It’s no secret that modern FE churches shy away from the theology of the reformation. For the most part, if FE people aren’t completely ignorant of the reformation’s theology (and how it came to be), then they’re often hostile to it. Reformation theology is deemed to be “too dry,” “too old,” or perhaps “too works-driven” because of the sacramental views found in reformation churches. Weeks ago, I was told in a caring manner that Baptismal Regeneration (the belief that God binds and gives his name to the baptized to the effect of making a live believer and disciple, Matthew 28:18-20) amounts to salvation by works.
This didn’t surprise me, because the theology of Lutheran and FE churches is so different. Generally speaking, we mean very different things when we say “sola fide.” There isn’t much coming from FE institutions that surprises me, having been in these institutions for nearly 30 years. Sometimes though, an FE believer will say something that brings afresh to my mind that they’ve abandoned the theology of the reformation. Typically, reformation theology is replaced by an unwitting embrace of Roman doctrine on the chief issue, how a man is justified before God.
I almost don’t want to do this because it seems like I think little of people when in fact I don’t, but I’m posting part of a message from my Facebook feed. It came from a childhood and high school acquaintance who attends cyber classes from a large and famous FE college in the U.S. As always, I have nothing but good memories of this person. Let there be more people like him/her!
The message was an email from a professor at the college to the cyber class, meant as a bit of encouragement. Here’s the message, scrubbed of names and the less interesting parts of the email:
I had all of you on my mind today. I know the semester is winding down, and we are on the home stretch. I wanted to remind you that you are worthy of love. Not based in what you have done, but you are worthy of love based on His work in you and in your heart. Do not forget your calling. You are a hope to the hurting, a light to those who are lost, and a bond to the broken.
Let me be clear: this was a very loving email from the professor. I’m positive that this professor is the type of person I’d like to call a friend, like so many FE and Roman Catholic believers in my life. But this email underscores the condition of the modern FE church. While FE’s may decry the Roman church’s veneration of saints, praying to Mary, worship of relics, methods of prayer, the sacramental system, and a number of other items of import, the core of the doctrine of justification is shared by Rome and the FE bodies. That is, the two bodies may arrive at their doctrines of justification by very different paths, but the doctrine of justification is the same (even though the reformation language of “faith alone” is embraced in the FE churches).
There’s a common misconception in FE-ism that when the Reformation happened, the battle between the Roman church and the reformers over the doctrine of justification concerned whether or not a man is justified by his own works or whether justification is by the believer’s faith alone. No; the battle was over forensic justification: in justification, does God change a sinful man into a holy man and thus call him “justified,” or instead does God declare a man guiltless despite what’s in his heart? The Roman Catholic church cited numerous scriptures that demonstrated that a faith formed in love (i.e. works of a love authored by God) is what saves. The reformers cited scriptures that demonstrate the opposite, that it was only faith that saved. But the heart of the distinction is not about works, in the way we speak of them today.
The reformers were essentially saying that God declares sinful men just simply because God has said they are, in view of Christ’s identifying with them. The Roman church considered this highly scandalous, insisting that God won’t justify unholy people (and how do you prove your holiness in this scheme? By works of love, of course). The two sides have disagreed from those days on, and thus eventually was born the formula of the reformation: justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. My point in this is not to show why the reformers were right; I think their writings will suffice for this. My only goal is to draw the parallels between the Roman Catholic church and the modern FE bodies.
The opposing doctrines from reformation times can be seen quite well by simply searching the Internet for writings from the Council of Trent (the Roman council concerning the Reformation) and from the Lutheran confessions. For example, consider an EWTN article and a piece from the Lutheran Confessions concerning this topic. The EWTN article sums the matter up nicely.
…One may ask “But isn’t it a bit stretch to say that modern FE’s (again, generally speaking) believe the same as the Roman church regarding justification?
A Roman believer would say that salvation is impossible without faith; one cannot be saved apart from believing God’s promises. God will not save a man who calls him a liar. Salvation is also impossible apart from God’s grace, as we are fallen men who have not earned God’s favor. We need his help, desperately. That help comes in Christ; we cannot be saved without Christ’s meritorious work on the cross. I don’t think any FE or Lutheran would disagree with this, but when you drill down to the specifics of how this doctrine plays out, it is evident that FE’s generally side closer to the Roman position than that of the reformation.
If one were to walk into a typical FE church and stand behind the pulpit to proclaim the “gospel” that “we are worthy of justification (or worthy of love) because of what’s inside us, but only because of what God has done within us,” I think that most people would just sit and nod in agreement (and horrifically, many FE churches would be content to do without the qualification “only because of what God has done inside us”). In a well-educated Lutheran church, there would be outrage. I urge the reader to try this: open the EWTN article and read it. Wherever you see the word(s) “(Roman) Catholic,” replace them with “Baptist,” “Brethren,” “Methodist,” “Church of God,” etc. If you’re FE and you replace it with the name of your own local body, how much of that scandalizes you? My guess is that not much of it would make your blood pressure rise. Indeed, the article takes the tone that the modern FE churches only differ with Rome on overly-broad definitions of terms, not the actual doctrine.
The distinction in whether or not you feel scandalized is one of location. How does one partake of justifying grace? Is it something internal to the believer, or is it external? Here is where the rubber meets the road: the reformation bodies mean something quite different when we say “faith.” We mean “nude faith that is itself a gift of God, an empty hand that reaches to the Christ outside of us.” Roman Catholics and (non-Pelagian) FE’s mean “a faith (either cooperative or not) that is formed by God’s grace so that the new goodness that’s inside of us will save us.” Most FE’s aren’t even aware that they believe this, but consider the professor’s message: “You are worthy of love based on his work in you.” This is the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification. “By God’s grace, your heart is purified so that it is your heart’s condition that justifies you.”
“Ask Jesus into your heart.” I am reminded of this doctrine being promulgated in a Baptist church during Bible school one year. The entire evening had the theme that “God looks at the heart, not your outward acts.” This was somehow supposed to be good news for the children. If we take the scriptures seriously, that the heart is deceitful and none but God and know it, then how is our heart to be found pure before God and worthy of love? It is only by God’s work inside of us –internal to us. Again, this is the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification. The theology of the reformation would instead say “God has had compassion on you; you are loved, and Christ has secured your salvation. Retire yourself from your own efforts to please God; your sins are forgiven on account of Christ! Be baptized and wash away your sins!” In this manner, the Gospel is proclaimed objectively and externally, and creates saving faith in a person.
The contention is not over works, it is over what is meant by “justifying grace.” Once that term is defined, a doctrine of works necessarily and immediately follows. If one chooses the Roman Catholic and FE definition, what follows (as a universal) is a co-mingling of justification and sanctification (which is a separate topic, never to be confused with justification) that causes one to focus on their own obedience to the Law rather than Christ’s obedience in our place.
Praise God, the Biblical doctrine of justification points outside of the individual for the source of salvation. When we say Christ alone, we mean that his work and righteousness alone are imputed to us for our salvation. When we say grace alone, we mean that our good works play no part WHATSOEVER in justification because internally, our hearts always have some degree of hardness so long as we live (we are simultaneously sinner in the flesh and saint by God’s declaration). When we say faith alone, we mean that we never in this life will have anything worthy of offering God and that his promise alone –that is, his decree alone, apart from our works– saves. When we say grace alone, we mean that our justification is purely a forensic (legal) declaration. All of these work together to drive the sinner/believer to despair of what’s in their own heart and to cling to Christ.