A Catholic Insight Into the Reformation’s Central Truth

Today, as some of you know, is not only Halloween, and All-Saints Eve, but it is Reformation Day. There was a time when this event was celebrated in many Protestant churches. I miss those celebrations. I do not miss the triumphal attitudes or the pride that often went with the celebration but I miss the powerful reminders that something very important did happen in the 16th century and it really does still matter.

Some argue that nothing that ever comes from Rome, or from a Roman Catholic writer, can ever understand the central point of the Reformation. (It intrigues me that such people are “sure” they do understand the central point but then their lives often deny it!) I strongly differ with this polemical perspective. In fact, I believe the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification has gone a long way to show us all how close the respective communions of Lutheranism and Catholicism have actually come in nearly 500 years. A myriad of conservative naysayers, found on both sides, are skeptical about all this talk about justification, believing we cannot agree no matter what anyone says, but I encourage you to read the document for yourself.

At the same time I am not prepared to say that everything has been resolved or that we are in complete agreement. We are not and saying so is still truthful and important. We do not reach unity by acting as if disagreements do not exist. We reach unity by the way of love and love compels us to be honest but relational.

The God Who Loves A Catholic reader of this blog urged me in an email a few days ago to read Peter Kreeft’s wonderful book, The God Who Loves You (Ignatius, 2004). I began reading the book this last week. It is magnificent. I urge everyone to read it. Kreeft’s whole point is that God loved the universe into existence and God so loved the world that he sent his Son to redeem it. This, he argues very cogently, is the central truth about God’s nature that is revealed to us in Scripture, not in nature.

In the opening chapter of Kreeft’s book he writes about the twelve most profound ideas he has ever had. They all came to him as “aha” moments, with the force of what could be called revelatory experience. His shows how every single one of these ideas concerns the love of God. Several of his big ideas he learned while still a Protestant, even as a young child. Others he learned after becoming a Roman Catholic but with appreciation for writers on both sides of our divide. But this is his central point—all of them took him back to the central idea of God’s love.

His seventh big idea brought Dr. Kreeft back to the Protestant Reformation and made him think about its core message. On this day I find his insight powerful and unifying. His seventh “eureka” moment led him to write: “The gift of God’s love is ours for the taking.” He writes:

I am a Roman Catholic. But the most liberating idea I have ever learned I heard first from Martin Luther. Pope John Paul II told the German Lutheran bishops that Luther was profoundly right about this idea. He said that Catholic teaching affirms it just as strongly and that there is no contradiction between Protestant and Catholic theology on this terribly important point, which was the central issue of the Protestant Reformation. I speak, of course, about “justification by faith” and its consequence, which Luther called “Christian liberty” or “the liberty of a Christian” in his little gem of fan essay by that name (The God Who Loves You, 23).

Kreeft goes on to say that the problem with this important point is that we approach it from the wrong direction. “Let’s begin with a solid certainty: God is love. God is a lover, not a manager, businessman, accountant, owner, or puppet-master. What he wants from us first of all is not a technically correct performance but our heart” (The God Who Loves, 23). The very symbol of John Calvin, as Reformed folks know, is human hands offering the heart to a God of love.

kreeft Kreeft (photo at left) says he first discovered this truth from C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. The truth liberated him just as it had the Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, almost 5oo years before. Lewis wrote: “We may think God wants actions of a certain kind, but God wants people of a certain sort” (cited by Kreeft, 23). The point, Kreeft reasons, is rather simple: heaven is free because God’s love is free! Salvation is a gift to be taken by faith and not by human performance in any sense.

Kreeft also gets it right when he adds, “The primacy of faith does not discount or denigrate works but liberates them. Our good works can now also be free—free from the worry and slavery and performance anxiety of having to buy Heaven with them. Our good works can now flow from genuine love of neighbor, nor fear of Hell” (Kreeft, 24). He concludes: “The whole point of justification by faith is God’s scandalous, crazy, and wonderful gift of love” (Kreeft, 25). Amen!

Happy Reformation Day. Celebrate the joys of how this truth was recovered, via the insights of St. Augustine and St. Paul, and pray that we will all learn to drop the polemics that have dominated our separation for nearly five centuries. There is room for more love on both sides of our present painful division. There is also much work to be done to help people, on both sides, to understand that the “whole point of justification by faith is God’s scandalous, crazy, and wonderful gift of love.” I treasure that sentence today more than ever!

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