In the heat the Reformation, Luther said some very damning things about Rome:
“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, italics mine).
Or try this one:
“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/)
Was Luther right for being so harsh in his assessment? What does Rome say about this issue today?
Officially speaking, Rome offers up Joan of Arc for our consideration in its most recent catechism:
“…according to the Lord’s words “Thus you will know them by their fruits” – reflection on God’s blessings in our life and in the lives of the saints offers us a guarantee that grace is at work in us and spurs us on to an ever greater faith and an attitude of trustful poverty.
A pleasing illustration of this attitude is found in the reply of St. Joan of Arc to a question posed as a trap by her ecclesiastical judges: “Asked if she knew that she was in God’s grace, she replied: ‘If I am not, may it please God to put me in it; if I am, may it please God to keep me there.'”58 (see here)
I’d say that is a very clever answer! Presumably – this is the model we are to remember and live by. Historically speaking, one of the ways the powers-that-were thought they could prove Joan was a heretic (evidently) was by finding out whether she thought that she really had forgiveness, life and salvation, or as the Roman Catholics would say, that she was in a “state of grace”.
Up until the recent past, this kind of attitude would have been labeled the “sin of presumption” – Roman Catholics knew that to be a strong Christian actually meant that you doubted whether you yourself were saved. For example, right around the same time that Luther nailed the 95 theses to the Church doors in Wittenberg, the theologian Johann Altenstaig (in his Vocabularius theologiae, Hagenau 1517) was saying that the devil led people astray by making them think there was good evidence for being saved. “No one, no matter how righteous he may be”, Altenstaig said, “can know with certainty that he is in the state of grace, except by a revelation”. Likewise, Cardinal Cajetan, a few weeks before confronting Luther at Augsburg, wrote that “Clearly almost all come to the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist in reverent fear of the Lord and uncertain of being in grace. In fact theologians praise their continuing uncertainty and ordinarily attribute its opposite to presumption or ignorance” (both quotes from Cajetan Responds, a footnote from p. 269 and p. 66)
However, nowadays, among some Roman Catholic apologists the definition of this “sin of presumption” seems to have narrowed quite a bit! I think that we can readily understand why this is the case. If you are trying to appeal to evangelical Christians, for example, telling them they can’t be certain that they are in a stable and secure relationship with God is not a winning argument. As such, several RC apologists now, distinguishing between different kinds of “certainties” (see here to see how they approach this) will say that the certainty of one’s current status before God need not always be in doubt (see here, for an example of this)
I can understand this impulse, because it clearly is a biblical one. One needs only to look at undeniable passages like Romans 5:1 and I John 5:12. The only problem is, as best I can tell, is that they are rewriting their history. Early on, the great Scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas had said that certainty of one’s “state of grace” was at best “conjecture” (i.e. only “guesswork” due to inconclusive or incomplete evidence – hence the reason this was a good way to nail Joan). When Cardinal Cajetan, in his meeting with Luther in 1518 essentially told him that one could never be sure “one’s contrition was sufficient to effect the forgiveness one hoped to receive” (Hendrix, Scott, Luther and the Papacy, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1981, p. 62), Luther – amazed at this position – never looked back. When the Pope backed up Cajetan’s views when he condemned Luther in Exsurge Domine, nothing more was needed to convince the Reformer that he was dealing with the Antichrist.
Related posts: https://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2011/12/19/knowledge-first-and-foremost-baby-king-david-vs-adult-st-thomas/ ; https://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2011/11/03/reformation-history-what-would-you-have-done/ ; https://infanttheology.wordpress.com/2011/11/23/forgiveness-free-and-true-the-crux-of-the-reformation-the-essence-of-the-christian-life/