For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, just as it is written: The righteous shall live by faith.
…I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith….Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.
On October 31st of 1517, an Augustinian monk nailed a paper to a church door in Wittenberg. These 95 Theses were the spark of reformation in Germany that would spread like wildfire throughout the world. They were a challenge to a system of salvation that obscured the gospel and weighed the guilty with heavier burdens of guilt.
The historian Timothy George writes that three types of anxiety were amply present on the eve of the Reformation: “Death, guilt, and loss of meaning resound with jarring dissonance in the literature, art, and theology of this period.” He goes on to say that the recovery of the doctrine of justification by faith alone “spoke powerfully to the primal apprehensions of [the] time. In this respect, the theology of the reformers was a specific response to the special anxiety of their age.”
During Luther’s time, death was literally in the air. The bubonic plague revisited the inhabitants of Europe along with various other diseases. Burning flesh could be smelled in the streets, as warfare and witch trials abounded. Those deemed heretics were taken to the gallows or plunged into flames. A common picture was the Dance of Death, in which a skeleton merrily escorted unwilling men and women, boys and girls, to their graves.
This all might seem foreign to our modern ears. For many decades our society has conveniently pushed death to the margins. Matthew McCullough writes, “Life expectancy worldwide is twice what it was a hundred years ago. And because of modern medicine, many of us don’t often see death up close. That makes it easy to live as if death is someone else’s problem.” Yet, the pandemic of 2020 and 2021, has taught us acutely that death is no longer someone else’s problem. Most of us have heard Death knock very close to home.
On the eve of the Reformation, guilt stirred the anxiety of many, including Luther. The confessional was a prison of interrogation and condemnation. It was a place where one would look to confess sin only to be instructed to atone for those same sins through works of satisfaction. Only then might one have some hope of absolution. Roland Bainton writes that Luther arrived at an impasse. “Sins to be forgiven must be confessed. To be confessed they must be recognized and remembered. If they are not recognized and remembered, they cannot be confessed. If they are not confessed, they cannot be forgiven.” So tortured was Luther’s conscience that he would spend up to six hours in the confessional!
Guilt held a massive mirror up to one’s sins, when the mirror was lowered, all one could see was a wrathful God. Though God may be absent from the conscience of many today, guilt is still very much with us. Wilfred McClay called this “the strange persistence of guilt.” He writes that technology has indicted all of us. “Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization, it can never be as much as I could have given. I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough. … Colonialism, slavery, structural poverty, water pollution, deforestation — there’s an endless list of items for which you and I can take the rap.”
We live in an anxious age of guilt. Similar to Luther’s age, we have a massive mirror held up to us, only to be lowered to the sight of an angry mob. The difference was that Luther had a sliver of a chance for atonement. We, on the other hand, can only be cancelled by a society that seems even less gracious than God.
Loss of Meaning
In the late 15th century, loss of meaning was prevalent. The Nuremberg Chronicle ended with several blank pages left to be completed until the end of the world. What else could happen? Likely more of the same. People were stuck in the rut of feudal systems and hierarchies, only to hope they didn’t have to spend too long in purgatory after their wretched lives were over. During Luther’s time, dispatches from the New World were being sent by explorers. Columbus and Magellan chartered new paths and destinations. And yet, these new discoveries (including the Copernican Revolution) brought a host of new questions. What was the meaning of life? Could the institution of the Church be trusted to give us the answers? Can the answers be known?
Yet, even the scientific revolution couldn’t do away with our quest for meaning. The New Atheists hoped that the more scientific we became the less spiritual we’d be. Many would argue that the opposite has happened. New age thinking, the moniker of spiritual but not religious, the search for transcendence reveal a hunger that can’t be shaken. The common rule, though, is that no one can claim to know what the meaning is. “The Truth” has become “Your Truth” and “My Truth.” We’re all little Magellans going whatever way we want. Keep your dispatches to yourself.
On this Reformation Day, we are reminded that the Gospel is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s good news to be unashamedly announced in an anxious age. Luther would go on to rediscover the beautiful doctrine of justification by faith alone. This is the truth that God declares sinners righteous before Him, not according to their merits, but through faith in Christ. The righteousness that’s revealed in the gospel is an “alien righteousness”, the very righteousness of Christ imputed to us by faith. Timothy George writes, “Luther’s doctrine of justification fell like a bombshell on the theological landscape of medieval Catholicism. It shattered the entire theology of merits and indeed the sacramental-penitential basis of the church itself.”
That’s a bombshell we need for today. Justification by faith alone is what frees us from the fear of death, for we can die ready to stand before God. Justification by faith alone frees us from the pangs of guilt, for the justice our sins deserve was taken by Christ in our place. Justification by faith alone frees us from the loss of meaning, for it puts us right with our Creator who made us for His glory and for joy. Luther writes, “Through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all that He has becomes ours….He who trusts in Christ exists in Christ; he is one with Christ, having the same righteousness as He.” This is indeed the heavenly gate to paradise for it allows us stand under the smile of a heavenly Father who is well pleased with us. Luther writes, “If you have a true faith that Christ is your Savior, then at once you have a gracious God, for faith leads you in and opens up God’s heart and will, that you should see pure grace and overflowing love. This it is to behold God in faith that you should look upon his fatherly, friendly heart, in which there is no anger nor ungraciousness.”
In a world crippled by death, guilt, and loss of meaning, shift your gaze away from yourself and away from those who accuse you. Look to Christ and find rest for your weary soul. Luther said that justification by faith alone is the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. We do well to proclaim it. It’s also the doctrine on which a person stands or falls. You do well to proclaim it to your heart every day. That’s the Reformation that we still need.
Now to him who is able to protect you from stumbling and to make you stand in the presence of his glory, without blemish and with great joy, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority before all time, now and forever. Amen.