October 31st is a notable day for a couple of reasons. Many countries, including the United States, celebrate Halloween on October 31st, on which children don costumes in order to walk around their neighborhoods or broader communities saying, “Trick or treat,” as they collect candy from friends and neighbors. Of course the Halloween holiday has some other kinds of significance for certain cultures, especially those outside the United States as a “day of the dead,” but for most American children it is nothing more than an opportunity to gather as many sweets as possible and dress up as a favorite superhero or other kind of character.
Beyond Halloween, though, October 31st is recognized by a significant portion of the world as “Reformation Day” to commemorate the anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany in rebellion against doctrinal corruption in the Catholic Church and as a challenge to papal authority. Protestants around the world celebrate Reformation Day and recognize it as the day that Christians were freed to worship God as He is meant to be worshiped: personally and rightly.
As a foreword to Nathan Busenitz’s book Long Before Luther, pastor and author John MacArthur writes about Luther’s work in the Reformation:
In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther and his fellow Reformers rallied against the corruption that dominated Roman Catholicism. Chief among their concerns was Rome’s distortion of the gospel. Roman Catholicism had subverted the gospel of grace by setting up a sacramental system of works-righteousness in its place. Luther’s study of the New Testament, and especially the phrase “the just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:38; see Hab. 2:4) NKJV, launched his understanding of the gospel and emboldened his stand against the false system of his day. And God used Luther as a key part of the great recovery of the gospel known as the Reformation.
But before Luther was a clear-headed theologian, he was a confused monk. Before he was a powerful force for gospel advancement, he was a tormented failure who lived in constant spiritual pain. Even after joining a monastery, he was profoundly depressed and overwrought with so much guilt that he lived in constant anxiety and fear.
Like many in the sixteenth century, Luther believed the road to salvation depended on his own self-effort. He found that road to be impossibly difficult. No matter what he did, he could not overcome the reality of his own sinfulness. Convinced that he had to reach a certain point of worthiness to receive God’s grace, Luther went to extremes—starvation, asceticism, sleeplessness. He punished himself in an effort to pay for his sins and appease God’s wrath. Even so, he had no peace—and no salvation.
Because he understood the reality of divine judgment, he desperately wanted to be right with God. The fear of God drove him to seek reconciliation and forgiveness. He longed for a way to escape hell and enter heaven. Yet even as a monk doing everything he could possibly do, he could not find relief for his fear and guilt. “How can I be right before God?” That was the question that tormented Luther. It is a question that every sinner must ask. But it is a question to which only the gospel provides the true answer.
False religion invariably gives the wrong answer: “Be good. Work harder. Go about to establish your own righteousness.” The apostle Paul critiqued that perspective in Romans 10: 3–4: “For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” False religion emphasizes human effort and establishes its own superficial standard of righteousness.
By contrast, the true gospel emphasizes the bankruptcy of human effort. Salvation comes only by believing in the Lord Jesus, who puts an end to the tyranny of the law. Sinners, therefore, are saved by grace through faith, apart from their own works. They are forgiven, not because of what they have achieved, but only because of what God accomplished through Christ—once for all.
That is Paul’s gospel, and that is what Luther found when he began teaching through Romans and Galatians. When the gospel of grace broke on Luther’s soul, the Holy Spirit gave him life, and peace and joy flooded his heart. He was forgiven, accepted, reconciled, converted, adopted, and justified—solely by grace through faith. The truth of God’s Word illuminated his mind, and the chains of guilt and fear fell off him.
Luther was saved the same way any sinner is saved. Like the tax collector in Luke 18, he recognized his utter unworthiness and cried out to God for mercy. Like the thief on the cross, his sins were forgiven apart from any works he had done. Like the former Pharisee named Paul, he abandoned his reliance on self-righteous efforts, resting instead on the perfect righteousness of Christ. Like every true believer, he embraced the person and work of the Lord Jesus in saving faith. And having been justified by faith, for the first time in his life, he enjoyed peace with God.
Importantly, the issue of the gospel was not settled 500 years ago in church history. It was settled long before Luther. The Reformers were responding to the clarion truth of Scripture, submitting to the gospel message articulated on the pages of the New Testament. Following in the footsteps of Christ and the apostles, they proclaimed the biblical gospel with courage and conviction.
By initiating the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther was not proposing a new idea about Christianity and how humanity is meant to relate to God. Rather, Luther was calling Christians to set aside the heresies of works-based salvation they had begun to embrace.
On October 31st we celebrate the Reformation because without it, many of us may have never come to understand that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone.
by Nathan Busenitz
Where was the gospel before the Reformation? Contemporary evangelicals often struggle to answer that question. As a result, many Roman...
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