Romanism, Dispensationalism and an Interesting Inconsistency in the Soteriology of Dr. John GerstnerMar 4th, 2010 | By Andrew Preslar | Category: Blog Posts
Ligonier Ministries recently posted an excerpt from the late John Gerstner’s Primer on Justification. This article, taken together with things he has written elsewhere concerning the nature of faith, manifests an interesting and important inconsistency in Dr. Gerstner’s thinking about justification. Before turning to that problem, I want to make a few comments on the article itself.
Horse and Cart
In this article, Gerstner critiques something that he tells his readers is the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification. Those who would like to learn a little bit about that doctrine, particularly as defined by the Council of Trent, and as compared to the Protestant position, would do better to read Bryan Cross’s “ A Reply from a Romery Person.” As Bryan explains, Protestantism and Catholicism differ on justification not merely in detail, but paradigmatically. Readers of the Ligonier blog will likely miss this important point. Then again, this excerpt from Gerstner has every appearance of preaching to the (Reformed) choir, and none of actually engaging Catholic doctrine.
Most importantly, Gerstner does not present the distinction in Catholic theology between initial justification, progress in justification, and final justification, even though these distinctions are crucially related to the point he is trying to make concerning the role of works before justification. In critiquing the Gospel according to “Romanism,” Gerstner writes:
So all Rome’s error is in putting works before justification, but how fatal the error! The theological cart is hopelessly before the theological horse. Neither works nor justification can function. Meritorious works are no works and an achieved justification is no justification. [Emphasis added]
Compare this claim with the actual teaching of the Catholic Church:
But when the Apostle says that man is justified by faith and freely, these words are to be understood in that sense in which the uninterrupted unanimity of the Catholic Church has held and expressed them, namely, that we are therefore said to be justified by faith, because faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation and root of all justification, without which it is impossible to please God and to come to the fellowship of His sons; and we are therefore said to be justified gratuitously, because none of those things that precede justification, whether faith or works, merit the grace of justification. 
In this article, Gerstner and Ligonier Ministries mislead their readers in a fundamental way on an all important aspect of the Catholic-Protestant debate. The reader is left with the impression that the Catholic Church teaches that justification is merited by works which precede justification, whereas the Church clearly and emphatically denies this.
Gerstner and Hodges
Along with his garbling account of the Catholic doctrine of justification, there is an interesting inconsistency in Dr. Gerstner’s own soteriology. When the target of his soteriological criticism is the Gospel according to dispensationalist writer Zane Hodges, Gerstner writes the following:
Hodges fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the issue when he thinks that works are some sort of addendum, something beyond the faith itself. We maintain that it is implicit in the faith from the beginning….
Again, this fundamental failure [of Hodges] to comprehend is evident. Lordship teaching does not “add works,” as if faith were not sufficient. The “works” are part of the definition of faith. 
Now here’s the rub: If works are “implicit in faith from the beginning,” as Gerstner claims, then how can he charge the Catholic Church with delivering a false Gospel on the basis of “putting works before justification”? Faith comes before justification, in the sense that we are justified by faith. But if works are implicit in this faith from the beginning, then works come before justification, according to Gerstner’s definition of faith (in responding to Hodges), but contrary to the Gospel according to Gerstner (when responding to Rome).
Faith and Love
There is a possible way out of this dilemma, but it is fairly technical, and I don’t think that it actually succeeds in solving Gerstner’s problem concerning the place of “works” in justification. Francis Turretin states the classical Reformed perspective on the relation between faith and love (which is the essence of all “good works”) in justification:
The question is not whether faith alone justifies to the exclusion either of the grace of God or the righteousness of Christ or the word and sacraments (by which the blessing of justification is presented and sealed to us on the part of God) which we maintain are necessarily required here; but only to the exclusion of every other virtue and habit on our part. 
According to Turretin, there is a sense in which “every other virtue and habit” are excluded from justification per sola fide. But notice that he immediately writes the following:
The question is not whether solitary faith (i.e., separated from the other virtues) justifies (which we grant could not easily be the case, since it is not even true and living faith); but whether it “alone” (sola) concurs to the act of justification (which we assert); as the eye alone sees, but not when torn out of the body…. The coexistence of love in him who is justified is not denied; but its coefficiency or cooperation in justification is denied. The question is not whether the faith “which justifies” (quae justificat) works by love (for otherwise it would not be living but dead); rather the question is whether faith “by which it justifies” (qua justificat) or in the act itself of justification, is to be considered under such a relation (schesei) (which we deny). 
Thus, Turretin, like Gerstner, insists that agape inheres with faith in the justified person, but excludes this inherent agape from justification per se, which exclusion is also crucial to Gerstner’s Gospel as stated in the Ligonier article. The distinction here can be understood in terms of the different modes of perseity, a per se relation being one in which a thing is known through itself rather than by inference.  On the Catholic model, love belongs to justifying faith per se as a matter of definition. “Justifying faith is formed by love” is analogous to “Man is rational.” On the Reformed model, love belongs to justifying faith per se as a matter of material causality. “Love is always present with justifying faith” is analogous to “A living body is always present with the act of sight.” In the first case, “love” is an essential predicate of justifying faith. In the second case, “love” is a proper accident of justifying faith.
Obviously, both modes of perseity involve an intimate relation between faith and love. But it remains the case that in Reformed theology love is excluded from faith (sola fide) in the sense that, in the act of justification, faith is not considered in relation to love. What is hereby underscored is the fact that Catholic and Reformed Christians understand the formal cause of justification in very different ways.
Turretin’s distinction between the faith that justifies and faith considered as justifying puts a fine point upon an important difference between the Catholic Faith and the Protestant religion. However, this distinction does not seem to help Gerstner. If agape (good works) is part of the definition of justifying faith (per Gerstner), as opposed to simply being always present with justifying faith (per Turretin), then it is not possible to be justified by faith without also being justified by works. Gerstner could say that we are justified by one aspect of faith apart from some other aspect of faith, e.g., the intellectual aspect apart from agape, but this would result in justification by something other than faith, since works/agape, according to Gerstner, is part of the definition of faith.
All in all, it seems that Gerstner has a correct definition of justifying faith (faith formed by love), which he selectively applies. His critique of Catholicism is inconsistent with his definition of justifying faith, and his critique of Dispensationalism is inconsistent with his critique of Catholicism.
 Council of Trent, Session 6, Chapter 8 (emphasis added).
 John H. Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, Publishers, Inc., 1991), 226 (emphasis added); cited in Zane Hodges, “Calvinism Ex Cathedra: A Review of John H. Gerstner’s Wrong Dividing the Word of Truth: A Critique of Dispensationalism” Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Autumn 1991–4:2 (available here).
 Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Sixteenth Topic, Eighth Question, V-VI.
 Cf. Aristotle, Posterior Analytics, Book One, Part 4.