by Mathew Block
“It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
This is the refrain, the key doctrine which echoes through the work of Martin Luther and the other Reformers of the 16th century: the idea that we are saved and declared righteous—that we are justified—through the grace of God alone, purchased by Christ at the cross and given to us in faith. It’s not a matter of our good works, St. Paul tells us here; on their own, our deeds are useless. In fact, Isaiah tells us that “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). They can’t save us. They can’t earn us God’s good favour.
But the glorious message of the Gospel is this: God has bestowed His favour upon us anyway. He saw us floundering in sin, physically alive but spiritually dead. And though He had every right to reject those who had rejected Him, He did not. He loved us, poor miserable sinners though we are, and sent His own Son to die in our place and for our sins. It’s the great, unfathomable exchange: Christ gives us His righteousness and takes our sins. He dies for us that we may live with Him. It’s beyond comprehension that God loves us so much and so deeply that He would die in our place; but, thanks to the Holy Spirit’s work, it is not beyond faith. He calls us to believe, and we do. We believe, and therefore we are justified.
It’s beyond comprehension that God loves us so much and so deeply that He would die in our place; but, thanks to the Holy Spirit’s work, it is not beyond faith.
This Gospel message has resounded through the ages, and it remains for us the central tenet of our faith. Indeed, the Lutheran fathers have called it the article upon which the Church stands or falls. In the 16th century, however, the doctrine had been obscured. Christ was seen by many—even by a young Luther himself—not as a God of love but as an angry judge. Some tried to buy their way into heaven by purchasing indulgences; others despaired of salvation entirely, knowing their good works simply weren’t good enough to outweigh their sins.
“I hated that word ‘the righteousness of God,’” Luther explains. “I had been taught to understand it,” he tells us, to mean that “God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.” But in reading the Scriptures, Luther discovered the phrase meant something else entirely: “There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith.” The words of St. Paul in Romans brought him to this conclusion: “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (1:17).
Luther could not keep quiet about this discovery; the Good News that we are declared righteous through faith in the Gospel was something everyone needed to know. Like Luther, we too are motivated by the Spirit to tell others that God accepts them on the basis of Christ’s mercy, not their works. Indeed, our faith compels us to share the Gospel. St. Paul explains it well: “It is written: ‘I believed; therefore I have spoken.’ With that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in His presence. All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God” (2 Corinthians 4:13-15).
We also believe and therefore speak.
We believe, therefore we speak. In this issue of The Canadian Lutheran, we see how believers are speaking the Word of Christ in places around the world. We read the story of a Somalian man who can’t stop speaking about Jesus, even though his life has been endangered for doing so. We hear how the church in Nicaragua is growing through faithful Gospel proclamation and mercy ministry. And we see how Lutherans are sharing the Good News in Turkey, a land where the New Testament church once thrived but which is now predominantly Muslim. As we look to these places, we also look back to the time of the Reformation, thanking God for those in that era who clearly proclaimed salvation by grace through faith. To that end, we reflect in this issue especially upon Philip Melanchthon, Martin Luther’s great co-worker for the Gospel.
As believers speak that Gospel to the world around them, we see God’s Word of Promise come to life: “grace reaching more and more people.” Let’s respond the way St. Paul says we should: “with overflowing thanksgiving to the glory of God.”
Mathew Block is editor of The Canadian Lutheran.