On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses concerning clerical abuses and indulgences on the church door at Wittenberg. This famous event is often considered that launching point for the Protestant Reformation.Whether this even took place or not is very much in doubt.Nobody who was in Wittenberg in 1517 refers to it. Luther never does. I know at Calvin College I had one history professor who denied it at every opportunity. Still it has become part of protestant folklore. So Oct 31st is a day when we contemplate the reformation.
The chief concern for Luther and the other reformers was the doctrine of justification. It was, to use Calvin’s language, the “main hinge on which religion turns.” And the doctrine of justification is no less important today than it was 500 years ago.It is and it isn't. Certainly it is hard to justify the reformation if you don't say Luther was right on justification. But you have NT Wright and others who say exactly that and still remain protestant. Schism is a lot harder to fix than heresy. Even when the doctrinal issues have been forgotten most church splits continue.
There are five key concepts every Protestant should grasp if they are to understanding the reformer’s (and the Bible’s) doctrine of justification.Of course you can't get it by just reading the bible. If you could it would never have taken so many centuries to arrive at it. You have to be taught how to find this doctrine in the bible.
First, the Christian is simul iustus et peccator. This is Martin Luther’s famous Latin phrase which means “At the same time, justified and a sinner.” The Catechism powerfully reminds us that even though we are right with God, we still violate his commands, feel the sting of conscience, and battle against indwelling sin. On this side of the consummation, we will always be sinning saints, righteous wretches, and on occasion even justified jerks. God does not acquit us of our guilt based upon our works, but because we trust “him who justifies the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5).People who are saved still sin. Nobody denies this. But on some level our justification must show up in our actions. Look at Rom 2:6-8:
God “will give to each person according to what he has done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.There are many other passages where salvation is tied to works. Galatians is the other favorite book of the reformers so I will quote another one from Gal 6:7-9.
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.So to say there is nothing about our works that is related our salvation is a bit strange. If that was what St Paul meant he contradicts himself quite strongly and contradicts Jesus even more strongly.
We are saved by grace from first to last. That grace flows from the cross of Christ. But it cannot remain alien to us. Even the images in the song are not alien at all. Clinging to the cross, being dressed, being washed, these are images of something intimate and not something alien.The images are right. The doctrine is wrong. The saving power of Christ must enter into our most personal space.Second, our right standing with God is based on an alien righteousness. Alien doesn’t refer to an E.T. spirituality. It means we are justified because of a righteousness that is not our own. I am not right with God because of my righteousness, but because “the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ” has been credited to me. “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the Fountain fly; wash me, Savior, or I die” wrote August Toplady in the old hymn. We contribute nothing to our salvation. The name by which every Christian must be called is “The Lord is our righteousness” (Jer. 23:6).
Actually it is both. We become a new creation. Yes our sins are forgiven but there is more. Think of Psalm 51.It starts out with:Third, the righteousness of Christ is ours by imputation, not by impartation. That is to say, we are not made holy, or infused with goodness as if we possessed it in ourselves, but rather Christ’s righteousness is credited to our account.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
but it does not stop there. By verse 10 we are at:
That is we are being infused with goodness. Not as if we posses it ourselves. Everything flows from God's grace. We can never forget that. Still that goodness becomes part of us.Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Actually Trent did not condemn every understanding of faith alone. It is more of a slogan than a doctrine. Protestants disagree over exactly what it means. Trent condemned the "nothing else is required" teaching. Most protestants teach that good works are required in the sense that they have to happen. They are not required in the sense that justification is at least theoretically possible without them. Certainly James 2:24 is much harder to square with protestant teaching than the cannons of Trent.Fourth, we are justified by faith alone. The Catholic Church acknowledged that the Christian was saved by faith; it was the alone part they wouldn’t allow. In fact, the Council of Trent from the 16th century Catholic counter-reformation declared anathema those who believe in either justification by imputation or justification by faith alone. But evangelical faith has always held that “all I need to do is accept the gift of God with a believing heart.”
What does James actually say? "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone." It specifically says the works contribute to the justification. Then it specifically denies exactly what De Young is asserting. So he can say it is all about "faith must show itself" but that is not what the scripture says. That is what he wishes it said. Then it goes on to say "faith without works is dead."True, justifying faith must show itself in good works. That’s what James 2 is all about. But these works serve as corroborating evidence, not as the ground of our justification.
Just like faith without works is dead so too works without faith are dead. We can only do salvific works by grace through faith. If we do superficially good works any other way they cannot save us.Without faith it is impossible to please God. We get all that. But the bible also says if I have faith that can move mountains and have not love I gain nothing. It says in Matt 7:21-23:We are justified by faith without deeds of the law (Rom. 3:28; Titus 3:5). The gospel is “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved” (Acts 16:30-31), not “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and cooperate with transforming grace and you shall be saved.” There is nothing we contribute to our salvation but our sin, no merit we bring but Christ’s, and nothing necessary for justification except for faith alone.
Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’The idea of cooperating with God's grace brings all these biblical ideas together beautifully. The idea of faith alone just does not.
Venturing out onto a frozen pond seems a lot like doing works based on faith. That is the point. We don't just sit beside the pond and declare that it is strong enough to carry us. We need to get on the ice. If we don't act on our faith then how firmly do we believe anyway? Works just show you really are serious.Finally, with all this talk about the necessity of faith, the Catechism explains that faith is only an instrumental cause in our salvation. In other words, faith is not what God finds acceptable in us. In fact, strictly speaking, faith itself does not justify. Faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ, have communion with him, and share in all his benefits. It is the object of our faith that matters. If you venture out on to a frozen pond, it isn’t your faith that keeps you from crashing into the water. True, it takes faith to step onto the pond, but it’s the object of your faith, the twelve inches of ice, that keeps you safe. Believe in Christ with all your heart, but don’t put your faith in your faith. Your experience of trusting Christ will ebb and flow. So be sure to rest in Jesus Christ and not your faith in him. He alone is the one who died for our sakes and was raised for our justification. Believe this, and you too will be saved.
I find it interesting how little scripture is actually in these 5 points. Most are taught nowhere in scripture. It is also interesting how the images brought forward are much more Catholic than the doctrine. That is to say that Kevin De Young and I think most protestants are much more Catholic in their heart than in their confessions. They care more about good works than you would expect from their doctrine. That is because the Holy Spirit is active in those communities and leads them into more truth than they are willing to consciously accept.