Lutheran vs. Catholic Debate on Justification: My Commentary

This was a very lively exchange between Dr. Jordan Cooper and Dr. Robert Koons on the subject of justification. Both presented their respective views extremely well, and these kinds of charitable dialogues are exemplary. I wish we have more of them.


I think one of the most interesting points of the dialogue was when Cooper brought up St. Paul’s use of Abraham in his epistle to Rome. I’d like to take the time here to provide what I think could be said on this matter (although I’ve done so on other articles). So what we have in Romans 4 in Abraham is an instance of a man who receives a post-conversion, yet workless justification from God. The question to the Catholic is how can you have this when the Council of Trent and the Catechism of the Catholic Church say that the post-conversion condition of man is the stage of progressive justification, a progress which involves the increase of justice in the human being by meritorious good works.


The simple answer to this is that when St. Paul speaks of “faith” in Romans, he has the idea of “faith formed by hope and charity”, rather than a mere conviction of God’s promise as true. As such, any Christian’s faith can be identified as righteousness at any point in their post-conversion life if we understand faith to be formed, that is shaped, by the virtues of charity and hope.


St. Paul’s point is that ungodly human beings cannot be made right with God through their natural efforts to adhere to the Law of Moses (that is, everything included in the Sinai legislation), especially not by physical circumcision, but rather through a conversion of heart to believe in the Gospel, where that believing is formed by repentance, charity, and hope. These virtues are themselves infused by God’s grace, and not by works.


Therefore, I think that the typical Lutheran exegesis of Romans 4 might miss this fundamental truth when it seeks to make “faith” as passive as possible, so as to only allow for God’s act of imputing the alien righteousness of another, Jesus Christ, to the believer’s account. Faith cannot factor in the formal cause of justification, but can only be purely an instrumental cause. However, if you read St. Paul’s comments on Abraham’s justification, he says that Abraham’s faith was credited as righteousness. Faith, then, is what is being calculated by God to be righteousness. Therefore, instead of faith merely being an empty hand, or a passive instrument through which to receive an alien righteousness, St. Paul describes the believing act of Abraham itself to be the righteousness that he has.


In my opinion, this is clearly proven when St. Paul further describes the cause of Abraham’s justification as it is founded upon the virtues associated with his faith: “Who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be.. And being not weak in faith, he considered not his own body now dead, when he was about an hundred years old, neither yet the deadness of Sara’s womb; He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. AND THEREFORE, it was imputed to him for righteousness.” (Rom 4:18-22)


You see here that St. Paul includes the virtue of hope in the cause of Abraham’s faith being imputed (credited) for righteousness. Secondly, St. Paul notes how Abraham did not “stagger” or waver at God’s promise, which means he pressed on in perseverance. These virtues were formally involved in the cause of the effect of God’s imputation of his faith as righteousness.


But the Lutheran might retort, “Ah, Erick, this is simply just another way to allow for justification by works through the back door. St. Paul’s trying to exclude human works altogether and you bring them back in by re-defining faith as somehow inclusive with virtues that are pleasing in God’s sight…bringing the human subject right back into the picture as the producer of good works”.


But this would be a mistaken interpretation. For St. Paul, the life of “faith working through love” (Gal 5:5) is not something for which anyone can boast in his flesh (Rom 4:3-4). St. Paul contrasts “faith working through love” with worthless “circumcision or uncircumcision” (i.e. works for which one might boast). If the Lutheran wanted to suggest that faith working through love were something that Abraham could have boasted of in his flesh, they will have far too many other passages in the New Testament that directly clashes with this. Faith working through love is a result of God’s grace re-creating the human to be a new creation , renewed in the image of God (i.e. thus circumcision nor uncircumcision avails for anything, but only a new creation). Earlier in the letter of St. Paul, he describes the heart-circumcision (Rom 2:28-29) whereby the Spirit infuses into the human being a new heart intent on heart-deep obedience as an attribute which owes its cause to God rather than natural human works: “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God.” Therefore, the presence of the infused virtue of a soul disposed towards God in charity is not a performance of man for which God is put in debt to repay him with the wages of justification. It is the opposite.


All that St. Paul is excluding from Romans 4, then, are natural works performed in order to earn justification before God. Thus, when God infuses faith, hope, and love into the soul, these are gifts from heaven that make us righteous in God’s sight by His own unmerited grace. So we aren’t bringing natural good works in order to achieve justification before God back into the picture, but are rather showing that faith, rather than works, can be credited as righteousness when it is formed by the charity and hope that God supernaturally infuses into the soul. This especially is meant to convince the Jew that the Gentile Christians are fully justified even though they aren’t circumcised, nor adhereing to all the laws of the Sinai covenant.


And therefore, even in the post-conversion stage of Abraham’s life, he can be found freshly putting his faith in God’s promise (Gen 15:6), and his faith is thereby accredited as righteousness, even with no associated work performed (for the presence of infused virtues is itself not a work, per se), simply because that faith is formed by the disposition of the virtue of love and hope, both which order the soul unto God. I think that Lutherans suppose that Catholics must think that working activity in the form of outward obedience must be involved for God to reckon faith (informed by charity & hope) as righteousness, but no outward work is necessary. It would be enough for the act of believing, with no other obedience included, when that act is formed by the disposition of charity (which is not a work, per se), to suffice as a calculated possession of the quality of righteousness.


This above interpretation of Romans 4 makes for a happy harmony with the epistle of St. James. Often, commentators have to suppose that St. Paul and St. James have a different interpretation of faith and works, but with my interpretation, such a hard distinction isn’t necessary. It is only necessary when St. James says “faith alone”, for by saying “alone” he really does mean to restrict faith from any formation or shaping by virtues, but simply the raw and pure assent to certain truths. But St. James does not maintain this definition throughout his 2nd chapter. If you read it carefully, he comes to say that faith was working together with Abraham’s works, and thus faith itself was made “perfect”, and further says that Gen. 15:6 is fulfilled by Abraham’s faith coming to perfection or fulfillment, since is says, “And Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness”. For St. James, Abraham’s life of obedience was the fulfillment of faith’s accrediting as righteousness, which means he saw Gen. 15:6 as a foresight, a quasi-prophecy, that Abraham’s faith was formed by the disposition of love and charity, and it only took time for those virtues to act together in the form of works to bring faith to its intended end.

2 thoughts on “Lutheran vs. Catholic Debate on Justification: My Commentary

  1. Genesis 15:6 And he believed the Lord and counted it to him as righteousness.

    The most natural reading is that Abraham engaged in theodicy. God promised descendant, where were they? Even so Abraham believed and justified God.

    Paul’s reading is a stretch. Therefore all arguing based on Paul’s mangled paraphrase “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness” is off point. Because Paul got the verse massively wrong to begin with. Abraham is kn fact irrelecant to the discussion of justification because there is no OT passage saying God justified him; just that Abraham engaged in theodicy.

  2. “He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. AND THEREFORE, it was imputed to him for righteousness.ā€ (Rom 4:18-22)”

    Even here it seems almost as if someone reworked Paul to make it sound like Paul was saying Abraham was justified when this even reads more naturally as Abraham engaging in theodicy.

    i.e.

    “being fully persuaded that, what God had promised, God was able also to perform, Abraham therefore imputed it to God for righteousness.ā€

    “It” being God’s repetition of the as-of-then unkept promise.

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