Reformation Day: Lutherans vs. Alien Righteousness

So Russell Saltzman is “dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church,* an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary, and author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays,” at least according to his bio note over at FIRST THINGS. (I have no reason to believe this is some kind of misdirection, as if he’s really a district manager for Costco, or the Green Lantern.) I’ve enjoyed Reverend Saltzman’s On the Square articles in the past, but a recent contribution gave me pause (and please, people, I have more than enough pause to last me quite a while, so think cash from now on).

The post in question was called “Why Can’t Lutherans Take Catholic Communion?” which would seem to be self-explanatory. Nevertheless, Reverend Saltzman explains how he, a Lutheran, came to receive Holy Communion in a Catholic church. (Hint: It required an archbishop.) He goes on to lament that, while Catholics are free in most cases to receive the sacrament in Lutheran churches, Lutherans are still barred from receiving in Catholic churches.

What’s up with that?

Carl Braaten, for example, a Lutheran systematics theologian, in his latest book Essential Lutheranism suggests that in light of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), nothing should impede a formal declaration of Roman Catholic-Lutheran intercommunion. A closed altar post-JDDJ “has insufficient theological warrant from Scripture.”

Regarding JDDJ as “a miracle of divine grace,” Braaten asks:

If Christians and Churches that have been divided for generations can come together and greet each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, then who among them has the authority or audacity to divide those whom Christ calls into his fellowship of grace?In short, the Lord’s Supper is the Lord’s, and we are but poor stewards of the mystery.

The check-list of agreements between Rome and Wittenburg is near comprehensive:

Justification by grace? Check.

Apostolic, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds? Check.

Baptismal regeneration unto salvation? Check.

The true body and blood of Jesus Christ truly given in communion? Check.

The sacrament of confession and absolution? Check.

Petrine primacy? As a ministry of service, no sweat. Check.

Papal infallibility? Evangelically understood, we could live with it. Check.

Ordination for life by the laying on of hands? Check.

Ordination of women? Oops. Braaten thinks infallibility is the real bug. But it isn’t. More than any other question, the ordination of women is the real elephant squatting in the ecumenical room with Lutherans and Roman Catholics. Braaten’s book says nothing about women’s ordination. For many Lutherans, it is simply a given.

The comments attached to the essay, mostly from the Catholic side, are telling. From Fr. Leonard Klein (who was the pastor of my Lutheran church when I was in high school, and whose Epiphany party I hope I am still invited to after this post goes live):

A very Lutheran approach, Russ, almost stereotypically so. You check off a list of doctrines in which Lutherans and Catholics have found agreement or near-agreement. But this approach misses the ecclesial and moral divisions.

In the Eucharistic prayer every day I pray in communion with Benedict our pope and Francis our bishop. To receive the Eucharist in a Catholic Church is to affirm what that prayer implies, the full magisterial authority of the Catholic hierarchy and of Catholic teaching. Thus it would seem that most non-Catholics would in good conscience need to abstain from receiving Communion in a Catholic mass, for they cannot affirm the ecclesial assumptions of the celebration.

Moreover, as former members of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, we are both well aware of the way in which moral teachings can mar and rupture communion and of the erosion of doctrine that enables such errors and is in turn aggravated by them. To be sure, in the past Lutherans have managed to establish “pulpit and altar” fellowship among themselves by doctrinal check lists. But no other communion thinks quite like that, and the erosion of the classical moral consensus in mainline Protestantism has added a new list of obstacles.

From “Mary”:

Lutherans are welcome to take Communion on the same terms as everyone else. Make your profession of faith at the Easter Vigil and be received.

If you think your differences from us are too big for that, they are too big for you to receive.

Yes and yes. These responses are well taken. But also beside the point.

First of all: Who are the Lutherans in question in Reverend Saltzman’s essay? Certainly not all who bear the name. Members perhaps of the Lutheran World Federation, some in the ELCA, and the NALC, and the LCMC, and those of the Arthur C. Piepkorn school. But those in the LCMS and WELS, and many other independent and confessional Lutherans, which is to say millions, never accepted the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification as speaking for them, never mind as authoritative or binding. For them, what divides Rome and Wittenberg at the altar is not primarily the nature of the papal office or women’s ordination, but remains justification.

Let’s cut to the chase: would the Roman Catholic Church today accept as doctrinally true the Lutheran teaching of the alien righteousness of Christ, of the great exchange of His righteousness for our sin, of our sanctification as being in Him, even though we are called to good works — but for the sake of our neighbor and not in aid of increasing our justification? If not, again, who are these Lutherans Reverend Saltzman is talking about whose differences with Rome are now of little significance?

Do these Lutherans now accept the existence of a Treasury of Merits? Or has Rome admitted that this was a bankrupt medieval invention and is now, in the interest of ecumenicity, disposable? Have indulgences, the flashpoint of the Reformation, also become irrelevant?

I ask this honestly: what is the true nonnegotiable here?

Let’s discuss the papal office for a moment: Was Pope Urban II Infallible, “evangelically understood,” when he declared, in regard to the First Crusade:

If anyone who sets out should lose his life either on the way, by land or by sea, or in battle against the infidels, his sins shall be pardoned from that moment. This I grant by right of the gift of God’s power to me.

Did the bishop of Rome have this authority? Urban II is addressing men who are off, he hopes, to kill the enemies of the Faith and to retrieve stolen property. Is this the true nature of the power of the keys as described in the Gospel of Matthew? Does this notion of dying in a holy war and going straight to Paradise sound familiar?

Here’s another question: Does the pope have this same authority today—to proactively forgive the temporal punishment for sins that would otherwise send someone to Purgatory (or to a purgative state), thus promising them a straight ticket to heaven in the event they died trying to kill someone else? I’m not interested in whether or not it is likely to be exercised in this day and age, nor whether the Muslims in the 12th century invited this response for overrunning the “Holy Land.” I’m only interested in whether Benedict XVI, by virtue of his office, has this authority, given him from Christ.

Whether the pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals is inextricably tied to how justification is construed. The same can be said for the nature of the Eucharist, and the priesthood.

What is the wedding garment without which no one enters the wedding feast of the King? Is it something of our own, dry-cleaned, purified, and bleached? Or is it the gift of Someone else? Is it something we do to ourselves, by aid of grace? Something we endure, in the sense of suffer? Or is it something we receive, like the Eucharist, from Another?

For some, the alien, imputed righteousness of Christ is a legal fiction, and Luther’s image of the dunghill covered with snow is usually cited as evidence. And yet these same Christians have no problem with the transfer of the supererogatory merits of the saints to the accounts of the properly disposed.

The merits of Christ’s sacrifice transferred to the sinner, as a sinner, is a fiction, but the merits of Josemaria Escriva transferred by dint of papal proclamation — that’s real.


The issue remains the same today as on October 31, 1517.

Luther hammered nails not only into a church door but also into the coffin of spiritual pride:

Believers inwardly are always sinners; therefore they are always justified from without.  The hypocrites, on the other hand, are alway righteous inwardly; therefore they are always sinners from without.  By “inwardly” I mean, as we appear before judgment and opinion; by from “without,” as we appear before God and His judgment.  We are righteous “outside ourselves” when our righteousness does not flow from our works; but is ours alone by divine imputation.  Such imputation, however, is not merited by us, nor does it lie with our power, as the prophet says in Hosea 13:9: “O Israel, thou hast destroyed thyself; but in me is thine help.” Of ourselves we are always wicked, as the Psalmist says in Psalm 51:3 “My sin is ever before me.” But the hypocrite, say: “My righteousness is ever before me, and blessed are they who do works of righteousness.”

The text says: “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven”; that is to say: Blessed are they who by grace are freed from the burden of iniquity, namely, of the actual sins which they have committed.  That, however, is not sufficient, unless also their “sins are covered,” that is unless the radical evil (original sin) which is in them is not charged to them as sin. That is covered when, though still existing, it is not regarded, considered and imputed by God; as we read: “Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.”

—Commentary on Romans

If you are convinced that Luther was wrong, that his teachings said more about his peculiar psychology than about the true nature of the Good News of Jesus Christ, then the Reformation was a tragic error, and the authority of a post–Vatican II Rome beckons. But if Luther was right, then the Reformation is here to stay.

Wittenberg or Rome.

Choose. You cannot kneel at two altars.

*Russell Saltzman has since converted to Catholicism. I am not surprised, and I wish him well.


11 thoughts on “Reformation Day: Lutherans vs. Alien Righteousness

  1. Anthony,

    This is a marvelous post. We can love our Roman Catholic brothers! But part of that love means speaking the truth in love – and continually bringing these issues up until the light dawns.

    If you don’t mind, I’d like to mention here that I am doing a short series starting today I am going to make that argument that in the future, more reflective persons who claim Christ will also embrace Martin Luther’s core biblical insights…

    Here is the argument in miniature:

    This series will consist of five parts, posted in reverse order… Part V will provide a summary of the case, as well as a collection of links which make further arguments regarding the tragic necessity of the Lutheran Reformation. In part IV, I will draw parallels with other great heroes of the faith who stood against error encroaching in the Church: Athanasius, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, and Maximus the Confessor. In part III, I will show how Luther, against his will, was eventually left with nothing but the Scriptures to cling to. In part II, I will talk about the earliest things in his life that appear to have laid the groundwork for the break with Rome. Finally, in part I, I will point out that Luther was a “loyal son of the Pope” – up until the point where he could no longer see a way to be so.

    Again, these are the hard truths Rome needs to hear. I pray that your post at least causes some to pause.

    Blessings in Christ,
    Nathan Rinne


  2. I would rather be burned alive than set foot in a Roman church, much less commune there. The entire idea is grotesque beyond belief.


  3. I have journeyed as a Christian for 38 years in many denominations while hearing about this division in the Body of Christ. I have studied the history of this division from many sides. I have learned the language each side speaks and understand our language gap.

    Jesus prayed in John 17 for himself, for his Apostles and for us the believers to come. His prayer was for us to be one just as He is one with His Father so that the world would know that God sent Jesus to save the world. Our unity has a consequence. Paul tells us to be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…one Lord, one faith,one baptism, one God and Father of us all.

    How can this happen with man? Impossible but ALL things are possible with God. I am striving to be the answer to Jesus’ prayer not the problem. I became Catholic in 2010 and now embrace all the Body of Christ. Father God, bring Your reconciliation to the family of God. Shalom!


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