When the Holy Spirit revealed to me the truth of John 17:21 I felt I had no choice but to commit the rest of my days to humbly learning from other Christian traditions and teachers. Both my theology and practice necessitated a more humble epistemology and a deeper personal tone anchored in love. I did not jettison what I believed. I opened my mind and heart afresh to “seeing” truth in a far different way, a way that led me to listen more carefully and respectfully to the global catholic church. I realized that over the centuries the faith has been debated and understood and far too much of our history has been about pursuing truth without grace. But I am reminded that the Word was himself “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). If I was to faithfully follow Jesus my life should more nearly be one where grace and truth were both present in abundant measure.
I soon discovered that the present ecumenical era gave me a compelling opportunity to reexamine the role the Christian life has in the doctrine of salvation. At that time, in the mid-1990s, I felt stuck in the “gospel wars” of the sixteenth century, at least as they were understood by me and my peers in the late twentieth century. I wanted to explore these debates with new glasses, glasses that would allow me to move beyond my own “confirmation bias.” Like many conservatives I actually thought that no progress had been made in understanding the grace of God, God’s salvation and the Christian life. I had been taught, and I thus taught, that the sixteenth century gave us a once-for-all benchmark. Opening new questions was perilous. It was even traitorous.
I soon discovered, as I pursued a more ecumenical theology and read various papers and documents in the twentieth century, that we had come quite far in our attempts to better understand salvation and the Christian life. Yet we plainly still had further to go by the grace of God. Among conservatives the most pressing opposition that I encountered then, and still do now, comes when I talk about salvation and the Christian life with Catholics. When Fr. Robert Barron and I spoke to the students at Moody Bible Institute in December 2013 this was underscored for me by the bright and thoughtful questions of young students who felt that I was compromising the gospel. (One student read from Galatians 1:6-9 and asked me if I might be in danger of preaching a “false gospel” in my open affirmation of public unity with Fr. Barron.)
Before we began our conversation that Tuesday afternoon in Chicago Fr. Barron asked me if the students would ask him a lot of questions about the Council of Trent, especially the debates of the sixteenth century over justification-sanctification. I told him that I was quite sure they would. This proved to be true. Most of the questions that afternoon came back to the sixteenth century, the time when Catholics and Protestants defined their positions on salvation and life against each other.
In that Catholic-Evangelical dialogue a student asked me to define the gospel. I did, referring to the good news of the kingdom and the invitation to repent and believe the good news which requires us to put our explicit trust in Christ alone. I added that justification was an important doctrine because it protected the good news from any notion that we could earn our salvation though any merit of our own. Fr. Barron agreed. I think some of the students were stunned. Why?
Without going into the polemical debates of the past I think the answer should proceed in this manner. Catholic and evangelical theologians have agreed that the Christian life is our response to the salvation that was won for us by Christ alone. What we have differed upon is how we relate God’s saving grace to the appropriation and fulfillment of our salvation. What do we do as Christians who must live out our God-given faith? What does love and our works have to do with our life in Christ?
The central concern of the Reformers was to strongly preserve the divine initiative in the process of salvation. Salvation is sola gratis (grace alone) and sola fide (faith alone) because any grace that includes our human contribution is ultimately not grace at all. Thus for the Reformers anything less than this understanding detracted from soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone). The Catholic concern, in standing against this idea, was that this type of teaching would/did deny the need for personal holiness. Whereas the Reformers wanted to cut all dependence upon anything that we can do to merit or earn our salvation the Catholic theologians wanted to equally stress the requirement of a holy life. In Reformation theology the justification of God was the great motif. In Catholic theology the accent was placed upon transformation and sanctification, thus there is a mixing of justification and sanctification in Catholic theology. (Fr. Barron spoke of justification as a process in our dialogue, a traditionally Catholic understand that I do not find helpful at all.) In the Reformers there was a rather sharp distinction between justification and sanctification. This is less true in John Calvin than it is in Martin Luther, or so a lot of theologians think. (I agree with this observation and thus believe that Calvin had a much better grasp of transformation by the Spirit!)
Long before I met my late friend and mentor Donald G. Bloesch he wrote a wonderful small book, that has been reprinted several times, with the title The Christian Life and Salvation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967). Dr. Bloesch, a careful student of the Reformers, sought to be a faithful evangelical and a serious ecumenist. He studied widely and wrote with insight and the love of Christ. In the introduction to this fine out-of-print book he wrote:
It must be recognized that there is no absolute dichotomy between these two types of Christianity, for each makes a place for divine grace as well as personal holiness. Yet in Catholic and Protestant dogmatics these two concerns have not been given the same emphasis (13).
Bloesch said he wanted to “do justice” to both “the ideal of perfect love and the message of free grace” (13). He concludes:
The call to holiness which has been preserved (although not always in its biblical context) in Catholic piety (both Roman and Orthodox) and also in the circles of sectarian revivalism must be held in tension with the biblical and Reformation witness that salvation is by grace alone (sola gratia) and faith alone (sola fide).
This debate must finally lead us to avoid two errors, errors that are quite common to the respective sides in this centuries old debate. On the one side, there is the strong tendency to separate the Christian life from salvation. This tendency can easily separate justification (God’s saving acceptance of us) from sanctification (our response to God’s grace which produces in us an active and obedient faith). On the other side there is a strong tendency to make the Christian life (what the Spirit is doing in us) the foundation or ground of our salvation. The second is the Catholic tendency, an emphasis where love is stressed so deeply in the work of God’s saving grace inside of us that people can far too easily begin to think they contribute something to God’s saving grace.