Anthony N.S. Lane on “Justification by Works in Reformation Theology”

Last week I listened to a lecture give by Anthony N.S. Lane on the topic of Justification by works in Reformation theology. He gave the lecture at the Meeter Center on April 11 of this year. Here’s the summary from the website:

On April 11, 2013, Professor Anthony Lane of the London School of Theology challenged popular assumptions that would divide Catholics and Protestants into two camps according to their contrasting understandings of Justification. Professor Lane pointed out that early modern Catholicism did leave room for both faith and works in  Justification, through a two-fold process in which the initial Justification is by faith, and the second is the Justification of the godly by their good works. Focusing on Protestant commentaries on the letter of James, Lane also pointed out that the Reformers, including John Calvin, did leave room for works in their understanding of Justification, although Calvin consistently downplayed the value of the works in and of themselves – Reformed believers were to do good works as a necessary sign of salvation, and their otherwise worthless works gained acceptance in God’s eyes because the believers themselves were new creations in Christ.

The lecture can be divided into three parts. In part one he covers justification by works in Catholic theology. In part two he covers the reformers’ thought and the last part focuses on John Calvin. A passage that Lane brings out is from Calvin’s Institutes 3.17.5 where writes:

“For the Lord cannot fail to love and embrace the good things that he works in them through his Spirit. But we must always remember that God ‘accepts’ believers by reason of works only because he is their source and graciously, by way of adding to his liberality, deigns also to show ‘acceptance’ toward the good works he has himself bestowed. For whence come their good works, save that the Lord, having chose them as vessels unto honor [Rom. 9:21], thus is pleased to adorn them with true purity.”

This teaching of Calvin, Lane says, is “not hugely removed from what Trent was teaching.” I enjoyed this lecture immensely.

Anthony N.S. Lane is Professor of Historical Theology at the London School of Theology, London, The United Kingdom

I find similar expressions from Catholic theologian Karl Adam in his book Roots of the Reformation.

His [Luther’s] doctrine of faith and grace alone would have had its right place, its true significance, within the framework of Catholic dogma; so long as he meant by ‘faith alone’ that faith which is active through love. In fact, the phrase ‘salvation by faith alone’ has never been alien to Catholic theology. It was in fact always Catholic teaching that we can only be saved by Christ alone, that it is only God’s unmerited, unmeritable grace that lifts us out of the state of sin and death into that of divine sonship, and that even the so-called ‘meritorious acts’ which the redeemed perform in a state of justice are only ‘meritorious by grace’, attributable, that is, to the love of Christ working in us and through us. (51)


About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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