My daughter Blythe was four or five at the time. We were sitting at the table eating breakfast when I decided to introduce her to the cosmological argument for God’s existence.
“Sweetie,” I began, “can you tell me where bacon comes from?”
“Pigs,” she answered.
I continued, “And where do pigs come from?”
Again, her response was effortless: “From God.”
So far, so good.
At this point I leaned forward and put the twist on her brain: “And where does God come from, sweetie?”
Now, I suppose there are some parents out there who would have attempted at this point to explain what “equivocation” means and then the precise sort of equivocation involved in answering that last question as Blythe had answered it. “Honey, when I used the word from, I didn’t mean…”
Not me. Her demeanor was so relaxed and confident; she was so obviously pleased with having known the answer that I just broke out laughing.
Clarity before Argument
But I love clarity. And when it comes to issues of the faith, sometimes I think I spend most of my conscious hours working on this one thing.
What I want to do in this post is seek clarity. If I make an argument, it will (almost) be by accident. My goal is more modest: It is to describe in simple terms how Catholicism thinks about the doctrine of “justification”, how Luther came to think about it, and how the two ways of thinking differ. Not in detail but in simple terms.
Clarity before argument. If I succeed, you can chalk it up to the extensive practice I’ve received raising a daughter who thinks God comes from Jerusalem, and conversing almost daily with five grandchildren, none of whom ever make one single lick of sense.
Speaking of torment…
The Tormented Monk
We begin our story in Germany in the early 16th century in the cell of an unhappy Augustinian monk.
Although Martin Luther had entered the monastery, become a Catholic priest, earned a doctorate in theology and become a professor of Scripture at the University of Wittenberg, he could not find peace with God.
Actually, this is an understatement.
Luther lived in such a state of spiritual depression and, often, despair that he admitted to having “hated” the God he believed he could not please, no matter how hard he tried.
And apparently, he tried. In the monastery Luther would fast for days without a crumb of food. He would throw off the blankets from his bed and nearly freeze himself to death as a spiritual discipline.
He later described this time: “I was a good monk and I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his ‘monkery’, it was I. All my brothers in the monastery who knew me will bear me out. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other works.”
Essentially, Luther believed he had to work to make himself worthy of salvation. But the more he worked, the more his conscience tormented him: Have you done enough? Have you fasted enough? Have you prayed enough? Is God pleased with you? No matter what he did, for Luther God was always an angry, impossible-to-please father.
Not everyone seems to have felt as Luther felt about God. In fact, Luther’s good friend, confessor and mentor Johann von Staupitz, vicar general of the Augustinian order at the time, loved God and appears to have done everything he could to convince Luther of God’s love for him.
Staupitz was exasperated by Luther’s continual spiritual depression and on one occasion is known to have blurted out in frustration, “Man, God is not angry with you. It is you who are angry with God!”
And Luther was angry with God. Later in life, he wrote: “I was more than once driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him!”
So how did Luther find peace with God?
It was by coming to a new way of looking at what it means to be “justified” in Christ, a new conception of the nature of justification.
Justification as a Process
In Catholic teaching “justification” had always been taken to refer to the entire process by which those who trust in Christ are made internally righteous and fit for heaven. It included the forgiveness of sins, but it also included regeneration (the new birth) as well as our being sanctified and conformed to the image of Christ. “Justification” was the theological term used to describe the whole thing.
Now, it was understood that all of this — even the “good works” we perform along the path of sanctification — was a work of God’s grace.
After all, what had God promised through the prophets when he spoke of the New Covenant he would make with his people? “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes…” (Ezekiel 36:26-27).
Justification was understood to be God’s work, a work of God’s grace.
At the same time, it was never conceived as something that takes place mechanically and without our involvement. Rather, we must “cooperate” with God’s grace in the work of our being made fit for heaven. God gives us new hearts of flesh. He gives us the Holy Spirit. God provides a way for us to be forgiven and washed and stood on our feet again whenever we fall.
But we have to want this, and we have to persevere in wanting this.
And so the author of Hebrews, to take one example, warns Christians of the danger of becoming entangled in sin and “falling away from the living God” (Hebrews 4:12), in effect ceasing to want God’s mercy. He reminds them that they will “share in Christ if only [they] hold [their] first confidence firm to the end (Hebrews 3:14) and admonishes them to strive after holiness “without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14).
Anyway, this is how Catholics think about the doctrine of justification.
Now, it’s hard to know exactly what Luther believed about all this when he was a Catholic. What is clear is that he had a hard time with the idea that his salvation was dependent in any way on his free cooperation with grace, on what he did or didn’t do in the way trusting obedience, keeping himself from becoming entangled in sin, striving after holiness.
Because of how deeply sinful Luther felt himself to be, any passage of Scripture commanding him to do anything was essentially a passage preaching condemnation and little else.
Justification as a Legal Declaration
So how did Luther find peace?
A key event occurred in 1515 while lecturing through St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Luther was meditating on Paul’s statement in Rom 1:16,17 that in the gospel “the righteous of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.'”
He had always thought that the phrase “the righteousness of God” referred in Scripture to the “strict justice” by which God would judge the world and punish sinners. And since he knew himself to be a miserable sinner, he was terrified by those words and “hated” to hear them.
But as Luther mulled them over again and again, suddenly the thought came to him like a flash of bright light from heaven: The righteousness of God that is revealed in the gospel, it dawned on Luther, it isn’t the strict justice by which God will judge sinners; rather it’s the righteousness God gives to those who simply believe. Justification is a gift received “sola fide” – by faith alone!
Describing this event, Luther later wrote: “Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the ‘righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet…. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven…”
OK, great, but Catholicism also taught that justification was a gift. So is the difference between the two simply the “faith alone” part?
No, and this is crucial: Luther’s key “insight” (which I will argue was his crucial error) was not about how one receives justification (whether by faith alone or some other way) but about how one defines justification, about how one understands what justification is. Rather than understanding justification to refer to the entire process by which we are “made righteous” (the Catholic view) Luther came to understand justification as referring to a legal transaction that takes place the instant one believes and by which we are “accounted” as righteous in God’s sight.
As Luther came to see it, the moment we believe, our sins are “credited” to Christ’s account (think legal transaction) and Christ’s own perfect righteousness is “credited” to our account (think legal transaction). His righteousness is “imputed” to us and from that moment we are “reckoned” or “accounted” to be as righteous as Christ himself.
Luther referred to this as the “glorious exchange”. This was Luther’s revolutionary idea.
Now, what this meant was that from the instant Luther had looked to Christ in faith and this glorious exchange had taken place, in terms of his “legal standing” before God, justification was a “done deal”. He was saved. Christ’s righteousness covered him and all his sinfulness like snow covering a dunghill. When God looked at him, from that moment, he saw only Christ.
It’s no wonder, then, that with this discovery, peace flooded Luther’s soul. No more need to struggle against sin. No more need to strive after holiness. No more need to fast and pray and perform acts of contrition. No more need to even think of justification as something to be achieved.
Only believe. Christ’s righteousness will be imputed to you and your justification will be an accomplished fact. Past tense.
Two Thought Experiments
In our next post we’re going to see how crucially important Luther believed – and Protestants since have believed – this “legal” understanding of justification to be. For now, I leave those of you who may be wondering how in the world such a fine theological distinction could have any practical import with two thought experiments:
(1) Imagine you believe that justification is a process and that your free cooperation with grace is essential to whether or not you will enter heaven. How are you going to tend to respond when you read a passage of Scripture calling you to “strive after… holiness without which no one will see the Lord“ (Hebrews 12:14)?
(2) Now, imagine you believe instead that justification is a legal transaction that took place the moment you first believed in Christ ten or twenty or thirty years ago, and that your salvation is a settled issue? How are you going to tend to respond to that same passage?