We’re coming up on Reformation Day again this seems like a good time to cover the basics again. The medieval church came to teach that we enter a state of grace through baptism. According to the medieval church, we remain in a state of grace by the exercise of our free will, which we were said to have retained after the fall, in cooperation with grace. This consensus was confirmed at the Council of Trent and became Roman Catholic dogma.
It remains Roman dogma:
§1989The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification in accordance with Jesus’ proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high. “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man (Catechism of the Catholic Church)
For Rome, acceptance with God includes forgiveness but it “with justification, faith, hope, and charity are poured into our hearts, and obedience to the divine will is granted us” (ibid, §1991). Justification
establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent (ibid, §1993)
As part of this article, the catechism quotes the teaching of Session VII of the Council of Trent (1547), which declared “man himself is not inactive while receiving that inspiration, since he could reject it.” According to Rome, the Spirit enables our cooperation but we must do our part. It can be lost, unless we do our part.
The Reformation was a repudiation of the scheme of acceptance with God on the basis of forgiveness plus moral renovation, i.e., by grace and cooperation with grace or by grace and faithfulness. According to the Augsburg Confession (1530), Article 4, the Protestants confess:
men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.
Article 11 of the Anglican Articles (1552, 1563, 1571) confesses:
We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort; as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.
Article 18 of the French Confession (1559):
XVIII. We believe that all our justification rests upon the remission of our sins, in which also is our only blessedness, as says the Psalmist (Psa. 32:2). We therefore reject all other means of justification before God, and without claiming any virtue or merit, we rest simply in the obedience of Jesus Christ, which is imputed to us as much to blot out all our sins as to make us find grace and favor in the sight of God. And, in fact, we believe that in falling away from this foundation, however slightly, we could not find rest elsewhere, but should always be troubled. Forasmuch as we are never at peace with God till we resolve to be loved in Jesus Christ, for of ourselves we are worthy of hatred.
Article 23 of the Belgic Confession (1561):
We believe that our blessedness lies in the forgiveness of our sins because of Jesus Christ, and that in it our righteousness before God is contained, as David and Paul teach us when they declare that man blessed to whom God grants righteousness apart from works.
And the same apostle says that we are justified “freely” or “by grace” through redemption in Jesus Christ. And therefore we cling to this foundation, which is firm forever, giving all glory to God, humbling ourselves, and recognizing ourselves as we are; not claiming a thing for ourselves or our merits and leaning and resting on the sole obedience of Christ crucified, which is ours when we believe in him.
That is enough to cover all our sins and to make us confident, freeing the conscience from the fear, dread, and terror of God’s approach, without doing what our first father, Adam, did, who trembled as he tried to cover himself with fig leaves.
In fact, if we had to appear before God relying—no matter how little—on ourselves or some other creature, then, alas, we would be swallowed up.
Therefore everyone must say with David: “Lord, do not enter into judgment with your servants, for before you no living person shall be justified.”
Question 60 of the Heidelberg Catechism says:
60. How are you righteous before God?
Only by true faith in Jesus Christ; that is, although my conscience accuse me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil; yet God without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart.
Recently I received an email from a evangelical, Protestant pastor, who identified himself as a Calvinist, who wrote that he believes “under the new covenant” we enter “by faith” but that “we must maintain our place in the covenant, i.e., justification via faithfulness to the moral law.”
In light of history the very brief history of the doctrine of justification sketched above, this is a remarkable thing for an evangelical Protestant to say. It’s remarkable because it represents a (probably) unintentional repudiation of everything the Reformation stood for and achieved by God’s grace.
The sentiment expressed by this pastor is entirely medieval. The Council of Trent says, “Amen.” The Congregation for the Doctrine of the (Roman) Faith says, “For what are you waiting? You’ve adopted the very doctrine of holy Mother church.”
As he explained his view it became clear that he adopted this view for the very same reason that the medieval church adopted its view and that Rome, in 1547, adopted her view: to ensure that her people would be sanctified.
To desire sanctity in God’s people is a very good thing. God clearly reveals himself in Scripture as desiring, even demanding it of his people. What Scripture teaches and what the Reformation rediscovered, however, is that making our acceptance with God in any way conditional upon our obedience or our cooperation with grace will never produce the sanctity desired.
If grace and cooperation with grace is such an excellent formula for producing sanctity why was the late medieval church in the moral mess that it was? If covenant nomism or covenant moralism is so successful and producing sanctity why did it fail the Galatian church? After all, having sorted them out with respect to the good news the Apostle then proceeded to explain to them the nature of the Christian life that follows from justification. It is clear that legalism, moralism, nomism had not produced the sort of fruit that Paul expected of believers.
Why then, if it failed those NT churches who were tempted by it, if it failed after most of 1000 years of church history, if the universal testimony of the confessional Protestant churches (Lutheran and Reformed) rejected it with one voice, would folk continue to find this proposal so enticing?