“So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where he is there I shall be also!’” — Martin Luther

Relics, relics everywhere

There they sat. Relics. Lots of them. There was a cut of fabric from the swaddling cloth of baby Jesus, 13 pieces from his crib, a strand of straw from the manger, a piece of gold from a Wise Man, three pieces of myrrh, a morsel of bread from the Last Supper, a thorn from the crown Jesus wore when crucified, and, to top it all off, a genuine piece of stone that Jesus stood on to ascend to the Father’s right hand. And in good Catholic fashion, the blessed Mary was not left out. There sat three pieces of cloth from her cloak, four from her girdle, four hairs from her head, and better yet, seven pieces from the veil that was sprinkled with the blood of Christ.

These relics and countless others (19,000 bones from the saints!) stood ready to be viewed by pious pilgrims. These relics were the proud collection of Frederick the Wise, elector of Saxony, Martin Luther’s prince. And they sat in the Castle Church at Wittenberg, prepared and ready for showing on All Saints Day, November 1, 1517. But in the midst of this fanfare was the essential ingredient, namely, the procurement of indulgences.

Veneration of these relics would be accompanied by indulgences reducing time in purgatory by 1,902,202 years and 270 days. An indulgence, the full or partial remission of punishment for sins, was drawn from the Treasury of Merit, which was accumulated not only by the meritorious work of Christ but also by the superabundant merit of the saints.

Medieval prosperity gospel

Needing funds to build St. Peter’s basilica, Pope Leo X began selling indulgences. But not any indulgence would do. He needed an indulgence for the full remission of sins, one that would return the sinner to the state of innocence first received at baptism. Even the horrors of years in purgatory would be removed. Not even a sin against the Divine Majesty would outweigh the efficacy of these indulgences. In short, if you had enough money, repentance was for sale!

There was no one so experienced as the Dominican Johann Tetzel to market such a once in a lifetime opportunity. Going from town to town with all the pomp of Rome, Tetzel laid the guilt trip on heavy: “Listen to the voices of your dear dead relatives and friends, beseeching you and saying, ‘Pity us, pity us. We are in dire torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance. . . . Will you let us lie here in flames? Will you delay our promised glory?’” And then came Tetzel’s famous jingle, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” With just a quarter of a florin you could liberate your loved one from the flames of purgatory and into the “fatherland of paradise.”

95 Reasons for reform

Martin Luther had enough. One year earlier, Luther preached against indulgences. This time, however, he would put his objections in writing. In 95 theses Luther exposed the abuse of indulgences. When finished, the theses were posted to the Castle Church door. Luther biographer Roland Bainton summarizes the 95 theses: “There were three main points: an objection to the avowed object of the expenditure, a denial of the powers of the pope over purgatory, and a consideration of the welfare of the sinner.”

Despite his protest, Luther was simply trying to be a good Catholic, reforming the Church from abuse. In fact, at this point, no mention is made of justification by faith alone, sola Scriptura, and other Reformation doctrines that would eventually evolve. Nevertheless, the seed had already been planted.

Synagogue of Satan

But evolve they would. While Luther’s theses were written in Latin for academic debate, others translated them into the vernacular and spread them throughout Germany. Suddenly, Luther’s protest was the talk of the town. Tetzel was the first to erupt, calling for Luther to be burned at the stake as a heretic. Next was Cardinal Cajetan in October 1518 at the imperial Diet at Augsburg. Luther was interrogated for three days and commanded to recant, which Luther would not do. Luther wrote, the cardinal “produced not one syllable of Scripture” but rather depended on scholastic church fathers.

Declared a heretic by Cajetan, Luther returned home fearful for his life. But Luther’s greatest challenge would come in June 1519 with the Catholic debater Johann Eck, whom Luther called “that little glory-hungry beast.” Eck brought the real issue to the table: who had final authority, God’s Word or the pope? For Eck, Scripture received its authority from the pope. Luther strongly disagreed and in doing so was quickly classified with the forerunning heretics John Wycliffe and Jan Hus. At first Luther denied such an association, but during a break in his debate Luther realized that Hus had taught exactly what he believed.

Eck returned to Rome reporting his findings to the pope, and Luther left the debate only to become further convinced that Scripture, not the pope, was the sole and final authority. Additionally, Luther realized that if the pope was always to have authority over Scripture, then reform from within was impossible. As Michael Reeves explains, “The pope’s word would always trump God’s. In that case, the reign of the antichrist there was sealed, and it was no longer the church of God but the synagogue of Satan.”

Faith Alone

But it was not only Luther’s understanding of the authority of the pope that would change. His view of salvation would undergo a revolution as well. Luther once again returned to the book of Romans, specifically Romans 1:17, where Paul speaks of the righteousness of God. After understanding it, Luther famously said, “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”

Suddenly, the gospel became good news. Previously Luther understood the righteousness of God as God punishing sinners in his justice and avenging anger. God’s righteousness was bad news, condemning Luther no matter how many good works he did. Luther, therefore, hated God. However, Luther came to realize that the righteousness of God referred to in Romans 1:17 is revealed in the gospel, for the righteous will live by faith. God’s righteousness was no longer to be feared but a gift to be received by faith in Christ, that sinners, even the worst of sinners, might be counted righteous before God.

Moreover, the righteousness that God demands is not something we can earn; rather, it has been earned for us in Christ. We need not a righteousness of our own but an alien righteousness, imputed or credited to us by God. Here lay what Luther understood as the “joyous exchange.” Christ has taken our sin while we have received his righteousness. As Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). And again Paul states in Philippians 3:9, my hope is to “be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” Therefore, Luther now knew that we are justified not by our works and merits but rather by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide).

With this breakthrough, Luther would write like a madman in 1520. First, he published To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, calling into question the authority of the pope, as well as the pope’s exclusive right to interpret Scripture and call a council. Second, Luther published The Babylonian Captivity of the Church where he argued that God’s gift of righteousness is received by faith and therefore Rome is in error to claim that divine grace only comes through the priest’s distribution of the sacraments (which Luther argued were limited to two rather than seven). Third, Luther published The Freedom of a Christian, dedicated to Pope Leo X, whereby he positively put forth the sweet exchange, namely, that our sin is given to Christ while Christ’s righteousness is credited to us.

Here I Stand

In 1520 the pope issued a bull (decree), calling Luther’s teaching a “poisonous virus,” demanding that Luther recant in 60 days or be excommunicated. After 60 days Luther publicly burned the pope’s bull, exclaiming, “Because you have confounded the truth of God, today the Lord confounds you. Into the fire with you!” Luther had declared war. The pope responded with a second bull, excommunicating Luther and his followers. Typically, at this point, Luther should have been handed over for execution. But Friedrich the Wise demanded a hearing before a German court. In 1521 Luther was summoned to Worms for an imperial council before Charles V, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire. At Worms, on April 17, 1521, Luther was told he must recant. After thinking it through for a day, Luther returned and declared:

Since then your serene majesty and your lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, plain and unvarnished: Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason, for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they often err and contradict themselves, I am bound to the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. I cannot do otherwise. Here I stand. May God help me. Amen.

The next day the verdict was out; the emperor determined that Luther was indeed “an obstinate schismatic and manifest heretic.” On his voyage home, Luther was suddenly kidnapped by men with swords and bows. Was Luther murdered? The German painter, Albrecht Dürer grieved in his diary, “O God, if Luther be dead who will proclaim the holy gospel so clearly to us?” But Luther had been kidnapped by friends, not enemies. Friedrich the Wise had orchestrated Luther’s safe escape to the Wartburg Castle. Nevertheless, Dürer’s words demonstrate that nothing less than the gospel itself was at stake in Luther’s stand before the emperor, and this same gospel would now change Christianity forever.

Does the Reformation still matter?

Does Reformation theology matter today? Absolutely. It is tempting to think of the Reformation as a mere political or social movement. In reality, however, the Reformation was a fight over the gospel itself. The reformers argued that God’s free and gracious acceptance of guilty sinners on the basis of the work of Christ alone is at the heart of the gospel. While the political and social context has changed since the 16th century, nevertheless, this issue remains at the forefront. Much could be said as to why, but here are two reasons as to why the Reformation matters today.

First, for Luther justification by faith alone is the article by which the church stands or falls. Today, however, many question and outright reject the centrality of justification. Take the late Clark Pinnock, for example, who attributes Luther and subsequent Protestants’ hangup with justification to fear of a wrathful God. Consequently, Pinnock says, “the legal dimension has dominated our thinking about salvation” (Flame of Love, 155). While the legal dimension is important, it is “not necessarily the central motif.”

Justification is just one step on the way to transformation. Therefore, it “is not the principal article of all Christian doctrine, as Luther claimed.” What is Pinnock’s alternative proposal then? “Being saved is more like falling in love with God.” In fact, Pinnock says, “legal thinking and the doctrine of justification are not as prominent in the Bible as we have made them.” And here is the kicker: “Luther’s rediscovery of justification was important for himself and for 16th-century reforms, but it is not as central for us, and not even for an astute interpretation of Paul’s theology.” But God’s justification of the ungodly is at the very center of Paul theology (Rom. 4:5). This is why the gospel is such good news!

The news is so good because not only has Christ died and risen again (Acts 2:22-36), but now we have the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38). No wonder Paul can say that the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek, for “in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” Therefore, Luther’s awakening after reading Romans 1:17 was essentially a gospel awakening. To divorce justification from the gospel is to ignore our basic human predicament: how are we, as guilty sinners, to find favor before a holy God? Clearly this was the question in Paul’s mind when he concluded, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1).

Second, there is a strong push in our present day either to return or join with Rome. The most notable example of returning in our present day is Francis J. Beckwith, former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, who resigned from his presidency in 2007. While stating that he hopes his Catholic brothers will resist triumphalism, he unequivocally stated, “I, of course, believe that Catholicism is in fact true in all its dogmatic theology, including its views of scripture, ethics, church authority, ecumenical councils, etc.” (Return to Rome, 12). Others argue that evangelicals and Catholics, while remaining distinct, can now join together in light of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, and the Joint Declaration on Justification.

Many believe the rift between Protestants and Catholics has been at least substantially resolved. Hence Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom’s book, Is the Reformation Over?. (See Scott M. Mantesch, “Is the Reformation Over? John Calvin, Roman Catholicism, and Contemporary Ecumenical Conversations,” Themelios, August 2011.)

But as Michael Horton has recently argued (and R. C. Sproul before him), the Reformation is far from over. “There has been no material change in the Roman Catholic position on the issues that led to the excommunication of the Reformers. Even the Joint Declaration overcame the central doctrine of controversy only by embracing a Roman Catholic definition of justification as forgiveness and actual transformation (i.e., sanctification).” Rome continues to reject the evangelical affirmation of justification by grace alone through faith alone.

I agree with Horton when he states that it is not about Luther; it is about the gospel. While many other challenges to Reformation theology could be identified, these two examples sufficiently demonstrate that Reformation theology continues to be at the center of discussion. Many younger evangelicals are embracing Reformation theology today. But the challenge we will face lies in how to defend Reformation theology to light of new ideologies that seek to undermine its credibility. I believe that the linchpin in the effort to defend and apply Reformation theology today can be found in the simple truth made so clear by Luther himself—namely, that the gospel itself is at stake, just as it was in the 16th century. To abandon Reformation theology is to abandon the gospel.

Celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation with R. Albert Mohler Jr, Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, and others at Here We Stand, October 31 – November 2, 2017.

This post was originally published on the Gospel Coalition.