What's His Is Ours
About the latter supposition, Cajetan was unfortunately, prophetically, correct. But in the ensuing centuries, Luther's understanding of faith would also suffer distortions at the hands of fellow Protestants. Faith has become a leap in the dark, divorced from the concrete good news of Christ's death and resurrection. Or faith has become "all you have to do is … "—invariably a sign of a bad theology in progress. Or it has been downgraded to sheer intellectual knowledge, a sign-on-the-dotted-line kind of belief, which among other things promotes terrible hostility toward marginal- and non-Christians. Or it has turned into a psychological vortex, where I am saved only if I believe enough, but I start to wonder if I believe enough, and then I doubt that I believe at all. But Christ's faith is resilient enough to handle our doubts; it transforms not only our minds but our hearts as well; and it cuts the ground out from any Christian self-congratulation—for it is the living work of the living Lord.
The Justified Life
The implications of justification by faith are vast. In the early church, it broke down the barrier between Jews and Gentiles, making unity between disparate ethnic groups possible. It challenged the medieval church for selling what God gives away abundantly and for free. It pops the bubble of well-behaved Christians who think their sanctified lives set them apart from the wretched and dissolute. It lifts up the weary who try and fail to produce impressive fruits of righteousness, gently reminding them that all of us depend on a righteousness not our own. It gives us the courage to confess our sins instead of covering them up, because we are no longer invested in proving our progress. It even eases anxiety over the act of faith itself, confirming that any faith we have is Christ's own faith, not an accomplishment we can credit to ourselves.
In fact, Luther assumes (again in "Two Kinds of Righteousness") that justification by faith will transform not only our souls but all of our social relations, including the harmful ones that all too often characterize church life: "For you are powerful, not that you may make the weak weaker by oppression, but that you may make them powerful by raising them up and defending them. You are wise, not in order to laugh at the foolish and thereby make them more foolish, but that you may undertake to teach them as you yourself would wish to be taught. You are righteous that you may vindicate and pardon the unrighteous, not that you may only condemn, disparage, judge, and punish." Christ gave what he had to us; so we Christians in turn give what we have to others.
The doctrine of justification means that Christ's righteousness is an unconditional gift to the ungodly. It means that faith really does have the power to move mountains, especially the mountains of guilt, pride, and despair that weigh down our souls. As Luther once notoriously wrote in a letter to his friend and colleague Philip Melanchthon: "If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true and not a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world."
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is assistant research professor at the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, and the editor of Lutheran Forum.