Some scriptural truths are of such fundamental importance that, if they do not form the core of your convictions, the question arises whether you can call yourself a Christian at all.
Consequently, it is truly disconcerting when I meet good and loyal churchgoers, only to realise that many of them do not understand the first thing about many of these truths.
Therefore, I want to examine a gospel truth that not only lies at the heart of our holy faith, but is also the inexhaustible source of comfort to anyone who takes refuge in Jesus Christ for life and death.
I’m talking about ‘justification through faith alone’. It is this truth of which Luther said that it determines whether the church stands or falls. And indeed, there is scarcely a more reliable litmus test to assess the authenticity or not of a congregation.
Moreover, I cannot think of a truth that has a more drastic and practical effect on a person’s life. Therefore, be sure to understand it, embrace it in faith, think about it again and again, and live according to it!
Martin Luther was a Roman Catholic priest and professor at the University of Wittenberg. Amongst other things, he had to lecture on the epistle to the Romans. But he struggled to grasp the true meaning of the apostle’s writing.
He did, however, know that the theme of the entire book was found in Romans 1:16-17 — ‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ,for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, the just shall live by faith’.
He read the two verses over and over again, and every time stumbled over the expression in verse 17, ‘the righteousness of God’. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church taught that these particular words describe a character trait of the Lord: that his wrath burns against the sins of men.
If there was one issue that burned in Luther’s soul, it was Job’s question, ‘How can a mortal be righteous before God?’ (Job 4:17; 9:2). He writes in his autobiography that he consequently came to detest the expression ‘the righteousness of God’ and became increasingly angry with God.
For Luther struggled with an intense sense of sin for many years, powerless to live a holy life. The last thing he needed to hear, especially from this book that claimed to carry the secret to eternal salvation, was that he was faced with a God to whom sinners were completely intolerable.
One day, probably in the autumn of 1514, this priest-professor was reading over and over these verses again. And there in the tower of the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg, it suddenly hit him like a bolt of lightning: in Greek this expression can also indicate that God is the source of righteousness, that he gives righteousness.
Instantly the message of the book of Romans became clear to Luther. He later wrote, ‘Then I felt born again like a new man, and I entered God’s paradise through open doors’.
And so the Reformation of the sixteenth century began. Nothing would ever be the same again. Europe’s windows were thrown open and the truth of grace flooded in like sunlight, dispelling the darkness of the Middle Ages. In the following years this true gospel would lead to the salvation of many thousands.
In order to understand what Luther saw, we have to go back to some fundamental biblical truths.
First, Adam acted as head of all humanity when he fell into sin; he represented each of us. The effect of his sin on all humanity is called original sin. This has two components, guilt and corruption (Romans 3:9-20; 5:12-19).
All Adam’s descendants have Adam’s guilt imputed (debited) to them because of the Fall. They are equally guilty in God’s sight and equally punishable, even before committing a single sin. To put it technically, this is a forensic or legal problem, in ‘God’s books’, as it were. Of course, this culpability increases as one personally sins day after day.
Second, original sin has to do with man’s corruption, his moral pollution. Every descendant of Adam is born with a morally distorted nature and inborn inclination to go against the law and will of God.
This makes him a rebel before his Creator. Moreover, he is incapable of living up to God’s will and standards, which makes him a failure before the Lord.
Christ came as ‘second man’ or ‘last Adam’ (1 Corinthians 15:45, 47) and Head of God’s new humanity, to eradicate the effects of the Fall for his people (Romans 5:12-21).
When a sinner places his faith and trust in Christ, he is taken out of Adam and planted into Christ. Just as Adam’s sin was charged or debited to him, even so Christ’s righteousness is now counted or credited to him.
To understand how Christ addresses the problem of our lost righteousness, we need to understand that our sin includes what we do (sins of commission) and what we don’t do (sins of omission). We both violate God’s commandments and fail to measure up to his holy standards.
My trespasses are one thing, but what about all the things that the Lord commands that I don’t do? As a Christian, I don’t hate him any more — and it’s wonderful — but what if I do not love him with my whole heart, mind and strength?
Christ paid for all the sins that his people have done, do and will do. The punishment that he suffered, he bore as substitute in my place. My guilt was imputed or debited to him; it was charged to his account. And when he paid it, it brought an end to all my debt. But how many of us realise that this acquittal alone is not enough?
If we were only acquitted, we would have been where Adam was prior to the Fall. Yes, without guilt. But that would not have been enough? No! The Lord still had to earn eternal life for us. Through positive obedience he had to gain access to the tree of life for us.
It is not enough simply not to violate God’s commandments; we must keep them. There is not only a punishment to be averted; there is also a reward to be earned. If you would inherit eternal life, you have to obey God perfectly. And this is man’s greatest problem; nobody can achieve it.
This insurmountable dilemma of the sinner is, however, met by Christ. He obeyed God perfectly from the moment of his birth up to his final breath. Not one single sinful thought, desire or motive! Even in the tiniest detail he did everything, exactly everything, that his Father commanded him.
This obedience is imputed to each one who truly believes in Christ. The Lord’s perfect obedience is credited to his or her account. This is the good news of the gospel — place your faith and trust in the Substitute and his merits, and you are credited with his flawless righteousness!
This is exactly what Romans 1:17 talks about. This is the righteousness that God gives. This is the essence of justification through faith alone. This is what Luther saw.
When someone else has paid your debts, what do you owe? Nothing! And when you have something to do but a substitute does it in your place, do you still have to do it as well? Of course not!
Do you realise what this means? In God’s books, you who are in Christ have the status of someone who has never sinned, because all your debt has been paid. Moreover, in God’s books you have the status of someone who has kept the law perfectly, because Christ’s righteousness has been credited to your account.
Note that I say ‘in God’s books’. Remember, this is a judicial affair. Paul constantly uses legal and accounting language. Therefore, this is an objective matter; it is not subjective. It occurs outside of you, not in you. It is not an experience; it is something that you have to accept in faith, because God’s gospel promises it.
To turn our eyes from ourselves, and fix our gaze on Christ and his merits, is one of the first and most important lessons that a sinner trusting in Christ must learn. It is the essence of faith (do you remember the bronze snake in Numbers 21:5-9 and John 3:14-15?).
Countless Christians are milling about in constant introspection. Being forever inward-looking is being self-centred. And it is a sin. Amongst other things, it is the sin of doubt. It is not believing God’s promises and treating him as if he were a liar.
That which the first Adam should have done but couldn’t, the ‘last Adam’ achieved. He obeyed his Father absolutely to the end. And those of us who are united to him, through true faith, receive exactly the same reward as our Head.
Hence there is hardly a more blessed or meaningful promise in the Bible as the one found in Revelation 22:2 concerning the tree of life. The angels, who were to guard the Garden of Eden so that none of Adam’s descendants could enter it, have become a guard of honour to welcome each one who has sought refuge in Christ and continues to abide in him.
Nico van der Walt