What's the Big Deal with the Reformation?

Man’s work faileth, Christ’s availeth,
He is all our righteousness;
He, our Savior, has forever
Set us free from dark distress.
Through His merit we inherit
Light and peace and happiness.

- Venantius Fortunatus, c. 530-609

“Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.”
- Thesis #37, nailed by Martin Luther on the Castle Church door at Wittenberg, October 10th, 1517

"The righteous shall live by faith."
- Romans 1:17b

“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the justice of God,” because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. 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 merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant. Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by his faith.’ Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness 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. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas the ‘justice of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressively sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate of heaven….”
- Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Volume 34, p. 337

496 years ago today, on October 31, 1517, the sound of a hammer could be heard in Wittenberg, Germany as an Augustinian monk nailed a piece of parchment to the door at Castle Church. On that parchment, written in Latin, were Luther’s complaints. They were meant to spark an intramural debate, but instead sparked a wildfire that would spread throughout the world. The topics essentially covered three areas – 1) Whether the church ought to spend money on extravagance. 2) Whether the pope could exercise powers over purgatory. 3) And the effect of indulgences pertaining to the standing of a sinner before God. The first two topics would have escaped without too much notice. It was the last topic that got Luther into great trouble. His own mind was the battleground and the stakes were high. The question was excruciating, “How can sinful man be reconciled to a holy God?” The answer, found in the book of Romans, was Luther’s gate of heaven. When Luther understood that his right-standing before God was solely based upon the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ by faith alone, he felt himself reborn. The gospel broke in on his heart with the force of the dawn of a new day. The gospel, rightly apprehended (through Christ alone, by faith alone, and through grace alone) and rightly understood (through Scripture alone), changed everything.

A lot has happened in almost 500 years. Today, the Reformational (and I believe biblical) understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith is under assault. The inference is that we have misunderstood Paul and the Scriptures. The inference is that we have misunderstood the gospel. But, what difference does this make? Is all of this an academic debate better handled by ivory-tower theologians? R. Scott Clark makes the connection between the attack on the biblical view of justification and the church in his book, Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry. Clark’s point should be heeded. An attack upon justification and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness will wreak terrible havoc in the life of the church. Clark writes,

“Each (church member) needs to see the true magnitude of his or her offense toward God, the abundance of God’s mercy in erasing that debt through the cross of Christ, and the invincible assurance of God’s approval, grounded on the imputed righteousness of Jesus. As these truths grip their hearts (which often results not from an instantaneous change but from a prolonged struggle) defenses can fall, sins can be confessed (genuinely, not merely as a step in a required formula), forgiveness can flow, and hope can rekindle.”
- R. Scott Clark, Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry, p. 426

We have much to be grateful for and much to be vigilant about this Reformation Day. After 496 years I thank God for Martin Luther. I thank God for the vexation of soul that brought about an understanding of justification by faith in the imputed righteousness of Christ. This was an understanding that broke through the darkness of performance-based acceptability and shone the sovereign grace gospel in all of its glorious radiance. When you and I trust solely in the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ for our acceptance before God we embrace biblical Christianity and become true heirs of the Reformation.

Soli Deo Gloria!


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