(Originally published July 2011 at pseudepigraphic.blogspot.com; revised and reposted here April 2014)
The following excerpt is from the first chapter of Swiss Lutheran theologian Adolf Köberle’s 1936 monograph The Quest for Holiness (3rd German ed.; trans. John C. Mattes), entitled “Man’s Attempts to Sanctify Himself in God’s Sight.” Köberle’s work is riveting, though hard to follow at times, but he who sticks with it to the end reaps an ample reward — as well as a definite desire to read up on the philosophers whose work Köberle grasps and cites with such facility, especially the nineteenth- and twentieth-century German Romantic/Idealist school. Anyway, I won’t digress any further: I found the following excerpt to be a fair epitome of the tragedy which has befallen the noble Church of Rome, and under which she still persists, she who was once an able and faithful custodian of Christ’s Church. Köberle’s broader point in this particular chapter is that Roman Catholicism (not to be confused with Catholic Christianity, much as the denizens of Rome would like to identify the two) has gone (and been going) the way of the mystery religions, substituting moralism and mysticism for the Gospel of Christ:
Besides the purely legal moralism, which poses as the “direct expression of the relation to God” there are mixed forms where human activity and divine assistance cooperate in reaching the goal. Most of the religions of redemption must be included here and above all the Roman Catholic type of Christianity. Here there is a consciousness of the wretched weakness of human volition. There is an understanding of the fact that in spite of all honest, zealous efforts at improvement, the support of divine grace is necessary, a grace that is regarded as preceding or at least as accompanying man’s efforts. The main stress, however, still lies throughout on man’s own work. Man is to do all that he can and God supplies what is lacking by grace, as if it were possible to determine the exact maximum that each one was able to supply. Everything in Romanism indicates that it must be included in this classification. It the “devotions of large figures” (H. Preuss). The religion of quantitative accomplishments, that surge up from below to heights approaching Heaven; the idea of the monk who brings the “great obedience” as a sacrifice to God and therefore progresses toward perfection more rapidly and more surely than the one who is engaged in some secular vocation; the distinction between mortal and venial sins that constitute a greater or lesser hindrance on the “way” to God; the opinion, bordering on blasphemy, of the supererogatory works of the saints that gathered like a gigantic treasure are placed at the disposal of the Church; the teaching of the veneration of the saints that has been so evilly distorted through the idea of merits and rewards; the purpose of the mass where the gift of the redemptive work of Christ is turned into a human work that man offers God, all these opinions, that have even influenced the Protestant Church in a weakened form and have produced a certain neo-pietistic, vulgar Protestantism, can only receive such great significance in those quarters where self-sanctification by human works is positively affirmed as a presupposition, taken for granted.
Both among Christians and non-Christians these varied efforts to gain holiness have entailed much discipline, labor, and devotion. Half yearningly, half defiantly the attempt is made to compel God’s favor by moral fervor. It is a struggle to gain personal righteousness by way of the law, which can hadly be gainsaid by our enervated, irresolute times. All these attempts have one trait in common, they do not regard the human will as evil, as something that absolutely separates us from God, that is a deadly offense against His holiness, but only as something that is weak and imperfect, whose defects must be continually overcome. The extent and character of this weakness is variously estimated. The teaching of the Council of Trent is certainly severer than the Socratic optimism about the possibilities of educating the young, than Kant’s cheerful “you shall and therefore you can,” than Goethe’s “believe in the nobility and native goodness of man,” or than Schiller’s confident affirmation that “man has been created free, though he be born in chains.” Quite in agreement with this attitude are the two types we most frequently meet; the one is the figure of the ascetic and penitent, filled with anxious introspection, subjecting himself to painful discipline and despondently tormenting himself with the thought of the unattained goal; the other figure is that of the confident, untroubled man who in the proud consciousness of his good fortune and with unshaken confidence in himself continues to carry on his previous achievements. But whether the feeling of depression or that of confident victory is the dominant one, in either case the fundamental thought that permeates the whole life is the idea that by the aid of renewed, rigorous self-interest and discipline man will finally be able to liberate his spirit from the prison of a base sensuality and, thanks to his personal efforts to gain holiness, he will be able to last to appear just before God.
Let us set up a third type after the two which Köberle imagines: after the “ascetic and penitent, filled with anxious introspection” (who is contrite, but, like Judas, has no faith in the mercy of God) and the “confident, untroubled man” (who lacks contrition, and is so confident of God’s favor towards him that he regards it as his due), let us propound the repentant man. Read here the description of such a man in St. Paul’s letter to the Church at Rome:
What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.
But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works:
“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
And whose sins are covered;
Blessed is the man to whom the LORD shall not impute sin.”
(Romans iv, 1-8)
To him who does not work. What does this mean? To him who is a vegetable? No, simply that the righteousness that God demands does not consist in works, nor can it be brought about by works, nor through them (in case anyone would like to enlist a different ablative-construction here and sneak some synergism in through the grammatical backdoor). So, by all means, work. But do not work as though your working, your striving, your doing, your living, will justify you before God. Christ has justified you before God in His flesh. Believe it. Your good works were prepared beforehand that you should walk in them, in newness of life. They are not therapeutic acts that you must perform before you are just before God. You are just before God right now, by dint of Christ’s sacrifice, which avails for you in Baptism, in the Eucharist, in Confession and Absolution and in the preaching of the Word (the Law and the Gospel) by His called sacred ministers. You are righteous and pure, having Christ’s own righteousness as a gift, for in His sacrifice “you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (Colossians iii, 3-4). Your righteousness is complete. Your warfare is ended. You have been reconciled to God. And even though no man may believe this truth without the mysterious working of faith in his heart by the Holy Spirit, it remains true. Nothing is lacking in your justification. Though your life is hidden with Christ in God, it is sure. You are elect in Christ. “He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians i, 6b). He will complete it. Even though you feel death and despair, even though you sin and stumble, persist in faith. Trust him. You will be delivered. As Dr. Luther once wrote — in a turn of phrase which is both idiosyncratic and catholic — “Whoever truly believes in Christ has eternal life. Even though he still feels sin, death, and sorrow, he nonetheless possesses righteousness, life, comfort, and joy in heaven through Christ” (Blessed Martin Luther, Sermon for Trinity 2, HP II:249).
Who is doing what in the abovementioned verse from St. Paul’s Letter to the Phillipians? God. God is doing the doing. God is “running the verbs,” as Dr. Norman Nagel has been wont to put it. He began the good work; He, too, will complete it. God does salvation. You don’t. Because you can’t. You work, but you don’t work to achieve your salvation. Salvation is something that you receive, something you anticipate the fulfillment of, something you thank God for.
Now that’s irony for you. In Paul’s day it was the Church of Rome which received his most blessed Epistle, that thorough exposition of the New Testament, that gem of Scripture; in our day, it is the Church of Rome which has forgotten the same. Kyrie Eleison.