He answers that good works "do not serve to make us right with God, either wholly or in part, but they do serve this purpose: after we have been freely and graciously justified through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, we show with good works that we are thankful to God the Lord, so that God might be praised through us." Good works, he says, are also useful to confirm "that we have not a hypocritical but a true faith" and to provide an example to move others closer to Christ.
I am commenting on this quotation because it illustrates what I see as a serious danger of the classic Protestant articulation of the doctrine of justification. Protestant theology posits a sharp divide between what it calls "justification" and what it calls "sanctification." Justification involves the imputation of Christ's righteousness to us and the forgiveness of our sins. It is a strictly legal transaction and does not involve any alteration in our internal condition or in our behavior. Before, we were at odds with God's law because we are sinners; with justification, Christ's righteousness is counted ours, and so we are deemed righteous by the law and so are no longer at odds with it. According to Protestant theology, this legal transaction is all we need to be right with God. We are also to be sanctified--or made holy internally, resulting in the production of good works--but this sanctification is something totally distinct from justification (though it always accompanies it). Sanctification is not any part of what makes us right with God.
The difficulty (or at least one difficulty) is this: If legal justification is all that we need to be right with God, what is the point of sanctification? Apparently it is not important to God, since he finds us wholly satisfactory without it. His moral character is totally reconciled to us apart from any consideration of it. And surely if God is wholly morally satisfied with us--if he finds nothing in us to warrant a moral rejection--then surely, since we are so righteous, we must attain to the fullness of blessedness. If God's law declares us righteous, God's law will grant to us all the blessed fruits of a right relationship with God. So it would seem that sanctification must have no role to play in our salvation at all. Now, many Reformed theologians balk at this, insisting on the cruciality of sanctification in our salvation; but it is difficult to see how it could be so crucial. Is legal justification all we need to be totally right with God or not? If it is, then what could we need more for salvation than to be totally right with God? Doesn't that include everything of importance? If it isn't, then it will have to be admitted that the Catholics have a point when they include sanctification in the mix of all that makes us morally acceptable to God.
My experience in the Reformed tradition suggests that Reformed people, at least subconsciously, often see the tension here. Sometimes, this results in a rendition of the role of sanctification that lessens its cruciality, making it a sort of nice addition--a cherry on top, if you will--that is not strictly necessary to but which is a wonderful after-effect of salvation. That's what it looks like is happening in this quotation from Caspar Olevianus (though I admit that I know very little of him outside of this quotation, so I am only going by what I see here without claiming anything about his overall theology). Not finding any place for sanctification in his concept of what actually accomplishes our salvation, he adds it on as a cherry on top. Sanctification is the way we say "thank you" to God for saving us. It's like a tip at a restaurant, or a thank you card for a gift received (which is not part of the gift itself nor necessary for the possession of that gift). Sanctification helps us know we have real faith, which is important because that tells us that we have been given legal justification and are thus right with God. Sanctification helps us help others. But it is not part of the fundamental process of salvation, which addresses how we can go from being sinners estranged from God to righteous people in a right relationship with him.
The problem with all of this, of course, is that, while it is good to have gratitude to God, etc., biblical and historic Christianity envisions a much more crucial role for sanctification in our salvation.
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:10)
Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)
For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you. Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. (Romans 8:6-14)
The Catholic Council of Trent better captured the biblical teaching:
Justification itself . . . is not remission of sins merely, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inward man, through the voluntary reception of the grace, and of the gifts, whereby man of unjust becomes just, and of an enemy a friend, that so he may be an heir according to hope of life everlasting. (Sixth Session, Chapter 7)
[T]he alone formal cause [of justification] is the justice of God, not that whereby He Himself is just, but that whereby He maketh us just, that, to wit, with which we being endowed by Him, are renewed in the spirit of our mind, and we are not only reputed, but are truly called, and are, just, receiving justice within us . . . For, although no one can be just, but he to whom the merits of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ are communicated, yet is this done in the said justification of the impious, when by the merit of that same most holy Passion, the charity of God is poured forth, by the Holy Spirit, in the hearts of those that are justified, and is inherent therein: whence, man, through Jesus Christ, in whom he is ingrafted, receives, in the said justification, together with the remission of sins, all these (gifts) infused at once, faith, hope, and charity. For faith, unless hope and charity be added thereto, neither unites man perfectly with Christ, nor makes him a living member of His body. For which reason it is most truly said, that Faith without works is dead and profitless; and, In Christ Jesus neither circumcision, availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh by charity. (Sixth Session, Chapter 7)
For more, see here and here. For a positive approach to reconciling the Protestant position with the biblical and Catholic teaching on this subject, see here. For a commentary on Martin Luther's Freedom of a Christian, showing how the inspiration for the Protestant articulation of justification seems to have been rooted in a kind of antinomianism that rejected the cruciality of sanctification, see here.
Published on the feast of St. Cecilia