As a former Protestant, I have often heard the Reformation presented in a particular way. The story, especially in those churches stemming from the Magisterial Reformation, usually goes something like this: Martin Luther, a monk in Wittenberg, tried mightily to take the route to salvation prescribed by the Catholic Church, but found himself incapable of mustering the faith and devotion that he believed the Catholic Church required. In fact, he discovered that all his attempted good works were stained with sin. What was he to do? In his reading of the Bible, and particularly the letters of Paul, Luther discovered that grace is free, and that good works, accomplished on one’s own steam, are nothing but fraudulent. Thus, one must abandon oneself to God’s mercy, trusting that God’s grace alone will vouch sufficiently for one’s inadequacies. At this point in the story, someone usually swoops in and says, “By the bye, we’re all inadequate, aren’t we, and so Luther’s conclusions must be our own!”

Everyone seems to assume that it is Luther’s paradigm that is the kinder, gentler one, but I disagree. This is because I find “abandoning myself to God’s mercy” to be the more difficult path. Consider the case of Luther’s response to ‘attrition,’ the Catholic view that contrition based on the fear of hell and of God as punisher suffices for the forgiveness of sins in the sacrament of penance (confession). Luther argued that no contrition could ever be sufficient, and so one must cast oneself on the mercy of God, and then be contrite “all the more.” And what if we aren’t? The standard Protestant thought here is that we are at once justified and sinner, but this makes of our personhood a difficult psychological exercise. How am I to understand my intentionality and motivation for action? Either I’m really a sinner and just look justified, or I’m really justified and just look like a sinner; otherwise, how am I a single acting creature?

As a Kierkegaard scholar, I can testify that despite recent rehabilitations, Kierkegaard’s Works of Love is still radical on many points, and displays at best an uneasy reconciliation between agape and eros. How am I, as a member of Christ’s body, supposed to square with the fact that the life of agape is the blessed life that results from grace, and, through simple introspection I can easily verify that I am just not living it? Of course I could abandon myself to God’s grace, certain that all my contrition is insufficient, but then, conscious that I am incapable of being contrite “all the more,” I will no doubt need to repeat this movement.”

This is, of course, not an accident. The Christian life, to say nothing of typically Protestant conceptions of it, is a continual movement from death to life; conversion is never really complete in this life. How, indeed, shall I cast myself on God’s mercy? What must my motivations for doing so look like? The trouble, of course, isn’t simply that if I don’t have good motivations for doing it, I won’t do it well ; the trouble is rather that, at least on some views, if I don’t do it completely I may not be doing it at all .

This is why I find comfort in the Catholic Church and in her sacrament of reconciliation more particularly. Yes, I think I have tasted some measure of God’s grace, and yes, I do often feel that it is out of love for God that I confess my sins. True, I am a single, but also complex, person, and my motivations are sometimes plural. Contrition is a purgative fire, but the sacrament brings grace for the future. I must steer a middle course between being overly optimistic about my state as I confess, and being so pessimistic that I seek out my overworked confessor multiple times in a day (as Luther is sometimes thought to have done). I am a work in progress, and that only makes sense if there is continuity between my states before and after confession. Thankfully, being a work in progress entails progress. But it also entails work.

Luther’s lather, rinse, and repeat method of repentance can be a helpful model, so long as we reflect on our motivations for abandoning ourselves to God’s mercy in the first place. The sacrament of penance, as I see it, calls for precisely the abandonment to God that Luther promotes, but if we are unable to do this in an unmitigated way (and, by the bye, aren’t we all?), we are to bring God our very failure to wholly abandon ourselves, and obtain assurance and pardon for even this.

It is all too common to hear that the Catholic Church is a holdout for those who wish to live an archaic brand of sainthood. But I am Catholic because Christ meets me in his Church, and in the confessional, “just as I am.”

Jack Mulder is a professor of philosophy at Hope College.

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Articles by Jack Mulder

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