Over 500 years ago (505 years to be exact), Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the castle church door in Wittenberg which began the rippling effect of the Protestant Reformation. Those ripples are still felt today as the evangelical church boldly proclaims that our justification comes by grace through faith in Christ alone, rather than through our own human efforts. All over the world, Christians celebrate the bravery of men such as Luther, who did not waver in the face of adversity but stood firm in their Scriptural convictions, and as such we are emboldened to do the same.
To be sure, the results of the Reformation provided great biblical clarity to a key doctrine of Scripture, and yes, Martin Luther’s actions were admirable to say the least. But I think there is a necessary “balance” to be had as we consider an earth-shattering event such as this.
1. The Reformation did not “invent” justification by faith
When it comes to church history, many Christians tend to have a limited scope. They understand Scripture and the close of the canon around 100 AD when the last apostle, John, died. From there, the world seems to go dark until Luther steps onto the scene in the 1500s and returns the church to a right understanding of justification. From there, most Christians can pick up the pieces of history and loosely grasp how historical theology unfolded.
But Luther’s theological persuasion was not a new concept. If you trace through history, you can find a long line of godly individuals who proclaimed justification by faith, and who did so with a consistent understanding of Romans 5 and Galatians 1–2. Men such as Clement of Rome, Origen, Ambrose, and Augustine, who all came well before Luther, proclaimed a biblical approach to justification (Some with more nuance than others, of course). This was not something new.
The stakes were certainly higher for Luther than most others. In 1515, Pope Leo X authorized the sale of indulgences in Germany which would fund the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica. The basic idea was that an individual could purchase an indulgence, which would automatically free a dead relative from purgatory. Overwhelmingly, the public bought into this scheme, and many came to the belief that salvation could be purchased or worked toward by our own efforts. Thus, Luther took action and declared that “it is vain to trust in salvation by indulgence letters.” (Thesis #52). He argued that man was justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. This concept pulled so hard against the grain of the Roman Catholic Church that serious fallout resulted. Luther was removed from the church, and it was demanded that he recant of his position. He understood, however, the gravity of the situation and the importance of the doctrine that was at stake. This was no casual conversation over lunch. But he was not alone in his efforts. He stood on the shoulders of many men who came before him, and his conviction was the same as theirs.
2. Luther was a flawed man
You cannot go through the Reformation without hearing the name Martin Luther. While Michael Jordan is synonymous with basketball, Martin Luther is synonymous with the Protestant Reformation. He was the man who started it all. Before we get starry-eyed thinking of this church giant, we must remember that he was just a man. There are many theological positions that cause us to cringe when we realize Luther was a proponent of such beliefs. For instance, when it came to the Lord’s Supper, Luther essentially joined his Catholic counterparts in the persuasion that the body and blood of Christ were present in the communion elements. Going even further, several decades after the Reformation, Luther published a book called The Jews and Their Lies, which argued that the Jewish people ought to be considered “filth.” Yikes.
There is so much to be said about Luther’s work in the Reformation, particularly the radical change that took place in the church, but we ought to be careful in holding him up entirely as a role model for the faith. In this case, we treat Luther as a “take the meat, spit out the bones” kind of guy. We laud his boldness in standing for the truth, but we reject other facets of his faith and his actions which were not commendable nor biblical.
3. Justification by faith is not the focus of the gospel
Before you grab your Bible and beat me over the head with it, hear me out. I absolutely affirm the critical nature of justification by faith. It is what makes our faith possible, and it is the only thing that separates us from eternal hell. It is the declaration from God that we are imputed righteousness based on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Nothing could be more important to the gospel than that.
Or is there something more important to the gospel? What could possibly be a more central focus to the gospel than justification by faith? Simply this: God Himself. God is the final and ultimate goal of the gospel. Consider Psalm 27:4, “One thing I have asked from Yahweh, that I shall seek: that I may dwell in the house of Yahweh all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of Yahweh and to inquire in His temple.” Verse 8 continues this thought: “Your face, O Yahweh, shall I seek.” In Isaiah’s prophecy, he writes, “Then the glory of Yahweh will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together.” When Moses was on the mountain, he declared to God, “show me Your glory!” (Exodus 33:18).
The end of the gospel is God Himself. Our ultimate joy in salvation is not that we have been justified, but that we will one day stand in glory in the presence of God. Justification by faith is a means to that goal which God has graciously provided for us, but it is not the goal in and of itself. One preacher illustrates it this way: If my wife and I are in an argument, and I am wrong, I know I need to apologize. My apology and request for forgiveness is not for the goal of being made right with my wife (although that is good and necessary). Rather, the end goal is that I would return to unhindered fellowship with her. The joy is not the means, but rather the end, which is communion with the one I love.
Justification by faith is tremendous, but it is not our final fulfilment in salvation. Only God can satisfy us entirely. The gospel, which is made up of many components, is a beautiful thing and it leads us to our joy everlasting: seeing the Lord face to face in glory.
So as your kids go around trick-or-treatise-ing, collecting their 95 Reese’s (I couldn’t help it), consider the Reformation in new light. It accomplished much for a right understanding of doctrine. Truth was proclaimed boldly. But be careful not to make the reformation the end of all things. Let’s keep our eyes fixed on Christ, who is both the author, and perfecter of our faith, with whom we will one day enjoy the fulness of our salvation.