Justification by Faith Alone

Image courtesy of Mae

Every Sunday morning, I get up at the beginning of church and say a little something about where we are in the church year, highlighting an upcoming saint’s day. So far, I’ve done St Matthew the Apostle (my namesake!), St Michael the Archangel (my brother’s namesake!), St Francis of Assisi (whose feast was actually a Sunday!), St Luke the Evangelist (whose feast was also a Sunday but was used to promote the idea that Every Sunday is Easter instead), and Reformation Day.

Reformation Day is All Hallows Even, and it is the commemoration of Martin Luther pinning the 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg. Rather than discuss the 95 Theses themselves — they are mostly about papal indulgences and ecclesiastical abuses — I talked about the importance of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, saying that although there are many sorrowful things to have arisen in the tradition of the Reformation — and people like me who enjoy things pre-modern tend to focus on them — justification by faith alone is the main business of the affair, and it is worth holding on to.

Nothing you do can make you right with God. You just have to trust Him. That’s what faith is. That’s what brings us into right relationship with God.

Now, I have to admit straight out of the gate that I am about to utter a hunch that would require a deeper knowledge of Luther and the magisterial Reformation as well as of Late Mediaeval theology in order to become a thesis, but my hunch is that much of Luther’s teaching on sola fide is not actually counter to the mediaeval, catholic tradition in and of itself, although cranky old man Luther would probably have disagreed after a few pints. My hunch is that Luther’s sola fide represents a legitimate flowering of pre-existing trajectories with Latin catholic thought that, because of other things he said and did, was rejected at Trent (or was it — when Trent’s not being anti-Protestant, the Council Fathers say some beautiful things).

Certainly the whole tradition, East and West, ancient and medieval and modern, Catholic and Protestant and Orthodox, has its lucid moment of what sounds a lot like justification by faith alone. I’m still trying to sort this out, but I’ll close with a quotation from Drinking from the Hidden Fountain, an anthology of daily readings from the Fathers by Thomas Spidlik. This quotation emerged last Saturday just after I had finished meditating on what to say about Reformation Day:

Anyone who is a slave to sin should prepare himself for true regeneration by means of faith. He must shake the hoke of sin off his back and enter the joyful service of the Lord. He will be thought worthy to inherit the kingdom.

Don’t hesitate to declare yourselves sinners. Thereby you will put off your old humanity that was corrupt because it followed the bait of error. And you will put on the new humanity, the humanity newly clad in intimacy with its Creator.

Don’t say: ‘I have been dishonest, an adulterer, I have committed grave offences innumerable times. Will he forgive them? Will he deign to forget them?’ Listen rather to the Psalmist: ‘How great is your love, O Lord.’ (Ps. 31:19)

You sins piled one above the other do not overtop the greatness of God’s love. Your wounds are not too great for the skill of the Doctor.

There is only one course of treatment for you to follow: rely on him in faith. Explain frankly what is wrong to the Doctor and say with the Psalmist: ‘I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity.’ (Ps 32.5) Then you will be able to go on with the Psalmist to say: ‘Then did you forgive the guilt of my sin.’

St Cyril of Jerusalem, Catecheses 1.2ff.

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