Back in my Protestant days I can remember one of the big sticks to hit Catholics with was, “They believe in salvation by works!”
Of course Luther and his gang were all for “salvation by faith alone” and both Catholic and Protestant theologians are converging in the common sense view that “we are justified by faith” or it might be better to say “we are justified by one saving action.” There is a longish article of mine here on the question of justification, and this link takes you to the very important Joint Declaration on Justification signed by Lutherans and Catholics.
The Reformers’ charge against Catholics was that they lacked the knowledge of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ by faith. Instead they were caught up in a religion of good works. The Reformers inveighed against beads and pilgrimages, penances, indulgences and endless prayers. You could not be saved by your good works, but only through faith in Jesus Christ God’s Son your Savior. Of course the more balanced of them recognized the need for good works even though the good works could not get you to heaven. So John Calvin famously said, “You can’t get into heaven by good works, but you can’t get into heaven without good works.”
Therefore, during this month in which we commemorate the Protestant Reformation we Catholics would do well to listen again to their complaints, because what the Protestant Reformers grumbled about then is still with us. Furthermore, some of the main complaints from the firebrands of the Reformation apply just as much to today’s mainstream Protestants as they do to the Catholics.
Let us stand things on their head and see first of all that the old division of Catholic and Protestant doesn’t really hold up. Instead the division in the church today is not between Catholic and Protestant, but between what might be called “the historic faith” and “Neo-Pelagianism.”
This historic faith is simply this: it is the old, old story of a human race created beautiful, good and true, but which has fallen into ugliness, evil and lies. Each and every human soul is in need of forgiveness, redemption and salvation or they are headed towards death. The soul is saved by the sacrificial life, death and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is God’s Son, the second person of the Holy and Undivided Trinity–Son of God and Son of Mary. By repentance, faith and baptism the soul is redeemed and set on the path to heaven.
Neo-pelagianism, on the other hand, either downplays all that “sin and redemption stuff” or actually denies the necessity of it. Neo-pelagianism dismisses the redemption talk as archaic, violent, harmful and medieval.
It substitutes a religion of respectable good works. No sacrifice is necessary. Instead all are welcomed to a family meal.
Neo pelagianism does not prepare one for a better place. It is only concerned with making this world a better place. I call this false religion Neo-Pelagianism because Pelagianism denied the fallen ness of man and taught that humans could, by their own will and power do the good works necessary for salvation. Interestingly, one of the traits of Pelagianism in the fourth and fifth centuries was that it was popular amongst the establishment–the elite, the intellectuals, the wealthy, the well connected and the upper reaches of the church hierarchy were Pelagians.
No wonder. These types of people always think they’re delightful.
Call me Martin Luther if you like, but this same disease affects the church today–both Catholic and Protestant. The ruling elite of Christians, with their liberal bias, are overly optimistic about human nature. They never like to talk about sin. Have you noticed? When the priest introduces the confession at the beginning of Mass they say something like, “Now I know all of us may have done something this week that we know is a mistake…”
The Mass continues with a bland homily which is no more than a pep talk about being kinder, nicer people and maybe working a bit more to save the environment, bring equality to the marginalized or to help poor people. While all of these things are worthy, they are not actually the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Catholic faith. All you ever hear about in liberal Christianity is the need to work for peace and justice, help the immigrants, the poor and the needy. In other words, salvation by works.
What we have in liberal Christianity today is neo-Pelagianism. Its not even salvation by works. Its salvation by being nice.
Why have we got into this state? I believe there are a couple of reasons (in no particular order) At the root of it all is a denial of the supernatural element of religion. Heaven, hell, judgement and all that end of the world stuff is dismissed as so much first century superstition.
Secondly, it is easier to build ecumenical bridges if we do not discuss doctrine. If we discuss salvation we get all tied up in sacraments and so forth and so on and that is messy. So if we focus instead on the good works we are doing together we can all be happy Christians together.
Third, the liberals do not actually believe we need to be saved. How can a person believe in the necessity of salvation if he is a universalist? In other words, if he thinks everyone is going to heaven one day, then salvation is not needed and Christ died in vain.
Finally, they take this to it logical point. The cross was un necessary and it therefore becomes no more than a symbol of a great person’s. tragic martyrdom.
This month when we commemorate the Reformation maybe we all–Protestants and Catholics alike–should consider again those radical and revolutionary accusations against the church.
The Reformers said the Church was overblown, self important, greedy, worldly and concerned simply with the salvation of good works.
Mainstream Western Catholicism and mainstream Protestantism….it still rings true.
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