Is the Pope a Protestant?

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

On 29 October 2008, perhaps in honor of Reformation Day, 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 2008, as part of a larger series on Paul’s theology, he gave the first of two brief addresses on justification. He began 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 loath 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 . . . .”

On the definition of Law he says: “For St Paul, as for all his contemporaries, the word ‘Law’ meant the Torah in its totality, 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. The claims of Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom might seem to be vindicated. Such a conclusion, however, would be a mistake. As I often tell my students: “keep reading.” He continued to say that Luther’s “faith alone” is true “if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love” [emphasis added]. That conditional “if” makes all the difference in the world. That one little conditional is the difference between Rome and Wittenberg (and Geneva, Heidelberg, Edinburgh, and Zürich). Why? After all, Protestants affirm that faith alone is not opposed to charity (love) or sanctification. That is certainly true, but the question here is whether Benedict means by “faith” what we mean by it, and whether we are talking about the same justification and the same role of faith?

For Protestants, charity is only the  fruit and evidence of justification. Is it so for Benedict? If so, he has 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 (and Calvin et al.). The little expression “faith in charity” is a shorthand way of expressing the Roman doctrine that it is “faith formed by love” (fides formata caritate) that justifies—that is, faith justifies because and to the degree that it sanctifies. The supreme pontiff (so much for the theologia crucis) knows what he is doing. He is a German theologian.

Let us allow him to 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.

The confessional Reformed churches agree that being just means being with Christ and in Christ by faith alone—that is, 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, however, 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 is not all Benedict says. He adds the qualifier, “conformed to Christ, to his life.” In a word: oops.

Justification by faith alone results in becoming gradually conformed to Christ, but the supreme pontiff has it that justification is predicated upon our being conformed to Christ. There is 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 Galatians 5.1

Well, no one can disagree with Galatians 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” that is the signal that he is interpreting Galatians 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 Rome, however, 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 Galatians 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.” Do not 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 is not 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 is the Roman dogma. Faith becomes charity. According to Rome, confidence alone in Christ’s finished work alone is not sufficient for justification. There must be more. We must do our part—we must cooperate to become acceptable to God. 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 who think they are helping the Protestant cause by trying to answer Rome with the claim that tries to combine the legal basis (imputation of Christ’s righteousness) with some sort of realistic basis within the believer (whether Spirit-wrought sanctity or union with Christ). This approach to double justification (a twofold ground of acceptance with God) was tried in the 1540s and found wanting biblical, theological, and confessional support among the Reformed. For more on this see this author’s essay, “The Benefits of Christ: Double Justification in Protestant Theology Before the Westminster Assembly,” Anthony T. Selvaggio, ed., The Faith Once Delivered: Celebrating the Legacy of Reformed Systematic Theology and the Westminster Assembly (Essays in Honor of Dr. Wayne Spear). (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2007), 107–34.

First, all progressive doctrines of justification crash against the rock of Romans 5:1, “having therefore been justified by faith . . . .” One might question how to translate the aorist passive participle δικαιωθέντεϛ. The English Standard Version has “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith” and the New International Version has the same translation, but even the Roman Catholic edition of the Revised Standard Version translates the participle, “since we are justified” and the older Douay-Rheims (Roman Catholic) translation has “being justified therefore by faith . . . .” It simply is not possible to turn this aorist passive participle into a present or future tense. In that case, justification is something that has been finished and according to Protestant and Romanist translations alike it is “by faith.” That a definitive reading (rather than a progressive reading) is necessary is made clear by the next clause: “we have peace with God.” The verb to have is the present tense. It is not in the future tense as the Roman doctrine has it. No, according to Paul we presently have peace with God because we are accepted by him solely on the basis of Christ’s righteousness for us, credited to us, the benefits of which are received “through faith” (not baptism, contra Romish dogma).

It is well that Benedict notes how Paul contrasts grace and works, but he continues to misunderstand fundamentally what Paul means by the contrast. Paul is not establishing mere boundary markers but contrasting two distinct principles. This is clear enough from Romans 4:5 “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” First, notice that, contrary to Roman dogma, it is not the sanctified or godly whom God justifies, but the ungodly. Second, there is no reference to baptism here and no reference to any distinction between initial and final justification. Paul only knows one justification and one vindication. These are historically distinct events. Justification is a declaration about sinners and vindication is the eschatological declaration about the justified. Third, for Paul, the sort of cooperation with grace required by Roman theology is the very sort of “work” that is opposed to believing, and this is because believing is an instrument—an empty hand as Luther said—that receives the benefits of what the ungodly has neither done nor can do. In short, for Benedict, justification is a recognition of our intrinsic qualification for reward. For Paul, however, is quite the opposite: it is a declaration made about one who is intrinsically unqualified.

Second, Paul says that Christ has justified (δικαιωθέντεϛ) “sinners” (Romans 5:8–9). Roman dogma has it that God can only justify the righteous—that God recognizes the righteousness that has been wrought in us by grace (e.g., baptism) and cooperation with grace (which Paul calls “works”).

We should also note that Benedict speaks of “communion” and “union” five times in this message and each time sounds similar to how Protestants write now. Here is the choice before us: either we are in communion because we have been declared righteous by God on the basis of Christ’s accomplished righteousness (“it is finished” John 19:30) or we are accepted as righteous on the basis of our union and communion with Christ, which is what Benedict is teaching. In that case, union and communion are not fruits of Christ’s work for us—benefits graciously given to needy sinners—but vehicles by which we may eventually be able to commend ourselves to God. Benedict 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 of communion with Christ.”

According to Paul, the ground of our acceptance with God is outside us (extrinsic). It is Christ for us not Christ in us. This is precisely why Westminster Confession of Faith 11.1 says God justifies sinners freely “not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins . . . not for anything wrought in them or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone.” 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 are talking about sanctity, which is the logical and necessary consequence of justification.

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


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


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