Reformation Day is fast upon us. Next Saturday will be the 498th anniversary of Martin Luther famously nailing his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, and kick-starting the Protestant Reformation as a result. Because of that, there will likely be many posts in the Christian blogosphere celebrating the recovery of the biblical Gospel from the perversions of Roman Catholic theology. And because of that, there will likely be many Romanist sympathizers who chide us Protestants as divisive, overly-narrow, unity-destroying, and judgmental. They’ll say something like this (a comment we’ve received before at The Cripplegate):
This is what drives me nutty about Christianity. We all believe in the Bible, Jesus Christ, the road to salvation and the Resurrection. Do I believe exactly as you do? I’m sure I don’t, but I don’t believe you’re any less Christian than I am. We need to understand that there’s more that unites us than divides us.
The problem, of course, is that Protestants and Catholics don’t all believe the same things about the most foundational aspects of the Christian Gospel. That means that we’re not just other Christians from another “denomination.” When two people disagree on issues as fundamental as the basis and instrument of salvation (i.e., Christ’s righteousness alone imputed through faith alone, versus Christ’s righteousness imparted through faith and our works) and whether good works are part of the ground of our righteousness or merely the evidence——one of them is a Christian and the other isn’t.
We see that proven plainly by the way the Apostle Paul spoke about the Judaizers. The Judaizers were professing Christians who “began teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15:1). In other words, they taught that the righteousness of Christ received by faith alone is not enough to secure your salvation. To be sure, you need to have faith in Jesus; they wouldn’t deny faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. They would just say it was insufficient; instead, you must “complete” your justification by performing certain good deeds. In other words, the Judaizers sought to add personal works of righteousness to the ground of their justification. They were the first-century counterpart to the Roman Catholic Church, which teaches, “If anyone says that the [justification] received is not preserved and . . . increased before God through good works but that those works are merely the fruits and signs of justification obtained, but not the cause of the increase, let him be anathema” (Council of Trent, Session 6, Canon 24). For the Judaizers, those works were circumcision and the other Mosaic ceremonies. For the Catholics, those works are baptism, participation in the Eucharist, and the other sacraments.
Severed from Christ
But notice how Paul speaks of these teachers in the New Testament. He does not count them to be merely “separated brethren” in Christ. The churches of Galatia hadn’t even become propagators of this doctrine yet; Paul wrote to them while they were simply being tempted to believe in it. And even then Paul writes to them and says, “I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain” (Gal 4:11). That is to say, he fears they may not have ever been truly saved (cf. 1 John 2:19).
He goes on to say that if they receive circumcision—that is, if they allow even the smallest of religious rituals to become part of the ground of their confidence for salvation—“Christ will be of no benefit to you” (Gal 5:2). Notice, he does not say, “Christ will be of some benefit to you, just not as much as otherwise. You’ll differ a little doctrinally, but we can still rejoice in our unity.” No. Paul says that everyone who receives circumcision as a ground of their righteousness is obligated to keep the whole law (Gal 5:3). In other words, if you want your righteousness to be based even partly on works, you’re under obligation to earn the whole thing by works (cf. Jas 2:10). And in that case, since you would then be seeking to be justified by law, it would be right to speak of you as “severed from Christ, . . . fallen from grace” (Gal 5:4). You would be one of those whom the Apostle John said “went out from us, but . . . were not really of us” (1 John 2:19).
Finally, Paul speaks about those who preach such a soul-destroying false-gospel. His conclusion regarding such a teacher is: “he will bear his judgment” (Gal 5:10). Again, this is not merely an estranged brother. He is not one of Christ’s sheep, just from another fold. He will bear his judgment. He will face the condemnation of Almighty God that no true believer can ever face (cf. Rom 8:1).
Beware the Dogs
Moving from Galatia to Philippi, Paul warns with the greatest severity the Philippians who were vulnerable to this teaching. He does not say, “My Philippians, do be careful of our dear misguided brethren.” No, he says, “Beware of the dogs! Beware of the evil workers! Beware of the mutilators of the flesh!” (Phil 3:2). Paul wasn’t exactly helping the advance of ecumenical dialog, was he?
They are dogs. And the Jews especially hated dogs. Because they were willing to eat anything, including garbage and even their own vomit, dogs were regarded as ceremonially unclean animals (cf. Matt 7:6; Luke 16:21; Rev 22:15). In biting irony, Paul uses the very term that the Judaizers would have flung at Christians who didn’t submit to the Mosaic Law—the very derogatory term that signified viciousness, uncleanness, and impurity—and uses it of them!
They are evil workers. In many instances in the New Testament, “workers” refers to servants of Christ who share in the Christian ministry (Rom 16:3; Phil 4:3; Phm 1:24). And the Judaizers were workers all right. Like the Pharisees, they traveled around on sea and land to make a proselyte (Matt 23:15). But when they made one, they’d make him twice as much a son of hell as themselves, because their doctrine of human achievement undermined the Gospel of the sufficient work of Christ and the free grace of God. They were workers, but they were evil workers. Perhaps even with good intentions, in seeking to help the Church, they do nothing but ruin and destroy it, because they draw attention away from Christ and the sufficiency of His accomplished redemption, and give His glory to a law that was never able to impart life (cf. Gal 3:21)—to man and his own dignity and willpower. And so all of their labors, are evil labors.
And that goes just the same for the Roman Catholic who would persuade you to trust even partly in your own merit for justification before God. It doesn’t matter how much of a practical benefit they might be. They may feed the hungry, they may shelter the homeless, they may care for the orphans, they may preserve the environment, and they may devote their entire lives to making this world a better place. But if they trust in their good works to satisfy the wrath of God against them—and if they teach others to rest on their own moral achievements to admit them into the presence of a holy God—they are evil workers. Because they dull men’s senses to their need for divine grace, and lead them to believe that they can be their own savior, when they can do no such thing.
Not only are they dogs. Not only are they evil workers. With the most serrated sarcasm, Paul calls them “the mutilation.” This is just an amazing play on words. The Greek word for “circumcision” is peritome, and the word for “mutilation” is katatome (the word used here). In effect, Paul is saying, “These false teachers think they are of the party of the circumcision. But because they undermine the grace of God in the Gospel by mingling human works with Christ’s righteousness, their sacramentalism is nothing more than katatome—than ritual pagan mutilation. They call themselves the circumcision. They’re no better than pagans.”
Because the Judaizers trusted in their circumcision and added that work to the work of Christ in the Gospel, that which would have been the surest sign they were God’s people became the surest sign that they were cut off from Him. “But Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. . . . For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom 9:30–10:4).
“Be More Like Jesus!”
How many professing Christians would take Paul to task over his language. “Paul, good grief! Dogs? Evil workers? Mutilators? Take it easy! These people believe in the inerrancy of Scripture! Old and New Testaments! They believe in Christ, that He was God and man, that He was sinless, that He died for sins and rose from the grave, and that salvation is to be found in no other name! Now sure, they may have some doctrinal issues, but how can you be so divisive over such a minor point of doctrine?! Paul, we need to be more like the Lord Jesus!”
And in fact, that’s exactly what Paul was doing. He was following in the footsteps of His Lord, who called these legalists ravenous wolves (Matt 7:15), whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness (Matt 23:27), and blind guides of the blind (Matt 15:14). Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, called those who would lay upon men’s shoulders the burden of contributing even in part to their own justification “sons of hell” (Matt 23:15).
Christ Will Do Everything, or He Will Do Nothing
Why would our Lord speak so severely? Because the gospel of “Christ-plus”—the gospel of faith in Christ mingled with human effort and human merit—is a soul-destroying doctrine of demons (1 Tim 4:1). Like Paul’s disagreement with the Judaizers, the disagreement between Protestants and Catholics is not some minor doctrinal quibble; it is the difference between heaven and hell. Dear friends, ours is a Gospel-driven protest. We speak so severely because the very Gospel is at stake.
J. Gresham Machen said,
“It [is] the difference between a religion of merit and a religion of grace. If Christ provides only a part of our salvation, leaving us to provide the rest, then we are still hopeless under the load of sin. For no matter how small the gap which must be bridged before salvation can be attained, the awakened conscience sees clearly that our wretched attempt at goodness is insufficient even to bridge that gap. . . . Such an attempt to piece out the work of Christ by our own merit, Paul saw clearly, is the very essence of unbelief; Christ will do everything or nothing, and the only hope is to throw ourselves unreservedly on His mercy and trust Him for all” (Christianity and Liberalism, 21).
Christ will do everything, or He will do nothing. Why? Because if salvation “is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Rom 11:6). To introduce works as any part of the ground of our righteousness is to corrupt the Gospel of grace, which is the only Gospel that saves.
Repent and Trust in Christ Alone
So, while I understand that we’re not saved merely by confessing the doctrine of sola fide, we are saved by trusting in Christ alone for righteousness. And that is incompatible with outright denying sola fide and insisting that salvation is grounded at least partly by works, as Rome does. Insisting that the Reformation is not over is not Catholic-bashing. It is simply seeking a biblical view of the divide between us, so that we might be properly informed about the necessity of taking the Gospel to our Roman Catholic friends and family. If we are wrongfully lulled into the notion that Catholics are merely misguided but nevertheless true Christians, then our focus will shift from our necessary mission, which is a full-scale rescue from the sin that still holds them in bondage.
I ask you: Can we regard these things so lightly when it is so plain that the Apostle Paul took them so seriously? Can we relegate the difference between (a) good works as the evidence of salvation and (b) good works as the ground of salvation to a petty doctrinal quibble among people who are overly-narrow and academic, when the Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, could write so severely? Friends: words, ideas, and doctrines are the difference between an eternity in heaven—with fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore at the right hand of God (Ps 16:11)—and an eternity in hell, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power (2 Thess 1:9).
If you’re reading this and you’re not absolutely sure which eternity you’re headed for, I want to you to be sure today. And so I would point you away from yourself and the filthy rags of your own righteousness (cf. Isa 64:6). Put the filth of your own good works away. Turn to a perfectly sufficient Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who accomplished all the good works necessary for your acceptance with the Father, who counts you to be righteous—just as if you had lived the perfect sinless life of Jesus—when you trust in His righteousness and His righteousness alone for salvation. Turn from the sinking sand and perennial uncertainty of your own moral accomplishments, and set your feet upon the rock of the perfect righteousness of Christ that is yours through faith alone.
Christ will do everything, or He will do nothing. Your only hope is to throw yourself at His mercy and trust Him for all.