Celebrating the Protestant Reformation by Highlighting the Doctrine of Justification

On October 31, 1517, a German monk, named Martin Luther, posted a document for academic debate on what was effectively the local bulletin board, the castle-church door. Luther probably wanted a discussion and debate with other professors and theologians over a matter of theological concern.

Luther was only 33 years old at the time, but he was a Roman Catholic priest, a Doctor of Theology, and a professor at the university in Wittenberg. He saw himself, in that moment, as a faithful servant of the Church of Rome. But Luther had heard about a Dominican friar named Johann Tetzel, who was selling indulgences to people all over the Roman empire.

Indulgences, which are still part of Roman Catholic teaching and practice today, [1] are official letters from the Roman Church which absolve a person of some or all of their sin based a faith-infused act of some kind. Tetzel’s indulgences, authorized by the Roman Pope, were effectively absolution for sins for a financial donation. Tetzel’s jingle was, “When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.”

In 1517, Luther knew more theology than many, and he believed that indulgences were antithetical to any biblical understanding of repentance or forgiveness. So, Luther wrote 95 statements of dispute against indulgences – the document we know today as “Luther’s 95 Theses.”[2]

Some of his students translated Luther’s original document from Latin to German, and they also used the newly invented printing press to make lots of copies. Before Luther knew it, he had become the spearhead and voice of many discontents with Rome. In response, Luther also became the target of Rome’s fury, and he was the kind of man who usually added fuel to the fire.

On April 17, 1521 (not quite 4 years after he had nailed the 95 theses to the church door and probably about 2 years after he had trusted in Christ alone as Savior[3]), Luther was standing in a room with the Roman Emperor – Charles V – and several high representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. Copies of Luther’s books and tracts were piled on a desk in front of him and the full authority of the church and of the state was bearing down on him. The one question Rome asked was, “Will you recant (or retract and apologize)?”

Luther was forced to make a brief response. So, he said,

“I am bound by the Scriptures… and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.”[4]

Everyone, including Luther, expected that he would be burned at the stake. But in God’s providence, Luther was spared a martyr’s death. He lived another 3 decades, in which he translated the Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew to German, he wrote many more books and tracts, and he pastored and taught with a keen focus on the cross and the justifying work of Jesus Christ.

In one sense, Luther was a giant among the reformers. His voice echoed throughout the western world, and it continues to do so today. My own church still sings songs Luther wrote, and I still quote him in my sermons and teaching. But, in another sense, Luther was just one reformer among many.

Zwingli and Bullinger were notable reformers in Switzerland, and, in England, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley both lived and died for their Protestantism. These two, Latimer and Ridley, were burned at the stake together in Oxford, England on October 15, 1555. As the wood was being stacked around their legs, Latimer (now famously) said, “Be of good comfort, Mr. Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out.” And so, they did. The flame consumed them, but the gospel-fire spread wildly.

John Calvin was a French reformer who spent most of his time writing and preaching in Geneva. Calvin was nearly the opposite of Luther, a studious introvert and not the bombastic life-of-the-party. Calvin spent most of his life suffering from some chronic illness or another, but Calvin also had a precise mind and a profound ability to speak and write with clarity.

Every Christian is indebted to Calvin for his incredible work of systematic theology, a multi-volume set we know today as “Calvin’s Institutes.” He first published the text in 1536 as a “Basic instruction in the Christian Religion.” It was 6 chapters and about 200 pages long by today’s formatting. Calvin published the final version of that work in 1559, which has 80 chapters and about 1,600 pages, but Calvin still called it a “Basic instruction…”

Calvin’s preaching, which is available today in manuscript form, and his commentaries are both quality sources of deep intellectual study as well as practical/pastoral instruction. And, I believe, the Christian who throws Calvin out because of a distorted view of some truncated version of Calvin’s doctrine will inevitably suffer loss for it.

Each of these reformers, and many others like them, protested the common teaching and practice of the 16th century Roman Catholic Church. But what was it exactly that they were protesting? And should Protestants still protest today?

On the one hand, Protestants and Roman Catholics, both then and now, have a great deal in common. We believe the same things about God as trinity, about Jesus as both God and man, and about the value of human life, which is grounded in the fact that all humans were-and-are created in the image of God.

But, on the other hand, Evangelical Protestants (including Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans, and even non-denominationalists) have been and continue to be at odds with Rome on some very important issues. During the time of the Protestant Reformation, we can see at least two major disagreements, which still remain today: 

One, on the doctrine of justification… “How are guilty sinners justified before God?” And two, on the place of ultimate authority… “Who has the authority to answer this question, or any other on faith and practice, definitively?”

In this essay, I will (like a good Protestant) argue from the position that the Bible is our highest authority. But the authority of Scripture is not my main focus here, so I will just have to assume that point for now. For the interested reader, I’ve written on that subject elsewhere.[5]

Primarily, I’ll focus here on the question of how sinners can be justified. And I’ll argue that justification is by faith alone in Jesus Christ. I will make my case from the Bible and then I’ll urge us to believe this gospel, as opposed to any other, by clarifying the biblical position in contrast to others – both old and new.

If you’re reading this essay with your Bible beside you, then turn now to Romans 3, and let’s try to understand the biblical answer to our desperate question: “How are guilty sinners justified before a holy God?”

THESIS

God justifies sinners through the work of Jesus Christ, and unjustified sinners should expect God’s justice; therefore, let us receive God’s righteousness by faith.

1.  GOD JUSTIFIES SINNERS THROUGH THE WORK OF JESUS CHRIST

Romans 3:9-28 is a small portion of an entire letter written by the Apostle Paul to the Christians in Rome during the first century. Though the “Roman Catholic Church” would grow to mean something far different in time, the “church in Rome” then was simply the united body of Christian believers who lived in Rome.

Paul’s letter to these Christians was and is a masterful treatise on the gospel. As a matter of fact, this letter was one of the books of the Bible which Martin Luther taught through at the seminary in Wittenberg. But he didn’t always enjoy the book of Romans as a marvelous display of God’s grace and love.

Luther initially had some trouble with chapter 1, verse 17, which says, “In it [that is, in the gospel] the righteousness [or justice] of God is revealed…” Luther said of this verse,

“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle [or letter] to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, ‘the justice [or righteousness] of God,’ because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing [sinners]… My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my [good work] would [satisfy] him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him.”[6]

Luther understood that sinners are guilty before God, and Luther knew God’s righteousness demands justice. And that’s where the gospel message begins for all of us… with bad news, and not good.

In Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians, he had begun his description of the gospel by talking about the unrighteous foolishness of all sinners, who naturally reject God’s truth and choose lies and sin instead (Romans 1:18-32). The Jewish Christians might have been tempted to think that they were better off than everyone else, since they had received God’s special revelation of His law… or, as Paul calls it in chapter 3, verse 2, “the oracles of God.”

Remember, up until that point in human history, God had only revealed His law to one people-group – the descendants of Abraham. But that revelation was not sufficient to solve the problem of sin for anyone – Jew or Gentile. And that’s where I’ll pick it up in chapter 3, verse 9.

Paul asked, “What then? Are we Jews any better off?” And his answer was, “No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin…” The Scripture says, everyone is “under” sin… both those who know God’s law and those who haven’t received any special revelation of it. But, what does it mean to be “under” sin? 

Well, verses 10-18 describe it for us. Drawing from multiple Old Testament passages, Paul lays out a diagnosis of natural humanity – that is fallen, unregenerate, and unbelieving humanity.

Romans 3:10-18 says, “10 as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, noteven one.’ 13 ‘Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.’ ‘The venom of asps is under their lips.’ 14 ‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’ 15 ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, 17 and the way of peace they have not known.’ 18 ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’”

This is terrible news! The Bible tells us clearly that no human being is naturally “righteous” (v10), no one “seeks for God” (v11), no one “does good” (v12), and no one has any “fear of God” (v18). Friend, this is a diagnosis of you and me. Neither of us naturally seeks for God; neither of us naturally does what is right; and neither of us naturally has any genuine fear or reverence for God.

Why in the world, then, should God be favorable toward us?!

The short and honest answer is, He should not be! 

But it gets worse. Even the benefit of God’s law is no help to sinners like us. Look at verse 19 and following. The Bible says, “19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:19–20).

What does the Bible say God’s law does to us when it shows up in our lives? It “stops” our “mouths” and it shows us our “accountability” or “liability” or “guilt” before God. The law is no help to us, not because the law is bad, but because we are.

Do you feel the weight of what Luther was wrestling with when he thought the gospel revealed only “the justice” or the “wrath” of God? What does God’s “righteousness” or “justice” mean for sinners like us?

If God’s gospel only reveals the justice by which God judges sinners, then the gospel mocks us in our despair and misery by giving us wretched news. It only condemns us more profoundly.

But Luther kept on reading and he kept on thinking this through. He said,

“Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by faith’ (Romans 1:17). Then I grasped that the justice of God is thatrighteousness by which… through grace and sheer mercy… God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise…”[7]

What did Luther understand that brought such a change? I think he understood the heart of the gospel, which we find in Romans 3, verses 21-26. The Bible says, “21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”

Friend, we see here the beginning of the good news. There is a sense in which God gives righteousness, through Jesus Christ, to those who believe. But how can this be? How can God, who is righteous and just, grant or give righteousness to dirty rotten sinners like us?

Look at the end of verse 22. It says, “For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

Friend, here we come right to the blazing core of the Christian gospel. The question we’re after is: “How are guilty sinners justified before a holy God?” Or, to put it the other way around, “How can God’s justice against sinners be satisfied without punishing sinners?”

The answer we see in Romans 3:22-25 is that God satisfied His own wrath by “putting forward” His own Son (Jesus Christ) as a “propitiation” …or as J. I. Packer put it, Jesus was put forward as a “wrath-quencher.”[8]

I don’t think it’s important that you be able to pronounce the word (propitiation), but your soul depends on you being able to understand the meaning of it. Propitiation is the act of appeasing or satisfying someone. In this case, the furious party is God, and the object of His wrath is the sinner (disobedient people like us). And the propitiating act was the work of Christ upon the cross.

We know Jesus offered propitiation at the cross because it was “by his blood” (v25). And we know that it was this substitutionary sacrifice that brought about “justification” because“justification” is what this whole passage is about. Those sinners who are condemned by their sin in verse 23 are “justified” by God’s grace “through” Christ’s “propitiatory” death in verses 24-25. And verse 26 continues the same thought. “It,” i.e. the propitiating work of Christ, “was to show his [God’s] righteousness at the present time, so that he [God] might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

Only in the wrath-quenching death of Jesus, who died as a substitute for all those who repent (turn from sin) and believe (trust in Him), can God be both the just God who judges sin and the justifying God who saves or justifies sinners.

Only in the person and work of Jesus Christ is God’s righteousness displayed, both in the punishment of some sinners and in the reward of righteousness, which God gives to other sinners through Jesus Christ.

But is this reward of righteousness something that any sinner earns or deserves? NO! It is a “gift” that comes to sinners by or because of God’s “grace” (v24). And, now, Paul’s question in verse 27 is appropriate: “Then what becomes of our boasting?” And what does he say? “It is excluded. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law”

You bet it’s excluded! What boasting can you do if all you contribute to your justification before God is your sin?! How can you boast if all you’ve done is passively put your faith in God’s gracious gift?!

God accomplished it all! God effectively, actually, and irrevocably saves sinners!

God alone and sovereignly makes sinners righteous. He justifies them through the death of His own Son, Jesus Christ, who was put forward by the Father as a “propitiation” at the cross. This is why our hearts may rejoice as we sing: 

How deep the Father’s love for us… How vast beyond all measure…                    

That He should give His only Son… To make a wretch His treasure, 

Why should I gain from His reward… I cannot give an answer…                                  

But this I know with all my heart… His wounds have paid my ransom.

But what does this doctrine of justification by faith or trust in what God has done in Jesus mean for those sinners who do not trust in or have faith in Jesus?

2.  UNJUSTIFIED SINNERS SHOULD EXPECT GOD’S JUSTICE

This will be a relatively short point, but it’s one worth making. And it will probably be the second-most offensive point I’ll make in this essay.

If you look to verses 25-26 of our passage, you’ll read an interesting couple of lines. The Scripture says, “This [and This is referring to Christ’s propitiating work on the cross] was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It [i.e. Jesus’ propitiation, His sacrificial death] was to show his [God’s] righteousness at the present time…”

Friend, the Bible never asks, “How could a loving God send someone to hell?” The Bible, unlike self-centered rebels like us, is far more interested in God’s glory than it is in man’s comfort or in our foolish presumptions about fairness.

In verses 25 and 26, the Bible is telling us that God’s own righteousness might have been in question if He hadn’t displayed His wrath in the work of Jesus Christ. The underlying question here is: If God is a perfect judge who always delivers impartial justice, then where is it?! Sinners seem to be walking around freely right now, and God has even promised to let some sinners escape His justice!

Ah, the Bible says, God hasn’t let His waves of justice roll just yet, but there is no question that God will pour out His wrath on all sinners everywhere. We know this because we can see God’s commitment to justice in the cross of Jesus Christ. Do you think God will spare any of us if He did not spare His own Son?  

Friend, do not presume upon the riches of God’s kindness and patience!

Don’t you know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?

You should turn away from your sin and cling tightly to Jesus. You should plead with God to blot out your transgressions with the blood of His own Son, so that you may be spared from God’s unrelenting wrath, which is surely coming.

God will show no pity in the day of judgment. Look what He has done to His beloved Son in order to save those sinners who are recipients of His grace!

The Bible says that if you do not repent and cling to Jesus then you are “storing up wrath for yourself” which will be poured out “on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5).

Unbelieving and unrepentant sinners should expect nothing but God’s justice.

3.  GOD’S RIGHTEOUSNESS IS RECEIVED BY FAITH ALONE

With this point, which will probably be the most offensive one to some readers, I’m going to contrast the biblical gospel with other versions of the gospel, which are not really any gospel at all. My purpose here is not to be divisive or mean just for the sake of meanness. But, rather, my purpose is to hold up the true gospel, right next to some other ideas that try to pass themselves off as the gospel, so that we will know better how to tell the difference. 

Remember our primary question. We’re asking, “How are guilty sinners justified before a holy God?” I’ve answered this question already by pointing us to Romans 3, and by arguing from the Bible that God makes sinners righteous. He justifies them through the death of His Son, Jesus Christ, who was put forward by the Father as a “propitiation” at the cross.

But how does any sinner receive this gracious gift of righteousness? In real time and in the experience of our real lives, how do we move from being an object of God’s wrath to being an object of His grace and mercy? 

Well, from God’s perspective, the matter is already settled. From before the foundation of the world, He has loved and chosen a people for His name’s sake. And the Father sent the Son into the world in order to die as the substitute for those He came to save (or to justify). And God’s Spirit perfectly applies the work of Christ to all those the Father has loved and chosen.[9]

Praise God for such a marvelous salvation! He has decided it. He has planned it. And He will complete it perfectly… all the way through to the end!

But, from our perspective, the matter is still unfolding. We don’t come into this world knowing and believing the gospel of Christ. We are not naturally loving and serving our good King. Rather, we begin as guilty and rebellious sinners.

How, then, do sinners like us trade our unrighteousness for the righteousness of God in Christ? Or, to put it another way, what must we do to be saved (or justified) before God?

It will probably be helpful if I add a little clarifying note with regard to the precise language I’m using when I say “justified.” The Bible speaks of “salvation” as something that has happened, something that is happening, and something that will happen.

The Christian has been saved, is being saved, and will be saved. But this is a way of using the same word to mean slightly different things.

What we really mean when we speak this way is: The Christian has been regenerated, justified, and adopted into the family of God. The Christian is being sanctified, renewed, and spiritually matured. And the Christian will be glorified, resurrected, and made perfect in Jesus Christ.

So, to speak of “justification” is to refer to a precise aspect of the overall work and experience of Christian salvation. But justification is a critical piece of the puzzle. In fact, Martin Luther said,

“The article of justification is the master and prince, the lord, the ruler, and the judge over all kinds of doctrines; it preserves and governs all church doctrine and raises up our conscience before God. Without this article the world is utter death and darkness.”[10]

Indeed, to get justification wrong is to lose the gospel altogether. To get justification wrong is to lose salvation and to lose even the whole Christian church. So, let’s dig just a little deeper into justification here.

In the 16th century, and still today, the Roman Catholic Church taught and teaches that a sinner actively participates in his or her justification by (at minimum) observing the sacraments of the Church, of which baptism is primary.[11] In other words, justification is not only an act of God, but it is also an activity in which the sinner plays an “instrumental” role, namely the sinner contributes to the “process” of his or her justification by performing religious duties.[12]

In fact, Rome has formally condemned anyone who teaches or believes the view that justification is something only God does through Christ, which is to be received only by simple faith.[13] Simply put, Rome has officially declared eternal damnation on anyone who teaches or believes the doctrine of justification as I have explained it above.

But Rome is not the only church to teach a gospel of justification by faith plus religious obedience. Historically consistent Churches of Christ teach the same. For example, Graceton Church of Christ (located near me) affirms that baptism is “an act which is essential to salvation.”[14]  Very much like official Roman Catholicism, Churches of Christ seem to mix together faith in the Lord Jesus with other religious activities which Christians are commanded to do as a result of their faith in Jesus.

But the Bible doesn’t teach justification by faith plus anything!

The Bible teaches us that God justifies by His grace through the work of Jesus Christ. Justification is not something we do. It’s not something we can do! We don’t contribute to our justification in any way. We are passive recipients of God’s gracious and effective work, which provides perfect righteousness for us.

This is marvelous good news for sinners like us, because it means that we have a truly effective savior. Jesus didn’t just make salvation possible for sinners like us; He truly and actually died in our place. And in so doing, He quenched God’s wrath against us and made us righteous in God’s sight. We must simply believe or trust that this is true.

At 3:00 AM on February 18, 1546, Martin Luther was dying, and his friend asked him, “Reverend father, will you die steadfast in Christ and the doctrines you have preached?” Luther simply responded, “Yes.”

May God help us too, to have no guilt in life and no fear in death. May God help us all to stand in the love, in the sacrifice, and in the power of Jesus Christ.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Luther, Martin. The Large Catechism. Translated by F. Bente and W.H.T. Dan. Published in: Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Ev. Lutheran Church. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921. http://www.projectwittenberg.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/wittenberg-boc.html

Packer, J. I., and Dever, Mark. In My Place Condemned He Stood. Crossway, 2007.

Rafferty, Oliver. P. Catholic Views of Justification. In P. R. Eddy, J. K. Beilby, & S. E. Enderlein (Eds.),Justification: Five Views. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. Catechism of the Catholic Church. Crown Publishing Group, First Image Books edition, 1995.

Sproul, R. C. Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification. Baker Books, 1995.

Waterworth, J. Ed. and trans. The Council of Trent. The canons and decrees of the sacred and oecumenical Council of Trent. London: Dolman, 1848. Scanned by Hanover College students in 1995.

ENDNOTES


[1] See the official Vatican authorization of indulgences as recently as March 20 of 2020. https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2020/03/20/pope-francis-authorizes-plenary-indulgences-and-general-absolution-coronavirus

[2] See Luther’s 95 theses: https://marcminter.com/2017/03/30/martin-luthers-95-theses/  

[3] See this article on Luther’s conversion: https://www.ligonier.org/blog/story-martin-luthers-conversion/

[4] Quote from: Reeves, Michael. The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation (p. 15). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition

[5] Here’s a popular level article I wrote on the subject: https://marcminter.com/2017/05/10/christians-dont-need-the-bible/ and here’s a more academic article on the same: https://marcminter.com/2018/11/01/sufficiency-of-scripture/

[6] Sproul, 56-57.

[7] Sproul, 57.

[8] Packer, 23.

[9] See all of this laid out in Ephesians 1:3-14; Romans 8:27-39; 2 Timothy 1:8-12; and elsewhere.

[10] Sproul, 67.

[11] Rafferty, 280. See also chapter 7 of the sixth session of the Council of Trent, which says, “Of this Justification the causes are these: the final cause indeed is the glory of God and of Jesus Christ, and life everlasting; while the efficient cause is a merciful God who washes and sanctifies gratuitously, signing, and anointing with the holy Spirit of promise, who is the pledge of our inheritance; but the meritorious cause is His most beloved only- begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when we were enemies, for the exceeding charity wherewith he loved us, merited Justification for us by His most holy Passion on the wood of the cross, and made satisfaction for us unto God the Father; the instrumental cause is the sacrament of baptism, which is the sacrament of faith, without which (faith) no man was ever justified; lastly, the alone formal cause is the justice of God, not that whereby He Himself is just, but that whereby He maketh us just…”

[12] Rafferty, 278-280.

[13] See Waterworth, session 6, especially canons 9, 12, 24, and 30.

[14] See full content at http://www.churches-of-christ.net/tracts/job041u.htm

The Augsburg Confession

The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, came to realize that there were too many Protestants in Germany for him to kill all of them. In 1521, Charles V had issued the Edict of Worms, which condemned Martin Luther to die at the hands of anyone who could do the job. Now, nearly ten years later, there were many more Germans who followed and protected Luther rather than trying to kill him.

While the Emperor would have been glad to be rid of the problem, those Protestants simply would not go away or realign with the Roman Catholic Church. They were peasants and nobleman, farmers and princes, but they were united by a desire to read and know the Bible – God’s Word – for themselves.

Many people noticed deep-rooted corruption in the religious leaders of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but the Protestant Reformers offered a new hope for a purer faith. Rather than approaching God by way of an aloof clerical substitute, the Reformers read and spoke the words of God Himself from the pages of Scripture. This attracted many, but they needed something around which to unite those who separated from the Roman Catholic Church.

Statements of faith were common in Christianity from the very beginning. These statements (or confessions) are brief and precise declarations of the substance of Christian belief. In the Bible, we find the earliest known statement of faith,

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…” (1 Corinthians 15:3–4).

Some statements of faith were as short as one sentence (Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior) symbolized by the well-known Christian fish.[1]

In April of 1530, Charles V summoned Protestant leaders to a meeting in Augsburg, Germany. This was the hearing the Reformers had been waiting for, but they quickly realized that much of their agreement thus far had been on matters of divergence from the Roman Catholic Church. Protestants knew what they were protesting, but they had not spent nearly as much time codifying what united them as a group.

Martin Luther’s student and friend, Philip Melanchthon, drafted what came to be known as the Augsburg Confession.[2] In this statement of faith, many Protestants found unity among themselves. While there were still matters of some disagreement, this confession was a declaration of belief regarding the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Here is an excerpt from the Augsburg Confession regarding the justification of sinners by faith alone in Christ:

“Men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight.”

This confession of faith reminds us that Protestants (more importantly, Christians) must always unite around the essential truths of the Gospel of Christ. There, of course, will inevitably be many other doctrines related to these core truths, and there are good reasons to believe all that you do with deep conviction. However, there is room in the shadow of Christ’s cross for disagreement about how we shall arrange ourselves under it.

It has been said many times, but we would do well to remember: In the essentials, unity; in the non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.

May God unite His people afresh upon the bedrock foundation of His Gospel.

 

[1] ICTHUS (ιχθύος) is the Greek word for “fish,” and the word is an acronym for the Greek words, “Ιησου Χριστου Θεος υιος σωτηρ,” which are translated: “Jesus Christ God’s Son Savior.” Therefore, to display the ‘Christian fish’ was to make a public declaration that one believed Jesus to be the Christ (or Messiah) and the Son of God and the Savior through whom God reconciled sinners to Himself. A fish, no matter how big, was never such a mouthful as this.

[2] The Augsburg Confession is a thoroughly Protestant confession of faith, but it is primarily the heritage of the Lutheran denomination. Since Philip Melanchthon authored much of it, and Martin Luther endorsed it, the doctrines within are Lutheran. All Protestants agree regarding the “Five Solas,” but baptism, Lord’s Supper, and ecclesiology are matters of disagreement among Protestants (then and now). See the Augsburg Confession, including the preface to the Emperor, HERE.

Martin Luther’s Stand

On April 17, 1521, at the Diet of Worms (an imperial meeting in Worms, Germany) Martin Luther stood before the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V, and many high representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. The hall was full of churchmen and civil leaders, governors and nobles, some who supported Luther as a heroic theologian and others who wanted him to burn as a heretic.

Luther must have felt the weight of the whole world upon his shoulders. In fact, he had stood right where he was on the day before and asked for some time to consider how he would answer the lethal question he was being asked, “Will you recant these things you have written and said?” Luther’s life was a stake because he had written and said things that impugned the doctrines and dogmas of the Roman Catholic Church. He would have to withdraw his words or face serious consequences.

Four years earlier, Professor Martin Luther published an academic work on the university bulletin board. He wrote his now famous 95 Theses in Latin, which amounted to a professor’s invitation for scholarly dialogue on the practice of indulgences. Nailing this document to the chapel door in Wittenberg was the pivotal moment that set Luther’s trajectory towards the Diet of Worms.

Now, there Luther stood, surrounded by such an illustrious crowd. If he refused to recant, he would be charged as a heretic and burned alive. If he recanted, he feared the wrath of God would come upon him for not standing for divine truth amidst such tyrannical error. However, it does not seem that fear compelled him most. He was convinced by Scripture, and he simply could not knowingly deny what had gripped him so.

In a clear and distinct voice, Martin Luther answered,

“I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me, Amen.”[1]

In God’s providence, Luther did not die that day, nor was he ever burned as a heretic. He was certainly condemned as an enemy of the Roman Catholic Church. In the Edict of Worms (a decree issued soon after the Diet), Charles V offered a reward for Luther’s capture (dead or alive), but Luther remained a champion of biblical Christianity until he died from various ailments and fatigue at 62 years old.

Like Athanasius before him, Martin Luther lived contra mundum (against the world), but he reminds us that the word of God is true even if the whole world is against it. May God raise up many convinced men and women in our own day, and may we be gripped – above all else – by His word.

[1] Reeves, Michael. The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation (p. 15). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

If you enjoyed this post, see by article Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and my essay Luther & the “Five Solas” of the Reformation.

Luther & the “Five Solas” of the Reformation

Martin Luther was a giant of history… [He] was the pioneer Reformer, the one whom God first used to spark a transformation of Christianity in the Western world.”[1] These accurate and sobering words from Steven Lawson on Martin Luther properly begin the discussion of such a man. There is no doubt that the stage of human history had been perfectly arranged for the Protestant Reformation.

However, one is a fool not to recognize that Martin Luther was the man perfectly designed for the role of a Reformer. Luther’s weaknesses and strengths were played out for all to see; time and again he brings his audience to their feet in admiration for his courage to stand for and by the grace of God.

Martin Luther was born on November 10, 1483, to Hans and Margeret Luder in Eisleben, Germany. Before his twenty-second birthday, Martin graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts from the University of Erfurt. Well on his way to becoming a distinguished student and practitioner of law, this would only be the beginning of his higher education. Luther, however, changed his life plans from law to monasticism in haste during a thunderstorm; he swore to become a monk if he were spared from the dreadful storm. After this pivotal moment, he studied Bible at a monastery to earn his second BA, and later he received a doctorate in theology.

Luther said, “Who would have divined that I would receive a Bachelor’s and then a Master’s of Arts, then lay aside my brown student’s cap and leave it to others in order to become a monk… and despite all that I would get in the Pope’s hair…”[2]

Luther was deeply concerned about his sinfulness in light of God’s righteousness. He could not fathom any possible escape from God’s imminent judgment and punishment. Luther’s introspection drove him (and in turn many of his fellow Augustinian monks) to mental and spiritual anguish. Following the guidance of his superior (John Staupitz), Luther studied diligently to earn his doctorate and then began teaching courses on Psalms, Romans, Galatians and Hebrews.

All of this was intended to bring Luther to a place of peace and understanding, and that it did. Luther came to understand the meaning of “alien” or “foreign” righteousness and began to herald at least one of the “five solas” of the Reformation – sola fide or Faith Alone.[3]

Justification by Faith alone is the fundamental Protestant doctrine and the central tenant of the Reformation. This sola is the chief column, which upholds the Christian Faith. Luther said that this doctrine was the article upon which the Church is standing or falling (articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae). It was during his preparation for teaching on the book of Romans when Luther came to understand how God could be both just and the justifier of sinners (Rom. 3:26).

Luther speaks of his experience by saying, “I felt that I had been born anew and that the gates of heaven had been opened. The whole of Scripture gained a new meaning. And from that point on the phrase ‘the justice of God’ no longer filled me with hatred, but rather became unspeakably sweet by virtue of a great love.”[4]

This miraculous breakthrough in Luther’s mind and soul was to create a shockwave that would not end in this one man. The shockwave would travel throughout the geographical, social, political and religious structures of his own day and all those after. Seemingly, the first glimpse into what the future might be for Martin Luther comes in the form of ninety-five arguments against Papal indulgences. Luther could not have known the impact he would make by nailing that text to the wooden door of the church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517.

None of the most astute theologians, sociologists, politicians, psychologists or historians could have possibly understood how great the impact of this event would be. It essentially marked the beginning of what we have come to know as the Protestant Reformation. The arguments contained in Luther’s 95 theses were symptoms of a viral incompatibility, and Luther could not have known how the technology of his day would be harnessed to spread these ideas so far and wide. Luther wrote to one publisher of his theses, “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation.”[5]

Upon his conversion, Luther had no time for faux-piety or naive self-righteousness, neither did he intend to allow anyone to continue in his or her own illusions of grandeur based upon some notion of self-produced righteousness before God. Contrastingly, Luther’s pastoral care for all those over whom he expressed religious influence caused him to rail just as violently against the hopelessness produced by an honest investigation of one’s own inability to manufacture such labor-intensive righteousness.

His teachings and beliefs can be summed up in the five solas of the Reformation: Sola Scriptura or Scripture Alone, Sola fide or Faith Alone, Sola gratia or Grace Alone, Solus Christus or Christ Alone, and Soli Deo gloria or to the glory of God Alone. These are effectively the five battlegrounds upon which the war for the Reformation of the Christian Faith was fought, and the fight continues today.

The sufficiency of Christ, the justification of any sinner, the glory of God in salvation, the gracious grace dispensed through the sacrifice at the cross of Christ, and the supremacy of the Scriptures over any other revelation can be summed up in a portion of Luther’s sermon from the gospel of John chapter 1 and verse 29. He proclaimed, “Anyone who wishes to be saved must know that all his sins have been placed on the back of this Lamb [the Lamb of God]!” Luther goes on to explain that sin is “exterminated and deleted” at the cross.

Speaking as from the mouth of God, Luther says, “I see how the sin oppresses you. You would have to collapse under its heavy burden. But I shall relieve and rid you of the load – when the Law convicts you of, and condemns you for, your sin – and from sheer mercy I shall place the weight of your sin on this Lamb, which will bear them.”[6]

In this phrase from the lips of Luther, we can examine his beliefs and teachings concerning these “five solas.”

First, Sola Scriptura. Luther places supreme authority on the Scriptures as the word of God and here he finds truth to proclaim. His message of hope is not from traditional standard nor is it from cardinal decree, but from the text of God’s holy word. The importance of his source cannot be overstated, neither should we overlook the fact that he remains true to his source’s intent.

Far from being a topical preacher who rifles through the pages of holy writ for a pretext from which to spring toward his ‘relevant’ content, Luther digs deep into the actual text of Scripture and remains there. Even his application directly correlates to the passage. This, and because his understanding of the passage directly opposed accepted Church doctrines of the day, indicates that Luther understood the value of Scripture above all else. Sola Scriptura is not the idea that nothing else possesses value, but that nothing else besides God’s word enjoys the supreme place of authority.

Second, Sola fide. Luther presents the message of salvation as being available to only those who cast their own self-righteousness aside and place all their hope on this “Lamb.” No doubt, Luther would have immediately recognized the Old Testament reference to the Passover lamb that was sacrificed in order to spare the people from the judgment and wrath of God. He even refers to the connection between Christ and the sacrificial lamb that was killed on the Day of Atonement under the old covenant system.

His hearers would have understood; Luther was calling for total dependence upon and faith in Christ alone for the forgiveness of sins. There was no building, no earthly priest, no confessional chamber, no washing with water, and no monetary expense to which Luther would point any sinner for his reconciliation to God. Faith in the finished work of Christ was and is the sinner’s only right response, which is a gift of God.

Third, Sola Gratia. Luther explains that the sinner’s reception of such faith in the person and work of Christ, who has accomplished such a great salvation, is only provided because of God’s great and marvelous grace. Luther expresses the origins of saving grace by speaking as though God Himself has said, “from sheer mercy I shall.” Mercy and grace are not identical, but it could be said that they are fraternal twins. At their end is the same goal, namely favor and blessing.

Mercy is the withholding of harsh consequences due, and grace is the extending of favorable consequences undue. Both are the provocation of the one salvation, which God has provided. There is nothing in the sinner that places God in his debt. To God’s gracious grace alone (Sola gratia) can be attributed the redemption of any sinner, for justice and wrath is what every sinner is owed.

Fourth, Solus Christus. Christ Alone has been and is the ultimate Lamb of God, and He alone can take away sin.  Solus Christus carries the notion of the exclusivity of Christ and His work. There is salvation only through one man, namely the God-man Jesus Christ. He is the only hope for sinners, for He is the only Lamb God has provided. God is not obligated to make any way of escape for sinners, but indeed He has offered one.

God has not only offered this way of escape, but He has heralded the provision from the beginning (Genesis 3:15) and continually uncovered more of the beauty of the Redeemer throughout human history. The announcement of John the Baptist, to which Luther refers above, is the proclamation of the arrival of God’s Lamb. Old Testament saints trusted God for this day and this Lamb, and New Testament saints look back to God’s provision in Him. Thus, every saved sinner looks to the Lamb of God who alone takes away the sin of the world.

Finally, Soli Deo Gloria. Ultimately, every part of salvation is of the Lord, through the Lord, to the Lord, and for His glory.  It is natural man’s inclination to refuse to offer God the glory He deserves and to resist the knowledge of God, which has been displayed in creation and written on the hearts of men (Rom. 1:18-32). All humans, even Christians, are compelled by sinfulness to think much too well of their own worth, volition, and goodness.

Before a sinner is born again, he has no desire to honor God. After a sinner receives life and the gift of faith, his affections are changed and he longs to honor God but remains prone to withhold such glory from Him. Luther said in his arguments against Erasmus’ diatribe concerning the freedom of the will, “if ‘Free-Will’ were any thing, or could do any thing, it must have appeared and wrought something… But it availed nothing, it always wrought in the contrary direction.”[7] His point should be heavily contemplated.

Essentially, Luther made his case here against the freedom, neutrality, or goodness of human will by pointing out the reality that unregenerate humanity (natural and unconverted humanity) can have nothing good, godly, or holy ever attributed to it. The only possible way that humanity would be found good, godly, or holy is subsequent to and wholly dependent upon a miraculous work of God (Jn. 3:3-8; Eph. 2:1-4). Thus, God alone deserves glory for the salvation of any sinner.

The “five Solas” of Luther’s teachings and beliefs are the collective pillars, which uphold the biblical revelation of God’s plan of redemption and the execution of that plan. The person and work of Christ are the sinner’s only hope of escape from God’s wrath, and the only way that any sinner receives the benefit of this work is through the application of it by the power of the Holy Spirit. Effectively, the Father plans redemption, the Son fulfills all the requirements for redemption, and the Spirit applies the benefits of redemption to each and every sinner who consequently receives it.

It is this understanding of salvation (and especially regeneration) that gives God all glory. Therefore, Luther, as the other Reformers, sought to squash any idea that sinners contributed anything toward their own redemption. The sinner has but one hope, namely that God chooses to glorify Himself by delivering unmerited, unconditional, and effective grace.

The impact of Martin Luther in his own day is hard to accurately measure. He was hated by some, loved by others and unknown to many more. Those who loved him did so for various reasons. Some saw his rebellion from the established Roman Catholic Church as an opportunity to gain political and governmental power. Others wanted the opportunity to shirk the seemingly heavy hand of the Church, and Luther’s Reformation ideas were just the argument to present such a case. He is known as a magisterial agent of an incredible and miraculous Reformation that would continue for hundreds of years, even into our own day.

Luther is revered by many and, while he was certainly not perfect (admittedly a practical sinner), he understood the reality of positional righteousness through the plan of the Father, the person and work of the Son, and the power of the Holy Spirit for all who believe. For this, he is rightly held in the highest esteem.

 

Reference List

González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity. New York, NY: HarperOne/HarperCollins, 2010.

“How Luther Went Viral. (Martin Luther).” The Economist (US) 401 (2011): 8764. Accessed April 9, 2014. Academic OneFile.

Lawson, Steven J. The Heroic Boldness of Martin Luther. Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust Pub., 2013.

Lawson, Steven J. Pillars of Grace: A.D. 100-1564. Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Pub., 2010.

Luther, Martin. The Bondage of the Will. Lafayette, IN: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 2001.

Nichols, Stephen J. Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Pub., 2002.

 

[1] Lawson, Pillars, 396

[2] Nichols, 24-25

[3] Nichols, 33

[4] Gonzalez, 25

[5] How Luther went viral.

[6] Lawson, Heroic, 76-77

[7] Luther, 41