A Problem, A New Perspective and A Girl in Pyjamas (My Conversion to the Catholic Church, pt III)

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.

Ivan Kramskoy, Reading, 1863 (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

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.

Did Jesus Preach the Gospel of Evangelicalism?

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.)

Fra Angelico, Sermon on the Mount, c. 1440 (Museo di San Marco, Florence)

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.

Bartolome Esteban Murillo, St Diego Giving Alms, 1646 (San Fernando Academy, Madrid)

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.

Pietro Perugino, Moses’ Journey into Egypt and the Circumcision of his son Eliezer (detail), 1482 (Cappella Sistina, Vatican City, Vatican)

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.

Albrecht Durer, Paul the Apostle

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.


25 responses to “A Problem, A New Perspective and A Girl in Pyjamas (My Conversion to the Catholic Church, pt III)

  1. It’s amazing and strange how when you remain logically consistent, you are brought to places you didn’t expect.

  2. Hey Laura. A very interesting read. I feel though, that there is a very big difference between believing that faith and works are an organic whole in the life of Christians, and believing that salvation is dependent on both faith and works. After all, the criminal being hanged beside Jesus had no time to do works! He had faith, and by that alone was able to join Jesus in heaven (see Luke 23:40-43). So whilst both Jesus and Paul (and other epistles) do teach that works will flow as a component of faith, and that their presence or absence will serve as a reflection of such faith (by your fruits you will be judged (Matthew 7:16-20)), they don’t seem to preach that performing works is the component by which we are saved. Hence faith alone for salvation, works as a flow on reflection/conquence of that faith, not a precondition. This seems to stand in stark contrast to the catholic view, for example the statement at the Council of Trent, session 6, canon 12, which declared that “if anyone says that the faith which justifies is nothing else but trust in the divine mercy, which pardons sin because of Christ; or that it is trust alone by which we are justified: let him be anathema”. I can’t see how this canon is consistent with the gospels. Your thoughts?

    • Here’s how: the servant who filled the water jars and drew out water to take to the head-waiter at Cana–did he have *any* illusions that his actions brought about the change from water to wine? No! Christ did that. But Our Lady had instructed them to do whatever Jesus told them. That was *their* works: not the cause of the miracle, yet an inseparable part of it. I hope that helps clear it up some.

      • Hi, unwobblingpivot, i’m afraid I have no idea how your comment relates to whether it is salvation by faith alone or salvation by both faith and works. Nor why you are mentioning miracles (again, not something I talked about). The wedding at Cana incident in the bible is Christ’s first miracle, but it is not a scenario in which Christ offers any instruction as to salvation issues. Rather it is a situation through which Christ “revealed his glory” (John 2:11)

        If you’d like to clarify what you mean, I’d be interested.

      • Hey, thanks for commenting! I’ve been enjoying your blog. 🙂 For what it’s worth though, I’m also quite confused by this. Are you saying that this is a general illustration of how faith and works work together?

        • I’m sorry, but I still don’t see how the Wedding at Cana is in any way meant to serve as an illustration of salvation, or how it serves as evidence that salvation is dependent on both faith and works. I am assuming however that you are trying to use it as an analogy as to how an action can be part of something but not the cause of it?

          Getting back to my original post, what I am trying to say is that whilst living faith does involve an interplay of both faith and outpourings of that faith (what may be here termed ‘works’), there is a stark difference between this point and declaring that salvation is not by “faith alone”. Forgiveness and salvation are still offered by “faith alone” (faith meaning acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and repentence from sin). Works only come into play at a later stage as a reflection/outpouring of such faith (the fruit that is borne during a Christian’s life). They are not a precondition or requirement for salvation

      • I find your approach a bit contradictory. A big part of why St. Paul emphasized faith was because of a tendency by some to insist on salvation through the law. You argue for faith in a way that smacks of the very legalism Paul was attempting to beat back.

        That seems self-defeating.

        Getting back on the topic, I maintain that true works are what Christ accomplishes via our cooperation when we “do whatever he tells you”. Faith is that very readiness to obey him. The carrying out of that readiness is the works part. The result is the miracle of our salvation/redemption. And it’s all tied together under the realm of grace.

        Before you go pointing out that our salvation was accomplished on the cross, let me make a distinction (not original). Just as Jonas Salk developed a vaccine against polio and we do not experience the benefit of that accomplishment without seeking out and receiving the vaccine, likewise redemption is not ours unless we do our small part in accepting it (not unlike the small parts performed by filling water jars or taking some water to another person *at Christ’s instruction*).

        This is not such an innovative line of thought, to me at least. I can imagine that to a lot of people this would appear obvious and not at all a puzzle. Though that’s not to say it’s not not freighted with mystery (hence my avoidance of legalism of any sort).

        • I’m sorry, but how is saying that you can do nothing to achieve your own salvation, and that salvation is entirely dependent on faith and trust in God, in ANY WAY legalism? The whole point that Paul makes is that there is nothing that we can do to achieve our salvation (the Old Testament makes it plainly clear that an attempt by humanity to achieve their own salvation by adhering to laws and performing various works is bound to fail, and that there is no way by which we can achieve our own salvation- hence the need for Christ to come to Earth). As he says in Romans 10:9 “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”. He does not go on to say, you must also do these tasks and pray these prayers etc. Declare and Believe. Trust in God.

          Using your vaccine analogy, the action that we are required to do is to accept the grace that God offers and to do as Romans 10:9 says. We have to accept it. Faith. Our vaccination (our salvation) is not dependent on then going out and telling everyone about the vaccine, or procuring ingredients for Salk to make the vaccine, or creating our own vaccines. Just like to be “vaccinated” you have to accept that protection has been done for you and to take the vaccine offered (and ONLY requires that), so does salvation require that we accept that Jesus Christ is Lord and that it is only through him that we have been saved and to ask for and accept his gracious sacrifice, and ONLY requires that. It does not then require that we perform works. They should, and will, flow on from your salvation, but they are not a condition of it.

          Saying that it is by faith alone that we are saved is not legalism. Saying that is the only way to be saved is not legalism. After all, Jesus himself said there was only one way to be saved- through him.

        • Hey, I’m going to jump in here.

          Thanks for taking the time to comment and explain what you meant by the allusion to the miracle at Cana. I don’t think it was clear what you meant or obvious in any way. Given that I am a “convert” from Protestantism and many of my lovely friends who read this blog (I hope!) are Protestants, it helps if you can explain your argument fully. Saying you’re coming from a “eucharistic/sacramental” persepctive definitely doesn’t help us understand.

          I do think the miracle at Cana can illustrate our need to respond to and cooperate with the grace God gives. But I’m not sure how it helps us to understand the differences over faith and works in Catholic/Protestant perspectives, particularly as Kathleen is right to point out that the purpose of the miracle is not to outline a theory of salvation but as a sign of Christ as the coming Messiah. Plus, I don’t know any Protestant who would suggest our faith be passive or that obeying Jesus is not a good thing!

          Having said that, I don’t agree with Kathleen that we saved by faith alone for reasons I have discussed else where and will no doubt continue to discuss. Nonetheless, I cannot see how her argument smacks of legalism at all. If you are going to accuse someone of legalism, I suggest at the very least you give a reason.

          As it stands, your statement comes across as nothing more than an insult and I do not appreciate anyone insulting a dear friend and a faithful Christian on my blog.

      • Kathleen, you ask me how is it legalism in ANY WAY, yet I have already told you: stylistically/approach-wise. I meant it in no other way. Your content is sound. Your thrust is narrow and rigid, lacking the broadness appropriate to the subject under review.
        For either of you to state that the Miracle of Cana or any other miracle or sign–or indeed the entire Gospel–is not revelatory of salvation (as if a miracle could not simultaneously be a sign of the Messiah *and* an object lesson in the dynamics of grace), is an indication of not entering into the mystery deeply enough, and that tends to make you come across a bit legalistic.
        I mean it as a constructive observation.

        Back again to the topic. Looked at properly, ‘declaring with your tongue’ is a work of sorts (in the same way that getting yourself to the doctor for the shot is also a work–faith in the drug cannot be enough). It also is what you plainly point out is neccesary to have the salvation Christ accomplished applied to each of us as individuals. That ‘declaring/accepting’ by no means suggests we have saved ourselves. We have merely obeyed–hence the oft-heard phrase ‘the obedience of faith’. We are worthless servants and have only done what we were supposed to do. AND it’s the same way with any other work you could name. No different. As has been said famously, ‘It is all grace.’

        I hope you can see that while I am pursuing a high level of precision in my discussion, I am in no way splitting hairs in a legalistic fashion. In fact, understood properly, what I am proposing is much more liberating than it is binding.

        (I suspect we agree much more than you realize. A good illustration is how I find nothing objectionable in your re-emphasis below. You simply assume things of me that are not even remotely true.)

        • I am afraid that this discussion does not appear to be progressing and so I shall resolve to leave each of us to our own understanding of the matter.

          I would however leave with one point, that being that the epistles clearly make a distinction between faith and works (see, for example the first half of Ephesians 2). Therefore we too should be making such a distinction. As such I cannot hold to your interpretation that the faith and declaration involved in trusting in Christ Jesus as our Lord and Saviour (as detailed in Romans 10:9) is intended to fall within the category of works.

          However, as I said, this discussion appears to have taken on more of an examination of each other than the topic, and so I will refrain from responding any further. I wish you well.

    • The thief on the cross could not do works as he was nailed to the cross. God accepts what you can do and what you can not do, all the thief could do is have faith, but if you have faith and the freedom to do works then you must do them. The people in the vineyard were paid the same, but they must do work after being called, you can not fill baskets with words alone but with deeds, we live in a physical world, with physical pain, treated with physical means, driven by faith, they opposite sides of the same coin, one can not exist with the other. Christ is the head of the church, I am his hands, I am the servant of the Lord, he is the master, as Mary says ‘Do what ever he says’. The Christ says with great force,’Feed the hungry, clothe the naked… Not like the Priest who walked by the wounded who laid in the road. Truly faith without works are dead. A soldier who will not fight is worthless and a Christian who is without works is also worthless.

  3. To re-emphasise: legalism is used to refer to a situation where a person holds the view that obedience to law, not faith in God’s grace, is the pre-eminent principle of redemption.

    I am arguing the exact opposite of legalism- that faith in God’s grace is the pre-eminent principle of redemption

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  5. This post is brilliant. I think I’m going to start linking to it for all my Protestant friends. 😀 It carves a clear and direct path from the problems of Protestantism to, in the end I’m sure, its solution. And it’s witty and thoughtful and thought-provoking.

    The thoughts and arguments you dealt with in this post I am only just now coming to. I never did that much reading or thinking about theology as an evangelical or as a wanderer. Theology made my brain hurt, because not only was I unable to decide who was right, but I felt myself unworthy and philosophically inadequate to decide. My reading about the faith and about theology on a large scale didn’t come until after I’d come to the Church, after I’d already decided she was right. It was history and the Fathers more than anything that led me toward that conclusion, but even then, I had no idea where I was until I woke up and found myself at the threshold of the Church.

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  7. Hi Laura, I guess the logic of NTW (and I’m following Wright here because I know his argument more than Dunn’s, and because they also differ) although faith and works are linked, it is faith that links a person to Christ, and this – following Paul’s use of εκ πιστός in Romans and elsewhere – is based largely on Christ’s own faithfulness. I’ve found this reading of Scripture (which NTW would argue follows Calvin) to be far more satisfying than what emerged out of Wittenberg. Is that different to Roman Catholic doctrine?

    • Hey Matt!

      I’m so sorry it’s taken me so long to reply. Honestly, I just saw a pic your bday on facebook and was, like, MATT! I haven’t replied to MATT! So now I am. 🙂

      But firstly, how are you?? I hope you had a wonderful birthday!

      Ok, so you’re talking about the whether the whole ‘εκ πιστός’ refers to faith in Christ, or the faithfulness of Christ? I never read much of Wright’s argument about that, or anyone else’s – I was more focused on the covenant, Jewish side of things. But initially, I kinda liked the former but I didn’t like how novel it seemed in the context of thinking around this phrase. I could be wrong be it has always been translated and understood as “faith in Christ”, right?

      Do you have a recommendation of a good, overview article on it? Off the top of my head, I’d say that the Catholic position is closer to Wright’s. It is certainly our faith that initially “links” or “unites” us to Christ, ordinarily through the sacrament of baptism, (which is called the sacrament of faith) and this “linking” continues to grow as we grow in faith, hope and love – after all, that is all “good works” are: love for God and others.

      And for me, it was far less that I agreed with Wright than that he made me aware that Paul could and indeed should be read outside of a Protestant paradigm.
      Does that make sense? If I haven’t explained it well or you have other questions, let me know. (And hopefully, I’ll reply sooner next time!)

      God bless,


      • Oh no, I just realisedy reply to your your lovely reply disappeared 😦 I’ll try to reply more fully, but at this point let me recommend a book called ‘The Faith of Jesus Christ’ edited by Michael Bird, which covers the union with Christ debate and faith fairly well.

        I think the union with Christ idea is so interesting and central, and all the more so recently after hearing an expiation of the reformation which placed union with Christ at the centre of the debate. But more of that anon.

        • That looks interesting, I’ll have to check it out! 🙂 What would you say the consequences of the faith in v. faithfulness of debate are? I’m also looking forward to the anon! I’m interested to know how union with Christ was the centre of the debate in the Reformation. Do you mean among the reformers or with the Catholic Church? 🙂

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