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Forgiveness free and true: the crux of the Reformation, the essence of the Christian life

23 Nov

Cardinal Cajetan confronts Luther in the 2003 Luther movie

Follow-up to this post.

A few years after Luther’s death the Council of Trent said: “If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake… let him be anathema.”

The condemning of this view had been happening for a while. In fact, all of this is related to the beginnings of the Reformation (as I’m guessing Benedict has discerned as well). As a pastor, Luther was being told that he could not do confession and absolution the way he was doing it (which was the biblical way).

Here is something I wrote a while back that explains this:

“I heard this objection with grief, because I had misdoubted nothing less than that this matter would be called into question”. These were Martin Luther’s words following Cardinal Cajetan’s pronouncement towards Luther’s view of confession and absolution. Luther also said that he would not become a heretic by recanting the opinion that had made him a Christian, but that he would rather die and be burned, exiled, or cursed. Exsurge Domine, the bull written against Luther shortly after this, condemned this statement of Martin Luther: “By no means can you have reassurance of being absolved because of your contrition, but because of the word of Christ: ‘Whatsoever you shall loose, etc.’ Hence, I say, trust confidently, if you have obtained the absolution of the priest, and firmly believe yourself to have been absolved, and you will truly be absolved, whatever there may be of contrition.” One may make a strong case that, for Luther, the Reformation was primarily about this very matter. According to historian Scott Hendrix, after hearing Cajetan’s pronouncement on his view, Luther had determined that the question at stake was not merely the formal issue of authority in the church, but the essence of the Christian life and the heart of his own religious experience. Christians, of course, had always assumed that the ultimate reality of the universe is a rational Person who became in-fleshed among us and who communicates with people in the world using meaningful words. And for Luther, this communication in particular – the living voice of God which proclaimed, “I forgive you – be at peace my child” – was not to be silenced.

To receive these words like a child…

My footnotes to this remark:

“Although the controversy over Unigenitus clarified the already existing disagreement between Cajetan and Luther over papal authority and credibility, Cajetan’s second objection revealed a substantial difference which had serious consequences for Luther’s ensuing attitude towards the papacy. Luther had asserted that Christians approaching the sacrament of penance should not trust in their own contrition but in the words of Christ spoken by the priest in the absolution. If they believed in these words, then they could be certain of forgiveness, because these words were absolutely reliable, whereas the sufficiency of their contrition was never certain. In reply, Cajetan upheld the prevailing theological opinion: although it was true that contrition was never perfect, its presence still made one worthy to receive the grace conferred by the sacrament. Still, one could never be certain that one’s contrition was sufficient to effect the forgiveness one hoped to receive. To hold the contrary, said Cajetan, was to teach a new and erroneous doctrine and to “build a new church.”… “Part of the reason for Cajetan’s sharp reaction lay in the different concepts of faith which he and Luther espoused. For Cajetan, faith was one of the virtues infused with grace, and it entailed belief that the doctrine of penance itself was correct. For Luther, faith was not this general confidence in the correctness and power of the sacrament but “special faith” in the certain effect of the sacrament on the penitent Christian who trusted the word of Christ. Cajetan quickly perceived the difference but failed to appreciate Luther’s underlying concern. To him Luther’s “special faith” appeared to be a subjective human assessment which undermined the objective power of the keys at work through the pronouncement of absolution. It imposed a new condition on the efficacy of the sacrament beyond that most recently defined at the Council of Florence; therefore, Luther was again challenging an explicit decree of the church. Luther, however, was striving for just the opposite: to put the sacrament on a more objective basis. He was trying to remove the uncertain, subjective element of human contrition as a basis for the efficacy of the sacrament and to replace it with the objective, certain words of Christ pronounced in the absolution” (Hendrix, Scott, Luther and the Papacy, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1981, p. 62, italics mine).”

and

“What kind of church is the pope’s church? It is an uncertain, vacillating, and tottering church. Indeed, it is a deceitful, lying church, doubting and unbelieving, without God’s Word. For the pope with his keys teaches his church to doubt and to be uncertain… It is difficult enough for wretched consciences to believe. How can one believe at all if, to begin with, doubt is cast upon the object of one’s belief? Thereby doubt and despair are only strengthened and confirmed.” (Luther, 1530, quoted at the beginning of one of the chapters in Hendrix, Scott, Luther and the Papacy, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1981). This quote also from Luther: “There hasn’t been a more destructive teaching against repentance in the Church (with the exception of the Sadducees and the Epicureans) as that of Roman Catholicism. In that it never permitted the forgiveness of sins to be certain, it took away complete and true repentance. It taught that a person must be uncertain as to whether or not he stood before God in grace with his sins forgiven. Such certainty was instead to be found in the value of a person’s repentance, confession, satisfaction, and service in purgatory.” Luther, Martin. Antinomian Theses, Disputation #4, 1938 (translated by Pastor Paul Strawn) Minneapolis: Lutheran Press, Inc., 2005 (The whole book is available for free at: http://www.lutheranpress.com/

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10 Comments

Posted by on November 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

10 responses to “Forgiveness free and true: the crux of the Reformation, the essence of the Christian life

  1. Jonathan Brumley

    November 29, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    Hi Nathan,

    “If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ’s sake… let him be anathema.”

    What justifies is living faith, not just right belief. Living faith is a faith that takes root in your life and bears the fruit of charity.

    Jesus showed us this in the parable of the talents. The man given one talent certainly had confidence in what the master gave him. When the master returned, he dug up his talent and showed it to him as proof of having kept it safe. But, sadly, he did not receive what he had hoped. When the master found out what he had done with his talent, it was taken away from him.

    The talents given to us represent our unmerited initial justification, in grace. When we are baptized, we recieved a gift of God’s grace – faith, hope, and love, with which we are enabled to bear fruit. When we were baptized and our sins were forgiven due to Christ’s work on the cross. We can firmly believe that at that moment we were justified in His sight.

    But Trent condemned stopping here. The gift received in baptism as a gift is just as important as what we choose to do with the new life we have been given. The time comes in life where God gives us the grace to live out the grace we have been given. Most important of these gifts is the grace of charity. But, he doesn’t force us to love. He leaves us with the choice to love – or not to love. When we don’t love, our faith dies in our rejection of him.

    God does value what we do with the gift of grace which we receive! He values a faith that works through love. And when we fall, he values our choice to repent and return to Him. He values our suffering for Him, in which we give up our life for His will. He is just and therefore our final justification is based on what we did with the gift we received.

    Luther believed our sins were forgiven in baptism, and that nothing else we did in response to that gift mattered. If we continued in our old life without putting on Christ, oh well. If we returned to a life of mortal sin, oh well. But what Christian would live this way? Neither you or I would want to live this way. No Christian who perseveres in faith wants to. We want to do God’s will and be part of His plan of salvation for the world.

    But some do – they allow the weeds of the world to grow up and smother the seed of faith.

    To believe we are justified only based on our “confidence” is an incomplete gospel, and a foolish gospel. It denies that God continues to work through us to sanctify us, and it denies our free response to his enabling grace. Our faithful response further justifies us in His sight.

     
    • infanttheology

      November 29, 2011 at 5:34 pm

      Jonathan,

      If faith is not living, it is not truly right belief. There is a “right belief” as in having all the historical details down and stating what is true about God – this is something the demons have as well. It is not faith as Paul defines it, which is related to personal trust and dependence.

      “The man given one talent certainly had confidence in what the master gave him….The talents given to us represent our unmerited initial justification, in grace. ”

      I disagree, and am wondering where you get this interpretation from – I don’t think this is the point of the parable. We are talking apples and oranges again here.

      “God does value what we do with the gift of grace which we receive! He values a faith that works through love…”

      Yes.

      “And when we fall, he values our choice to repent and return to Him. He values our suffering for Him, in which we give up our life for His will…”

      Yes.

      “He is just and therefore our final justification is based on what we did with the gift we received.”

      Yes – insofar as we are still talking about faith (Romans 4). Have we kept the faith? (which naturally produces love for God)

      “Luther believed our sins were forgiven in baptism, and that nothing else we did in response to that gift mattered.”

      Wrong. Slander.

      If we continued in our old life without putting on Christ, oh well. If we returned to a life of mortal sin, oh well.”

      Wrong. Wrong. Slander.

      “But what Christian would live this way? Neither you or I would want to live this way. No Christian who perseveres in faith wants to. We want to do God’s will and be part of His plan of salvation for the world.”

      Jonathan, who in the world are you arguing with? This is Lutheran doctrine, echoing Paul’s “Shall we go on sinning?”. Luther said:

      “Faith, however, is a divine work in us that changes us and makes us be born anew of God. It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and power; it brings with it the Holy Spirit. O, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not be doing good works incessantly…. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever… Thus, it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire. [Treasury, pp. 961,2]”

      The fine pastor who just put this on his blog said: “that against certain well-known Roman polemics against Lutheranism, Luther’s words cited into today’s Treasury reading (and cited also in the Book of Concord) are simply priceless”

      He was prophetic.

      “But some do – they allow the weeds of the world to grow up and smother the seed of faith.”

      Right. We walk in danger all the way. Turn back to Him! Abide in Him! Remember you *are* baptized. Keep the faith.

      “To believe we are justified only based on our “confidence” is an incomplete gospel, and a foolish gospel.”

      As a good Lutheran, you are right. Read here: https://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2009/10/23/babies-in-church-part-vi-the-arrogance-of-the-infant-b/

      “…It denies that God continues to work through us to sanctify us….”

      You are wrong. We don’t teach this.

      “…and it denies our free response to his enabling grace.”

      No. See above. Once we’ve been converted initially, we do have free will.

      “Our faithful response further justifies us in His sight.”

      Right. Our faith. Keeping the faith. Not our love for God.

      +Nathan

      (this will be my last comment for a few days)

       
  2. Anonymous

    November 29, 2011 at 7:58 pm

    Jonathan,

    Whoops – though arrogance of the infant (b) covered it as well, I really wanted you to see this from (a):

    “Most serious-minded Lutherans insist that we simply cannot see the Church in terms of individuals who “find themselves to be united with one another”. At the same time, these serious Lutherans nevertheless seem to encourage – even require – the certain belief that one, as an individual, has saving faith (i.e., they are in a state of grace). Others? Only God ultimately knows.

    Can this be right? Is this the faith of a child?

    First of all, this presentation is not as nuanced as it should be: the belief that one has saving faith is really a form of reflective faith (faith thinking about itself, i.e. a believer’s conscious reflection on their belief) – this is inherently unstable, due to the persistence of original sin (for we never believe as trustingly as we should, and hence, reflection will lead to accusation by the law!), not the basic, simple, child-like, direct faith that actually trusts and grasps Jesus Christ’s promise of forgiveness, life, and salvation in real time. Believers are first and foremost certain in regards to the life-giving Promise God continually gives them in His great mercy – in spite of their sin (i.e. “Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be”). In other words, children – even infants – simply receive this confidence and surety sans reflection: it is a “pre-rational trust”.”

     
    • Jonathan Brumley

      November 29, 2011 at 11:32 pm

      Hi Nathan,

      I’m sorry if I misrepresented Luther. I was trying to show what I think this Trentian doctrine was trying to condemn, rather than accuse Luther of something he didn’t believe. The council may have thought that Luther believed a faith without works does justify. Which he didn’t believe, as you say. It could very well be that Trent was condemning a straw man’s faith, or a common misrepresentation of Luther’s gospel.

      Rather than continuing to misrepresent Luther, I will attempt to study his version of the gospel in an attempt to understand what you believe.

      Would you say what is shown in the Joint Declaration on Justification fairly represents your belief and Luther’s?

      http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/documents/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_31101999_cath-luth-joint-declaration_en.html

      I have skimmed what it says about Catholic belief and it matches my understanding pretty well. Dr. Feingold says it better in his lectures, but the summary here is pretty good.

      I like this document because it explains the different beliefs including their similarities and differences. The differences are very subtle, so I think it will take longer to understand than I expect.

      Your suggestion of a break seems like a good one. The polemic here has gotten pretty rough and I have been distracted from work.

      If you are worried about my becoming Catholic and denying what you believe is “right belief” then I will say, don’t worry about that. I made a profession of faith a couple weeks ago, so if it is “denying the gospel” that you are worried about, then it is already done.

      My hope is that God will justify me based on _living_ faith, rather than a faith that is 100% correct.

      Even though I will be in “full communion” with the Catholic Church after this weekend, that does not mean I am opposed to being corrected.

      I believe you to be my brother in Christ despite the terrible events that led to our schism 500 years ago. (And don’t worry, the catechism allows me to believe this).

      I’ll try to tone down my posts here, but I will continue to follow your posts.

      If I decide to become Lutheran, I’ll let you know! 🙂

      Jonathan

       
  3. infanttheology

    November 29, 2011 at 11:52 pm

    Jonathan,

    Yes – a break would be good. You can always come back later. : )

    “The council may have thought that Luther believed a faith without works does justify. Which he didn’t believe, as you say.”

    No, he did believe that faith justifies apart from works, but would say that no one would be saved who was not sanctified.

    “It could very well be that Trent was condemning a straw man’s faith, or a common misrepresentation of Luther’s gospel.”

    I don’t think Trent understood much really. Of course, I think it is a greater struggle to understand all the nuances of RC dogma (Feingold is a gem, but even this great popularizer can’t make what is fundamentally very hard to grasp easy : ) ).

    “Would you say what is shown in the Joint Declaration on Justification fairly represents your belief and Luther’s?”

    No – the LCMS and those Lutherans in fellowship with us think this document is fundamentally misleading, as it never defines the vocabulary used. Read Justification and Rome by Robert Preuss. I’ll also give you some more info (condensed) below.

    “My hope is that God will justify me based on _living_ faith, rather than a faith that is 100% correct.”

    Always. Nevertheless, pure doctrine is important!

    Jonathan, it has been a real pleasure. Thank you for the very interesting discussion. God bless you.

    +Nathan

     
  4. infanttheology

    November 29, 2011 at 11:54 pm

    Jonathan,

    Here is what I wrote Dave Armstrong as regards justification:

    “David, you say:

    “…what can Chemnitz offer us by way of patristic testimony for the soteriology of Lutheranism, with its novelties of imputed justification, faith alone (sola fide), assurance of one-time justification and salvation, and formal separation of justification and sanctification.”

    Chemnitz:

    And we confess that we are greatly confirmed by the testimonies of the ancient church . . . Nor do we approve of it if someone invents for himself a meaning which conflicts with all antiquity, and for which there are clearly no testimonies of the church. (pp. 208-209)… We confess also that we disagree with those who invent opinions which have no testimony from any period in the church . . . We also hold that no dogma [I say: note the word “dogma” – this is key] that is new in the churches and in conflict with all antiquity should be accepted. What could be more honorably said and thought concerning the consensus and the testimonies of antiquity? . . . we search out and quote the testimonies of the fathers . . . (p. 258)

    Is Chemnitz right?

    David, first, I agree with you that it is not right to take “grace alone” quotes and use them as if Catholics do not affirm grace alone in some sense (we must acknowledge our different definitions of grace here). Agreed. If, however, in any quote grace is put in opposition to works it would certainly be appropriate to use such quotes.

    Second, if the Fathers did not perceive a clear challenge to the idea that a person was saved by grace alone and not “one’s own works performed in righteousness” in the early church, we would not really expect to find explicit statements talking about imputed justification, since they would have been unnecessary. Analogously, Cyril of Alexandria’s ideas about Christ’s divine and human nature were somewhat “new” (a new way of putting things) and only implicit in the writings of other early church fathers – not to mention few and far between. To my knowledge, in the early fathers there is no “explicit” Cyril-like talk about Christ’s divine and human nature in the centuries before him (much like the situation with Luther and his understanding of the peace and confidence-creating power of justification). The only difference here would be that Cyril’s new way of putting old truth (and Athanasius’ to, by the way) found wide acceptance among the faithful (though we see many break-offs here at this point as well), in a relatively speedy fashion, whereas with Luther, he was taken up quickly only in some quarters, with the lion’s share of the work to still be done, as the devil fights against this doctrine of justification with everything he has. Now, to preach justification rightly, one needs to take into account the purpose of the Word to comfort sinners and bring them real peace with God (Rom. 5:1, I John 5:12), and this brings us to the next three points….

    Third, the doctrine of “Faith alone” (found in the fathers and the Scriptures, insofar as Paul places faith and works in opposition) is really useful when people do not feel like they have done enough – we do preach works, but for the purposes of pastoral comfort, we must acknowledge that the idea of “faith alone” (see Romans 4:5 and Romans 7 here especially) is a crucial tool to have in the pastor’s tool box. Justification is a one-time event in that it begins at a point in time, but it is to be applied perpetually until we die. We need the constant reassurance and actual forgiveness of God in Christ applied to us throughout our Christian lives. We need to know that we do have, in some very real sense, peace with God, as Romans says. Otherwise, our faith dies. Chemnitz says this well: “God does not confer and convey grace in this life just once, so that it is at once complete and perfect, so that as long as we are in this life God would will and convey nothing more, and that a person would need to receive nothing more from God; but God is always giving and man is always receiving, in order that we may be joined more and more fully and perfectly to Christ, and may hold the forgiveness of sins or reconciliation more firmly, so that the benefits of redemption, which have been begun in us, may be preserved and strengthened and may grow and increase.” – Examen II: 76,77.

    Fourth, Lutherans believe in giving people the confidence of faith, but also talk about how you can lose your faith (we are not Calvinists) – there is nothing un-Lutheran about saying that “we walk in danger all the way”, and that we must strive *in faith* (faith has a passive and active element) to continuously cling to Christ, huddle up next to His side (where He is we will also be) as His sheep, and run to Him to repeatedly hear is life-giving words, etc. Again, if we do not, our faith dies.

    Fifth, when it comes to the life of the believer, we simply do not believe in a separation of justification and sanctification. The simple child who lives in a relationship with God does not need to distinguish between justification and sanctification – they simply live as His child, and insofar as they are saints, they eagerly hear His voice and do what He commands (I once wrote the following: “The complicated systematic, theological / philosophical constructs that [we often depend on], though certainly able to influence the experiences of the few who think in their grooves, primarily derive from and serve to make sense of the general experiences of all believers, simple and sophisticated alike. Simple words which even children can understand shape Christian experience and are the foundation of the deeper systematic and theological / philosophical constructs, which also, certainly, serve useful purposes.”) They happily and freely acknowledge that even though they are saved *by faith*, at the final judgment the Judge will judge them *according to works* before their neighbors. They learn that those who are tempted to stray from His ways and do may, at some point in the future, no longer desire His forgiveness for their wanderings – and hence, no longer desire Him. Further, there is no doubt that it is true that no one who is not sanctified will be saved, as Luther himself indicated. We believe in *distinguishing* between justification and sanctification only because Rome’s understanding of it was so faulty and destroyed good pastoral practice (see above).”

    I hope this helps.

    +Nathan

     
  5. Nathaniel

    January 14, 2012 at 9:03 pm

    Nathan,
    Just noticed an older post at Called to Communion, relevant to your discussion of whether contrition is the focus for the penitent. It’s about whether faith is the focus for the believer, and it points out good common ground between Catholics and Lutherans. In case you haven’t seen it: http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/04/persevering-most-assuredly-one-reason-to-prefer-luther-over-calvin/

    I’d be interested to hear if you think it is a fair portrayal, and if it does indeed reveal common ground.
    –Nathaniel

     
  6. infanttheology

    January 17, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    Nathaniel,

    Thanks – I’ve read it and its discussed a bit in my conversation with Andrew at C2C on his Aquinas and assurance post.

    Its an amazing post. I’ve never seen stuff like this from RCs before. The thing is – I do think there is common ground. I just think that “official” RC teaching mitigates that common ground. Some, like Andrew, disagree – but I think that’s just wishful thinking on his part.

    Regards,
    Nathan

     
  7. Nathaniel

    December 9, 2012 at 11:58 pm

    Nathan,
    Happy Advent!
    What is “confession and absolution the way he [Luther] was doing it” — I don’t think I have a good understanding of what that looked like. And what does it look like it LCMS practice today — is it liturgical? Again, I’d like to know more about what Lutheran confession looks like.
    In Christ,
    Nathaniel

     
  8. infanttheology

    December 10, 2012 at 2:14 pm

    Nathaniel,

    Thanks so much my friend! To you as well.

    In most LC-MS and churches there is corporate confession and absolution.

    Private confession, where there are good pastors, is not required among the people but encouraged. The point is to comfort penitent sinners with the message that God’s forgiveness puts them at peace – and security – with Him.

    Here is how it was done in Luther’s day, and generally still in ours: http://bookofconcord.org/smallcatechism.php#confession

    For much more detail, see the shows with Rast (most recent) and the late Ken Korby: http://issuesetc.org/tag/confession-and-absolution/

    Very rich and detailed. In the Rast program it talks about the history of the practice in our church body.

    +Nathan

     

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