This truth makes up the essence of Augustine’s conversion. Just before his complete conversion, Augustine had a vision of Continence, personified as a loving and gracious woman, who reassures him: “Why are you relying on yourself, only to find yourself unreliable? Cast yourself upon him, do not be afraid.” It was this vision that prepared Augustine for the experience shortly following, in the Milan garden, where he “takes and reads,” from Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh in its lusts” (13:13–14).
Putting on Christ is made possible only through justification by faith in God’s great and saving love, not through striving in one’s own power, as Paul says, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). Only Christ can perfectly fulfill the law of God, so we can only be fully justified when he lives it through us. Cardinal Kasper points out that God reconciles himself with us, “But he does that so that we, as a result, become a new creation in Christ,” referring to 2 Corinthians 5:17–19. We are transformed by the grace of God working in our hearts.
Despite the recent affirmations of Catholic leaders, particularly Pope Francis, affirming the grace-filled teaching at the heart of the Christian faith, church teaching on this subject at the time of the Reformation was not always clear, and to some believers, the life of faith may have seemed like a series of rules. This was not the true teaching of the church, but for some—like the young monk Luther—the teaching of mercy was getting lost. However, this problem can develop in believers at any time, if we are not careful.
Rules and customs develop, supposedly based on the Bible, even the Bible alone (sola scriptura), but any human institution and any human being can easily turn from grace to law. It is an easy temptation to fall into, the temptation of the elder brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. We work so hard that we miss the fact that the Father loves us and that all he has is ours. He longs to shower love on us, but we are so busy trying to earn it that we miss its many manifestations and the still small voice speaking to our hearts. When Catholic leaders today like Pope Francis and Fr. Cantalamessa speak positively of Luther, it shows a recovery of an emphasis on trusting in God’s grace and justification by faith that is at the heart of Christianity, whether Catholic or Protestant.
Nancy Enright is an associate professor of English and Catholic studies at Seton Hall University, where she serves as director of the core.