- "The Righteousness of God Has Been Manifested":The Fifth Centenary of the Protestant Reformation, an Occasion of Grace and Reconciliation for the Whole Church*
Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, justification by faith, righteousness of God, Council of Trest, repentance
I. The Origins of the Protestant Reformation
I believe that trying to shed light on the history and the current state of the discussion on justification by faith for sinners is the most useful way to make the anniversary of the fifth centenary of the Protestant Reformation an occasion of grace and reconciliation for the whole church. We cannot dispense with rereading the whole passage from the Letter to the Romans (3:21–28), on which that discussion is centered.1 It says:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his [End Page 423] divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On the principle of works? No, but on the principle of faith. For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.
How could it have happened that such a comforting and clear message became the bone of contention at the heart of Western Christianity, splitting the church and Europe into two different religious continents? Even today, for the average believer in certain countries in Northern Europe, that doctrine constitutes the dividing line between Catholicism and Protestantism. I myself have had faithful Lutheran lay people ask me, "Do you believe in justification by faith?" as the condition for them to hear what I had to say. This doctrine is defined by those who began the Reformation themselves as "the article by which the Church stands or falls" (articulus stantis et cadentis Ecclesiae).
We need to go back to Martin Luther's famous "tower experience" that took place in 1511 or 1512. (It is referred to this way because it is thought to have occurred in a cell at the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg called "the Tower.") Luther was in torment, almost to the point of desperation and resentment toward God, because all his religious and penitential observances did not succeed in making him feel accepted by God and at peace with God. It was here that, suddenly, St. Paul's word in Rom. 1:17 flashed through his mind: "The just shall live by faith." It was a liberating experience. Recounting this experience himself when he was close to death, he wrote, "When I discovered this, I felt I was reborn, and it seemed that the doors of paradise opened up for me."2
Some Lutheran historians rightly go back to this moment some years before 1517 as the real beginning of the Reformation. What transformed this inner experience into a real religious chain reaction was the issue of indulgences, which made Luther decide to send his famous ninety-five theses to Archbishop Albrecht von Magdeburg and to the doctors of the University, on October 31, 1517. It is important to note the historical succession of these facts. It tells us that the thesis of justification by faith and not by works was not the result of a polemic with the church of his time but its [End Page 424] cause. It was a genuine illumination from above, an "experience," "Erlebnis," as he described it.
A question immediately arises: How do we explain the earthquake that was caused by the position Luther took? What was there about it that was so revolutionary? St. Augustine had given the same explanation for the...