Reformation or Rediscovery?
For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:17, NIV)
500 years ago this Tuesday, on 31 October 1517, Martin Luther, then an Augustinian monk and Professor of Theology, nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. All over the world (including here in Cambridge, at Great St Mary’s at 7pm) this great anniversary is being celebrated: we thank God for the tumultuous events which followed, which we call the Reformation.
And yet I wonder if even the word “Reformation” doesn’t do full justice to the significance of what happened in those years. Would a better term be “Rediscovery”?
The term “Reformation” suggests a clean-up, the driving out of unbiblical and corrupt practices. Certainly that was needed: the official church of the time was hypocritical, greedy and, in many aspects, corrupt. Luther was provoked to post his theses by the arrival in town of Johannes Tetzel, a seller of “indulgences”, who preyed on people’s fears about their salvation to extract cash in return for bogus promises. Luther had the courage to challenge this publicly - and quickly attracted both supporters and enemies.
And yet Luther was engaged in much more than a clean-up campaign. At the time, he was himself in the midst of a deep and personal spiritual struggle. For years, he had been trying to find peace with God, an assurance that he was really saved. As a monk, he tried every good work and religious technique, and searched deep within his soul, as the church of the time encouraged. But the more he dug, the more he saw the depths of his sin. He hated the expression “the righteousness of God” in Paul’s letter to the Romans, because he understood it to mean no more than the righteousness by which God punishes sinners.
But his day job included teaching Romans, and as he continued to study the letter, the light dawned - probably, in fact, not till 1518 or 1519. Here is his testimony: At last, meditating day and night and by the mercy of God, I gave heed to the context of the words, “In it the righteousness of God is revealed…” Then I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith… here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through gates that had been flung open.
Luther saw that the “righteousness of God” is a righteous status which God gives us, given through faith in Christ Jesus. He justifies sinners, freely. God is able to do this without compromise to His personal righteousness, because He presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement (Romans 3:25).
It was this rediscovery of the grace of God which was the real heart of the Reformation. It stemmed from a rediscovery of the Bible, and from it flowed a rediscovery of how ordinary people can be reconciled to God without the mediation of the official church, without religious rituals or works done to earn salvation. From it came millions of converted people, rejoicing in access to God, freely given through our Lord Jesus.
The Reformation is sometimes popularly understood to have been a protest movement, a church clean-up operation. It was, in reality, so, so much more: a glorious rediscovery of the gospel itself. That is cause for much celebration.
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