A friend wrote an email to me recently that expressed his continued thinking about the practical implications of my call to church unity. He wrote: “As it relates to doctrine, I thought about my concern for growth of character. I think that those in the Protestant camp struggled so much about the issue of good works. As I develop experience working with kids and parenting, I have come more and more to the realization of the importance of character formation.”
That is a profoundly helpful insight. So many evangelicals have forgotten that salvation is not about affirming a few solas but rather about trusting Christ in such a way that character formation becomes basic, even instinctive. My friend went on to write:
“Some Protestants focus so much on proclaiming that we are justified by the appropriation of Christ's death on the cross through faith that they are reactive against any suggestion that we need to mature in our character (sanctification). But the Scriptures seem to point to the importance of the fruit of the spirit. My point is that one way to deal with differences is not by fighting [one another so much] but [by] appreciating the point of view of others (e.g. those who emphasize good works). Maybe our hang-ups about hanging out with those who have different points of view could be lessened if we treated our differences as a stepping stone to growth in understanding God and his word better. This is not about who has finally arrived at "truth" but it is for our growth also. This will require humility and prayer.”
Well said. There are real differences in theology and these differences are important enough to warrant continued discussion and resolute effort to better understand why they really do matter. But the mindset many Catholics and Protestants have toward each other is locked into categories that they cannot escape. They can even argue that these categories are the equivalent categories of the Bible even though both sides should admit that for hundreds of years almost no one expressed the gospel in this way. Assuming that Luther’s insights into faith and grace are essentially right. I think they are fundamentally right but at the same time there is some serious overstatement at certain points. But are we limited to only Luther’s words and statements today? And assuming Trent got some things right, and it did, but missed on some others, which I also think it did, are Catholics stuck with every word and stroke of this council? Modern Catholic theologians do not think so or there never would have been the now famous Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which is a magnificent document in my estimation.
Should we proclaim that we must appropriate Christ’s death through personal faith in Jesus alone? Absolutely! But does this have anything to do with how we live? Absolutely. To proclaim Christ’s death without a call to spiritual formation and character is the very error Trent feared in Luther’s teaching. I think this led to them dropping a bomb that was not necessary but then I was not alive in those terribly difficult days when Christians attacked, and even killed, one another. Is it too much to hope that we, living in the twenty-first century, can do better?