R.C. Sproul. Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995.
An evangelical recommended this book to me out of the clear blue sky years ago, so I decided to buy it. It laid on my shelf for years before I finally read it.
Why did I decide to read it this past week? Well, I’ll be giving a sermon about Martin Luther at my church in a little more than a week, and I realized that I did not have a clear idea in my mind about what Catholics believe about justification. I knew something about the topic, mind you, for I used to listen to debates that James White had with Catholics, I had a friend who was converting to Catholicism, and, in a class about Paul that I took as an undergraduate, a couple of students were debating about what sort of righteousness Paul was talking about in Romans (imputed or infused and practical). But I wanted a firmer grasp of the topic, and I thought that Sproul’s book would provide me with that. I haven’t listened to Sproul’s radio program for some time, but I used to admire his professorial way of talking about issues, as I could hear him writing on his chalkboard. Sproul’s book looked like a fairly easy read, and I saw that it tackled questions head on, such as the differences between Protestant and Catholic understandings of justification, faith and good works, and merit. Thus, I decided to read it.
The back cover contains two endorsements that, at least on the surface, appear to be contradictory. One endorsement says that Sproul “writes with clarity”, whereas another endorsement states that Sproul’s book “is not a light read”. I found both to be true. Sproul is good at teaching and explaining issues, and yet I had to concentrate in reading his book. It was an exhausting read, yet it was worthwhile.
Sproul’s agenda in writing this book did not particularly resonate with me, for the book is essentially his criticism of the Evangelical-Catholic dialogue that led to the 1994 document, Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium. This document was signed by such renowned evangelicals as J.I. Packer and Charles Colson. Sproul’s main problem with it is that he believes that it compromises the Protestant doctrine that one is justified by faith alone, apart from works. Sproul goes out of his way to argue that the Protestant and Catholic views on justification are neither compatible nor merely semantically different, but rather are incompatible and substantively different. For Sproul, the Reformed understanding of justification is the Gospel, whereas the Roman Catholic view is not. Later in the book, Sproul seems to imply that even some Catholics, in supporting Evangelicals and Catholics Together, are compromising, for the Catholic Council of Trent in the 1500’s, which affirmed the Catholic view of justification, was far from inclusive in its view of Protestants who believed in justification by grace through faith alone.
I’m not a fan of exclusivist “we’re in and you’re out,” “we’re saved and you’re not” mindsets. Sproul does not use those exact words, but that seems to me to be his message. I have a hard time seeing God as so petty that God excludes or damns people who don’t have their doctrine exactly right.
Moreover, even after reading Sproul’s book, my impression is that the differences between Protestants and Catholics on justification are largely a matter of semantics. According to Sproul, the classic Protestant perspective is that God draws a person to Christ, the person exercises saving faith, God declares the person righteous on the basis of Christ’s merit, and the person does good works that are still sinful (since he or she lacks a perfect motivation), and yet God out of grace will still reward them. Sproul stresses that the saving faith is one that works in love, and so Sproul is not an antinomian who believes that good works are optional, and he appears to side with Lordship salvation (see my post about Lordship salvation here). Roman Catholics, according to Sproul, believe that human beings who cooperate with God’s influence arrive at a state of faith in Christ and receive baptism, and God then infuses in them Christ’s righteousness, making them (on some level) actually righteous (not just declared righteous). They go to mass and confession as means to justification, thereby receiving God’s empowering grace and keeping their slate clean, and they do good works that earn them merit. If they stay on this path, God at the last judgment will declare them to be righteous.
I suppose that these understandings look different in areas, but, in my mind, they are largely two ways of saying the same thing. Both classic Protestants and Catholics believe in the need for God’s grace and faith in Jesus. They (except for the antinomian Protestants) do not think that a person will enter the good afterlife without some good works. So what if Catholics include in justification what Protestants would label as sanctification? That doesn’t mean they’re presenting radically different pictures. Maybe Catholics believe that there is a little more of a human element in the salvation process, since they hold that humans cooperate with God’s grace in coming to believe, whereas classic Protestantism (according to Sproul) depicts God drawing people to Christ, putting the agency solely on God, since human beings are presumably so sinful that they cannot by themselves decide to believe. (Sproul bases his characterization of Catholicism here on the Council of Trent, but he notes that Trent here is contradicting what was declared at the Council of Orange, which condemned semi-Pelagianism.) But I have a hard time excluding Catholics from the category of Christian on account of that nuance.
While I do not sympathize with Sproul’s agenda, I do appreciate that his agenda has motivated him to write a book that effectively delineates the Protestant and Catholic understandings of justification. Overall, I think that he does so fairly, and he quotes Catholic documents such as the Council of Trent’s declaration. At the same time, I believe that Sproul’s agenda sometimes gets in the way of his task of explanation. In his push to show how Protestantism and Catholicism differ, and why Protestantism is biblical on justification while Catholicism is not, Sproul at times fails to explain why Catholics have the position that they do, or how they respond to Protestant criticisms of their perspective. For example, I was curious about how Catholicism addresses Paul’s interpretation of Genesis 15:6, for Paul concludes from that passage that God credited righteousness to Abraham due to Abraham’s faith, before Abraham was even circumcised. That looks like imputed righteousness to me! Does Catholicism view it as infused righteousness? As far as I could see, Sproul does not go into detail on this, perhaps because he does not think that this issue fits in with his overall agenda, which (as far as I can tell) is not so much to understand Catholicism as a scholar, as it is to show that classical Protestantism is right on justification, whereas Catholicism is wrong.
Sproul’s discussion on whether Paul and James differed on justification was all right, I guess. Sproul maintains that they are in agreement, and I tend to believe that, overall, Paul and James are saying the same thing, only with different words. I seriously doubt that Paul would believe that all one has to do to be saved is to intellectually accept certain propositions about God, for Paul also talks about a new creation and doing what is righteous. Both Paul and James believe in faith and doing good works, in short. At the same time, I also have a hard time accepting that Paul and James had the exact same understanding of justification. Paul seems to believe that Abraham was justified (declared righteous) when he believed God’s promise in Genesis 15, whereas James affirms that Abraham’s justification occurred later at the akedah, when Abraham was obeying God by being willing to sacrifice his son. Sproul says that James agrees with Paul because James quotes Genesis 15:6, and Sproul thinks this indicates that James believes that Abraham was justified at his moment of faith in Genesis 15, long before the akedah. But Sproul here disregards the interpretation of Genesis 15:6 within the history of biblical interpretation, for there were interpreters who applied Genesis 15:6 specifically to the akedah, or who affirmed that the akedah was when Abraham truly became God’s friend. (See my post here.) My impression is that, for James, Abraham was justified at the akedah, where he put his faith into practice.
An argument that Sproul made about James that slightly rubbed me the wrong way was that James was not taking about Abraham’s justification before God, but rather before human beings: the idea here is that Abraham showed other people that his faith was genuine by being willing to sacrifice his son. I flinch at the notion that I somehow have to convince human beings that my faith is genuine. Human beings, especially religious human beings, can be extremely judgmental. A number of them would probably say that I’m not truly born again because I am not an extrovert, since extroversion is their definition of “love.” Why should I be trying to convince those jerks? Perhaps we should all focus on our own faith, rather than judging others! I tend to identify with Psalms, or even the Book of Job (on some level), where there’s a picture of people who are questioning a person’s spiritual state, and yet that person still clings to God and God’s love.
That said, I enjoyed this book! It will probably help me in terms of my sermon, even if I probably won’t go too deeply into the differences between Catholics and classic Protestantism on justification.