Analysis Of Justification From The Catholic Perspective And Lutherans’ Christology

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The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (henceforth JDDJ) signed between Lutherans and Catholics on Oct. 31, 1999 stands out as a high point in ecumenical relations between the Church and Lutheran congregations. Some voices even come out to say: ‘one day too we will rub our eyes in amazement that God’s Spirit has broken through the seemingly insurmountable walls that divide us.’

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Yet, amidst the optimism that allegedly solving the problems regarding the doctrine of justification has produced, there looms a new problem on the horizon: namely, the source of justification. Both the Church and Lutheran congregations teach that Christ and His sacrifice on the cross are the source. But do the Lutherans confess the same Christ? This question seems to debate the foundation of the entire ecumenical movement, since the kind of justification that the Church teaches requires a certain kind of saviour- which is to say that the Messiah’s nature must be necessarily involved in the doctrine of justification. To say another way, the act of justification flows and results from the metaphysics (being) by which we explain the nature(s) of Christ. Any error regarding Christ’s nature would certainly change the kind of justification that He does for us. 

It is the goal of this research to investigate whether agreement on justification is possible among Lutherans and Roman Catholics on a metaphysical level as determined by Martin Luther himself. To accomplish this goal one must revisit the writings of Luther himself. It is true, from the outset, that there necessarily exists a difference between Luther himself and Lutheranism. While the two do differ significantly (especially due to the reforms of Melanchthon), it remains paramount since the source texts by Luther contain the most explicit teachings that will later be developed by successors. It will thus be the purpose of this paper to determine, based on Luther’s own writings, whether Luther himself would have signed the same joint declaration. 

Since one of this paper’s requirements is that of brevity, only a small yet representative selection of applicable writings will be addressed. The first section will look at the what justification exactly is from the Catholic perspective and what it accomplishes; Section two will look at what Luther teaches regarding the nature of Christ and how justification flows from this conception of Christ; Section three will present an analysis and applicable relevance for today. 

Justification: The Catholic View

Biblical references to justification are numerous in both Old and New Testaments. Perhaps the most notable is the reference to Abraham being justified (Rom. 4 quoting Gen. 15) and the Psalm of repentance par excellence, which ask to be returned to a state of justice before God. St. Thomas teaches that Christ’s purpose for the Incarnation was to justify the sinner, but how does justification actually take place?

The Catholic doctrine of justification is the passing from the state of sin to that of justice before God. When a soul is justified, two effects follow: (1) sins are truly remitted and destroyed; (2) the whole person is interiorly cleansed and becomes a new creature in Christ. The Catholic Church teaches that the person is entirely remade in the image of Christ, so that his soul becomes intrinsically pleasing to God and in the place of sin, sanctifying grace or the life of God, is infused in the soul. 

Now, certain preconditions for justification to take place need to be present. The Church teaches that those seeking justification are moved and helped by Divine grace and must bring certain dispositions in order to be justified, which is not to say that man prepares himself for justification, since to do so is impossible without the grace of God. Instead, God must attract him to these acts of disposition by actual grace, which are six. First: faith, or the believing and holding as true those things which God has revealed and promised; Second: fear of divine justice; Third: hope that God will treat us mercifully through love for Jesus Christ; Fourth: A beginning of the love of God, whom we must love as the source of all justice; Fifth: Hatred and detestation for sin; Sixth: The resolution to receive baptism (or the sacrament of penance in the case of those already baptized and in mortal sin), in order to begin a new life and to observe the commandments of God and of the Church. Keen in the above articles is the insistence by the Church that people, under the influence of grace, cooperate in their own justification. As St. Augustine put it, ‘God who created you without you, will not save you without you. ‘

Once justified, that state of justification has certain characteristics according to Catholic teaching. There are four: 1) it is uncertain; 2) it is not equal in all men; 3) it may be lost; 4) it may be regained. Regarding #1, the Church teaches that no one, apart from a special revelation from God, can be certain of his own justification by faith alone. No one can know with a certainty of faith, which is an infallible certainty, whether he has obtained the grace of God. The reason for this uncertainty is that justification depends not only on the divine promise, but also on our conversion and preparation, and human weakness can corrupt these. Now, we can be morally certain that we are in the state of grace as far as we are able to know, but we cannot have the certitude of faith (to see ourselves as God sees us). 

Regarding #2, the Church teaches that the interior sanctification of man is capable of increase as the result of good works. Since good works are not equally practiced by all, there results an inequality of justification among men- that is to say, some are greater due to their greater charity. 

Regarding #3, mortal sin will completely destroy any previous state of justice in the soul. This is largely self-explanatory. However, the Church teaches that justice, lost by sin, can be recovered. Those who by sin have lost the grace of justification, may become justified anew, if docile to God’s impulse, they strive to recover lost grace through the merits of Jesus Christ, by means of the Sacrament of Penance. Lastly, once justified and acting in accordance with the will of God, the Catholic Church teaches that good works done in the state of sanctifying grace are meritorious, that is, they truly obtain for us an increase in sanctifying grace as well as eternal glory and an increase in the same glory. 

The ‘Christology’ of Martin Luther, or, the origin of Lutheran justification

Let us now turn to the teaching of Martin Luther. The word Christology in the title above is in quotation marks not out of ridicule, but because authentic Christology lies in question. To call what Luther did a Christology would mean to have a Christo-logic, or coherent thinking concerning the nature of Christ. Upon presentation of the evidence from Luther Himself, the reader will see that one may honestly debate whether Luther may have entirely renounced Chalcedonian Christianity in favour of a diabolic one. Let us then look at what Luther has to say about Christ in his Commentary to the Galatians.

All the prophets of old said that Christ should be the greatest transgressor, murderer, adulterer, thief, blasphemer that ever was or ever could be on earth. When He took the sins of the whole world upon Himself, Christ was no longer an innocent person. He was a sinner burdened with the sins of a Paul who was a blasphemer; burdened with the sins of a Peter who denied Christ; burdened with the sins of a David who committed adultery and murder, and gave the heathen occasion to laugh at the Lord. In short, Christ was charged with the sins of all men, that He should pay for them with His own blood. The curse struck Him. The Law found Him among sinners. He was not only in the company of sinners. He had gone so far as to invest Himself with the flesh and blood of sinners. So the Law judged and hanged Him for a sinner. [. . . ] John the Baptist called Him “the lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. ” Being the unspotted Lamb of God, Christ was personally innocent. But because He took the sins of the world His sinlessness was defiled with the sinfulness of the world. Whatever sins I, you, all of us have committed or shall commit, they are Christ’s sins as if He had committed them Himself. Our sins have to be Christ’s sins or we shall perish forever. [emphasis added]

The full quotation is required because of the gravity of the matter at hand. Martin Luther does not hesitate in calling Christ a sinner in the fullest way- Christ does not only bear our sins, as the Church teaches, but sin enters the Person of Christ. To a faithful Catholic, this is an abominable statement. How could Luther get this wrong?

Luther’s train of thought seemingly begins with a sense of personal hopelessness in struggling against sin. Since all human flesh is corrupted with sin in a permanent fashion, it follows that there can be no free will; likewise, if Christ took on flesh then he too received its corruption. This would explain Luther’s famous blasphemy that Christ was sinning with the woman at the well in John’s Gospel. 

But what is the next implication? Can good and evil coexist in a single substance? According to Luther, spirit and flesh are constantly at war with another, in the same way as he describes Law and Grace. Hence, Luther manifests Gnostic thought when formulating his theology of atonement, in which Christ assumes not just the punishment due to man’s sin, but the guilt for sin, and adopts the sinful disposition of fallen man. In the crucifixion there is a reversal of roles between God and Satan; in Luther’s words, ‘the devil must be granted an hour of divinity and I must attribute fiendishness to God. ‘ For this reason, Luther rejects the hypostatic union of Christ’s humanity and divinity, which is confirmed in the findings of German theologian Theobald Beer, discussed below. Since the divine and the sinful cannot co-exist, Luther teaches that Christ is not a hypostasis but a compositum of human and divine – divinity is seen as Christ’s substance and humanity as the accident, and Christ’s human nature plays no positive role in the redemption. 

Luther’s beliefs may shock modern Lutherans (and perhaps even Catholics), since many of his doctrines were reformulated by his primary collaborator, Philipp Melancthon, who had remarked that Luther had suffered from a ‘Manichean delirium. ‘ While it is true that Luther wrote many true statements on Christ that sounded pious and anti-gnostic, one cannot ignore what has been discovered in the thousands of Luther’s annotated books by Augustine and Peter Lombard. The notes were written within the time periods of 1506 to 1516, and 1535 to 1545. 

Mary C. Moorman of Emmaus Academic has said much the same in her volume Indulgences: Luther, Catholicism, and the Imputation of Merit. She describes the findings of German theologian Theobald Beer, which display the non-public views of Luther, frequently at odds with what he was saying publically and radically siding with Manicheistic and Gnostic interpretations, including works of the Egyptian Hermetic tradition by pseudo-Hermes Trismegistus. The picture begins to take shape when considering the Papal Bull Exsurge Domine by Leo X in 1520, wherein the Pope calls Luther a ‘new Porphyry. ‘ Moorman writes:

The influence of these themes resulted in Luther’s own description of the following: first, the idea of Christ’s standing in the position of malediction against God; second, Christ as a compositum of divinity and malediction, divinity and humanity, rather than a personal union of the two; and third, a dualistic distinction between the Christ who redeems, on the one hand, and the Christ who works, on the other. 

In fact, other authors say much the same thing, including the modern historian Jaroslav Pelikan, who admits to a Manichean streak in Luther’s commentaries on Genesis. 

In sum, there is no nuptial or spousal union between the natures in Christ; nor between the Tyrant Father of the Law and the Son of the Spirit; nor between the Church and God; and most assuredly not between flesh and spirit. Instead, there is a disjunction, and rather, a continuous dialectic of one seeking to overcome the other. Since this research is limited in scope, the metaphysical argument can be summarized as follows:

  1. For Luther, the entire human nature is corrupt, including one’s concupiscence (which not only desires sin but actually sins all the time). 
  2. From this it follows that since one is incapable of not sinning (even when doing apparent good), then one is completely enslaved (free will is an illusion). 
  3. Since free will is not possible for humans, then no act on our part can be meritorious. 
  4. Since free will is not possible for humans, then the only truly free person is God. Only He can act, can dispense grace, can save people (predestination fits in here). 
  5. Since free will is not possible for humans and no act is meritorious that derives from human volition, then the only possible ‘good’ act is faith because it is God doing it in us. Hence we are justified by faith alone. 
  6. Now, since Jesus is God but also decided to take on permanently sinful flesh, then one can say that he merged divinity with sin. He introduced corruption into the perfect substance. 
  7. Since Jesus sinned, it makes it acceptable for us to sin so long as our faith is stronger. 
  8. Since free will is not possible for humans, then human acts of religion ie. sacraments are a waste of time or even blasphemous since the only thing that justifies is faith alone. 
  9. Since man is entirely and permanently corrupt, justification is ascribed to the sinner but no inner transformation takes place. He remains simul justus et peccator. 

The line of argumentation finds support in other parts of Luther, who claims that God, Christ, is both good and evil at the same time. 

And summa, God can not be God, he must first become a devil; and we can not go to heaven, we have to go to hell just now; can not become God’s children, we will be the devil’s children beforehand. For all that God speaks and does, the devil must have spoken and done, and our flesh, in turn, believes that the Spirit in the Word is exactly and indefinitely preserved, and teaches to believe otherwise. [. . . ] Again, I know that the devil’s word must first become the tender divine truth before it becomes a lie; I have to allow the devil a deity for a little while, and let the devil be ascribed to our God.’

This is no mere figure of speech on Luther’s part- it flows from his conception of man as intrinsically and unchangeably evil and sinful. Hence, to compare Luther with Catholic doctrine, Luther rejects dispositions for justification (since we can do no good, we need faith alone. ) Luther also removes the characteristics of justification in favour of assurance by faith (since again there is no free will). Lastly, merit is also rejected (precisely because we are totally depraved). One can now truly appreciate the wholesale destruction of the faith accomplished by Luther. 

Analysis and Relevance

The revelations made by Theobald Beer, Remigius Baümer, and other German theologians regarding the marginal glosses of Luther are penetrating in their consequences. For centuries, Luther has been considered the one who straightened the barque of Peter and, scraping off the barnacles from the sides, got it to sail again. Instead, what these glosses reveal is a man divided against himself and projecting his own struggle onto the Church. Profound implications follow for the JDDJ as well. It optimistically states that ‘our churches have come to new insights. Developments have taken place that not only make possible also require the churches to examine the divisive questions and condemnations and see them in a new light. ‘

The first question then must be asked: have Lutherans rejected the Christ proposed by Luther? This is foundational, since all Protestant theology hinges on Luther’s conception of man’s total depravity. Fundamentally, all of Luther’s beliefs are implications and conclusion of that one thought. This is perhaps why it is most important to follow John Paul II’s theology of the body, which accurately counters the gnostic connotation of flesh as evil or contrary to spirit. 

Secondly, the question must be asked: do the Lutherans today formulate the same kind of justification as Luther himself did? The JDDJ does not repudiate any of the Lutheran claims, and it presents our Lutheran-Catholic differences as a mere linguistic exercise, whereby we have misunderstanding each other for centuries. No, this is false. Luther knew exactly what he was proposing and developed his theology to its full extent. 

Thirdly, what would one make of the universal call to holiness from Lumen Gentium? It rings hollow if we support the same kind of justification as the Lutherans, precisely because Luther believed that no complete transformation in Christ is possible. 

Fourthly, would coming together in common prayer be acceptable? This is perhaps the most profound implication for ministry, when especially ecumenical ventures to help the poor or pro-life initiatives are concerned. The common confession of the Trinity cannot have any reference to Luther as an authority, precisely because of such distortions of authentic Catholic theology. 

Lutherans and Catholics should consequently not be determined to converge to a point of mutual agreement, but Lutherans should be encouraged to become Catholics. This was also part of the Encyclical Ut Unum Sint by John Paul II. 


This research has argued that reconciliation among Roman Catholics and Lutherans cannot be relied upon the JDDJ alone, which itself cannot stand unless the issue of Christ’s identity is first addressed. Perhaps one may say that the Lutheran World Federation of today does not subscribe to Luther’s metaphysics. Yet, the reason behind justification by faith alone and grace alone was precisely because of Luther’s metaphysics. It appears then that the rationale behind this kind of Lutheran justification has today faded, which means that the only reason that Lutherans cling to this kind of justification is for other reasons, one of them being refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff. In order to move forward then, dialogue must serve as an opportunity to clarify the whole of scripture and Church tradition, as well as to highlight Luther’s own occult views. It is precisely in this that God’s truth resides, who is both man and God, and who will set us free. 

10 Jun 2021

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