How did this Protestant minister come to abandon the classically Reformed (Calvinist) doctrine of justification and accept as biblical and true what he once considered unbiblical, false, and even damning?
In this article, I want to recap seven intellectual steps I took during my years in seminary and as a Baptist pastor that brought me to the borderland between Protestantism and Catholicism and created in me a desire to hear what the Catholic Church had to say in answer to that most important question: What must I do to inherit eternal life?
The answer I had been taught went like this: At the instant I reached out to Christ in faith, all my sins were credited to His account and all His righteousness was credited to mine. This is the doctrine of “imputation.” At that moment, all my sins were forgiven, including all future sins. I was saved, and no sin I would ever commit could alter that fact.
While obedience to God would follow in my life as a Christian, as I grew in faith and knowledge and as the Holy Spirit did His work in me, any talk of obedience, as though it were a requirement or condition for salvation, was to be entirely rejected. After all, if this were the case, salvation would no longer be the “free gift of God.” Eternal life would then be something I had “earned.” Then God would not receive “all the glory” for the great work of redemption. Then I would have something in which to “boast.” In short, this would turn the Gospel of grace into a “damning system of works righteousness.”
No, according to this view, faith is, and must be, the only condition for salvation. And since the Catholic Church continually speaks of faith and obedience as though both were conditions for entering heaven, Catholicism, I believed, was the epitome of a “damning system of works righteousness.”
So how did things change for me?
I came to see that in the Old Testament stories of men and women and their relationships with God, God always required faith and obedience of those who would receive His blessing.
An illustration of this could be found on virtually every page. Noah had to trust God and build an ark in order to be saved from the flood. Abraham had to trust God and leave his home and kindred in order to seek an inheritance from God. Moses and the Israelites had to trust God and follow the pillar of cloud and fire through the wilderness in order to enter the Promised Land. Naaman had to trust God and wash in the Jordan in order to be cleansed of his leprosy.
In the stories of the Old Testament, faith and obedience were always required of those who would receive God’s blessing. God was always saying to His people: “Trust me and do what I tell you to do, and I will bless you!”
It struck me that this is never presented as something bad.
If anything was clear to this Protestant, it was this: the second you make obedience to God a requirement for receiving His blessing, you are waist-deep in a damning system of works righteousness. You’ve turned the Gospel of grace on its head. You are now a “legalist.”
So how come there wasn’t a hint of this in these Old Testament stories? Why was there not a whiff of a notion that because obedience had been required of Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Naaman, these had now “earned” God’s blessing and had something in which to “boast”? Why was there no sense that by these examples God had now been robbed of His glory? Why is this all presented as something good?
I was beginning at this point to scratch my head a little.
I came to see that the pattern illustrated in the lives of these Old Testament figures carried right on through into the New Testament.
In the Gospels, Jesus comes saying “Believe in me!”
But He also comes saying, “If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love” (Jn 15:10). He also comes saying, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:21).
It was the same with Paul. In his letters, the Apostle insists that a man is justified by faith in Christ “apart from works of the law” (Rom 3:28). But he also insists that in order to reap the harvest of eternal life, we must persevere in good deeds. “Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart” (Gal 6:7-9).
The writings of Peter and Paul, James and John are filled with passages like these. But the passage that really hit me was Hebrews chapter 11. Here the inspired author rehearses a number of Old Testament examples of those who through faith and obedience received the promised blessings of God — including Noah and Abraham and Moses — and he sets them forward as examples for us to imitate!
But these are all examples of a pattern we Protestants thought of as heresy! If believing that we must trust God and do what God says in order to receive God’s blessing is the essence of legalism, why are we being shown these examples? Why are we being cheered on to imitate them?
I was beginning now to scratch my head a great deal!
I came to understand that when St. Paul speaks of “works” or “works of the law” he isn’t talking about obedience to Christ.
In other words, I came to believe that at the heart of the Reformation view of salvation, a critical mistake had been made. We took Paul to be setting faith in opposition to obedience and teaching that we are saved by faith in Christ apart from obedience to Christ.
What I came to understand was that in passages where Paul speaks against “works” or “works of the law,” he has something specific in mind. He was dealing with a situation in which certain Jewish believers were insisting that in order to be saved Gentile converts would need to receive circumcision and begin to keep the “customs of Moses” — essentially they would need to become Jews. In other words, when Paul sets “works” in opposition to “faith,” he’s not saying that we are saved by faith alone, apart from obedience to Christ. He’s saying that we are saved by faith in Christ, not by becoming Jews.
And for Paul, faith in Christ includes obedience to Christ.
I found that a careful reading of Galatians and Romans confirmed this interpretation. Read through Galatians for hints of exactly what Paul has in mind when he uses the term “works” and you will find him talking about circumcision (1:3-5; 5:6; 6:15), Jewish dietary laws (2:11-21) and Jewish Sabbaths and festivals (4:8-11). You will never find him insisting that obedience doesn’t matter. But you will find him insisting — repeatedly — that it doesn’t matter whether one is a Jew and whether one has been circumcised (3:27-29; 5:6; 6:15).
And the same is true in Paul’s letter to the Romans.
I learned that the Reformation doctrine of justification as the imputation of Christ’s righteousness had never been held, had never even been conceived, in the first fifteen hundred years of Christian thought.
And from a well-respected Protestant theologian, no less!
Given that I was already seeing so many weaknesses in the position, this had a real effect on me. I remember thinking: For five hundred years we Protestants have been insisting that justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ is the heart and soul of the Gospel, so much so that it’s doubtful any who deny it — Catholics, for instance — could even be real Christians. And now I learn that the idea was brand new at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century?
I learned that an increasing number of Protestant biblical scholars were beginning to discard the doctrine of “imputation” as not really taught in the Bible.
For instance, New Testament scholar Robert Gundry writes: “The doctrine that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believing sinners needs to be abandoned …. The doctrine of imputation is not even biblical. Still less is it ‘essential’ to the Gospel.”
Apparently, so many recognized Protestant scholars are beginning to take this position that Gundry is willing to speak of a new “developing standard in biblical theological circles.”
A new developing standard!
I examined the New Testament evidence for the Protestant doctrine of justification and found it surprisingly thin.
As it turns out, nowhere in the New Testament is justification described as the legal imputation or crediting of Christ’s righteousness to the account of the one who believes. Nowhere. And nowhere is anything said that necessarily implies this.
In fact, when I examined carefully the primary New Testament passage cited as teaching the doctrine of imputation, it fell apart completely. I’m talking about Romans 4:3, where Paul quotes Genesis 15:6: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Because the word “reckoned” can also be translated as credited or imputed, Protestants read this passage and take it to mean that when Abraham believed God, God credited or imputed righteousness to him.
But this cannot be what Genesis 15:6 is saying.
First, if Genesis 15:6 is supposed to be describing the moment when God legally credited righteousness to Abraham’s account and Abraham was “justified by faith alone,” what was I to make of the fact that at the time of this event Abraham had already been walking in the steps of faith for some twenty-five years? Are we to say Abraham wasn’t justified during all those years? That Abraham didn’t have “real faith” when he left his home back in Genesis 12:4 to follow the Lord to a land he would inherit?
Second, where is the idea of legal imputation in Genesis 15:6? The word translated “reckoned” can also be translated “considered,” “counted,” and “imputed.” When I say that I “reckon” someone to be a good man, that I “consider” someone to be a good man, that I “impute” goodness to someone, do I mean that I have legally transferred goodness to that man’s account? No. I just mean that I consider him to be a good man! That’s all I mean. There’s no reason to assume that Genesis 15:6 is talking about what Protestants mean by “legal imputation.”
Third, notice that the passage doesn’t even say, “Abraham believed God and righteousness was reckoned to him.” What the passage says is that Abraham believed God and his “faith was reckoned as righteousness.”
In other words, the essential meaning of the passage seems to be similar to what we find in Genesis 7:1, where God says to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation.” Or what we find in Hebrews 11:4: “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he received approval as righteous.” The most natural reading of Genesis 15:6 is that because of Abraham’s faith, he received approval as being righteous. God is saying, “I have seen you as righteous before me in this generation.”
Finally, I found that the exact words “and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” occur only one other time in the entire Old Testament, and in a passage that, to put it mildly, would be difficult to interpret as Protestants interpret Genesis 15:6.
In Numbers 25 we read about a terrible time in Israel’s history. The people have fallen into idolatry. They’re offering sacrifices to the gods of the Moabites and committing adultery with Moabite women. The Lord’s anger is kindled and He sends a plague among them. As Moses and the faithful of Israel are on their faces weeping before the tent of meeting and crying out to God, Aaron’s grandson Phinehas sees an Israelite man take a woman into his tent in the sight of everyone. Phinehas rises, takes his spear in hand, runs to the tent, and impales the two of them.
In Psalm 106:31 this event is recalled and hear the most interesting thing said about this man Phinehas:
“They provoked the Lord to anger with their doings, and a plague broke out among them. Then Phinehas stood up and interposed, and the plague was stayed. And that has been reckoned to him as righteousness from generation to generation forever.”
These are the same words as we find in Genesis 15:6.
Now, I’m not entirely certain, but I imagine there aren’t many Protestant biblical scholars who would wish to make Psalm 106 the basis for a doctrine of “justification by execution alone.”
In Psalm 106:31, God is commenting on something He sees in this man Phinehas. He sees in Phinehas zeal for the holiness of God and He approves Phinehas as being a righteous man. He says to Phinehas what he said to Noah, “I have seen you as righteous before me in this generation.” It is the same with Genesis 15:6. Neither of these passages has anything to do with the legal imputation of righteousness.
So how does Catholicism put the biblical pieces together on this subject of justification? Having taken these seven steps in my thinking about the Reformed doctrine of justification, I was ready to listen to the answer the Church would give to this important question.
Coming Soon: A Damning System of Works Righteousness, Part VII