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