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Martin Luther’s Sola Fide
In 1531, long after the initial controversies over justification were hammered out, the “mature” Luther taught a bipartite justifying righteousness composed of both a forensic and a renewal element:
These are the two parts of justification. The former is the grace revealed through Christ, that through Christ we have a God appeased, so that sin is no longer able to accuse us, but the confidence of conscience in the mercy of God is reduced to certainty. The latter is the bestowal of the Spirit with his gifts, who illuminates against the pollution of the spirit and the flesh.
Luther taught that the justification of a sinner involved being declared righteous on account of the righteousness of Christ received only when one partakes in the sacrament of baptism with faith. This righteousness includes 1) the non-imputation of sins or the removal of guilt based on the atonement of Christ and 2) the communication (or imputation) of the righteousness of Christ through the renewal of the Holy Spirit whereby we are spiritually united to Christ so that our hearts are made new and gladly obedient to the law of God. Both kinds of righteousness are received through faith because faith brings the Spirit which causes the heart to love, and therefore fulfill, the law. For Luther, “works of the law” (also called “works-righteousness”) are works done in one’s own free will apart from the grace of the Spirit:
Accustom yourself, then, to this language, and you will find that doing the works of the law and fulfilling the law are two very different things. The work of the law is everything that one does, or can do toward keeping the law of his own free will or by his own powers. … To fulfil the law, however, is to do its works with pleasure and love, and to live a godly and good life of one’s own accord, without the compulsion of the law. This pleasure and love for the law is put into the heart by the Holy Ghost. … But the Holy Ghost is not given except in, with, and by faith in Jesus Christ, as he says in the introduction … Hence it comes that faith alone makes righteous and fulfils the law [italics mine].
Luther believed that although this righteousness is worked within us (in nobis), because it is brought about by the gift of the Spirit, it does not originate from within us, it originates from outside of us (extra nos). Therefore, it is an alien righteousness.
Although Luther reduced the number of sacraments to only two, baptism and the Eucharist, when it came to the sacramental mediation of saving grace, Luther preserved the basic paradigm of the Catholic Church. Luther believed, “in short, whatever God effects in us he does through such external ordinances.” One of the ways Luther attempts to acquit himself from teaching salvation by human works, is to claim that baptism is not merely an act done by men, but is ultimately God’s act. He answers the accuser like this: “Yes, it is true that our works are of no use for salvation. Baptism, however, is not our work but God’s.” Since Luther limited God’s supernatural saving grace to the sacrament of baptism, trusting in anything but God’s salvific work through baptism—including faith in Christ—is to be guilty of trusting in human works.
We know that wherever there is a divine promise [such as the promise of salvation through baptism], there faith is required, and that these two are so necessary to each other that neither can be effective apart from the other. For it is not possible to believe unless there is a promise, and the promise is not established unless it is believed. But where these two meet, they give a real and most certain efficacy to the sacraments. … Thus Christ says: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” [Mark 16:16, emphasis mine].
Thus, when Luther says “it is not baptism that justifies or benefits anyone, but it is faith in that word of promise to which baptism is added,” he is often misinterpreted as teaching a pure sola fide which rules out baptism as efficacious for salvation. Faith is necessary for baptism to effect salvation—but it is still baptism effecting that salvation. Because baptism is the work of God and comprehends God’s promise of salvation, we can be certain about our justification. However, according to Luther, just as faith only makes righteous, only unbelief can cause a person to fall away from their baptism and loose justifying grace. Furthermore, Luther taught that justification is an ongoing process of receiving forgiveness of sins and inward holiness. Compared to John Calvin, whose doctrine of justification had more influence on Protestantism and even Luthernism than Luther’s, Luther’s view of justification is strikingly Roman Catholic. It is easy to see why Lillback concludes that “Luther’s theology of justification does not neatly fit the classic pattern of the Reformational debate,” for it is much closer to the Catholic view than is widely acknowledged among Protestants of the Reformation heritage. In spite of a great divergence from Luther’s sola fide in modern Protestantism, many protestants still hold to Luther’s teaching of the centrality of the doctrine of justification, believing it to be the message of the gospel. Therefore, many understand Luther’s Reformation to be a rediscovery of the gospel itself.
The Roman Catholic Doctrine of Justification
Since the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification is much like Luther’s, it will be sufficient to note only those aspects of Rome’s doctrine unique to the Catholic position. First, while Luther preferred to speak of the righteousness of God and/or Christ communicated to us (or imputed to us) by the Holy Spirit, the Catholic Church prefers to speak of the righteousness of God and/or Christ “infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul” [emphasis mine]. Second, the Catholic view holds that once a person looses their justification, the only way to get it back is through the sacrament of penance. Third, the Catholic formulations of salvation and justification include the language of “cooperation” when taking into account the non-passivity of man in justification (and salvation in general) and man’s ability to reject prevenient grace. Fourth, the Catholic Church teaches that Christians cannot have “an absolute and infallible certainty” that they will persevere in their faith, and thus, their justification—unless they receive such certainty through a special revelation of God.
Fifth, Catholic dogma holds that final justification (or the inheritance of eternal life at the final judgment) is by grace-wrought works of faith done by the merit of Christ. Although I list this fifth doctrine as unique to the Catholic position, it may have also been taught by Luther. Sixth, it is a part of Catholic teaching that such works, therefore, merit eternal life. For these last two distinguishing aspects of the Catholic teaching, it is important to understand two distinctions. First, to merit something is different than deserving it, but refers to God’s rewarding of good works—itself an act of grace—which good works were done by grace in the first place. Second, final justification is different from initial justification: the former is merited, the latter is not: “No one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion.” Seventh, although not incompatible with Luther’s teaching of the centrality of the doctrine of justification, Catholic teaching tends to emphasize that justification is one among many ways the Bible describes the free gift of salvation, rather than, as Luther, emphasizing its unique role in Pauline theology.
 Cited in Peter A. Lillback, “Calvin’s Development of The Doctrine of Forensic Justification: Calvin And the Early Lutherans On The Relationship of Justification and Renewal,” in Justified in Christ: God’s Plan For Us in Justification, ed. Scott Oliphint (Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-shire, Great Britan: Christian Focus Publications, 2007), 76.
 “Hence it comes that faith alone makes righteous and fulfils the law; for out of Christ’s merit, it brings the Spirit, and the Spirit makes the heart glad and free, as the law requires that it shall be. … Grace does so much that we are accounted wholly righteous before God. … Righteousness, then, is such a faith and is called ‘God’s righteousness,’ or ‘the righteousness that avails before God,’ because God gives it and counts it as righteousness for the sake of Christ, our Mediator, and makes a man give to every man what he owes him. Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, trans. J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1954), xv-xvii. Although this comment was written in the period of the early Luther, the editor and translator writes: “In short, a scholarly edition of Luther’s Romans must satisfy all scholarly demands, while this popular and abridged edition seeks only to acquaint the average Christian reader with the fundamentals of Luther’s evangelical teachings. We might add that Luther’s commentary on Romans contains some thoughts which later he modified or discarded altogether. In order to avoid confusion, such portions are largely omitted in this practical edition.” Ibid., ix. More importantly, Lillback marshals compelling evidence that Luther endorsed Melanchthon’s doctrine of justification which included inward renewal of the Spirit and that Luther himself connected inward renewal to justification even in his later, more mature works. Lillback, “Calvin’s Development of The Doctrine of Forensic Justification,” 66-80.
 Luther, Commentary on Romans, xv. “Of these [true, faith-wrought works] the work-righteous saints know nothing, but feign works of their own in which there is no peace, joy, confidence, love hope, boldness, nor any of the qualities of true Christian works and faith” [italics mine]. Ibid., xxi.
 “God certainly desires to save us not through our own righteousness, but through the righteousness and wisdom of someone else or by means of a righteousness which does not originate on earth, but comes down from heaven. So then, we must teach a righteousness which in every way comes from without and is entirely foreign to us.” Ibid., 28-29.
 Lohse makes the judgment that although Luther “with his emphasis on the strict correlation of baptism and faith…gave new accent to traditional baptismal theology…on the whole [he] did not attack it.” Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development, trans. Roy A. Harrisville (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 1999), 303. Lohse also recognizes that Luther appealed to “the concept of the sacrament as ‘effective in itself’ (ex opere operato)” in his defense of infant baptism. Ibid, 302.
 Martin Luther, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Muhlenberg Press, 1959), 440. The fact that God’s Word (the promise of salvation) is attached to baptism is sufficient (in Luther’s mind) to defeat the skeptics who say, “How can a handful of water help the soul?” (i.e. anyone who would deny baptismal regeneration). Ibid., 438. In his Large Catechism, Luther gives more argumentation against those who deny the efficacy of the sacraments than on any other issue. Not only are those who claim that baptism is merely an external sign having no spiritual effect “so foolish as to separate faith from the object [Gods Word] to which faith is attached and bound,” but Luther argues that they miss the point that God’s grace has been limited to being distributed only through the external sacraments. “Yes, it must be external so that it can be perceived and grasped by the sense and thus brought into the heart, just as the entire Gospel is an external, oral proclamation. In short, whatever God effects in us he does through such external ordinances.” Ibid., 440. Therefore, faith alone will not do, because although “faith alone makes the person worthy to receive the salutary, divine water profitably,” faith apart from the actual administration of the sacrament of baptism is nothing but a faith which is mustered up apart from the power of God’s grace and severed from God’s Word—and thus it is a human work. Such faith is just as shaky ground for salvation as any other human work. Ibid., 440.
 Ibid., 441.
 Tranvik argues that Luther saw pre-baptism faith as a human work, not the work of God, and thus he considered anyone who believed faith came before baptism to be in the same heretical camp with Rome, trusting in human works and denying the gospel.
Therefore, one dare not base his baptism on his faith. For who can be sure if he really believes? The Enthusiasts’ stress on subjectivity, like the late medieval view of penance and monasticism, troubles Luther because it put the question of salvation back into the hands of a frail and doubting humanity. … From Luther’s perspective, the dispute with the Enthusiasts is not merely about the nature of material things and whether or not they can be mediums of the divine. Rather, the gospel itself is at stake. … In his conflict with enthusiasm, Luther suspects that faith itself is being idolized, the very faith that is subject to the vagaries of human moods and emotions. Faith simply cannot bear that burden and remain salvific. Again, as was the case with Rome, Luther believes the enthusiasts are shrouding the life-giving promise. God must move from the external to the internal. To reverse the order is to make faith a work and set up a pernicious ordo salutis based on law. What Luther did was expose the essential nomism of the Enthusiasts.
Mark D. Tranvik, “Luther on Baptism,” Harvesting Martin Luther’s Reflections on Theology, Ethics, and the Church, ed. Timothy J. Wengert (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 32-33. “And he most sharply rejects the attempt to determine whether or not an adult believes, particularly in the form in which it was practices by the Baptists.” Althaus, The Theology of Marin Luther, 365. Luther considered the Anabaptists to be sects of the devil. “Here we come to a question by which the devil confuses the world through his sects, the question of infant Baptism.” Luther, The Book of Concord, 442.
 Ibid., 67.
 Ibid., 66.
 For example, in a relatively recent treatment (2001) of doctrine throughout church history, John D. Hannah misrepresents Luther as believing in sola fide in such a way as to rule out sacramental mediation of saving grace. John D. Hannah, Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2001), 227-229. His misunderstanding appears to be rooted in a misinterpretation of Luther’s phraseology of baptism as God’s Word. Since Luther denies that water all by itself saves, but rather asserts salvation through the Word which is attached to the water and faith which receives it, Hannah concludes that Luther did not believe in the efficacy of the sacrament of baptism. “The sacraments, then, have a subjective function as a witness to faith in God’s generosity; they do not have an objective function of being the actual means of acquiring God’s grace.” Ibid., 229. In the same vein, Hannah represents Luther has having a view in which “the symbol has no efficacy.” Ibid. Lohse tries to correct this false interpretation of Luther’s “sign” language (pardon the pun). “When Luther at times used the word ‘sign,’ particularly in his doctrine of the Supper, that use may not be construed in Zwinglian terms. Luther never intended the term to be merely ‘symbolic.'” Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology, 300.
 “God’s works [such as baptism], however, are salutary and necessary for salvation, and they do not exclude but rather demand faith, for without faith they could not be grasped. Just by allowing the water to be poured over you, you do not receive Baptism in such a manner that it does you any good. But it becomes beneficial to you if you accept it as God’s command and ordinance, so that, baptized in the name of God, you may receive in the water the promised salvation. This the hand cannot do, nor the body, but the heart must believe it. … Actually, we insist on faith alone as so necessary that without it nothing can be received or enjoyed.” Luther, The Book of Concord, 441.
 Tranvik, “Luther on Baptism,” 32-33.
 “All of us do not remain with our baptism. Many fall away from Christ and become false Christians.” Martin Luther, What Luther Says, ed. Ewald M. Plass (St. Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1986), 1:280. “Through baptism these people threw out unbelief, had their unclean way of life washed away, and entered into a pure life of faith and love. Now they fall away into unbelief and their own works, and they soil themselves again in faith.” Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, ed. J. Pelikan (St. Louis, Missouri: Concordia Publishing House, 1967), 30:190. “Indeed, even the righteous man, if he presumes to be justified by those works, loses the righteousness he has and falls from the grace by which he had been justified, since he has been removed from a good land to one that is barren.” Ibid., 27:331. Luther understood unbelief to be the root and sum of all sin. “And the Scriptures look especially into the heart and have regard to the root and source of all sin, which is unbelief in the inmost heart.” Luther, Commentary on Romans, xv.
 “Now we are only halfway pure and holy. The Holy Spirit must continue to work in us through the Word, daily granting forgiveness until we attain to that life where there will be no more forgiveness. In that life are only perfectly pure and holy people, full of goodness and righteousness, completely freed from sin, death, and all evil, living in new, immortal and glorified bodies.” Martin Luther, Selected Writings of Martin Luther, ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967), 418. Cited in Lillback, “Calvin’s Development of the Doctrine of Forensic Justification,” 76. Lillback concludes: “Luther conceives of this forgiveness as an ongoing process to remedy the partial holiness of the believer.”
 Lillback, “Calvin’s Development of the Doctrine of Forensic Justification,” 76. Lillback argues that Luther never used the word “forensic” (although Melanchthon himself used it and although forensic elements are one part of Luther’s bipartite doctrine of justification), and that John Calvin was the first to teach that justification was merely forensic. Ibid., 79. If Lillback’s [and my own] reading is right, Luther is not only misrepresented as teaching a pure sola fide that rules out sacramental mediation, but Calvin’s teaching of justification is read back into Luther. For example, Erickson has Luther’s doctrine of justification only addressing the problem of forensic guilt, but not the problem of the corruption of human nature, and appears to teach that Luther did not think that in justification God actually causes the one justified to fulfil the law but rather to be merely treated as if he had fulfilled all the law. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, second edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1998), 968. Johnson and Webber understand Luther to teach that justifying righteousness is alien in the sense that it does not belong to the one justified by it, but rather to Christ. Alan F. Johnson, Robert E. Webber, What Christians Believe: A Biblical and Historical Survey (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993), 310. Others seem unaware that such major differences exist between Luther and Calvin and treat these two magisterial Reformers (and the Reformers in general) as if they all believed the exact same thing. “The Reformers proclaimed justification by grace alone through faith alone on the ground of Christ’s righteousness alone.” J. I. Packer, “Justification,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, second edition, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2001), 646.
 “Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Luther’s mature doctrine of justification is the emphasis he places on its theological centrality. It was Luther above all who saw the articulus iustificationis as the word of the gospel, to which all else was subordinate.” Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei (New York, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 223.
 The basic Catholic definition of justification is as follows: “The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleans us from our sins and to communicate to us ‘the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ’ and through baptism.” Catechism of the Catholic Church: With Modifications from the Editio Typica, second edition (New York, New York: Dobuleday: 1995), 535, par 1987. It is also the Catholic position that justification depends entirely on the grace of God (sola gratia), faith is a necessary part of baptism, and the purpose of justification is the glory of God. “With justification, faith, hope, and charity are poured into our hearts, and obedience to the divine will is granted to us” [emphasis mine]. Ibid., par 1991. “Justification is conferred through baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy. Its purpose is the glory of God and of Christ, and the gift of eternal life” [emphasis added]. Ibid., par1992. “Our justification comes from the grace of God. Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.” Ibid., par 1996. “This vocation to eternal life is supernatural. It depends entirely on God’s gratuitous initiative.” Ibid., par 1998. “The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace.” Ibid., 2001. Like Luther, the Catholic view believes that justification is a process. “Sanctifying grace is an habitual gift, a stable supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love.” Ibid., 538, par 2000.
 This brief treatment will not allow for a comprehensive listing. Therefore, I have attempted to list those that seem most important.
 Ibid., 538, par 1999. Since Luther’s language of imputation appears to still include soul transformation through the “communication” of righteousness, the differences between his language of imputation and the Catholic language of “infusion” may be a matter of emphasis (or choice of words) rather than a significant difference in substance.
 “Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as ‘the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace.” Ibid., 403, par 1446.
 Although, according to McGrath, Luther insisted upon the “utter passivity of humans in justification,” it appears from my own study of Luther’s doctrine that Luther’s notions of passivity are compatible with Catholic teaching justification. The non-passivity and “cooperation” in Catholic teaching is defined in terms of “the assent of faith” that works through love. Ibid., 537, par 1993. The Catholic language of non-passivity and cooperation, then, appear to be concerned with ruling out the idea of a person’s being justified without a real change effected in the person’s heart and life—they believe, repent, and live by a faith that works through love.
 “Justification establishes cooperation between God’s grace and man’s freedom. On man’s part it is expressed by the assent of faith to the Word of God, which invites him to conversion, and in the cooperation of charity with the prompting of the Holy Spirit who precedes and preserves his assent: ‘When God touches man’s heart through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, man himself is not inactive while receiving that inspiration, since he could reject it; and yet, without God’s grace, he cannot by his own free will move himself toward injustice in God’s sight.’” Ibid., 537, par 1993.
 “If anyone says that he will for certain, with an absolute and infallible certainty, have the great gift of perseverance even to the end, unless he shall have learned this by a special revelation, let him be anathema.” Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, trans. Rev. H. J. Schroeder, O.P. (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1978), 44, can.16.
 “If anyone says that the good works of the one justified are in such a manner the gifts of God that they are not also the good merits of him justified; or that the one justified by the good works that he performs by the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit an increase of grace, eternal life, and in the case he dies in grace, the attainment of eternal life itself and also an increase of glory, let him be anathema.” Ibid., 46, can 32.
 “Luther does not, as he is frequently represented, reject the necessity of good works in justification.” McGrath, Iustitia Dei, 231. The quotation from Luther that McGrath puts forth as evidence, however, only shows that Luther believed in the necessity of works for salvation—not the causal role of works in justification.
 Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, 44, can.16.
 The section on merit in the Catholic Catechism begins with Augustine’s famous quote: “You are glorified in the assembly of your Holy Ones, for in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts.” Catechism, 541. Indeed, as if a response to protestant objections, this is the chief emphasis of the section. “With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator. … [T]he merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit. … [Adoption by grace] can bestow true merit on us as a result of God’s gratuitous justice. … Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men.” Ibid., 541-42, par 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011.
 Ibid., 542, par 2010.
 “[Justification] stands in an essential relation to all truths of faith, which are to be seen as internally related to each other. It is an indispensable criterion that constantly serves to orient all the teaching and practice of our churches to Christ. When Lutherans emphasize the unique significance of this criterion, they do not deny the interrelation and significance of all truths of faith. When Catholics see themselves as bound by several criteria, they do not deny the special function of the message of justification.” Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification: The Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church, English-Langauge Edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 16, article 3, par 18.
(And before you think I’m theologically naive, make sure you read my comments that follow the quotation)
The following excerpts come from the lips of Pope Ratzinger himself, spoken Nov. 19th 2008.
On the journey we have undertaken under the guidance of St. Paul, we now wish to reflect on a topic that is at the center of the controversies of the century of the Reformation: the issue of justification.
To be just means simply to be with Christ and in Christ. And this suffices. Other observances are no longer necessary.
That is why Luther’s expression “sola fide” is true if faith is not opposed to charity, to love. Faith is to look at Christ, to entrust oneself to Christ, to be united to Christ, to be conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence, to believe is to be conformed to Christ and to enter into his love. That is why, in the Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul develops above all his doctrine on justification; he speaks of faith that operates through charity (cf. Galatians 5:14).
Paul knows that in the double love of God and neighbor the whole law is fulfilled. Thus the whole law is observed in communion with Christ, in faith that creates charity. We are just when we enter into communion with Christ, who is love. We will see the same in next Sunday’s Gospel for the solemnity of Christ the King. It is the Gospel of the judge whose sole criterion is love. What I ask is only this: Did you visit me when I was sick? When I was in prison? Did you feed me when I was hungry, clothe me when I was naked? So justice is decided in charity. Thus, at the end of this Gospel, we can say: love alone, charity alone. However, there is no contradiction between this Gospel and St. Paul. It is the same vision, the one according to which communion with Christ, faith in Christ, creates charity. And charity is the realization of communion with Christ. Thus, being united to him we are just, and in no other way.
Paul’s experience of the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus led him to see that it is only by faith in Christ, and not by any merit of our own, that we are made righteous before God. Our justification in Christ is thus God’s gracious gift, revealed in the mystery of the Cross. Christ died in order to become our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption (cf. 1 Cor 1:30), and we in turn, justified by faith, have become in him the very righteousness of God (cf. 2 Cor 5:21). In the light of the Cross and its gifts of reconciliation and new life in the Spirit, Paul rejected a righteousness based on the Law and its works.
Actually, in droves Catholics have come around to basically granting a doctrine of justification by faith.
If your reaction is, “Yeah … but they don’t mean by faith alone,” you probably have been too influenced by uninformed Protestant rhetoric and haven’t been following the ecumenical discussion carefully enough. If you say, “Yeah but when Catholics affirm justification by faith alone or by grace alone, they don’t mean the same thing the Reformers did,” well … The Reformers themselves didn’t mean the same thing by “justification by faith alone.”
There is no single doctrine of justification in the Reformation.
To this very day Protestants understand the doctrine differently (nothwithstanding much overlap between their views, and between their views and Catholic views). Thus, Martin Luther taught a sola fide, Calvin taught a sola fide, and Catholics also teach a sola fide, yet each are different in significant ways I do not have time to fully develop here. They all have one thing in common: they all affirm that justifying righteousness originates outside of us in God himself (extra nos) and justifies us by grace alone (sola gratia), and the faith by which we are justified is a free gift of God—-notwithstanding the fact that all language of “free gift” and “sola gratia” are going to be understood differently by Arminians and Calvinists/Augustinians. (It is the latter point of difference that caused a great deal of the tension between Luther and the Catholic Church).
If you still think I’m theologically naive, leave comments in the thread. It may be because I can’t say everything in one post.
Martin Luther’s doctrine of justification is all too often assumed to be the same doctrine that later wound up in the Reformed Orthodox creeds. This sola fide (the one of Reformed Orthodoxy) tends to be read back into the magisterial Reformers, and in this manner the nuances of the original Reformation sola fide are missed.
The excerpts below come from Martin Luther’s introduction and summary of the book of Romans. Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, trans. J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids: Kregel Classic, Zondervan, 1954).
Notice that Luther’s notion of justifying righteousness is faith itself because faith satisfies the law. Luther’s notion of justifying righteousness, then, was not Christ’s active and passive obedience, as in much of the Reformed versions of the doctrine of imputation. (more…)
As I was cleaning my room today I listened to a lecture by Mark Dever, who did his Ph.D. at Cambridge on the Puritan Richard Sibbes. Richard was not like the other Puritans in that he did not ultimately break with the Church of England during the time of the great Exodus of Puritan preachers. Why? Because he believed that unity in the gospel was more important than correctness in the secondary matters. I was actually surprised to hear Mark Dever approve of Sibbes’ perspective, and challenge young evangelical ministers to recover the distinction between the essential (the gospel) and the non-essential. I agree with the spirit of Dever’s understanding as expressed in this lecture, only I wouldn’t confuse the basic gospel message with the doctrine of justification the way he does (see below). I believe Eastern Orthodox Christians and Catholic Christians believe in the redemptive death, burial and resurrection and lordship of Jesus Christ regardless of what their doctrine of justification might be.
“We must be united, Sibbes taught, and we must be united around the gospel.” – Mark Dever
“In Sibbes’ hand, the centrality of preaching was a force for unity, not for dissent. … And it did so exactly because whatever other problems the church might have had, it was a church committed to the Protestant—that is to say the Biblical—gospel, the good news of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. And to leave such a church, would be tantamount to rending Christ’s body.” – Mark Dever
“Sibbes knew that the main point is the reconciliation of man to God, which is accomplished by the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, preaching is more fundamental than polity. I could be convinced of congregationalism biblically, and convinced that the gospel is more important. One of the things that we as evangelicals must do is recover that territory in between essential and unimportant. … It’s a vast tract that we must recover for faithfulness to scripture. There could be many things that are important that are not essential. There could be things that are important that are not essential. And there could be things that are kind of important that are not essential. … But simply because something is not essential does not therefore mean it is unimportant. We need to recover this in our own reflection on our lives, reflection on scripture, and in our preaching in our churches. If we do we’ll easily understand how preaching is more fundamental to polity, and yet polity is not a matter to be disregarded.” – Mark Dever
—————————————HT: Good Soldiers
Shot out to Nick Mitchell for showing us that N.T. Wright and Martin Luther both agree on the basic message of the gospel. How can this be? Because the core message of the gospel is simple, and does not involve (in either’s definition) the doctrine of justification.
Now that’s good news.
——————————–HT: Kingdom People———————————-
In the spirit of Trevin Wax’s helpful “gospel definition” posts, I offer Eric L. Johnson’s articulation of the simple gospel message from his impressive magnum opus Foundations for Soul Care:
The good news of the gospel is an articulation of the free gift of divine salvation and soul-healing, accomplished through Christ’s life, death and resurrection and offered to all who consent to it from the heart.
A few things are interesting about this definition. 1) it defines the gospel as “an articulation of” certain truths, 2) it includes what we would normally call sanctification in protestant lingo (“soul healing”), 3) rather than saying, “offered to all those who believe,” he spells out faith as “consent of the heart.” Very interesting.
Eric L. Johnson, Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2007), 33.
—————————–HT: Kingdom People——————————-