Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Celebrating the "Righteousness of Faith" since 1517

I have been meaning to continue on with my posts on sola scriptura, though in a sense I'm not really diverting from that path: October 31 is Reformation Day, the day on which confessing evangelicals celebrate the nailing of Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses to the cathedral door in Wittenberg on All Hallows' Eve 1517, thus sparking the Protestant Reformation. His Theses were basically a series of remonstrances against the papacy for allowing the sale of indulgences. The years of 1517-1521 then saw a flurry of study and writing which furthered the work of Jan Hus and William Tyndale in bringing the gospel to light and freeing the church from its "Bablyonian captivity." When Luther was brought to trial as a heretic at the Diet of Worms in April 1521, he said boldly,

Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason--I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other--my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.* God help me. Amen.

Luther was therefore a framer of sola scriptura, for he stood on the authority of the Bible alone.

I think this t-shirt is awesome. It highlights Luther's theology of justification: simul iustus et peccator, "at the same time justified and a sinner."

There is something I love about celebrating Reformation Day. Maybe it's simply because I was raised in the Lutheran Church and come from German ethnic heritage. Maybe. But more than that, it's really because the message of God's free love and mercy upon sinners on account of Jesus' obedient life, ransoming death, and victorious resurrection alone--received through faith alone--is the best news there is. It puts vigor in a man's enfeebled steps. It pumps blood through closed veins. The news that sin doesn't win and that God needs no man's help to kick Satan's ass and free men from the grip of death is awesome stuff.

In celebration of the truth, here is Article 22 from the Belgic Confession, an awesome summary of Luther's (and the Reformation's) insight into the gospel, that we fully possess Jesus Christ by faith alone apart from our deeds.

Article 22: The Righteousness of Faith

We believe that for us to acquire the true knowledge of this great mystery the Holy Spirit kindles in our hearts a true faith that embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits, and makes him its own, and no longer looks for anything apart from him.

For it must necessarily follow that either all that is required for our salvation is not in Christ or, if all is in him, then he who has Christ by faith has his salvation entirely.

Therefore, to say that Christ is not enough but that something else is needed as well is a most enormous blasphemy against God-- for it then would follow that Jesus Christ is only half a Savior. And therefore we justly say with Paul that we are justified "by faith alone" or by faith "apart from works."^53

However, we do not mean, properly speaking, that it is faith itself that justifies us-- for faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness.

But Jesus Christ is our righteousness in making available to us all his merits and all the holy works he has done for us and in our place. And faith is the instrument that keeps us in communion with him and with all his benefits.

When those benefits are made ours they are more than enough to absolve us of our sins.

^53 Rom. 3:28

Previous posts: 2007, 2006, 2005.
* Some records add at this point, "Here I stand; I can do no other."


Ted M. Gossard said...

Maybe it's me at this time of the day, but for all the good of Luther and the Reformation, they had their weaknesses as well. But that's my belief. And we need to ever be reforming, in that same spirit. Which is why I could never go back to Rome, but is also why I would never go back to Wittenberg. But just my take.

By the way, I really like the Luther film, I think of 2004. Haven't seen the older one.

Andrew said...

It's true that Luther had some weaknesses (e.g., antisemitism in his later years), but who doesn't? Doctrinally, I don't think there is much to complain about as far as the theology of the Reformers themselves, including the 16th- and 17th-century confessions. But it is true that we continue to learn the fuller counsel of Scripture, and new situations and discoveries prompt us to rethink and apply biblical teachings in new ways. Because our life circumstances are different than in feudal Belgium, we can't "go back to Wittenberg," Heidelberg, or anywhere else. But we can seek to continually apply the truths that began to be (re-)understood more fully at that time.

Ted M. Gossard said...

Well stated, Andrew. Thanks.

Ezekiel said...

In accord with your discussion of solo(a) scriptura: what does it tell you that the locus "the righteousness of faith" is article twenty-two in the Belgic confession (and the Trinity is #8), trailing five separate articles related to "the written word of God" (and several others which are also lower than they ought to be, e.g., original sin). One thing it tells you is that the way is already being paved in the 1560s for biblicist fundamentalism and solo scriptura.

Contrast the Augsburg Confession, in which "justification" (i.e., the righteousness of faith) is article four (following God, original sin, and the Son of God). Where does it go next? "The Bible"? No--the Church, in articles V, VII, & VIII, followed by the sacraments. This is a fundamental difference between Wittenberg & Geneva: the former maintained an ecclesiocentric hermeneutic, whereas the latter--already capitulating to the incipient forces of modernism--adopted a foundationalist, bibliocentric one.

(And as a side note, Lutheranism has also kept the canon as an open question, unlike article 4 of the Belgic, and also allowed for the edifying use of the Apocrypha--though most Lutherans don't practice that.)