Not by Faith Alone: The Biblical Evidence for the Catholic Doctrine of Justification. By Robert A. Sungenis. Goleta, CA: Queenship Publishing Company, 1997. 774 pp. Paper, $24.95.
Robert Sungenis is a 1982 graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary, one of the leading Reformed seminaries in America. In 1992 he converted to Roman Catholicism. He is now an apologist for Catholicism. This book is his magnum opus.
I must say at the outset that this book is not all that much fun to read. Don’t get me wrong. I normally enjoy reading books that disagree with our position. I enjoy reading them because I see how weak their case is and how important what we are doing is. While the arguments given by Sungenis are indeed weak, the writing style is less than exciting. It reads like a dissertation, rather than a popular book. Evidently Sungenis was not writing for the masses, but for scholars. However, in an “Author’s Note to Readers,” we are told, “This book is designed to be read by both layman and scholar” (p. vii). I think few laymen, other than JOTGES readers (who have a strong interest in these issues), will actually take the time to read this book.
The book opens with a series of endorsements by Catholics. The very first, by The Most Reverend Fabian W. Bruskewitz, Bishop of Lincoln, gives a flavor for the book, “Faith implies works. We know that the words we long to hear, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant…come share your Master’s joy’ (Mt. 25:21), will be spoken to those who have done well. Faith alone is not enough” (p. ix, ellipsis and italics his).
In the first chapter Sungenis attempts to prove that Paul did not teach justification by faith alone (pp. 1-116). He essentially has three types of proofs.
First, though Paul used the word alone more than any other New Testament writer, he never used it with faith (see, for example, pp. 1-3, 114). Thus Paul never used the expression justification by faith alone. When Paul said that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law, he did not mean he is justified by faith alone.
Second, by “the works of the law” Paul does not mean to exclude all human works as conditions for justification. Rather, he is excluding works that are done apart from the enabling grace of God (see pp. 18-46). Here he borrows a Reformed argument.
“Works are necessary for salvation, and, in fact, are one of the principle determining factors in whether or not one obtains salvation. We say this with the proviso that Paul outrightly [sic] condemns works done with a view toward obligating God to pay the worker with salvation. Man can never put God in the position of being in debt to an imperfect and sinful creature. The only way God can accept our works is through his grace. Works done under the auspices of God’s grace, that is, works done that do not demand payment from God but are rewarded only due to the kindness and mercy of God, are the works that Paul requires for salvation” (p. 46, italics his).
Third, he uses passages in which Paul speaks of the Judgment Seat of Christ and indicates that our future judgment will be by works. For example, he writes, “Paul holds the necessity of works in such high regard that in Romans 14:10-12 and 2 Corinthians 5:10 he states that all people must eventually face God’s judgment throne based on their works” (p. 47). Since in his mind the bema is the same as the Great White Throne, he thinks he has proved that justification is by faith plus works.
Fourth, he takes passages dealing with temporal judgment and suggests they refer to eternal condemnation. For example, he cites Romans 8:13, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die,” as proving justification by faith plus works (p. 87).
James 2 is the subject of the second chapter (pp. 117-75). He takes the salvation of 2:14 as referring to eternal salvation. However, he does see the persons addressed there as genuine believers. Likewise he takes the justification by works of Abraham and Rahab as referring to justification before God. He argues that believers who fail to continue to do good works will lose eternal salvation/justification. Though Sungenis cites Hodges, Chafer, Ryrie, and other Free Grace advocates in other places in the book (see esp. pp. 177, note 2, 184, note 13, and 596-99), the Free Grace view of James 2 is noticeably absent here.
Jesus’ teaching on justification is discussed in Chapter 3. Aside from John 5:24 (a passage which he does not exegete, but merely raises objections), all the passages discussed here are from the Synoptic Gospels. The Rich Young Ruler passage leads the way. The approach of Sungenis to the Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector turns the passage upside down. Rather than the tax collector being justified by faith, he is justified by faith and works (p. 195). Rather than justification being a one-time event, it is an ongoing process. “Whether the respective tax collectors [he includes Zaccheus here] will continue to be faithful and endure to the end is a matter not addressed by Jesus. All in all, nothing in the passage proves a once-for-all justification by faith alone” (p. 198, italics his). The point of Luke 18:9-14, according to Sungenis, is that proud faith and works will not justify, but humble faith and works will (p. 197).
Chapter 4 picks up on the question introduced in the previous chapter: “Is Justification a One-Time Event or an Ongoing Process?” His answer is that it is an ongoing process. For support he cites the justification of Abraham, which he believes occurred in Genesis 15 and again in Genesis 15 and again in Genesis 22 (pp. 231-34).
Another line of support is two obscure verses in Psalm 106. Verses 30-31 read, “Then Phineas stood up and intervened, and the plague was stopped. And that was accounted to him for righteousness to all generations evermore.” Citing the fact that the language in v 31 is the same as that in Gen 15:6, he suggests that these verses prove that justification is not by faith alone and is not a one-time event. Phineas was continuing the process of justification by doing good works humbly.
Sungenis fails to note that these verses, unlike Gen 15:6 (which is quoted three times in the New Testament), are not cited or alluded to anywhere in the New Testament. If these verses are dealing with forensic justification, it would seem reasonable for the New Testament to tell us so.
Sungenis also fails to note how some Old Testament commentators (e.g., Gunkel) understand these verses. Some believe that righteousness here is experiential and that it alludes to the reward that Phineas received of the priesthood perpetually being in his line. Numbers 25:13 says, “And it shall be to him [Phineas] and his descendants after him a covenant of an everlasting priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the children of Israel” (see also vv 7-12).
In this chapter the author naturally must argue against eternal security. One way he does so is by giving 18 pages of Scripture without a word of explanation in the text, and with only limited discussion in the footnotes. For example, out of 83 passages he cites, only 28 have footnotes. Thus 55 of the 83 passages are given with no comment whatsoever. This is hardly exegetical proof.
In Chapter 5 Sungenis argues that justification is not imputed righteousness. Rather it is infused righteousness. Thus God justifies a person as long as he is righteous in his behavior. Sungenis, like Reformed theologians, is quick to point out that works could never occur apart from the grace of God. Unlike Reformed theologians, he feels free to speak of the fact that the one doing the good works indeed cooperates synergistically with God in his justification.
There are 21 appendixes at the end of the book. While most of them are only mildly interesting, two are especially helpful.
Appendix 20 gives the 33 anathemas from the Council of Trent concerning justification. Canon 9 reads, “If anyone shall say that by faith alone the sinner is justified, so as to understand that nothing else is required to cooperate in the attainment of the grace of justification, and that it is in no way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will: let him be anathema” (p. 690).
Canon 20 reads, “If anyone shall say that a man who is justified and ever so perfect is not bound to observe the commandments of God and the Church, but only to believe, as if indeed the Gospel were a mere absolute promise of eternal life, without the condition of observation of the commandments: let him be anathema” (pp. 691-92, italics added).
Appendix 17 concerns “The Official Interpretation of ‘Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus’ [“Outside the Church There Is No Salvation”]. The Catholic position is similar to that of most Protestants today. Vatican Council II says, “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their action to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation” (p. 682). The difference is that they say that “no one will be saved who, knowing the Church to have been divinely established by Christ, nevertheless refuses to submit to the Church or withholds obedience from the Roman Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ on earth” (p. 681).
After the Bibliography, but before the Index of Authors and Scripture Index, comes a section called “Final Prayers” (pp. 737-38). Here are written out six prayers. The last one is to the Lord Jesus. The other five are to St. Gregory the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis de Sales, St. Michael the Archangel, and “Mary, Mother of God.” I found these prayers quite alarming. Clearly the book must be addressed almost exclusively to Catholics, since including prayers to deceased people and even to an archangel is quite offensive to Protestants.
Here is the prayer to Mary, “Mary, Mother of God, we pray that you will beseech your Son, who alone provides grace and wisdom, to help us in our efforts to further the cause of the Church. May your holiness and faithfulness be brought to God on our behalf, so that he may have mercy and patience with us as we endeavor to honor his name” (p. 737, italics added).
JOTGES readers will discover in this book that the Roman Catholic position is close to that of Reformed theology in many ways. I recommend this book, especially for anyone who ministers in heavily Roman Catholic areas.
Robert N. Wilkin
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society