CELEBRATING THE REFORMATION: JUSTIFIED BY FAITH ALONE
The Reformation was a mighty work of God – a spiritual revival bringing social revolution that swept across Europe in the 16th century and continues to impact us today. On Reformation Day we begin a series of articles that highlight why as a network we celebrate such a momentous occasion in the history of the church, and why we want our congregations to understand the marvellous truths of the gospel rediscovered and preached by the reformers, and for which so many were killed.
Some see the reformation as regrettable: church leaders who advocate the reunion of the Church of England with Rome have claimed that the Reformation was an unfortunate division. It is true that Jesus calls us to be peacemakers and some tribal conflicts have sadly used the Reformation as an excuse for very un-Christian violence which has alienated unbelievers. However, Jesus vehemently challenged false teaching and his Apostles require us to contend for the faith of the Bible (see Jude 3-4).
Others see it as irrelevant: many secular historians see little more in the Reformation than social progress and Henry VIII’s political opportunity to resolve his marital dilemmas by usurping the Pope as leader of the Church of England. There certainly were many socio-political factors involved in the emergence of Europe from the religious superstitions of the dark ages.
But there are two overwhelming reasons to celebrate the gospel truths championed by the Reformation:
First, Roman Catholicism remains influential in our national life – through numerous public figures, schools and churches. Indeed, many of our friends and colleagues will experience the fear and guilt as a Roman Catholic. We need to understand what they’re being taught if we are to introduce them to the joy and freedom of Biblical faith in Christ. Indeed, those who have been converted from Roman Catholic backgrounds repeatedly urge me to explain what the Reformers discovered so that their family and friends might discover these glorious and liberating truths for themselves.
Second, these truths concern how to be right with God and so be saved from hell for heaven forever, which is everyone’s deepest personal need. Whether or not we have connections with Roman Catholicism, the five solas (alones) of the reformation – that salvation is offered by faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone, according to Scripture alone to the glory of God alone – are incredibly exciting for us all!
In this short series of Articles celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (from which churches derive the name “Protestant”), we will be looking at the reformers whose ministries, and whose protests, changed the world.
JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH ALONE, REDISCOVERED BY MARTIN LUTHER
Martin Luther trained as a lawyer. After being struck by lightning, he became a devout Roman Catholic Augustinian friar, burdened by guilt and terrified of God’s judgement. At age 26 he was sent to lecture in Biblical studies at the new University of Wittenberg. Studying Psalms, Romans and finally Galatians he made some exciting discoveries: God’s righteousness is not only God’s character which judges our sin, but also his gift to us in Christ: He realised that the righteousness we need to qualify us for heaven is the loving life of Jesus – a life that was righteous even to death on a Roman cross – a life lived for us by our king representing his people.
Here is Luther’s description of the moment in his Castle tower study (often called his “tower experience”) when he became a Christian. He finally realised that we’re not saved by being active to save ourselves, but by being passive, relying on the righteousness of Christ’s life to qualify us for heaven:
“I had conceived a burning desire to understand what Paul meant in his letter to the Romans…I hated that word “righteousness of God”…blameless monk that I was I felt that before God I was a sinner troubled in conscience…I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners…I meditated night and day on those words until at last, by the mercy of God…I began to understand that this verse means that the righteousness of God is revealed through the gospel, but it is a passive righteousness…that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith…all at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates. Immediately I saw the whole of scripture in a different light…I exalted this sweetest word of mine, “the righteousness of God” with as much love as before I had hated it with hate” (1519 studying Romans. 1:16-17).
Luther realised that God’s righteousness which we need to get us into heaven is not active in us but passive for us in Christ – not God’s work in us by his Spirit but God’s work for us in his Son.
“JUSTIFICATION” AND “RIGHTEOUSNESS”
Justification and righteousness are related words in the Bible. They come from the law court and concern our declared status, rather than from the hospital concerning our inner healing. Justification is God’s declaration on judgement day that someone is righteous – so to be justified now is to know his Judgement Day verdict in advance. And just as God commands human judges not to justify the unrighteous, so God cannot justify the unrighteous.
Without Christ we are in very serious trouble.
As we know from Jesus, Righteousness is not just the absence of wickedness but the presence of holy kindness. And God has explained throughout the Bible that no-one can survive with God in heaven without being righteous. However, Romans 3 proclaims how God can justify us in Christ:
“But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the law and the prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:21-24)
WE ARE JUSTIFIED IN THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF CHRIST
We are told that the righteousness of God, which we need and which is now revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ, was testified in the Old Testament. The righteousness of a life under God’s law is not only required of us in the law and the prophets but also promised to us.We are told that the righteousness of God, which we need and which is now revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ, was testified in the Old Testament. The righteousness of a life under God’s law is not only required of us in the law and the prophets but also promised to us.
In Genesis 15 it is written, “Abraham believed the LORD and God credited it to him as righteousness” – so righteousness was credited to Abraham by faith.
In Isaiah 53, it is promised, “by knowledge of him my righteous servant will justify many” – many will be justified through knowing God’s righteous servant and be justified in His righteousness;
In Isaiah 61 we are promised joy in the gift of an external righteousness, not our own: “I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness” – God will clothe us in his own righteousness, in Christ.
By his commentary on Galatians in 1520, Luther seemed to be absolutely clear – justification by faith is promised throughout the Bible.
The righteousness we need for salvation is the gift of God in Christ as a permanent objective status – not a gradual subjective process. i.e. God saves us by imputing his holiness in Christ onto us by his declaration of justification and not the subsequent imparting of his holiness into us by the transformation of his Spirit. We are certainly justified by Christ’s righteousness for a life of transformation by the Spirit (indeed the Bible says our positional sanctification in Christ is for progressive sanctification in Christ). But our qualification for heaven is in his perfect imputed righteousness and not in our imperfect imparted righteousness.
We could illustrate this by two people changing clothes: imagine a bridesmaid thrilled to be invite to her friend’s wedding who foolishly spoils her bridesmaid’s dress by spilling her lunch down the front on the way to the wedding. Imagine what misery she would feel but imagine what joy when her best friend agrees to swap dresses so she can go to the wedding. This illustrates what Christ does for us – he swapped places with us. He lived his life for us and died on the cross for our life!
As a good Catholic friar Luther had already discovered the great theologian Augustine’s insight that our problem is not only our lack of righteousness, but also our relational problem with God – we offend God every day by our rebellious selfishness. Augustine had concluded that to be justified by God we need his transforming grace to change us – from being selfish to being loving. But this is a frightening obligation to qualify ourselves for heaven. It was thought that we must be healed inside by the spiritual power of God’s grace that we receive through the sacraments to improve ourselves.
Many still think like this today: in Evangelical churches we may try to improve ourselves with more sacrificial ministry; in Charismatic churches we may try to improve ourselves by deeper personal experience of Jesus; and in Roman Catholic churches we may continue hoping to receive enough grace of God through the sacraments of the church to become sufficiently transformed to qualify ourselves for heaven.
But Luther realised that God doesn’t just give us grace to help us gradually improve our righteousness. Rather, he imputes / reckons / counts Jesus’ completed life of righteousness to us! So we can say that God requires good works and we are saved by good works – not in us, but in Christ. As Paul says in Galatians 2, “So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no-one will be justified”
But Rome teaches that in addition to Jesus’ glorious exchange on the cross, that we need extra mediators to persuade God to justify us: priests to whom we confess our sins, saints to whom we pray for blessing, and above all Mary (usually depicted as cradling Jesus in her arms as a helpless baby or dead from the cross), as the New Eve, Mother of God and Queen of heaven – to whom Catholics pray as the fountain of grace in the “Hail Mary” prayer. The Roman Catholic Shorter Catechism says, “Because Mary’s faith never wavered, the Church venerates her as the purest realisation of faith”; the Second Vatican Council explicitly declared, “She has never set aside this saving office of intercession and is invoked as Advocate, Helper, and Mediatrix”. This is truly dreadful because it attributes the saving offices of Jesus to Mary as well, teaching that Jesus’ life is not enough to justify us.
Moreover, Rome teaches that we need more than Jesus’ death on the cross to pay for our sins and complete his perfect life of obedient righteousness. It teaches that we constantly need priests to re-present the sacrifice of Jesus body and blood to God, under the appearance of bread and wine on an altar, for the forgiveness of our sins in “the Mass” (Roman Catholic “Lord’s Supper”).
The Council of Trent declared emphatically, “The sacrifice of the cross and the sacrifice of the Eucharist (Mass) are one single sacrifice.” The victim is one and the same,” and St. Ambrose wrote: “…the Eucharist cleanses past sins and preserves from future sins. Because the blood is “poured out for the forgiveness of sins, I should always receive it, so it may always forgive my sins”.This again is dreadful because it extends the saving sacrifice of Jesus on the cross to the bread and wine on the table; plainly teaching that Jesus’ death on the cross was not enough to satisfy God and complete the life that justifies us. But the Bible explicitly says of Jesus, “we have been made holy by the sacrifice through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all”(Hebrews 10).
We are justified fully and finally in Christ without any need of extra mediators like Mary or additional sacrifices like the Mass. We are fully and finally justified in Christ!
WE ARE JUSTIFIED THROUGH FAITH IN CHRIST
Luther realised that the Bible says we’re permanently saved from the moment we place our faith in Christ, whereas Rome teaches that faith must then cooperate with God in the good works that will qualify us for heaven. Luther realised that because our faith is in Christ, whose death paid for all our sins and whose life qualifies us eternally for heaven, we are saved by faith alone – not because our faith is special but because Christ is special. Everyone puts their faith in something for eternal safety. The Bible teaches that we are saved by Christ alone received by faith alone. The Old Testament uses beautiful images for faith of being carried – on an eagle’s wings or in the arms of a shepherd.
We need to stop trying to save ourselves and let Jesus carry us! We are justified by faith in Christ alone. That means being saved in Christ without any need of Sacraments or Purgatory.
Rome teaches that we need strength through the seven sacraments of the church: baptism, confirmation, confession, the mass, marriage, ordination and holy unction to receive God’s grace to improve! Indeed Article 9 of the Council of Trent vigorously denies Justification by faith alone, “If anyone says, that by faith alone the ungodly are justified in such a way as to mean that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to receive the grace of justification…: let him be anathema [condemned]” (Canon 9); this is dreadful because it denies the sufficiency of Christ’s righteous life, accepted into heaven at his resurrection for our justification (Romans 4:25).
If we believe what Rome teaches we either live in terrible fear that we are failing or terrible pride in succeeding to save ourselves. But the Bible categorically says, “ it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no-one may boast” (Eph.2).
Moreover, Rome teaches the need for believers to suffer in Purgatory to complete the transforming purification we need to get into heaven. The Roman Catholic shorter catechism says, “Those who die in God’s grace but are not yet perfectly purified…undergo purification after death to gain the holiness needed to enter heaven. This “Purgatory”…is a cleansing fire.” So Roman Catholics will try to reduce the time of suffering of their dearly departed loved ones by paying money for candles and Indulgences. This is terrible exploitation and a denial of the adequacy of Christ to qualify us for heaven. The Bible says, “we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet” (1 Corinthians 15) Luther realised that we are justified completely and permanently from the moment God calls us to place our faith in Christ, saved not by our faith but in the righteousness of Christ.
WE ARE JUSTIFIED FREELY BY HIS GRACE
A glorious exchange – a swap has taken place: God became one of us in Jesus to represent us as our King in order to swap places with us on the cross: there he was punished for our lives of sin so that we can be accepted in his life of righteousness! And we know this works because his Christian life was then accepted into heaven in his resurrection! Let us summarise by way of conclusion:
- Rome teaches that justification is our gradual healing; Luther realised it is God’s permanent declaration!
- Rome says saving righteousness is gradually imparted into us; Luther found its imputed to us from Christ
- Rome says our justification depends on our faith continuing in good works; Luther realised it is by faith in Christ alone
- Rome says we’re justified on the basis of what we shall become; Luther found we are justified in Christ now
- Rome says we must remain uncertain and afraid; Luther realised we can be certain and justified because Christ has risen
God treated Jesus as if he was us and punished him in hell on the cross for our sin, so he can treat us as if we were Jesus and accept us into heaven as children of God!
We have been justified: permanently qualified for heaven, “just-as-if-I’d been Jesus”. This means we can be confident, not in ourselves but in Christ, relaxed rather than anxious, proclaiming Christ rather than proving ourselves, enjoying God rather than terrified of him; we are eternally accepted and permanently justified, on our way to heaven – not by the number of prayers we pray or books of the Bible we read, not by the money we give or the people we evangelise – but justified by faith in Christ…alone! In his defence at the furious “Diet of Worms” debate, Luther famously declared, “I am captive to the word of God…here I stand, I can do no other”.
And this is where we stand in the churches of Co-Mission – justified by faith alone!