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Richard Hooker on Salvation Apart from Worthiness

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“One can see from Thomas More, then, how easy it is for men of great capacity and judgment to misunderstand things written or spoken, on one side of an argument or the other” (Richard Hooker, A Learned Discourse on Justification, p. 68).

I agree with Richard Hooker (1554–1600) that it is easy for even intelligent people to misunderstand one another, especially regarding theology. As someone who has been talking serious theology for 28 years, you will not have a fruitful discussion if you jump to conclusions and make assumptions about what other people believe without asking them questions and listening to the answers patiently. But even that’s no guarantee of understanding someone else’s position.

For example, what did Hooker think that More got wrong about Protestant thought?

“Roman doctrine, so More thought, makes a man’s works worthy of reward in the world to come through the mere goodness of God, who is pleased to set so high a price upon so poor a thing. And our Protestant doctrine, so More thought, is that a man receives that eternal and high reward, not for his works, but for his faith’s sake, by which he then works” (p. 68).

I had to read that more than once. I initially thought More got it right. While Roman Catholics think works make us worthy of salvation, Protestants think we receive eternal life for the sake of faith. How is that a misunderstanding? (By the way, to clarify something, I believe Hooker was using “reward” language as a synonym for eternal life.)

Here’s Hooker’s clarification:

“However, in reality, our doctrine is simply that which we have learned at the feet of Christ: that God justifies the believing man, not because of the worthiness of his belief, but because of the worthiness of him who is believed” (p. 68).

Did you get that? The issue is “Who is worthy?”

More thought that Catholics and Protestants agreed that God saves worthy people but disagreed on what makes someone worthy. But Hooker wanted to clarify that grace-based salvation is not about your worthiness. The only worthy person in salvation is Jesus Christ, and you are saved based on His merits, not your own. Hooker wanted to be clear that God uses faith as the instrument by which to save unworthy people through Christ. Think of it this way: Paul said that God “justifies the ungodly” and credits their faith “for righteousness” (Rom 4:5). In other words, righteousness has to be imputed to their faith. Neither faith nor works make you worthy before God. Salvation really is based on unmerited favor.

Assuming that I’m not misunderstanding his argument, I think Hooker makes a worthy point.


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