The title of this article comes from a statement made by a Calvinist who attends a Baptist Reform Church with whom another Catholic apologist and I are holding discussions currently. Additionally, this Calvinist stated that this saying only applies to the Elect (i.e., those predetermined by God to go to Heaven). He thinks I may be a member of the Elect, but he’s not sure. However—he contends—I am being misled by errant Catholic Theology.
The goal of this article is to discuss the meanings of the words justification, faith, righteous and the Elect that are being espoused by the Calvinist. Readings of Saints Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and others demonstrate that the meaning of words matter greatly. Without understanding the definitions of the words we use, we can end up talking past each other because we think we are using common definitions, but we are not.
Faith is belief in the testimonies of those whom we deem credible. Notice that I am not stating the Theological Virtue of Faith but the essence of faith. For example, while the Bible was written by various people, we believe that they were all guided by God the Holy Spirit. Therefore, we conclude that the Bible is composed of the infallible word of God, and accept—as infallible—the writings in Bible. On a related side note, a Rabbi I know said that there is no exact word in Hebrew for the word faith. The Rabbi said that the closest word in Hebrew to faith is trust. What a beautiful analogy to faith when we use the word trust.
Righteousness means correct moral decision-making. It is a fruit of Moral Theology. Righteousness can be used synonymously with the word virtuous. The easiest way to understand virtue is to ask yourself a question. Imagine you are at your own funeral. What types of things do you hope people say about you? Would you want people to say, “he was a very honest man,” or “he was a true friend when someone needed help,” or—as in the case of King David—“he was a man after God’s own heart?” All of these positive terms describe virtues, and exhibit correct moral decision making, which is righteousness.
Justification means unearned and unmerited privilege to be adopted sons and daughters of God the Father by grace. The essence of justification is found in a covenant. A covenant is not a legal document that is composed of definitions, terms, conditions and penalties with associated remedies for non-compliance. It is an invitation into a family relationship that has three parts: Sacred, Kinship and Bond. Sacred suggests—as with the word Holy—that it is something set apart and holds special significance. Kinship is the essence of a familial relationship that is composed of promises. The attribute of Bond indicates a binding or obligation to fulfill.
Within the context of covenant, we have to look deeper. I have the great blessing of being able to attend a weekly Torah Study at a local synagogue with very warm, welcoming and gracious people. Our Torah Studies are led by a couple of very knowledgeable and kind Rabbis. In the Torah Study group, we examined Deuteronomy 9:5 where God is speaking to the Israelites about the Promised Land and says, “it is not because of your justice or the integrity of your heart that you are going in to take possession of their land; but it is because of their wickedness that the LORD, your God, is dispossessing these nations before you and in order to fulfill the promise he made on oath to your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” The Rabbi commented that the Promised Land was being given to the Israelites as an inheritance and not because of their virtue. God uses the words “on oath” which actually reflects His covenants entered into by these Patriarchs.
A key point needs to be made when considering the Rabbi’s comments about the Promised Land being an inheritance of the Israelites. We have to recognize that whenever we read scripture we will never hear God speaking to us if we think He is speaking to someone else. In various passages, we are the Israelites and God is speaking to us! In short, we should put ourselves in the place of the Israelites. We are God’s firstborn (Exodus 4:22). We are God’s nation of priests (Exodus 19:6). When Jesus is speaking to Peter, He is speaking to us. We achieve this status through our Baptisms which allows us entry into the New Covenant, the family of God. Therefore, the Rabbi’s comment concerning the Promised Land being an inheritance for the Israelites is actually God speaking to us about our inheritance of our Promised Land, Heaven.
The Gospel of John answers the question as to why we receive our inheritance. The Gospel states, “But to those who did accept him [Jesus] he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name…” (John 1:12). There are additional verses in the Bible that also speak to us being sons and daughters of God. The point is that as sons and daughters, and specifically God’s firstborn, we are the beneficiaries of this inheritance. Just as the Israelites in Deuteronomy 9:5 did not receive their inheritance because they were virtuous; neither do we receive our inheritance because we are virtuous. We receive our inheritance, via a covenant, because we are in God’s family.
With respect to the Elect, I offer the following Syllogisms:
Major Premise: Only the Elect will go to Heaven. (Calvinist Belief)
Minor Premise: “And when I [Jesus] am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” (John 12:32)
Conclusion: Everyone is the Elect and can go to Heaven.
Major Premise: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him on the last day.” (John 6:44; Referenced by the Calvinist to justify his belief that only the Elect will go to Heaven)
Minor Premise: “For God [the Father] so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
Conclusion: God the Father gave His Son so that everyone might have eternal life (i.e., attain the Beatific Vision).
These two simple syllogisms lead us to the inescapable conclusions; the definition of the Elect means all people are invited to attain eternal life through Jesus Christ, the Son of God the Father. However—due to free will—some will reject this invitation.
Given these definitions, what the Calvinist is saying when he states “It is by faith alone that we are justified and made righteous” translates to “If we believe in the testimonies of those we deem credible, without needing to enter into a covenant, we are the sons and daughters of God and hence forth we will make good moral decisions.” The Calvinist’s statement sounds fantastical when heard by Catholic ears. Obviously, we have more work to do with the Calvinist to ensure we are using words that have common definitions to facilitate our dialogue.