This post is part of a series.
In Part 1, I introduced the idea that both Catholicism and hyper-Arminianism (hyper-Calvinism’s brother) make the deadly mistake of including works in the salvation formula, and hurt many people. Let’s dig in some more.
The Descent into Scrupulosity
In an effort to help sufferers of the very problem Catholicism creates, a Catholic Answers Magazine article entitled Scrupulosity: The Occupational Hazard of the Catholic Moral Life, describes the process its very theology kicks off:
This is the kind of reasoning that can lead a person into scrupulosity:
- Even if the offense seems minor, it is still an offense against an infinite being….The scrupulous person may believe that the difference between venial and mortal sin is only one of degree. Though there are different degrees of sin, all sin is of one kind; all offenses against God are equally serious.
- Given the inevitability of sin, there’s not much hope of salvation.
However, this misses the mark entirely – the problem is not learning to discern between serious and lesser sins – the real issue is thinking that we must or can earn or keep our salvation through a combination of grace and good works. The article continues to misinform us this way:
It is right about the seriousness of human freedom, which is not a game. We do have the power to dislodge God’s grace from our hearts through sin. But scrupulosity gets the other half of the grace/freedom picture wrong: It fails to take into account that God’s grace is so powerful that it is not as easily dislodged from the heart as the scrupulous person thinks.
If you are an Arminian, you are probably nodding in agreement with the Catholic view here, and I was probably not wrong to lump you in with the Catholic on this doctrine. It all makes such intellectual sense.
The Mystery of Faith and Works
I admit that there is a bit of mystery in the relationship between faith and good works, and I will grant that Arminian and “New Pauline” views of works rightly challenge a purely Calvinistic view of grace and works, so let me be plain – I’ve tried the ‘grace plus works’ Christianity, and it does not work. It does not bring peace or goodness. It brings death. And when this experience forced me to to review and ‘reform’ my theology (experience, reason and tradition are meant to inform our theology), I found a Calvinist emphasis on God’s work and power, a view that significantly minimizes our ability and role in salvation, worked both intellectually AND practically.
Sola Fide Brings Peace and Practical Righteousness
While effort and responsibility on our part may be part of the equation, the better emphasis is that I have no requirement to do good, and must believe that God did and does it for me and in me, and I stop trying to be good enough. Instead, I respond to and cooperate with what God is doing in me.
For it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. ~ Philippians 2:13
In fact, once we admit that God’s work and our effort are both part of salvation, we have to then decide – in what proportions? 50/50? 90/10? I was brought much consolation and peace by this concept from Boettner’s Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (my paraphrase from memory)
“To what extent shall we emphasize man’s role in his salvation and sanctification to God’s? Compare man’s power to God’s, and adjust your emphasis accordingly.”
Whatever responsibility we have to expend effort, I think putting the emphasis and responsibility primarily on us is a huge mistake – it shifts subtly to faith in our own abilities, instead of faith in God, which leads to utter failure. What brings the peace and power of God is the idea that we must CEASE our efforts, and believe God. That is the proper foundation of faith.
For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His. ~ Hebrews 4:10
While many Arminians are rightly concerned about ‘easy believism’ based on this emphasis on ceasing our works, and have many good proof-texts from scripture citing our responsibility to apply ourselves, genuine faith in God, along with regeneration, create real works, and zeal to follow God. Emphasis on our effort short-circuits the inward work of God very seriously.
The Gospel Using Algebra
Let me present some simple formulas which might put it all in perspective.
Grace + Justification = Works (Salvation produces good works)
Grace + Works = Justification (Salvation requires good works)
The former brings LIFE and PEACE. The latter brings scrupulosity and DEATH. Which is what both Catholic and Arminian views of works bring. Not to mention mental illness and stress.
The Plethora of Catholic Efforts to Help the Scrupulous
Protestantism provides the Reformers’ Five Solas to bring this life and peace to Christians suffering from extreme Arminianism, but what can Catholicism offer its adherents? Here’s a sampling of their articles trying to fix the problem with their gospel.
If we commit a mortal sin and we are a Catholic, we need to go to confession before we go to communion again even if we are sorry and ask God to forgive us. But at the same time we can realize that if we are sorry because we desire not to offend God because we love him and we are going to try not to ever commit this sin again (perfect contrition) then we are forgiven as soon as we are sorry and ask God to forgive us even before we get to confession. In the Sacrament of Reconciliation (confession), we can be forgiven for sins even with imperfect sorrow. ~ Understanding Scrupulosity (CatholicSpiritualDirection.org)
See what they did there? You either need perfect contrition or absolution by a priest and the sacraments to be forgiven. Now, it is good to keep a clean conscience and ask God to forgive us of sins we commit every day, but the real issue is that there is no underlying gospel of Sola Fide- Justification by Faith Alone – apart from works. The scrupulous, or overactive conscience can be best killed at the ROOT by freeing people from the burden of righteousness through faith. Here’s another equally egregious description of the Catholic ‘solution’:
Alphonsus teaches, “I tell you that you should implicitly trust in obedience your confessor. This advice is given by all of the doctors of the Church and the holy fathers as well. In short, obedience to your confessor is the safest remedy which Jesus Christ left us for quieting the doubts of conscience, and we should give thanks for it.” ~ Scrupulosity And How To Overcome It (CatholicCulture.org)
Now I don’t want to confuse our ultimate safety with God with the daily effort at developing a clean, mature conscience. But I do not think that Catholic approach fixes the root of scrupulosity, which is a fear that one will lose their salvation if they don’t make the right choices. That type of thinking is a mistake borne of the false gospel of adding our own works to salvation.
How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God. ~ Hebrews 9:14
If you have an overactive conscience, you can retrain it. The first step is to have the right foundation – you are saved by faith alone in Jesus’ work on the cross, without works. From that point, we can move to principles for discerning right from wrong. Think on these scriptures:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. ~ Ephesians 2:8-9 (NKJV) But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness. ~ Romans 4:5
NEXT: Part 3