The Pastor's Pen

Lessons from The Reformation.


Today is the 31st October 2018. 501 years ago, to the day, Martin Luther nailed his 95 thesis to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany, which is considered as the official start of the Protestant Reformation. The word Protestant contains the word "protest" and that reformation contains the word "reform". The Protestant Reformation was an effort, at first, to protest some practices of the Catholic Church and to reform that Church.

Martin Luther was a German monk and Professor of Theology at the University of Wittenberg. As a monk he had experienced a spiritual crisis. He realised that no matter how “good” he tried to be, no matter how he tried to stay away from sin, he still found himself having sinful thoughts. He was fearful that no matter how many good works he did, he could never do enough to earn his place in heaven.

As a catholic monk, he was taught (and he taught) that doing good works, helped one gain entrance to heaven. Even today, the Roman church teaches that good works is an agent in a person’s salvation. Luther realised that no matter how kind and good we try to be, we all find ourselves having thoughts which are unkind and sometimes much worse. Luther found a way out of this problem when he read St. Paul, who wrote "The just shall live by faith" (Romans 1:17). Luther understood this to mean that those who go to heaven (the just) will get there by faith alone - not by doing good works. In other words, God's grace is something freely given to human beings, not something we can earn.

Luther struggled many years with Romans 1:17, but before he overcame his doubts and found his assurance, he used to think 'God's  righteousness' in the gospel 'was revealed', not in giving perfect righteousness freely to sinners forever apart from the fact they were sinners, but in punishing sinners and rewarding the righteous.  Luther, at first (as Catholic monk), viewed the gospel as an extension of the law, not a way to find freedom from its curse. “Luther’s greatest frustration was reading and hearing calls to holy living. It was as though Christ were not even necessary, except perhaps as the leading example. God could command and we would obey. Every time he read about God’s holiness or righteousness, he was reminded of how far he was from attaining it. So divine righteousness was always a threat to Luther until he realized that there was not only a righteousness which God demanded, but a righteousness which God gave.”[1] 

What troubled Luther in Romans was the phrase ‘God’s righteousness’ from Romans 1:17 - which reads, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, "The righteous shall live by faith”, particularly because of the way it was preached and taught by the Catholic theologians at the time. The Latin word for justification that was used by the Roman Catholic Church at this time was the Latin word ‘justificare’. And it came from the Roman judicial system. The Roman Church taught that the doctrine of justification is what happens when God, through the sacraments of the church and elsewhere, make unrighteous people righteous. “I went into the cloister that I might not be lost but might have eternal life”, he wrote. “The sight of a crucifix was like lightening to me and when his name was spoken I would rather have heard that of the devil, because I thought I must do good works until Christ, because of them, became friendly and gracious to me.” [2] As disciplined as a monks life was, he soon realised that no amount of penance or good works was going to absolve him of his sins.

Luther discovered that the Greek word for justification that was in the New Testament, was the word ‘dikaios’, ‘dikaiosune’, which didn’t mean to make righteous, but rather to regard as righteous, to count as righteous, to declare as righteous. And this was the moment of awakening for Luther. Eventually Luther understood that what Paul was speaking of here was a righteousness that God gives freely by His grace to people who don’t have righteousness of their own, and by which a person could be reconciled to a holy and righteous God. He had discovered (or recovered) the doctrine of justification by faith alone. This discovery changed Luther’s life and ultimately changed the course of church history and the history of Europe. Remembering the experience that transformed his life, he later said:

“That expression ‘righteousness of God’ was like a thunderbolt in my heart... I hated Paul with all my heart when I read that the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel [Rom.1:16-17]. Only afterward, when I saw the words that follow-namely, that it’s written that the righteous shall live by faith [1:17] – and in addition consulted Augustine, I was cheered. When I learned that the righteousness of God is his mercy, and that he makes us righteous through it, a remedy was offered to me in my affliction.”[3]

This gripping realization of justification by faith alone, made him revisit his old lectures and begin to rewrite them as early as 1519. “Luther taught that salvation and subsequently eternity in heaven is not earned by good deeds but is received only as a free gift of God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ as redeemer from sin and subsequently eternity in hell. His theology challenged the authority and office of the Pope by teaching that the Bible is the only source of divinely revealed knowledge from God.”[4]

Martin Luther said that justification ‘begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God; and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour’. ‘It is the chief article of Christian doctrine’, so that ‘when the article of justification has fallen, everything has fallen’ (articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae). Luther came to the conclusion that: “The article of Justification is the master and prince, the lord, the ruler, and the judge over all kinds of doctrines; it preserves and governs all church doctrine and raises up our conscience before God. Without this article the world is utter death and darkness.”[5]

Today, as we celebrate 501 years of the Reformation, we celebrate the fact that the biblical gospel was recovered from the dark ages, through the faithful study of God’s word and the careful exegesis of scripture.  The greatest lesson of the Reformation is that the church of Jesus Christ must be the Scripture-driven church, with the Word of God at the centre of its life and practice. This is what the Reformers were about: preaching the Word and seeing the Word as central to all of life and to all of the practice of the church. We must proclaim the doctrine of justification by faith alone—that is a faithful witness to the gospel.

The Reformation still matters. Today, (just like in the Reformation) we need the gospel proclaimed with clarity and with boldness. No human invention can take the Bible's place, or govern how we use the Word of God in the life and ministry of the church. The 21st-century Evangelical church must lay hold of that truth once again, and Christians need to pray for the gracious moving of the Holy Spirit that will bring it about.



[1] Michael Horton, Putting Amazing Back into Grace, Baker Books, Grand Rapids (2002), p.146.

[2] Kirsten Birkett, The Essence of the Reformation, Matthias Media, Kingsford, Australia (2009), p.72.

[3] Martin Luther, Table Talk, ed. Theodore G. Tappert, 55 vols. Fortress, Philadelphia (1967) 54:308-9

[4] Martin Luther, What Luther Says: An Anthology, ed E.M. Plass, 3 vols. Wartburg Press, Ohio (1944), p.604

[5] Ibid, p.703