Today is Reformation Day. 490 years ago, on October 31, 1517, a monk named Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church — the catalyst event which soon led to the Protestant Reformation, a movement which was an attempt to reform the Roman Catholic Church back to the foundation of God’s Word alone as the authoritative rule of all life and faith, and to the foundation of faith in God’s grace alone as the source of man’s salvation. As we all know, this led to the tremendous fracture of the church as it was at the time — something completely unintended by Luther, but albeit a necessary change in order to bring about the Spiritual transformation that God so desired.
Tonight, at my church here in Louisville, we went through Romans 4 and 5 briefly during the prayer meeting, so as to set the stage for what we would be praying about during the service. Interestingly, it is also today’s ESV Verse of the Day, and my small group back at my home church in Toronto is also studying Romans 4 tonight.
1 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness
The question that has plagued humanity for centuries is simply this: how can us, a sinful people, be right with a holy? The Apostle Paul argues that it is only by faith alone that any person could be made right before God. We must trust Him who justifies us by exchanging the righteousness of His Son, Christ Jesus death and resurrection for the unrighteousness of our sins. Traditionally, this is known as the “Great Exchange”.
Paul uses the model of Abraham to prove justification by faith alone because the Jews held him up as the supreme example of a righteous man, and because it clearly showed that Judaism with its works-righteousness had deviated from the faith of the Jews’ patriarchal ancestors. In a spiritual sense, Abraham was the forerunner of the primarily Gentile church in Rome as well.
So if Abraham’s own works had been the basis of his justification, he would have had every right to boast in God’s presence. But such would make the hypothetical premise of verse 2 unthinkable. Be that as it may, faith is not a meritorious work. It is simply the channel through which it is received and it too, is a gift. Abraham did nothing to accumulate it; God simply took His own righteousness and credited it to Abraham as if it were actually his (traditionally known as “imputation” or “imputed righteousness”). This God did so because Abraham believed in Him.
Broadening his argument from Abraham to all people, the apostle thus makes it clear that the forensic act of declaring a person righteous is completely apart from any kind of human work (contrary to what the apostate Roman Catholic Church believes). If salvation were on the basis of one’s own effort, God would owe salvation as a debt — but salvation is always a sovereignly given gift of God’s grace to those who believe. And since faith is contrasted with work, faith must mean the end of any attempt to earn God’s favor through personal merit.
-MacArthur Bible Commentary
Only those who surrender all their own claims to righteousness by their own strength and acknowledge themselves to be sinners can be justified. The great news is that for those who are graciously justified by the Father, our direction in life is completely changed. Once we have trusted in His righteousness for our sins, our direction in life — not perfection — is transformed. We will never be perfect and may still slip and sin on occasion, but the enemy has been disarmed and ultimately been defeated! While God does allows our faith to be tested (cf. Job 1:6ff), by His Spirit He works through us to sanctification towards glorification, where one day we will have new bodies that are not corrupted.
And thus, while our justification is monergistic in nature, our sanctification is synergistic. Through the discipline of His grace, He calls us to press on and train ourselves for the purpose of godliness.
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
On this Reformation Day, let us remember how important for us to keep Sola Fide at the forefront of our lives — His righteousness for our sins.