I'm reading Jaroslav Pelikan's Reformation of Church and Dogma, volume 4 of The Christian Tradition. I can empathize completely with Luther's disgust at the sale and abuse of indulgences, and it's clear to me that he started off with genuinely good intentions. However, where Luther begins and where others go with his thought, I can only see a tendency to give less and claim more, to water down the true Gospel and replace it with a wordly gospel.
I've been thinking about the role of works in justification and the problem with the concept of justification as a one-time investment of fiduciary faith as opposed to an act of God through grace and the participation of our own free will and aided by good works. For those of my friends and readers who have a better grasp of this subject, let me know if I've missed the target. I'm still working out these thoughts, and I'd much rather you steer me in the right direction than persist in error.
One pillar of Reformation doctrine is the concept sola fide or "faith only"—the idea that we are justified solely by the gratuitous gift of grace from God, which covers our sins and imputes righteousness to us, even though we are still sinners beneath God's cloak of righteousness. The sin is still present, but those who have fiduciary faith (absolute certainty of God's mercy due to Christ's redemptive death) are covered by God's grace. This diverges from Catholic thought, which posits that justification is God's grace working within us to sanctify our souls. In this way, the effects of grace are to make us truly just and holy and takes place over a lifetime. Sin is blotted out, not just covered or dismissed. In addition, our acts of pennance, prayers, corporal works of mercy, and what not are rewarded by God with additional grace. The grace that God gives is still a gift, as it is given on the basis of His promise to us and is worth far more than our meritorius acts actually warrant.
I find two effects of sola fide that have borne out in the current religious/secular climate. First, a lack of value in works eventually results in a "prosperity" gospel, one which suggest that worldly indicators of success suggest material rewards by God. Second, a lack of emphasis on the worth of penitential practices results in a degradation of the value of suffering and a focus on one's own redemption rather than pennance done in the service of others.
In the world of sola fide, while faith should bear out in one's life by producing good works, there is no value to those good works in regards to one's salvation. They're more proof of faith than anything else. However, in his discussions on temporal punishment (canonical penalties) and purgatorial penalties (part of his dispute with the Church on the matter of indulgences), Luther makes reference to the remission of canonical penalities (pardon from temporal penalities) by the pope. He claims that anyone who is truly repentant (that is, has perfect contrition) deserves the same pardon. If the pope, then, loses this ability to pardon those with perfect contrition (or perhaps never had it, as Thesis 26 suggests), only God remains to pardon those temporal penalties. Now, I don't know if Luther ever came to this conclusion in his own mind, but it doesn't take long for temporal penalties to become equated with righteous punishment through hardship and suffering and for prosperity to be acclaimed as someone's cloak of righteousness. As opposed to Luther's claim that an indulgence "makes the last to be first" (Thesis 64), what eventually becomes the case is that one's prosperity makes the last (those who strive for worldly things) to be first, while those who embrace poverty as their cross to bear with Christ become last in the world's eyes.
In addition to resulting in a "gospel of prosperity "(one that invests far too much emphasis on material goods in the here and now), it detracts from the traditional understanding of righteous suffering. If one's penitential acts are of no use or merit to the individual performing them, they're of no use to anyone else either. In a worldview that accepts predestination with no free will, positive reprobation*, and justification as a one-time event, it seems logical. But it isn't scriptural.
Christ tells us in the synoptic gospels that we must pick up our cross and follow Him (Mt 10:38, 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). Matthew 10:38 suggests two things: first, that we must suffer with Him, and that through our suffering we become worthy of Him. Carrying the cross is about suffering with Christ, and to truly suffer with Him, we must suffer for the same purpose, ultimately for everyone's salvation. We do this in our lives by performing corporal works of mercy, by self-denial (Luke 9:23), and through penitential acts. These acts of pennance are taken on not only for our own repentance but for others as well (which is why we can earn an indulgence for someone else). In a worldview where predestination is due to God's omniscient foresight and His election of those based on the grace attained throughout one's life (both through one's own efforts and through the efforts of the communion of Saints), this is both reasonable and scriptural.
By dampening the Christian spirit for self-denial and redemptive suffering, we're simply allowing that many more to be reprobate. We're devaluing sacrifice and martyrdom. By taking up our cross and following to suffer in Christ's footseps, we play a part in God's redemptive plan, securing with Christ salvation for those predestined.
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