By Dr. Herbert Samworth

As the fourth decade of the sixteenth century began, the prospect of a permanently divided Christendom dominated the horizon. The unity of the Holy Roman Empire, a union of Church and State, had been shattered by the Lutheran heresy. However, the Emperor, Charles V, required a unified Empire to carry out his political strategies. A divided Church would make it impossible for Charles to confront the Turks or make France submit to his will.

The schism had occurred over twenty years before and Charles had attempted a number of times to reunite his Empire. The Diet of Worms in 1521, the first attempt to reunify the Church, resulted in Luther’s condemnation and ban. Rather than joining forces with Charles to punish Luther, the German princes had protected him. At the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, another Imperial Diet failed to reunite the two factions.

Now, nearly ten years later in 1540, Charles saw another opportunity to reunite his fractured Empire and heal the schism. The Protestants had begun to quarrel among themselves, and their internal dissensions made them vulnerable for a concerted attempt to have them submit.

Several short Diets were held at Hagenau and Worms in 1540 before Charles ordered all parties to assemble at Regensburg or Ratisbon in April 1541. Before this Diet, a great amount of preparatory work had been done. Charles ordered the theologian Johannes Gropper to write on the disputed points between the Catholics and the Protestants. This document, known as the Regensburg Book, had been submitted to Martin Bucer, the reformer from Strasburg, for his study. Bucer was permitted to comment on the articles but not to correct them. Luther remained under the Imperial Ban and was not permitted to engage in the discussions.

In the Regensburg Book, Gropper listed twenty-three articles on the issues that separated the two sides. With common knowledge of the contended issues, Charles was hopeful that a basic agreement could be reached.

Three theologians each from the Catholics and the Protestants were chosen to represent the respective sides. The Catholic theologians were Jacob Plug, John Eck, who had debated Luther at the Leipzig Disputation in 1519, and Johannes Gropper. Cardinal Gasparo Contarini was the Papal Legate. The Protestants included Philip Melanchton, Johannes Pistorius and Martin Bucer. John Calvin, exiled from Geneva and living in Strasbourg, also attended the Diet.

The Diet officially was convened on April 4, 1541 amidst hopes of a reunified Church. At first things went smoothly as agreement was quickly reached on the first four articles of the Regensburg Book. These articles dealt with creation, free will, the cause of sin, and original sin.

But when the subject of justification was debated, the tensions and differences between the sides became apparent. Because this was the major article that the Diet debated, our paper will concentrate on this aspect. Both sides realized the importance of the doctrine and attempted to reach an agreement.

The Diet issued the following statement on the subject of justification by faith:

It is secure and wholesome teaching that the sinner is justified by a living and effectual faith, for through such faith we will be acceptable to God and accepted for the sake of Christ.

A living faith, therefore, appropriates the mercy in Christ and believes that the righteousness which is in Christ will be freely reckoned for nothing and also receives the promise of the Holy Spirit.[1]

Although this statement appears orthodox, in reality it rejects the Protestant concepts of sola fide or faith alone and solus Christus or Christ alone. It is critical to read every word and understand what is NOT said as well as what is said. The Protestants taught the doctrine of justification by faith alone or what is known as sola fide. They were careful to stress that justifying faith must be a living faith and not just intellectual assent. This is the point that is made in the first statement.

The difficulty comes when we examine what is meant when the second statement speaks about the righteousness of Christ and that the individual receives the promise of the Holy Spirit. It is when we consider what is imputed, or put to the account of the sinner to secure his justification, that we encounter difficulty. Both sides agreed that what was imputed was the righteousness of Christ. The Protestants held firmly to the fact that it was the righteousness of Christ alone that was imputed to us.

It was the righteousness of Christ, who, for our sakes, perfectly obeyed the Law of God and thus attained a true righteousness. Not only did Christ obey the Law completely in our place; He also paid the penalty of a broken law, the sentence of death. Christ died in our place to satisfy the demands of a broken law. We were the ones who broke the law, but Christ died in our place to satisfy the claims of divine justice. It was exclusively this righteousness of Christ that was imputed, or put to our account, so that God could reckon us righteous solely on the basis of Christ’s work. From this we obtain the Reformation saying of Christ alone or solus Christus.

Justifying righteousness is also called alien righteousness because it originated entirely from outside the person. Justifying righteousness was alien to the individual who received it. His works contributed nothing whatsoever to it.

On the other hand, the words as framed in the article on justification were crafted to allow the Roman Catholic interpretation of an inherent righteousness for justification. The word inherent has the opposite meaning of the word alien; it comes from within the individual. In the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, Christ’s righteousness was infused into us (note the word infused, not imputed). This happened when the individual was baptized. The sacrament of baptism removed original sin and regenerated the person or gave him new life. The person then cooperated with the Holy Spirit in doing good works. These post-baptismal works were considered by God to be righteous because they were done in faith and by the power of the Holy Spirit who indwells us. Note again the second part of the statement on justification:

A living faith, therefore, appropriates the mercy in Christ and believes that the righteousness which is in Christ will be freely reckoned for nothing and also receives the promise of the Holy Spirit. [2]

The righteousness attained by our doing good works and the righteousness of Christ infused in us at baptism are combined into an inherent righteousness. This inherent righteousness is the righteousness that justifies us. Note that it is not an alien but an inherent righteousness that is the basis of our justification. Inherent righteousness, by definition, includes the merit of our good works.

In the end, it does not matter if Christ’s righteousness forms ninety-nine percent and our righteousness forms but one percent of the righteousness that justifies us. Inherent righteousness admits some human contribution to justification. It is impossible that the justifying righteousness of Roman Catholic theology is exclusively the righteousness of Christ. It cannot be what we have defined as alien righteousness. The basic theological error is that the Roman Catholic Church combines the doctrine of justification, or declaring one righteous, with the doctrine of sanctification, or making one righteous.

The two parties at the Diet of Regensburg reached an apparent agreement on the doctrine that had divided them for over twenty years. For a brief moment, it appeared that the schism of the Church had been healed. But the agreement was surface only. It was not long before theologians from both sides denounced it. Luther refused to agree to it. Cardinal Contarini, a man who had undergone a religious experience similar to that of Luther, narrowly escaped from being charged with heresy for his part in the Diet.

The Diet of Regensburg was the last time that Protestants and Roman Catholics met together in an attempt to heal the division of the Churches. The next time that the Roman Catholic Church met in a council was in 1545 at the Council of Trent. At that time there was no attempt to reach agreement with the Protestants. The Council of Trent anathematized the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith. The division of the Church was made permanent.

Lest the reader think that this is nothing more than just an argument about words, let us try to list some practical lessons that can be learned from the events at the Diet of Regensburg.

First, it is important that we have the right relationship with God. The single most important question that a person can ask is: how can I have a personal relationship with the living God? Every other question pales into insignificance in comparison with this. But it is not only important that we have the right relationship with God, it is important that we express our faith in terms that agree with the Word of God.

Second, words are important. Their purpose is to define what we believe and what we do not believe. We live in a day of carelessness in expressing spiritual truths. While it is not possible to know the motives of the individuals at Regensburg, and perhaps they were sincerely attempting to reach agreement, the fact remains that their words could be interpreted in support of both the Protestant and Catholic positions. We must be careful in the use of words when speaking and teaching about spiritual realities and the Word of God.

Third, it is simply impossible to reconcile an imputed or alien righteousness of Christ for justification as the Protestants taught with an inherent righteousness that is the basis of the Roman Church’s doctrine of justification. It cannot be done. One or the other must be true; it cannot be both. We are convinced that to allow any place for human works into the doctrine of justification destroys the nature of grace. Salvation is either by grace or it is not by grace. If salvation is of grace, then there can be no room whatsoever for human merit.

As an illustration, in the mid-1990’s another attempt was made to heal the schism between the Churches. The Lutherans and Catholics dialogued for a period of time to achieve reconciliation. They reached agreement on the doctrine of justification but a careful reading of the statement permits both sides to interpret the statement according to their respective beliefs. The ill-fated Evangelicals and Catholics Together document of 1994 also failed to define clearly the differences regarding the doctrine of justification.

Finally, the study of the Diet of Regensburg shows the importance of doctrine in the Christian faith. The days in which we live are a time when experience often is placed higher than knowledge of basic doctrines. While there is no value in a faith that is merely intellectual, and there must be a place for a true experience of the faith, it remains true that Christianity is primarily a doctrinal religion. It does matter what we believe as well as that we are sincere in our belief.

Not only is doctrine important; doctrinal clarity is also important. The Diet of Regensburg is an example of the failure to express doctrinal concepts clearly. Whether this was done in a sincere attempt to bring about reconciliation of the two sides or deliberately, it is impossible to say. But it is true to say there is a qualitative difference between an imputed and inherent righteousness. That difference is between the justification spoken of in the Word of God or another form of works righteousness that can not meet the requirements of a holy God.

1. Cited from the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, article The Diet of Regensberg.
2. Ibid.