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That’s so 16th century: Rob Sanders on justification and the Catholic Church
Pontifications ^ | 12/28/2006 | Fr. Alvin Kimel

Posted on 12/28/2006 5:29:07 PM PST by sionnsar

Should justification by faith still be considered a church-dividing issue between Anglicanism and the Catholic Church? Fr Rob Sanders, who possesses a PhD in theology, thinks so. According to Sanders, Catholic teaching on justification “does not do justice to Scripture, to the holiness of God, the depth of human sin, the fallibility of our understanding of Christian truth, the power of Christ’s atonement, and the need for peace with God in regard to our salvation.” Strong words indeed, strong enough perhaps to deter orthodox Episcopalians and Anglicans from converting to Catholicism. Yet are they accurate? Are they true?

Fr Sanders informs us that his presentation of Catholic teaching faithfully represents the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, and he supports his presentation with several quotations; yet his presentation is misleading and quickly moves into caricature. It’s as if he knows Catholic vocabulary, but because he misunderstands Catholic syntax, he is unable to formulate meaningful Catholic sentences. No informed Catholic will recognize his faith in the Catholicism Sanders describes. Three examples:

(1) The Catholic position on justifications, says Sanders, can be summarily described in these words: “we, by our own works aided by grace, can be righteous before God.” There is a sense in which this is absolutely true. Catholicism, like Orthodoxy, Arminianism, and mainstream Anglicanism, is unabashedly synergistic. It teaches that regenerate believers are given a Spirit-enabled freedom to cooperate with God’s grace and therefore contribute to their sanctity and final salvation. Yet in saying this, four crucial Catholic points, none of which are mentioned by Sanders, need to be remembered:

First, justification is a merciful, gratuitous act of God, ordinarily accomplished in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. All who are baptized are justified, unless they have separated themselves from God through disbelief or mortal sin. As Fr William Most liked to say, we cannot earn our status as justified children of God but we can “earn to lose it.”

Second, justification is nothing less than union with Christ and participation in the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All who by grace share in this divine life are righteous. In the words of the Catechism:

Grace is a participation in the life of God. It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life: by Baptism the Christian participates in the grace of Christ, the Head of His Body. As an “adopted son” he can henceforth call God “Father,” in union with the only Son. He receives the life of the Spirit who breathes charity into him and forms the Church. (CCC 1997).

Third, the freedom to cooperate with divine grace is a fruit of renewal in the Holy Spirit. Sinful man outside of Christ does not possess this freedom. As the Council of Trent declared: “If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema” (canon 1); and “If any one saith, that the grace of God, through Jesus Christ, is given only for this, that man may be able more easily to live justly, and to merit eternal life, as if, by free will without grace, he were able to do both, though hardly indeed and with difficulty; let him be anathema” (canon 2).

Fourth, the works that contribute to final salvation occur within the saving relationship with God enacted in baptism. Only those who have been justified by grace and reborn by water and Holy Spirit are capable of working out their salvation in fear and trembling. Only God can bring us into the state of justification: our sanctifying works flow from this state and sustain and strengthen it.

(2) Noting the Catholic rejection of the Reformation construal of imputational righteousness, Sanders states, “For Rome, however, one cannot be both justified and a sinner since the only righteousness we possess is our own which cannot coexist with our unrighteousness.” Again, this is a sense in which this is true, but it must be rightly interpreted. It does not mean that justified Catholics may boast in their righteousness. As St Thérèse of Lisieux observes, even if we have done all that is commanded of us, we remain but unprofitable servants. Nor does it mean that justified Catholics do not acknowledge themselves as wretched sinners and pray for God’s forgiveness. We daily pray the words enjoined by our Lord, “forgive us our sins,” and the XVI Synod of Carthage anathematizes all who say that this petition is offered by the faithful only in words and not in truth. Despite new birth in the Spirit, disorder of desire and inclination to sin remains in the hearts of the baptized. But what justified sinners cannot say is that they are now by nature objects of God’s wrath and condemnation; for they know and believe, by the divine promise of baptism, that they have been justified in Christ and made a new creation. Hence the explanation of concupiscence given by the Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration on Justification:

Catholics hold that the grace of Jesus Christ imparted in baptism takes away all that is sin “in the proper sense” and that is “worthy of damnation” (Rom 8:1). There does, however, remain in the person an inclination (concupiscence) which comes from sin and presses toward sin. Since, according to Catholic conviction, human sins always involve a personal element and since this element is lacking in this inclination, Catholics do not see this inclination as sin in an authentic sense. They do not thereby deny that this inclination does not correspond to God’s original design for humanity and that it is objectively in contradiction to God and remains one’s enemy in lifelong struggle. Grateful for deliverance by Christ, they underscore that this inclination in contradiction to God does not merit the punishment of eternal death and does not separate the justified person from God. But when individuals voluntarily separate themselves from God, it is not enough to return to observing the commandments, for they must receive pardon and peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation through the word of forgiveness imparted to them in virtue of God’s reconciling work in Christ.

The Catholic, therefore, cannot affirm with his Reformation brothers and sisters that the baptized believer is simultaneously sinful and righteous, condemned and forgiven. He whom God has made righteous in baptism is truly oriented in love to the eternal Good and thus free from divine condemnation. Yet the Catholic can also speak of degrees of righteousness and growth in justification and honestly acknowledge his ongoing struggle with sin and his daily failures to love God and his neighbor. This may not, at least initially, make much sense to those operating within the Anglican model of double justification; yet as the ARCIC participants discovered, it really is not that far apart (see the ARCIC statement “Salvation and the Church”; also see my article “The Grand Question”).

(3) Sanders rightly notes that the Catechism defines faith in a comprehensive way, that includes both assent to divine revelation and obedience to God’s Word. As we read in the Catechism:

By faith man completely submits his intellect and his will to God. With his whole being man gives his assent to God the revealer. Sacred Scripture calls this human response to God, the author of revelation, “the obedience of faith.” (CCC 143)

To obey (from the Latin ob-audire, to “hear or listen to”) in faith is to submit freely to the word that has been heard, because its truth is guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself. The Virgin Mary is its most perfect embodiment. (CCC 144)

Faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. As personal adherence to God and assent to his truth, Christian faith differs from our faith in any human person. It is right and just to entrust oneself wholly to God and to believe absolutely what he says. It would be futile and false to place such faith in a creature. (CCC 150)

This construal of faith is well grounded in Holy Scripture—a fact not acknowledged by Sanders—and enjoys ample patristic support. But it lacks, at least explicitly, that one element that is dear to the evangelical heart—unconditional trust in God’s promises (though one might reasonably argue that trust is necessarily included in “personal adherence to God”). This does not mean, however, that trust is foreign to the Catholic. It only means that we must look elsewhere in the Catechism to find a discussion of it; namely, we must look under the locus of hope:

Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit. “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” “The Holy Spirit … he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.”

The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspire men’s activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude. Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity.

Christian hope takes up and fulfills the hope of the chosen people which has its origin and model in the hope of Abraham, who was blessed abundantly by the promises of God fulfilled in Isaac, and who was purified by the test of the sacrifice. “Hoping against hope, he believed, and thus became the father of many nations.” (CCC 1817-1819)

Precisely because faith, as traditionally defined, does not include hope, and love, it cannot be said to be exclusively justifying (sola fide). “The devils also believe,” the Apostle James reminds us, “and tremble” (James 2:19). But at this point we are playing with words. It is easy enough for the Catholic to speak of faith as comprehending assent, repentance, trust, love, obedience, and hope—at which point it becomes identical to the “lively faith” of which the Anglican Homily on the True and Lively Faith speaks.

If faith includes obedience, then this would seem to imply, says Sanders, that “a certain degree of achieved righteousness is necessary to be saved.” A few paragraphs later Sanders expands his thought: “Since faith is assent to saving truths followed by obedience, it follows that the soul must be obeying the right moral and doctrinal norms for this obedience to save.” From this he then infers the necessity of the Catholic dogma of infallibility.

Now I have never read a Catholic defense of ecclesial infallibility along these lines, but this does not mean that it hasn’t been done. My acquaintance with the literature is limited. However, from what I can tell, the Catechism does not deduce the necessity of infallibility from the salvific necessity of obedient works. I would not expect it to do so, because the Catholic Church does not teach the salvific necessity of obedience in quite the way that Sanders thinks she does.

Sanders is correct. Justification is an achieved righteousness: specifically, it is achieved by God in his supernatural transformation of the sinner (sanctifying grace). This is the meaning of the insistence of the Council of Trent that the formal cause of justification is the justice of God—”not that by which He Himself is just, but that by which He makes us just.” God’s love and forgiveness does not remain external to us but grasps us and makes us into new creatures in Christ. God alone justifies, and he accomplishes this justification through gratuitous, unmerited acts of love and mercy, mediated in the sacraments of baptism and penance. But once justified, believers are summoned to cooperate with divine grace and obey God’s commandments. As mentioned above, Catholicism is synergistic: redeemed believers are given a Spirit-enabled freedom to love God and obey his will. There is therefore a sense in which one might say that a Christian is justified by his grace-inspired works, yet only in a limited sense. Like all human beings, Christians are historical beings. They live in the world. Each day they make countless moral decisions that issue in moral and immoral actions. These decisions form who they are, both in relation to God and their fellow human beings. Catholicism refuses to divorce the faith of the believer from his choices and actions in the world. There is no believing “I” who is not simultaneously embodying his faith or disfaith by his actions. “Show me your faith apart from your works,” writes St James, “and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). The Catholic Church therefore recognizes the moral seriousness of daily living. By our choices and actions, we are either growing toward God in love and faith, or we are growing away from God. As John Paul II explains: “By his fundamental choice, man is capable of giving his life direction and of progressing, with the help of grace, towards his end, following God’s call. But this capacity is actually exercised in the particular choices of specific actions, through which man deliberately conforms himself to God’s will, wisdom and law.” And it is possible, terribly, terribly possible, for the believer to separate himself from the love of God and lose his justification. He may do this by apostasy but also by committing serious sin with the full and free engagement of the will. There is sin, the Apostle John tells us, that is mortal (1 John 5:16-17): it leads to damnation because it destroys the charity that God has placed in our hearts. It might also be noted that this distinction between grave and venial sin is known to all Anglicans who have been catechized in the catholic wing of Anglicanism.

I can well understand why evangelical Anglicans, particularly at this time of ecclesial crisis, would seek to deter their fellow Anglicans from converting to the Catholic Church by identifying crucial, church-dividing differences in doctrine and practice. But surely this must be executed responsibly. A real and sympathetic attempt must be made to understand the Catholic Faith. A quick read-through of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is hardly sufficient. I have been immersed in Catholic theology for the past three years, and I am just starting to get the feel of the Catholic understanding of grace and justification. Evangelical theologians need to do a better job at understanding the Catholic Faith before they attempt to critique it.


TOPICS: Catholic; Mainline Protestant
[All, it appears Fr. Kimel signed up on FR today and pinged me to this post. For those who don't know, Fr. Kimel is a former Episcopal priest who finally did what he urged others to do and departed for Rome, where he was recently ordained. The note "(cont)' at the end says to me that he intends to post more. I will (try to) keep an eye out. The reference is to this article by Dr. Sanders. --sionnsar]
1 posted on 12/28/2006 5:29:10 PM PST by sionnsar
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To: ahadams2; piperpilot; ex-Texan; ableLight; rogue yam; neodad; Tribemike; rabscuttle385; ...
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting Traditional Anglican ping, continued in memory of its founder Arlin Adams.

FReepmail sionnsar if you want on or off this moderately high-volume ping list (typically 3-9 pings/day).
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Humor: The Anglican Blue (by Huber)

Speak the truth in love. Eph 4:15

2 posted on 12/28/2006 5:30:11 PM PST by sionnsar (††|Iran Azadi| 5yst3m 0wn3d - it's N0t Y0ur5 (SONY) | UN: Useless Na)
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To: sionnsar
Well, that just about covers it.

The good father appears to be something like Rush Limbaugh or one of Angela Thirkell's characters . . . he has said all that there is to be said.

3 posted on 12/28/2006 5:51:50 PM PST by AnAmericanMother ((Ministrix of Ye Chase, TTGC Ladies' Auxiliary (recess appointment)))
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To: AnAmericanMother

Fr. Kimel is nothing if not outspoken, and has been so for a good long time.

4 posted on 12/28/2006 6:19:38 PM PST by sionnsar (††|Iran Azadi| 5yst3m 0wn3d - it's N0t Y0ur5 (SONY) | UN: Useless Na)
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To: sionnsar
Well, he oughta fit in pretty well here, then!

(not many wallflowers on FR)

5 posted on 12/28/2006 6:21:20 PM PST by AnAmericanMother ((Ministrix of Ye Chase, TTGC Ladies' Auxiliary (recess appointment)))
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To: sionnsar
So, the Pontificator has deigned to join our merry band? Interesting. Perhaps he'll develop a deeper understanding of Orthodoxy here than he picked up on his now closed to comments blog. I say that, by the way, sincerely rejoicing in his recent ordination into the Latin priesthood!
6 posted on 12/28/2006 6:35:52 PM PST by Kolokotronis (Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!)
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To: pontificator


7 posted on 12/28/2006 6:59:52 PM PST by sionnsar (††|Iran Azadi| 5yst3m 0wn3d - it's N0t Y0ur5 (SONY) | UN: Useless Na)
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To: sionnsar
Maybe it's not strictly speaking germane, But I knew Rob at seminary, and he is a smart guy and a pious guy. He means well and he's been though a lot of tough stuff.

So, I renounced my orders and became a RC laydude, and he joined one of them teeny tiny Anglican outfits. One of us is wrong, and I don't think it's me. But this is a guy who loves the Lord and is trying his very hardest to do right.

Be nice, okay? I'd rather be wrong with guys like Rob than right with some folks I know, but I"m glad that's not the choice I have to make. I'm just saying: Rob's the real deal.

8 posted on 12/28/2006 7:53:55 PM PST by Mad Dawg (Now we are all Massoud)
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To: sionnsar

I will read this in detail, later... for in the best stead of Cranmer and Hooker, not to mention Luther and Calvin, I think Sanders did an excellent job with his article. In Fr. Kimel I suspect I will find the usual Erasmusian Roman violation of Ockham's razor.

On the basis of the history of the Roman Church alone though, and its past and current claims, I simply cannot imagine joining it.

9 posted on 12/28/2006 9:16:04 PM PST by AnalogReigns (Solus Christus)
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To: AnalogReigns
On the basis of the history of the Roman Church alone though, and its past and current claims, I simply cannot imagine joining it.

*Your position is much better than mild indifference

Those who do convert often are the Church's most zealous opponents- remember Saul?

10 posted on 12/29/2006 5:25:10 AM PST by bornacatholic
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To: Mad Dawg
Maybe it's not strictly speaking germane, But I knew Rob at seminary, and he is a smart guy and a pious guy. He means well and he's been though a lot of tough stuff.
So, I renounced my orders and became a RC laydude, and he joined one of them teeny tiny Anglican outfits. One of us is wrong, and I don't think it's me. But this is a guy who loves the Lord and is trying his very hardest to do right.
Be nice, okay? I'd rather be wrong with guys like Rob than right with some folks I know, but I"m glad that's not the choice I have to make. I'm just saying: Rob's the real deal.

Heh. You sent me off to his blog, which I haven't read in a while. AMiA, I am not surprised. He gets banner mention as an esteemed colleague by David Virtue also.

11 posted on 12/29/2006 8:40:44 AM PST by sionnsar (††|Iran Azadi| 5yst3m 0wn3d - it's N0t Y0ur5 (SONY) | UN: Useless Na)
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To: bornacatholic

Of course I don't believe in conversion to a denomination...only to Christ, as which was with Saul, and such conversion happened long ago with me.

All who trust in Christ' righteousness, not their own, belong to the one true invisible Church catholic. Compared to that, the rest are details.

12 posted on 12/29/2006 8:40:40 PM PST by AnalogReigns (Solus Christus)
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To: AnalogReigns
The Catholic Church is not a denomination ("to take a new name"). The Catholic Church was established by the sinless, God-Man, Jesus, upon Peter and His Apostles.

All denominational communities were established by sinful men

*Saul was accused of attacking Jesus.

Interesting how He phrased that, huh? Jesus didn't say "Saul, why are you attacking the visible Church"(how can one attack an invisible one?)

And, after personally converting Saul, Jesus sent Saul/Paul to the nascent Catholic Church to have his blindness cured and to be catechised.

13 posted on 12/30/2006 4:23:54 AM PST by bornacatholic
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To: bornacatholic

You are right that the catholic Church is not a denomination--as it spans all denominations which honor Christ as Lord.

The Roman Church though is demonstrably a sect of Christianity founded in late antiquity into the early middle ages, when the Bishop of Rome asserted his authority over and above all other provinces--and revised (and continues to revise) history to "prove" this authority (much of this done through the "Donation of Constantine," an early medieval forgery...but not uncovered as that until much later, AFTER papal authority gained by it was institutionalized.) goes back somehow to Peter (and why not Paul, since he wrote so much more of the New Testament than Peter?). I know, I know the "upon this rock" verse of Matt. 16:18, which seems like pretty tiny rock of a verse indeed to lay the entire foundation of an all authoritarian church structure...but hey, Gregory and then Boniface III had to find SOMETHING in scripture as a proof text!

Of the 5 Original major Church centers Rome gained power after the collapse of the Roman Empire and eventually asserted that power in a tyrannical way over the other 4 provinces--so much so that each side excommunicated each other in AD 1054. So 4/5 of the original Church rejected the sect of Rome's god-like authoritarianism.

Being in Rome--and overseeing the vast expanse of Western Europe--and newly converted European barbarians, the Roman see became the most powerful...developing a power-structure completely alien to that which one can clearly see in the New Testament.

In historical contrast to Roman claims the strongest early Church catholic leader, as one can see from the 1st Ecumenical Council in Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15, was James, not Peter. That council acted in a very conciliar way though, even giving non-apostle elders a vote--there was no top-down hierarchy, as we see in Europe 500 years later...and today. The apostolic Church of Act in its authority structure appears totally opposite to how medieval and modern Roman polity operates.

The whole myth of (Roman) Papal supremacy lies at the heart of Roman claims to its infallible authority (in practice over and above the Bible)--and that myth was developed during some of the most unenlightened and socially insecure times of history, by some of the most corrupt, violently ruthless and power-hungry leaders imaginable. You show me the most powerful, and power-asserting medieval popes, those who established the papacy into the institution as you understand it now, and I'll show you men, which if their lifestyles are any indication--are likely to spend eternity separated from God.

Christ is the head of His Church, and needs no one sinful human as a go-between, "For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (I Tim. 2:5)

Like any other sect or church, part of the Church catholic, the Roman church does have its good points and bad points. Among the good points are the consistant stand for pro-life issues and the family, and a resistance to modernist denials of supernaturalism and the keeping of basic Christian creedal doctrines.

Among its bad points are the supremacy of the papacy, the dual authority of scripture vs. tradition (which, as with any dual authority--one wins out, namely what current church authority SAYS is Church tradition (look at what Rome says about Capital Punishment today for example--verses what it said, say, a generation ago)) not to mention confusing Justification with Sanctification, so evident in the essay above.

Still the most infuriating, due to its shrill arrogance, is the claim to be "the one true Church," hardly molified by the currently fashionable universalism coming from the curia.

But hey, all this comes from someone who believes "Justification is an act of God's free grace, wherein He pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone." which means I am under the curse of Hell, according the Council of Trent:

"If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ's sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema." (Session 6, Canon XII)

But wait, NOWadays the Roman church says I am but a Christian of the "separated brethren" even while saying it still believes Trent. Hmmmmmm, how many thousands of days of purgatory does being under an anathema merit anyway--or is that Hell? How can Trent and the current teaching of Rome both be correct? This is sooo confusing....

Of course I'm still working out the effects of that Justification in that I'm learning to please my Savior by trying to live a holy life and that "Sanctification is the work of God's free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness."

Thank God this "working out" is possible because I've been adopted into God's family, and, "Adoption is an act of God's free grace, whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges of the Sons of God."
(all from the Westminster Shorter Catechism)

Justification: Done and sealed on the cross, ONLY by Christ, not myself.

Sanctification: Ongoing, cooperative effort--by the grace of God, but integrally requiring my efforts as well--complete only after death.

Adoption: Present and future status, past, present and future implications and growth...

14 posted on 12/30/2006 1:29:30 PM PST by AnalogReigns (Solus Christus)
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