If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. (Psalm 130:3,4)If one does a Google search on "Martin Luther Psalm 130", one will get many references and, in many of them, one will see the assertion that this was Luther’s favorite psalm. Most of us know enough about Luther to associate “justification by faith” with him. So the following excerpts from his commentary on this psalm will give some notion of why this was his favorite, together with giving us an opportunity to refresh ourselves on the meaning of “justification” and how important it is: The beginning of the introduction to his commentary on this psalm:
This Psalm we do also account amongst the most excellent and principal Psalms; for it sets forth the chief point of our salvation, our justification I mean, and righteousness before God. The true and sincere knowledge whereof is it which maintains and preserves the church; for it is the knowledge of truth and life. Contrariwise, where the knowledge of our justification is lost, there is no life, no church, no Christ, neither is there any judgment left either of doctrine or spirit, but all is full of horrible darkness and blindness ...Commenting on verse 4:
... herein alone the conscience finds rest and comfort, when altogether naked and without any addition of her own worthiness, it commits itself to the naked and bare mercy of God, and says, O Lord, I have thy promise that righteousness comes of mercy alone, which righteousness is nothing else but thy free pardon, that is to say, that thou wilt not mark our iniquities.This passage ends with the statement with which the dictum that “justification by faith is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls” is associated. The passage cited from the introduction makes the point even more dramatically: Take this doctrine away, and all that is left in the church is horrible darkness and blindness.
I commend, therefore, to you this definition of righteousness which David here sets forth, that to mark sin, is to condemn. Again, not to mark sin, is to justify or pronounce a man righteous. And this is true righteousness indeed, when sins are not marked, but pardoned and not imputed. Likewise in another place, also, he defines a blessed man; and Paul alleges the same definition very aptly: “Blessed is the man (says he) to whom God imputes not his sin.” He does not say, blessed is the man who has no sin, rather to whom the Lord does not impute that sin which he has ... For this doctrine makes all men alike, and before God leaves no difference. For if by imputation only we are righteous, it follows not only that we are all sinners, but that also there is no difference between the learned and unlearned, the wise and the simple, the married and unmarried, the prince and the ploughman, &c ...
Thus David sets forth in this verse the sum and effect of all true Christian doctrine, and that sun which gives light to the church. For while this doctrine stands the church shall stand and flourish. But when this doctrine fails, the church must needs fail and fall to ruin ...
In addition to making these points about the importance of this doctrine, Luther here gives very clear guidance on just what this “justification” is which alone can save us: It is (as he puts it in the introduction to his commentary on Galatians) an “alien righteousness”. It is Christ’s righteousness, imputed to those who trust in him, and apprehended by faith, and by faith alone.
For by grace you have been saved through faith,and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God,not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph. 2:8-10)All this is offered as a preliminary to an important point about the Church of Rome: It is constitutionally forbidden to assent to this “doctrine on which the church stands or falls”. The Sixth Session of the Council of Trent (held January 13, 1547) produced the “Decree on Justification” which (since, in their view, the Council could not err) binds Rome. Chapter X of that Decree is “On the increase of Justification received”. It deals with what follows after either one’s baptism as an infant, or what they term “the initial justification of the impious.” Since it’s a short Chapter, it’s worth quoting in its entirety:
“Having, therefore, been thus justified, and made the friends and domestics of God, advancing from virtue to virtue, they are renewed, as the Apostle says, day by day; that is, by mortifying the members of their own flesh, and by presenting themselves as instruments of justice unto sanctification, they, through the observance of the commandments of God and the Church, faith co-operating with good works, increase in that justice which they have received through the grace of Christ, and are still further justified, as it is written: He that is just, let him be justified still; and again, Be not afraid to be justified even to death; and also, Do you see that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. And this increase of justification holy Church begs, when she prays, ‘Give unto us, O Lord, increase of faith, hope, and charity.’”If a lot of that seems very familiar--and desirable!--to evangelicals, that’s because much of it deals with what we call “sanctification”. And the crux of the matter in this Chapter is that it essentially says that “justification” is only begun by faith, and must be completed by a sanctified life. (Because of this view, the preceding Chapter, "Against the vain confidence of the heretics", declares that what we call "assurance of salvation" is an impossibility in this life.) As Luther puts it more than once, what Rome taught both before and after Trent (and to which it definitively committed itself at Trent), is that we are not “justified by faith alone”, but rather we are “justified by faith working through love.” (Galatians 5:6 is a favorite with Rome, because they use it this way.)
This is not to say that this Chapter does not raise some questions which would be profitable for us to consider: How seriously do we take sanctification? What do we do with the 2nd Chapter of James? What do we say when we see no fruit in the life of someone who professes Christ? The list could go on.
But the most fundamental question that it should ask us is, “Do we stand with Luther or with Rome”? If we stand with Luther, that is, if we believe that, God accepts us as righteous, “not for anything wrought in us, or done by us, but for Christ’s sake alone ... we receiving and resting on Him and His righteousness by faith”, and we believe that this is “the doctrine on which the church stands or falls”, then we’re constrained to be realistic about the whole idea of “Evangelical Catholics”: There may be true believers in the Roman Church, but that “church” is a fallen one, and is committed to staying that way. Otherwise put, there may be “Evangelical Catholics”, but there is no “Evangelical Catholicism”, just an organization that excommunicated itself almost 500 years ago, “no life, no church, no Christ.”
It may not feel good to be so constrained, but there it is.