Reformation Day: Justified by Faith
By Kelsey Flowers
Five hundred years ago today, a priest named Martin Luther made his way to the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and nailed a piece of paper containing 95 revolutionary theses to the door. This single act was a defining moment in Western history that would begin the Protestant Reformation.
The purpose of his theses was to call out the corruption in the Roman Catholic Church, particularly the papal practice of accepting payment, or indulgences, for the forgiveness of sins. Even though Prince Frederick III had done away with the sale of indulgences in Wittenberg, many church members traveled to buy them. [i] When they returned, they showed Luther their purchased pardons, believing they no longer had to repent of their sins.
Luther was a man of deep conviction, and his frustration with this practice led him to write the 95 Theses. The 21st item on the list says, “Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences,” and the 23rd says, “If remission of all penalties whatsoever could be granted to anyone at all, certainly it would be granted only to the most perfect, that is, to very few.”[ii]
When asked the question, “Why should God allow you into Heaven?,” people often try to justify themselves through their actions, comparing their righteousness to the righteousness of others or hoping that on judgment day their good deeds will outweigh the bad. Unfortunately, people with this view struggle to find a satisfying answer to the troubling question, “How good is good enough?”
The reality is that, as Romans 3:10 says, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” Our best days are not enough to erase the bad things we have done, as we have fallen short of God’s perfect standard of righteousness and, as a result, we find ourselves separated from Him. Thankfully, God did not leave us without hope of being saved. We can find total assurance of salvation and rest in the gospel!
Justification before God comes only by faith in the work that Jesus Christ has done on our behalf. Romans 1:17, which held an important place in Luther’s conversion to Christianity, says, “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.’”
Even when we were spiritually dead in our sins and separated from God, in His great mercy, God sent His Son Jesus to live the perfect life we couldn’t live. Jesus took on Himself the punishment for our sins and the wrath of God, so that we could be made alive and reconciled to Him. Christ’s righteousness is credited to those who place their faith in Him. Because of this, when God looks at those who believe in what Jesus has done, He sees Christ’s righteousness and His just wrath is satisfied.
After nailing the 95 theses to the door of that church on October 31, 1517, Luther faced the threat of death, was labeled a heretic and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church for not recanting his statement. In spite of this intense opposition, he held his ground, and by the time he died in 1546, his revolutionary beliefs had formed the basis for the Protestant Reformation, which would revolutionize Western civilization over the next three centuries. October 31st is commemorated as Reformation Day, reminding Christians each year of the saving grace that comes through faith in Jesus Christ alone.
Each one of us has failed to meet God’s perfect standard of righteousness, and comparative righteousness is not enough to make up for our sins. The good news is that Christ’s imputed righteousness is all that we need for assurance of salvation and eternal security with God.
[i] “Martin Luther Posts 95 Theses.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/martin-luther-posts-95-theses.
[ii] Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html.