Over the past few weeks I have been studying the philosophy of Plato, which is dominated by Socrates quest for “Justice”. Nearly every work Plato wrote is on this subject. Socrates wants to know what Justice is, what its value is, and how to best practice it. And it is not an exaggeration to say that Plato was by far the most influential, most widely known, most popular philosopher of the ancient world. At first I was little bored by all the talk about justice, but then it dawned on me: the possibility of a connection with the book of Romans.
You see, the Greek word for justification/righteousness in Romans is Dikaiosyne, and it can be translated justice, righteousness, righteous, justification, etc. When I remembered, this I immediately wondered if Plato was using the same word in his writings. Sure enough, the topic that dominates all of Plato’s works is Dikaiosyne. This is big time! We know that Paul was familiar with Greek philosophy, as he quotes from several different Greek philosophers throughout the New testament. Which means he was most certainly familiar with Plato and his fascination with Justice.
But let’s take a step back for a moment and look at another topic: the first verse of John’s Gospel. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Greek word translated “Word” is Logos, and in this passage what Joh is doing is drawing upon the Greek philosophical concept of the Logos (an eternal rational principle which holds the universe together), and the Jewish concept of God’s eternal, personified wisdom. John is speaking to both Jews and Gentiles, about a theological/philosophical concept they already had in mind, and telling them that Christ is the fulfillment and truth behind those concepts. Christ is the Logos, the rational principle that holds all things together and the eternal wisdom of God.
Now back to Romans. It would appear that what John did with Logos, Paul is doing with Dikaiosyne. Drawing upon Plato’s quest for Justice, which would be well known by his Gentile audience, and upon the Hebrew concept of righteousness (Tsedeqa/Dikaisoyne in the LXX), to show both Jews and Gentiles that Jesus is the fulfillment of these. Paul is speaking to the divided Jews and Gentiles in Rome, explaining to them how the Gospel answers their questions about righteousness and justice. For the Gentiles seeking after Justice, they can find it in Jesus. For the Jews seeking after the righteousness of Torah, they can find it only in Jesus. As he says in the thesis statement to the book, 1:116, “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for in it the Dikaiosyne of God is revealed.”
A brief walk through the Catholic understanding of the relationship between Sacraments and Salvation, in 5 easy steps.
1. Ultimate Justification – our ability to stand in the presence of God – is based upon the presence of supernatural love (charity) in our heart (aka the presence of sanctifying grace in our soul).
2. The Sacraments are given to us a means of providing these graces, because we are utterly and completely unable to generate supernatural love for God through our own efforts.
3. God can and does, at times, work outside the Sacraments to provide these graces. Especially in regards adult converts and penitent Christians who do not have immediate access to the Sacraments, the graces of “Baptism of Desire” and “Perfect Contrition” are often given. This extra-sacramental graces provide supernatural love for God prior to, and without, reception of the Sacraments.
4. To willingly neglect or refuse reception of the Sacraments would only cause a loss of salvation if one was fully convinced that Christ desired them to receive the Sacraments and then, in direct, knowing, willful disobedience to Christ, refused to receive them.
5. Remember, the redemption won for us by Christ did not make it more difficult to be saved. What worked before He came will surely work after. That is to say, the fact that repentant faith saved in the Old Testament without reception of Sacraments and the Holy Spirit indicate that repentant faith, even if it does not receive the extra-sacramental graces of Baptism of Desire or Perfect Contrition, is by itself always going to be sufficient for salvation (remember, Old Testament saints died without the grace of the Sacraments or the indwelling Holy Spirit, and they were still saved on the basis of their repentant faith — the same principle applies “until the end of the age”). What the Sacraments do is provide an immediate, guaranteed infusion of salvation, right here and right now.
If “impute” is understood to mean credit or account, then God does impute righteousness to us – by way of infusion. That is to say, when God imputes us as righteous, He actually makes us so. This imputation involves an alien righteousness, not Christ’s per se, but it is in view of it. One could even say, when God looks at the sinner who comes to Christ for salvation, God sees the righteousness of Christ (ie. Christ’s obedience and death), and in view of it, God imputes and infuses an alien righteousness into the sinner, thereby making the unjust just. And while this means the justified Christian is no longer damnable (metaphysically), he is simultaneously both justified and unworthy sinner (based on his track record, his struggles with concupiscence, and his unceasing dependence on God’s grace and mercy).
Some think that Catholics are alone in teaching that the Sacraments are a means of grace. Yet, it would be more true to say that those who deny the Sacraments are a means of grace are the ones who are alone. Indeed, a survey of historical Christian denominations shows broad agreement, though understood in different ways, that the Sacraments are indeed a means of grace. Not only Catholics and Orthodox, but Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans believe so as well.
Traditional Lutherans believe in Baptismal Regeneration, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the existence of mortal sin and the use of the Sacrament of Confession. Anglo-Catholics also believe in Baptismal Regeneration, the Real Presence, and Sacramental Confession. Calvinists who adhere to the Westminster Confession reject the Sacrament of Confession and have a lower view of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but they do teach that graces are given through those Sacraments when the recipient has the proper disposition.
In fact, it is not only Magisterial Protestants, but also Methodists and even some Baptists and Pentecostals too. Methodists are basically a branch of Anglicanism, so it is no wonder that they believe in Baptismal Regeneration and teach that the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace. Now it might sound odd, but in fact, if you talk to individual Baptists, you will find that some of them do believe God blesses them and gives them grace through Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, even if they do not believe in Baptismal Regeneration or any form of the Real Presence. And within Pentecostalism you may even find some who do believe in some form of The Real Presence and some form of Baptismal Regeneration as well.
Yes, nearly every Christian believes that God blesses and gives graces through Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Not all of us agree on the specific details, about how this happens and how significant it is to salvation, but nearly all of us agree that it does happen to some meaningful extent. And while Catholics and Orthodox do not believe that Protestants have the Holy Orders necessary to guarantee that their celebration of the Lord’s Supper involves the fullness of the graces Christ intended for the Sacrament, nevertheless, we do affirm that any sincere Christian who desires Christ’s grace will be given it – even if schism and heresy has prevented them from having access to its fullness.
Some theologians teach that Justification (being made right with God) entails only an external legal declaration, by which God acquits the person of guilt. They claim it would be legalism to include within the basis of Justification the interior change by which God regenerates us and causes us to love Him. But I would argue their position is untenable.
What does it mean to be forgiven and made right with God? It means that God changes things so that you would go to Heaven rather than Hell. It is important here to understand what these places are. Indeed, Heaven and Hell are not so much places as they are states. See, we believe that God is Omnipresent, so no matter where you are, you are in His presence.
You can experience Heaven and Hell to some degree here on earth. Those who love God and are in communion with Him already experience a small taste of Heaven. Those who hate God and are at enmity with Him already experience a small taste of Hell. Whether in this life or the next, no matter where we might be, we are all in the presence of God. The only difference is: some love Him and enjoy His presence, others rebel and suffer the consequences.
To be in the presence of God when you do not love Him is to be tormented by fire. For God is a consuming fire. Therefore, if we are in a state of sin and want to be forgiven, so that we do not go to Hell but instead go to Heaven, what we are really asking is to be changed so that we enjoy the presence of God. What we are asking is for God to change us so that we love Him. And if He has not changed us so that we love Him, then He has not actually forgiven us. We are not right with Him if we do not love Him. There will only be Hell in the fire of His presence if we do not love Him.
Thus, to be forgiven and made righteous, to be justified and acquitted before God, does not happen except by being translated from the state of hating God and being at enmity with Him, to a state of loving God and being in communion with Him.
This is why a doctrine of Justification based on an external legal declaration alone is not tenable. Because to be made right with God is to be changed so that you love Him.
(1) Affirm the salvific nature of their relationship with Jesus. Many believe the Catholic Church denies that they have this, because there’s “No Salvation Outside The Church” and they thus start with the presupposition that the fact of their relationship with Christ already disproves the Infallibility and truth of the Church. Explain that we do affirm that they have been justified by faith and Baptism and are thus (implicit, imperfect) members of the Church.
(2) Protestants believe that a Lutheran and/or Baptist approach to Romans/Galatians is the essence of the Gospel and the teachings of Christ. You must learn to speak this language. You might not be able to convince them that their interpretation isn’t correct, but that is OK. Catholic doctrine is fully compatible with justification by grace through faith apart from any works of any law. Remember, Protestants understand this to include repentance from sin. And the Sacraments provide forgiveness and justification with absolutely zero works required on our part except for repentance from sin.
(3) The question of the necessity of the Sacraments and the existence of mortal sin can be addressed in a couple of ways. First, it can be helpful to point out that Martin Luther, Phillip Melanchton, and all the authors of the Protestants “Book of Concord” believed that mortal sin destroyed saving faith and justification, and that Baptism/Confession/Lord’s Supper were necessary means of grace for justification. Not many Protestants know this, and many are more open to Catholic teaching on this point once they find out. Also, reference to Scripture and common sense can also be helpful, as Scripture is clear about these things, and common sense agrees (you can’t remain in relationship with someone whom you grievously sin against). But you can also win ground by emphasizing that the Sacraments are not rigid requirements (ie. Baptism of Desire, perfect condition, etc) and mortal sin requires more than grave matter (you don’t lose salvation if your struggling against the sin). These points go a long way in helping Protestants see that we are not legalists.