October 31, 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door at the church at Wittenberg that launched the Protestant Reformation. If you are a Christian and belong to any church other than the Roman Catholic Church, then you can trace your spiritual lineage back to this pivotal moment in history.
When Luther nailed his theses to the church door, he was engaging in open revolt against the dominant religious system of his day. It was a system that had been crushing Luther for years. As a Catholic monk, Luther believed that he could never be certain of his righteous standing before God. According to Catholic doctrine, God would judge Luther’s righteousness based on his sin (which decreased righteousness) and his religious works (which increased righteousness). And it was Luther’s religious works, such as attending the Catholic mass, confession and acts of penance, that created a lot of insecurity in him. If he failed to confess his sins thoroughly enough, or if he failed to accumulate enough meritorious works to offset his sins, then he would be obligated to spend time in purgatory after his death to atone for his sins. Rather than being a source of comfort and assurance, Luther’s faith was a source of torment. Luther began to hate God because all he knew was God’s judgment for his sins.
Then Luther began to study the book of Romans, and God opened his eyes to the true Gospel, not the man-made religion he had been living. What Luther “discovered” was the truth of Scripture that had been lost to the church for hundreds of years. God was not a judge who expected man to redeem himself, but instead, through the work of Christ, God was a gracious savior. Romans 1:17 became especially meaningful to Luther:
For in [the Gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
Through this passage of Scripture (and so many others like it) Luther began to see a way out of his torment. The righteousness of God that is revealed in the Gospel is not focused on the punishment of sinners but rather is focused on God’s rescue of sinners through their faith in Jesus Christ. This rescue is accomplished because the righteousness of God himself is given to sinners through faith in Christ. Luther no longer needed to look to himself to see if he was good enough for God (which was impossible!), but instead could now “live by faith” that the goodness of Christ was enough for him. This seems so simple to us today, but it was revolutionary in Luther’s day. Later, Luther would declare that this doctrine of justification by faith through the imputed righteousness of Christ was so important that without it the whole of the Christian faith would be lost.
Five hundred years after Luther nailed his theses to that door, is there any debate about how we are justified before God? Yes, there still is. First, for Catholics, the doctrine of justification is largely what it was 500 years ago. They are in the same position that Luther was in. But I would also argue many Protestants are confused about justification as well. Here’s what I mean by that.
Many Christians today deny the power of the Gospel in their lives because they believe that God still looks at their sin to determine their standing before him. They are not living by faith in Christ, but based on their own “works.” For some, like Luther, they see how much they sin, feel shame for that, and then project onto God the view they have of themselves. They believe that God rejects them because of their sin. This belief denies the wonderful truth that they are covered by the righteousness of Christ. Does their sin matter to God? Yes, it does. God wants all of us to be holy so he will discipline us through the consequences of our sin in order that we will turn away from sin and turn back toward him. But our sin does not determine our standing before God, and God does not punish us for sin. Christ was punished for our sake so that we would not be.
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Romans 8:1
But there are many in the church today who have the opposite problem. They believe that God looks at their works and likes what he sees. They believe the righteousness that is in them was put there themselves through their own hard work. While they may profess to be Christians on one hand, with the other they deny the faith by denying their own desperate need for the Gospel. They think God’s view of them is generally positive because they live moral lives. They work hard, try to parent well, and generally avoid the “felony” sins that everyone loves to talk about. But of course, they forget that it was plain, old, everyday spiritual pride by Adam and Eve that introduced sin to our world.
The hard truth for us all can be found in Romans 3:10: “None is righteous, no, not one.” If there is anything good in any of us, we did not put it there. Christ did. It is his goodness that clothes us and humbles us. No one can ever boast before God.
Today as we consider our standing before God, let’s give thanks for a certain German monk who turned the world upside down by reminding everyone what the Gospel really is. God loves you not based on what you did or did not do, but based on your faith in what Christ accomplished for you. You cannot improve on that nor can you take that away. God is not against you. He is for you. For eternity.