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WHY LUTHER REJECTED THE CATHOLIC
DOGMAS OF PENANCE AND INFUSION

by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.

A sermon preached at the Baptist Tabernacle of Los Angeles
Lord's Day Evening, October 26, 2003


"Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law" (Romans 3:28).


In Luther's day, as now, the Catholic Church taught that sins were ordinarily forgiven through the use of the sacrament of penance. The sacrament of penance required three acts:

1.  First, an act of contrition - genuine sorrow for sin.

2.  Second, sin must be confessed orally.

3.  Third, an act of satisfaction must be performed to indicate some payment for sin.

To understand Luther, we must realize that he could find no peace with God through the "sacrament" of penance.

Luther's story really begins in a lightning storm. The lightning bolts were crashing down all around him. In great fear, he cried, "Saint Anne, I will become a monk." He made this dedication as an act of satisfaction. He became a monk because the Catholic Church taught that the life of a monk made it easier to attain salvation.

In later life, Luther said: Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that He was placated [reconciled or appeased] by my satisfaction [going through the ritual of penance: contrition, confession, and acts of satisfaction]. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners…I was angry with God, and said, "As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by…the law…without having God add pain to pain by the [New Testament] threatening us with His righteousness and wrath!" Thus did I rage with a fierce and troubled conscience (Martin Luther: Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings, Anchor, 1961, p. 11).

Luther raged and fought inwardly with God. His conscience was continually troubled. The "sacrament" of penance didn't help him at all. He continually made acts of contrition, confessed his sins, and performed acts of satisfaction - but he had no peace with God through penance!

The turmoil in Luther's heart drove him to the Bible, and finally led him to a complete break with the Catholic idea of faith plus works producing justification. He came to understand what the Apostle Paul meant when he said,

"Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law" (Romans 3:28).

And then, look at verse 26,

"To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus"
      (Romans 3:26).

Luther began to realize that when God speaks of righteousness, He is not speaking of our righteousness. God is speaking of the righteousness of Christ, which God gives us by His grace when we trust Jesus alone for salvation. When Luther discovered this truth in the Bible, he said, "I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates."

"Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law" (Romans 3:28).

"To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus"
      (Romans 3:26).

We can learn two great truths from Luther today.

I. First, we are not saved by "penance" in any form.

I am often amazed at the way many modern evangelicals have returned to the Catholic idea of salvation by "penance." The Catholic idea of penance has three parts, and many evangelicals ascribe to all three.

1.  First, an act of contrition - genuine sorrow for sin. "But," you say, "Aren't we supposed to have sorrow for our sins?" Not as an "act of contrition." Sorrow over sin does not necessarily lead to salvation. Every lost person feels sorrow over sin. But that will not save you. The Holy Spirit comes to "reprove" or "convince" of sin (John 16:8-9), "of sin, because they believe not on me." Sorrow for sin that does not lead a person to Christ will do no good at all.

2.  Second, sin must be confessed orally. That is the second act of penance. Many evangelicals, who would not confess to a priest, still think they must confess their sins one by one to God to be saved. But no verse in the Bible tells us to do that. I John 1:9 does not tell us to confess our sins one by one. The word "confess" there is "homologeo" in Greek. It simply means "acknowledge" or "give assent" (Strong). This verse tells us to acknowledge our sins. It does not tell us we must confess each and every sin to God - or anyone else. Salvation does not come by confession of sin, but by trusting Jesus Christ!

3. Third, an act of satisfaction must be performed to indicate some payment for sin. That is the third act of penance. Luther said, "I could not believe that [God] was placated [reconciled or appeased] by my satisfaction [an act of satisfaction to indicate payment for sin]." Luther was exactly right, because full satisfaction for sin was accomplished by Jesus Christ on the Cross! "He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities" (Isaiah 53:11). No human act of "satisfaction" is needed if you trust Christ, for Christ Himself has made full satisfaction for your sins in the sight of God.

Evangelicals often make the "altar call" and the "sinner's prayer" into an act that is dangerously close to the Roman Catholic "sacrament" of penance. For instance, when people come forward in Billy Graham's crusades, he has them say the following prayer out loud, in unison:

O God, I am a sinner. I am sorry for my sins. I am willing to turn from my sin. I receive Jesus Christ as my Savior. I confess Him as my Lord. From now on, I want to follow Him in the fellowship of His Church. In Jesus' name. Amen. (Decision, June, 2003, p. 5).

Several years ago I stopped using a prayer like this with those who responded to my preaching. I stopped using this form of the "sinner's prayer" because I found that it contained far too many different thoughts. I found that a lost sinner could not hold all those thoughts. Now, if I have people say any prayer at all, it is simply, "Jesus, I come to you. Wash my sins away with your Blood."

But recently I have come to believe that Billy Graham's form of the "sinner's prayer" actually accommodates the Roman Catholic teaching on the "sacrament" of penance. It has all the elements of an act of Catholic penance.

1.  First, an act of contrition, "I am sorry for my sins."

2.  Second, an act of confession, "O God, I am a sinner."

3.  Third, an act of satisfaction, "I want to follow Him."

Where is the Blood of Christ in this prayer? Where is "Sola Fide," salvation by faith in Christ alone? Where is Luther in Billy Grahams' sinner's prayer? Where is the Reformation in it? I think the whole idea of "coming forward" to say this "sinner's prayer" orally is nothing short of a return to the pre-Reformation Catholic "sacrament" of penance! Salvation is by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone! Give us the pure gospel of Luther! Away with Roman Catholic prayers, and acts of contrition, and oral confessions, and acts of satisfaction! Away with the "sacrament" of penance! Away with Billy Graham's "sinner's prayer"! If Billy Graham preached against salvation by "penance," as Luther did, he wouldn't have to separate from the Catholics! They would separate from him, as they did from Luther!

II. Second, we are not saved by "infusions" of grace.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that "we are justified…for works which spring from the principle of divine life infused into the heart" (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1970, p. 136).

On the other hand, Luther and the Reformers said that justification comes when the sinner is declared righteous by God through the imputation of Christ's righteousness, through faith in Him (cf. Hodge, ibid., p. 133).

Which is right, salvation by infusion, or salvation by imputation? The Catholics say that the righteousness of Christ is infused into you, making you live righteously, and this saves you. Luther and the Reformers said that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to your record, when you trust Jesus, making you righteous in the sight of God.

Let me make it as simple as possible. The Catholic Church teaches that you are made righteous by the infusion of grace, given through the sacraments, power infused through baptism, acts of penance, the Mass, etc. But Luther and the Reformers said you are counted righteous legally before God when you trust Jesus Christ. His righteousness is imputed to your record.

Which is it? Is it salvation by receiving power, or is it salvation by God declaring you righteous through the work of Christ on the Cross? Is it salvation by receiving infused power, or is it salvation by God declaring you righteous because Christ died and rose for you?

Let's make it even simpler. Open your Bible to Acts 8:19. Here are the words of Simon the sorcerer,

"Give me also this power" (Acts 8:19)

so I can do wonderful works. That is like the Roman Catholic idea of infusion. Now turn to Romans 4:5-7,

"But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered" (Romans 4:5-7).

Which will it be for you? Will it be infusion,

"Give me also this power" (Acts 8:19),

so I can do wonderful works? Or, will it be,

"Him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly…unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works" (Romans 4:5-6)?

Am I too hard on the Catholics, comparing their belief in infusion to the thought of a magician? I don't think so. There is a great deal of "magic" in Catholicism. The "magic" of baptism washing away sins is an example. The "magic" of the Communion wafer actually turning into the flesh of Christ, is another example. The "infusion" of power to do good works, which produce justification, by saying certain words and eating the "transformed" wafer, is only another form of Catholic "magic"!

But we are not saved by magic. We are saved through faith in Jesus Christ. He died on the Cross to pay the penalty for our sins. His Blood was shed so your sins could be cleansed. He rose physically from the dead so you could have eternal life. He is alive up in Heaven, at the right hand of God. "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved" (Acts 16:31).

You are not saved by "infusions" of power. You can only be saved by the Blood of Christ cleansing your sins from God's record. Justification is not something that happens inside of you! Justification happens up in Heaven - when the Blood of Christ cleanses your sins from God's Books (Revelation 20:12).

Dr. John H. Armstrong said,

Modern evangelicals, with their emphasis upon the infusion of power, security and peace are much closer to Rome at this point than most of them could possibly imagine…Contrary to much modern evangelistic terminology "inviting Jesus into my heart" is not the invitation of the gospel. This oft-used phrase, based mistakenly upon John 1:12, Revelation 3:20, etc., is not what the Scripture tells the sinner to do. The gospel tells the condemned man that he must "look to Christ in faith" as his substitute…As long as he persists in thinking of faith as a mystical transaction wherein Christ comes from one place, outside of me, into another place, inside of me, we will have the tendency to fall into some of the same errors inherent in Roman Catholic confusion.

The gospel is the good news of what God has done outside of me in the actual person and historic work of Jesus Christ. The gospel is a message of historic, objective reality. It is not an experience, at least not my experience. It is the good news of Christ's experience - He suffered, He died, He arose, and He ascended to the right hand [of God] on high. This is the message preached by the apostles.

The message of righteousness through Christ alone, imputed to me by faith [in Christ] alone, is a message grounded in something entirely external. I am "reconciled to God by the death of his Son" (Romans 5:10), not by my religious experience (John H. Armstrong, D.Min., Justification by Faith Alone, Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995, pp. 159, 153-154).

Lay aside your emotions and feelings, and trust Jesus Christ.

Venture on Him, venture wholly, Let no other trust intrude.
None but Jesus, none but Jesus, Can do helpless sinners good.
      ("Come, Ye Sinners" by Joseph Hart, 1712-1768).

Come with Luther, and throw yourself on Christ. Christ alone can save you. Christ alone can wash your sins away - with His Blood. Come to Christ. Trust Christ. "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved" (Acts 16:31).


(END OF SERMON)

Scripture Read Before the Sermon by Dr. Kreighton L. Chan: Romans 3:20-28.
Solo Sung Before the Sermon by Mr. Benjamin Kincaid Griffith:

"Come, Ye Sinners" (by Joseph Hart, 1712-1768).

THE OUTLINE OF

WHY LUTHER REJECTED THE CATHOLIC
DOGMAS OF PENANCE AND INFUSION

by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.

 

"Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law" (Romans 3:28).

(Romans 3:26)

I.   We are not saved by "penance" in any form, John 16:8-9;
I John 1:9; Isaiah 53:11.

II.  We are not saved by "infusions" of grace, Acts 8:19; Romans 4:5-7;
Acts 16:31; Revelation 20:12; Romans 5:10.

You can read Dr. Hymers' sermons each week on the Internet
at www.rlhymersjr.com. Click on "Sermon Manuscripts."