Earlier this week, Pope Francis released an apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad) on holiness and sanctification. That is, how do we live into the joy of God’s grace and Christ’s resurrection?
At times, the Pope sounds like Luther:
The Church has repeatedly taught that we are justified not by our own works or efforts, but by the grace of the Lord, who always takes the initiative. The Fathers of the Church, even before Saint Augustine, clearly expressed this fundamental belief. Saint John Chrysostom said that God pours into us the very source of all his gifts even before we enter into battle. Saint Basil the Great remarked that the faithful glory in God alone, for “they realize that they lack true justice and are justified only through faith in Christ”.
In the next paragraph, though, he cites to councils and synods. While Luther famously opposed most conciliar teachings, Francis’ reference to Trent underscores just how little divided Augsburg from Rome even during the 16th century:
The Second Synod of Orange taught with firm authority that nothing human can demand, merit or buy the gift of divine grace, and that all cooperation with it is a prior gift of that same grace: “Even the desire to be cleansed comes about in us through the outpouring and working of the Holy Spirit”. Subsequently, the Council of Trent, while emphasizing the importance of our cooperation for spiritual growth, reaffirmed that dogmatic teaching: “We are said to be justified gratuitously because nothing that precedes justification, neither faith nor works, merits the grace of justification; for ‘if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise, grace would no longer be grace’ (Rom 11:6)”.
There is much for Lutherans to agree with, there are words of challenge as well. With our emphasis on salvation by grace and faith alone, we all too often ignore what our Catholic and Methodist kindred have known all along: God’s grace is at work in us even after Baptism, sanctifying us and leading us to good works that continue God’s salvific work in the world. (The early Lutheran reformers understood the work of sanctification, addressing it in our confessional documents, but we lost that emphasis along the way.) While we cannot justify ourselves, by the grace of God we do participate in our sanctification. To that end, Francis writes:
Within the framework of holiness offered by the Beatitudes and Matthew 25:31-46, I would like to mention a few signs or spiritual attitudes that, in my opinion, are necessary if we are to understand the way of life to which the Lord calls us. I will not pause to explain the means of sanctification already known to us: the various methods of prayer, the inestimable sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation, the offering of personal sacrifices, different forms of devotion, spiritual direction, and many others as well.
We are saved by God’s grace, and by God’s grace — given to us physically in the Sacraments and lived out in the community of the Church as the Body of Christ — we are being pulled further up and further in to new life through Christ.
Read more reactions at RNS, the National Catholic Reporter, and these three pieces from the Jesuit publication America Magazine.