ, in a faith that creates charity, the entire Law is fulfilled. We become just by entering into communion with Christ who is Love.” Again he says, “It is the same vision, according to which communion with Christ, faith in Christ, creates charity. And charity is the fulfillment [spelling Americanized] of communion with Christ.” Quick who said this: “Thus, we are just by being united with him and in no other way”? An advocate of the revisionist doctrine of “union” or the holy father? Can’t tell? That should be a little troubling. If our doctrine of justification is fundamentally different from Rome’s, shouldn’t our doctrine of union reflect that difference? I realize that there will be formal similarities between things Protestants say and things the Pontiff says, but on this point, is there any need to try to satisfy the Roman critics by conceding one of the fundamental points of the Reformation (i.e. an intrinsic ground vs an extrinsic ground of justification)?

It does not help the Protestant faith nor is it faithful to Paul’s doctrine of union, or to Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ, to use it to locate within the sinner and intrinsic righteousness and especially not logically prior to justification. We are not justified on the basis of anything in us or anything wrought in us. The only ground of our acceptance with God is Christ’s perfect, intrinsic, realistic righteousness imputed to us. Relative to justification it is outside of us (extra nos). When Calvin, in Book 3 of the Institutes says that it must not remain outside of us, we say “Amen!” Now we’re talking about sanctity, which is the logical and necessary consequence of justification.

If we’re not careful, some of us may end up closing our homilies just the way Benedict closed this homily, not with the good news of free, unconditional, justification by faith (resting and receiving) alone, but with the terrible condition of the the Roman covenant of grace and works: “And thus, transformed by his love, by the love of God and neighbour, we can truly be just in God’s eyes.”

*I assume the holy father has editors and I don’t think any claim of infallibility is made for such pronouncements, but he seems to be discussing Gal 5:6 but the citation in the document says Gal 5:14 and the hyperlink is to the whole chapter of Gal 5. Hence I mention and discuss Gal 5.

Update 11 Dec 08

Lig Duncan weighs in on Ref21.

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  1. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for this post. I just recently came across such a different take on the Pope’s catechesis on the blog listed below on 11/21/08.

    Fr Jeffrey Steel says of the Pope’s catechesis:

    “I would love our Reformed friends to find fault with Pope Benedict XVI on his words here concerning the doctrine of justification which many in the Protestant Reformed world consider to be the gospel itself. Maybe they can come around and show us where the Pope teaches salvation by works.”

  2. That conditional, that “if,” makes all the difference in the world. … the question here is whether the Benedict means by “faith” what we mean by it and whether we’re talking about the same justification and the same role of faith?

    Over and over, Catholics equivocate on words and these equivocations become dogma. And unsuspecting Protestants are sucked in.

    Thanks for your comments Scott.

  3. Thank you Dr. Clark. It is so vital that we continue to be clear and define our terms carefully, or we’ll make the same mistake that ECT did. This is why so many Protestants fail to realize that Rome hasn’t changed a bit in her attitude toward the gospel. She still hates the gospel, and she still offers terrible news for sinners but “great” news for righteous legalists.

  4. Isn’t it ultimately about the difference between infused (Rome) and imputed (Reformers) righteousness? Is that the best way to boil down the difference?

    Also – isn’t this why the Federal Vision is virtually identical to Rome in their understanding of the relationship between justification and sanctification?

  5. So for Rome, we are made right before God because our progressive sanctification, which is due to the grace of God and our cooperation with it, leads to progressive justification? And this sanctification is what forms the faith that saves (faith formed by love)? And it is not the case that sanctification and justification are simultaneous and progressive from beginning to end?

    I am trying to understand what Rome teaches.

  6. Albert,

    In the Roman view, sanctification is justification. You are as justified as you are sanctified. Sanctification is progressive and therefore justification is progressive. Ordinarily no one leaves this life justified.

    The process, as you say is by grace and cooperation with grace. This is why the “sola” in sola gratia is so important. It’s also essential that we distinguish the Protestant definition of grace as unmerited divine favor or approval from the Roman view of grace as medicinal stuff (divinity) with which we’re infused.

    As you summarize, the Roman definition of faith is “formed by love” or in a nutshell, sanctification. Faith is a reality inasmuch as it works, obeys, cooperates with grace, is brought into reality by sanctification (charity).

    We say that faith, in the act of justification, rests in Christ, trusts Christ and his finished work, receives Christ and his finished work for us, is a certain knowledge, confidence, and a heartfelt trust. We define it as knowledge, assent, and trust. Rome says that whoever defines faith relative to justification, as confidence in the divine mercy is eternally condemned. For Rome confidence (fiducia) is presumption. No one can know with certainty that he is justified in this life. For us Protestants, confidence in the divine promises in the gospel is of the essence of faith.

  7. Hi Ken,

    Yes, the distinction between an “intrinsic” (in us) ground and an “extrinsic” (outside of us) ground of justification is essential to the Reformation.

    The FV rejects the purely extrinsic ground and a purely forensic (legal) doctrine of justification. Some of their writers have rejected the doctrine of imputation and it’s routine for them to reject the doctrine that Christ merited justification for us. Then there is the definition of faith etc. See above for more on that.

  8. Hi to everyone,

    Many weeks ago, I found this article by Gary Crampton defending the Protestant doctrine of justification. You might want to check it out. Here is the link:

    As a former Roman Catholic (born and baptized in the RCC) who have studied in Roman Catholic schools, I find this post relevant especially now that many former Protestants have crossed the Tiber. Incidentally, many of them are from Presbyterian and Reformed backgrounds. I have seen and read books that defend their newfound convictions, but I remain convinced that Protestant doctrine of justification is Biblical and therefore true.

    Btw, Alberto and I are two different people. We are not related. I am from Southeast Asia.

  9. Hi Albert,

    Yes, too many folks have passed through the Reformed world on the way to Rome or Eastern Orthodoxy. I don’t think, however, that there’s anything inherent in Reformed theology, piety, and practice that leads to this. The causes are several. Sometimes folks leave fundamentalism and they pass through the Reformed churches on their way to Rome. They don’t find Reformed theology satisfying or, perhaps, they don’t really find Reformed theology? That’s why I wrote the book. Recovering the Reformed Confession and why the faculty wrote, Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry so people could see what Reformed theology, piety, and practice looks like.

  10. Hey, Ken, if you’re my “Pastor Ken,” I’ll share my copy of CJPM with you–Dr. Clark and the contributors do a great job of critiquing the Federal Vision theology. And stop writing on blogs and get back to preparing this Lord’s Day sermons! If you’re not Pastor Ken, never mind.

  11. Hi Dr. Clark,

    In an online discussion forum, I met a man who had an experience similar to what you have described. He was born and raised a Filipino Roman Catholic like me. He spent many years as a fundamentalist, and even became a Reformed Baptist (i.e., one who holds to the 1689 LBCF). He is now an Eastern Orthodox, and is now residing in Canada with his family.

    I will never forget reading Scott and Kimerly Hahn’s Rome Sweet Home. Many Protestants have already expressed dismay over Mr. Hahn and his wife’s critique of Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide in that book. That is truly unforgettable. But what really struck me is Mr. Hahn’s attempt to read and understand the Bible through “covenants.” He might have argued this way to present a better case for Roman Catholicism to his Protestant (especially Reformed) friends. But any Reformed Christian would find this extremely problematic. How could anyone say that he has believing Abraham has his father on the one hand, and affirm Rome’s doctrine of justification and understanding of the sacraments on the other? How could he maintain the only gospel and the only way by which men are justified in both the OT and the NT, and hold to inclusivism as taught by Vatican II at the same time? In my opinion, this is the primary reason why Mr. Hahn’s arguments would appear lame at best to his Reformed readers. Moreover, it was this observation that convinced me all the more why Covenant Theology presents the most consistent way of reading and understanding the God-breathed Scriptures.

    Also, I will never forget Mr. Hahn’s colleague, Mr. Gerry Matatics [], whose story he includes in his book. Mr. Matatics was once hailed by Roman Catholic America as one of its apologists, but is now considered as a heretic because of his “sedevacantist” views. I was thinking that if Sola Scriptura is not true as these two apologists claim, which of the two Roman Catholic churches then is the true church, the one by Hahn or that of Matatics? Many Roman Catholics do not understand how fatal this misunderstanding is within their own camp in their polemic against the “divisions” of Protestantism. As always, these guys fail to make a distinction between confessional Protestantism and its non-confessional counterpart.

    In recent months, I had been thinking of reading Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry. But since it is quite a long book, I might read it next year. The next book in my list is Rev. Danny Hyde’s recently published book on infant baptism. I hope to read it before the year ends. Thanks.

  12. Albert, I encourage you to read Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry. It is a collection of essays by the Westminster Seminary faculty–and you could easily read an essay/article in one evening.

  13. This is precisely why, on Gal 5:6 Calvin wrote, “When you are engaged in discussing the question of justification, beware of allowing any mention to be made of love or of works, but resolutely adhere to the exclusive particle.” (Commentary on Galatians 5.6, 1548).

    It’s hard to imagine that if more Reformed men took this advice that the Federal Vision and so-called “New Perspectives” would have even gotten a foothold. It is striking the number of similarities between Rome’s understanding of what constitutes saving faith and that of, say, Doug Wilson. Nice piece.

  14. Although there is an internal work of the Spirit that is prior to justification (i.e., effectual calling/regeneration–WCF combines these two in Ch. 10), that internal work is in no way the “basis” or “ground” of that justification.

    One of the big difficulties is that Rome is really interested in getting everyone into her house, so they are great at describing how any view at all is included in their own! They’ve managed to combine the old Roman exclusivism with a new postmodern universalism, so they want to say that only the Roman church is the true one, but it turns out that everyone’s in that church already–so we Protestants just have to wake up and realize that fact.

    My favorite part of ECT II was always the end where they mention that ideas like the intercession of the saints, purgatory, the role of Mary, and the treasury of merit still have to be worked out, but that JBFA was agreed upon!

    Perhaps the problem goes back to Thomas failing for once to make sufficient distinctions. In his treatment of justification, while he does make justification instantaneous rather than progress, he includes four things: infusion of grace, movement of the soul toward God, movement of the soul away from sin, and remission of sin. That is to say, he lumps effectual calling/regeneration, faith, repentance, and justification into one thing, “justification.” Without distinguishing among those different graces, it is hard to talk about the grounds, cause, effects, etc. that each one has and keep them clearly distinguished. That muddies the waters to such a degree that it is sometimes difficult to tell what Rome means by any one term.

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