The sixteenth-century Reformation was the epicenter of profound changes. These changes were not caused by social or economic forces. The central issues were […]
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The sixteenth-century Reformation was the epicenter of profound changes. These changes were not caused by social or economic forces. The central issues were theological in nature. First-generation Protestant theologians had concluded that the church and scholastic theology had buried the gospel under layers of human tradition. At stake was the understanding of how one could be saved. This was a matter of life and death, since the church had advocated a system of salvation in which grace was relegated to the status of a commodity that could be earned.
Back to Basics
The fresh understanding of the gospel in the sixteenth century brought changes of such an extent that Diarmaid MacCulloch, a well-known scholar writing on the history of the Reformation, summarizes this paradigm shift as “All things made new.”1 Martin Luther’s foundational contribution to theology was the recognition that salvation is a free gift of divine mercy, and humans can do nothing to get it except to receive it through faith alone.
This idea was revolutionary, since it stood in sharp contrast to the medieval understanding of salvation in which the concept of merit played a crucial role. Sin was considered to be a problem of being, which needed healing through a process of transformation. Consequently, it was believed that salvation was the result of becoming a “holy person by cooperating with grace by all means possible.”2
We can have assurance even in the face of our human weaknesses, because God justifies us.
This system implied that humans must add their efforts to the work of God’s grace in order to achieve salvation, since eternal life came as a reward for cooperating with divine grace. Purgatory, a concept considered the theological foundation for a vast church business in the medieval period (including the payment for salvation by purchasing indulgences), became for the Reformers the symbol of all that was wrong with this view of salvation. The “theology of the cross” lay at the heart of Luther’s argument, highlighting the centrality of God’s mercy despite human sin, instead of demanding from people virtue as a prerequisite for grace.
The key expression in Luther’s thought is the “righteousness of God” (iustitia Dei). In Romans 1:18-3:20 Paul establishes the argument that all people are guilty, and so the main problem of humanity is facing God’s justice. In pre-Reformation theology the “righteousness of God” was equivalent to the punishment by the divine judge. Luther challenged this view as the result of his study of Psalms, Romans, and Galatians in the period between 1513 and 1517 while he lectured on these books at
Luther established biblically that the iustitia Dei is not to be understood in terms of God’s righteousness, by which God is Himself justified, but as the righteousness by which He justifies sinful human beings. Righteousness is a gift from God given for the benefit of humanity. It is a gift by which God declares believers righteous even though they are not in themselves righteous.
This new definition of righteousness points to God as “the fountain of every good.”3 The cross reveals “an exuberantly happy God who glories in sharing His happiness. He is not stingy or utilitarian, but a God who glories in being gracious.”4 This is revealed in the climactic statement of Paul’s argument for justification by faith in Romans 4:25: “[Jesus our Lord] was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (NIV).
After explaining the necessity of justification (Rom. 1-3) and the way it works (Rom. 4), the apostle Paul points
out its consequences in Romans 5:1-11. In these texts he describes the blessedness of the people of God
who received the new status in Jesus Christ. The foundational statement
of the passage comes right at the beginning: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (verse 1, NIV). In reconciliation, through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God gave Himself to us: He gave us His friendship, which is the basis for hope and the reason for joy.
According to the argument of Romans 5:1-11, the main characteristic of believers is joy in God: deep and satisfying happiness is found in worshipping God and seeking His glory in our lives. Christians have good reason to rejoice despite life’s circumstances, because God has acted on their behalf and rescued them from the bondage of sin for a new life in Jesus Christ. We can have assurance even in the face of our human weaknesses, because God justifies us on the basis of our faith in Christ’s work of salvation, even though we have nothing to contribute to this salvation. While faith will produce good deeds in a person’s life, salvation does not come as the result of faith plus works, as in the Roman Catholic view of salvation.
It’s Really Personal
Justification by faith is a doctrine with a deep existential significance. Since this experience changes us to the core of our being and determines our eternal future, for sixteenth-century Protestant theologians the doctrine of justification was “the summary of Christian doctrine,” “the article on which the church stands or falls.” Much has changed over the past 500 years, when Europe was set on fire because
of these important theological issues.
Today, however, we need an even stronger focus on the Reformation principle of justification by faith.
This biblical teaching has the potential to give us a fresh experience of the work of God, the power of God, the wisdom of God, the strength of God, the salvation of God, and the glory of God so needed in today’s secular postmodern culture. Reformation matters, even after 500 years. n
1 Diarmaid MacCulloch, All Things Made New: The Reformation and Its Legacy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).
2 Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1999), p. 373.
3 Alister McGrath, Iustita Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 222.
4 Michael Reeves and Tim Chester, Why the Reformation Still Matters (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2016), pp. 209, 210.
Laszlo Gallusz, Ph.D., is lecturer in New Testament studies at Belgrade Theological Seminary in Serbia.
The Experience of Salvation
In infinite love and mercy God made Christ, who knew no sin, to be sin for us, so that in Him we might be made the righteousness of God. Led by the Holy Spirit we sense our need, acknowledge our sinfulness, repent of our transgressions, and exercise faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord, Substitute and Example. This saving faith comes through the divine power of the Word and is the gift of God’s grace. Through Christ we are justified, adopted as God’s sons and daughters, and delivered from the lordship of sin. Through the Spirit we are born again and sanctified; the Spirit renews our minds, writes God’s law of love in our hearts, and we are given the power to live a holy life. Abiding in Him we become partakers of the divine nature and have the assurance of salvation now and in the judgment. (Gen. 3:15; Isa. 45:22; 53; Jer. 31:31-34; Eze. 33:11; 36:25-27; Hab. 2:4; Mark 9:23, 24; John 3:3-8, 16; 16:8; Rom. 3:21-26; 5:6-10; 8:1-4, 14-17; 10:17; 12:2; 2 Cor. 5:17-21; Gal. 1:4; 3:13, 14, 26; 4:4-7; Eph. 2:4-10; Col. 1:13, 14; Titus 3:3-7; Heb. 8:7-12; 1 Peter 1:23; 2:21, 22; 2 Peter 1:3, 4; Rev. 13:8.)