Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
The Pope Clarified Luther's "Idea of Justification"?
11/24/2008 - James SwanA few people sent me this link, Pope Clarifies Luther's Idea of Justification (Says It's True, if Faith Is Not Opposed to Love). It's a review of statements made by the Pope on November 18, 2008. This means we're reading what someone heard Pope Benedict XVI say, rather than reading an entire context of exactly what was stated. I mention this because as I read through the link, I was left with more questions about exactly what the Pope meant than definitive papal statements of clarification on either justification or Luther. I wondered if the Pope actually spoke in such ambiguity or if the reviewer simply put down "the gist" of what he heard.
Running through the entire article is the phrase "works of the law." Typical Roman Catholic theology interprets Paul's use of the term "law" to mean "ceremonial law." The Pope's reported statements would concur. The Pope stated Paul's understanding of "law" is the "collection of behaviors extending from an ethical foundation to the ritual and cultural observances that substantially determined the identity of the just man -- particularly circumcision, the observance regarding pure food and general ritual purity, the rules regarding observance of the Sabbath, etc." But Paul actually uses the general term "works" rather than "works of the law." By limiting Paul's meaning to "ceremonial law" Roman Catholic theology is then able to promote some other kind of law required for salvation. This understand is contrary to both Paul and Luther. Neither limited the law to the ceremonial law. Both saw that any so-called particular righteous deed, inclination, or behavior that one assumes can contribute to justification is in actuality a worthless act. [for an excellent overview of Paul's understanding of "law" as opposed to "works of the law," see Dr. White's book, The God Who Justifies, pp. 181-184].
For Luther, justification was actually totally of works, but those works were perfect and performed by the perfect savior, Jesus Christ. These works are acquired by faith, imputed to the sinner. Luther says,
"[I]f you desire to believe rightly and to possess Christ truly, then you must reject all works that you intend to place before and in the way of God. They are only stumbling blocks, leading you away from Christ and from God. Before God no works are acceptable but Christ's own works. Let these plead for you before God, and do no other work before him than to believe that Christ is doing his works for you and is placing them before God in your behalf."
According to the link, these "works of the law" merely served to distinguish Israel from the pagans. But now, being "in Christ" distinguishes Christians from such people. The "works of the law" therefore are no longer needed. The Pope then states "To be just means simply to be with Christ and in Christ. And this suffices. Other observances are no longer necessary." This is one of the puzzling ambiguous statements offered in the link. It doesn't clarify at all what it means to be justified. How is one "in Christ"? Isn't it by the sacraments in Catholic theology? Isn't this a type of "observance"? Isn't Rome merely substituting one set of observances for another? This understanding is contrary to both Paul and Luther. Luther stated, "Only faith justifies; the Mass, purgatory, monastic vows, and all things fall."
After this discussion, the article finally gets around to Luther. It doesn't put forth any definition of Luther's understanding of justification or what is meant by "faith alone." It simply states:
And it is because of this, the Bishop of Rome continued, that Luther's expression "by faith alone" 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."
"Paul knows," he added, "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."
First, Luther's understanding of justification was never opposed to charity or love. This seems to be the typical Catholic misapprehension about justification by faith alone, that is, if faith alone saves, one is given a licence to sin. Paul answers for Luther in Ephesians 2:10, "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God afore prepared that we should walk in them." Faith performs good works, not to keep one justified, but out of heartfelt gratitude to God graciousness. Luther never saw faith alone opposed to serving the neighbor in love and charity. Luther stated, "We receive Christ not only as a gift by faith, but also as an example of love toward our neighbor, whom we are to serve as Christ serves us. Faith brings and gives Christ to you with all his possessions. Love gives you to your neighbor with all your possessions."
Second, the Pope offers this definition of faith alone: "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." This is another ambiguous statement that most would simply pass by with agreement. Trent states that "Faith is the beginning of human salvation, the foundation and root of all justification." One therefore has to question exactly what the Pope means. Does he mean only to describe the beginning of the process of salvation, or does he mean that clinging to Christ and His perfect work imputed to a sinner by faith alone is the sole means of justification? Does the Pope mean that faith linked to a process of being "conformed to Christ" will result in possible everlasting peace with God, or does he stand with Luther in proclaiming that a sinner viewed through Christ's perfect work stands righteous before God now and forever?
Third, the article states, "Paul knows," he added, "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."
Again, ambiguous statements. Is it the duty of the Christian to perfectly fulfil "the double love of God and neighbor" in order to eventually achieve everlasting justification? Does one have to go through a process of fulfilling this "whole law" by maintaining communion with Christ? Are we only just "when we enter into communion with Christ" through baptism or the sacraments, only to have this state taken away by a sinful action? Jesus tells us he came to fulfill the law and prophets (Matthew 5:17). That is, the only one who has ever perfectly fulfilled "the double love of God and neighbor" is Christ Jesus, and "through Him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses (Acts 13:39). Luther would have nothing to do with a process of eventual salvation:
"St. Paul teaches everywhere that justification does not result from works but from faith alone, that it does not come in installments but all at once. For the 'testament' comprises everything: justification, salvation, the inheritance, and our most prized possession. Through faith it is enjoyed all at once, in order to make it perfectly clear that no work but faith alone affords such blessings of God as justification and salvation, and that faith makes us children and heirs at once and not in piecemeal manner, as good works must be performed. As children and heirs we then freely perform all manner of good works without anything of that menial spirit which presumes to become pious and meritorious by such service. Merit is unnecessary. Faith gives everything gratuitously, gives more indeed than anyone can merit" [What Luther Says, Volume II (St Louis: Concordia Publishing, 1959) p. 710].
So did the Pope clarify Luther's idea of justification? Well, if the article accurately put forth the Pope's statements, he did not. Rather, he used ambiguous language and didn't even scratch the surface of what Luther meant by "faith alone." Perhaps the Pope only meant to demonstrate that "faith alone" is not a rejection of Ephesians 2:10. This would be a helpful clarifying statement for Roman Catholics, many of whom think that "faith alone" equals eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. For an overview of Luther's understanding of the relationship between faith and works, see my paper, A Look at Justification By Faith Alone and Good Works in Luther's Theology.