Last year, on October 31, Pope Francis announced that after five hundred years, Protestants and Catholics now “have the opportunity to mend a critical moment of our history by moving beyond the controversies and disagreements that have often prevented us from understanding one another.” From that, it sounds as if the Reformation was an unfortunate and unnecessary squabble over trifles, a childish outburst that we can all put behind us now that we have grown up.
But tell that to Martin Luther, who felt such liberation and joy at his rediscovery of justification by faith alone that he wrote, “I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” Tell that to William Tyndale, who found it such “merry, glad and joyful tidings” that it made him “sing, dance, and leap for joy.” Tell it to Thomas Bilney, who found it gave him “a marvelous comfort and quietness, insomuch that my bruised bones leaped for joy.” Clearly, those first Reformers didn’t think they were picking a juvenile fight; as they saw it, they had discovered glad tidings of great joy.
Good News in 1517
At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Europe had been without a Bible the people could read for something like a thousand years. Thomas Bilney had thus never encountered the words “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). Instead of the Word of God, they were left to the understanding that God is a God who enables people to earn their own salvation. As one of the teachers of the day liked to put it, “God will not deny grace to those who do their best.” Yet what were meant as cheering words left a very sour taste for everyone who took them seriously. How could you be sure you really had done your best? How could you tell if you had become the sort of just person who merited salvation?
Martin Luther certainly tried. “I was a good monk,” he wrote, “and kept my order so strictly that I could say that if ever a monk could get to heaven through monastic discipline, I should have entered in.” And yet, he found:
My conscience would not give me certainty, but I always doubted and said, “You didn’t do that right. You weren’t contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.” The more I tried to remedy an uncertain, weak and troubled conscience with human traditions, the more daily I found it more uncertain, weaker and more troubled.
According to Roman Catholicism, Luther was quite right to be unsure of heaven. Confidence of a place in heaven was considered errant presumption and was one of the charges made against Joan of Arc at her trial in 1431. There, the judges proclaimed,
This woman sins when she says she is as certain of being received into Paradise as if she were already a partaker of . . . glory, seeing that on this earthly journey no pilgrim knows if he is worthy of glory or of punishment, which the sovereign judge alone can tell.
That judgment made complete sense within the logic of the system: if we can only enter heaven because we have (by God’s enabling grace) become personally worthy of it, then of course no one can be sure. By that line of reasoning, I can only have as much confidence in heaven as I have confidence in my own sinlessness.
That was exactly why the young Martin Luther screamed with fear when as a student he was nearly struck by lightning in a thunderstorm. He was terrified of death, for without knowledge of Christ’s sufficient and gracious salvation—without knowledge of justification by faith alone—he had no hope of heaven.
And that was why his rediscovery in Scripture of justification by faith alone felt like entering paradise through open gates. It meant that, instead of all his angst and terror, he could now write:
When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: “I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also.”
And that was why the Reformation gave people such a taste for sermons and Bible reading. For, to be able to read God’s words and to see in them such good news that God saves sinners, not on the basis of how well they repent but entirely by His own grace, was like a burst of Mediterranean sunshine into the gray world of religious guilt.
Good News in 2017
None of the goodness or relevance of the Reformation’s insights have faded over the last five hundred years. The answers to the same key questions still make all the difference between human hopelessness and happiness. What will happen to me when I die? How can I know? Is justification the gift of a righteous status (as the Reformers argued), or a process of becoming more holy (as Rome asserts)? Can I confidently rely for my salvation on Christ alone, or does my salvation also rest on my own efforts toward and success in achieving holiness?
Almost certainly, what confuses people into thinking that the Reformation is a bit of history we can move beyond is the idea that it was just a reaction to some problem of the day. But the closer one looks, the clearer it becomes: the Reformation was not principally a negative movement about moving away from Rome and its corruption; it was a positive movement, about moving toward the gospel. And that is precisely what preserves the validity of the Reformation for today. If the Reformation had been a mere reaction to a historical situation five hundred years ago, one would expect it to be over. But as a program to move ever closer to the gospel, it cannot be over.
Another objection is that today’s culture of positive thinking and self-esteem has wiped away all perceived need for the sinner to be justified. Not many today find themselves wearing hair-shirts and enduring all-night prayer vigils in the freezing cold to earn God’s favor. All in all, then, Luther’s problem of being tortured by guilt before the divine Judge is dismissed as a sixteenth-century problem, and his solution of justification by faith alone is therefore dismissed as unnecessary for us today.
But it is in fact precisely into this context that Luther’s solution rings out as such happy and relevant news. For, having jettisoned the idea that we might ever be guilty before God and therefore in need of His justification, our culture has succumbed to the old problem of guilt in subtler ways and with no means to answer. Today, we are all bombarded with the message that we will be more loved when we make ourselves more attractive. It may not be God-related, and yet it is still a religion of works, and one that is deeply embedded. For that, the Reformation has the most sparkling good news. Luther speaks words that cut through the gloom like a glorious and utterly unexpected sunbeam:
The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. . . . Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore, sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive.
Once Again, the Time Is Ripe
Five hundred years later, the Roman Catholic Church has still not been reformed. For all the warm ecumenical language used by so many Protestants and Roman Catholics, Rome still repudiates justification by faith alone. It feels it can do so because Scripture is not regarded as the supreme authority to which popes, councils, and doctrine must conform. And because Scripture is so relegated, biblical literacy is not encouraged, and thus millions of poor Roman Catholics are still kept from the light of God’s Word.
Outside Roman Catholicism, the doctrine of justification by faith alone is routinely shied away from as insignificant, wrongheaded, or perplexing. Some new perspectives on what the Apostle Paul meant by justification, especially when they have tended to shift the emphasis away from any need for personal conversion, have, as much as anything, confused people, leaving the article that Luther said cannot be given up or compromised as just that—given up or compromised.
Now is not a time to be shy about justification or the supreme authority of the Scriptures that proclaim it. Justification by faith alone is no relic of the history books; it remains today as the only message of ultimate liberation, the message with the deepest power to make humans unfurl and flourish. It gives assurance before our holy God and turns sinners who attempt to buy God off into saints who love and fear Him.
And oh what opportunities we have today for spreading this good news! Five hundred years ago, Gutenberg’s recent invention of the printing press meant that the light of the gospel could spread at a speed never before witnessed. Tyndale’s Bibles and Luther’s tracts could go out by the thousands. Today, digital technology has given us another Gutenberg moment, and the same message can now be spread at speeds Luther could never have imagined.
Both the needs and the opportunities are as great as they were five hundred years ago—in fact, they are greater. Let us then take courage from the faithfulness of the Reformers and hold the same wonderful gospel high, for it has lost none of its glory or its power to dispel our darkness.
Dr. Michael Reeves is president and professor of theology at Union School of Theology in Oxford, England. He is author of several books, including Rejoicing in Christ. He is the featured teacher on the Ligonier teaching series The English Reformation and the Puritans.