Thursday, October 29, 2009

Return to Rome by Francis J. Beckwith - A Protestant response: part 2

In part 1 of this review series I introduced the book and suggested that two substantive doctrinal issues led Beckwith to question his Evangelical Protestant faith and consider reconciling with the Roman Catholic Church: the doctrine of Scripture and justification by faith alone. In part 1 I homed in on what Beckwith had to say on sola scriptura. I was glad to see that the author read the post and thought it "fair minded" (see here), although he disagrees with my conclusions (see his response). Now I would like to look at the reasons Beckwith gives for his change of mind on justification by faith alone. In the final part of the series I will reflect on whether its is meaningful, given his rejection of key Evangelical teachings for Beckwith to designate himself an 'Evangelical Catholic'.

Justification by faith alone

Beckwith does not intend to present a full apologia for the Roman Catholic view of justification in these pages. He simply wants to let his readers in on the processes of his own thinking as he moved from a Protestant to Roman Catholic position. He came to the conclusion that the Roman Catholic view has greater explanatory power in relation to the biblical material than the Evangelical Protestant teaching. This is a strong charge given the Evangelical insistence on basing doctrine on sound biblical exegesis. But what of his arguments? In the space of a blog post I can't respond to every point he makes. For the sake of brevity I especially want to zoom in on what he has to say between the relationship between justification and sanctification in Roman Catholic and Protestant thought.

As far as I can see "sanctification" not clearly defined, but the assumption seems to be that in the biblical texts he quotes, "sanctification" means spiritual transformation or the life of good works that is included in justification. (He cites, 1 Corinthians 6:11, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, Titus 3:5-8 etc - see p. 103-106) There are two problems with this construction. The first is that Beckwith fails to distinguish between positional or definitive sanctification and progressive sanctification. In the texts cited, positional sanctification is invariably in view. As Reformed Theologian John Murray pointed out, "it is a fact too frequently overlooked that in the New Testament the most characteristic terms that refer to sanctification are used not of a process, but of a once-for-all definitive act (see here)." In the texts cited justification is placed alongside definitive sanctification because on union with Christ the believer is at one and the same time declared righteous and set apart to God as holy. In the texts listed above Paul is not conflating justification and the life of sanctified good works. The key idea is position or status not process, hence the aorist tense of the verbs in question. But even here, justification and definitive sanctification remain distinct aspects of salvation, otherwise why would Paul bother to distinguish between them?

Second, Beckwith suggests that in understanding justification forensically, Protestants have difficulty with the Bible's teaching on transformative sanctification. But this is not the case. We hold with Calvin that in Christ the believer receives the "double benefit" of forensic justification and transformative sanctification (Romans 5 & 6). If Roman Catholics including Beckwith said that salvation has both forensic and transformative aspects, I would agree. The wider category of salvation includes both justification and the grace-enabled life of good works. But justification is the forensic aspect of salvation and it should not be merged with regeneration or transformative sanctification. Paul insists again and again that the believer is justified by faith apart from the works of the law (Galatians 2:16, 3:10-14) and sets faith against works in the context of justification (Romans 4:5).
It is wrong of Beckwith to suggest that Evangelical Protestants have a problem integrating the Bible's teaching on the need to work out salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12-13). Maybe the sectors of Evangelicalism in which Beckwith moved did not have an especially great emphasis on progressive sanctification, but the Reformed tradition has always been keen to stress the importance of the life of godliness and the value of good works - see Westminster Confession of Faith XVI. The voluminous Puritan writings on practical piety are enough to silence Beckwith's charge. (See Volumes 6 & 7 of the Works of John Owen, or take a look at J. I. Packer's Among God's Giants for a contemporary appreciation of the Puritan and Reformed teaching on holiness). Contrary to what Beckwith would have us believe (p. 113), there is even even room in Reformed theology for the deification of the believer, when understood in the light of Scripture. Here is John Calvin,

"Peter declares that the purpose for which believers are called is, that they may be “partakers of the divine nature,” (2 Pet. 1:4). How so? Because “he shall come to be glorified in his saints and to be admired in all them that believe,” (2 Thess. 1:10). If our Lord will share his glory, power, and righteousness, with the elect, nay, will give himself to be enjoyed by them; and what is better still, will, in a manner, become one with them, let us remember that every kind of happiness is herein included. But when we have made great progress in thus meditating, let us understand that if the conceptions of our minds be contrasted with the sublimity of the mystery, we are still halting at the very entrance". (The Institutes of the Christian Religion III:XXV:10)

The trouble is that Roman Catholic theology has the tendency to synthesize the different aspects of salvation so that hardly any distinction is made between regeneration, justification and transformative sanctification. The quote from the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church on pages 107-108 bears this out (paras 1989-1982 here). It is as if all the different features of salvation have been placed in a Vatican blender and reduced to an undifferentiated soteriological gloop. For Beckwith as a Roman Catholic, "justification includes sanctification" (p. 103 - his own emphasis). More than that, Beckwith agrees with the Catholic teaching that in justification God makes us "inwardly just" (p. 110), making justification virtually equivalent to transformative sanctification. But in Holy Scripture these terms do not all mean the same thing. Regeneration or being born again (John 3:3) is the initial act of saving transformation. Transformative sanctification is the ongoing process of spiritual renewal. Justification is the forensic declaration that the believing sinner is right with God on the basis of Christ's finished work. These key theological words are not interchangeable. Substitute "sanctifies" for "justifies" in Romans 8:33-34 and the force of Paul's argument is blunted. Justification is the opposite of condemnation. It does not refer to the ongoing process of the believer being conformed to the image of Christ, although that too is an integral feature of salvation (Romans 8:29). Distinguishing between justification and sanctification is not as Beckwith suggests another instance of "bifurcation" in Protestant thought. It is simply a matter of being sensitive to clear biblical distinctions in order to preserve the integrity of the different aspects of salvation. A salvation I stress that is not received in disparate bits and pieces, but complete and entire on the believer's union with Christ.

As Beckwith acknowledges (p. 108ff), one of the main Protestant objections to Roman Catholic teaching on justification is that the inclusion of good works in justification effectively undermines the believer's assurance of salvation. How can the Christian ever be sure that he has done enough good works to merit acceptance by God? Beckwith tries to meet this objection by suggesting that even in Protestant teaching, "good works are a necessary condition for true justification." (See p. 109). It is true that good works validate the believer's claim to be truly justified because the faith that alone justifies does not remain alone. As Paul says, "faith works by love" (Galatians 5:6). It is here that the teaching of James comes into its own (James 2:17). But good works do not constitute a condition for justification. The sinner is justified by faith in Christ's finished work alone. That is the primary basis of the believer's assurance, Romans 5:1. But Beckwith makes a salient point when he says that, "The Protestant can repeat the sinners prayer and answer the altar call until the cows come home. But if she shows no evidence of 'good works', her eternal fate remains in serious doubt (p. 110)." There is certainly more to genuine saving faith than saying the "sinners prayer". Such an approach betrays the fact that the wider Evangelical world has a superficial understanding of conversion. The more biblical teaching of Reformed theology insists that salvation in Christ includes forensic justification and the new life of good works. The one is never present without the other. But good works are not needed to supplement the work of Christ in order to help merit salvation. We are saved by grace alone. That is why we reject Catholic practices such as penance, the confessional and prayers for the dead.

In conclusion I suggest that the little word alone stands at the heart of the difference between Evangelical Protestantism and the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformed Churches hold that on the basis of Scripture alone that we are saved by faith alone in Christ alone through grace alone to the glory of God alone. That is what the Reformers understood so well in their controversy with the Roman Catholic Church. If Beckwith felt he could no longer hold to the solas of the Reformation then he did the right thing in retuning to Rome.


Jon said...

I would addend:

As for the Lutheran account of justification - we are justified by God, therefore we do not need to justify ourselves - this makes us free and only in freedom are we able to act in the world. That's the issue - that's why 'faith without works is dead' - because freedom is the result of salvation and true freedom can only result in action.

The problem with current evangelical accounts of salvation is that they miss the fact that salvation is through faith and faith "is the reality of things being hoped for" which means precisely living out a life in which you do not build your own account of reality. Unfortunately, we evangelicals all too quickly 'fill in' the faithful life with our own accounts of reality and, precisely by filling out our lives with theological accounts of reality, forsake the freedom which is ours. That is why Beckwith is right - the worst forms of evangelicalism technically require faith to appear alongside works - to 'justify' man. That is precisely to miss the point.

David Waltz said...

Hello Guy,

I would be very interested in your thoughts on Dr. McGrath’s assessment of Trent’s Canon XI (see THIS THREAD for quote from Iustitia Dei.) Although I would like to acknowledge upfront that my question lies a bit outside of the actual scope of your review, recent threads posted by Dr. Beckwith at his Return To Rome blog suggest that he endorses McGrath’s take, and as such, my question seems germane.

Grace and peace,


Exiled Preacher said...


I'm familiar with McGrath's work, but I haven't read Iustitia Dei. I refer you to Philip Eveson's assessment in The Great Exchange - available online. Copy n' paste this url int your browser:


Part Two: Evangelicals and Rome,

Justification and Unity.

I hope that helps.