This week marks the 499th Anniversary of the Reformation of the 16th century. It was on October 31st 1517 that God, through a man named Martin Luther, graciously helped His church to rediscover the truth that the Holy Scriptures must be the Christian’s only infallible rule of faith and life. From those Holy Scriptures, Luther came to rediscover the glorious heart of the Gospel: Sinners are declared righteous, or justified before God by faith alone in Christ alone, because of grace alone, all for the glory of God alone. Sinful man does not (can not!) cooperate with God’s grace to bring justification. Rather, man receives the perfect righteousness of Christ alone through the instrumentation of faith that is a gift of God (Rom. 3:21-22, 28; cf. Eph. 2:8-10). Luther learned that all the righteousness he would ever need would be given to Him in Christ; for every need, for every perfect requirement of God, Christ was the help, the hope, and the perfect provision of the righteousness of God the Father to believing sinners.
The false teaching of thinking one could cooperate with God’s grace to bring about the righteousness God required was nothing new to the Medieval church and time of the Reformation. You may recall that in the time of Jesus’ ministry, many of the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law opposed Jesus vehemently because he disagreed with their teaching of salvation by cooperation with God’s grace. Essentially, the Pharisees taught that man could cooperate with God within the covenant, and eventually do enough good works to merit their salvation and hope before God (Rom. 10:1-3; cf. Phil. 3:7-14). Contrastly, Jesus taught that God required personal perfection to the Law (Matthew 5:48; cf. Gal. 3:10-13; Rom. 10:5) so that those who had ears to hear would come to the end of their self-righteousness and repent and find their only hope of righteousness in His merit—in his personal and perfect law-keeping for them, received by faith alone (Rom. 10:4; Gal. 3:19, 25-29).
During the Medieval period, again the Pharisaical teaching of attempting to cooperate within the visible Church to attain enough merits to achieve a righteousness before God was taught and believed by many. This error sadly eclipsed the true, saving and wonderful Gospel of Jesus. This robbed God of the glory due to Him alone! When God called Martin Luther, he was a spiritually struggling monk who was attempting to achieve this perfect righteousness that God required of him. Luther was trying to cooperate by faith with God’s grace to be saved. However, he realized because of the depth of his sins and the perfect righteousness of God there was no hope or spiritual comfort in this teaching. This was no good news at all! Luther struggled with his works before God, realizing they were not always done with the right motives and pure faith, and if God was to judge His works according to His perfect standard of righteousness, then only damnation and judgment awaited Him.
By God’s good grace, Luther had a friend and Father-Confessor within the Augustinian cloister by the name of Johann von Staupitz that shared the Gospel with Martin Luther. This is what Staupitz told Luther to seek to comfort him with Gospel tidings:
“Why do you torment yourself with all these speculations and these high thoughts of your works before God? Look at the wounds of Jesus Christ, to the blood that he has shed for you: it is there that the grace of God will appear to you. Instead of torturing yourself on account of your sins, throw yourself in your Redeemer’s arms. Trust in him- – in the righteousness and merits of his life- -in the atonement of his death. Do not shrink back; God is not angry with you, it is you who are angry with God. Listen to the Son of God not your own thoughts; meditate on His Word to you. Jesus became man to give you the assurance of divine favor. He says to you: You are my sheep; you hear my voice; no man shall pluck you out of my strong hand.” –John Staupitz to Martin Luther, ca. 1509.
This is a summary of the gospel of grace that was rediscovered during the Reformation. We must be reminded that as sinners saved by grace, there will always be a temptation to earn our salvation before God- -to merely try harder- -and work harder, seeking to appease God, and hoping that He will forgive us and give us a right standing before him because of what we have done. But it is not what we have done, or could ever do that counts. It is what God has done for us in Christ through His perfect life and His atoning, substitutionary death. God punishes sin justly and also justifies those who believe (Rom. 3:24-26).
The Gospel of Grace humbles sinners. Sinners cannot keep God’s law, and even our best works and efforts before God are tainted with sin (Rom. 3:9-10, 23). The Good news declares to sinners that the righteousness that God requires- -God mercifully supplies – -not from within us, or from our works, or our best cooperation with God, but our righteousness is found in the righteousness and merits of Christ alone! In Christ, all who believe find a strong Savior and the comforting assurance of God’s love. In Christ, all believers stand declared righteous based not on our own works for God, but upon Christ’s perfect works for God. God imputes our sins to Christ, and imputes Christ’s perfect record or righteousness to us through faith alone! Christ’s perfection is given to us, and our sins are placed on him (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Beloved of God, and to all sinners who feel the heavy weight of your sins, and the hopelessness of your condition before a holy God: All are justified or declared righteous before God because of Christ’s merits given to us as a free gift (Rom. 3:23-28)! Let us live as loved and forgiven people this day, confident in God’s grace, not in our works. Let God’s grace and love toward wicked and undeserving sinners such as ourselves humble us, and let us live gratefully and obediently unto Him! (Rom. 3:27, 31). Let us remember as God’s people that all the righteousness we will ever need is given to us in Christ. For every need we have, for every perfect requirement of God, Christ is our help, our hope, and the perfect provision of righteousness from God the Father to believing sinners. Let us humbly rejoice!
In Christ’s love,
Happy 499th Reformation Day!