In Francis’s writings, we see a theological emphasis on the mercy mentioned in Paul’s writings and a key to a true comprehension of the doctrine of justification. In his book Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis clearly says, “The salvation which God offers us is the work of his mercy. No human efforts, however good they may be, can enable us to merit so great a gift. God, by his sheer grace, draws us to himself and makes us one with him.”
Similarly, in The Name of God Is Mercy, the pope states, “Jesus forgave even those who crucified and scorned him. We must go back to the gospel. … No human sin, however serious, can prevail over or limit mercy.” It is evident that Pope Francis wants to teach the church, once again, to recover a sense of the lavishness of God’s grace and mercy, not to be earned by legalistic works done out of fear.
Recovery Not Discovery
The pope’s teaching on this subject is not an innovation, still less a rejection of traditional Catholicism. It is essentially a recovery of a balance between grace and mercy on the one hand and obedience to God’s law on the other, going back to the early days of the church. This distinction is also important in understanding how Luther’s emphasis on justification by faith was not a discovery, but a recovery.
On the one hand, going back to the Gospels, as Pope Francis suggests, we see that Jesus clearly illustrated in his actions and expressed in his words a consistent teaching that God’s love is available to sinners, something freely and lavishly given. The three parables in Luke 15 (the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the Prodigal Son or lost son) all testify to God’s seeking of the lost, who are welcomed back without “earning” anything. Jesus publicly forgave sinners who repented, such as the woman who knelt at his feet and washed them with her tears (Luke 7:36–50) and Matthew/Levi, the tax collector (Matt. 9:9 and Luke 5:27–32). Both examples caused Jesus to be criticized for associating with a known sinner.
The ultimate example of Jesus’ love and mercy is shown on the cross, where Jesus forgave his enemies and executioners, as well as another publicly known sinner, one of the two thieves crucified with him (Luke 23:39–43). Though there is no explicit teaching about “justification by faith” in the Gospels, Jesus’ great mercy toward sinners, coupled with his denunciation of the self-righteousness of the Pharisees, implicitly and powerfully shows that legalistic striving is not the way to salvation.
However, it would be wrong to see in Jesus’ denunciation of the Pharisees a renunciation of the Jewish law or advocacy of immoral behavior. Jesus never says the Jewish law is bad or to be rejected. In fact, he says just the opposite in Matthew 5:19 and 23:1–12. The Pharisees were sinning, not by their devotion to the law, but through an emphasis on law over love, through trusting in their own righteousness. This tendency is critiqued in Jesus’ parable about the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple, where it is the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who Jesus says would leave the temple justified before God (Luke 18:9–14). Experiencing this kind of forgiving love through faith leads to the love that fulfills the law. Self-righteously and proudly trying to earn God’s favor through legalism does not lead to love.