October 31, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Phillip Cary’s excellent article in First Things places this in perspective. While the full article is behind a paywall, here are some excerpts:
It all did start with the ninety-five theses, in a sense. Luther probably did not actually nail them to the church door—at least no one at the time tells us so. And if he did, it was not in anger or protest against the church. He was trying to arrange an academic discussion, and evidently that’s where the bulletin board was. What we do know is that he mailed them off to his archbishop, together with a treatise on indulgences and a cover letter dated October 31, 1517, so that is the date remembered as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
What Luther did not know at the time is that the pope and the archbishop were the ones profiting from this merchandise, each claiming half of the take. So it is not surprising that events took a turn he did not anticipate. Within five years, this intensely obedient monk had concluded that obedience to God precluded obedience to the pope, and a schism in the Church followed.
At the starting point in 1517, Luther’s pastoral concern was unfamiliar and hardly Protestant. He thought indulgences made penance seem much too easy, undermining the lifelong work, required of all Christians, of contrition, which he identified with heartfelt self-hatred.
By the end of 1518, he was teaching that Christians hearing the word of absolution in the sacrament of penance (“I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”) should simply believe their sins are absolved.
Faith comes by hearing, says the apostle (Rom. 10:17), and Luther is the greatest and most obsessive theologian of hearing in the Christian tradition. For Luther, everything depends on hearing the Word of God, taking hold of it, clinging to it, and not talking back—not calling God a liar. His treatment of the doctrine of justification always turns on the conviction that “God is true, though every man be a liar” (Rom. 3:4). Everything depends on God being true to his word and keeping his promise, which the deceitfulness of our unworthy hearts cannot overturn.
What happens in 1518 is that Luther’s fierce conviction that we must never talk back against God’s word meets the medieval doctrine of sacramental efficacy, and results in the Protestant conception of the power of the Gospel.
When Luther teaches justification by faith alone, he is not requiring us to put faith in faith. On the contrary, he wants us putting faith in the Gospel alone. Any account of faith that focuses on the experience of faith—any theological turn to subjectivity, such as in liberal theology—has missed Luther’s point. What we experience, for the most part, is our own sin and unbelief. Faith means turning away from our experience to take hold of Christ alone by believing, against all doubt and temptation, that what the Gospel tells us about Christ given for us is really true.
Justification by faith alone is thus justification by Christ alone. This has everything to do with hearing the Gospel spoken aloud in external words, through which Christ claims each of us by saying “you” in a way that includes me.
Luther accepts the traditional metaphysical attributes of God, such as eternity, immutability, omnipresence, and so on, but these are not objects of his devotion. Above all, he has no use for the rich notion of intellectual vision shared by Augustine and Aquinas, going back ultimately to Plato’s metaphor of seeing the supreme Good with the mind’s eye. Luther does not aim to see God’s essence but to hear him speak, for it is in his word that God gives himself to be known.
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?
Most important, Luther’s challenge affects Christian life by freeing Christian love to be love, removing the kind of performance anxiety that makes it about ourselves. If we are justified by faith alone, then works of love serve our neighbors, not our desire to justify ourselves or make ourselves holy. We are holy because Christ claims us as his own through word and sacrament, and Christian love takes root in our hearts because we believe what Christ has done.
How we have always been justified by faith alone is best seen in light of Luther’s distinction between law and Gospel. Both the law of God and the Gospel of Christ are God’s word, but the former only gives us instructions while the latter gives us Christ. For the law tells us what to do, but the Gospel tells us what Christ does. The distinction grows out of Augustine’s insistence, in his great treatise On the Spirit and the Letter, that telling us to obey the law of love does not help us do it from the depths of our hearts; only the grace of Christ can give us such a heart. Luther merely adds: The place to find the grace of Christ is in the Gospel of Christ.