Notes on a Mitch Pacwa Debate Concerning Justification

Initial Thoughts

I’m uncomfortable with the way he frames the catholic position. The way he talks, it sounds as if God does 99% of the work of our salvation and then leaves the final 1% up to us. He says something like “we have to say ‘yes’ to God”, as if the saying yes is spontaneously produced by an individual and God just steps back and has nothing to do with it. This can’t be right. The understanding that I’ve inherited over the years is articulated by British Orthodox Metropolitan Bishop Kalistos Ware as “The work of our salvation is completely and entirely an act of Grace, but in that act of grace we remain completely and entirely free”.

This would probably sit will with Aquinas, who had a strong and robust doctrine of efficacious grace. A summary of my understanding of efficacious grace is “God can guarantee that a sinner will be saved without in anyway violating that sinners freedom”. Compare this with the current popular catholic understanding of “sufficient” grace, which I understand to be something more like “God gives us everything we need to be saved, but then steps back and leaves it up to us”. In my opinion this popular understanding has fatal implications for Christian Hope, Faith and Joy; it turns the work of salvation back on the sinners own efforts, which of course will never be enough. This leads to despair and angst of the sort that Luther experienced.

What makes most sense to me is that all of the following propositions are true, even if at face value they may appear to some to be irreconcilable:

Salvation is an offer that we may or may not accept: We have free will and no one can coerce us to do anything – not even God. (The standard Catholic understanding)
Salvation is also an unconditional promise: God is able to guarantee that we will be saved (ie, that we will at some point accept his offer), without in any way violating our freedom (The Catholic doctrine of predestination and election and the Thomistic doctrine of efficacious grace)

The idea of unconditional promise is interesting, because it raises the question “To whom is the promise spoken and how/when/where?” According to Lutheran sacramental theology, the promise is primarily spoken via the seven sacraments, with particular emphasis on Baptism and Confession. At the moment when you are baptised, God has sacramentally spoken his promise of salvation to you and you are counted among the elect; you have passed from death to life and there is no possibility of going back. The sacrament of Confession and words of absolution are simply a reminder of this new reality and basically are a shorthand way of saying “Remember that you have been baptised and are not guilty, so stop feeling like it and stop acting like it!”

This is incidentally where the idea of “Sola Fide” actually makes sense. It’s not possible to respond to an unconditional promise with works, but only with either trust or apathy. If salvation is an unconditional promise, you either trust that promise or you don’t, but regardless of whether you trust it or not it’s going to come true because God is the one making the promise and God’s promises do not fail. However if you do trust the promise, life comes alive in ways that you never thought possible before, and the lyrics of the popular protestant hymn “Amazing Grace” cease to seem so heretical. “I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see”.

Most Catholics in my experience tend to disagree with this whole understanding by completely denying that salvation is a promise and doubling down on it’s nature as an offer instead, thus rendering the “unconditional” dimension of salvation null. Such people tend to be hyper-attached to a particular understanding of libertarian human free will and get triggered by anything that even slightly appears to contradict it. The fact that we humans have the power and right to deny God becomes the most crucial issue of our day and if anyone dares to question this they are dismissed and ignored as a heretic. And so “Freedom” becomes the central and decisive dogma of the faith, rather than the love of Christ for sinners and his glorious and total defeat of sin, suffering, Hell and death. I don’t find the supposed fact that I have the ‘freedom’ to damn myself inspires much faith, hope and love in my life; instead it tends to just produce scrupulosity and a judgemental pharisee/tribal attitude in which I’m trying super hard to save myself but it’s never enough and I look down on others who aren’t trying as hard as me. Whereas the idea that Christ has already saved me and everyone who I love, and that I need not fear being ultimately lost, is incredibly inspiring. Rather than being crippled with fear of hell and focusing on saving myself, I’m empowered to carry the light of christ out into the world and focus on saving everyone else.

This is arguably why Justification is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. A church that sees salvation as a mere offer, to be responded to primarily with effort, is going to be completely crippled as it’s members turn inwards and focus on trying to save themselves. Whereas a church that sees salvation as the unconditional promise which can only be responded to with faith (which is exactly what it is), has been liberated to get out there and announce to the world its own salvation, which is the original meaning of evangelism: to announce the good news of Christ’s victory over all the pains and problems that confront us in our lives.

Around the 10 Minute Mark

Pacwa gives a great and passionate description of the catholic position on assurance and perseverance. He seems to be saying that you can be sure that you are in the state of grace in any given moment, but you cannot be sure that you will persevere in this state of grace all the way until the end of your life.

I think it really depends whether you take “state of Grace” and “justification” in a subjective or objective sense (which is another popular Lutheran distinction). In an objective sense, the entire world was justified by the cross and resurrection. The job is done; The entire world is objectively saved and in the state of grace and will be forever. However subjectively speaking not all of us experience this salvation that has been won for us. In a subjective sense, many of us remain in our sins and feel guilty and scrupulous. So in the subjective sense, Pacwa is completely correct to follow Trent and say that no one can know that they will persevere to the end of their life in the (subjective) state of grace. However in an objective sense (which is what most protestants are more concerned with), you can definitely be assured of your ultimate salvation: this is the essence of the gospel and exactly what makes it “good news” for me, for you, and for all of our relatives who are currently dying from coronavirus. “Christ died for you: You have been saved” is the kerygma that we must announce. Mitch Pacwa and the council of Trent didn’t get any of it’s theology wrong, but it simply is missing the evangelical point of the whole affair.

“Declaration of Righteousness” and “Reality of Righteousness”.

Justification is indeed a declaration, as per Luther, but this does not make it a “legal fiction”, as Catholics commonly caricature the protestant understanding.

Consider: If I look at a desk and see a book, but Jesus looks at the same desk and doesn’t see the book, Then is the book really there? Are you delusional or is Jesus delusional? Who’s perspective has epistemological primacy in this situation? Who should you trust?

In case the answer isn’t obvious: God’s perspective always trumps the sinners perspective.

With this in mind, consider what it means for God to “declare” that a certain state of affairs holds. If God declares that I am righteous, then despite all evidence to the contrary I am righteous. Because if that is how God sees me then that is how it is, even if I can’t understand how this may be.

The idea is somewhat platonic. God has a perspective of reality “with all the lights on” as it were, whereas we are wandering through reality as a child wanders in the dark. In other words, we are not omniscient and don’t have access to all the data, whereas God is omniscient and therefore his perspective is fully informed in a way that ours isn’t. The implication of this is that when God declares you to be righteous, you are really righteous, even despite all evidence to the contrary.

This is again where faith comes in. Do you trust your own perspective, under which you are condemned as a dirty filthy sinner? Or do you trust God’s perspective, which he reveals to you via his unconditional promise and declaration that in the reality which he is perceiving, you are ok and he accepts you? It’s a question of where you place your faith: in yourself or in God? In your own perspective, or in the divine perspective of God which he reveals to you through the announcing of the gospel and the proclamation of the promise in word and sacrament?

Faith and Works

The inevitable faith versus works debate pops up in the video towards the end. The conflict isn’t so hard to resolve in my view. The protestant fella is insistent that the fact of our election (which he refers to as “salvation”) does not depend in any way on the works and efforts that we perform, and he is completely correct to insist on this. Whereas Pacwa is insisting that works of love and a purified, perfected soul are necessary components of salvation, not optional, and he is also correct to dig his heels in and insist on this.

The resolution comes by recognising that salvation is both an event and a journey: The entire cosmos and everyone and everything in it was justified/elected/saved/predestined at the cross and resurrection. For this reason we as Christians should sing praises and rejoice. However there’s also a journey involved: we still remain here in this life, and our mission is to be little Christs and announce the Gospel to the world, as well as stamp out any sins and imperfections that appear to remain in the world. We’re all on this journey together and until we are all fully saved and made perfect, none of us are.

In this way you do justice to the Catholic insistence that works of love are essential to the process towards and state of salvation, but you also do justice to the deep protestant conviction that there is literally nothing we can do to secure our election.

A helpful thing to remember is that when a protestant says “I am saved”, often what they really mean (even if they don’t realise it) is “I am elect and chosen”. They are fully confident that in the end, they are going to make it, because they know that Jesus died for their sins and rose again for their salvation.

In this way, works are an essential part of salvation, but they have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with predestination or election.

A helpful point to drive this home is the fact that under both a lutheran and calvinist analysis, not even faith contributes anything to our election. We are chosen because God loves us, not because we have faith or try really hard to fulfill the commandment to love; not even if we succeed at fufilling the commandment to love (but who does?). The reason for this is that this simply turns faith into a work. If election depends on our faith, then no one can be saved, because no one has perfect faith, no matter how hard they try. Whereas if election depends on God’s love and what he did for us on the cross, then it doesn’t depend on us at all, not even on our faith, and therefore we can have peace and assurance knowing that everything is going to be ok, which frees our wills and liberates us to go and do the good works that are necessary to make the journey to heaven. But without this faith and assurance, we will be utterly paralyzed,

In summary, the cross unconditionally secured election for the whole world and everyone in it, but our love and good works are how we “make the journey” to heaven both individually and as a church community.

Pacwa also raises the issue of mortal sin, and how it is possible to lose justification. Again, understanding the difference between election/predestination and salvation/justification is helpful. Of course it is possible to lose your salvation and justification by apostasy and mortal sin, however your election is still secure and there is nothing you can do to escape your election; ultimately no matter how far the lost sheep runs into the outer darkness, Christ the good shepherd will leave his Church, descend to Hell and rescue that sinner.

In other words, not even Hell and everlasting damnation can or will prevent Christ from saving us, which is incidentally what the whole point of Holy Saturday and the harrowing of Hades is about.

So yes, you can compromise your current salvation by mortal sin, but there is nothing you can do to jeopardize your election

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