A cardinal’s cardinal error

The renowned Roman Catholic apologist of the sixteenth century, Cardinal Bellarmine, defended his church’s traditional teaching with might and main. A typical statement from his pen is this: "All the good works of justified persons are truly and properly meritorious."

Such statements are taken for granted by many to be “gospel truth.” But nothing could be further from the truth.

Our Lord Jesus taught his disciples: "So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, 'We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done'" (Luke 17:10).

Isaiah, in referring to himself and his generation, says, "But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousness are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away" (Isaiah 64:6). Please note that the prophet included himself, a justified believer, in this category. Obviously he does not consider his morality as properly meritorious, quite the contrary.

Justified persons already have all the merit they need, and all the merit God demands from them: for Jesus Christ is their righteousness, which righteousness cannot be diminished or increased by their own moral efforts.

Consider carefully the following two statements in Scripture:

1. “ But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God - and righteousness and sanctification and redemption - that, as it is written, ‘He who glories, let him glory in the Lord’” (1 Corinthians 1:30,31).

2. “For He (God the Father) made Him (Christ) who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

One salient point: all our righteousness is found in Christ alone, not in ourselves. Believers look to Him and rejoice in Him as “THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS” (Jeremiah 23:6).

Furthermore, the good works of believers are tainted with sin, and are only made acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:5).

Their good works are not performed by their own inherent capability: it is God who works in us both to will and to do according to his good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). What's meritorious about this? Paul also said, "I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me" (1 Corinthians 15:10).

To conclude, Christ said categorically, "Without me you can do nothing" (John 15:5).

In exalting man and his supposed free will, Cardinal Bellarmine degrades Christ and his all-sufficiency for the believer.