How close are Catholics and Protestants on the issue of justification?
As we work through the issue of justification from the different viewpoints of Catholicism and Protestantism and try to look carefully at what the distinctives are, it may sound like we're really talking about the same thing. But we're not. There is a sense that the grace of Jesus Christ is working through us all and that in the process of receiving the grace and having that grace manifest our lives are demonstrating more holiness. But the Catholic concept of merit is different from a Protestant perspective, and I don't mean just as we see it, but I think this is the Biblical view.
I guess I would like to ask a Catholic, Do you know if you died at this moment whether you are going to heaven? Do you know that you have eternal life? When I was a Catholic myself I could never say that. And even the Catholics that I talk to now think that it's kind of arrogant that you would know that you have eternal life, as if I know that I would merit it. I don't know I merit it, I know that Christ's merit applies to me and that's why I get it, so it wouldn't be arrogant from where I sit. But even that they would think that it was arrogant makes the point that it isn't all Christ that's doing this, in their view, that we're the ones who are meriting it and we will only know at the end of our lives. So the merit in this sense is keeping or adding to the score, as it were, and then we know after it's all over when we add up the points to see if we have a score that qualifies us for heaven. And if we do, we'd say that Christ did that through us.
I am talking about an entirely different order of things when I'm talking about sanctification and justification. I'm saying that the score is settled when I deal with the issue of sin in my life judicially before God. God knows that I have all kinds of sins to my credit. That's the certificate of debt that Paul talks about in Colossians 2. There's the list of things and all of those were future events to Christ. God knows from the beginning to the end the sins I haven't even committed yet, sins that my mind has committed that my hands haven't gotten to yet. God has them all on His list because they will all eventually be against me in the final tally. Jesus had to die for every one of those sins or else I have to pay for some that He didn't die for. If I have to pay for some, then I'm sunk. But if Jesus paid for them, then He paid for them and that's it . Do you see?
It isn't like Jesus is around to help me to earn "holy points" as I work through my life so that I make the score at the end. That misses the issue entirely. Even if I win a billion holy points throughout the rest of my life with Jesus' help, that doesn't speak one iota to the real issue: what about the sins I have committed? You don't pay off sin by getting holy points with Jesus' help. Sin is always there. The ancients wrote, "How can we pay off sin by doing good things?" We already owe good things. That's what God deserves anyway, so it can't be used to pay off our past sin. We're still faced with sin. Jesus came to pay off the sin so I go to Him and say, "I can earn all the holy points I want with Your help", that doesn't deal with the problem. I need someone to pay for my sin so I don't have to pay for it. Jesus said, I already paid. Tetelestai . It is finished. Paid in full. The certificate of debt has been taken away, having been nailed to the cross. I say, that's great. I'll join up. I like those terms. I'm guilty. You're saying I can be forgiven. I trust you, Jesus, and you offer me forgiveness.
You know what happens when that happens? I get forgiven. Period. The guilt of my sin is forgiven. Now I'm His. I walk with Him. Yes, He does help me to do good things and I do that through His help, but I am no longer an outsider using Jesus to rack up merit points hoping to get in when I die. No, I'm already a son. I'm in the family and God is now training me by the grace that is available through Jesus how to be a son. That's the difference.
That's why Paul can say in Romans 8, "You haven't received a spirit of slavery leading to fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons in which we cry out 'Papa, Daddy.'" In other words, folks, we are safe. Don't you see that? If it's just a matter of racking up enough merit points with Jesus' help, hoping that I have enough points at the end of my life, then I'm not safe. I have received the spirit of slavery leading to fear again. I am still subject to the sting of death and the fear that accompanies it because I don't know what's on the other side. John writes very clearly in 1 John 5, "I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God in order that you might know that you have eternal life." You might know it. You don't hope for it. When you die, you know it.
That's why the Christians were so excited--forgiveness was available and they became inheritors of eternal life. They were not excited because now Jesus could help them work to Heaven. That, by the way, is the Galatian heresy. That was the problem in Galatia. And Paul wrote the book of Galatians to deal with this in mind. It was the same problem that was addressed at the first Jerusalem council in Acts 15. It is not Jesus plus works. It is Jesus alone.
The Catholic church has always been guilty of confusing this issue. It's been Jesus plus works. Jesus helps you to work to heaven. Part of the frightening thing that I have heard of late from Catholic priests and spokespeople is that Jesus is no longer an essential factor. You can be a good Buddhist, or Muslim, or a good atheist and still go to heaven. You don't need Jesus anymore. You just need goodness. We're right back to the law once again.