In today’s discussion of Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, I will mention the first of three things I must take issue with.
First, even beautiful exhortations to proclaim Christ can condemn the Christian and load him with heavy burdens.
Yes, there is no doubt that reading the encyclical can be an uplifting and inspiring experience. The heart of Christ bursts with mercy and kindness, Francis reminds us, and the joy of knowing Christ is for all persons, even as it if for us also. Good!
That said, the persistent exhortations to be more “completely mission oriented” (28), “permanently in a state of mission” (25) to always be “missionary disciples” (120), and even exhortations towards a “revolution of tenderness” may not only inspire, but also – unintentionally – mercilessly condemn. Francis warns of speaking “more about law than about grace” (38), but here is where it is likely that not a few reading his encyclical may realize a desperate need to hear a word of absolving grace personally applied. After all, there are times that the Christian, burdened by the ongoing presence of his old Adam, the weight of the world, and Satan’s attacks, is only going to hear in these exhortations that which he is not doing but should be doing – things that God in fact requires and even demands that he do.*
One practical effect of this is that it may well cause a believer to look to his works as the source of security in his relationship with God – instead of the words of forgiveness, life and salvation that bring true peace (Rom. 5:1). His good works become the actions that continually merit peace with God – by grace of course! In Francis’ letter, this viewpoint is easily reinforced from the quotes he mentions about the power of alms to atone for one’s sins, for example (he even uses the passage of “love covering over a multitude of sins” in this way** ….see this for a more helpful view of penance). Even more disturbing is the fact that many of the works Francis recommends are not those not in harmony with the Scriptures: devotion to Mary (mentioning her in the same breath as the Holy Spirit, 284-287), pilgrimages, rosaries (all mentioned in passing) and other misplaced popular piety (124-126)
Of course, at this point, I am simply getting into what has historically distinguished Lutherans from Catholics. No big mystery. So why approach things this way? The reason is that we all hear Christ’s words from the same Scriptures – and as faith comes by hearing the word, persons are indeed “interpreted” and formed by the Holy Spirit – no matter what their “denominational affiliation”. Here is the common ground! That said, there is also the reality that Satan aims to deceive us, tempt us, and lead us away from Christ. Here is where Lutherans insist that when the pope writes: “We have a treasure of life and love which cannot deceive, and a message which cannot mislead or disappoint“, we must, sadly, raise some concerns. For we truly believe that the words “treasure”, “message”, and even “evangelists” are in danger here of misleading and ultimately disappointing in God’s final judgment!
Back to Francis’ words. It is not at all clear that he discerns that his words may very well leave open the door of despair (or, alternatively, pride) to man: “The very mystery of the Trinity reminds us that we have been created in the image of that divine communion, and so we cannot achieve fullfillment or salvation purely by our own efforts.” (178) Ah, so my efforts do play a role here, one may logically conclude. Who, when examining their lives, cannot on occasion feel that the following statement is more true of them than not: “The message is one which we often take for granted, and can repeat almost mechanically, without necessarily ensuring that it has a real effect on our lives and in our communities.”
And here, Satan may well find his opening: “You know, how can you even be sure that you are really a Christian? What important (not necessarily in the eyes of the world of course!) works have you done lately? Do you not know that faith without works is dead?” As Pope Francis reminds us “even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14 – 152), and so these attacks may be very subtle indeed. That said, the effects of the attacks are not so subtle. As the Lutheran theologian David Lumpp puts it: “[in] the presence of Anfechtungen… Christ is obscured from view, and one appears to confront God directly and alone (and usually the Deus absconditus at that). The symptoms invariably accumulate and conspire. One’s status as peccator dwarfs the reality of iustus. One dwells on sin and law. One deems forgiveness a life – or at best a gift intended and real only for others. Mercy and grace seem nowhere to be found. Potentially, one despairs of salvation itself” (p. 87, First Things First: a primer in Lutheran theological prolegomena)
And during this attack, what is it that can raise the believer up in confidence again? To what or to whom should they look? What word or exhortation can give them the peace of knowing that they are in fact, really Christians? A word to do this or that? Or rather, a word like this:
“All your sins are forgiven you. Christ has removed them as far as the east from the west. Go in peace and serve the Lord!”
And as Luther says:
“For the words are easy; but in temptation [tentatione] it is the hardest thing possible [difficillium] to be surely persuaded [certo statuere] in our hearts that we have the forgiveness of sins and peace with God by grace alone, entirely apart from any other means in heaven and on earth…we must form the habit of leaving ourselves behind as well as the Law and all our works, which force us to pay attention to ourselves. We must turn our eyes completely to that bronze serpent, Christ nailed to the cross…” (LW 26: 27, 166-167, quoted in Lumpp, 126, 89)
‘Therefore the afflicted conscience has no remedy against despair and eternal death except to take hold of the promise of grace offered in Christ, that is, this righteousness of faith, this passive or Christian righteousness, which says with confidence [cum fiducia] ‘I do not seek active righteousness. I ought to have it and perform it; but I declare that even if I did have it and perform it, I cannot trust in it or stand up before the judgment of God on the basis of it. Thus I put myself beyond all active righteousness, all righteousness of my own or of the divine Law, and I embrace only that passive righteousness which is the righteousness of grace, mercy, and the forgiveness of sins.’ In other words, this is the righteousness of Christ and of the Holy Spirit, which we do not perform but receive [patimur], which we do not have but accept, when God the Father grants it to us through Jesus Christ.” (LW 26:5-6, quoted in Lumpp, 87, 88)
One might hope that men like Pope Francis would be eager to accept Martin Luther’s articulation of what it means to receive the absolving words of forgiveness here. Clearly Martin Luther did not believe in the message of grace at the expense of the law (antinomianism)! But sadly, this message of “justification” is precisely what the Council of Trent condemned and that condemnation has never been rescinded.“Lord have mercy” we pray.
*Francis does have some good words to share here, in the context of hearing what the Scriptures have to say to us:
“Another common temptation is to think about what the text means for other people, and so avoid applying it to our own life. It can also happen that we look for excuses to water down the clear meaning of the text. Or we can wonder if God is demanding too much of us, asking for a decision which we are not yet prepared to make. This leads many people to stop taking pleasure in the encounter with God’s word; but this would mean forgetting that no one is more patient than God our Father, that no one is more understanding and willing to wait. He always invites us to take a step forward, but does not demand a full response if we are not yet ready. He simply asks that we sincerely look at our life and present ourselves honestly before him, and that we be willing to continue to grow, asking from him what we ourselves cannot as yet achieve.” (153)
The law does condemn us entirely, but there are wise pastoral words here as well: the one broken in sins who is not trying to justify himself before God does not need the full condemning force of the law applied to him, even if he knows that God will ultimately have him fulfill the law to the uttermost (Romans 8:3-4).
** “The apostle James teaches that our mercy to others will vindicate us on the day of God’s judgment”(193).
From or around paragraph 197: “Almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin” (Tob 12:9). The idea is expressed even more graphically by Sirach “Water extinguishes blazing fire: so almsgiving atones for sin” (Sir 3:30). The same synthesis appears in the New Testament: “Maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8).
This truth greatly influenced the thinking of the Fathers of the Church and helped create a prophetic, counter-cultural resistance to the self-centred hedonism of paganism. We can recall a single example: “If we were in peril from fire, we would certainly run to water in order to extinguish the fire… in the same way, if a spark of sin flares up from our straw, and we are troubled on that account, whenever we have an opportunity to perform a work of mercy, we should rejoice, as if a fountain opened before so that the fire might be extinguished” (SaintAugustine, De Catechizandis Rudibus, I, XIX, 22: PL 40, 327).
“I was hungry and you gave me food to eat”, and he taught them that mercy towards all of these is the key to heaven (cf. Mt 25:5ff.).
Luther pic: cover of book by Heikio Oberman ; Passion of the Christ pics, Get Behind Me Satan – Wikipedia