500th anniversary of the Reformation

Travel advertisements are promoting travel to Germany this year because they note it is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. What was Reformation all about?

The late D. James Kennedy, Ph.D. often noted that many Protestants have no more idea of what the Reformation was about than they could explain to you the special Theory of Relativity. They are members of a church by accident of birth, and they attend by mere habit. Many today have no more idea when they go into a church whether the preacher is preaching the Gospel or whether he is preaching the absolute antithesis to it.

Five hundred years ago on Oct. 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther nailed his thesis to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany as an invitation to scholars in the church to debate 95 issues. What Martin Luther did 500 years ago, was to shatter centuries of dogma and tradition that had hidden the Gospel from the world. Up until that time, the Gospel of grace had been overlaid with hundreds of years of accretion of human merit. Everywhere men and women, by their own strivings and their own pious endeavors, sought to save themselves by good works.

The major debate back in the 16th Century centered not on the sale of indulgences, the role of the papacy, penance, purgatory or Mary and saints, but on the article of how is a person justified. These other items on which Roman Catholics and Protestants differ, all hinge on our respective view of justification and the role of works in our justification. To this day, this article of how one is justified continues as the focal point or the difference between our theologies. This difference may be expressed in two formulas:

Roman Catholic theology says: Faith (by grace) + Works “! Justification

Protestant theology replies: Faith (by grace) “! Justification + Works

All other differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are mere trifles. What is at stake here is the Gospel itself. It answers the question raised by the Philippian jailer to Paul, “What must I do to be saved?” We are not engaged in a controversy over whether to sprinkle, dip or immerse but of salvation itself. It is the most important question we have as Christians. It is the problem of the justice of God. God is just and you and I are not. David raised that question is antiquity when he asked, “If the Lord mark iniquities, who would stand?”

If God is not going to negotiate His justice, how are we saved? This was the debate of the 16th Century between Luther and Rome and which continues today between Roman Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism. Does God wait until we become just before He declares us just, or does He declare us just in His site before we are just? Luther’s formula was simul iustus et pecator, translated as at the same time just and sinner. That is we are justified by the work of Christ yet we still sin.

Rome heard in this formula a legal fiction. It would be unworthy, they say, of God and make Him a liar to declare a person just before a person is indeed just. Roman Catholicism agrees that justification occurs when God declares one to be just, but He does not do so, according to Rome, until one is indeed just.

The Reformers countered that it is not a legal fiction, but a legal diction. It is a legal diction by the One who does the justifying. God declares one just on the basis of the real work (the life and the death) of Christ. One is justified by faith, and that little word by, is the means through which one is justified as Christ both lived and died for us.

Roman Catholicism has two instrumental causes of justification, baptism and penance. Protestantism has only one, faith that lays hold of the merit of Christ. The critical questions then are: Is justification infused through the Roman sacraments of baptism and penance? Or is justification imputed (transferred) to us by the righteousness of Christ? A righteousness that is not in the believer, but a righteousness that is for the believer. Is it justification by infusion or by imputation?

Reformation or Protestant theology holds to the latter. Justification for Protestants means to have the perfect righteous of Jesus Christ clothe them as a white robe, as their sins were ALL imputed to Christ at Calvary. Christ’s righteous life is also imputed to them who are thus made faultless to stand before the eyes of an all-holy God. Salvation for Protestants is by grace alone through Christ alone. It is unearned, undeserved and unmerited. It is received by a simple trust in Christ.

A final word of caution for Protestants is that today too many believe grace is permission to do what they want. This is not what Luther, the other Reformers and the Bible means by “grace.” Grace is not permission to do what we want, but to do what we should; that is to love and serve the risen Christ with all our mind, heart and strength.

A simple acronym that is used for GRACE is: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. This is what the Reformation was and is all about.