For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17 ESV)
Today is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s act of placing his 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg. Though it was just one action among many others, and many people came before Luther and much developed after Luther, it has become the focus of the Protestant Reformation. And if you were to pinpoint a moment which changed history, this would certainly be it.
Originally written in Latin and intended for an academic debate it sparked people’s imagination and within two weeks it had been translated into German and spread all over the German speaking world. From this moment there was no going back. Luther was an obscure monk who taught New Testament at university, but he simply pointed out what the Bible taught, and showed that the doctrine of the church was in conflict with it.
It was similar to the young boy in the story by Hans Christian Andersen, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” — once he laughed and admitted that the Emperor was not clothed at all, the rest of the crowd also admitted what was obvious to all. In this case, the Pope and the archbishops were naked and had no truth to stand upon. They preached salvation by penance and by works, that Jesus alone was not enough to save anyone. We needed to add to His work with our own works.
Through faith alone: The Bible plainly teaches that we are saved through faith and through faith alone. Faith, however, cannot exist in a vacuum. Faith must have an object. Faith meansI believe in something or in someone. Saving faith must be invested in the Person and work of Christ, who alone has paid the price for our salvation. It is not Jesus plus my works, or Jesus plus my penance, nor is it faith plus my efforts. It is faith alone and grace alone through Christ alone.
Faith means to trust in God and in His gospel. The basic message of the gospel is that Jesus died for our sin and that He is risen from the dead. Saving faith, however, is not belief in principles alone, not in the gospel that is separated from Christ. One may learn scripture and learn a gospel presentation but saving faith must reach beyond the mere words and it must embrace the Savior whom the words represent.
The Church is called the Bride of Christ, and as in a wedding, the couple pledge loyalty and love to one another and not to the institution of marriage as an idea. And so to become a member of the Church Universal, or the Church Invisible, or to be saved, as we say, is not to have a general confidence in the gospel or the church or the morality of Christianity or even in the Bible alone as a book. All true saving faith must reach beyond all of these things and focus itself upon the biblical Christ.
Christ was the center of apostolic preaching, as Peter said, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36 ESV). The object of saving faith is the biblical Christ and that He died in our place. The other side of saving faith is repentance, turning from sin and self and turning to Christ only. Saving faith admits that I cannot save myself through my works, that my righteousness is as filthy rags.
Faith as a principle of life: Paul quoted Habakkuk who said, “The just shall live by faith.” We could paraphrase this to say that the righteous person lives each day by the principle of faith in God. It is likewise true that the one who believes in Christ shall truly live. Habakkuk however, was making another point, the one who truly lives will believe. The truly righteous Jew would live not by his experiences alone but by his faith in God and in God’s promises.
Paul in quoting Habakkuk was teaching us faith as a principle of life. Faith in Christ and in the gospel lifts us beyond our moral failures. Faith enables us to believe that God forgives and redeems us. Faith enables us to face each doubt in the promises of God and to embrace each challenge of life in confidence in God’s final victory.
Later in Romans Paul wrote, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28 ESV). The seed for this truth is found in Habakkuk’s words. The one who has trusted in Christ for salvation has also the privilege to live each in this same faith, being confident of the final work of Christ for our salvation.
Faith is impossible to avoid: The irony is that all people live each day in some sort of faith. The skeptic, for example, lives believing in doubt, that nothing is trustworthy. The hedonist believes that the best life is found by giving full rein to your lusts. The materialist believes that life is found through wealth and materialism. The insecure person believes in his inferiority. The self-assured believes in his superiority. And the list goes on.
The Christian, however, has a much more profound foundation for his faith. He believes in the holiness and in the love of God. He believes in the power and plan of God. He experiences life knowing that he is not alone. He lives by faith in the promises of God and the power of Christ. So his life has an upward direction and is characterized by eternal hope. Even in the midst of troubles he is confident in the final victory of Christ. God will win in the end.
This is the Christian faith that shapes each day and gives us hope and confidence.