THE GIFT OF SALVATION
- For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16–17).
We give thanks to God that in recent years many Evangelicals and Catholics, ourselves among them, have been able to express a common faith in Christ and so to acknowledge one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. We confess together one God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; we confess Jesus Christ the Incarnate Son of God; we affirm the binding authority of Holy Scripture, God’s inspired Word; and we acknowledge the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds as faithful witnesses to that Word.
The effectiveness of our witness for Christ depends upon the work of the Holy Spirit, who calls and empowers us to confess together the meaning of the salvation promised and accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. Through prayer and study of Holy Scripture, and aided by the Church’s reflection on the sacred text from earliest times, we have found that, notwithstanding some persistent and serious differences, we can together bear witness to the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. To this saving gift we now testify, speaking not for, but from and to, our several communities.
God created us to manifest his glory and to give us eternal life in fellowship with himself, but our disobedience intervened and brought us under condemnation. As members of the fallen human race, we come into the world estranged from God and in a state of rebellion. This original sin is compounded by our personal acts of sinfulness. The catastrophic consequences of sin are such that we are powerless to restore the ruptured bonds of union with God. Only in the light of what God has done to restore our fellowship with him do we see the full enormity of our loss. The gravity of our plight and the greatness of God’s love are brought home to us by the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
God the Creator is also God the Redeemer, offering salvation to the world. “God desires all to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:4). The restoration of communion with God is absolutely dependent upon Jesus Christ, true God and true man, for he is “the one mediator between God and men” (I Timothy 2:5), and “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father but by me” (John 14:6). He is the holy and righteous one who was put to death for our sins, “the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (I Peter 3:18).
The New Testament speaks of salvation in various ways. Salvation is ultimate or eschatological rescue from sin and its consequences, the final state of safety and glory to which we are brought in both body and soul. “Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Romans 5:9; 13:11). Salvation is also a present reality. We are told that “he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy” (Titus 3:5). The present reality of salvation is an anticipation and foretaste of salvation in its promised fullness.
Always it is clear that the work of redemption has been accomplished by Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). Scripture describes the consequences of Christ’s redemptive work in several ways, among which are: justification, reconciliation, restoration of friendship with God, and rebirth from above by which we are adopted as children of God and made heirs of the Kingdom. “When the time had fully come, God sent his son, born of a woman, born under law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).
Justification is central to the scriptural account of salvation, and its meaning has been much debated between Protestants and Catholics. We agree that justification is not earned by any good works or merits of our own; it is entirely God’s gift, conferred through the Father’s sheer graciousness, out of the love that he bears us in his Son, who suffered on our behalf and rose from the dead for our justification. Jesus was “put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). In justification, God, on the basis of Christ’s righteousness alone, declares us to be no longer his rebellious enemies but his forgiven friends, and by virtue of his declaration it is so.
The New Testament makes it clear that the gift of justification is received through faith. “By grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). By faith, which is also the gift of God, we repent of our sins and freely adhere to the gospel, the good news of God’s saving work for us in Christ. By our response of faith to Christ, we enter into the blessings promised by the gospel. Faith is not merely intellectual assent but an act of the whole person, involving the mind, the will, and the affections, issuing in a changed life. We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide).
In justification we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, through whom the love of God is poured forth into our hearts (Romans 5:5). The grace of Christ and the gift of the Spirit received through faith (Galatians 3:14) are experienced and expressed in diverse ways by different Christians and in different Christian traditions, but God’s gift is never dependent upon our human experience or our ways of expressing that experience.
While faith is inherently personal, it is not a purely private possession but involves participation in the body of Christ. By baptism we are visibly incorporated into the community of faith and committed to a life of discipleship. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
By their faith and baptism, Christians are bound to live according to the law of love in obedience to Jesus Christ the Lord. Scripture calls this the life of holiness, or sanctification. “Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (II Corinthians 7:1). Sanctification is not fully accomplished at the beginning of our life in Christ, but is progressively furthered as we struggle, with God’s grace and help, against adversity and temptation. In this struggle we are assured that Christ’s grace will be sufficient for us, enabling us to persevere to the end. When we fail, we can still turn to God in humble repentance and confidently ask for, and receive, his forgiveness.
We may therefore have assured hope for the eternal life promised to us in Christ. As we have shared in his sufferings, we will share in his final glory. “We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (I John 3:2). While we dare not presume upon the grace of God, the promise of God in Christ is utterly reliable, and faith in that promise overcomes anxiety about our eternal future. We are bound by faith itself to have firm hope, to encourage one another in that hope, and in such hope we rejoice. For believers “through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation to be revealed in the last time” (I Peter 1:5).
Thus it is that as justified sinners we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. All this is the gift of God. Faith issues in a confident hope for a new heaven and a new earth in which God’s creating and redeeming purposes are gloriously fulfilled. “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).
As believers we are sent into the world and commissioned to be bearers of the good news, to serve one another in love, to do good to all, and to evangelize everyone everywhere. It is our responsibility and firm resolve to bring to the whole world the tidings of God’s love and of the salvation accomplished in our crucified, risen, and returning Lord. Many are in grave peril of being eternally lost because they do not know the way to salvation.
In obedience to the Great Commission of our Lord, we commit ourselves to evangelizing everyone. We must share the fullness of God’s saving truth with all, including members of our several communities. Evangelicals must speak the gospel to Catholics and Catholics to Evangelicals, always speak the truth in love, so that “working hard to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God” (Ephesians 4:3, 12-13). Moreover, we defend religious freedom for all. Such freedom is grounded in the dignity of the human person created in the image of God and must be protected also in civil law.
We must not allow our witness as Christians to be compromised by half-hearted discipleship or needlessly divisive disputes. While we rejoice in the unity we have discovered and are confident of the fundamental truths about the gift of salvation we have affirmed, we recognize that there are necessarily interrelated questions that require further and urgent exploration. Among such questions are these: the meaning of baptismal regeneration, the Eucharist, and sacramental grace; the historic uses of the language of justification as it relates to imputed and transformative righteousness; the normative status of justification in relation to all Christian doctrine; the assertion that while justification is by faith alone, the faith that receives salvation is never alone; diverse understandings of merit, reward, purgatory, and indulgences; Marian devotion and the assistance of the saints in the life of salvation; and the possibility of salvation for those who have not been evangelized.
On these and other questions, we recognize that there are also some differences within both the Evangelical and Catholic communities. We are committed to examining these questions further in our continuing conversations. All who truly believe in Jesus Christ are brothers and sisters in the Lord and must not allow their differences, however important, to undermine this great truth, or to deflect them from bearing witness together to God’s gift of salvation in Christ. “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought” (I Corinthians 1:10).
Dr. Gerald L. Bray (Beeson Divinity School); Dr. Bill Bright (Campus Crusade for Christ); Dr. Harold O. J. Brown (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School); Dr. Charles Colson (Prison Fellowship); Bishop William C. Frey (Episcopal Church); Dr. Timothy George (Beeson Divinity School); Dr. Os Guinness (The Trinity Forum); Dr. Kent R. Hill (Eastern Nazarene College); The Rev. Max Lucado (Oak Hills Church of Christ, San Antonio, TX); Dr. T. M. Moore (Chesapeake Theological Seminary); Dr. Richard Mouw (Fuller Theological Seminary); Dr. Mark A. Noll (Wheaton College); Mr. Brian O’Connell (Interdev); Dr. Thomas Oden (Drew University); Dr. James I. Packer (Regent College, British Columbia); Dr. Timothy R. Phillips (Wheaton College); Dr. John Rodgers (Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry); Dr. Robert A. Seiple (World Vision U.S.); Dr. John Woodbridge (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School).
As Evangelicals who thank God for the heritage of the Reformation and affirm with conviction its classic confessions, as Catholics who are conscientiously faithful to the teaching of the Catholic Church, and as disciples together of the Lord Jesus Christ who recognize our debt to our Christian forebears and our obligations to our contemporaries and those who will come after us, we affirm our unity in the gospel that we have here professed. In our continuing discussions, we seek no unity other than unity in the truth. Only unity in the truth can be pleasing to the Lord and Savior whom we together serve, for he is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
Father James J. Buckley (Loyola College in Maryland); Father J. A. Di Noia, O.P. (Dominican House of Studies); Father Avery Dulles, S.J. (Fordham University); Mr. Keith A. Fournier (Catholic Alliance); Father Thomas Guarino (Seton Hall University); Dr. Peter Kreeft (Boston College); Father Matthew Lamb (Boston College); Father Eugene LaVerdiere, S.S.S. (Emmanuel); Father Francis Martin (John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family); Mr. Ralph Martin (Renewal Ministries); Father Richard John Neuhaus (Religion and Public Life); Mr. Michael Novak (American Enterprise Institute); Father Edward Oakes, S.J. (Regis University); Father Thomas P. Rausch, S.J. (Loyola Marymount University); Mr. George Weigel (Ethics and Public Policy Center); Dr. Robert Louis Wilken; University of Virginia).
Dr. Ankerberg’s Concerns About “The Gift of Salvation” Document: October 7, 1997 to February 4, 1998
A question frequently asked is, “What do you think about ‘The Gift of Salvation’ (GS) document, sometimes called ECT2 (Evangelicals and Catholics Together)?” It was published by a group of Catholic and Evangelical Protestant theologians, headed by Chuck Colson and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, on October 7, 1997.
The GS claimed to be a sincere and earnest attempt to “directly address two important topics of perceived ambiguity in ECT-1: the doctrine of justification by faith alone and the biblical mandate for world missions and world evangelization.” The GS does improve on the ambiguous statements in ECT.
The GS states: “We understand that what we here affirm is in agreement
with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide).” “We must share the fullness of God’s saving truth with all, including members of our own several communities. Evangelicals must speak the gospel to Catholics and Catholics to Evangelicals, always speaking the truth in love….”
But let us analyze what this document says a little more closely, try to assess its significance to Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics, and outline some concerns that it raises.
1. I believe it’s important to put this document in proper perspective. The GS is a statement of agreement between 16 Roman Catholic and 19 Evangelical Protestant individuals. It is not an agreement between institutional Roman Catholicism and Evangelical Protestantism.
Some magazines have over-promoted the importance of this document. For example, January 12, 1998, the following statements were printed in Christianity Today:
“The Gift of Salvation…a significant theological agreement between evangelicals and Roman Catholics.”
“Signers of the document…gave assurances that ‘for the first time in 450 years, evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics have publicly agreed to a common understanding of salvation.’”
In spite of these statements by the press, the Evangelical signatories of the document have assured me they never assumed or intended this document to be characterized as a formal dialogue or agreement between the Roman Catholic Church and any Evangelical Protestant institutions. Rather, it was only meant to be an agreement among the individuals that signed it.
2. I believe that our Evangelical friends made a sincere attempt to present the doctrine of salvation. But it is my opinion that it was premature for them to say:
“We…have been able to express a common faith in Christ and so to acknowledge one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.”
“…we can together bear witness to the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ. To this saving gift we now testify, speaking not for, but from and to, our several communities.”
Now, why am I concerned that Evangelicals have signed their names to these statements? I did not attend the private meetings between these men. So, the only way I can evaluate their conclusions concerning “a common faith” and “a unity in the gospel” is to ask, “Is the Gospel clearly stated in this document?”
Those who signed their names to this document would respond in the affirmative. But is the Gospel so clearly presented that there will be no misunderstanding among not only the theologians around the table, but also among the Catholic and Protestant lay people who read it? I do not believe that is the case. I believe it would have been better if they had stated that they had taken the first steps toward the goal of agreement on some aspects of the Gospel, rather than saying they had reached a unity in the Gospel.
3. What is not clear? What is ambiguous in this document? It has to do with the definition of justification by faith alone, imputation, and the unanswered interrelated questions.
Concerning the affirmation about justification by faith alone, I am concerned that a statement made in the front of their document is placed in doubt by a statement at the back. In the front we are told:
“…what we here affirm is in agreement with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide).”
But at the end of the document we read: “While we rejoice in the unity we have discovered and are confident of the fundamental truths about the gift of salvation we have affirmed, we recognize that there are necessarily interrelated questions that require further and urgent exploration. Among such questions are these…the historic uses of the language of justification
as it relates to imputed and transformative righteousness….” (emphasis mine). This latter statement causes questions and doubts. Any
ambiguity as to the meaning of imputation raises doubts as to what was affirmed about justification in the front. The biblical Evangelical view has been that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness is crucial to the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Therefore, I believe that until imputation is clearly defined and is seen as an indispensable part of justification by faith alone, the Gospel itself has not been clearly declared or defended.
Now, Rome has always maintained that salvation is based upon grace, upon the work of Christ, and upon faith. The Council of Trent called faith “the initiation, foundation, and root of justification.” But to discover the exact meaning that Rome holds about faith and justification, it is necessary to ask, “What precedes justification? When and how does it take place? And what follows it?” The answers to these questions reveal where the disagreement exists between historic Catholicism and Protestantism.
The Council of Trent taught that God approaches sinners with prevenient grace, drawing men to Himself. If a man cooperates with this grace, then he is baptized. For Rome, justification had different phases, that is, there is a first and second phase, or as Catholic scholars say, “initial” and “progressive” justification.
In the first phase, baptism is operative since grace to overcome original sin is “mediated” through baptism. The baptized person is cleansed from all original sin and actual sins and is simultaneously infused with a new and supernatural righteousness.
In the second phase, justification (righteousness) is said to be “increased” by participation in the sacraments.
In the final or “ultimate” phase of justification, one is allowed into Heaven—provided one has not committed a mortal sin. During life, if a person commits a mortal sin, he “makes shipwreck” or destroys or loses his justification. He must do penance if he wants to restore justification to his life before he dies. If not, he will go to hell. On the other hand, unconfessed venial sins send a Christian to purgatory until they are cleansed. Then he can go into heaven.
When Rome says that justification is a gift which cannot be merited by good works or faith, she is referring to prevenient grace which leads to baptism. But in the second phase, Trent clearly emphasized that a man must progressively cooperate with the grace of God and that works are necessary for salvation in the eventual sense.
Catholic dogma states, “If anyone says…that the justified person himself, through the good works which are done by him through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ…does not truly merit an increase of grace, life eternal, and the obtaining of eternal life itself…let him be anathema.” This is clearly adding works to God’s grace in order to merit salvation, which the Bible condemns (Romans 4:5 and Galatians 1:9).
In addition, Rome has always contended that the basis of justification is the righteousness of Christ, but it is a righteousness that is “infused” into the believer rather than a righteousness “imputed” to the believer. For Rome, this means that the believer must cooperate with, and assent to, that gracious work of God infused into his life. Only to the extent that Christ’s righteousness daily “inheres” in the believer will God continue to declare the person justified. Therefore, the basis of justification in Catholicism is not solely Christ’s righteousness but Christ’s righteousness infused into our life plus our meritorious works. Protestants disagree, pointing to the critical difference between infused righteousness and imputed righteousness. Justification by faith alone (sola fide) affirms that we are justified on the basis of Christ’s righteousness for us, which is accomplished by Christ’s own perfect act of obedience apart from us, not on the basis of Christ’s righteousness in us which is co-mingled with our good works. Therefore, the good news of the Gospel is that we do not have to wait for righteousness to be accomplished in us before God will count us justified in His sight. Rather, God declares wicked sinners to be justified on the basis of Christ’s imputed righteousness alone the moment they apprehend Him through faith. Without the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, the Gospel is not “good news” because we can never know if we are standing before God in a justified and, therefore, saved state. Roman Catholics must wait for ultimate, but by no means guaranteed, justification. The Gospel is not good news if believers may face thousands of years in purgatory before they can come at last to Heaven. “Justification” is God’s judicial declaration about us, outside of us, that assures us we are forgiven and accepted before Him. To be justified does not mean that we have been immediately transformed in our character to the total image of Christ. Rather, justification immediately initiates the beginning transformation of our character; it does not secure it. As a result of justification, Christ’s righteousness is imputed (reckoned, counted, transferred) to us and is the basis for our favored status in which we stand. The transformation of our character is initiated at the moment of justification and is called “sanctification.” Although sanctification begins the moment a person is justified, growth in the Christian life is a continuous life-long process in which the believer progresses, not to get saved but as a result of having been saved. These important distinctions have been at the root of the division between Protestants and Roman Catholics for the last 450 years. Therefore, before Evangelicals claim to have reached agreement with Roman Catholics, these critical elements of the biblical Gospel must be stated. There should be no reason for not declaring these elements of the Gospel clearly since both the Catholic and Protestant signatories of this document claim they all agree with the Reformation view.
4. Another reason why it would have been better for the signatories of the GS to characterize this document as a first step toward agreement rather than an agreement itself is that the group admitted having problems with the unanswered interrelated questions. In Protestantism, justification by faith alone is considered a normative doctrine in that it sets the “norm” or criterion for evaluating other teaching. Once a person concludes that God saves a person through the instrument of faith which accepts the full work of Christ on the sinner’s behalf and delights in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to his account, then there is no further need for the infusion of righteousness through sacramental grace, man’s own merit, suffering in purgatory, indulgences, or Marian devotion to gain salvation. Yet the signatories of the document have not reached agreement on these interrelated questions; therefore, further steps need to be taken before it can be said that a total agreement, wholly in line with the doctrine of sola fide, has been reached.
5. Certainly we should admit that it is possible for God to be graciously working in the lives of these Roman Catholic leaders who took part in this dialogue. But how can any of us be sure that they have come to grips with justification by faith alone?
Since those who signed this document affirmed their belief in the binding authority of Holy Scripture as their only guide, I believe it would be proper for us to wait and see if the Bible and the doctrine of sola fide will bring about a clear, biblical answer to these interrelated questions. I hope that it will. But at the same time, Evangelicals should wait to see if this happens before they declare publicly that agreement on salvation and “a unity in the faith,” has been reached.
Moreover, if the Roman Catholic leaders who signed this document have truly embraced justification by faith alone, then according to 1 Timothy 3, those who teach must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith and they must be tested. How would I suggest these Roman Catholic leaders be tested? I would ask that they would clearly preach justification by faith alone in their own pulpits, churches and classrooms.
Later, if this spreads through the Catholic Church itself, shouldn’t we expect to hear this doctrine taught in seminaries, Catholic literature, Catholic TV and radio programs and, finally, some encyclicals delivered by the Pope? At the present time, while we can acknowledge that a few individual Roman Catholics claim they have embraced justification by faith alone, the sad reality is that this doctrine is neither taught nor held by the majority of professing Catholics around the world.
6. It’s important to remember that the Roman Catholic Church still anathematizes (excommunicates) those who claim to believe in justification by faith alone. Therefore it is a solemn step that these Roman Catholic signatories have taken. Possibly these 16 Roman Catholic leaders could ignite a spark that could bring a real doctrinal reform in some Catholic circles. Unfortunately, it is also true that this group could simply become a smaller split-off group under the broad umbrella of Rome.
For example, polls indicate that 90% of American Roman Catholics disagree with the Pope’s ruling on artificial birth control. Does their disagreement change the official stance of the Roman Catholic Church? The answer is, “No.” The Pope and the Vatican have not changed.
Therefore, these individual Roman Catholic clerics and others may also unabashedly proffer belief in justification by faith alone and yet have little or no effect on institutional Roman Catholicism.
7. I believe our times demand a clear and unambiguous understanding and definition of the biblical Gospel. Lay people, across the world look to their leaders for clear teaching on salvation. God has told us what the Gospel is and we are to represent Him clearly.
At this present time I believe the GS contains ambiguities and too many loose ends that I fear will confuse both Protestants and Catholics. On the other hand, if this document could be characterized as the first step in a private dialogue between individuals, we could rejoice in the steps that have been taken while understanding that a full agreement has not been reached.
The above concerns were represented to some of the Evangelical authors of “The Gift of Salvation.” They took it upon themselves to write a response which is to appear in Christianity Today. It is as follows:
Response of the Evangelical authors of “The Gift of Salvation”: An Open Letter in Christianity Today, April 27, 1998
Because of dialogue with some of their critics, and in the interest of evangelical unity, the evangelical team who helped to draft “The Gift of Salvation” (CT, Dec. 8, 1997, p. 34) decided to explain publicly, in the letter printed below, what their purposes and understanding were as they put together this second Evangelicals and Catholics Together document.
Since its publication in December 1997, “The Gift of Salvation,” of which we along with other evangelical and Roman Catholic theologians were signatories, has garnered much attention on both sides of this historic confessional divide. We are eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace lest the body of Christ be further fractured through careless conduct or willful disregard on our part. We are thus pleased to respond to various comments and questions concerning the purpose and intended meaning of “The Gift of Salvation.”
“The Gift of Salvation” is not an official accord between the Roman Catholic Church and any evangelical church or denomination. It is a good faith effort on the part of some Roman Catholics and some evangelicals to say, with as much clarity as possible, how they understand God’s gracious gift of salvation on the basis of the Word of God. We evangelicals who signed “The Gift of Salvation” do not claim a unity of faith with the church of Rome. What we do acknowledge is a unity in Christ with Roman Catholic believers who, no less than we ourselves, have been saved by God’s grace and justified by faith alone. Despite our doctrinal differences, we who by faith know, love, trust, and hope in Christ the Mediator are brothers and sisters in the Lord.
We believe that “The Gift of Salvation” is a significant first step in the right direction, but we do not claim that we have reached a complete common agreement on the doctrine of salvation as expressed in the official teachings of our respective communities. As Timothy George wrote in his introduction to “The Gift of Salvation” in the December 1997 issue of Christianity Today, “We rejoice that our Roman Catholic interlocutors have been able to agree with us that the doctrine of justification set forth in this document agrees with what the Reformers meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide)…. [But] this still does not resolve all the differences between our two traditions on this crucial matter.”
Likewise, Cardinal Edward Cassidy declared: “This does not mean that evangelicals and Catholics have overcome all their doctrinal differences or that their understanding of the gospel and of the Christian message has suddenly become identical. We will surely continue to evangelize according to our beliefs.” Yet what we have affirmed together in this document, we believe, is of fundamental importance.
When “The Gift of Salvation” speaks of “needlessly divisive disputes” between Roman Catholics and evangelicals, it does not refer to the many weighty theological matters on which we still conscientiously disagree, such as sacramental theology, Marian devotion, purgatory, and so forth. “The Gift of Salvation” takes note of these matters, referring to them as “serious and persistent differences” which are “necessarily interrelated” with the affirmations we have made in common, and are thus future agenda items for us. The fact that these issues are “on the table” does not mean that they are “up for grabs,” but rather that they must be pursued with rigor and honesty in our continuing dialogue. By “needlessly divisive disputes” we mean the kind of mutual recrimination and uncharitable taunting that has resulted in Protestant-bashing and Catholic-baiting in the past and that still persists today.
Our methodology in crafting “The Gift of Salvation” was to study the Bible together and to formulate a statement on salvation derived from and based upon the evidence of Holy Scripture alone. In doing so we were in line with the historic evangelical insistence on the sufficiency of Scripture and the recent Roman Catholic renaissance in biblical studies.
Based on our common study of the Bible, we were able to agree that the work of redemption has been accomplished (a word that means done, completed) by Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. “The Gift of Salvation” affirms a declaratory, forensic justification on the sole ground of the righteousness of Christ alone, a standing before God not earned by any good works or merits on our own. It states that in justification, here and now, God graciously constitutes us his forgiven friends, and that is how henceforth we stand in relation to him. In these terms, we intended to affirm nothing less than “justification by grace alone because of Christ alone through faith alone,” which is the biblical gospel.
The word imputation (not used in the body of the document) refers to God’s crediting of righteousness to us because of what Christ has done for us: which means, God’s accounting of Christ’s righteousness to all those who are united with him through faith. As evangelicals, we saw this teaching as implicit in the doctrine of justification by faith alone and tried to express it in biblical terms. Our discussion was also informed by the superb biblical scholarship of Father Joseph Fitzmyer, whose recent Commentary on Romans illuminates the Pauline meaning of justification:
When, then, Paul in Romans says that Christ Jesus “justified” human beings “by his blood” (3:25; cf. 5:9), he means that by what Christ suffered in his passion and death he has brought it about that sinful human beings can stand before God’s tribunal acquitted or innocent, with the judgment not based on observance of the Mosaic Law…. Paul insists on the utter gratuity of this justification because “all alike have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). Consequently, this uprightness does not belong to human beings (10:3), and it is not something that they have produced or merited; it is an alien uprightness, one belonging rightly to another (to Christ) and attributed to them because of what that other has done for them. So Paul understands God “justifying the godless” (4:5) or “crediting uprightness” to human beings quite “apart from deeds.”
As we have said before, we do not seek Christian unity at the expense of Christian truth. We are engaged in an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation. That commitment to unity in truth alone is held with equal firmness by both the evangelical and Roman Catholic theologians in this ongoing process. We see our statement as expressing, not indeed unity in every aspect of the gospel, but unity in its basic dimension, with hope of that unity being extended through further discussion.
In the sixteenth century, Calvin, Bucer, Melanchthon, among others, met with Roman Catholic theologians to discuss the central doctrines of the Reformation. We, with them, stand in that same tradition, committed to the principle of ecclesia semper reformanda (the church always reforming), and we believe that both doctrinal reformation and Christian unity flow from the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. For this we pray and beg the prayers of all God’s people.
- Timothy George
- Thomas C. Oden
- J. I. Packer
Dr. Ankerberg’s Thoughts on the Open Letter (clarification statement) of April 27, 1998 in Christianity Today: “Where do you think things stand now?”
1. It is good that in the Open Letter the Evangelical authors explain that they do not have an agreement with the institutional Roman Catholic Church. They said, “The Gift of Salvation is not an official accord between the Roman Catholic Church and any Evangelical church or denomination.” I believe this statement is true as the institutional Catholic Church still anathematizes anyone who believes in justification by faith alone.
2. It is good that in the Open Letter the Evangelical authors disclose that they did not reach a complete agreement on the doctrine of salvation. Rather, “The Gift of Salvation” “is only a first step in the right direction.”
To reach a complete agreement the Evangelical authors realize that those doctrines which contradict justification by faith alone must be biblically resolved. Since the Bible doesn’t teach purgatory, confession, the sacraments, Marian devotion, etc., these doctrines would eventually have to be dropped. Further, these doctrines mix works with faith to obtain ultimate justification which contradicts their affirmation of sola fide, or justification by faith alone.
3. It is good that the Evangelical authors admit they had assumed in their affirmation of sola fide that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us. Although they concede that they did not explicitly state this in “The Gift of Salvation,” they say they were implicitly holding to imputation. Imputation denies the false Catholic view that the basis upon which God justifies us is Christ’s righteousness infused into us, co-mingled with our cooperative good works. Imputation places the basis of our justification solely on Christ, nothing in ourselves: neither our good works, our good intentions, nor the amount of faith we place in Christ—none of that—it is totally based on Christ’s righteousness alone.
4. It is good that the Evangelical authors in their Open Letter explain that in reference to the unanswered interrelated questions (those questions that impact on the doctrine of justification by faith alone) and because “These issues [purgatory, penance, the sacraments, etc.] are on the table, [it] does not mean that they are up for grabs but rather that they must be pursued with rigor and honesty in our continuing dialogues.”
In brief, these Evangelicals are saying they do believe these other doctrines matter—that a person cannot hold to both sola fide on the one hand and doctrines that are contradictory to it on the other. Sola fide affirms faith in Christ as the sole basis for our salvation. The other doctrines [baptismal regeneration, purgatory, penance, confession, the sacraments, etc.] falsely teach that faith in Christ must be supplemented with one’s own good works, utilizing the power of Christ. In Catholicism, one’s continued participation in the sacraments plus faith in Christ are the necessary basis without which one will not obtain salvation. So, the Evangelicals are not saying that these other doctrines are unimportant and do not need to be resolved, rather they are saying they just haven’t been biblically resolved yet.
It should also be pointed out that these other doctrines may never be resolved since so much heat will be generated by touching them. Whether progress is made on these doctrines in the future will serve as an indicator of whether or not God has truly brought salvation and is continuing to bring reformation to the hearts and minds of the Catholic leaders who signed “The Gift of Salvation” document.
1. If future discussions are held, it is good that Evangelical leaders have written that further discussions on doctrines such as Mary, purgatory, the sacraments, etc., will be based on the evidence of Holy Scripture alone. The Catholic councils, papal encyclicals and the Church Fathers will not be used to evaluate or form the basis for resolving these other doctrines.
2. It is good that the Evangelical authors clearly acknowledge that they were affirming a declaratory forensic justification. This statement excludes Catholicism’s false view of Christ’s righteousness being infused into us and co-mingled with our good works as the basis upon which we are justified.
Having said all of this, I am concerned with the following:
1. Unfortunately, I believe that some Evangelicals and some Roman Catholics who have read ECT-I and “The Gift of Salvation” documents could interpret them as implying agreement with institutional Roman Catholic theology. I know of Roman Catholic priests and lay people on both sides who have done so. To the extent that the Gospel has been presented ambiguously is a tragedy. Further, I wonder how many Roman Catholics who have read the first two documents will ever see the Open Letter?
2. Unfortunately, the Open Letter that is to appear in Christianity Today and “The Gift of Salvation” document could still be viewed by some as contradicting each other in places; for example: “The Gift of Salvation” states that the 19 Evangelicals and 16 Roman Catholic leaders “have been able to express a common faith in Christ” enough so that they can “acknowledge one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.” They go on to say they “rejoice in the unity we have discovered” and “we affirm our unity in the gospel that we have here professed.” Unity in the gospel seems to be declared.
On the other hand, the Open Letter seems to contradict these statements when it says, “It [‘The Gift of Salvation’] is a good faith effort on the part of some Roman Catholics and some Evangelicals to say with as much clarity as possible, how they understand God’s gracious gift of salvation…. We believe ‘The Gift of Salvation’ is a significant step in the right direction, but we do not claim that we have reached a complete common agreement on the doctrine of salvation…. This still does not resolve all the differences between our two traditions on this crucial matter…. We see our statement as expressing, not indeed unity in every aspect of the gospel, but unity in its basic dimensions, with the hope of that unity being extended through further discussion.”
Dr. Ankerberg’s Conclusions
In conclusion, I believe all of us as Evangelicals should take advantage of every opportunity to meet with Roman Catholics (at whatever level) if there is a sincere desire on their part to clearly study and define the Gospel on the basis of Scripture alone. I believe the Evangelicals who participated in this dialogue and wrote “The Gift of Salvation” honestly tried to do that. They believed that they had made progress.
Agreement on justification by faith alone is significant. But the GS is still not a clear-cut agreement. It is really a private discussion in progress. It is off to a good start. Possibly, God is working in the lives of those around the table. Still, significant barriers lie in the road up ahead.
Some may ask, “Isn’t agreement on sola fide enough?” If the men who agreed to sola fide were not still tied to doctrines such as confession, penance, purgatory, the sacraments, and Mariology, it would be a lot easier to answer that question in the affirmative. Right now, I think it is proper to say that if the Catholic leaders have truly believed in Christ alone, through faith alone, then God will lead them to discard these other doctrines which contradict sola fida.
When one reads Church History, it is a fact that the Holy Spirit used the doctrine of sola fide to open the heart and mind of Martin Luther and was the basis for the Reformation. It led Luther and the Reformers to renounce many doctrines they had once held. But renouncing other doctirnes didn’t happen overnight. It took Luther many years of reading his Bible to do so.
Will the Catholic leaders who signed “The Gift of Salvation” and affirmed sola fide be led by God to renounce baptismal regeneration, the sacraments, purgatory and Mariology? This remains to be seen. Jesuit scholar Avery Dulles, a GS signer, is quoted in Christianity Today, April 27, 1998 as saying, “We were careful to follow Trent, the teaching of the Second Vatican Council…. We are not far out Catholics.” Since Trent anathematizes anyone who holds to sola fide; Avery Dulles must be interpreting the words of GS differently than the Evangelical authors intended.
Also, the questions should be asked, “Why did these theologians around the table make their private conversation public at this stage when all the questions were not completely settled? Why didn’t they continue studying their Bibles and working through the other controversial doctrines such as purgatory, confession, and the sacraments? Why is it that one of the Evangelical leaders made the statement in Christianity Today that ‘They [both Catholic and Protestant leaders]’ wanted this document ‘to be sent to pastors and church leadersaround the world’ for their consideration?” I cannot answer these questions. There are probably many reasons why this dialogue took place; some good, some tainted.
On the other hand, I personally know some of the men who sat around the table. I am convinced that they truly love the Lord and fought hard for a clear definition and presentation of the gospel. I only wish they would have been more patient, taken more time to incorporate the advice of other Evangelical leaders, and stated things in the GS more clearly.
Concerning unity, in the Bible Christians are never told to make unity but to “keep the unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4:3). We are united only because we agree with the message God has given us in Scripture. As we hold to God’s message, we “keep the unity of the Spirit.” Those who do not believe or hold to the Gospel message God has given are not part of the Christian family and there is no unity other believers can fabricate to make them so. Our unity in the Christian family only stems from our agreement concerning the Gospel.
Christians should pray that God will use the first steps in the Open Letter to erase the darkness and to enlighten the hearts and minds of Catholic people as to His true Gospel. There have been a few good steps taken among this small group of men, not the entire Catholic Church, on some aspects of the Gospel message. We should pray that these men will continue to study the Word of God until total agreement has been reached. What God is doing in the hearts of those who signed this document we simply do not know. We can understand the process these men have begun, but must hold out for the full expression and clarity of the Gospel message. We should not claim a unity in “the faith” until that has been accomplished.
Dr. John Ankerberg