It was this tendency toward legalism within the church of his day, which Luther was countering in the Reformation. As Cardinal Walter Kasper says, “The insight that God’s justice is not a punitive justice, but rather a justice that justifies the sinner, counts as the great Reformation discovery of Martin Luther, a discovery that also liberated him personally from anxiety about sin and from a troubled conscience.”
However, Cardinal Kasper says “Luther’s discovery is fundamentally a rediscovery. It has older roots in the common tradition of the early church. We find these roots in Augustine, for whom Luther had high esteem, and in Bernard of Clairvaux” and, as we have seen, in the writings of Paul and the Gospels. Luther did not invent this doctrine of justification by faith; he simply redirected the church’s focus toward it. The saving death of Christ out of his great love is the root and source of our justification. Both Protestant and Catholic historians know that Luther himself saw his ideas as a rediscovery, but many lay people in both traditions might not realize the common roots of the doctrine of justification, going back to the earliest days of the church, and the more formal links among Catholic and Lutheran church leaders today.
However, we do not want to act as if there are no differences between Catholics and Protestants at all. Though I would argue that a clear understanding of Catholicism puts it very close, if not identical, to the Protestant view of justification by faith, Catholics do emphasize sacraments (seven in the Roman Catholic Church) as a means of participating in the grace available through Christ’s death and resurrection.
Most Catholics do not think of these sacraments as “works,” any more than most Protestant Christians consider baptism (one of the two sacraments kept by Luther) as a work either. Protestants see baptism as an outward sign of an inner spiritual reality. Similarly, according to the catechism, Catholics view each sacrament as “an outward sign instituted by God to give grace.” Though we emphasize them more than Protestants do, Catholics see sacraments not as actions that earn God’s favor, but as physical ways we can experience his grace in a particular and profound way. In both traditions, sacraments should not be understood as “works righteousness.”
The Heart of Christianity
But, does this liberating experience of justification through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus lead to such a relaxed conscience that we can slide into presumption, to the idea that “it doesn’t matter what I do because I’m saved”? This idea is strongly countered by Paul in the letter to Romans, where he asks one of many rhetorical questions: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” (6:1–2). Rather, through the free gift of justification, we are saved for a life of good works, done in the Spirit, as Paul explains: “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. … For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:8, 14). This life of grace flows out of the justified soul, because it is Christ living in the soul, loving through him or her.