Sanctify Them Through Thy Truth (7): The Reformation

Mark Sweetnam

Justification by Faith

The Epistle to the Romans is the beating heart of the gospel. In it, as nowhere else in Scripture, the doctrines of this most glorious message are comprehensively surveyed. The Holy Spirit takes us down into the depths of human depravity and up again to that tremendous peak where we learn of God’s purpose that members of that fallen race should ultimately and inevitably be "conformed to the image of His Son" (Rom 8:29). And, at the heart of this remarkable letter is the truth – simple, yet world-shatteringly profound – "the just shall live by faith" (Rom 1:17).

The epistle to the Romans describes the gospel as the revelation of the "righteousness of God" (1:17). Things that we could never have guessed about God and His character are made known to us uniquely in this great message. The great principle of justification by faith – or, more comprehensively and correctly by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone – is one of those Scriptural truths that would have been inaccessible to us apart from God’s revelation of it in His Word. That man is depraved may be clearly seen. That God is great and good may be inferred from the general revelation of His person and His power in the natural creation. But the fact that He would choose this way of justifying sinners lies well beyond the grasp of our instincts or our intellects. The gospel is unique in its dependence upon what God has done. Man, and every religion he has ever devised and designed, is fixated on what he can do. Paul laid an unerring finger on the root of this obsession when he emphasized that salvation is "not of works, lest any man should boast" (Eph 2:9). We love to boast and are constitutionally opposed to the idea that there is nothing that we can bring to God, no work that we can do, no way in which we may cooperate with Him in the salvation of our souls.

That attitude is natural – an integral part of the thinking of unsaved men and women. And, like any natural fault, it has the potential to affect even those who are saved. The apostle Paul, for example, wrote with a remarkable vehemence to warn the Galatian believers who were in danger of being seduced from relying on the sufficiency of Christ. In the second chapter he reminds them of what they already knew: "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified" (2:16). A little later he drives the point home still further: "Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?" (3:3).

The erroneous doctrines that Paul addressed with such urgency in Galatians may have withered beneath his words, but they did not die. Right from the first century of church testimony, there were those found who preached a salvation partially, if not wholly, based upon or sustained by the righteous works of the individual. Their gospel – another of a different sort, and not of the same (Gal 1:6-7) – had an appeal to the human desire to work and to boast and, its popularity increased as the centuries passed, and the church moved toward ages that, as far as the gospel light was concerned, were dark indeed.

That darkness was deep, but it was not absolute. There were still believers, saved by grace, through faith, and still those who taught that truth to others. One such man was an Augustinian monk named Johann von Staupitz. When Staupitz met a troubled young monk named Martin Luther who was deeply conscious of his sinfulness, and seeking by any means to find release, he pointed him not to the importance of good works, or the merits of church, or sacrament, but to the work accomplished by Christ on the cross. Luther was later to remark "Staupitz lighted the flame of the gospel for me. ... Without Staupitz I would be rather in hell than in heaven."

Luther, and the Reformation in which he played so important a role, would famously insist on the fundamental importance of sole fide, sole gratia – justification by grace alone through faith alone. But the reformers were doing more than preaching the truth of justification by faith as it had been understood in past centuries. Luther and his brilliant friend Philipp Melanchthon carefully studied the Scriptures in light of the most recent advances in the understanding of Biblical Greek. As they did so, they came to understand a vital distinction that had often been overlooked. This was the difference between justification and sanctification. In Catholic teaching, justification was the process by which the sinner was made righteous before God. As Melanchthon scrutinized Scripture, and especially the epistle to the Romans, he came to understand that justification was not a process of improvement by which a sinner was made righteous. Rather, it was a judicial act by which God declared a sinner righteous. That justification was followed by a process of sanctification, but this was the working out of a right position before God, and not a means to achieving it.

The recovery of this Scriptural truth was of enormous significance. It restored the true meaning of Christian freedom, as souls no longer lived a righteousness life in order to rack up spiritual brownie points. Rather, a godly life became the privilege of the justified soul, the glad response of the liberated heart, and the practical working out of a right standing obtained through faith in Christ. Part of the purpose of the Savior’s work at Calvary was to "deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage" (Heb 2:15). Now, as the truth of the gospel was rediscovered, that liberty was brought to fruition in the experience of countless souls.

This understanding of the doctrine of justification became fundamental to the Reformation in all of its arms. It was not the only concern of the Reformers, nor did all of them understand its significance in the same way. Nonetheless, they were united in their commitment to salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone: sola fides, sola gratia. And for that we ought to be deeply glad. We claim these men neither as leaders or founders. We do not uncritically accept their teaching, nor claim that, in every detail, it accords with the Word of God. But we must give God thanks for those who bought the truth and did not sell it (Prov 23:23), but who stood fast for it in the face of formidable opposition.

We should also note well the way in which the truth of Scripture was recovered. Melanchthon’s recovery of the truth was not the result of casual reading. He did not find it in his daily reading book, nor was it a "challenging thought" discovered in a verse detached from its context. He discovered the truth through the careful, painstaking study of the Word of God. To that study he brought every natural talent. He applied the outstanding education that he had received. The fruits of that effort transformed Christendom, and placed us forever in his debt.

His example is important for us. This generation is more – if not always better – educated than any that has gone before. We have experience in applying our minds with diligence and discipline to complicated and challenging subjects. We have the benefit of training in critical and analytical thinking. Daily we use these skills in our work, laying them at the disposal of our earthly employers. Too often, though, we seem to abandon them at the closet door, and approach Scripture in a haphazard and disorganized way. God and His Word deserve better, and in the story of the Reformation we see writ large the value and importance of Paul’s exhortation: "Study to show thyself approved unto God: a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of truth" (2Tim 2:15).

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