Are Lutherans heretics?

Is the Pope Catholic?

According to some critics, the answer is…no.

Recently Lutheran blogger Gene Veith brought to my attention this startling development: Pope Francis has formally been brought up on charges of heresy. This has not happened to a sitting Pope since the 14th century!

As remarkable as this is, though, that’s not the half of it. See, chief among his errors is…he’s too Lutheran! From the document, called a “Filial Correction“:

[We] feel compelled by conscience to advert to Your Holiness’s unprecedented sympathy for Martin Luther, and to the affinity between Luther’s ideas on law, justification, and marriage…Catholics need to be warned not only against these seven errors, but also against this heretical system as such, not least by reason of Your Holiness’s praise of the man who originated it [i.e. Luther].

At first I thought this was an article from The Onion. It’s the month of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and the Pope’s accused of being a Lutheran!  Folks, you cannot make this stuff up.

No crypto-Lutheran here

Now, in point of fact I do not think that the Pope is crypto-Lutheran. For example, the authors cite Francis’s statement that “nowadays, Lutherans and Catholics, and all Protestants, are in agreement on the doctrine of justification.” This is manifestly not the case; the biblical and Reformation position is that justification—that is, being declared righteous in God’s sight—is simply and solely God’s gracious reception of sinners, for Christ’s sake, by faith alone.

This is (still) not Rome’s teaching. About a half-century after Luther’s 95 Theses the Roman Catholics held their Council of Trent. At that Council they stated, among a laundry list of other excommunicable offenses, “If anyone says that by faith alone the impious are justified (that nothing else is required to obtain justification and that it is not necessary to use one’s own will), let him be anathema” (that is, accursed and excommunicated from the Church).

So I guess St. Paul is out: “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Romans 4.5). But I digress.

The heart of the authors of the Filial Correction’s critique of the Pope’s sympathy with the “heretical system” of Lutheranism is his supposed advocacy for Luther’s teaching of “the happy (or blessed) exchange”—that Christ takes on our sin and we receive His righteousness. This was news to me, and to the extent that the Pope truly espouses this teaching God bless him. Even more stunning to me, though, was the response of the authors. I quote at length:

The gospel does not teach that all sins will in fact be forgiven, nor that Christ alone experienced the ‘judgement’ or justice of God, leaving only mercy for the rest of mankind. While there is a ‘vicarious suffering’ of our Lord in order to expiate our sins, there is not a ‘vicarious punishment’, for Christ was made “sin for us” (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21) and not a sinner. Out of divine love, and not as the object of God’s wrath, Christ offered the supreme sacrifice of salvation to reconcile us with God, taking upon himself only the consequences of our sins (cf. Gal. 3:13). Hence, so that we may be justified and saved, it is not sufficient to have faith that our sins have been removed by a supposed vicarious punishment; our justification lies in a conformity to our Saviour achieved by that faith which works through charity (cf. Gal. 5:6).

I will resist making a point-by-point refutation; I can’t do any better than Philip Melanchthon did in Article IV of the Defense of the Augsburg Confession, so I strongly urge interested readers to check that out. (You may want to get a copy from our church library, since it’s quite long.) Let me just address the last claim, noted in bold.

Justification by conformity?

The authors insist that our justification comes not from faith alone in Christ’s finished work but “in a conformity to our Savior achieved by that faith which works through charity.” This line of argumentation against Lutherans is nearly as old as the Reformation itself. At first blush it sounds good; being conformed to Christ is, after all, God’s desire (Romans 8.29). That is different from saying, though, that our acceptance by God depends on this conformity.

They cite Galatians 5.6: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” The irony of this is almost too rich. See the letter of Galatians generally, and that chapter in particular, is arguing against so-called “Judaizers” who were insisting that Christ alone was insufficient for justification—that you also needed to append works of the Law.

So Paul insists in the immediately preceding verses, “Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Gal 5.2-4). Paul is saying that if you try to add anything to Jesus, you’ve effectively renounced Him!

He’s even more blunt a little earlier in the letter: “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal 2.21). In other words, as a point of simple logic, if humans were capable of keeping God’s Law and meriting righteousness…what’s that whole Cross Thing for? Jesus did not say, “It’s started” or “It’s half-done,” after all. He said tetelestai, “It is FINISHED.”

As the hymn puts it, “What more can He say than to you He has said / who unto the Savior for refuge have fled?” Indeed, there is no other foundation than Christ alone.

So are Lutherans heretics?

I should say not. We simply speak where Scripture speaks. That’s been our legacy for 500 years, and Lord willing—if He should tarry—for 500 more. And if the Pope wants on the bandwagon, I for one won’t hold it against him.


Download the Filial Correction (the Luther stuff starts on p. 12)

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