Anti-Catholic or Pro Gospel: A Review of Tim Challies’ Article – Part 1
For quite some time now, Paul’s Passing Thoughts has been saying that Protestants are the most confused group of people in the world. They are the ones who have no idea what they believe about the gospel. Catholics on the other hand might believe a false gospel, but at least they are honest about what they believe.
I actually think Tim Challies has done us a great service. He wrote an article back in 2014 in which he attempts to show how Catholics disagree with what he believes. But what it ironically ends up being is an indictment against Protenstantism. No one should any longer be able to come to us here at PPT and say we are misrepresenting Protestantism or Reformed theology. Challies has unwittingly made the case for us in his own words. He has provided several points of Catholic orthodoxy for us to consider. But I think it is ironic, because in his effort to show where Catholic orthodoxy rejects what he believes, it has given us an insight into just how much Protestantism actually agrees with Catholicism.
In this post, we will examine the first statement from the article, and other points will be considered in subsequent posts. From the article, point number one:
Catholicism declares –
“If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be anathema. (Canon 9)”
We understand what is meant by the Roman Catholic Church in this regard. And I have spoken also with Catholic friends (even Eastern Orthodox) who will maintain that indeed this is what is taught by their church: that salvation begins with faith (beginning justification) and is maintained by works throughout their lives (progressive justification). It is by the performing of the sacraments that such maintaining of justification is accomplished (infant baptism, eucharist, confirmation, reconciliation/confession, anointing of the sick, marriage, holy orders).
Now let’s take a look at Challies’ response
“I believe that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required and nothing else needs to be cooperated with, to obtain the grace of justification. Rome understands exactly what I believe here and rejects it. (Rom 3:20-28, Eph 2:8)”
He’s right. Rome understands exactly what he means! The problem is that Protestants don’t understand what he means. At first glance it seems like a reasonable response with which you or I could agree, but his statement is disingenuous at best. Why? Because Challies fails to point out one critical aspect. The Catholic statement on justification clearly suggests progressive justification. Something else (in addition to faith) is needed to be justified. For the Catholic, that “something else” is works through the performance of the sacraments, and these are performed over one’s lifetime. As these works are done, justification is maintained.
Challies neglects to point this out. He simply says it is faith and nothing else. This is very nuanced. In so doing, he allows his reader to assume that he is talking about justification as being a one-time event. He fails to mention that the Reformed doctrine of “faith alone” must be lived out continuously throughout the Christian life. If at any time a person ceases to live by faith alone, if he attempts to perform any works, he puts his salvation in jeopardy. Any works performed would only serve to condemn because this would be an attempt to merit righteousness. This was the major point of contention of the Reformation. Both Luther and Calvin state as much in their writings.
“Still, however, while we walk in the ways of the Lord, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, lest we should become unduly elated and forget ourselves, we have still remains of imperfection which serve to keep us humble: “There is no man who sinneth not,” says the Scripture (1Kgs 8:46). What righteousness can men obtain by their works?” ~ Calvin
“First, I say, that the best thing which can be produced by them is always tainted and corrupted by the impurity of the flesh, and has, as it were, some mixture of dross in it. Let the holy servant of God, I say, select from the whole course of his life the action which he deems most excellent, and let him ponder it in all its parts; he will doubtless find in it something that saviors of the rottenness of the flesh since our alacrity in well-doing is never what it ought to be, but our course is always retarded by much weakness. Although we see that the stains by which the works of the righteous are blemished, are by no means unapparent, still, granting that they are the minutest possible, will they give no offense to the eye of God, before which even the stars are not clean? We thus see, that even saints cannot perform one work which, if judged on its own merits, is not deserving of condemnation.” ~ Calvin
“Moreover, the message of free reconciliation with God is not promulgated for one or two days, but is declared to be perpetual in the church (2Cor 5:18,19). Hence believers have not even to the end of life any other righteousness than that which is there described. Christ ever remains a Mediator to reconcile the Father to us, and there is a perpetual efficacy in his death, i.e., ablution, satisfaction expiation; in short, perfect obedience, by which all our iniquities are covered. In the Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul says not that the beginning of salvation is of grace, “but by grace are ye saved,” “not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph 2:8,9).” ~ Calvin
“It is certain that man must utterly despair of his own ability before he is prepared to receive the grace of Christ.
“The law wills that man despair of his own ability, for it »leads him into hell« and »makes him a poor man« and shows him that he is a sinner in all his works, as the Apostle does in Rom. 2 and 3:9, where he says, »I have already charged that all men are under the power of sin.« However, he who acts simply in accordance with his ability and believes that he is thereby doing something good does not seem worthless to himself, nor does he despair of his own strength. Indeed, he is so presumptuous that he strives for grace in reliance on his own strength” ~ Luther
“Theologically and more universally all must learn to say, “I am a sinner” and likewise never to stop saying it until Christ’s return makes it no longer true….The fundamental question of the Disputation is how to arrive at that righteousness that will enable us to stand before God” ~ Luther
What Challies actually believes along with the rest of those of the Reformed Protestant tradition, is that a person not only receives salvation by justification by faith alone, but that salvation is maintained by faith alone in sanctification.
Furthermore, notice the use of the term “sinner”. Again, the reader is allowed to assume that a “sinner” is an unsaved person. But there again is the nuance. Both Catholics and Protestants teach that ALL men are sinners, even saved ones! (“Sinners saved by grace.”) In fact, in his introductory remarks at the beginning of the article, Challies states,
“We [Protestants and Catholics] agree on the problem: we are sinful people who have alienated ourselves from God and are thus in need of salvation. But we disagree in very significant ways as to how sinful people can receive that salvation.”
Challies acknowledges that he agrees with Catholics on this point. And there is no distinction made as to who exactly the “sinful people” are here. There is nothing specified as to who the “we” is referring. It is clear that he includes himself and believers in that equation. It stands to reason then that if believers are still “sinners” then they are in constant need of justification. He says so himself in that very statement. Salvation/justification therefore must be ongoing (progressive) in this construct.
I submit that there is ONLY one difference between Catholics and Protestants. Both believe in a progressive justification, but the dispute revolves around what happens afterward, how it is maintained. While Catholics believe it is maintained by works, Protestants believe it is originated AND maintained by “faith alone” as well. In either case, salvation is made to be a process instead of a finished work.
In this regard, Challies is exactly right. Catholics do not believe what he believes and indeed rejects it. But I would wager that if most of his readers and followers, to wit, most of Christianity, were honest with themselves and discovered what Protestantism really teaches about justification, they would reject it as well.
 John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion edited by Henry Beveridge, pg 502
 ibid Pg 508
 ibid, pg 509
 The Heidelberg Disputation, Thesis 18