Fr. William Most wrote a sharp but very insightful piece on Luther, entitled “Luther Writes Obituary of His Own Church.” What makes it worth the read is his use of Luther’s own writings, showing that Luther still clearly struggled with the question that perhaps he was wrong and the Church was right, long after he left.
Fr. Most quotes Luther from Exposition of Psalm 130, 4, in which he said of sola fide: “If this article stands, the church stands; if it collapses, the church collapses.” Fr. Most takes on the challenge, showing that sola fide, as taught by Luther, isn’t the same as the salvation by faith taught by Paul, and that an increasing number of Protestants are realizing this.
First, justification: Luther thought that a sinner who is forgiven is still totally corrupt, unable to get away from sinning constantly. Did St. Paul mean that? Not really. He spoke of Christians as a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15). They are made over from scratch – not at all the same as the same old total corruption! And he says more than once that we are the Temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in us as in a temple (1 Cor 3:17; 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16). Can we imagine the Holy Spirit living in a temple that is total corruption?
Even more telling, if possible, is the idea St. Paul has of faith. Luther did not even make a good try at finding out what St. Paul meant by that word. He just assumed what appealed to his scrupulous fears and said faith meant confidence the merits of Christ apply to me. But there is an obvious way to find out what St. Paul really meant by faith — read every place where Paul uses the word faith, and related words — we can use a Concordance to locate them – keep notes, and add them up. If we do that here is what we get: “If God speaks a truth, faith requires that we believe it in our minds (cf. 1 Ths 2:13; 2 Cor 5:7). If God makes a promise, faith requires that we be confident He will keep it (cf. Gal 5:5; Rom 5:1). If God tells us to do something, we must obey (cf. Rom 1:5; 6:16). All this is to be done in love (Gal 5:6). (Obeying does not earn salvation, but we must be members of Christ and like Him, obedient unto death: Rom 5:19).
How does that compare with just being confident the merits of Christ apply to you? Quite a difference. So, by his own standard, Luther’s church has fallen. What he thought was a great discovery was just a great mistake. And yet his whole system stands or falls on his error, as he himself said.
There is a large standard Protestant reference work, Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. It first appeared in four very large volumes, with alphabetical articles on everything pertaining to the Bible. In 1976 there appeared a Supplement volume, which contained some new articles, and some older articles revised. This latest volume does have a new article on faith, on p. 333. We look for the subsection on St. Paul — for St. James uses the word faith very differently. What do we find? Precisely the same as what we explained above. Faith is a complex of belief, confidence, obedience, love. The article even explains Paul’s words in Romans 1:5: “the obedience of faith” to mean, “the obedience which faith is.” Luther thought we do not have to obey any commandment at all if we have faith – but he did not see that faith itself includes obedience to God’s commands!
How sadly wrong could he be? By his own standard, the article on which his church would rise or fall has fallen.
So the problem with Luther’s thesis was not really whether or not we’re saved by faith, or even faith alone, but what “faith” is. Fr. Most presents a clear four-point understanding of the Catholic view of “faith,” as used in Scripture:
- If God speaks a truth, faith requires that we believe it in our minds (cf. 1 Thes 2:13; 2 Cor 5:7).
- If God makes a promise, faith requires that we be confident He will keep it (cf. Gal 5:5; Rom 5:1).
- If God tells us to do something, we must obey (cf. Rom 1:5; 6:16).
- All this is to be done in love
Before the talk of justification can get anywhere helpful, I think there needs to be more work here, on basic definitions of terms. (I suggest to any Protestants who want to argue this point, first establish where you agree or disagree with Fr. Most’s definition and his use of Scripture in support of the same.)
After this, Fr. Most takes on the notion of “eternal security” or “Once Saved, Always Saved,” saying:
According to Luther, if one once takes Christ as His Savior, he enters infinity on the credit page – then no matter how much he has sinned, is sinning, will sin, the infinity of Christ outweighs it. So he is infallibly saved. Some add: He cannot lose that security. [Compare Protestant charges that indulgences are a permission to sin!. Here it is, in the big time!]
St. Paul himself did not think he had infallible salvation. In 1 Cor 9:24-27, Paul compares Christian life to the great games at Corinth. Anyone who hoped for the prize had to go into athletic training, and so deny himself a lot. Only one could get the prize. But Christians can all get it, and their prize is eternal life, not just a crown of leaves. Some Protestants say Paul is just urging them to gain something extra. But no, in context, Paul has been urging them for some time to avoid scandalizing another by eating meat offered to idols which the other thinks is forbidden. In 1 Cor 8:11-13 Paul pleads that “the weak one will perish [eternally] because of your knowledge, a brother because of whom Christ died.”
Paul himself, even with his heroic work for Christ, does not think he has infallible salvation. Rather, in 1 Cor 9:26-27 he says [literal version]: “I hit my body under the eyes and lead it around like a slave, so that after preaching to others, I may not be disqualified [in the race].” He alludes to Greek boxing – no padded gloves – a blow under the eyes would usually knock a man out. The victor put a rope around the neck of the loser, and led him around the stadium like a slave. Not sportsmanlike!. But we get the point.
Again, right after this, in chapter 10, Paul gives many instances of the first People of God. They did not have it infallibly made. Rather, many were struck dead by God. So in 10:12: “He who thinks he is standing, let him watch out so he does not fall.” No infallible salvation in sight here!
In between these two points, Fr. Most talks about the error of sola Scriptura, that there’s no way to take “the Bible alone” to show which books are in the Bible. He related the story of Baptist Professor Gerald Birney Smith, who in 1910, concluded that there was no way of knowing which books were and weren’t Scripture (since he refused to believe that the Church could have the authority to set them). Smith is right on one point: if there is no Church to say which books are canonical, we’re left with guesswork at best.
All in all, it’s a pretty sweeping critique of Luther’s position, and shows how the views he articulated on sola fide, sola Scriptura, and OSAS don’t hold up to serious scrutiny.