So, just what was it about Roman Catholic teaching that moved an Augustinian monk to take on the establishment on October 31, 1517? What was it that caused the Pope to add to Luther this threat to excommuncate him (photo at right)? Their addiction to adding unbiblical things to biblical doctrines of grace, faith and the work of Christ. Here’s an excerpt from R. C. Sproul’s book, What is Reformed Theology, which summarizes Rome’s doctrine of justification, its extension to the issue of indulgences, and Luther’s objections thereto (pages 63-66).
How then are we made righteous? The Roman Catholic doctrine of justification is complex. Let us summarize this view. Justification begins with baptism, the “instrumental cause” of justification. By this sacrament the grace of Christ’s righteousness is infused into the soul. The baptized person is cleansed of original sin and is now in a state of grace. The person must cooperate with and assent to the infused grace in order to become righteous. The grace justification is not permanaent. It may be lost through the commission of mortal sin.
Rome distinguishes between mortal and venial sin. Venial sin is real sin but is less serious. Mortal sin is called mortal because it kills the justifying grace in the soul. Mortal sin destroys grace but not faith. A person can retain true faith and still not be justified.
When a person commits mortal sin and loses the grace of justification received in baptism, he or she can be restored to a state of justification by the sacrament of penance. This sacrament is described by Rome as “the second plank of justification for those who have made shipwreck of their souls.” The sinner confesses his sin to a priest, makes an act of contrition, receives priestly absolution, and then performs “works of satisfaction” to be restored to a state of grace.
These works of satisfaction lay behind much of the controversy in the sixteenth century. The works of satisfaction procure for the penitent congruous merit (meritum de congruo). Congruous merit is not condign merit (meritum de condigno), merit so worthy that a just God is obligated to reward it. Congruous merit is rooted in grace and is not so virtuous as to impose an obligation on God. It is instead “congruous” or “fitting” for God to reward this kind of merit.
Martin Luther strongly rejected the concept of congruous merit:
These arguments of the Scholastics about the merit of congruence and of worthiness (de merito congrui et condigni) are nothing but vain fig,ments and dreamy speculations of idle folk about worthless stuff. Yet they form the foundation of the papacy, and on them it rests to this very day. For this is what every monk imagines: by observing the sacred rules of my order I can earn the grace of congruence, but by the works I do after I have received this grace I can accumulate a merit so great that it will not only be enough to bring me to eternal life but enough to sell and give it to others ( Luther, What Luther Says, 2:921).
Luther’s vehemence on this point must be understood against the backdrop of the Reformation struggle. It is fair to say that the whole firestorm was ignited by an aspect of the sacrament of penance. The indulgence controversy that provoked Luthers’ famous Ninety-five Theses focused on the concept of works of satisfaction, a concept integral to penance. One work of satisfaction a penitent may perform is the giving of alms. To be sure, alms must be given in a proper spirit to be effective.
In the sixteenth century Rome embarked on a huge building project involving St. Peter’s Basilica. The pope made special indulgences available to those who gave alms to support this work. The pope has the “power of the keys,” which includes the power to grant indulgences for people who are in purgatory because they lack sufficient merit to enter heaven. The pope can draw on the treasury of merit and apply it to the needs of those in purgatory. This treasury includes merit amassed there by the saints. The saints acquired not only sufficient merit to gain entrance into heaven, but also a surplus for others who had not. This excess or surplus merit is achieved by performing works of supererogation, works that are above and beyond the call of duty, such as martyrdom.
Johann Tetzel scandalized Luther by his crass method (unauthorized by Rome) of peddling indulgences. Tetzel marketed indulgences with the ditty, “Every time a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” He gave peasants the impression that one could purchase salvation for departed friends and relatives simply by giving alms, with or without the spirit of penitence. At this point in his life Luther himself was keenly interested in these indulgences. he expressed remorse that his parents were still alive, preventing him from insuring their entrance into heaven by securing indulgences for them. Instead he gave alms in behalf of his grandparents.
When Luther raised questions about Tetzel’s methods, he began to reevaluate the entire system of indulgences, including the sacrament 0f penance itself. He attacked the whole system, paying special attention to the concept of performing works of merit of any kind, whether congruous or condign. He insisted that the only merit that can avail for the sinner’s justification is the merit of Christ.
Rome agreed that the merit of Christ is necessary for salvation. Likewise Rome insisted on the necessity of grace and faith for justification. Often the difference between the Roman view of justification and the Protestant view is misstated. Some say Rome believes in justification by merit and Protestants believe in justification by grace. Rome believes in justification by works, while Protestants believe in justification by faith. Rome believes in justification by the church, while Protestants believe in justification by Christ. To state the differences this way is to radically distort the issue and to be guilty of gross slander against Rome.
The Roman Catholic church believes that grace, faith, and Chrsit are all necessary for the sinner’s justification. They are necessary conditions, but not sufficient conditions. While grace is necessary for justification, it is not enough. Merit (at least congruous merit) must be added to grace.
Rome declares that faith is necessary for justification. Faith is called the foundation (fundamentum) and the (root) of justification. Works must be added to faith, however, for justification to occur.
Likewise the righteousness of Chrsit is necessary for justification. This righteousness must be infused into the soul sacramentally. The sinner must cooperate with and assent to this infused righteousness, so that real righteousness becomes inherent in the person before he can be justified.
Missing from the Roman Catholic formula for justification is the crucial word alone. It is not an exaggeration to say that the eye of the Reformation tornado was this one little word. The Reformers insisted that justification is by grce alone (sola gratia), by faith alone (sola fide), and through Christ alone (soli Christo).