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Of the many forms of legalism, none is more deadly than that which replaces faith with works or grace with merit as the ground of justification.
The sixteenth-century Reformation was a fight to the death over this issue. It was a struggle for the true gospel, which had been eclipsed in the medieval church. However, the erosion of the doctrine of justification by faith alone did not begin in the Middle Ages. It had its roots in the New Testament era with the appearance of the “Galatian heresy.”
The Galatian agitators, who sought to undermine the authority of the apostle Paul, argued for a gospel that required works of the law not merely as evidence of justification but as prerequisites for it. This neo-nomianism, or “new lawism,” was in direct contradiction to Paul’s teaching in Romans: “Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:19–20).
The so-called Judaizers of Galatia sought to add works to faith as a necessary ground for justification. In doing so, they corrupted the gospel of free grace by which we are justified by faith alone. This distortion provoked Paul to his most vehement repudiation of any heresy he ever combated. After he had affirmed that there was no other gospel than the one he proclaimed and had declared those accursed who sought to preach “any other gospel” (Gal. 1), he then chastened the Galatians:
“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? . . . But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for ‘the just shall live by faith’ ” (Gal. 3:1–2, 11).
In the beginning of his epistle, Paul expressed his amazement at how quickly the Galatians had departed from the true gospel and embraced a “different” gospel that was no gospel at all. However, the seductive voice of legalism has been powerful from the beginning. Works-righteousness schemes have supplanted the gospel in every age of church history. We think of Pelagianism in the fourth century, Socinianism in the sixteenth century, and Liberalism and Finneyism in the nineteenth century, to name just a few.
But none of these movements has been so complex and systematic in its embrace of a legalistic view of justification as has the Roman Catholic Church. Rome, by adding works to faith and merit to grace as prerequisites for justification, has rekindled the flames of the Galatian heresy.
Though Rome, against pure Pelagianism, insists that grace is necessary for justification, it denies that grace alone justifies. Though it teaches that faith is necessary as the initiation, the foundation, and the root of justification, it denies that we are justified by faith alone. It adds works to faith as a requirement for justification. For God to declare us just, we must be inherently just, according to Rome.
Rome adds merit to grace in two distinct ways. First, there is “congruous merit” (meritum de congruo), merit a person acquires by performing works of satisfaction within the context of the sacrament of penance. These works, done with the aid of grace, make it “congruous” or “fitting” for God to justify the person.
Second, there are works of supererogation. These works are above and beyond the call of duty, thus, they yield excess merit. Rome says that when saints achieve more merit than they need to gain entrance into heaven, the excess is deposited into the “Treasury of Merit.” Rome calls this the “spiritual goods of the communion of saints.”
Out of this treasury the church may dispense merit to those who lack it in sufficient quantity. This is done through “indulgences.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines an indulgence as follows: “A remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the church—which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.”
During the Reformation, a huge controversy grew up around indulgences. The Reformers insisted that the only person whose works had true merit before God was Christ. It is by His works and His merit alone that we can be justified. The value of Christ’s merit cannot be augmented or diminished by the works of others. However, in the Roman system, our works not only avail for our own justification, but if they are good enough, they can aid those in purgatory who lack sufficient merit to gain entrance to heaven.
Martin Luther declared that the Roman view of merit was nothing but vain figments and dreamy speculations about worthless stuff. He argued that any view that included our works in our justification was not only blasphemous but ridiculous. He said: “To seek to be justified by the Law is as if a man, already weak and ill, were to go in search of some other greater evil whereby he hoped to cure his ailment, whereas it would, of course, bring him utter ruin, as if a man affected with epilepsy were to add the pestilence to it. . . . Here as the proverb puts it, one milks the ram while the other holds the sieve under him.”
Luther’s proverb declares a double folly. To try to get milk from a ram is foolish enough. But to bring a sieve to catch it merely compounds the folly. Likewise, trying to be justified by any form of legalism is as foolish as trying to get milk from a ram—but with far more dire consequences.
The great tragedy in our day is not just that Roman Catholicism and other religions, such as Islam, codify works as a necessary ground for justification. In practical terms, I fear that the great majority of Protestants also rest their hopes upon their own works. Until we despair of seeking our justification by works, we have not grasped the gospel.