502 years ago today, October 31, 1517, a relatively unknown German monk nailed to on the Wittenburg Castle’s Church door a document that would shake not only Christendom but Western Civilization to its core. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses sparked the Reformation. There were Reformers that preceded Luther, but his contribution really got the ball rolling.
Prior to this Luther struggled with his standing before God.
Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted. (Luther’s Works, Volume 34, pgs. 336-337).
In his studies in Romans, he had an awakening while reading Romans 1:17, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith,'” (ESV).
Luther explained his experience.
For a long time, I went astray [in the monastery] and didn’t know what I was about. To be sure, I knew something, but I didn’t know what it was until I came to the text in Romans 1 [:17], ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ That text helped me. There I saw what righteousness Paul was talking about.82 Earlier in the text I read ‘righteousness.’ I related the abstract [‘righteousness’] with the concrete [‘the righteous One’] and became sure of my cause. I learned to distinguish between the righteousness of the law and the righteousness of the gospel. I lacked nothing before this except that I made no distinction between the law and the gospel. I regarded both as the same thing and held that there was no difference between Christ and Moses except the times in which they lived and their degrees of perfection. But when I discovered the proper distinction—namely, that the law is one thing and the gospel is another—I made myself free.” (Luther’s Works, Volume 54, pg. 442).
Luther described what this awakening did for his faith:
At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ ” There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.” Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. Thereupon I ran through the Scriptures from memory. I also found in other terms an analogy, as, the work of God, that is, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, with which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God. (Luther’s Works, Volume 34, pg. 336-337).
We are justified, and Luther realized, not by our good works, but by faith.
That was true before Luther, it was true when he had his awakening, it is true now, and it will be true on the last day.
Also, we have additional theological insights by the Reformers that are important to our faith today that are summarized in five Latin phrases we call the Five Solas.
Luther and the Reformers rediscovered the Gospel.
Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)
The scripture alone is our authoritative guide for faith and practice. It, not the Pope or the Church, is our highest authority. The Bible is infallible in what it teaches and inerrant in the original languages.
This belief led to the translation of the Bible into the vernacular so that anyone who was literate could read it, not just those who could read Latin.
All sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments are the inspired Word of God. The apostle Paul affirms this when he says, “
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” (2 Timothy 3:16, ESV).
Every word, of every page of Scriptures, is inspired by God. The apostle Paul in his first letter to the Church at Corinth proclaimed that the wisdom that he was imparting was not of human origin, but rather a wisdom that was “taught by the Spirit,” (1 Corinthians 2:13). God inspired men by the Holy Spirit to write the scriptures for in 2 Peter we see:
…knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit, (2 Peter 1:20-21, ESV).
Sola Fide (Faith Alone) and Sola Gratia (Grace Alone)
We are saved through faith in Jesus alone, and by God’s grace alone.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast, (Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV).
As Luther discovered there is nothing we can do to merit salvation. Our salvation is based on Christ’s merit through His work on the Cross.
“(I)f you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved,” (Romans 10:9-10, ESV).
Solus Christus (Christ Alone)
God the Father sent His Son Jesus Christ as a revelation of Himself. He is supreme and is the Head of the Church.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all of the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross, (Colossians 1:15-20, ESV).
The ultimate purpose for His life and ministry on earth was to provide a sacrifice for the sin of mankind, (Hebrews 10:1-10). Christ was able to be the supreme sacrifice because even though He was tempted, (Matthew 4:1-11) He lived a sinless life, (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15). Through His vicarious and atoning death upon the cross, Jesus took on all the sin of mankind: past, present, and future and satisfied the penalty of sin with God the Father, (1 Corinthians 15:3; 1 Peter 2:24; 1 John 2:2). No better sacrifice could be offered that what Jesus offered in His own body, as we see in Hebrews:
For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself, (Hebrews 9:24-26, ESV).
After His death, Christ was buried and on the third day He bodily arose from the dead, (Luke 24:3; John 20:20; 1 Corinthians 15:4). The resurrection of Jesus Christ confirms the truth of His words, (Matthew 28:6), and that He is the Son of God, (Romans 1:4). Forty days after His resurrection, Christ ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father where He is our Great High Priest, Advocate, and Intercessor preparing a place for believers, (Acts 1:9-11; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20-23; Hebrews 7:25; 8:1; 9:24). He will one day return personally and visibly to the earth, (John 14:3; Acts 1:9-11; 1 Thessalonians 4:16). He will not come in the form of a servant then, but rather as King.
Soli Deo Gloria (To the glory of God alone)
God alone is deserving of all glory. The whole reason we are saved is to give Him glory because He is worthy.
The Shema recorded in Deuteronomy 6:4, says, “Hear O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one,” (ESV). This statement made the nation of Israel distinct. The neighbors of the children of Israel, God’s chosen people of the Old Covenant, worshiped numerous gods. They were to worship one God, not the idols and false gods that they worshiped. The Church is to worship one God as well, for God is one, (1 Corinthians 8:4; Galatians 3:20; 1 Timothy 1:17). He is worthy of our worship!
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen, (Jude 24-25, ESV).
Our goal is to give God glory. The Westminister Catechism ends with this truth, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
“So, whatever you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God,” (1 Corinthians 10:31, ESV).
Our culture, like at the time of Martin Luther, is shifting sand and it needs the Gospel of Jesus Christ more than ever. The Reformers rediscovered the Gospel, and we must keep it the center of our churches, our families, our worship, and our lives.