Oecumenical Grace: The Protestant Gospel

John_Calvin_-_Young.jpgCompared to the previous chapters in The Theology of Grace and the Oecumenical Movement, the chapter devoted to the Protestant understanding of grace is too brief and to my mind unsatisfactory. In the ecumenical dialogue from which this book arose, Protestantism was represented by two Reformed theologians. Perhaps it’s a prejudice on my part, but I have have always found Martin Luther and his friends far more interesting on the topic of justification than their Reformed counterparts. Luther broke the ordo salutis mold; Calvin simply rearranged the deck chairs. Because John Calvin grounded justification in saving union with Christ by the Spirit, I have long thought that a constructive dialogue between Catholics and the Reformed should be easier and more productive than a dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans. Ironically, the opposite historically appears to have been the case.

The Protestant conception of grace includes three elements—justification, sanctification (regeneration), and redemption. Justification depends on an unmerited decision of God and brings about an absolute change in status, from condemned to righteous. It is thus extrinsic to the sinner. In his mercy God comes to the sinner and declares him forgiven in Christ; right-standing with God is imputed to him—simul iustus et peccator. Justification is completely a free gift and will only be perfectly realized in the final redemption of the Eschaton. Between justification and final redemption the sinner lives in the Holy Spirit and strives to become holy as Christ is holy.

“Grace cannot be a thing we possess,” Charles Mœller and Gérard Philips affirm; “it is always inseparable from a person who loves, who gives Himself, who brings us into communion with Himself. This is the essential point in Reformation theology” (p. 30). My first reaction to this claim, no doubt because of my past reading of various Lutheran theologians, was something like “Was this really the essential point of the Reformation?” Protestant theologians universally agree that grace is not a substance but God’s personal bestowal of his forgiveness and mercy; but this way of phrasing it doesn’t quite capture the driving concern of the Reformers. Theirs was not a scholastic critique of the nominalist reduction of created grace but a prophetic attack on the perceived works-righteousness of the Latin penitential system, against which they proclaimed, “Sola gratia! Sola fide!” But Mœller’s and Philips’s principal intention in this chapter is not to unpack the evangelical significance of the Protestant gospel but to demonstrate Reformed belief in the reality of regeneration. In other words, they want to correct the popular Roman Catholic caricature that Protestants are antinomians who believe they can get into heaven without spiritual and moral transformation. We all have heard, I’m sure, the (undocumented) saying attributed to Luther that the justified Christian is but a snow-covered dunghill.

The authors offer this quotation from John Calvin as determinative for the Reformed understanding of the relationship between justification and sanctification (Institutes III.16.1):

You cannot receive this justification without receiving sanctification at the same time. … We may distinguish them, but Christ contains both inseparably in Himself. Do you wish to obtain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ: but you cannot possess Him without being made a partaker of his sanctification, seeing that He cannot be torn in pieces. (p. 30)

Justification and sanctification, in other words, are inseparable and complementary, not parallel. Both are simultaneously communicated to the believer by incorporation into Christ; but neither may they be confused. “Justification is absolute, perfect and extrinsic,” the authors explain, “whereas sanctification is relative, imperfect and intrinsic” (p. 30). Justification by faith alone, precisely because “it rests on a decision by God without any consideration of human acts,” provides the foundation for the absolute certainty of the believer. From this confident faith arise obedience and grateful love in the Holy Spirit.

The above mention of the assurance of salvation raises questions, particularly within a Reformed context, and makes me wish again that a Lutheran or two had also participated in the dialogue. In his illuminating essay “Why Luther is not quite Protestant,” Phillip Cary argues that unlike the Lutheran, who puts his faith completely in the word of forgiveness spoken to him in the name of Christ and who thus can indeed be totally assured of his justification, the Calvinist must always find assurance of salvation problematic. To achieve assurance he must introspectively reflect on his experience and discern whether he possesses authentic faith or not. Cary compares the respective syllogisms of assurance:


Major Premise: Whoever believes in Christ is saved.
Minor Premise: I believe in Christ.
Conclusion: I am saved.

For the believer to know that he is saved, he must not only believe in the promise of Christ but must also know that he believes it. The assurance of faith is thus reflective: it must include the believer’s awareness that he genuinely believes.


Major Premise: Christ told me, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
Minor Premise: Christ never lies but only tells the truth.
Conclusion: I am baptized; therefore I have new life in Christ.

Luther construes saving faith as radically unreflective. Faith does not include knowing that one truly believes. Faith simply believes the unconditional promise that has been directly spoken in Word and Sacrament. At no point does it step out of the communication-event to reflect on itself.

Mœller and Philips elaborate further on the intertwining of justification and sanctification, of extrinsic grace and intrinsic grace:

When Calvin stresses that what is brought about by the judicial pronouncement of justification is external and imputed, he is trying to make crystal clear that God’s act is a completely free gift, and that it is eschatological in nature. It always remains a free gift; and as for the realization of redemption, this is still awaited. Reformed theologians are very ill at east with what they call ‘the theology of glory.’

In his doctrine of sanctification, described in the chapter of the Institutes entitled ‘De vita hominis Christiani,’ Calvin takes it for granted that the union of God with man (salvation) is the foundation of the whole of the Christian’s life. The direct result of this union is the sanctification by the Holy Spirit, of the man who gives himself to God in faith. The Holy Spirit acts throughout the life of the believer, transforming him little by little into the image of Christ. The gift of the Spirit has a creative, life-giving and real effect on the man who denies himself and puts his trust in God. (p. 32)

We partake of salvation through our incorporation into Christ. Both justification and sanctification are the fruit and direct result of union with Christ Jesus. Alister McGrath confirms the authors’ interpretation of Calvin:

The two consequences of the believer’s incorporation into Christ are iustificatio and sanctificatio, which are distinct and inseparable. … Justification and sanctification are aspects of the believer’s new life in Christ, and just as one receives the whole Christ, and not part of him, through faith, so any separation of these two soteriological elements—which Calvin refers to as les deux principales grâces is inconceivable. … Calvin understands both justification and sanctification to be the chief beneficia Christi, bestowed simultaneously and inseparably upon believers as a consequence of their insitio in Christum. Sanctification is not the effect of justification; both justification and sanctification are effects of union with Christ. (Iustitia Dei, pp. 255-256)

It is clear that the polemical charge of antinomianism cannot be properly directed against the Reformed. Reformed Christians confess the real regeneration of the believer by the Spirit. “The true mark of the Reformation,” Mœller and Philips state, “is a joyful acceptance of what is freely given, and a growing readiness and willingness before the creative work of the Spirit” (p. 33). Reformed theologians resist the use of “merit” to describe the process of sanctification; but “they would accept the term ‘created grace’ if it could be taken as equivalent to the biblical passage where God is said to ‘work in us both to will and to work’ (energeia), because in this way it would be seen more clearly how this is always a free gift from God’s point of view, and with what joy and trust man puts himself at God’s disposal” (p. 33).

(Go to: “Comparisons”)

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3 Responses to Oecumenical Grace: The Protestant Gospel

  1. Fr Hermogen Holste says:

    Thank you for sharing Dr Cary’s article. I found it illuminating.

    You might enjoy Knut Alfsvag’s book, What No Mind Has Conceived: On the Significance of Christological Apophaticism. He traces the apophatic tradition as expressed in Maximus the Confessor, Nicholas of Cusa, and, of particular relevance to this discussion, Martin Luther.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Thanks for the suggestion!

      Father Hermogen, I’ve got a question for you? Can you envision a place within Eastern Orthodoxy for the “Lutheran” experience of assurance? Is there a place for the speaking of unconditional promise?


      • Fr Hermogen Holste says:

        Dr Cary’s description of Luther’s position resonated with me profoundly. I thought it felt very ‘Eastern’, which I did not expect, having had very little exposure to Lutheran thought. It certainly clarifies some of the issues that emerge in Orthodox-Protestant discussions. We often confuse Protestants by simultaneously emphasizing both the unique and absolute sovereignty of God in the work of salvation and also man’s freedom of loving response. It seems to me that Luther expresses exactly what we are trying to convey. God’s gift of salvation is inalienably given to us, and though we dare have no confidence in our own powers, we have boundless confidence in the promises of God in Christ. Indeed, that’s how we end practically every prayer: “For Thou art a good God, who lovest man…”. Faith in this schematic is neither the co-cause of our salvation, as with the Arminians, nor the infallible sign of our salvation, as with the Calvinists, but rather the light in which we apprehend what God has done for us. Our salvation has been accomplished on Golgotha; we need only to trust in Christ, and He will make all well.

        I especially liked this quote: “We should rely on these and say: ‘I have been baptized. I believe in Jesus Christ. I have received the Sacrament. What do I care if I have been predestined or not?'” It reminds me of a story about one of the saints. As he lay dying, his disciples asked him what awaited him after death. He replied, “I know that I deserve hell, though I hope, through the mercy of God and the prayers of the Church, to receive heaven. Nonetheless, if God should choose to give me hell, I would gladly accept it from His hands, because I know that He loves me, and desires what is best for me.”


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