Let me begin by saying that the controversy between Protestants and Catholics regarding justification can’t possibly be explained adequately in this single blog post. The Lord calls Christians to practice honesty, and therefore I want to represent both sides of the argument as accurately as I can.
This issue mattered in the 16th Century. The Reformers took enormous risks, sometimes even losing their lives, because they dared to stand against Roman Catholic teaching that justification is progressive and consequently can be lost when a mortal sin goes unconfessed. Although Catholic doctrine acknowledges that God initiates salvation through the grace of Jesus Christ, justification is part of the sanctification process. Mortal sins can, as a result, cause someone to lose their salvation unless they atone for that sin either in this life or in Purgatory.
Again, I’ve only given a brief synopsis of the Roman Catholic position. In future posts, I plan to expand on their view of justification in a way that doesn’t caricature their teachings unfairly. For the moment, however, let’s agree that their system of justification necessitates human cooperation and makes Purgatory a possible means of regaining justification.
The teaching of Purgatory so troubled Martin Luther that he nailed his 95 Theses to the Whittenburg Castle Church door, challenging Rome’s authority to teach that doctrine (which has no Scriptural basis). He, and the Reformers before and after hm, maintained that a person’s justification depended entirely on Christ, separate from any cooperation on our part.
Martin Luther famously said that justification by faith alone is “the article upon which the church stands or falls.” Despite ecumenical efforts to minimize differences between Protestants and Catholics, we cannot allow ourselves to believe that this is a minor issue. Bible-believing Christians must insist that adding human cooperation to God’s grace perverts the Gospel. In essence, by preaching that justification requires ongoing human cooperation, the Roman Catholic Church preaches a gospel other than the Gospel presented by the apostles.
Paul confronted a similar situation in Galatia, where a group known as the Judaizers taught the gentile Christians that they needed to observe Jewish Law, and circumcision in particular, in order to be saved. This melding of grace and law infuriated Paul, causing him to write a letter in righteous indignation. Several of his lines blazed with outrage, but one especially made it clear that any augmentation of the Gospel damned people.
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. ~~Galatians 1:6-9 (ESV)
Look, I’m not writing these essays on the Reformation out of animosity toward people in the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, I pray for the Catholics in my life to know that Christ paid completely for their sin, if only they’ll trust in Him instead of Catholic sacraments and works of penance.
However, the Roman Catholic system, by confusing justification with sanctification, has lied to these people, convincing them that they must contribute to their justification. The Reformation matters because the Protestants and Catholics teach two very different gospels. Only one can be true.
Alas, next Tuesday I have a doctor’s appointment in Boston, so I won’t be able to blog about the Reformation that day. But the following Tuesday I plan to explain the Roman Catholic understanding of justification, and how it differs from the Protestant view. Understanding both views will enable us to then defend the Protestant view as being more consistent with God’s Word. I hope you’ll hang in there with me, so you can see why we celebrate the Protestant Reformation.