The Protestant Reformation is celebrated throughout the Protestant churches this week, a memorial in time of the great work of God that began in the 16th century with Martin Luther and Martin Bucer and John Calvin and John Knox and Thomas Cranmer and the courageous joy of countless other men and women.
The center of that courageous joy is the doctrine of justification by faith alone. This was the gospel preached by Paul and the other apostles in the first century, but it had been obscured over the centuries by serious theological misunderstandings, lack of access to Scripture, and many ceremonies that implied that God’s approval was dependent on human worthiness.
But when Luther began reading Romans closely, he came across that wonderful phrase, the just shall live by faith. And it was like a roman candle went off in the pitch black silence of Papist confusion. To be just, to be righteous was not a matter of trying to please God, trying to be good enough, trying to be worthy of God’s grace and love. Being just, being righteous was dependent on faith alone. By faith alone, God justifies the ungodly. God doesn’t justify good people. Good people don’t need to be justified. Bad people need to be justified. Bad people are condemned and need to be acquitted. They need a verdict that they cannot provide the grounds for. If you are guilty, you cannot provide the grounds of your innocence. All you have is your guilt.
But God sent His Son into the world as the Just One, the Righteous One to stand in our place. He represented us, and so He was condemned for us. God laid on Him the iniquities of us all. And His righteousness is reckoned freely to all who believe in His name.
This means that we don’t earn His favor in order to become righteous. His free favor gives us the gift of faith. And faith receives the righteousness of Jesus. His righteousness is the ground of our justification. His obedience is the ground of your innocence and therefore your complete acquittal. And when you know that God favors you like that, when you know that God is on your side, it makes you courageous and it gives you a joy that nothing and no one can take away.
New e-book Death by Baptism available here.