This post was edited July 21, 2014, Edits appear in red italics.
We continue in our journey through the hallmark doctrines of Protestantism, focusing today on the position and role of Jesus Messiah.
Solus Christus: Christ alone (sometimes rendered Solo Christo)
In our earlier discussion on Soli Deo Gloria, we looked at the necessity of honoring God. Living in such a way that brings Him glory is a mark of the true believer. Knowing the love and grace of God moves the Christian to obedience. We should seek to submit to His will in all things. He is the Lord, the Master, of every aspect of our lives.
It is my opinion that turning our eyes to gaze steadily on the beautiful countenance of God leads us to grapple with the Incarnation; whoever has seen Him (whether by common or spiritual vision) has seen the Father (Jn. 14:8-9). Jesus is God revealed. If we wish to know the Lord, we need only look to Him.
How, then, does the Messiah, the God-Man, tell us that we are saved?
Jesus said to Him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” – John 14:6 (NKJV)
Jesus intimately connects His own Person to the process of salvation. In the Gospel of John alone, He refers to Himself as the water (Jn. 4:10-14), the bread (Jn. 6:35), the light (Jn. 8:12), the gate (Jn. 10:7-9) and the shepherd (Jn. 10:11-18). These are just a few examples of how integral Jesus is in mediating between God and humankind. Water is essential for survival. Bread quiets hunger pangs. Light dispels the darkness. Gates let in those allowed and keep out those not. The shepherd knows His sheep – and He sheep know Him, following no other.
Protestants and Catholics agree on this, but there is sharp divergence on whether or not the redemptive work of Christ is enough to bring about salvation for each of us. Here we arrive at the role and meaning of the sacraments, meritorious works and the role of Mary and the saints (who, to my understanding, form a sort of repository or treasury of faith and works the Christian today can access and benefit from). Let us consider each separately.
The word “sacrament” is defined as a sacred act or ceremony. Most Protestant denominations engage in only two sacraments, Baptism and Communion/Eucharist, neither of which are understood to confer grace in and of themselves. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, by contrast, defines the sacraments as:
efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions. (1131)
In other words, to a Protestant, grace already exists in the life of the Christian by virtue of His belief and the sacraments are the outward signs or rites of that inward reality. The Catholic Church teaches that the sacraments (of which there are seven – Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony) are avenues (instituted by Christ) through which grace is deposited into the Christian.
The contrasting ideas of the sacraments flow directly into the role and place of meritorious works in the believer’s life, a bone of deep contention between the two sides. The role of works is inextricably linked to the doctrine of justification (right standing before God); is the righteousness of Christ imputed (assigning a value, possessed by one, to another), imparted (bestowing a quality) or infused (fill and instill) into the life of the Christian?
In Romans 3:21-4:25, Paul goes into great detail about the imputed aspect of justification. Christ’s righteousness, His life of perfect and complete sinless obedience, is “charged” to or against the sinful account of the one who cries out in sincere repentance. Thus, while the sinful nature is not immediately eradicated, God may still look upon the Christian as if she is complete and pure.
Imparted righteousness may be more closely identified with sanctification (the process by which God, with the submission of the believer, works to remake her). The more we come to know and love God, the more we want to be like Him and do what He wants us to do. Sin becomes abhorrent as we submit to God and He heals our blindness, our deafness and melts our hearts of stone.
Infused righteousness must be maintained by meritorious works. We cannot be filled with the Spirit, or, really, filled with salvation if we are not doing what God wants us to do. Here we see that there is less distinction in Catholicism between justification and sanctification than in Protestant theology, which sees justification as a “moment” and sanctification as “life.” Catholicism, to my understanding, lumps the two together. We are both justified and sanctified over the course of our years. And yet it goes further; the emphasis on this infusing means that works become inextricably linked to maintaining one’s position in Christ. Instead of righteousness coming by faith and works being an expression of that faith, righteousness comes by what one does. There is a heightened sense in which man plays a role in his own salvation, a sense not found in even the most ardently Arminian Protestant theology.
It would be easy to spend the rest of our time in the discussion of works, but I would like to conclude this section by saying that I see ample evidence in Scripture and experience for justification as imputed (seen in the Romans passage above), imparted (2 Pt. 1:4, 1 Jn. 3:9) and infused (Jn. 14:15). God declares us righteous, remakes our natures and then expects us to live accordingly. But it is important to note that we are immediately made right before God the moment that we confess Christ and that our works, while showing evidence of imparted righteousness, are not what makes us pure before God. It is only the death and resurrection of Christ, and our faith in Him, that accomplishes such a thing.
Now it seems that we come back to Mary, and, frankly, that annoys me. I do not want to consider Mary, for she was only a human being. And yet it is impossible to escape the place of importance she occupies in Catholic theology. Mary is given the title “Co-Redemptrix” for her free cooperation with God in the plan of redemption, something that seems plainly offensive to me. Without her obedience, the Incarnation would not have happened, and so I am thankful that she chose to submit to God. Yet I cannot make the leap that Catholic thinking requires in asserting that, because of her obedience, Mary is thus a mediator, though of lesser value, between God and man. This blatantly flies in the face of everything Scripture teaches. For confirmation, we need only to consider the Epistle to the Hebrews.
Finally, the faith and works of the saints are available for additional “goodness” in the life of the Christian. While I am thankful for and inspired by the lives of Christians who have gone before me, neither their sins or their righteousness have anything to do with me. I am judged solely on whether or not I am in Christ, not on whether or not I “dipped” into some pool of obedience.
I do not believe that it is a stretch to say that Catholicism teaches that the death and resurrection of Christ is not enough to secure salvation for each person. We must have faith, but we must also work. And the work, when it becomes a means to salvation rather than an outflow of it, cheapens the faith.
Salvation is by Christ alone. He was the perfect sacrifice (again, read all of Hebrews). He did all the work. Our only role in the process is to respond to His offer. It is to take the complete and perfect package. We don’t do good things in the hope that they will save us. We don’t “start” with Jesus and then “add” to Him by doing good things. We don’t need to “add” to Jesus at all. We do good things because we are already saved. We do good things out of love and adoration.
For all posts in the Sola What? series, go here.