Sunday, October 31, 2010

Reformation Day

On this date 493 years ago, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the front door of the church in Wittenburg, Germany. A couple of years ago, I heard Christopher Hitchens, with some amusement, describe himself as a "Protestant atheist," as he understood the importance of the Reformation in establishing the notion of freedom of conscience in the western world. Unfortunately, he appreciates more than do most American evangelicals. Most churches in the United States will not note the day, and many Protestant Christians either know nothing of their Reformation heritage or even go so far as to dismiss these events as dusty history filled with irrelevant doctrinal debates.

In fact, Luther helped the church rediscover truths that give hope to the hopeless.

Thoughts of the righteousness of God terrified Luther, who considered the great chasm between God's righteousness and his own lack thereof to be an affront to the Lord. Luther froze up while conducting his first communion service as a priest, later explaining that thoughts of the holy Christ being present in the Eucharist terrified him. While living a seemingly exemplary life as a respected teacher in a monastic community, Luther spent so much time in confession that his colleagues doubted his sanity. His sense of guilt and hopelessness over his sins lead him to flagellate himself in his room.

Gradually, light came into this dark picture, primarily through studies in the Psalms and Romans, as Luther realized that the righteousness of God is not just the righteousness that God demands: it is also the righteousness that God gives freely by His grace. By His sinless life, the Son of God met the requirements of the law, and by His death, he paid sin's penalty. Thus, the justice of God has been satisfied and righteousness is freely given through the completed work of Christ. The Apostle Paul expressed it this way:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith [that is to say, by faith from first to last], as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” [Rom. 1:16-17, ESV]

In those thoughts, Luther found freedom. Christianity was not a ladder that had to be climbed to get to heaven -- a space that seemed too far away for a man who recognized the depth of his own sin. Rather, Christianity tells us that God has come to us, making provision for us in the person of Christ. Out of this, Luther realized that our justification (a legal term, referring to a declaration by God that we are not due the penalty of the guilty, but rather are to be conferred the privileges of the just) is God's work for us, not our work for Him.

Out of those comforting thoughts, Luther launched a religious revolution centered around 5 "solas" (the Latin word for "alone). In short, Luther set afire a blaze of hope with the thoughts that justification is:

  • By grace alone: it is not dependent on any human merit. It is solely given by the grace of God.
  • Through faith alone: it is received simply by faith in Christ -- belief in the sufficiency of His life, death and resurrection for our eternal salvation. No effort on our part is responsible for our justification. To say otherwise would be to deny that justification is by grace alone.
  • Through Christ alone -- it is by the sinless life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection of Christ that we receive the gift of eternal life.
  • For the glory of God alone: there can be no boasting in our own achievement -- it is the achievement provided through the finished work of Christ

Luther added an additional "sola." Coming out of a religious setting that had counted numerous traditions and superstitions as being equal to scriptural authority, Luther insisted on the principal of Scripture alone. The Bible alone provides God's self disclosure as to who He is and what He is doing in the world.

As stated before, these notions provide hope for the hopeless. In fact, Christianity is a religion for people who have come to an end of themselves. Christians have no message for the self-righteous, other than the suggestion that they might stop deluding themselves. Christianity is for people who know that they are bad and that they have no hope if forced to rely on their own resources. In Christ, there is hope.

In thousands of churches across the land, ministers will ask parishioners to consider "what would Jesus do." It would be more edifying to focus more on what has Jesus DONE. It is His completed work that brings about freedom -- freedom from condemnation, and freedom to live righteously for the glory of Him "who loved us and gave himself for us."


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