Friday, June 19, 2020

Understanding the History of the Priesthood in Justification and Sanctification

The terms of Justification (right-standing with God) and Sanctification (to be free from sin) emerge as primary themes in the Protestant Reformation from the Roman Catholic Church as separate components of forgiveness from sin. Today, we hear them used by Presbyterians, Reformed Baptists, and others who argue for Calvinism as the true way to comprehend how God confers forgiveness as an act which depends on God's sovereign act alone (monergism).

Individuals do not offer any good works to God in this process to gain access to God's mercy, as such would suggest that salvations a synergistic act that is initiated by both God and individual. That would constitute a salvation by works religion, and the Reformation contended that salvation was conferred by God's grace through faith alone. Thus, the discussion of monergism still remains, as many Protestants view salvation as an act in which both God and man initiate together which modern monergists believe to be no different than the Roman Catholic idea of salvation through good works.

Salvation from sin doesn't depend on a human sacerdotal lord or intercessory priest for the Protestant. It is accessed through the knowledge of and faith in Christ and belief in Him as the only priest necessary.  Through an act of faith alone, a person gains access to both forgiveness of sin and restored communion with God. This protest to the Church of Rome which began in 1517 was summarized in the statement of the Five Solas.

But how did we get here today to this point of debate, or perhaps we should ask why the debate continues from its birth in 1517?

How Forgiveness was Understood Before Protestantism

Under Mosaic Law, transgressions result in sin which separates a person from their relationship with God – and it was impossible for human beings to keep the Law. Transgression also followed with consequences from Holy God as declared by the Law. Having recognized, repented, and made restitution to those harmed by a sin, a person could gain access to God's mercy by seeking forgiveness through expiation rites so that they wouldn't have to pay the penalty demanded by God's justice. 

In Judaism, to placate God's wrath and to heal everyone from the sin, an animal could stand in the gap for the person who would offer a sacrificial animal to cover their sin. The Levitical priests took the blood of that animal on behalf of the person and poured it out on the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant.

In Catholicism, Christ's Blood replaces that of a sacrificial animal so that the repentant sinner could find absolution (expiation) from their sins. This process requires the instrument of an ordained Catholic priest to hear and judge an individual through the religious Rite of Confession. The Sacrament of Penance allows the repentant to access God's grace through the priest who declares the individual's absolution, pending their works of penitence as prescribed by the priest. To obtain justification to restore the individual's right-standing with God and to gain sanctification to be made free of sin, one ultimately must access this salvation through the performance of their own good works.

Enter Martin Luther

Martin Luther became an Augustinian monk, but he still continued to struggle with what he described as 'anfechtungen,' a German term that describes intense frustration; anger; anxiety; depression; doubt; and in a religious context, an intense crisis concerning the fear of God. As the Apostle Paul laments in the Book of Romans, Luther could not use his will or his love for God as a sufficient means of changing his behavior so as to keep the law.

When contemplating Romans 1:17, he realizes that he'd always understood faith as it is used by Paul to mean that living by faith was a discipline of keeping the Law. Yet he continued to sin. Faith merely motivated Luther to keep trying and failing. He finally comes to a point of epiphany when he realizes that God's righteousness doesn't come to the Believer through a process of striving and failing. Instead, his understanding of living by faith becomes one of laying hold to the grace of God through the intangible process of belief alone.

This change in his understanding of the mediation of forgiveness sparks his eventual act of protesting the sacraments and practices of the Roman Catholic Church which fell into what many turned into an illicit system of 'pay for play.' Salvation became a commodity that one could purchase from a priest who lined his pockets and the church's coffers with the money of cheats and earnest sinners who were blackmailed for money through fear of eternal destruction.