Why Justification by Faith Alone?

Text: Romans 3:19-28

This past Friday was the 497th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Saturday was All Saints Day, and so we celebrate both today. You might ask why we celebrate one, the other, or both. Well, the two days are historically united. They go together. Martin Luther chose the eve of All Saints Day to begin his public dispute. The date had symbolic relevance. He wanted to talk about what it means to be a saint and, really, how one is saved. Because of the power and success of the Reformation, the two days continue to be united in their theme. We are today celebrating the work of those Christians who have gone before us to proclaim the gospel and to bear witness to the power of Christ unto salvation to all who believe, including the Reformers. We celebrate both days because we believe that both days, rightly understood, proclaim the power of that gospel and the glory of God as He has been at work in history.

The Protestant Reformation dealt with lots of issues, but the main one, the only real bottom line, was the doctrine of justification. How a man is made right with God, and subsequently how he becomes a saint, are both answered by this doctrine. Protestants make their stand on this issue because the Bible makes its stand there too. “We have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law” (Galatians 2:16). Justification by faith alone is a central and essential teaching of our faith because it points us back to Jesus, the cross of Christ as the exclusive ground for our acceptance by God. This truth underlies all other teachings on salvation, the church, and Christian living. John Calvin called it a lynchpin upon which all else turned. Martin Luther said it was the article of a standing or falling church. This is true, as we said, because it directly informs our understanding of God in Christ— not only Who He is, but How He works. It tells us how we can know Him.

But I wonder, do we still believe this doctrine is all that important or interesting or does it strike us as a little passé? It is probably true that some pastors have overcooked this topic. They parse every question and sub-question in order to show how their tradition has a unique and essential interpretation. Others spend all their time arguing that their opponents cannot be Christians. All in all, what ought to be a dynamic and powerful teaching on God’s power and grace turns into a graduate school course in abstract theology. The prime rib becomes beef jerky. And this is a great tragedy.

You see, justification by faith alone is not an end in itself. No it is a means to explaining several other things, the problem of evil, the sovereignty of God, the redemption of sinners, the doctrine of the church, the role of the moral law in the life of believers, and even the end times. The point is not to dot all our I’s and cross our T’s, but to see that God is here, really here, and that He works directly and immediately in order to bring about His purposes. Justification by faith alone is a call to believe. Continue reading

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Why Celebrate Reformation Day?

In addition to being Halloween, today marks the 497th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther chose the date intentionally. He was challenging the medieval teaching on indulgences, purgatory, and what it is that constitutes a saint. Thus there was a symbolic value in doing this on the eve of All Saints Day. Before he completed his theological project, however, Luther came to see that the central issue at debate was not a single errant practice, but an overarching theological and salvific confession: justification by faith alone, the article of the standing or falling church and, ultimately, the difference between salvation and despair. All Protestants, but especially Lutherans, Anglicans, and Reformed Christians look back to the Reformation as a definitive establishment of their confession of faith and as a mighty act of God through His Spirit. Traditionally, they have taken the occasion to celebrate.

But why celebrate the Reformation now? There are various reasons to ask this question and various ways to answer it, but instead of trying to say everything (my typical flaw), I want to get right to the bottom line because the Reformation is all about the bottom line. We celebrate Reformation Day because we believe in and celebrate justification by faith alone and the immediate work of God in the act of saving sinners. This means that God does the saving, He does it for free, and He does it on His terms. (See here if you want an extended discussion of mediation and all its ins and outs.)

This doctrine relativizes everything else in life. Continue reading