If you have the patience of a saint and been following these, you know that I’m finally up to the third part of my conversion to the Catholic Church.
Part one was On Love and Hell, where I got all emotional; Part two was Yes and No but Maybe or Yes but No where I explained how this emotional crisis was actually about an intellectual quandary which turned into crisis of epistemology.
This third part is the part where suddenly, all bets are off, all cards on the table and I’m just making a collage of random stuff like we did in Kindergarten, only instead of using crepe paper, I used theology.
Actually, the Kindergarten comparison is too generous; kindergarten kids wear clothes. In the months after I abandoned my Honours degree, I just lay around in pyjamas thinking, reading and pondering. I read more articles, blogs and books than any university drop-out should be allowed.
And it was glorious.
I gave myself the luxury of asking questions; the space and time to feel incomplete and unsure. I read some of the Early Church Fathers , N. T. Wright and Catholic theologians. I fell in love with G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy; and then I read works on actual Eastern Orthodoxy, Paleo-Orthodoxy, Radical Orthodoxy and Generous Orthodoxy. I also started reading blogs like Rachel Held Evans, Jesus Creed, the Internet Monk.
There were so many questions and so many perspectives I had never considered. It was exhilarating and fascinating. One week was double imputation, the next was monasticism, followed by infant versus adult baptism and then some theories on church growth.
Always a glutton for information, this time I got really fat. (Hence the pyjamas.)
But for all the dazzling array of theories, I kept coming butting up against a problem, one that I’d realised I’d never been able to get my head around. You see, I felt like Jesus and Paul could never quite agree. There seemed to be a fundamental disconnect between the teachings of Jesus and of Paul on what actually the gospel is and particularly if we are saved by faith alone.
Faith Alone or Sola Fide was the most important rallying cry of the Reformation. Drawing primarily on the letters of Paul (particularly Romans and Galatians), the Reformers stressed that we saved through Faith. Alone. Fullstop. No ifs and buts.
How could this be? Because by faith, Christ’s righteousness – His perfect law keeping – was imputed to us. So we didn’t have to do good to be saved! We did have to have faith (which would lead to good works) but we were saved by Faith – Alone. Imputation and sola fide were inseparable because imputation was the only way we could be reckoned as holy without the works (i.e. only by faith.) R. C. Sproul said,
If you don’t have imputation, you don’t have sola fide (faith alone), and if you don’t have sola fide, you don’t have the gospel.
– quoted by John Piper, Did Jesus Preach the Gospel of Evangelicalism?
But did Jesus actually preach this? This disconnect between Jesus and Paul, between the gospels and the epistles, had bothered me for a while. For years I’d been frustrated by how to fit the two together. I even remember telling God that we’d all be better if the gospels were more like Paul’s letters: a little more systematic theology and a little less confusing parables; a little more sola fide and a little less sacrificial obedience. But it was the issue of whether Jesus preached Faith Alone – to the exclusion of works – that really stung.
Apparently I wasn’t alone in this. John Piper commented that,
[F]or some—perhaps many—there is the suspicion (or even conviction) that justification by faith alone is part of Paul’s gospel, but not part of Jesus’ gospel.
But the question seemed blasphemous even to ask. How could Jesus not preach the gospel – the real gospel? How could He not preach “the gospel of justification by faith alone apart from works of the law, understood as the imputation of his righteousness through faith alone“? (ibid.)
But honestly – and it freaked me out to admit it – the gospels themselves, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, just didn’t seem, well, gospely enough. Sure, they were about Jesus and sure, they had some great stories and illustrations but their tone, their message, their underlying assumptions, just seemed…well, worksy.
I couldn’t escape the impression that, for Jesus, faith and works were inseparable. Not just that faith leads to works or that works are the fruit of faith but that we are judged according to what we do.
Truthfully, He seemed to have failed Reformed Theology 101.
Take the gospel of Matthew. At one end is the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-8), the manifesto of Jesus’ mission which is all about doing good and at the other, the Judgement of the Sheep and Goats (Mt 25), the judgement of all according to the good they did. What wasn’t there was everything I thought should be there – nothing about sola fide or imputed righteousness or substitutionary atonement, but there was plenty about pursuing righteousness, faith and good deeds working together and being judged on your actions.
“If you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (Mt 6:14-15)
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Mt 7:21)
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me… For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.” (Mt 16:27)
How did these verses fit into the gospel of Faith Alone? If they were just isolated verses, I could have argued my way around them. I could point out that a saving faith always results in good works, even though these works cannot save us. I could draw distinctions. But that’s just what it felt like: arguing around it. I’d be drawing distinctions where Jesus didn’t.
He didn’t seem to distinguish between the faith that saves and the works which don’t, so why should I? I found myself wondering – seriously – whether Jesus ever preached the Protestant gospel of Faith Alone.
Soon, I realised that this wasn’t just in the gospels. It was also there in the epistles too. I found that “faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:17), that “if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (Corinthians 13:2) and that on the Last Day, “each person was judged according to what they had done.” (Rev 2013) How did that fit in with the gospel of Faith Alone?
This was a problem but I assumed that somehow they had to fit together. It had to. After all, the Reformers had been clear that while it is Faith Alone that saves, the faith that saves is never alone. It’s just evidence and fruit – and I knew Paul taught the good Protestant gospel of Faith Alone so it had to be true. Duh.
Enter the villain of this piece: N. T. Wright.
It was about this time that I started reading N. T. Wright, particularly on the New Perspective on Paul. The New Perspective, which began in the 1970s and was popularised among Evangelicals by Wright, claims that Protestants have been reading Paul wrong for centuries – really since the Reformation. (In that way, I would later discover, it is actually the Very Old Perspective on Paul.)
As I mentioned above, the Reformers drew their inspiration on Faith Alone primarily from the works of Paul. They believed that the works Paul so vehemently denounces were the good works of people trying to earn their salvation – on their merits, by their own strength, because they didn’t believe in grace. Just like the Jews had, the Catholics were trying to earn their own salvation. The Reformers then were modern-day Pauls, fighting legalism, gracelessness and works-righteousness by preaching Faith Alone.
The New Perspective, however, argues that the Jews weren’t trying to earn their salvation at all and that Paul (and everyone else) knew that. They knew they were saved by God’s grace and included by faith into His covenant people. What Paul objected to wasn’t that they were trying to earn their salvation but that they were being dicks about it.
Yes, they were literally being dicks about it because they were insisting, among other things, that to saved everyone had to be circumcised. Rather than being moralistic good works, the works of the law were the marks of the covenant like circumcision, eating kosher, keeping the sabbath and new moon festivals etc. Importantly, these were never understood,
“[E]ither by his Jewish interlocutors or by Paul himself, as works which earn God’s favor, as merit-amassing observances. They are rather seen as badges: they are simply what membership of the covenant people involves, what mark out the Jews as God’s people.”
– James D. G. Gunn, Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press), 1990, p. 194. HT
What Paul was fighting so hard against was the belief that it was necessary to have faith in Christ and keep these works of the law; “that God’s grace extends only to those who wear the badge of the covenant”; that you had to be a Jew to be a Christian.
No, says Paul,
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. (Gal 5:6)
This, says Paul, is the mystery of the gospel,
[T]hat the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Eph 3:6)
There was no opposition between works and faith in any general sense, only a question of whether you had to be Jewish to be Christian or whether “the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14) between Jews and Gentiles remained.
What was at stake was not a way of life summarized by the word “trust” versus a mode of life summarized by “requirements,” but whether or not the requirement for membership in the Israel of God would result in there being “neither Jew nor Greek.” …There was no dispute over the necessity to trust God and have faith in Christ. The dispute was about whether or not one had to be Jewish.
– E. P. Sanders, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press), 1983, p. 159. HT
The implications of this were huge. If the New Perspective folks were right then Paul had also failed Reformed Theology 101. (Probably skipping classes with Jesus but you totally know it was Jesus’ idea. Paul has always struck me as a diligent student. Jesus was too smart for that.)
But more importantly, if they were right then there was no disconnect between Jesus and Paul. Jesus taught that doing works of love were an essentially part of following Him. Paul taught that being Jewish wasn’t.
On the other hand, it was all rather radical, and besides, how would I know? I was just a girl in her pyjamas. I wasn’t a greek scholar. (But even if I was, did that mean suddenly that the answer would obvious? And more to the point, was that what was necessary for the right interpretation of the Bible? An advanced degree in Greek linguistics with perhaps a research Masters degree in the socio-religious climate of Second-Temple Judaism? And that alone to even begin to really understand this controversy? Perspicacious Scriptures, my word!)
Besides, I couldn’t shake the feeling that being saved by good works was really just earning your salvation? How could truly be saved by Christ and His grace if we were off on the side, doing stuff to get God’s favour?
And then came the epiphany, a point so obvious it could only be divine: grace. There wasn’t any reason that having faith by God’s grace should be any different to doing good works by His grace.
Grace is what unites faith and works, grace is what empowers both faith and works. Just as “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb 11:6) but also that “faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26), without the grace of God both are impossible.
Jesus taught this. Paul knew this. Both taught that faith and works were an organic whole, where works of love flowed from and completed faith, where one without the other was dead, and there could be no division between the inner life of faith and the outer world of good works. Because the only thing that counts is faith working through love.
And I was slowly coming to recognise it too.
At the time, I had no idea that this recognition would lead me into the Catholic Church. I would have been horrified at the thought. I was still pretty sure that Catholics tried to save themselves by their own efforts apart from the grace of God. I certainly didn’t realise I’d just articulated the Catholic perspective on faith and works.
I just thought I was doing was Protestants do best: disagreeing with other Protestants.
That, however, would soon change…
I was about to meet my first Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Catholics. And oh boy, was this girl in her pyjamas in for a shock.