"Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."
Writing this essay is a burden, not a joyless one but a load nonetheless. I am expounding on a pivotal topic, nothing less than the center of true joy, and therefore an anchor for my soul in the troubled waters that cover this world. What I speak of can (kinda) be summed up in one word: justification. This is really many words in one, and to discern the meaning meant we must look at the context in which our word will be used. To save ink I will be plain: I am a Protestant, and that word on my lips most often means “a declaration that someone is righteous.” It is nothing less than the sole solution to our greatest need: our lack of righteousness or right standing before God. This was Martin Luther’s muse, his omnipresent light in the darkness. We shall meditate on this awhile.
Luther was a troubled man. Once caught in a lighting storm and fearing for his life, he promised St. Anne that if he lived through the ordeal monasticism would be his lifestyle. He kept his word, and only then did his real troubles begin. In his own words:
...in the monastery I did not think about women, money, or possessions; instead my heart trembled and fidgeted about whether God would bestow his grace on me...For I had strayed from faith and could not but imagine that I had angered God, whom in turn I had to appease by doing good works.
Luther believed in the reality of a perfect and just God who does not simply wink at sin...and he knew his own sinful heart too well. He understood that biblically speaking he was not right with God. And this nearly drove him over a cliff of insanity.
Luther was a gifted man. The consummate theologian, as he was reading through Romans in preparation for a series of university lectures on the epistle, chapter 1, verse 17 perplexed him and gained the full measure of his intellectual attention. “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” (Rom. 1:17) If the righteous will live by faith, what do the unrighteous live by? How can I be righteous? Luther found his answer. It proved not only the culmination of his study, but also the epiphany of his spiritual life. He describes the transformation:
At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, 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 the gates that had been flung open.
Luther was a new man.
And justification made him so. Therefore before we move to my actual thesis, we must mildly elaborate on the definition of justification shortly stated in the first paragraph. Thankfully, theologian Wayne Grudem has done some elaboration for me.
Just what is justification? We may define it as follows: Justification is an instantaneous legal act of God in which he (1) thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and (2) declares us to be righteous in his sight.
Luther believed that this declaration happened by faith alone (the “alone” signifying the theological difference that eventually led to his split with Rome). “For faith alone and the efficacious use of the word of God, bring salvation.” Our works, however good, do not merit or gain salvation but flow out from it, Luther realized. To illustrate he quotes Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. “So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.” (Matt. 7:17-18) For Luther, the good tree is the justified person, and the fruit his works.
All that was to introduce the introduction. My sincere apologies.
"A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, subject to everyone." Martin Luther
One of Luther’s most important teachings, and one I will argue for, is this: A proper understanding of justification by faith alone leads the believer to turn away from himself to Christ, and to his fellow man in love. "God does not need our good works, our neighbor does," Luther would say.
Turning to Christ turns us away from self. The doctrine of justification gets us outside ourselves because true knowledge of it brings the realization that we are “justified by the merits of another, namely of Christ alone.” The merit, or righteousness, of Christ frees us from relying on self to obtain salvation, and this frees the believer from fearfully looking inward and constantly trying to ensure that enough merit is there to escape hell. And this righteousness is ours through union with Christ by faith. Our man Luther uses a powerful symbol for this: marriage. He illustrates:
The third incomparable grace of faith is this: that it unites the soul to Christ, as the wife to the husband, by which mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul are made one flesh. Now if they are one flesh, and if a true marriage-nay, by far the most perfect of marriages-is accomplished between them (for human marriages are but feeble types of this one great marriage), then it follows that all they have becomes theirs in common, as well good things as evil things; so that whatsoever Christ possesses, that the believing soul may take to itself and boast of as its own, and whatever belongs to the soul, that Christ claims as His.
When the soul sees that all its objective good is located in the person and work of Jesus, it tends to stop looking at itself to meet needs. This is by divine design. God wants us to look to him because he is “where the party’s at.” He is truly the only one who can satisfy our souls because he alone is infinite, not bound by time or space. “Turn to me and be saved, / all the ends of the earth! / For I am God, and there is no other.” (Isa. 45:22)
Turning to Christ turns us towards others. It is impossible to love God without also loving our neighbors. Or rather I should say that knowledge of God’s love in justification produces love for others because seeing the radical and free nature of that love sets us free from the solipsism of self-salvation so that we have the will and energy to love one another. The Apostle John writes:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:7-12)
I hope it is self-evident that the love St. John pictures brings reconciliation and healing to our broken world. If not self-evident, someone (not me) should journey to prove this love benefits individual and community alike. In this case, I am confident the choir has heard my preaching.
As a Protestant Christian, I feel compelled to proclaim the free gift of justification in Christ to call people away from themselves so they might be free to love others, having peace of mind that God is totally and completely for them in Jesus, as John Piper words it. This must be believed if there is to be true, spiritual liberty. If we are kept busy trying to placate God by our works, we will remain inward-looking beings who cannot enjoy the true freedom of loving someone freely and the empowerment brought by the knowledge that God sets us free for just such a purpose. It only seems appropriate to end with Luther exhorting us to trust Christ and give others out of our abundance in Him.
We give this rule: the good things which we have from God ought to flow from one to another and become common to all, so that every one of us may, as it were, put on his neighbor, and so behave towards him as if he were himself in his place.
He is not talking just about material things. May our hearts and our hands listen to Luther’s wisdom.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994. Print.
Luther, Martin. “Concerning Christian Liberty.” Around the World in One Semester: A Reader for College Freshman. Ed. Paul Tayyar, LeeAnne Langton. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, 2009. 101-117. Print.
Piper, John. The Legacy of Sovereign Joy: God’s Triumphant Grace in the Lives of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2000. Print.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001. Print.