On October 31, 1517 one of the most important events of the last 500 years took place. It was on that day that a German Monk, whose name was Martin Luther, nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. For us that not only seems like a really, really long time ago but it also seems like a rather insignificant act.
In Luther's day, the door of the church was a place where important information would be displayed. Martin Luther had seen corruptions in the Roman Catholic Church of his day and believed that by pointing these things out that he could be an agent for change. This is a big part of why Martin Luther posted these theses to the door on the 31st of October. We know October 31 as Halloween, which is our way of saying "All Hallows Eve". Halloween is the night before the church holiday known as All Saints Day. A day when the church gathers to remember the saints who have gone on before us. While we do not get too excited about celebrating this day in 21st Century Edgerton, it was a very big deal for the people in Luther's day. People would be going to the church and they would see that this monk had made a post to the church door regarding the corruption in the church.
In our day we get worked up over social media posts but this posting was far more than just Martin Luther putting his opinion out there on Twitter or Facebook. This act was a statement against a very powerful entity. The church held power that our modern churches just do not carry. The power was centralized and it had significant influence alongside the government. Not only was what Luther had posted significant for those who would have approached it at the castle church in Wittenberg on that All Saints Day, but this message ended up being spread around to many other places. With the advent of the printing press information could be reproduced and disseminated around the Empire.
This is important because if it would have just been a group of people in Wittenberg the voice of Luther could have been very easily silenced. Others had spoken out against the practices of the church but they were quickly silenced because, at best, the concerns expressed were limited to a very small geographical area because information was not able to be spread as quickly. When that is the case, it is very easy to put down a resistance. By the time the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire were able to try to do something about Martin Luther, he was a bit of a celebrity. He had voiced concerns that resonate with the people and to kill him would make him a martyr and perhaps even increase awareness of his cause.
While the 95 theses are seen as the beginning of the Reformation, they were not the primary focus of the Reformation. The primary concern that was addressed in the 95 theses was concerning the selling of something called indulgences. These were essentially "Get out of Purgatory" cards. While the practice of selling these had been around for some time, the money needed to build Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican increased the practice. Luther was outraged that the church was selling these and this led to the posting on the door of the church but the selling of indulgences was not his only issue with the church. He believed that they had mixed the free gift of God with the works of humans. For Martin Luther this was a gospel issue. The church had stepped away from salvation as the gift of God solely by faith and had mixed in other requirements in order to be saved. In other words, the good news was not really good news. You had to do something and there was very little assurance of salvation.
This is the important message we need to remember regarding the history of the Reformation. It is easy for us to see some of the more obvious differences between historic, confessional Protestants (Reformed, Presbyterian, and Lutheran) and the Roman Catholic church. We get stuck on the teachings of purgatory, the veneration of Mary, and the fact that they have seven sacraments instead of two. While all of these are important differences, the biggest difference between confessional Protestants and the Roman Catholic church is doctrinal. Confessional Protestants teach that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of Christ's work alone. We do not mix the grace of God with any of our works. We are saved solely by God's radical rescue of sinners through the perfect life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That work is sufficient and we do not need to add anything to it. Ever.
This is the primary message of the Reformation. While there are many things that distinguish Protestant and Roman Catholic piety and practice, the issue was ultimately a doctrinal issue centered on justification by grace alone through faith alone. Just as our Reformation forefathers were adamant about getting the gospel right, we too must remember the importance of that saving message. It is the message that we are to hear, believe, and proclaim.
There are a lot of big words in the Bible. Some of them are names of cities or people groups that we are not familiar with. Others are more theological in nature and hold very significant meaning for us as Christians. Of all the big words found in the Bible perhaps the most significant one is justification.
Justification is a word that most of us have heard. Usually when we hear this word the definition is related to giving a reason for doing something. For example someone might ask you to give a justification for why you decided to not invite them to your party. Many times this is even seen as something akin to an excuse. That is not the definition that we use when we talk about the Christian doctrine of justification.
In the New Testament the Greek work for justify is δικαιόω. Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words defines the word to mean "to declare righteous". Notice that the definition does not say that it means to "make righteous" but instead that it is declared to be so. This is an important part of the Protestant understanding of justification. We are not made righteous by anything that we do but instead we are declared to be righteous on account of the work of Jesus Christ.
The natural assumption of humans is that we earn our salvation by doing good works. This is essentially the default religion of the human heart. It can express itself in many ways but in our day I believe the most common way we see this expressed is the thought that good people go to heaven. How we define a "good person" is a sliding scale but usually means that the person is generally nice to people and doesn't cheat on their taxes. There is a sense where it is true that a "good person" would go to heaven but our human sliding scale is not what determines whether someone is good. The Bible is clear that there are none who are righteous, not even one. (Romans 3:20; Psalm 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Ecclesiastes 7:20) In other words, there is no one who has met God's righteous standard. Each and every one of us is a sinner and have fallen short of God's glory. (Romans 3:23) This is why we need something else other than our righteousness because ours is not going to cut it. Period.
That's why this idea of justification is so important. In the midst of our sin and misery God comes to us and because of what Jesus Christ has done for us we are declared righteous. We are not given a clean slate. We are not improved and now we can hope to do better. We are declared righteous. Why? Because our righteousness is now coming from somewhere outside of us. Christ's righteousness is now our righteousness.
Paul talks about this amazing good news in Romans 3:21-26. He says that a righteousness from God, apart from the law, has been made known. It is a righteousness from God and it comes through faith to those who believe. We are justified (declared righteous) by the grace of God. This word "justification" is vital in understanding the Christian faith. Jesus did not come only to be a moral example for us. He came to live for us in his perfect life. He came to die for us in his death on the cross. He rose again that we too may be raised on the last day. He ascended into heaven to intercede for us at the right hand of the Father. He did it all that we might be justified by having faith in what he has done for us. Instead of working to save ourselves by being a "good person" we instead give up our hopes of being seen as righteous on our own and fall at the feet of Christ. We trust in him, knowing that He alone has the power to save us.