The Heart of the Reformation
As you probably know, next year, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg. Continue reading . . .
As you probably know, next year, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg. Whether or not this can be identified as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, it serves to remind us of the radical challenge that Luther posed to the institution of the Roman Catholic Church and its monopoly on the dispensing of saving grace to men and women.
In his history of Protestantism (Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution – A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First [Harper One, 2007]), Alister McGrath reminds us of precisely what it was that Luther insisted upon, a notion that prompted (whether in 1517 or earlier) the reformation that was in fact a revolution.
According to McGrath,
“Perhaps the most radical aspect of Luther’s doctrine of justification is its conceptualization of the relationship between humanity and God. How does humanity find God and enter into a relationship with him – a relationship that delivers humanity once and for all from fear of death, hell, or damnation? Luther is adamant: this relationship is made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and is appropriated through faith. For Luther, faith is fundamentally an attitude of trust in God that enables the believer to receive and benefit from the promises of God that enables the believer to receive and benefit from the promises of God” (43).
In light of this view of justification, the question that begs to be answered is: what role does the institution of the church play in the sinner’s acceptance with God? Luther’s radical (at least it was “radical” in his day) argument was that “the individual’s relationship with God is direct, determined by faith in God’s promises and the salvation procured by Christ’s death and resurrection” (emphasis mine; 43).
We today respond with something of a yawn. “Well, of course,” we say, “our relationship with God, indeed our access to him, is ‘direct.’ What else could it be?” But to those living in the shadow of late medieval Catholicism, the notion was about as revolutionary as any could be. What Luther’s answer meant was that,
“there is no longer any need for intermediaries – for the intercession of Mary or the saints. There is no necessary role for the church, its sacraments, or its priests in the dynamic of salvation. More than that: if justification is about the reckoning of Christ’s righteousness to believers, what is the point of purgatory? Does not the very idea of being accepted by God on account of Christ’s perfect sacrifice on the cross lead directly to the redundancy of the intermediate state?” (43-44).
If you haven’t yet grasped the significance of this, it is found in the inescapable reality that “the conceptual glue binding the church’s rites, ceremonies, institutions, and ideas was fatally weakened” (44) by the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone. Luther was by no means saying that the church can be dispensed with. He was a passionate advocate of the sacraments of baptism and Lord’s Supper. In fact, early on he continued to defend the notion of purgatory.
What McGrath is saying, and what Luther loudly proclaimed, is that when it comes to salvation, when it comes to the reconciliation of the individual soul to God, only one thing mattered ultimately. Note well, much mattered, but only one thing mattered ultimately, and that was one’s personal response in faith to the finished work of Christ on the cross.
This is what we find in Scripture, and in one particularly helpful narrative from the book of Acts. When the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” the response was clear and unequivocal: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:30-31). That such “belief” or “faith” should be followed by baptism and incorporation into the life of a local church goes without saying (or perhaps it shouldn’t go without saying!). But the singular requirement for salvation, the means through which the saving benefits of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection would come to that jailer in the first century, or to Luther in the 16th, or to you and me in the 21st, is belief.
So, when McGrath says that Luther’s doctrine of justification rendered “unnecessary” all other intermediaries, we understand him to mean that the only truly “necessary” element is personal confidence, trust, hope, and faith in the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice. That doesn’t mean one can dispense with the church or its many ministries and blessings. In fact, the church is entirely “necessary” when it comes to nurturing the Christian soul, guarding it against false teaching, and providing the benefits of community and corporate celebration.
But when it comes to the grounds on which one is accepted by God and the means by which this acceptance is attained, faith alone in Christ alone by grace alone is entirely sufficient. This was the altogether biblical and revolutionary idea that launched the Protestant reformation.