In the first week of October 1997, a coalition of individual Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants issued a joint statement of their common understanding of the Christian Gospel titled "The Gift of Salvation." It was an earnest attempt to state the message of salvation in language acceptable to heirs of the Protestant Reformation and to answer some of the objections that were raised to an earlier document known as "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" produced by many of the same people. On the surface, this new statement seems greatly improved, and in some respects it is. However, we are profoundly distressed by its assertions and omissions, which leave it seriously flawed. We understand it to be expressed in terms that are consistent with historic Roman Catholic theology, while failing adequately to express the essential Protestant understanding of the Gospel, and we plead with our fellow evangelicals not to be misled by this new initiative but instead to hold firm to the doctrine of "justification by grace alone because of Christ alone through faith alone," which is the biblical Gospel.
Some Recent History
The first of these two documents, "Evangelicals and Catholics Together," was a call to the Christian world to form a united front against the destructive influences of secular culture in such areas as ethics, statism, and the relativization of truth. In the context of this call to co-belligerency in the common sphere of cultural life, which we heartily endorse, "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" affirmed a unity of faith among Roman Catholics and Evangelicals. Included in this common faith was an affirmation that we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ.
Many Christians were unsettled by that affirmation chiefly because of the historic controversy between Protestants and Roman Catholics regarding the doctrine of justification by faith alone (sola fide). Pleas were made to the signatories to provide greater clarity to this matter. The second document attempts to do this. Unlike the first effort, "The Gift of Salvation" tries to clarify the unity of faith that was asserted earlier. It emphasizes the grace of God in salvation, the atonement of Christ, and that the gift of justification is received through faith.
But there is nothing new in this language from a Roman Catholic perspective. Rome has always maintained that salvation is based upon grace, upon the work of Christ and upon faith. The Council of Trent called faith the initiation (initium), foundation (fundamentum), and root (radix) of justification. "The Gift of Salvation" clearly acknowledges that justification is central to the scriptural account of salvation.
What is striking about this document is the joint affirmation by the signatories that "we understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide)." This statement would seem to indicate that the co-signers agree in affirming the biblical and Reformation doctrine of sola fide. If such is the case, we rejoice. However, although it is said that certain affirmations are "in agreement with" sola fide, sola fide itself is not stated.
"The Gift of Salvation" says that:
1. Justification is received through faith,
2. Justification is not earned by good works or merits of our own,
3.Justification is entirely God's gift,
4.In justification God declares us to be his friends on the basis of Christ's righteousness alone, and,
5.Faith is not mere intellectual assent but an act of the whole person, issuing in a changed life.
Each of these points agrees with sola fide. Yet separately and together they fall short of both the biblical and Reformation doctrine of sola fide, which is our concern.
Imputed or Infused Righteousness
Why do they fall short? Central and essential to the biblical doctrine of justification and to the Reformation doctrine of sola fide is the concept of the "imputation" of the righteousness of Christ to the believer. Historically Rome has always contended that the basis of justification is the righteousness of Christ, but it is a righteousness that is "infused" into the believer rather than being "imputed" to him. This means that the believer must cooperate with and assent to that gracious work of God, and only to the extent that Christ's righteousness "inheres" in the believer will God declare the person justified.
Protestants disagree, pointing to the critical difference between "infused" righteousness and "imputed" righteousness. Sola fide affirms that we are justified on the basis of Christ's righteousness for us, which is accomplished by Christ's own perfect active obedience apart from us, not on the basis of Christ's righteousness in us. Thus, the good news of the Gospel is that we do not have to wait for righteousness to be accomplished in us before God counts us justified in his sight. He declares us to be just on the basis of Christ's imputed righteousness.
Without the imputation of righteousness the Gospel is not good news because we can never know if we are standing before God in a justified and therefore saved state. We will have to wait for some ultimate, but by no means guaranteed, salvation. The Gospel is not good news if believers may face thousands of years in purgatory before they come at last to heaven.
Toward the end of "The Gift of Salvation" the signers acknowledge that there are questions that require further and urgent exploration. Among these are purgatory, indulgences, merit, and the language of imputed righteousness. But if the matter of imputed righteousness remains on the table for further discussion, not to mention purgatory, the matter of indulgences, and the need for human merit of some kind, the Reformation doctrine of justification is not being affirmed in this document, whatever it may claim. Thus, the document is dangerously ambiguous.
The historic controversy over imputed versus infused righteousness is a vital, essential matter that posits irreconcilable views of justification. The difference between being justified by inherent righteousness (no matter how acquired) and being justified by the imputation of Christ's righteousness alone does not admit to compromise. Nor do we view it as a matter that provokes a "needlessly divisive dispute," which "The Gift of Salvation" strongly implies it does. We see it as the heart of the Gospel, without which the Gospel is no true Gospel at all.
The signatories have been careful to declare that they are not speaking for their respective communities but from and to them. But it must also be recognized that they are speaking about their communities. We want no one in those communities to be misled into thinking that what is affirmed in "The Gift of Salvation" is the historic doctrine of sola fide.
The Problem of Ambiguity
In the discussion that followed the release of "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" one of the participants in the drafting of the document repeatedly said that the parties to the declaration agreed to the words of the document but understood their meaning differently. When this occurs we maintain that the "agreement" is not really agreement and the declaration of unity is at best misleading and at worse fraudulent.
Attempts to bring harmony via ambiguous formulas were attempted in the past, most notably at the Diet of Ratisbon [also known as Regensburg] in 1541. On this occasion Rome switched from declaring sola fide a "novelty" to arguing that it was always the position of the church. Nevertheless, the "agreement" at Ratisbon quickly unraveled over the issue of imputed versus infused righteousness.
At Ratisbon the differences between the Roman Catholic and Protestant doctrines seemed to resolve itself into this one point, and even on this both sides had some views in common. It seemed that there was no radical or irreconcilable difference between them. Yet when they came to explain what they meant by their choice of words it became obvious that they were contending for two opposite and irreconcilable methods of justification: one by an inherent, the other by an imputed righteousness; one by the personal obedience of the believer, the other by the vicarious obedience of Christ; one by the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in us, the other by Christ's finished work for us.
Ratisbon demonstrated that there can be no honest compromise between the Roman Catholic and the Protestant doctrines of justification. Therefore, any agreement made on the basis of mutual con-cession can only be made by using ambigu-ous expressions and can amount to nothing more than a meaningless truce, sure to be broken by either party as soon as the subject is brought again into serious discussion.
The true legacy of Ratisbon was not unity but the anathemas of the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Seven months of deliberation were devoted to the doctrine of justification in the sixth session, and the end result was to pronounce anathemas on Protestant teaching. Sadly, the Canons and Decrees of Trent still form the clearest expression of the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification, as evidenced by the recent Catholic Catechism. The efforts of some recent Roman Catholic theologians to distance themselves from Trent and dialogues with representatives of other communions have nevertheless not altered official Roman Catholic teaching.
The irony is that while "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" expressed concern over the relativization of truth in our day it has led (in "The Gift of Salvation") to a relativizing of the most important truth of all, namely, the Gospel itself. At least some of the Roman Catholic signatories of these two documents have declared their continuing commitment to the teaching of the Council of Trent, as they should if they are truly Roman Catholics.
"The Gift of Salvation" declares that "faith is not merely intellectual assent but an act of the whole person, involving the mind, the will, and the affections, issuing in a changed life." We agree that faith is not merely intellectual assent and that saving faith includes the whole person and that it issues in a changed life. But this formula fails to address the actual controversy about saving faith. The Reformers believed that we are justified by faith alone because only faith receives and rests upon the imputed righteousness of Christ alone and appropriates his righteousness as the sole ground of our acceptance by God. True faith is immediately effectual in securing justification. Though faith works by love and produces the fruits of righteousness, its justifying efficacy is due solely to its embracing Christ.
Saving faith, according to the Bible, is not only a necessary condition but is a sufficient condition for justification. Rome declares that a person can have such faith without being justified if a person commits a mortal sin. Such sin is deemed mortal because it kills the grace of justification, even if faith remains intact. Thus, Rome teaches that one can have faith without justification, which is a clear and persistent denial of sola fide.
The Call to Evangelize
We are also distressed by the way "The Gift of Salvation" speaks about evangelism. The document says, "We commit ourselves to evangelizing everyone. We must share the fullness of God's saving truth with all, including members of our several communities. Evangelicals must speak the gospel to Catholics and Catholics to Evangelicals." On the surface this sounds like a statement Evangelicals should endorse. But it is another case of ambiguity, one which tends to undermine evangelical missionary efforts in dominantly Roman Catholic countries, and elsewhere.
"Evangelizing" here does not mean preaching the gospel with a view to converting those who hear, because to preach the gospel to Roman Catholics would mean proclaiming it to those who are already within the church and therefore already in the process (in Roman Catholic theology there can be nothing else) of being saved.
True heirs of the Reformation insist that evangelizing means preaching the Gospel of Christ's all-sufficient atoning work to lost people, in the churches as well as outside of them, so they might repent of their sin, trust Christ alone for their salvation and not perish in God's judgment.
Evangelicals and Evangelicals Together
Sadly the publication of "Evangelicals and Catholics Together" and now "The Gift of Salvation" has provoked a severe controversy within the ranks of professing Evangelicals. It has divided Evangelicals from Evangelicals. To the degree it has done this, it has disrupted much of the unity once enjoyed by Evangelicals and has revealed that the unity we thought we had was not as deep as we believed.
Many of us have been engaged in ministry for years and have had a policy of cooperating with Evangelicals of many different communions and persuasions. We are deeply committed to the cause of Evangelical unity. We believe that one of the great strengths of historic Evangelicalism has been the ability to set aside non-essential differences as we work together for a common mission. But the heart and soul of that unity has been and must remain our unswerving commitment to Christ and his Gospel. We believe that indeed it is the Gospel that is the power of God unto salvation. Unity apart from the Gospel is not biblical unity. In these troubled times we dare not compromise the Gospel in the slightest degree.
We celebrate not only the common Gospel we share, but we honor the communion of saints, particularly those who for the sake of the Gospel in all ages have endured persecution, suffered want and deprivation, and have given their lives for the sake of and in defense of the Gospel. Our times require the same commitment.
We believe that there is value in dialogue with Roman Catholics and other groups, but we protest against declaring that Evangelicals and Roman Catholics share a common faith and mission as long as crucial issues related to justification, such as imputation, "…the normative status of justification in relation to all Christian doctrine, … [and] diverse understandings of merit, reward, purgatory, and indulgences; Marian devotion and the assistance of the saints in the life of salvation; and the possibility of salvation for those who have not been evangelized" ("The Gift of Salvation"), remain unresolved.
We are concerned for the flock of Jesus that it may not be confused or misled by ambiguous views of the Gospel. We are concerned about the missionary enterprise of Evangelicals as they bring the Gospel to the nations. We are concerned for the task of evangelism, being convinced that without the evangel there is no authentic evangelism. We agree with the Reformers that justification by faith alone is the article by which the church stands or falls and is indeed the article by which we stand or fall.
We stand together on these truths. We call on all true Evangelicals to stand with us.