One of the great gifts of the Reformation is the lifting up of the concept of justification my faith through grace. The late medieval church had an emphasis on finding ways to make atonement for sins. What started as a way to soothe anxious consciences devolved into what appeared to be a crass "selling of salvation" through the sale of indulgences. Enraged by the blatant exploitation of poor people by clever indulgence sellers, Martin Luther also questioned any practices, however virtuous, that were done to appease God.
Having spent decades trying to please God through confession, self/deprivation, and countless acts of ecclesiastical piety, including a pilgrimage to Rome, Luther finally turned to scripture, wherein he discovered justification by grace through faith. It was a discovery that turned his life upside down, and, as a result, turned the European church upside down. It was this discovery that led Luther to propose the 95 Theses, as a way to discuss how the church had everything all wrong when it came to indulgences and other attempts to appease God's wrath.
Luther's efforts were met with anger and denunciation by the church hierarchy, and by enthusiasm by many others. Clearly one of the issues was that the indulgences were a robust revenue stream for the building of St. Peter's in Rome. People had strong feelings about that, depending on which side of the Holy Roman Empire they were on. But the issues went deeper than simply if this was a fair way to raise money. The deeper issue was whether we could do anything to influence God to look more favorably upon us. The traditional answer was"Yes, of course we can."
Luther's answer, from his reading of scripture, was, "No, we cannot." To Luther and his followers, this was good news. Because we don't need to. We are not justified, forgiven, made whole by anything we do, but by God's amazing grace. This is good news. This is freedom. But it also had negative consequences.
And thus was born the Lutheran aversion to "works righteousness," the notion that doing good works might be interpreted as trying to bribe Him, rather than trusting in God's grace. Lutheran quietism is a result of a fear of good works .
Over the centuries, Catholics and Lutherans argued about justification, about faith and works. Catholics critiqued Lutherans for going overboard against works; Lutherans critiqued Catholics for having more faith in their works than on God. It was only after Vatican 2, when Lutheran and Catholic theologians began to talk together seriously, did our two churches make real efforts to come to an understanding of this doctrine that had separated the church for four and a half centuries. Those talks culminated in 1999, when representatives of the Vatican and the Lutheran World Federation signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, ending a five century stumbling block.
Catholics and Lutherans publicly agree that justification is by faith. And Lutherans and Catholics publicly agree that we engage in good works, not to save our souls, but out of gratitude for what God has already done through Jesus Christ.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA