In the Reformation of the sixteenth century, one of the key theological issues over which the Reformers and the papal hierarchy in Rome contended, was the doctrine of justification, God’s declaration of a man to be righteous in His eyes. The Roman Catholic Church and the Reformers agreed that justification was by grace on God’s part. Where they disagreed was over how man receives the grace of God. The Reformers insisted that man received the grace of God and was justified thereby through faith alone. At the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic Church declared this view to be anathema and said that justification was by faith and works of love.
I believe that the Roman Catholic Church made a terrible mistake in pronouncing this anathema at Trent and that in doing so they failed to uphold the doctrine of the Apostles, as recorded in the New Testament, explained by the Church Fathers, and traditionally held by the Church. In condemning the doctrine of justification by faith alone they pointed out that the New Testament does not qualify the word faith with the word alone in speaking of justification except to express disagreement in James 2:24. As true as this observation is it avoids the fact that when the Reformers spoke of “faith alone”, alone was shorthand for “and not by works.” It excludes works as a means along with faith of receiving grace. This is precisely what St. Paul the Apostle taught. It is the major theme of his epistles to the Romans and Galatians and is mentioned in one way or another in most of his other epistles. In Romans 4, where St. Paul answers James by asserting that the type of justification he wrote about, i.e., by works, was something to boast about and therefore not “before God” (v. 2) he declares that by faith God justifies the person who “worketh not” (v. 5), an extremely strong wording of this doctrine that approaches the border of antinomianism. The Roman Catholic argument that St. Paul was talking about “works of the law” rather than “works of love” defeats the very distinction it tries to make, because the difference between works of the law and works of love is precisely that the former are done with the motivation of earning justification from God for oneself whereas the latter are done with the motivation of pleasing the God one loves rather than obtaining something for oneself. Such works are impossible if they are also necessary alongside faith for receiving the grace of justification.
The error of Trent is one of confusing ends with means or, to use an analogy that was once common, putting the cart before the horse. Means are the methods and tools we utilize to achieve ends which in turn are the goals, goods, and purposes we seek to accomplish. Works are not the means whereby we either achieve or receive the end of our justification and salvation. Rather, salvation which includes justification, is the means whereby God takes us from our fallen, broken condition, and makes us into a new creation which responds to Him with works of love. To repeat, works are not our means for achieving the end of our salvation, rather our works are the end for which salvation is God’s means. St. Paul could not have stated this more clearly than he did in Ephesians 2:8-10.
This understanding is fundamental to the very idea of salvation by grace. For to say that salvation is by grace is to say that salvation is a gift, something that God bestows upon us freely rather than in exchange for something. Something that is a freely given gift can only be received, rather than worked for, because if it is worked for it is a reward or wage rather than a gift, a point St. Paul spells out for us in Romans 4. The understanding that salvation is the means and our works the ends is also vital to the realization that salvation entails more than a divine “fire insurance” policy, that it is a divine rescue mission in which we are lifted out of our fallen estate in which the image of God is broken and marred by sin and brought into a place where restored, we can once again reflect His goodness and grace, as we were created to do.
Rome was clearly in serious error on this point, although it needs to be said that their error was well-intentioned. They wished to guard against the danger of license, i.e., the idea that because one is saved by grace one can therefore feel free to sin without consequence. As good as that intention was it is no solution to the error rebuked by St. Paul in Romans 6 to fall into the error that the entire epistle argues against.
If Rome, to prevent against license, erred in adding works to faith as the means of receiving grace and salvation when in fact salvation is the means to the end of works, a tendency developed on the Protestant side of the Reformation divide to err by limiting the channels by which God’s grace comes to us that we might receive it by faith. I do not mean that they erred in saying that Jesus Christ is the only Saviour and that salvation is only found in Him. On this truth, Rome and the Reformers were in agreement. Jesus is Himself our salvation, and everything from His Incarnation through His Miraculous Conception by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, through His Life and Teachings, Passion, Death, Burial, Descent into Hell, and Resurrection to His Ascension back into Heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father, is God’s loving, gracious, and merciful, gift of salvation to us. The channels of grace to which I refer are the means by which God’s gift to us in Jesus is brought to us that we may respond in faith and receive it..
I began my Christian walk with an evangelical conversion experience when I was fifteen. I began to attend and was baptized in a church in which the Word, written and spoken, was stressed as the channel by which God’s salvation in Christ comes to us that we might receive it by faith. This was how I had been brought to my conversion, having read the Gospel message about how God had given us His Son to suffer and die for our sins and then raised Him from the dead in Christian literature and heard it preached on Christian radio. Furthermore, this teaching is very much in accordance with St. Paul’s statement that “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17).
St. Paul makes it clear in the context in which he says this that the role of the Word is essential. The Apostle does not say, however, that there are no other channels that supplement the spoken or written Word. That there were, in fact, other such channels was suggested to me early in my Christian walk by a story in one of L. M. Montgomery’s Chronicles of Avonlea anthologies, about a fallen woman on her deathbed who was unable to grasp the concept of God as a loving Father, freely forgiving her of her sins in Christ, no matter how the minister tried to explain it to her, until his nephew arrived and expressed the message in a language she could understand, that of the violin. A year or so after reading that story I read Johnny Cash’s autobiography Man in Black, in which he testified to more or less the same thing, that the Gospel message which spoke to his brother through preaching, had to come to him through the vessel of Gospel music. Perhaps the prominence of music in the services of virtually all Christian worship traditions also testifies to this.
The idea that the spoken or written Word is the sole means whereby Christ is brought to us that we might believe in Him is in conflict with St. John’s declaration in the first chapter of his Gospel that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14). The Word of which the Apostle speaks is Jesus Himself, the Living Word of God. If the Living Word of God had to put on flesh and live amongst men as a Man in order to reveal His Father to us is it reasonable to expect the written Word, the testimony of His disciples to Who He was and what He did, to bring Him to us without also being “made flesh” in a sense? For this is precisely what the church has traditionally said its mysteries or sacraments do.
St. Augustine of Hippo said that a sacrament is formed by the combination of the Word with a physical element so that the physical element, the water of baptism and the bread and wine of Holy Communion becomes a vessel in which the Word and the grace it contains is conveyed. The sacraments are administered, of course, by the church which was established by Christ through His Apostles and said by St. Paul to be the body of Christ. In his first epistle to the Corinthians St. Paul elaborates on that concept, explaining that the church is an organic collective whole, the members of which, with their distinct gifts and offices, are like unto the organs in the body with Christ Himself as the head. Earlier in the same epistle, he says “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16) Note that the King James Version just quoted uses distinct forms for the singular and plural second person pronouns as does the original Greek, and that the plural is used here. As temple of God is in the singular, the second person plural is a collective plural and so the verse expresses, with a different metaphor, the same basic concept that the church is a collective whole, collectively indwelt by the Spirit of God sent upon the church at Pentecost. The clear implication of all of this is that the church was established as a continuation of what began in the Incarnation. In Jesus Christ, the Living Word of God was made flesh and after He ascended back into heaven, He sent His Spirit to indwell the church that it might continue His ministry as His physical presence here on earth, and in the mysteries or sacraments of the church the written Word of God is likewise “made flesh” so as to be brought to the believer in a tangible way, that supplements and complements the mere reading, speaking and preaching of the Word.
The versions of Protestantism that rejected this understanding – and not all did, of course – and made the reading and preaching of the Word the sole channel by which God’s gift of grace to us in Christ is to be brought to us to be believed, had good intentions in doing so, just as Rome had good intentions in declaring its anathema on sola fide. These Protestants wished to guard against the danger of misplaced faith, of putting one’s trust in the church and its sacraments rather than in God and the Saviour He has given us in His love, mercy, and grace. This is a real danger and when a person falls into this error, making the church and its sacraments into steps one must climb to approach Christ, they can actually become a wall that keeps him from Christ. This danger must be warned against like that of license which Rome sought to avoid, but just as it is a mistake to stick the cart of works before the horse of salvation, confusing means with ends, so it is a mistake to throw the baby of Incarnational and sacramental theology, out with the bathwater.
If Rome, by declaring anathema the Pauline doctrine that grace is received by faith and not by works and that works are the end to which salvation is the means and not the other way around, brought its own curse down upon its own head, advanced Protestantism impoverished itself, by making preaching and reading the Word the sole channel of grace. For grace is not something we need once and receive once but something in which we are in constant need of. Faith is not, as much of North American evangelicalism unfortunately seems to think, a single act or decision, but a heartfelt response of confidence and trust in God and His grace as given to us in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ that is ongoing and continual. Faith is formed in us by the very grace it receives, and since faith can weaken and falter, it is in constant need of being replenished and strengthened. This, of course, means that the believer needs to continually read and hear the Word, which is why the liturgy of the Word is an important part of the traditional worship of the church but how much more is the believer’s faith strengthened and replenished when the ministry of the Word is supplemented and complemented by the sacraments in which the church “makes the Word” flesh?
All of this has been on my mind recently as I prepared for and received confirmation by our bishop, in the orthodox Anglican church I have been attending for several years now. This was not a repudiation for me, of the church in which I began my Christian walk for the ministry of which I will always be grateful, but an embracing of the multiple ways in which God’s grace in Christ has been made available to the believer in the wider tradition of Christianity.
Confirmation, the ancient rite in which the bishop lays his hands on the believer’s head and prays over him for strengthening by the Holy Spirit as the believer reaffirms his baptismal vows of repentance and faith, is not considered by the Anglican Church to be a sacrament in the same sense as baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The Anglican Church differs from the Greek and Latin Churches in this for it, rightly I believe, reserves the term sacrament in its strictest sense for the rites actually ordained by Christ Himself. It recognizes a sacramental quality to the rite, however, and if as we have been discussing, the purpose of a sacrament is to make the written Word flesh so that the believer can receive it in ways other than by hearing and reading, then all aspects of the life of the church have a sacramental quality in one way or another to them. The calendar of the Christian year makes the Gospel story flesh, by re-enacting and celebrating Christ’s life and ministry, from the anticipation of His coming in Advent to His reign as Christ the King. The Gospel is made flesh in the images and decorations of the church, and, as L. M. Montgomery’s fictional story and Johnny Cash’s actual testimony referred to earlier tell us, music can tell the story in a language which can reach those who could not otherwise understand it.
This points to the truth upon which I will conclude these reflections. Just as salvation, in its fullest sense, is much more than “fire insurance” but is the rescuing of people from the brokenness of sin and restoring them to a harmonious relationship with God out of which works of Christian love grow as fruit so grace, in its fullest sense, embraces more than the giving of salvation but every other gift that God gives us as well, from the gifts of what the Calvinist divines call “Common Grace”, such as the rain which Christ said His Father sends upon righteous and wicked alike, to the superabundant blessings of God for the believer (Rom. 8:32). “The heavens declare the glory of God”, the Psalmist says and according to St. Paul the invisible things of God have been clearly seen from creation, “being understood by the things that are made” (Rom. 1:20). There is a very real sense in which all of the world and life itself is a sacrament, making flesh the Word of God, and conveying the grace therein to all who will receive it by faith.
A Protestant Christian, patriotic Canadian, and a reactionary High Tory with a libertarian streak, at the same time a monarchist, indeed a royal absolutist, and a minarchist.
You can e-mail me at gerrytneal(at)hotmail(dot)ca