Reformation 500: Luther vs. the Protestants

Indeed, the most serious challenges in Luther’s theology may be to the Protestant tradition.

• Phillip Cary

• • •

In this month of commemorating the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, you would do well to check out the interesting article at First Things by Phillip Cary, Scholar-in-Residence at the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University: Luther at 500.

Cary’s claim is that Protestants as well as Catholics have a lot to learn from Martin Luther, but, surprisingly, he suggests that Protestants may have more to learn than their Roman brethren.

In particular, he argues that we cannot truly understand Luther and what “justification by faith” meant to him without a sacramental perspective. “Protestant theology needs a Catholic notion of sacrament in order to carry out its deepest intention, which is to put faith in the Gospel of Christ alone,” he writes.

As Protestant theology has developed since Luther, it has moved far from the understanding that God saves us through objective, external means of grace, and not through some decision we make or experience we have. Cary calls this “faith in Christ, not faith in faith.”

For Luther, we must believe that we are Christians because Christ said so in our baptism, not because we have made a decision or had a conversion experience or done something to make ourselves into believers. If asked whether we are truly Christians, the answer Luther teaches us to give is simply “Yes, I am baptized.”

This is why we need the ongoing ministry of the sacraments along with the Word. Through them we hear the gospel promise regularly. We remember our baptism daily and celebrate it afresh with each new child or convert welcomed into God’s family. At the Lord’s Table, we hear Christ say to us every week, “This is my body given for you, this is my blood shed for you,” and in his body and blood we receive ongoing forgiveness and renewal as we encounter our Savior in communion.

Another important thing Protestants can recover from Luther, according to Phillip Cary, is a fuller, more robust and life-changing understanding of “justification.” In Protestant theology, justification is a forensic declaration — my sins are no longer counted against me, and I am judged to have a righteous standing before God.

However, Cary notes that Luther actually saw justification as theosis, not mere forensic standing.

What is often overlooked by later Protestant theology is that Christ’s righteousness is the righteousness of God. Recently a strong Finnish tradition of Luther scholarship has repaired this oversight and drawn the appropriate conclusion: that Luther’s teaching about union with Christ, followed by the wondrous exchange in which Christ shares with us every good thing that is his, implies a doctrine of deification. For the goods he shares with us include all that is divine in him, in which we participate—as the Church Fathers say—not by nature but by grace. In Luther’s terms, every divine gift is ours in Christ, who is ours by faith alone.

We are justified because by faith we are united to Christ as wife to husband, and because we are joined to him, everything that belongs to him becomes ours. In the words of David Bentley Hart, we must not think of justification

…in that rather feeble and formal way many Christians have habitually thought of it at various periods in the Church’s history: as some sort of forensic exoneration accompanied by a ticket of entry into an Elysian aftermath of sun-soaked meadows and old friends and consummate natural beatitude. Rather, salvation meant nothing less than being joined to the living God by the mediation of the God-man Himself, brought into living contact with the transfiguring glory of the divine nature, made indeed partakers of the divine nature itself (2 Peter 1:4) and co-heirs of the Kingdom of God. In short, to be saved was—is—to be “divinized” in Christ by the Spirit. In the great formula of St. Irenaeus (and others), “God became man that man might become god.”

This is at the heart of what makes possible what the Augsburg calls “the new obedience” of the Christian. United with Christ, we rise with him into newness of life and the faith which joins us to him frees us to love our neighbor. Freed from the reign of sin and death, united with Christ and therefore endowed with all that belongs to him, I am freed to love and practice good works in the world.

This challenges Protestants who impose a Law-Grace-Law model upon God’s people. Taught that they are saved by grace, many Christians are then plunged back beneath rules and expectations by which their relationship with God is judged.

We later Protestants have a lot to learn from Luther.

30 thoughts on “Reformation 500: Luther vs. the Protestants

  1. Is that anything like the French Revolution’s “regrettable but necessary” Reign of Terror?


  2. Not surprised the two would link up; Objectivism is basically a philosophy of Utter Selfishness. Fits very neatly into a Gospel of ONLY Personal Salvation when you mix in Entropy and let sit long enough.


  3. Theosis is the marriage metaphor scattered from the very beginning to the very end of scripture. What He brings to the marriage is the sperma of eternal regeneration. “ Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.“ According to Strong’s online commentary the Greek term sperma, or seed, is, “whatever possesses vital force or life giving power of divine energy of the Holy Spirit operating within the soul by which we are regenerated”.
    What we bring, and we do bring it of our own Concious Volition, wooed by grace, is the sensate acceptance of the profound mystery with all of its joy and all of its pain. The Omnipresent and Uncontained is roped, by His own design, into this earthen vessel. According to some scientific theories the entire universe was once contained in something the size of a golf ball like the “point of singularity” theorized to be in black holes. From google: “In the centre of a black hole is a gravitational singularity, a one-dimensional point which contains a huge mass in an infinitely small space, where density and gravity become infinite and space-time curves infinitely, and where the laws of physics as we know them cease to operate.” That stretches the bounds of credulity more than any spiritual doctrine I’ve ever heard and yet it sounds very similar to God in an earthen vessel. Infinite and boundless density and gravity breaking all the rules to be contained in finite dimension.


  4. The “new obedience” of the Christian is to his or her great relief and joy accompanied by a fair dose of humility because it happens largely unbeknownst to them and is only recognized in retrospect when it’s too late to brag about it.


  5. CM,
    Really enjoying your thoughts on this – especially the title of the series.
    However, I can’t help but smile and wonder who will qualify for the pole position in the “Reformation 500”?
    Fate demands that it must be the #95 car from Germany.
    Although the Frenchman from Stausburg poses a serious challenge with his newly reformed team.
    And don’t get me started on the English team. Lordy, Lordy how them girls can cause trouble for Team Tudor.
    One things for sure though, the Italian team is going to have trouble gaining traction with the new surface.


  6. I hope our old friend Steve Martin reads that Cary article; might give him something to think about… I think it was very well written and explains a facet of Lutheranism that I had not known, and frankly have never heard expressed anywhere by Lutherans until now. There has been dialogue between Finnish Lutherans and Finnish Orthodox (both are “official” churches in Finland), which I understand has been quite fruitful.

    Thirty years after Luther passed on, some of his followers at the U. of Tübingen wrote to the Patriarch of Constantinople (possibly mistakenly thinking that he had the same function as the Pope in the west), asking for dialogue. They exchanged some long theological letters. The Lutheran theologians didn’t want to reconsider their stances in light of what the Patriarch had to say about the Filioque, the procession of the Holy Spirit, the Sacraments and monastic life, so the Patriarch, not wanting to simply prolong argumentation, asked that they write no more about theology, but write simply in friendship. Reading the Cary article, I wish Luther himself had approached the Eastern bishops; all y’all Lutherans might have ended up Orthodox 😉

    “If God is a person rather than a principle, coming to us in the person of his own Son, isn’t believing what he has to say about himself the deepest and most appropriate way to know who he is?” Well, it’s *a” very important deep and appropriate way to know who he is. Apart from the Sacraments, though, belief is still intellectual activity alone. If one were to say “trust” instead, that takes more of a human person into account than the intellect alone – and is closer to the intent of the Greek in Scripture. And again, in the Sacraments it is actually the Holy Spirit doing something within a person, based on who Jesus is and what he has accomplished, that helps us to trust Jesus even more.

    There is also the difference between how “grace” is understood. In the East, grace is the actual action of the Holy Spirit within us, which we receive via aspects of the material world – water, oil, bread, wine, touch by other humans, and, yes, hearing the voice of someone announcing the good news. If “the Gospel as the indispensable external means of grace” means that “grace” is something other than the Holy Spirit, if it is something that is somehow created by God external to himself and to human beings and dispensed from the ether, that would not be in keeping with EO. Again, it has to do with the Greek for “grace” and “gift” being the same in the NT, and how that word is very tightly bound to what is written there about the Holy Spirit.

    Finally, even though the forensic aspects of Luther’s theology are reduced in importance, it seems his ideas are nonetheless based on theology that doesn’t exist in the East. It’s true we don’t have a “theology of justification” – and that’s because we understand “justification/righteousness” (same word in Greek) differently. It’s not about our sins being overlooked; it has no connection to “moral action” as such. It’s about the ability, given by God in creating people in the image of Christ and “switched on” in Baptism, to enter into and deepen communion with the Godhead throughout our life. God has already forgiven our sins, even before the Cross; it is incumbent upon us, in being honest with God, to confess our sins and receive the benefits of forgiveness that work for the health of our souls and enable us to love better. It is all about God, and at the same time retains the dignity with which man was created. Humans are SO far away from being snow-covered dung.

    Sorry this ended up being so long… that article sparked some thoughts. Thanks.



  7. LOL. Yes, I’m pretty sure Paul is looking down on us and doing the face-palm: “I didn’t intend for my letters to be turned into theology!”


  8. One of the pleasures of the afterlife will be watching Paul and Luther (and Jesus?) telling their interpreters how they got it wrong.

    “That’s not what I meant!”


  9. You lookin’ at me?
    I’m standing here; it’s your move.
    I’m God’s lonely man.

    A little “Travis Bickle” haiku.


  10. Yes. I’ve slowly come to realize this, too. My change began when I started questioning, “When exactly does salvation occur? And how does it happen? And why do those answers always tend to be around ME and what I’ve done?”


  11. You talkin’ bout me?
    I don’t believe we have met.
    You would change your tune.

    A little self deprecating haiku there. 🙂


  12. Not just “white american protestant”. American revivalistic Protestantism is probably the most successful Christianity on the planet right now. It may be collapsing in the USA, but Pentecostalism is sweeping the South (Latin America, Africa, South Asia), not to mention familiar similarities with the Black Evanglicals, who APPEAR TO ME to exhibit interesting traits of both Xty 1.0 and 2.0.

    Lutheranism may want to retain its identity as Christianity 1.0, but the future appears to belong to 2.0, and it ain’t majority white, not any more.


  13. It is a variant on the even-more unfortunate cultural tic of White American Evangelical Protestants to use the word “Christian” when they really mean “White American Evangelical Protestant.” I am using “cultural tic” here as the generous interpretation. The less generous interpretation is not suitable for a family blog.


  14. It wasn’t a reformation, it was a revolt! A reformation implies that people worked together to get things fixed… All that actually happened was that the church got fragmented into a thousand pieces.


  15. Good point, Richard. The author does refer to “later Protestants,” and I think it’s the American variety that he is critiquing. I’ve heard Lutherans vehemently distance themselves from “Protestants” along the same lines. Thanks


  16. We see that when you limit the Gospel to only personal salvation, you see Christianity combined with very Un-Christian beliefs like Ayn Rand’s “Objectivism”.


  17. The Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation.

    “Pull up the ladder — I’M ABOARD!”


  18. A lot of American Christianity is all about the self in determining our relationship with Christ: “When did YOU give your life to Christ” or “Have YOU made a decision for Christ”. The problem that I have with this mindset is that it does not square with Holy Scripture. This theology of the personal decision reduces Baptism and Communion from means of grace to just ordinances.


  19. This use of “Protestantism” is, um…, narrow: essentially, Protestantism except for Lutherans, or perhaps Evangelical Protestantism. I understand the reason for it. Lutheranism is outside the mainstream of American Protestantism, which mostly derives, directly or indirectly, from the Reformed tradition. This produced a crisis in the American Lutheran church in the early 19th century, as many parishioners were attracted to the revivalism they found themselves surrounded by. There was a movement for the Lutheran church to go mainstream so as to retain market share. (This discussion was repeated in the 1990s, but that is a topic for another day.) The organized church–the ancestors of all modern American churches with “Lutheran” in their names–decided against this. This explains the fetishization of the Augsburg Confession, carried out by all these churches to varying degrees. It was the symbolic bulwark between Lutheranism and everyone else.

    So I get why the discussion here uses “Protestantism” for that everyone else. What is meant is the mainstream of American Protestantism, from which American Lutheranism has always stood somewhat apart. But still…


  20. From Luther’s “The Freedom of the Christian” —

    The third incomparable grace of faith is this: that it unites the soul to Christ, as the wife to the husband, by which mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul are made one flesh. Now if they are one flesh, and if a true marriage–nay, by far the most perfect of all marriages–is accomplished between them (for human marriages are but feeble types of this one great marriage), then it follows that all they have becomes theirs in common, as well good things as evil things; so that whatsoever Christ possesses, that the believing soul may take to itself and boast of as its own, and whatever belongs to the soul, that Christ claims as His.

    …Thus the believing soul, by the pledge of its faith in Christ, becomes free from all sin, fearless of death, safe from hell, and endowed with the eternal righteousness, life, and salvation of its Husband Christ.


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