What’s All the Fuss About Justification?
October 27, 2016 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments
Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement
Have you ever read the prophet Habakkuk? If you have, could you identify the time this prophet addressed and the theme of his message? Not many of us could without some sort of review or study Bible help. And yet, in this obscure writing prophet’s work we find one of the most important verses in all of Scripture: 2:4, “the righteous shall live by faith.” Paul quotes this verse twice, in Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11, in his efforts to explain the gospel. It is Romans 1:17 that became the watershed verse for Martin Luther to rediscover the magnificent truth of justification by faith alone, and so launching a reformation of the church that impacts us even today.
Paul writes in Romans 1:17, “In it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘the righteous shall live by faith.’” Luther, growing up in the Catholic church, understood the phrase “the righteousness of God” as meaning “the righteousness by which God Himself is righteous.” Therefore, Luther understood the gospel as revealing God in his holiness and the holy standards by which one must live. Luther came to “hate God” and feel oppressed by such standards.
Well, Luther did not give up on Romans 1:17. He wrestled with that Habakkuk quote. What does faith have to do with “the righteousness of God.” Luther came to discover, “Paul is not talking about the righteousness by which God Himself is righteous, but a righteousness that God gives freely by His grace to people who don’t have righteousness of their own.” This led him to exclaim, “You mean the righteousness by which I will be saved, is not mine?”
Luther testified that in the moment he made this discovery, “I was born again of the Holy Ghost. And the doors of paradise swung open, and I walked through.” The doctrine of justification by faith alone (being declared righteous by faith alone) became Luther’s battle center piece in seeking to reform the church. Much of his 95 Theses, nailed to the church door of Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, dealt with the biblical understanding of justification by faith.
Why was this such an important issue for Luther? Why should we be careful to cling to a clear understanding of justification? Luther answers these questions in his commentary on Galatians 3:11, the other location Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4.
Luther writes: “The hypocritical does of the Law are those who seek to obtain righteousness by a mechanical performance of good works while their hearts are far removed from God… They break the very first commandment of God by denying His promise in Christ. They do not worship God in faith. They worship themselves.”
Luther goes on to explain how denial of justification by faith alone ultimately is idolatry. “Whoever seeks righteousness by works denies God and makes himself god. He is an Antichrist because he ascribes to his own works the omnipotent capability of conquering sin, death, devil, hell, and the wrath of God… Their work-righteousness is plain idolatry and blasphemy against God.”
For Luther, justification by faith alone was so important because it is the only means of salvation that honors the first commandment, “You shall have no gods before Me.” No one, or thing, has the “omnipotent capability” to provide salvation but God alone.
Unfortunately, Christians throughout the centuries has struggled to maintain a clear vision of justification by faith alone. The Galatians missed it. The pre-reformation church was missing it. Even today we are susceptible to miss the magnificence and power of this truth. The love of self and confidence in self creeps up regularly (and is readily encouraged by the world and Satan). We need a regular diet of Gospel truth proclaimed and clarified to us. We need justification by faith alone.