“Justification by Faith” (Pt. i)

… an excerpt from a letter (published in The Question of Anglican Orders: Letters to a Layman) by the Anglo Catholic theologian Dom Gregory Dix:

[The differences between Protestant ans Catholic accounts of Christianity are] not, as we often pretend, to be found in such questions as whether the Body and Blood of Christ are or are not substantially present in the consecrated Sacrament of the Altar (Luther, the original Protestant, sided with the Catholics on that point against the Protestants) or whether others besides Bishops can ordain, or whether we ought to say the Hail Mary or use incense in church, or the other side-issues on which English Protestants and Catholics usually concentrate. These things are only superficial symptoms. The really profound differences – and they are very profound indeed – all centre around the word ‘Justification’. One does not often hear it mentioned to-day in religious arguments or even in serious theological discussions. But when the Reformation was actually happening – in the sixteenth century – that word provided the dynamite for the whole terrific explosion. Everey Protestant leader insisted time and again that this and this alone was ‘the article of a standing or a falling in the church’, and that in comparison with this no other point in controversy was of final importance. (This would still be the case now, if Protestantism had not so greatly changed from its original principles during th nineteenth century.)

‘Justification’ is the technical term for the fundamental process in the religious life of any Christian man or woman: i.e. that by which fallen man, a creature born in a state of alienation from God and therefore prone to sin, unable of himself altogether to avoid actually sinning to some extent in this life, is through redemption by Christ brought into union with an infinitely holy God, to serve Him in righteousness, to love Him with his whole being and ultimately to enjoy Him eternally. You will see that this concerns the very heart of the Christian religion – and it was about this that Protestants and Catholics differed violently in the sixteenth century. How does the ‘Justification’ of the sinner through Christ happen?

The Protestant answer was unanimous and simple. It happened through a man’s total surrender to one particular idea and to the emotion it evoked; it happened entirely and completely inside a man’s own mind. Protestantism sprang from a radically and unrelieved pessimistic estimate of human nature. This was the personal invention of Martin Luther but it became the common presupposition of all Protestant teaching. Luther taught and Protestantism believed that man is totally and incurably corrupted in his nature by the effects of ‘original sin’, and that his ‘original sin’ is to be simply identified with ‘concupiscence’, i.e. with that susceptibility to temptation which we all know in ourselves. If this identification is accepted, there is no hiding the fact from ourselves that this ‘total corruption’ always persists in us, even in the ‘justified’ and those who appear to be leading and trying to lead a holy life. It is so irremediable, so ‘total’, that even a man’s apparently ‘good works’ are in themselves in the eyes of God damnably sinful. Nothing that a man can do in itself ever have the least value in the eyes of God, on this theory.

Man has therefore but one hope of salvation. God the Father sent His only Son to become Man and be crucified outside the gates of Jerusalem in the first century A.D.; thus He offered the one, true, perfect, sufficient and complete sacrifice to atone for all human sin. To the end of time anyone, however sinful, who believes and fully accepts that fact, and trusts altogether and only to the merit of that sacrifice, is forthwith ‘Justified’ in the sights of God. He needs nothing more, can do nothing more, than be conscious of feeling of confidence, for it is all that stands in between him and eternal torment. Yet even so, he cannot really undo the terrible effects of ‘original sin’ in his soul. The fact that he feels this confidence does not render anything he does or could do in itself pleasing to God. he is not in any way made holy even by ‘justifying faith’; otherwise his own actions would aid in his own redemption and sanctification; grace would no more be the absolutely free gift of God, but something man had at least partially ‘merited’. He is therefore emphatically not made holy but simply ‘accounted holy’ by God, for the sake of Christ, Whose righteousness is ‘imputed to’ the believing sinner by God through a sort of fiction. But in himself the redeemed and ‘justified’ sinner remaisn an entirely sinful sinner still,a nd only the consciousness of his own faith in the redeeming merits of Christ stands between him and the damnation his own inescapable sinfulness entails.  That is the famous doctrine of ‘Justification by faith alone’, which in the eyes of all Protestants was the very essence of Protestantism. ‘Justification’ was a matter of surrendering unconditionally to that one idea, something any individual can do – but can only do – for himself alone, in the absolute isolation of his own mind and heart.

( To be continued )

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