Martin Luther’s doctrine of “Justification by Faith Alone” is at the heart of the Protestant rejection of Catholicism. He called it “the article on which the Church stands or falls.” Luther once said that if the Pope would only teach justification by faith, he would kiss the Pope’s feet and carry him in his hands. One cannot overestimate how important this doctrine is to traditional Protestantism.
When I was in the Protestant seminary, a few Protestant and Catholic theologians got together to craft an ecumenical document affirming the things we share in common. It was called “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” Fr. Richard John Neuhaus led the Catholic contingent. Prominent scholars like J.I. Packer and Mark Noll led the Protestant side. The document affirmed that Protestants and Catholics are “brothers in the Lord.”
Unfortunately, many conservative Protestant leaders reacted violently. (My own seminary professors were incensed.) The reason? ECT minimized our differences over justification by faith. In the mind of these traditional Protestants, Rome denies “faith alone.” For this reason, they said Catholics and Protestants are not “brothers.” They said Catholics are not even Christians.
It is ironic that in the years since ECT many conservative Protestants have embraced the Catholic Church because of its doctrine of justification. My own path to Catholicism began with a thorough investigation of the biblical and historical issues surrounding the doctrine of justification. In his book Return to Rome, former evangelical theologian Francis Beckwith discusses the role justification played in his conversion to the Church. Former Lutheran philosopher Robert Koons also said justification was central to his conversion to the Church. (See his internet article “A Lutheran’s Case for Roman Catholicism.”) There are many more like this.
There are at least three reasons that the doctrine of justification has become a bridge for Protestant conversions to the Catholic Church in recent years.
First, Protestants have historically (and ironically) read Sacred Scripture from within a tradition. Lutherans read it from within the Lutheran tradition. Calvinists read it from within the Calvinist tradition. Wesleyans from within the Wesleyan tradition. From an early age, these traditions teach one “the correct” interpretation of difficult passages. But Protestant students and scholars are becoming more willing to criticize their own traditions and to reexamine the teaching of Scripture. When they do this, they find that Luther’s doctrine is very difficult to square with the Bible. It takes a lot of mental gymnastics to squeeze Luther through texts like Romans 2:13, James 2:24, 1 John 2:4, or Matthew 19:17.
Second, Protestants have always believed Scripture should be read in context. Good scholars understand that language takes its meaning from the culture in which it is used. In the last several decades, however, many Protestant thinkers have been arguing that Luther got the context wrong when he read the Bible.
In 1977, a Protestant named E. P. Sanders changed the theological landscape with a book called Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Sanders, and many more since then, have argued that Luther read St. Paul as if he were a scrupulous Catholic monk from the fifteenth century. But Paul was a self-assured Pharisaical Jew of the first century. Luther didn’t see that he and Paul were asking different questions, had different concerns. As result, Luther profoundly misread St. Paul. Protestant scholars like Sanders, Krister Stendahl, James Dunn, and N.T. Wright (see his book What St. Paul Really Said) have challenged a generation of Protestant leaders to rethink their objections to the Catholic Church.
Third, historical scholarship has been unraveling the Protestant view of justification. Luther thought “faith alone” was the doctrine of the early church. He saw the Reformation as a return to the Church’s pristine purity. But Protestant scholars now realize that this is not true. The earliest Christians were anything but Lutherans. In his book Iustitia Dei: a History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, Protestant historian Alistair McGrath admits that Luther’s doctrine is a complete novelty in Church history. This fact, above all, compelled me to reexamine my objections to the Catholic Church.
At root, justification is about how God accepts us as his children. Catholic faith teaches that the grace of God changes us. We become qualitatively different through the death and resurrection of Christ. (Romans 6: 1-23) We come to share in God’s own inner life. (2 Peter 1:4) It is because of this change that God accepts us as his children. (Romans 2:13, Romans 2:25-29, Romans 8:3-4, Romans 8:13) Protestants teach a different doctrine. They say that God punished Christ in our place, so that we get off scot-free. They ignore or minimize all the Scripture that teaches Christians can lose the grace of God through willful disobedience. (Romans 8:12-13, Galatians 5:18:21, Hebrews 6:4-6, Matthew 18: 15-20)
Many Protestants have drawn a line in the sand over justification. Others (both Catholic and Protestant) want to ignore our differences over justification, but this is a mistake. As Catholics, we should not be afraid to say, “There are differences. The differences matter. And the Catholic faith is right.” Protestants who take the doctrine seriously are reexamining their objections to Catholicism. Far from a stumbling block, the Catholic teaching on justification is becoming a bridge for Protestants to embrace the Catholic Church.