Protestants Becoming Catholic: Justification by Faith Alone

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.

What St. Paul said

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.

6 thoughts on “Protestants Becoming Catholic: Justification by Faith Alone

  1. Reply
    David Stamburski - July 25, 2014

    I get what your saying, but Lutheran theology goes deep into what God has done for us and not what we do for him. That seems to be the crux of the matter. It’s not what I do for God , but what he’s done for me…

    David

    1. Reply
      David Anders - July 25, 2014

      Hi David,
      Thanks for the note.
      I don’t think that I would contrast Catholic and Protestant in this way.
      The Catholic doctrine of salvation can be summed up in the words of St. Peter,
      “he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” (2 Peter 1:4)

      For a Catholic, it is all about what God does for us. God has “rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.” (Colossians 1:13)

      It’s not whether or not God has done for us but WHAT he has done for us.

      Thanks again,

      David

  2. Reply
    Steve - July 26, 2014

    Thank you, David. This was, indeed, a pivotal issue for me on my journey toward the Catholic Church. I find now that this argument so often devolves into semantics. Any good Protestant believes that faith without works is dead as James tells us, and some will even say you must not be saved if you’re not “bearing good fruit” but they will absolutely refuse to admit it plays any part in justification. As you said – a lot of mental gymnastics.

  3. Reply
    Manny - August 24, 2014

    I went to look up Matthew !9:17. I’m not a theologian and it didn’t ring a bell. “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” But of course. Keeping the commandments is a work. I always enjoy listening to you Mr. Anders. I need to make a point to visit your blog more often.

  4. Reply
    Beverly Coss - September 23, 2014

    When I called you program, I knew what your response would be regarding a Deacon not wanting me to even be present in a church. The following day you said that some churches were “harsh”. There is another part to my confusion about what happened with this Deacon and the new social justice declared by the Pope. You see, this Deacon is very married. He is the head of the Social Justice Commission in New York State. All of you talk about families and how important they are. The actions of this Deacon are not for his family. I know about them. I reported it. He destroyed my spirit. He has a Vietnamese mistress. This Deacon and this woman came after me when I decided to attend mass anyway.

  5. Reply
    Adriano - June 12, 2015

    Hi,

    I had a question regarding the difference between the Holy Spirit
    living within our bodies and grace? From what I understand that
    santifying grace is what remains. Actual grace is a gentle push. I
    suppose that when you are baptized you receive santifying grace and
    that could grow to infinity. Does the holy spirit dwell in us as long
    as there a some sanctifying grace? So the pre-requisite for the holy
    spirit to dwell in us is that santifying grace muct be present? Also
    when we say we are in the state of grace, does that mean we have
    santifying grace? Also since santifying grace is what makes up holy
    when we commit mortal sin does that all disappear and once we go to
    confession the seed of sanctifying grace is planted, again, and allow
    to grow?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *