In my last two posts, we considered the issue of salvation, as it is understood from both the Catholic and Protestant positions. From the Catholic perspective, salvation consists in being made a sharer in God’s own life, and by this gift or grace, man is justified, or made right, in the eyes of God. From the Protestant perspective, God’s grace is not something that justifies man interiorly, rather it is God’s declaration of justification. In other words, God declares man to be justified, apart from any real interior justification of the soul. Today, we will consider the reason for the Protestant position. At the end of this week, we will consider the foundation for the Catholic answer.
The reason for the difference between the Protestant position and that which the Catholic Church has traditionally given is rooted in the confused spirituality of Martin Luther. Luther, a Catholic monk, struggled with the problem of scrupulosity; a problem which led him to a distorted view of salvation. As a good monk, Martin Luther examined his conscience continually, always seeking to root out any sins which may have been lurking in the darkest parts of his soul. By his own account, Luther tells us, “I was a pious monk, and so strictly followed the Rule of my Order, that I dare say if ever any man could have been saved by monkery, I was that monk. I was a monk in earnest…. If it had continued much longer, I should have carried my mortifications even to death, by means of watchings, prayers, readings, and other labours.”1 For Luther, dedication to prayer and penance became an obsession, and drew him to sacramental Confession and extraordinary penances more and more frequently. According to some accounts, Luther sought out sacramental confession daily, and on one occasion Martin Luther is said to have spent six hours confessing his sins. Exhausted with Luther’s extreme scrupulosity, his confessor finally exclaimed: “God is not angry with you. You are angry with God.”2
At the root of Martin Luther’s problem, which led him to his revolutionary view of salvation, was a confused understanding of sin. Feeling within himself a struggle between virtue and vice, Luther began to see his disordered appetites as formal sins. In other words, when Martin Luther examined his conscience, he identified not only his disordered actions as sinful, but even the urges which were the foundation for his actions. Seeing within himself a disordered appetite, that which the Church calls concupiscence, Luther declared that in every action, he sinned, since in every action some struggle for virtue was to be found.
A helpful way to understand Luther’s confusion is to consider the case of a former smoker. Even many years after a former smoker has quit the habit, it is common for him to have urges which incline him toward smoking. No one in their right mind would consider these urges themselves to be equivalent to smoking, any more than one who has them can be called a smoker. Similarly, tradition has always considered disordered desire, or concupiscence, one of the effects of original sin, to be the “tinder” for sin, but not sin itself. Martin Luther, however, who saw concupiscence as sin, declared that in every action, man sins. “When I was a monk,” Luther wrote, “I used immediately to believe that it was all over with my salvation every time I experienced the concupiscence of the flesh…. I used to try various remedies; I used to go to confession every day, but that didn’t help me at all. For this concupiscence of the flesh was always returning, so that I could never find peace, but was everlastingly tormented with the thought, ‘You have committed such and such a sin; …and all your good works are just useless.”3
Believing that he sinned in every act, Luther concluded that God had not justified man interiorly, but rather declared him free from divine wrath, regardless of the true state of his soul. Seeing all of his actions as tainted by sin, and yet believing that God had saved him, Luther concluded that a man’s works could not be a determining factor in his salvation. Thus, Luther declared, “Be a sinner and sin on bravely, but have stronger faith and rejoice in Christ, who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. Do not for a moment imagine that this life is the abiding place of justice: sin must be committed. To you it ought to be sufficient that you acknowledge the Lamb that takes away the sins of the world, the sin cannot tear you away from him, even though you commit adultery a hundred times a day and commit as many murders.”4 Please continue reading later this week.
1 Msgr. Patrick O’Hare, The Facts about Luther, P. 50, TAN, Rockford, Illinois, revised ed., republished 1987.
2 Philip Hughes, A Popular History of the Reformation, revised ed., P. 95, Image Books, New York, 1960.
3 John A. O’Brien, Martin Luther, The Priest who Founded Protestantism, P. 8-9, The Paulist Press, New York, 1953.
4 The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume IX. 1910. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Quoting Enders, Briefwechsel, III, 208.