The Reformation: The Justification of the Sinner
The Reformation: The Justification of the Sinner:
In 2017, we will see much about the Reformation. It was 500 years ago that a Roman Catholic monk, Martin Luther, nailed the 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. Placing theses on the door was not an act of rebellion. It was, rather, a way for scholars to post questions to later address in debate. The 95 theses concerned the matter of Indulgences, where the Church in Rome would let the purchaser of an indulgence buy himself or herself favor before God.
So the Reformation was concerned with how the sinner is justified before God. Is it by the sinner’s own worthiness or even potential for worthiness, or is it purely by the gift of God? Over the centuries, many new doctrines, such as purgatory (where the sinner could “purge” the sins not purged by the Gospel), the purchase of indulgences, prayers to the saints (in addition to prayers to God), the celibacy (or non-marriage) of priests, etc., had been brought into the Lord’s Church.
These new doctrines were not known by the holy Apostles nor by Holy Scripture. Thus, the Reformation was not a movement; rather, it was a call to the Pope for the return to the apostolic doctrine—a call to rid the church of manmade additions and to return to the pure Gospel where alone the sinner can find consolation.
Several years after the 95 Theses, those pastors and churches wanting to return to the apostolic doctrine confessed their faith by signing the articles of the Augsburg Confession. This Confession was their unanimous witness to the Gospel; it was their appeal to Rome for the Church to find her unity not in manmade offices or doctrines, but in the pure Gospel and the rightly administered sacraments. This, then, is the heart of the Reformation, from Article IV of the Augsburg Confession:
Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight. (Romans 3:21-26; 4:5)
[SEE, CONCORDIA, LUTHERAN CONFESSIONS, p. 59]
This, the Article of Justification, the Pope rejected. At the Council of Trent, the Church of Rome declared that justification was not the free gift of God’s mercy (i.e., it was not the sinner being freely justified by God’s Word declaring him clean), but, rather, that justification was offered to the sinner on the basis of the sinner’s cooperation with God’s grace. Thus, justification, according to the Pope’s doctrine, was not by grace alone, but was a matter of human works or cooperation.
This, then, is what in 2017 is being celebrated in the Reformation:
Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight.
“It’s Still About Jesus” is the name of our Synod’s yearlong celebration of the Reformation. It’s not about the history of the LCMS, nor about an appreciation of 16th century German culture, nor about any silly ideas of how the Reformation was a political “movement.” It’s about Jesus. It’s about the sureness and certainty of his grace and the consolation of the sinner hearing the Lord’s Gospel and receiving his Sacraments, and knowing that he or she now stands justified before the face of God. It’s about the call for whole church to receive the gift of the apostolic doctrine:
But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. [ROMANS 3:21ff.]