The perennial debate between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Church is over what constitutes the basis for our justification. The Reformation itself was born out of the conviction that we are justified—declared righteous—by God by faith alone apart from works. The Reformers also held that justification is a point-in-time event that occurs at the moment of faith, not an ongoing process that may or may not culminate in a final vindication at the end of time. Roman Catholic doctrine holds that God declares sinners righteous based on faith and God’s gracious work inside of them as they cooperate with grace over the course of their life. If they acquire enough gracious merit during their lifetime, they will be justified at the final judgment.
Among the various texts that Roman Catholic commentators mobilize to argue that the basis of justification is more than mere faith, a verse in Luke stands out as significant. The reason why this text is crucial to their argument is because Jesus appears to ground his forgiveness of someone’s sins in some godly quality, namely love. “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much” (Luke 7:47, emphasis added). According to this text, the argument goes, Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman’s sins was based, at least partially, in her love for Christ. She was forgiven because she loved Jesus. In his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, Catholic commentator, Cornelius À Lapide (1567-1637) concluded, “The parable, therefore, plainly teaches us, that the more we love, the more we shall be forgiven.”
While it may be tempting to resort to other New Testament texts outside the immediate context to refute the idea that love—as opposed to mere faith—provides some basis by which we secure our forgiveness (e.g., Rom 4:5; Eph 2:8-9; etc.), it is best to demonstrate from the passage itself that Jesus is suggesting no such thing. In other words, I will argue that this beautiful story of a sinful woman finding forgiveness in Christ clearly teaches that such forgiveness comes only by faith in Christ, nothing more.
In Jesus’ Parable, Forgiveness Comes Before Love
First, the preceding illustration of a moneylender and his two debtors indicates that forgiveness comes before love. Indeed, the chronology between faith and love is the entire point of the illustration. The question about what debtor will have greater love for the moneylender assumes that forgiveness of their respective debt comes first and is reciprocated by a love corresponding to the amount of debt forgiven. The one who experienced a larger erasure of debt will respond with a larger expression of love. In order for the illustration to work, however, forgiveness must come before and provide the basis for the response.
Second and related, in the illustration the moneylender forgave the debt without any regard for the debtors love for him. Indeed, love wasn’t any part of the equation. The only factor the moneylender considered when cancelling the debt was the debt itself and the fact that the two debtors couldn’t pay it. Debt, not reciprocal affection, was the essence of the relationship between the borrowers and the lender. But that’s precisely how moneylending works. If you have a mortgage or a car payment, your debt is the substance of your relationship with the institution that lent you the money, and that debt will always be the substance of your relationship with that institution. We all know well that such institutions do not consider how much you do or do not love them when it comes to their expectation of prompt payment. They want their money back with interest, regardless of how you feel about them.
But the moneylender in the story is different than most moneylenders we know. It is when the two debtors “could not pay” that the moneylender decided to cancel the debt. With debt looming—perhaps they lost the money gambling or their respective business ventures failed—they were now unable to return any money to the lender. Yet it was precisely because of the two debtors’ inability to pay back the debt that the lender forgave them. There was no reason to cancel their debt except the good pleasure and compassion of the moneylender. Said another way: the moneylender did not consider the merit or worthiness of the debtors when he forgave their debt. Actually, their lack of merit is what moved him to cancel their financial obligation.
Simon, Mary, and the Two Debtors
Third, for the two previous reasons above, it should be clear that Jesus intends for us to read verse 47 in parallel with the illustration he just gave. The debtor with the larger liability in the illustration is the woman, while the debtor with the much smaller liability is Simon (and the other Pharisees in the room). After Mary anoints her Savior’s feet with ointment, Jesus contrasts the expression of love shown by Simon and the woman. She lavished Jesus with outward expressions of affection—weeping at Jesus’ feet, anointing his feet with ointment—while Simon failed to demonstrate even a minimal amount of hospitality toward Jesus. If Simon and the woman are to be read in parallel with the two debtors, then it becomes clear that the woman’s love was not the basis of her forgiveness in the same way that the debtor’s affection for the moneylender was not a factor in the cancellation of his debt. Therefore, whatever Jesus means by the words, “for she loved much,” he cannot mean that forgiveness was the result of her love.
What about Jesus’ Statement, “Your Sins are Forgiven”
Fourth, Jesus’ statement, “Your sins are forgiven,” is not to be understood chronologically, as though the woman had finally attained Christ’s forgiveness in verse 48 by showing tangible expressions of love to him in verse 47. Rather, Jesus made this public declaration to reassure the woman of her spiritual status and to demonstrate his authority in the presence of the Pharisees, as their reaction indicates. “Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” Just as his statement, “Your faith has saved you, go in peace” (v. 50) was a public declaration of an event that had already transpired, so his statement, “Your sins are forgiven” was a public declaration of the forgiveness she already had prior to love she showed Jesus.
Pay Attention to Context
Finally, we know that Jesus’ words “for she was forgiven much,” do not mean that love was the basis for the woman’s forgiveness because of what he says immediately after. Consider all of verse 47:
Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.Luke 7:47
The sentence “for she loved much,” is to be read in contrast to the sentence immediately following, “But he who forgiven little, loves little. In the statement, “He who is forgiven little, loves little,” the amount of love is the result of a prior forgiveness, not the cause of the forgiveness. For this reason, it makes most contextual sense to understand Jesus’s words, “for she loved much,” not as suggesting that the woman’s love was the basis for her forgiveness, but as the natural response of someone who had already been forgiven a large debt.
Of course, when Jesus said, “he who is forgiven little, loves little,” he was not suggesting that Simon had been forgiven or that he had less sin than the woman. No, Jesus is simply noting that in his current spiritual state and inability to recognize the greatness of his sin, Simon thought he was only in need of a little forgiveness. Therefore, he hadn’t come to Jesus for the full cleansing that he truly needed, and therefore had not experienced the goodness of Christ. The result is that he had little love for God.
Simon’s spiritual blindness concerning his own sin was representative of a disease that afflicted all the religious leaders: they trusted in themselves that they were righteous and they looked down on others (Luke 18:9-14). They couldn’t see that they were utterly dead in sin and a stench to God, no different than the worst of sinners like prostitutes and tax collectors, so they couldn’t get relief from their sin which would lead to love for God.
Why is it vital to maintain that the woman’s forgiveness in this story was the result of God’s good pleasure and not the result of her love for Christ? Because if we don’t maintain this truth, we lose the gospel. The good news is that God forgives us of our sin on the basis of Christ’s death and resurrection alone, not due to any godly quality in us or good action performed by us (1 Cor 15:1-6; Rom 3:21-26). Actually, God justifies us while we are still ungodly (Rom 4:5) which means that he declares us righteous and forgiven before we begin to love him. Our love is the fruit of beholding God’s goodness in his free forgiveness of our massive debt of sin.