The pope has declared 28 June 2008 to 29 June 2009 to be the “year of St Paul”, in celebration of the 2000th anniversary of the apostle’s birth. To that end, the pope is teaching about St Paul in his weekly audiences in St Peter’s Square – and one of the most interesting (and heartening) aspects of these teaching sessions are B16’s citations of Martin Luther.
On Wednesday of this week, for example, Pope Benedict spoke of the relationship between justification by faith and the believer’s acts of love – an issue at the heart of the Reformation. The linked article deserves to be read in its entirety, as Benedict outlines how we have been freed from the Law, but not from “doing good”, and how it is Christ who “makes us just”.
Being just simply means being with Christ, being in Christ, that is all. The other precepts are no longer necessary. Luther’s expression ‘sola fide’ is true, if faith is not against charity, against love. To believe is to see Christ, to trust in Christ, to become attached to Christ, to conform to Christ, to his life.
So here we have the pope affirming that “sola fide” is true, “if faith is not against charity, against love”. But that is precisely what the Lutheran confessors were affirming all along: that faith is not against love, but rather love is the natural outworking of faith (“We, too, say that love should follow faith” – Apology, Art. IV, 111).
Now we can perhaps take more issue with the pope’s next sentence, where he defines belief as not merely trusting Christ’s promises, but being “conform[ed] to Christ”. We would want to say – and it’s crucial that we are able to say – that being conformed to Christ is a consequence of saving faith, not a component part of it. As Revd J.R. Hermeneut (who drew my attention to the linked article) put it, “at the end of the day, it must suffice to say ‘But I’m baptized!'”, without having to fret about whether we are sufficiently conformed to Christ to be assured of God’s favour towards us. But compared to the sharp divisions that existed between Rome and the Reformation, this is small potatoes: and it is Rome that has moved, at least in its perception of what Luther was saying.
There is still plenty to object about in the Roman Catholic Church, and in the office of the papacy. But let’s not minimise this: by the grace of God, we have now reached a point at which a pope is able to say, “Luther’s expression ‘sola fide’ is true”. That is not everything, but it is a good thing, and something to be grateful for.