Catholics are adopting a Lutheran perspective on Martin Luther. Or, more precisely, certain Catholics are adopting a certain mistaken Lutheran perspective on Martin Luther. This is unfortunate, because it is inconsistent with the soberer judgments of one of their popes and, more importantly, with the truth.
In a recent article on Crux, Father Dwight Longenecker takes issue with comments by Pope Francis on Martin Luther. He argues against Francis’s “imprecisions” by offering the reactions of Richard Ballard, a Catholic deacon who, before his conversion, had served as a Lutheran pastor for twenty-five years. Ballard lists three objections to Lutheran theology, but here I want to address only one:
Luther argued for an exterior “imputed righteousness” which means the baptized person remains a sinner, even after justification. In essence, God is merely pretending that the person is justified and sanctified, when he really isn’t.
This is a major divergence from Catholic theology, which instead of “imputed righteousness” teaches “infused righteousness,” in other words, the baptized person really is transformed and purified by God’s grace.
Here Ballard and Longenecker argue that one of Luther’s putative hallmark teachings, the identity of the Christian as simul justus et peccator, is contrary to the Catholic understanding of regeneration in which baptism brings about a change in the Christian, putting her on a path toward holiness.
Some Lutherans do indeed use “the Simul,” as they call it, to distinguish Lutheran theology from other theological traditions, including Catholicism. And one can easily find well-regarded Lutheran theologians who interpret the formula exactly as Ballard and Longenecker do, to mean that the Christian makes no real progress in sanctification this side of the eschaton. Ballard appears to have taken the theology he learned as a Lutheran and turned it against Luther and Lutheranism.
But what if Ballard's Lutheran tutors were wrong?
Luther certainly coined the term simul justus et peccator, but within his immense corpus of writing the term appears only a handful of times. Nor does it appear to be important to his immediate theological descendants: It does not appear in the Book of Concord, and it is not frequently used until the middle of the twentieth century. And while Luther believed that the Christian has received the righteousness of Christ yet remains a sinner until the Lord’s return, this means neither that he believed that no real change occurs in the Christian nor that he believed that the Christian is not progressively purified in this life.
On the contrary, Luther proclaimed the transforming and purifying love of God, even while acknowledging the ongoing presence of sin in the justified Christian’s life. As he wrote in his Sermon on Confession and the Lord's Supper:
For this life is nothing more than a life of faith, of love, and of sanctified affliction. But these three will never be perfect in us while we live here on earth, and no one possesses them in perfection except Christ. He is the sun and is set for our example, which we must imitate. . . . For this life is a constant progress from faith to faith, from love to love, from patience to patience, from affliction to affliction. It is not righteousness, but justification; not purity but purification; we have not yet arrived at our destination, but we are all on the road, and some are farther advanced than others. God is satisfied to find us busy at work and full of determination. When he is ready he will come quickly, strengthen faith and love, and in an instant take us from this life to heaven.
If this sermon were preached in a homiletics classroom at many a Lutheran seminary, it would likely receive low marks, as containing theological error.
Catholics should resist importing from today's Lutherans a view of Luther that Luther himself would not have recognized. Instead, I suggest that Catholics—and Lutherans—consider a perspective on Luther promoted by many insightful Catholics. In Luther’s Faith, Catholic theologian Daniel Olivier portrayed Luther as one who was enamored of Christ, with a fierce love and loyalty that drove his theology. Pope Benedict XVI echoed this sentiment in a 2011 speech:
Luther’s thinking, his whole spirituality, was thoroughly Christocentric: “What promotes Christ’s cause” was for Luther the decisive hermeneutical criterion for the exegesis of sacred Scripture. This presupposes, however, that Christ is at the heart of our spirituality and that love for him, living in communion with him, is what guides our life.
That perspective on Luther does not well serve the polemicist, whether Catholic or Lutheran. But, it is the truth, and it is just that Christocentric spirituality, that intense love of the Lord Jesus, that I believe should be considered a hallmark of Luther’s theology, over and against “the Simul.”
Christopher D. Jackson is pastor of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church and St. John’s Lutheran Church in Northeast Wisconsin. He and his wife Mary have three children.