Win Corduan

Posted originally on May 10, 2007

With a Response by Frank Beckwith

and Further Commentary on the Canons of Trent by Paul Krisak

[Yesterday I learned about Frank Beckwith's reconversion to Roman Catholicism. Like many other people, I was struck by the heat that this decision of Frank's has created, but then I was also struck by the further heat that the heat generated, as though it were wrong to voice opinions concerning this matter. The article from Christianity Today referenced below concludes its introduction to the plethora of comments by saying 'No, the Reformation is not over,' as though it were desirable not to discuss these issues any longer. But should it be? Should we ignore theological differences between confessions? Ecclesia semper reformans et semper reformanda. Serious theological differences should not cause expressions of hatred, but neither should they be ignored. There can never be any reconciliation until we are clear on our differences. Herewith I offer some observations, not as an exercise in Catholic-bashing, but to point out that there are important differences that we should be aware of, even as we seek to maintain a positive spirit.]

I tend to hear a lot of things later than others, and so it wasn't until yesterday that I heard that my friend Frank Beckwith has decided to return to Roman Catholicism, and that he has resigned as president of the Evangelical Theological Society, as reported in Christianity Today and explained by Frank himself (the former link to a site is no longer operative). Sadly, the fringe soldiers on various sides have immediately made use of the occasion to vent their favorite abuse on whomever they love to hate. This is sad, but is to be expected, and there's no point in taking them seriously. However, neither is it reasonable to ask us to think of Frank's decision as nothing but a private choice by a man looking for spiritual fulfillment in a new direction. For one thing, his position in the organization makes this impossible (and, by the way, I continue to be amused how over the last few years, people who are not members of ETS, and who do not share the organization's platform, have felt free to judge not just how, but even that, the society seeks to enforce its own standards).

Pope John XXIII, who opened Vatican IIFurthermore, it is utterly na've to think that a decision of this nature would not carry wide echoes and reverberations. If there weren't significant differences between Protestantism and Catholicism, Frank and his wife Frankie wouldn't have made the choice. You can't have it both ways--make a decision that you consider to be significant and expect others to treat it as insignificant. I believe that Frank understands this.

What I'm not sure that Frank sees, let alone those who are wanting us to treat the matter as though it meant very little, is that a conversion or reconversion always entails a repudiation or re-repudiation. Frank is a philosopher who has spent his career emphasizing that truth matters. As he returns to Catholicism he is implicitly rejecting the truth of Protestantism. This is his privilege, but anyone wanting us to simply ignore the fact that an evangelical leader has turned from truth to what we consider to be error is asking too much.

[Note: I am not here implying that you cannot be a Catholic and be a true Christian in the sense that you are saved, but I'm referring to the fact that Protestantism, built as it is on an attempt at grounding itself in God's Word alone, brings us far closer to the truth than Roman Catholicism, which, on the whole, contains some serious errors at its core. I also want to emphasize that 'error' is not synonymous with 'heresy.' ]

Just as Frank has spent much time and energy demonstrating that you can repudiate Mormonism without hating Mormons, I think it is legitimate for us to continue to relate to Frank as a fellow-Christian, but to be sorrowful over the fact that he is realigning himself with the errors that are still intrinsic to Roman Catholic theology.

Having freely referred to "errors" above, let me now clarify what specifically I have in mind. We have to recognize that there are definite changes in Roman Catholic theology brought about by the second Vatican Council (1962-1965), and I will take those into account. Nevertheless many of the problems that beset the Roman Church in the Middle Ages and were reinforced by the Council of Trent and the first Vatican Council are still with us. Of course, theological issues can and should be debated, and there is a lot of room for disagreement on whether what I am identifying as error really is such. More importantly for the purpose of this little essay is that, whether we want to call them 'error' or not, there are significant differences between Protestants and Catholics.

In fact, one of the big issues that was a crucial topic at Vatican II and that continues to motivate how Catholic theology is written these days is the idea of changes in doctrine or, if you will, development of dogma. It is all very well to claim apostolic succession, but how serious should we take that claim if, in the process of succession, the teaching that is passed from generation to generation actually is altered? There was a time when the claim of the Church concerning its doctrine was embodied in the so called "Vincentian Canon," namely that

in the Catholic Church itself we take the greatest care to hold that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.1

This is a difficult standard to defend, and even though it was already being pushed aside by that time, it certainly became the focal point of a lot of debate in 1956 when Pope Pius XII decreed ex cathedra the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, which all Catholics from that point on were obligated to embrace, but for which there are no references prior to the fourth century, and only scant ones prior to the sixth.

In the nineteenth century, John Henry Cardinal Newman established a new standard with his work, An Essay on the Development of Doctrine.2

He argued that the permanence of Roman Catholic doctrine is expressed in its continuous change and adaptation [sic]. By this he did not mean simply drawing logical inferences from previously existing beliefs, but a dynamic and organic development that produces new understandings that could not have been predicted earlier, but that, nonetheless, are outgrowths from earlier doctrines.3 And so, the second Vatican Council declared in its Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum):

This tradition which comes from the Apostles develops in the Church with the help of the Holy Spirit. For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke 2:19, 51), through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her.4

Now, this growth of understanding, is the result of the work of the Holy Spirit among those who are the leaders of the church. And there you have the famous conception that tradition, as passed down through apostolic succession, is an authoritative source for Christian truth.

Pope Paul VI, who closed Vatican IISo, where does biblical revelation to fit in? Here is the answer as propounded by the same document:

Through the same tradition the Church's full canon of the sacred books is known, and the sacred writings themselves are more profoundly understood and unceasingly made active in her; and thus God, who spoke of old, uninterruptedly converses with the bride of His beloved Son; and the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel resounds in the Church, and through her, in the world, leads unto all truth those who believe and makes the Word of Christ dwell abundantly in them (see Col. 3:16).5

Thus, biblical revelation arises out of the tradition that is conveyed through apostolic succession. In other words the teaching authority of the Church endorses biblical revelation, and not vise versa. The understanding of revelation in Catholic theology used to be characterized by the idea of the 'two-source-theory,' there being two sources of revelation: tradition and Scripture. However, Vatican II avoids that notion and instead stipulates only one source of revelation which is then manifest in tradition and Scripture. To quote from Dei Verbum again:

Hence there exists a close connection and communication between sacred tradition and sacred Scripture. For both of them, flowing from the same divine wellspring, in a certain way merge into a unity and tend toward the same end. For sacred Scripture is the Word of God inasmuch as it is consigned to writing under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, while sacred tradition takes the Word of God entrusted by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, and hands it on to their successors in its full purity, so that led by the light of the Spirit of truth, they may in proclaiming it preserve this Word of God faithfully, explain it, and make it more widely known. Consequently it is not from sacred Scripture alone that the Church draws her certainty about everything which has been revealed. Therefore both sacred tradition and sacred Scripture are to be accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence.6

Sacred tradition and sacred Scripture form one sacred deposit of the Word of God, committed to the Church. Holding fast to this deposit the entire holy people united with their shepherds remain always steadfast in the teaching of the Apostles, in the common life, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers (see Acts 8:42, Greek text), so that holding to, practicing and professing the heritage of the faith, it becomes on the part of the bishops and faithful a single common effort.7

Consequently, it should not be a surprise that the Church continues to reserve to itself the right to give an authoritative and binding interpretation of Scripture. Once more, a lengthy quotation from Verbum Dei:

But the task of authentically interpreting the Word of God, whether written or handed on has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the Word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit; it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.8

And so, this segment of the document concludes:

It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God's most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.9

To understate this point perhaps just a little bit, it seems somewhat difficult to reconcile these notions with the statement of the Evangelical Theological Society that 'the Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety is the Word of God.'

The same ambiguous notion of the development of doctrine also manifests itself in the issue of salvation.

The Council of Trent (1645-63) asserted in its expository document:

For even as no pious person ought to doubt of the mercy of God, of the merit of Christ, and of the virtue and efficacy of the sacraments, even so each one, when he regards himself, and his own weakness and indisposition, may have fear and apprehension touching his own grace; seeing that no one can know with a certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to error, that he has obtained the grace of God. 10

He that is just, let him be justified still; and again, Be not afraid to be justified even to death; and also, Do you see that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.11

Then, the anathemas left no doubt as to its opposition to the teachings of Luther and Calvin:

CANON IX.-If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.12

CANON XI.-If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema. 13

CANON XII.-If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ's sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema.14

The first Vatican Council was stopped by the Franko-Prussian war in 1870, and did not cover all of the topics that the bishops intended. Among its accomplishments is a clear statement on the infallibility of the Pope. It also specifically enumerated the books of the Bible that are considered canonical, including the apocrypha. As to the matter of salvation, we can read the following:

9. Since, then, without faith it is impossible to please God and reach the fellowship of his sons and daughters, it follows that ---no one can ever achieve justification without it, ---neither can anyone attain eternal life unless he or she perseveres in it to the end.
10. So that we could fulfil our duty of embracing the true faith and of persevering unwaveringly in it, God, through his only begotten Son. 15

Pictue of the VaticanSo, the picture that emerged here was very obviously a far cry removed from the Protestant notion of salvation by grace alone through faith alone (Sola gratia, sola fide), whereby the faith itself is a part of what God has bestowed on us by his grace. As a matter of fact, traditional Catholic doctrine accepted the idea that faith is a gift of God as well, but then, as we see in the above quotations, went on to clarify that for our part, remaining true to this God-given faith by living lives of love and righteousness, was also necessary for salvation. This understanding of salvation is frequently referred to as semi-Pelagianism, the idea that salvation was impossible without God's grace, but that what God's grace did was first of all to clear away all of our original sin in baptism, and then to enable us to live righteous lives by which we rendered ourselves eligible for salvation. Since, as fallible human beings we were bound to continue sinning, God had provided the sacraments, specifically penance and the Eucharist in order to keep us as pure as is humanly possible. Now, since the Church alone had been entrusted with the sacraments, it followed that salvation was found only within the church. The image that was frequently used was that the Church is the ark, and just as the ark protected Noah and his family from the flood, so the Church protected its children us from damnation.

However, even if we had received baptism and had kept up regularly with the sacraments, there still was no guarantee of salvation because there might be unknown sins in our lives or sins for which we did not do sufficient penance. Therefore, when we die we should not expect to go into God's presence immediately, but would look forward to an indefinite period of suffering in purgatory until we have been entirely purified and are worthy of entering heaven. Even as cutting-edge a theologian as Karl Rahner defended the doctrine of purgatory.

Now the question arises as to what extent this scheme has been changed by the second Vatican Council. For one thing, it is clear that the church has become far more inclusive in its acceptance of those who may be saved. So, a we read in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) [I'm sorry for the length of these quotations, but this exercise would be worthless if I just gave you 'soundbites']:

All men are called to this catholic unity which prefigures and promotes universal peace. And in different ways to it belong, or are related: the Catholic faithful, others who believe in Christ, and finally all mankind, called by God's grace to salvation.

14. This holy Council first of all turns its attention to the Catholic faithful. Basing itself on scripture and tradition, it teaches that the Church, a pilgrim now on earth, is necessary for salvation: the one Christ is mediator and the way of salvation; he is present to us in his body which is the Church. He himself explicitly asserted the necessity of faith and baptism (cf. Mk. 16:16; Jn. 3:5), and thereby affirmed at the same time the necessity of the Church which men enter through baptism as through a door. Hence they could not be saved who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse either to enter it, or to remain in it.

Fully incorporated into the Church are those who, possessing the Spirit of Christ, accept all the means of salvation given to the Church together with her entire organization, and who--by the bonds constituted by the profession of faith, the sacraments, ecclesiastical government, and communion--are joined in the visible structure of the Church of Christ, who rules her through the Supreme Pontiff and the bishops. Even though incorporated into the Church, one who does not however persevere in charity is not saved. He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but "in body" not "in heart." All children of the Church should nevertheless remember that their exalted condition results, not from their own merits, but from the grace of Christ. If they fail to respond in thought, word and deed to that grace, not only shall they not be saved, but they shall be the more severely judged. Catechumens who, moved by the Holy Spirit, desire with an explicit intention to be incorporated into the Church, are by that very intention joined to her. With love and solicitude mother Church already embraces them as her own.

15. The Church knows that she is joined in many ways to the baptized who are honoured by the name of Christian, but who do not however profess the Catholic faith in its entirety or have not preserved unity or communion under the successor of Peter. For there are many who hold sacred scripture in honour as a rule of faith and of life, who have a sincere religious zeal, who lovingly believe in God the Father Almighty and in Christ, the Son of God and the Saviour, who are sealed by baptism which unites them to Christ, and who indeed recognize and receive other sacraments in their own Churches or ecclesiastical communities. Many of them possess the episcopate, celebrate the holy Eucharist and cultivate devotion of the Virgin Mother of God. There is furthermore a sharing in prayer and spiritual benefits; these Christians are indeed in some real way joined to us in the Holy Spirit for, by his gifts and graces, his sanctifying power is also active in them and he has strengthened some of them even to the shedding of their blood. And so the Spirit stirs up desires and actions in all of Christ's disciples in order that all may be peaceably united, as Christ ordained, in one flock under one shepherd. Mother Church never ceases to pray, hope and work that this may be achieved, and she exhorts her children to purification and renewal so that the sign of Christ may shine more brightly over the face of the Church.

16. Finally, those who have not yet received the Gospel are related to the People of God in various ways. There is, first, that people to which the covenants and promises were made, and from which Christ was born according to the flesh (cf. Rom. 9:4-5): in view of the divine choice, they are a people most dear for the sake of the fathers, for the gifts of God are without repentance (cf. Rom. 11:29-29). But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Moslems: these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day. Nor is God remote from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, since he gives to all men life and breath and all things (cf. Acts 17:25-28), and since the Saviour wills all men to be saved (cf. 1 Tim. 2:4). Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience--those too many achieve eternal salvation. Nor shall divine providence deny the assistance necessary for salvation to those who, without any fault of theirs, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God, and who, not without grace, strive to lead a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is considered by the Church to be a preparation for the Gospel and given by him who enlightens all men that they may at length have life. But very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, have exchanged the truth of God for a lie and served the world rather than the Creator (cf. Rom. 1:21 and 25). Or else, living and dying in this world without God, they are exposed to ultimate despair. Hence to procure the glory of God and the salvation of all these, the Church, mindful of the Lord's command, "preach the Gospel to every creature" (Mk. 16:16) takes zealous care to foster the missions.16

Please note that, even though the exclusiveness of salvation as limited to only certain people no longer obtains, the basis on which all of these groups of human beings are included still remains the same. The starting point for this rather lengthy quotation is, not personal faith in Christ, but membership in the Church. And the implicit extension of salvation to all those who are not a part of the Church explicitly is still based on the works that those 'anonymous Christians' are doing. In other words, one still has to be aboard the ark, but the ark has many outriggers, and, therefore, accommodates a lot more people who in various ways display sufficient virtues to give an indication of being in touch with the grace of God. Hence, semi-Pelagianism, though in anonymous form, is still the basic structure.

Let this suffice for the moment as demonstration of what I referred to as "errors." To summarize, the basic errors, or, if you prefer, points of difference, that I have pointed to so far are
1. the undermining of the full authority of Scripture by the authority of the hierarchy;
2 a semi-Pelagianian (that is to say, combination of God's grace and human works) understanding of salvation that, whether viewed as exclusive prior to Vatican II or as inclusive since Vatican II, infringes on the biblical teaching that our salvation is by grace alone through faith alone.


1Vincent of Lerrins, Commonitorium in Henry Bettenson, ed., Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford, 1963), p. 84.     Back to text.

2John Henry Cardinal Newman, An Essay on the Development of Doctrine (South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989).     Back to text.

3Ibid., p. 280.    Back to text.

4Dogmatic Constitution on Revelation (Dei Verbum) in Walter Abbott, ed. The Documents of Vatican II (New York: Guild Press, 1964), p. 116. Due to the nature of what I am trying to do here, this little essay is as much of a compilation as an exposition. Consequently, the quotations are far longer than they should be in a normal academic paper, but if I leave off too much of the context of the important expressions, their import would seem arbitrary or contrived.    Back to text.

5Ibid., pp. 116-17.    Back to text.

6Ibid., p. 117.    Back to text.

7Ibid., pp. 117-18.    Back to text.

8Ibid., p. 118.     Back to text.

9Ibid.    Back to text.

10The Councils and Decrees of the Sacred Council of Trent, ed. and trans. J. Waterworth (London: Dolman, 1848), p. 37.     Back to text.

11 Ibid.    Back to text.

12Ibid., p. 45.    Back to text.

13Ibid., p. 46    Back to text.

14Ibid.    Back to text.

15Norman Tanner, SJ, Decrees of the Ecumencal Councils,chapter 3, sections 9 and 10.     Back to text.

16Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) in Abbott, Documents, pp. 32-34.    Back to text.

Thanks to Dr. David Wells for a great course in the Documents of Vatican II in the spring of 1972 at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School!


Frank Beckwith
[Frank Beckwith has graciously responded to my comments, and I am reprinting them here, reserving my response until later. I would like my readers to reflect on these comments and consult the Catechism site first.]

Thanks Win. I just read your comments. I don't agree with your reading of Trent. I encourage you to begin with the canons and not the anathemas. Also, take a look at the portion of Trent that discusses the four causes of justification. None of them is the individual agent doing works. That is, it is pure grace. Having said that, you are right that Trent condemns faith without works. But you have to read this charitably, since Trent also condemns faith with works as well. How does one reconcile these? The former is referring to mere intellectual assent without allowing he grace of God working through us. The latter is condemning the idea that our works are the result of our effort and not God's grace. You have to understand that the Catholic views of faith and grace are exclusively forensic. They are that, but they contribute to our being conformed to the image of Christ. Not by our works. But by our faith by the power of God's grace working through us in our acts of charity. Thus, God's grace is merited to us. But it is not merit we earn. It is merit that is the consequence of God's grace manifested in works of mercy, freely receiving accepting God's gift of the sacraments, etc. Clearly, this is not Calvinism. But it is not semi-Pelagianism either. Let me encourage you to read the Catechism's presentation of these ideas, which I am sure I am not adequately conveying. You can find it at the site Catechism of the Catholic Church.


Dr. Win Corduan

There is no question that the role of good works in the life of a Christian in general can become a complex issue. Otherwise, there would not be as much confusion on this point. However, that does not mean that the role of good works specifically in a person's salvation is in any way ambiguous. It seems to me that if there is any one thing that is clear in the New Testament, it is precisely the fact that our good works contribute nothing to our salvation. Unfortunately, not everyone is happy to leave it with that idea, to a large extent probably because they don't want to take the risk of what might happen if they don't attach sufficient strictures on the need to do good works. Of course, if you try to do that as well as attempt to be biblical, you're going to get yourself into a fairly complicated area of confusion, where--not surprisingly--after trying to put it into words yourself, you wind up referring people to the catechism, hoping that this is going to be clear enough in its own right. Sorry, but it isn't. The ambiguity prevails.

Let's take a particular passage of Scripture that illustrates really nicely the New Testament approach to salvation and good works. This is Titus 3: 4-8 (HCSB).

4 But when the goodness and love for man appeared from God our Savior,
5 He saved us - not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit.
6 This [Spirit] He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior,
7 so that having been justified by His grace, we may become heirs with the hope of eternal life.
8 This saying is trustworthy. I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed God might be careful to devote themselves to good works. These are good and profitable for everyone.

We see two distinct phases in this passage. The first part is all about our salvation. It describes how everything pertaining to our salvation is the result of God's work, and his work alone. Paul very specifically rules out any contribution of works of righteousness on our part. There simply is no clearer way that it could be said. The passage also very specifically refers to the work of renewal or regeneration that the Holy Spirit performs within us, a point to which we will return below.

Almost surprisingly, just having emphasized the fact that our salvation is due to the work of God alone, Paul then switches to what happens with people who are already saved and he concludes that, as a result ('so that'), we all ought to apply ourselves to good works. What we see here is the difference between a necessary conditionand a necessary consequence, which is also a set of terminology that seems to apply to Catholic theology. Consequently, much of what I'm about to say is going to sound very similar to the exposition of Trent, but there will be one little difference, that will make all the difference.

Necessary Condition and Necessary 


The Council of Trent was reacting against the theologies of Martin Luther and John Calvin and their followers , trying to foreclose the possibility of antinomianism, which they saw as a possible result of a theology that says that works are irrelevant to one's salvation. To understand why Trent saw this as a realistic threat, you have to be aware of the way in which both of the main wings of Protestantism understood the nature of justification. In Catholic thought, justification had been thought of as the process by which God forgives us our sins and infuses his grace into us, so that we will not only be forgiven, but we will also become just individuals. The Reformers, on the other hand, said that justification has nothing to do with who we are and what we become, but it is a declaration by God that we are righteous on the basis of the person and work of Jesus Christ. God has imputed Christ's righteousness to us, so that he no longer sees our sin but only sees the purity of Christ. Therefore, for the Protestants, justification was a declaration that results in a change of our status from lost sinners to children of God. But the so-called counter-Reformation argued that if justification is nothing more than a declaration by God that we are righteous, even though we are really sinners, then God is creating a fiction. They had no use for the notion of imputation, because that did not touch the actual being of a person, but only seemed to display the same person into a new light. Furthermore, the Reformers interpreted the work of God that we call 'regeneration' as being only a change in the will of the person, not a change in a person's nature or being. In other words, they saw it as a moral change, but not as an ontological change. Consequently, in the eyes of the counter-Reformers, God would be allowing people into heaven who are still sinners and who may have experienced a change of will, but have not necessarily manifested that change of will in good works.

More DetailsBefore I can direct myself to the counter-Reformers, I need to differentiate what I think is the biblical view from Reformed theology (leaving the Lutherans to the side for the moment). As a matter of fact, a person's salvation also entails an ontological change. We really do become new beings; we don't just act differently. This is a notion that has been kryptonite for Reformed theologians and Linear A for Lutherans, but I believe it is clearly taught throughout the New Testament, such as in the passage from Titus above. In fact, the whole notion of subsequent sanctification, i.e. our growth in Christ to become more conformed to his image, would not make sense if we did not actually have a new nature and were new and different beings. So, to this extent, my own view (which I obviously consider to be biblical) and what many Catholic theologians have been saying, do not seem to be all that far apart from each other.

Let me illustrate what I've been trying to say so far. Our salvation comes about on the basis of God's grace that we receive by faith, which biblically means trusting or relying on Christ and him alone. This is necessary and sufficient for salvation. When I am saved, God declares me to be righteous, but he also simulatenously changes my will and gives me a brand-new nature. He does not justify me because I have been regenerated, but at the same time as he justifies me, he also changes me. Now, given these fundamental changes, the New Testament is just as clear on the fact that the person who has saving faith and is a new creature will manifest this new state in a changed life, as that our salvation is by grace through faith alone. The changed life is a necessary consequence. I have describe the pattern before on the blog entry of September 3, 2005.

Chickenpox: Cause and 

ConsequenceMy students will forgive me if I bring up an illustration that they may have heard more than once. Let us say that, sadly, Fred is suffering from chickenpox. How did he get this disease? He contracted the virus. This is the only way that anyone can actually have chickenpox. Now, having become infected by the virus, it is going to make itself evident by a rash or hives (and it's going to itch, and he's not allowed to scratch, but that's not relevant here). The rash is a necessary consequence of having the disease. Nevertheless, having the rash contributes nothing to either receiving the disease or being in the state of having it; this is purely the result of the work of the virus. If Fred gave himself a rash, perhaps by eating something to which he is allergic, this action does not create the disease in him. Nor does the intensity of the rash or the length for which he has it contribute somehow retroactively to his contracting chickenpox or being in the state of having chickenpox in the first place. From the perspective of an outsider, I cannot judge whether Fred has chickenpox apart from whether hes demonstrate the right kind of itchy rash, but that just goes to show that I'm not omniscient, a fact that's not surprising to anyone, but which has no effect whatsoever on what the reality truly is. Thus, there is a very straightforward distinction between a necessary condition (the virus), and the necessary consequence (the rash).

Salvation occurs when a person contracts the 'virus' of God's grace by faith. He will manifest the 'rash' of good works. When he receives the 'virus' of grace, his spiritual physiology will be changed so that it will be possible for the 'rash' of a changed life to manifest itself. Furthermore, again from the perspective of an outsider I cannot judge whether a person truly has saving faith apart from whether hes demonstrate the outward work of the Holy Spirit in his life, and so Fred's changed life will be the evidence to other people of his having received a new nature . But again, now we are talking about evidence of salvation, which is not the same thing as the cause of salvation. Thus, this is the picture that emerges.

Now, how is this different from Roman Catholic theology and what the Council of Trent teaches? All we have to do is to add an arrow that flows backward from the necessary consequence to the necessary condition.

Tridentine Justification

As you have seen if you looked at the catechism, in Catholic theology, what a person does after receiving initial saving grace, continues to build up the merit that stems from God and that, therefore, bolsters his justification. Now, if you have read the material you recognize that Catholic theology insists that these works of ours are themselves the result of God's grace, and that we cannot take any credit for them. I will return to that point shortly, but we must understand that Catholic theology nowhere says that we have it in our power to earn our salvation apart from God's grace, and that the works that we actually do, even if they contribute to our ongoing justification, are still the result of God's grace.

If you understand what I've been saying here, then it will become clear why the catechism says that it is not possible to have certainty of salvation. Since God's work within us is never totally finished, and he produces the justifying works within us, we cannot have assurance of ever being at a point where we can say with certainty that we will go to heaven. If this underlying scheme were, in fact, true, then this conclusion would be right, and I could not be sure of my salvation. I could not know what I or God will be doing over the rest of my life. But, of course, if my salvation does not hinge on my works at any time, then I can celebrate the assurance of my salvation. Then the situation for myself is drastically different from that of an outsider, who only can see my outward life. My personal assurance of salvation is not due to the fact that I have produced enough good works, or that I can anticipate that God will produce enough good works within me, but it is based totally on the fact that God has promised that if I believe in him he will give me salvation. If I needed to contribute my works to my salvation, with or without giving God the credit for them, my salvation would not only be somewhat uncertain, it would be dubious. I cannot possibly look at my life and say, 'Well, Lord, I guess you've done the best you can do, and I guess I'll have to wait for the final outcome; maybe a few years in purgatory will finish what in this life seems to be pretty impossible.'

Ducktor Jean CalvinBut let me address what I think is the most serious problem in this entire depiction. Just because you call something "grace," does not make it grace. "Grace" is a word that almost everyone likes to lay claim to. If you care to, look at my study of how the English word "grace" is being used in translating supposedly parallel concepts in Hinduism. If you analyze what those words actually mean, they do not mean "grace' in the New Testament sense of 'unmerited or undeserved favor.' In the Bhagavad-Gita, we learn about Krishna's 'grace' towards us, which allows us to adopt a lifestyle that will lead us to liberation. But this is not grace. Even more drastically, in South Indian Shaivite Hinduism, the god Shiva is also seen as the dispenser of grace. The effect of this 'grace' includes the entire complex of karma and reincarnation and the opportunity that we as humans have to work our way to the point where we experience the love of Shiva and escape the cycle of reincarnation. I am sorry, but this is not grace. That doesn't mean that it couldn't be divine love, mercy, or benevolence, all of which are good and appropriate, but the word 'grace' is not correctly applied here.

A good rule of thumb might be this: if God does it, it is grace; if we do it, it is not grace; calling something that we do God's grace is not God's grace. There has to be a significant difference between what is grace and what is not grace or the word 'grace' becomes meaningless in distinction to, say, love, mercy, kindness, or benevolence. To attribute whatever good works I may be contributing to my salvation to God's grace does not make it God's grace. Neither the canons of Trent nor the excerpts from the Catholic catechism get us past this barrier. And let me hasten to add that I have the same issue with the Reformed understanding of sanctification. Insofar as they hold that our sanctification depends on our keeping of the law, See my earlier discussions of this matter in the blog and in the PDF Archive of the blog on September 7, 2006. Just as I said above, the Reformed understanding of sanctification should rightfully be thought of as divine love, mercy, or benevolence, all of which are good and appropriate, and God is glorified in them, but the word 'grace' is not correctly applied here. Either that, or--preferably--they might want to rethink their understanding of sanctification.

But then again, God's pure unadulterated grace is my only hope. Yes, God has given me a new nature, and he is continuing to work inside of me to bring this out, and this is all God's work and not mine. This is why the initial worry that maybe relying on God's grace too much could lead to antinomianism is unnecessary. It is precisely because God is the agent in all areas of growth in my life, rather than myelf, that I know that he will bring his work to a full conclusion. Again, if my sanctification were in my own hands, this would be a genuine concern, but since it is God's doing as well, I can have complete confidence in him in this area, too.

I know that I can rest in God's saving and sanctifying grace, and I know that I am not going to come to the proverbial Pearly Gates and be told: "Sorry, Win. You thought you could get into heaven by trusting in Christ alone, because God said so, but--surprise!--you did not measure up to God's standards with all of your actions, and it's off to purgatory (or even worse) for you.'

We can save a discussion on Mary, ex opere operato, and the role of the saints for some other time.

Further Commentary on the Canons of Trent

by Paul Krisak

I read your material on Frank Beckwith and his re-conversion to Roman Catholicism.  That was a very good read while at the same time courteous. Your writing speaks well what Peter said at the end of 1 Peter 3:15; defending the faith with gentleness and meekness.  

 I, too, have been perplexed by his move.  My opinion is that, with no disrespect to Frank intended, one cannot make such a move if one has a foundation in sound doctrine.  Anecdotally, I grew up Roman Catholic, and I sometimes miss the high-church feel.  Sometimes, emotionally, I would love to have that feel again.  Doctrinally, I cannot do so. In other words, a sound view of what the Bible says safeguards me from error.  

You said a lot of good things in your blog.  If I may add, with your consent, a couple of thoughts.  

Frank, in his reply, asked you to read the Presentation of the ideas found in the Catechism. Yet, the document produced at Trent clearly reveals the confusion that it sought to clarify.  Furthermore, it reveals the error of Roman Catholicism.  For instance, Chapter 8 seems pretty good on the surface:  


In what manner it is to be understood, that the impious is justified by faith, and gratuitously.

And whereas the Apostle saith, that man is justified by faith and freely, those words are to be understood in that sense which the perpetual consent of the Catholic Church hath held and expressed; to wit, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation, and the root of all Justification; without which it is impossible to please God, and to come unto the fellowship of His sons: but we are therefore said to be justified freely, because that none of those things which precede justification-whether faith or works-merit the grace itself of justification. For, if it be a grace, it is not now by works, otherwise, as the same Apostle says, grace is no more grace.

There you have it:  No merit can justify us, our salvation comes through grace, not by works; otherwise, grace is not grace.  

Yet, how can grace be grace if Catholic doctrine also says—not explicitly, but implicitly with inescapable logic—that God’s grace is insufficient?  How does it say that? By stressing the need for good works, as you noted, and specifically by declaring in chapter 9:

"For even as no pious person ought to doubt of the mercy of God, of the merit of Christ, and of the virtue and efficacy of the sacraments, even so each one, when he regards himself, and his own weakness and indisposition, may have fear and apprehension touching his own grace; seeing that no one can know with a certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to error, that he has obtained the grace of God."

This statement has, at least, a couple of problems.  

1.      To return to the question of the sufficiency of God’s grace: the statement clearly asserts  that no one can be certain of the faith that has been obtained by the grace of God.  Consequently, God's grace is not capable of providing someone assurance as to one’s faith, and, insofar as it is possible to have any certainty, it cannot rest on God's grace, but only on a feeling that could actually be misleading. Hence, my ability and "co-operation" (a word used elsewhere in Trent) help provide me with an illusionary certainty of faith that, in the end, I cannot be certain about.   

2.      With regard to the “virtue and efficacy of the sacraments” mentioned in the statement, what efficacy is there supposed to be in the sacraments?  If, as Chapter 8 averred, justification does not come by works, then, assuming that sacraments are works, how can there be any salvific efficacy in the sacraments?  Either they do not have any because, as Chapter 8 noted, there aren’t any works one can do for the sake of salvation, or sacraments are works that are efficacious and, thereby, may provide some assurance of our salvation—though it is an assurance of which one cannot be sure. In short, either they are not efficacious, or they are efficacious without bringing about their intended goal, which means that they are still not efficacious. Sure, within the context of Christianity people frequently doubt their salvation. Usually that uncertainty is based on feelings, which present a pastoral concern; however, it is not commonly elevated to the status of a doctrine of the Christian church.

There is another problem in regard to the sacraments. Frank suggested that you peruse the causes of justification.  Well, that also presents an issue.  For, Chapter seven states, "the instrumental cause is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which (faith) no man was ever justified...."  So, does Trent teach that the instrumental cause of justification is baptism and equating it with faith?  Maybe I don't understand, but it certainly sounds that way.  They state that the cross of Christ is the meritorious cause for justification.  However, would not the instrumental cause be the cross and resurrection?  How can any evangelical Christian, in good conscience, believe that baptism is the instrument of justification?  

I will note one final problem in relation to salvation.  Chapter 9 of Trent, entitled "Against the Vain Confidence of the Heretics,” claims:

But, although it is necessary to believe that sins neither are remitted, nor ever were remitted save gratuitously by the mercy of God for Christ's sake; yet is it not to be said, that sins are forgiven, or have been forgiven, to any one who boasts of his confidence and certainty of the remission of his sins, and rests on that alone; seeing that it may exist, yea does in our day exist, amongst heretics and schismatics; and with great vehemence is this vain confidence, and one alien from all godliness, preached up in opposition to the Catholic Church.

Chapter 8 insists that justification comes by Christ alone, apart from works.  In Chapter 9, the Council reiterates that sins are forgiven by the mercy of God, but we are not allowed to say so in application to ourselves. If someone actually states that his sins are forgiven, and that he has confidence and certainty of the remission of sins because it is based on Christ’s work alone, such an assertion is supposedly alien from all godliness and in opposition to the Catholic Church.  So, Roman Catholic theology teaches that we are heretics if we have confidence and certainty of our remission of sins, which is grounded in Christ's work because, they stress, Christ’s work alone forgives sins.

One wonders, can Roman Catholic theology truly say what it intends to say? Does it even know what it intends to say? Can what it is trying to convey actually be put into words consistently? In one sentence forgiveness is done by the mercy of God through Christ, but in another sentence, one should not rest one’s assurance with certainty on the remission of sins by Christ's work.  Doesn't that imply that Roman Catholicism rejects the sufficiency of the work of the Cross and the power of God?  The God of the Bible who saves us is also the God who preserves us.  But it would appear according to Trent that salvation has to rest to some extent on our merits—but then Trent also rejects works of merit as grounds for salvation.  How can they have it both ways?

Well, the only thing I can close with is that you nailed it with the Canons of Trent showing that those who believe in justification by faith alone are anathema...Protestants be accursed!  That is strong language, but, more importantly, unbiblical.  Justification is by faith alone, and Frank's assessment that the Roman Church teaches that doctrine is simply not correct.  It seems like Roman Catholicism is conflicted on these points, if not contradictory.  So, Frank's suggestion that the Presentations clear up the Canons is, seemingly, not terribly useful.  Why?  Because if one lets Trent speak for itself it confuses more than clarifies.  And, the Scriptures are quite clear, as you pointed out, in what they say about salvation and justification.

Again, someone might claim that the Canons of Trent are no longer in force due to the changes made at Vatican II. As a matter of fact, the Vatican council, in its various documents was very careful not to contradict anything explicitly stated at Trent. Here is a quotation from The Catholic Encyclopedia posted on the very much contemporary web site “New Advent”:

The Ecumenical Council of Trent has proved to be of the greatest importance for the development of the inner life of the Church. No council has ever had to accomplish its task under more serious difficulties, none has had so many questions of the greatest importance to decide. The assembly proved to the world that notwithstanding repeated apostasy in church life there still existed in it an abundance of religious force and of loyal championship of the unchanging principles of Christianity. Although unfortunately the council, through no fault of the fathers assembled, was not able to heal the religious differences of western Europe, yet the infallible Divine truth was clearly proclaimed in opposition to the false doctrines of the day, and in this way a firm foundation was laid for the overthrow of heresy and the carrying out of genuine internal reform in the Church."

In short, the canons of Trent are still in force today, and anyone converting to Roman Catholicism is obligated to express their assent to them along with all other de fide documents.

Kirsch, J.P. (1912). “Council of Trent.” In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved July 25, 2011 from New Advent: