There were a lot of “moral Reformers” before, during, and after the Reformation. Luther wasn’t one of them. The moral Reformers wanted to clean up the behavior of the Roman communion and to tidy up a dirty house. That wasn’t Luther’s calling. That wasn’t Luther’s message. His message was much more radical than that.
Yet Kaspar is right when he says that Luther recovered “central” Christian truths. He rediscovered justification on the ground of Christ’s imputed righteousness and faith as receiving and resting as the sole instrument of acceptance with God. These are central truths which the Roman communion declared to be eternally condemned in session 6 of the Council of Trent in 1547 and which it continues to reject in its most recent catechism.
If Rome succeeds in making Martin into just another floor sweeper in the Roman house, then the way is paved to obliterate the real message of the Reformation. Rome has a long history of saying what folk want to hear. Folk would very much like to believe that there is no real substantive difference between Protestants and Rome, that’s it’s all just a big misunderstanding. This line of argumentation is widely accepted–despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary in the actual texts of the Reformation.
Rome wants to domesticate brother Martin, to make him just another rebellious Augustinian monk. Don’t you believe it. He was far more than that! The differences between Rome and confessional Protestants were and aren’t over “behavior” but over the very gospel itself. Does God accept us because we are sanctified (by the infusion of grace and our cooperation with grace) or does he accept us on the basis of Christ’s finished work imputed and received through faith alone? That was the question then and it remains the question today.
R. C. Sproul did a brilliant job of summarizing the issue in 50 minutes at the Gospel-Driven Life conference this winter. You can get that lecture here. R. C.’s lecture is the next to last in the list.
UPDATE 7 March 2008 8:47 AM — some have commented by saying that my reaction to the renewed papal interest in Luther is sour grapes. Nonsense. It would be thrilling if Rome would deal honestly with Luther and accept his (and our) doctrine of justification as it was and is. This is not what is happening however. They Luther with whom they want to make friends is not the Luther of history. He’s the Luther of a fuzzy ecumenicity that makes him into just another moralist like Erasmus and hundred of others. The medieval church and the sixteenth century were chock full of folks who wanted to clean up the Roman mess without fundamentally altering it’s doctrine.
Luther wasn’t one of those.
He proposed a radically different hermeneutic: law/gospel in place of old law/new law.
He proposed a radically different doctrine of justification: sola gratia et sola fide in place of grace and cooperation with grace.
He proposed a radically different view of authority: Sola scriptura in place of Scripture as normed by tradition.
He proposed a radically different definition of grace: Unearned divine favor in place of an infused medicine.
He proposed a radically different definition of faith: Receiving and resting in Christ and his finished work in place of trusting and obeying.
These were no small changes.
To those who say that my objections make me the older brother whining about the prodigal I say: The Roman bishop is not my father!