Catholics and Luther – a new perspective
by Denis Edwards
As part of the lead-up to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, an ecumenical working party of Lutherans and Catholics has been planning a program of projects and events to jointly commemorate the occasion. One project is a series of articles about the significance of the Reformation, written by Lutheran and Catholic authors from around Australia, to be published in both Lutheran and Catholic publications. The second in our series of six is by Reverend Professor Denis Edwards from the Australian Catholic University’s School of Theology and Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry.
A new perspective on Martin Luther has been opened up for Roman Catholics by the fundamental consensus with the Lutheran church on the doctrine of justification, which was expressed in the Joint Declaration signed in Augsburg, Germany, on 31 October 1999.
What a joy it is that we can come together on what was the central cause of division between our churches, and that we no longer condemn each other’s views on the central truth of our faith, our salvation in Christ!
What does this mean for Roman Catholics in their view of Luther? I think it provides the possibility to see Luther as offering a precious gift on the journey of faith, in his conviction that God is a radically gracious God, who makes us right.
By studying the Scriptures, Luther came to a truly liberating discovery. We don’t make ourselves right before God, but are justified simply by God’s grace. It is God who saves us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is God who makes us right in Christ. And God does this as a free gift. The whole of our Christian life flows from this free gift.
I believe this insight is a gift from the Luther we Roman Catholics need to receive. Some have a view of God that fills them with fear, and they need to hear again the liberating idea that God is a God of grace and mercy; it is God who makes us right, not what we do. But in our society today there are other ways we can be trapped in self-justification. There can be a desperation to prove to ourselves and others that we matter, that we are important.
We can attempt to make ourselves right by the kind of home we have. We can try to make ourselves right by competing for attention, for status, for a better job, for more money.
Many of us get caught up in a cycle of more and more work, as if taking on more, or achieving more, makes us right.
The Lutheran emphasis on the doctrine of justification is a powerful reminder of what is central to the gospel: that we are made right by God, and by God alone. We are made right by God’s love poured out in the world in Jesus Christ, in his life, death and resurrection.
We are made right by a God of love, whose grace and mercy always goes before us and in whom we can entrust every aspect of our life and our death. In entrusting ourselves to him we find true freedom. We are enabled to live in freedom, free of the desperate need to prove ourselves. We are freed to take joy in God’s good creation and to live lovingly with those around us.