Roland Bainton once quoted Jacob Burckhardt to the effect that "Luther saved the papacy," by forcing its reluctant leadership from its unbelievable corruption as a secularizing Italian city-state to something of its spiritual identity. Modern secular power has curtailed any lingering tendency to ecclesiastical coercion on the part of the church forcing her to evoke what she cannot command. But this requires friendly and respectful critiques from the Protestant principles, not merely from secular unwillingness to obey the pope.
The crucial contribution of non-Roman Catholic Christians should be to help Rome recover the defeated teaching of Cardinal Seripando and Reginald Pole at the Council of Trent. They objected to the claim that our given righteousness before God is the single (only) cause of our justification which thereby denies any sin in the regenerate (simul justus et peccator).
This is what Richard Hooker called the "grand question that yet lieth between us and the Church of Rome." Diego Lainez, General of the Jesuit Order, claimed that the position of Seripando and Pole "would undercut the structure of satisfactions, indulgences, and purgatory" as indeed it would. There remains some Christianity Heavy today when even the wise and cogent voice of Pope Benedict can today issue plenary indulgences.
Although I have a few areas of respectful disagreement with Bishop Allison (for I respect the man quite a lot), I agree completely with his assessment of what he calls, in the essay, "Christianity Heavy." In this context he employs the term to label the opposite error of what another writer had called "Christianity Lite," reminding me of St. John Chrysostom's advice that, when preaching or teaching against a heresy, to be careful not to appear to endorse thereby the opposite error.1 In this context, the opposite error of "Christianity Lite" as embraced by such Canturian Anglican bodies as the modern Episcopal Church, is a wholly unreformed Roman system of thought that developed during the medieval period.
The question of justification was not invented by Protestants in the sixteenth century, but was, rather, the doctrine of the Church dating back to the time of the Apostles, which is why it is taught clearly in the New Testament. Whatever mistakes one may want to ascribe to Reformers, whether Continental or the more thoroughly Catholic (in the Creedal sense) English Reformers, the issue of justification by grace through faith is not negotiable. It is the teaching of the Apostolic Church, and is therefore the only position genuinely Catholic in the true sense of the word.
Justification is not dependent on the process of sanctification, but rather the reverse. Sanctification is a process dependent on justification, that the Holy Spirit gives grace to believers to become holy in their manner of life because the objective fact of justification has already taken hold. For this reason, St. Paul assures each baptized person who has turned to God by faith in His Son, that our new identity is summed up in that simple two word phrase, "in Christ."
When I speak of justification as an objective fact, it is from the perspective of Christ's finished work on the cross, with the emphasis on the word "finished" as in "it is finished," from John 19: 30. That three word phrase in English is one word in Greek (τελέω), and it implies a debt fully paid: "It is paid in full." As our Book of Common Prayer teaches us in Morning and Evening Prayer and in Holy Communion (and the Communion of the sick), far from meaning that we need no regular repentance and absolution, it is the basis of our confidence that, truly and in fact, we can repent and be forgiven. This is why "the Comfortable words" are recited after each General Absolution in Holy Communion, comfortable in the old sense of strengthening us, in this case fortifying our faith in God's mercy as given only through his Son by his atoning death.
The reason we may approach God in confidence is because we are in Christ, and therefore able to draw near to God and be accepted by Him. God has answered the ancient prayer of the Psalmist:
They go from strength to strength, every one of them in Zion appeareth before God.
O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer: give ear, O God of Jacob. Selah.
Behold, O God our shield, and look upon the face of thine anointed.
"Thine anointed" means "thy Messiah," or "thy Christ." All are acceptable translations of מָשִׁיחַ.
The New Testament response to this prayer is summed up in the Epistle to the Hebrews:
"For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified. Whereof the Holy Ghost also is a witness to us: for after that he had said before, This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord, I will put my laws into their hearts, and in their minds will I write them; And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more.2 Now where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin. Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, By a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; And having an high priest over the house of God; Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water." (Heb. 10:14-22)
Full assurance of faith in what, if not that God accepts us in the Person of his Son, and therefore imputes no iniquity to us, just as if we had never sinned? The issue is, therefore, the Person of God's Son.
One simplistic but meritorious summary of Christology is that the conflicts of the fourth and fifth centuries were about the person of Christ, whereas the conflict of the sixteenth century was over the work of Christ. However, upon deeper examination, conflict about the work of Christ, whether or not it was "full, perfect and sufficient," cannot be divorced from the conflicts about his Person. The Councils of Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon defended the Apostolic teaching that Jesus Christ is One with the Father and the Holy Spirit, fully God and fully man.
"The Word was made flesh" (John 1:14) means the same thing as "Begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God, Begotten, not made, Being of one substance with the Father, By whom all things were made: Who for us men, and for our salvation came down from heaven, And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, And was made man." This gives the fullest meaning to what follows: "And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried, And the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures." If the Lord Jesus were merely a man like all others, his work on the cross could not "undercut the structure of satisfactions, indulgences, and purgatory."
But, if he is fully God, the Word made flesh, Himself infinite and eternal, holy and separate from every created nature in his native Divine nature as one with the Father, made man by taking human nature into his eternal, infinite and holy Divine Person, then nothing can be added to the sufficiency of his "sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world." To suggest that we have any need of a treasury of saintly merits from redeemed sinners and objects of the same mercy we have received, as if God owed a credit to sinful mankind due to alleged merits by the objects of his mercy and grace, is a frank denial of the Faith of the Church concerning Who is was that died for us and rose again.
In the final analysis, the English Reformers were contending for the Faith which was once delivered to the saints (Jude 3) concerning not simply the work of Christ as an isolated subject. The entire understanding that nothing needs to be added, and therefore nothing can be added, to the sufficiency of Christ's work, is directly because of our belief that he is God of God, light of Light, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father...and that the Word was made flesh. If he is fully God, then who dares to teach that we have need of "the structure of satisfactions, indulgences, and purgatory" as if his work needed some supplement? What Bishop Allison calls "Christianity heavy," 3 namely an unreformed Roman doctrinal system, denies the sufficiency of Christ's work, and thereby denies the Divinity of His Person, an inherent self-contradiction in their doctrinal system, and far worse.
The emphasis of our Book of Common Prayer is no mere poetic flight, stating boldly that Jesus Christ upon his cross "made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world." Until Rome reforms its doctrinal system and cleanses it of "the structure of satisfactions, indulgences, and purgatory," justification as the "grand question that yet lieth between us and the Church of Rome" remains as a gulf that cannot be crossed.
1. St. John Chrysostom, Six Little Books on the Priesthood.
2. The Epistle quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34 about the New Covenant.
3. "Christianity lite" implies something too light, perhaps missing the commandments of God, the call to repentance, the call to carry the cross as disciples. "Christianity heavy" implies that too much weight has been added, turning the joyous life of faith into an impossible burden of law. See Matt. 11:28-30, Acts 15:10.