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The Reformers’ Distorted View of Salvation

Tom Nash

Lest I alienate my Protestant brothers and sisters at the outset, let me emphasize that God’s grace is indispensable to our eternal salvation as Christians. And that initial justification—when we first come into relationship with Jesus Christ at baptism—is an unwarranted, divine gift (see John 15:16, Catechism of the Catholic Church 1989-92).

So, we cannot save ourselves by our own actions, as Pelagius and other heretics were reminded in the early 400s. And grace-filled human works help us to grow in holiness and attain eternal life, because they are rooted in the redemptive, loving actions of Jesus Christ, which culminated in his one sacrifice of Calvary.

And yet, in this year when we marked the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I encourage my separated brethren to consider a provocative thesis regarding the “first fruits” of their theological heritage: the soteriology—or doctrine of salvation—of the two most influential Reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin.

A judge who simply pardons

Both Luther and Calvin desired the merciful love of the Father but without the accompanying responsibilities of an adopted son of God. They preferred what has been aptly called by German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer the “cheap grace” of “forensic justification,” in which God is a judge who makes a legal declaration about our righteousness, our being free from sin in some sense, but who doesn’t heal and transform us by his grace, let alone obligate us to abide in him (John 14:15) and grow in holiness (Matt. 5:43-48).

We see this kind of legal justification on the merely human level when U.S. presidents, often at the end of their time in office, grant pardons or clemency to convicted criminals without any assurance the true repentance and conversion of those they pardon. This legal view also informs Luther’s doctrine of justification, which developed out of the former Catholic priest’s struggle with scrupulosity, an obsessive concern with personal failings accompanied by great difficulty in accepting forgiveness, especially from God.

For Luther, the original sin of our first parents injured human nature so badly that we are “totally depraved”—incapable of doing any good at all, or at least not able to do good works that impact our eternal salvation. Indeed, a fundamental plank of Luther’s soteriology is that man’s will is enslaved. From this conviction comes Luther’s doctrine of “justification by faith alone,” meaning our good works cannot possibly impact our eternal destiny, and that we lose our salvation only by a total repudiation of God, or loss of faith.

Heaven without need of reformation

For Luther, the baptismal regeneration St. Paul taught (Titus 3:5) means the removal of the eternal punishment of sin through the justifying faith associated with baptism, and thus it opens heaven to the justified (The Large Catechism, 41-46, 83). However, a justified person’s human nature remains totally depraved, and original sin and an individual’s personal sins are not blotted out, so communion with God is restored but in a lesser way than our first parents enjoyed. One needs to keep these distinctions in mind when Luther teaches that baptism brings about the “forgiveness of sin” (Ibid., 41, 86).

Luther and Calvin cited Romans 3:10-12 to support their doctrine of total depravity. But St. Paul cites therein a number of Psalms and a passage from Isaiah in which the righteous and the wicked are distinguished, indicating that he is not speaking absolutely regarding mankind’s depravity but rather is noting that has sin taken hold of God’s people and not just the world in general. In that sense Paul uses hyperbolic language to make the general point that sin is pervasive and all are in need of a Savior.

Luther’s belief that man has an “enslaved will” exceeded the views of other Reformers such as Calvin, who believed a person could do good deeds that impacted their lives and the lives of others, though Calvin attributed the good works to God. In De Servo Arbitrio (“On the Enslaved Will”), Luther presents God and the devil as competitors who fight to control man’s actions:

The human will stand like a saddle horse between the two. If God mounts into the saddle, man wills and goes forward as God wills. . . . But if the devil is the horseman, then man wills and acts as the devil wills. He has no power to run to one or the other of the two riders and offer himself to him, but the riders fight to obtain possession of the animal (sec. 25).

In saying that God and the devil “fight to obtain possession of the animal,” Luther doesn’t seem to grasp that his analogy blasphemes God, as if the devil could actually prevail over the Lord. Not only does Luther give the devil undue credit as a worthy competitor for his Creator, he also presents a debased view of man as a mere puppet or beast caught in a tug-of-war between Satan and the Savior. For Luther, when God is “in the saddle,” man can perform works of sanctification whereby the Holy Spirit makes us more like Christ in all we think, desire, and choose. But if the devil prevailed, man inevitably chose wrongly.

Of course, if our wills are truly enslaved, how can we on one hand cooperate with God’s grace by putting our faith in him and on the other repudiate God later and suffer eternal perdition? Despite its fatal logical flaws, Luther found his new doctrine personally liberating, because no matter what sins he committed, he could quickly become right with God again by simply professing anew his faith in the Lord.

Meanwhile, while not denying man’s free will, Calvin effectively gutted it, because he said all men were preordained by God either to heaven (election) or hell (reprobation), and so there is nothing we can do to impact our eternal destiny.

Accept or reject the Father’s saving love

In stark contrast, St. Augustine, an ardent opponent of Pelagius, taught that “God created us without us. But he did not will to save us without us” (CCC 1847, emphasis added). All Christians agree God is our heavenly Father and that he loves us so much he sent his only Son to save us (John 3:16-17). The Catholic Church adds that because God loves us, he gives each of us a free will, allowing us to choose to serve him or not. For love coerced is not love at all.

In that light, like love itself, salvation is a relational, transactional process. Think of your own relationship with your earthly father (provided that you were blessed to grow up with him). Even in the best of families, your being his son or daughter was not a one-time event or an preordained action—in other words, it was not a relationship in which the only thing that mattered were his unilateral actions made on your behalf.

No, our natural fathers expect much more from us—and on an everyday basis. Families can’t function well without that reciprocal, self-giving love between parents and children. And while our supernatural Father, in contrast to our natural fathers, doesn’t need any one of us for his divine sustenance, why would we think he would have lower relationship standards for us, his adopted sons and daughters, especially when he wants us to embrace the truth that sets us free (John 8:31-32, 6:51-58)?

If Calvin and Luther were right, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) seems much ado about nothing, a desired ideal but no big deal if you fall short. Rather, Jesus teaches that our personal choices will impact our eternal salvation, such as when he says that the gate that leads to life is “narrow” and the road “hard” (Matt. 7:13-14), which is why he also spoke about the redemptive cross that every one of his disciples must carry (Matt. 10:37-39, 16:24-26).

The redemptive flame of God’s love

Here is where we see the wisdom of the Church’s teaching on purgatory. Purgatory doesn’t deny the sufficiency of Christ’s gracious offering for us on Calvary. Instead it distinguishes between the eternal punishment of our sins—for which only God can atone—and the temporal punishment that a loving Father requires his sons and daughters to endure as we willingly and painfully let go of all our attachments to ourselves and other persons and things so that we can be fit for eternal communion with the Lord (CCC 1472). Indeed, forgiveness of sins doesn’t eradicate the bad habits we’ve cultivated in place of virtues.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches that salvation is not a one-time event but a lifelong adventure, one that can extend into our purgative afterlife, as St. Paul adds (1 Cor. 3:10-15; see 1 Peter 1:6-7). Therefore, we can lose our salvation because of gravely wrong actions for which we don’t repent (1 Cor. 6:9-10). These transgressions are known as mortal sins, because they constitute a radical rejection of Jesus in making someone and/or something an idol, including ourselves (see CCC 1854–64).

Jesus further affirms to the rich young man that keeping the commandments is integral to accepting or rejecting his gift of eternal salvation (Matt. 19:16-26). St. Paul says that God:

will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. . . . For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God but the doers of the law who will be justified (Rom. 2:6-8, emphasis added; see 2:14-16).

In their zeal to emphasize God’s sovereignty (Calvin) and mercy (Luther), the Reformers forgot the basic reality that real love is a two-way street and thus calls for a response in kind—especially with Jesus who will not simply overwhelm us with his grace irrespective of a genuine free-will response (Calvin), or look the other way regarding our sins (Luther). No, Jesus wants to truly rehabilitate us by enabling us to love as he does—unconditionally and sacrificially—and Jesus does so through our self-denying and redemptive cooperation.

Luther expressed his disgust when the Reformation splintered after his initial efforts. But it’s hard to blame others for taking his own principles to their logical conclusion. After all, Luther had only his own persuasiveness—not a divinely given and protected mandate—to safeguard his religious innovations.

Beginning with Luther and Calvin, Protestant Christians have replaced Sacred Tradition with their own “development of doctrine” and thus manmade religious traditions, and their spiritual descendants have developed them further, often in ways that contradict Luther and Calvin—even on matters as important as how we are saved. The Protestant Reformation and its centuries-long aftermath illustrate these sad realities—and this despite all concerned parties vowing to adhere strictly to the “Bible alone” in advancing their differing doctrines.

In authentic development of doctrine, the Church more deeply grasps fundamental truths regarding faith or morals, which are either contained in the Church’s deposit of faith or are needed to preserve, explain, or observe those saving truths (see CCC 2035; 84; 890–91). Authentic development necessarily precludes doctrinal contradictions (see also Vatican II’s Dei Verbum 8-10).

The Catholic Church exists to teach fully and faithfully Christ’s saving truth, including that which the Holy Spirit guided the apostles to know after the Ascension (see CCC 76, 84). We want to be fully going God’s way on the road to salvation, not a way that falls short in one significant way or another. The Catholic Church serves as man’s only divinely provided and protected guide as we navigate our way home to heaven.

As many Christians commemorate the quincentennial of the Reformation, let us pray that Our Lord, who prayed that we might be one as he and the Father are one (John 17:20-23), will lead all Christians to see the truth: being faithful son and daughters of God requires a loving and sustained response—made possible by his grace—to our merciful Father.

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