The Reformation and Returning to the Gospel of Grace
October 30, 2005 / No. 3278
Dear radio friends,
Tomorrow the church of Jesus Christ celebrates the glorious Reformation of the church. On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, an event that God used to spark a glorious reformation of the church and restore to the church the gospel of God’s grace.
Tomorrow the church of Jesus Christ is going to celebrate the return of the gospel of grace — a great act of a faithful God to us His children in giving back to the church the gospel, the only true gospel of the grace and salvation of Jesus Christ.
But perhaps there is a skeptical listener who would say, “Here we are today in a world of chaos and war, divisions, and vital issues being discussed, a multitude of political, cultural, social evils. And you’re going to talk about something that happened six hundred years ago? And then you’re going to say to us that this is what really counts? Wasn’t it, in reality, a great tragedy when Martin Luther broke away from the Roman Catholic Church? Wasn’t that a rending of the church? Wasn’t that a tearing of the church apart? And should we not rather be finding ways to mend that rent? Instead of celebrating it, should we not rather get together as churches, to unite the church, in order that the church may put aside these insignificant problems and differences of doctrine and face the world as a united force? Here you are, celebrating that which caused great division.”
I’d like to answer that.
First of all, whenever the church of Jesus Christ cuts herself off from the history of the church in the past, the errors from which God freed her will return. You may consult the book of Judges, where we find that there was repeatedly a generation that knew not the mighty works of God for their fathers and fell away or fell back into the same errors, only with greater depth and perversity. Only when the church stands faithful to the gospel of grace that has been once delivered to the church by Jesus Christ, only then can she be the bride of Jesus Christ and be the force that God intends her to be in this world. Only when the church teaches the truth about God’s grace can she be a force in this world, a force of God.
But more. The gospel that God has given to the Christian church to proclaim is the gospel of grace. There is no other gospel. The Reformation restored that gospel to the church. The Reformation begun by Martin Luther and carried on by many other Reformers was not simply an external make-over of the church of Jesus Christ. It was not merely the correction of various abuses that were taking place in the church. But it was the time that God put the soul back into the church, the heart back into Christianity. The heart of biblical Christianity, the heart of the church of Jesus, is the gospel of grace. “Gospel,” which means “good news,” and “gospel of grace” are synonymous. They are the same thing. The gospel is the gospel of grace. The gospel, or the good news of God to naked, fallen, undone sinners, is a gospel of grace alone whereby God, for His own Name, chooses, redeems, preserves, and glorifies unto Himself a church. It is the gospel of grace.
Listen to the holy invective of the apostle Paul in Galatians 1:6-9, where he says to the Galatians that he marvels that they were so soon removed from Him who called them into the grace of Christ unto another gospel. He goes on to say in verse 7 that this gospel is not another gospel, that is, the false gospel, but it is the gospel that perverts the gospel of Christ. And then he says in verses 8 and 9, “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.” The apostle Paul is declaring that there is one gospel. That one gospel is a gospel of grace in Jesus Christ.
The gospel of grace is the treasure of the church. The gospel of grace is the only hope for man. It is the gospel that is worth dying for. It is the gospel that is true.
The apostle Paul says in Acts 20:24 concerning the sufferings that awaited him in Jerusalem, “But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God.” Paul said, “I would not die for a gospel that told me that I could work my way into God’s favor. But for a gospel that tells me that the way to God’s favor is the way of certain, saving grace — for this gospel,” says Paul, “I would gladly die.”
You say to me, “What is this gospel of grace that you are talking about today?” According to the Bible, grace is a virtue of God’s being. It is that virtue of God whereby He possesses favor, love, kindness toward those who are unworthy and ill-deserving. In that favor, He purposes that He will save them. By the power of His grace, He will bring them out of sin to Himself. The gospel of grace is, therefore, a gospel about God. It tells us who He is. I Peter 5:10 reads: “The God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus.” There is in God an ocean of favor toward those who deserve only destruction from His hand.
And this favor is not merely God’s good intentions or God’s feelings about them, but it is His mighty power to reach down and to deliver those people from their destruction. Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace are ye saved.” It was of grace that God chose whom He would save out of a fallen world. Romans 11:5 speaks of an election of grace. In Romans we read that God will be gracious to whom He will be gracious ( Rom. 9). In grace, He gave these to His Son Jesus Christ, that Jesus Christ might take their place upon a cross and suffer for their sins. The apostle Paul says in I Timothy 1:14, “the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant” toward me. And he goes on to say that that grace was that Christ died for him. It was by grace that God calls these elect and redeemed sinners to Himself. We are (Gal. 1:6) called to Christ by grace.
The gospel of grace, therefore, declares the truth about God and about you. It declares about you that you are a naked, hell-deserving, corrupt sinner, without any merit, with nothing within yourself to attract God’s eye, without any power to save yourself. The gospel of grace is the good news about God and His grace. The powerful grace of God to choose, the powerful grace of God to redeem, the powerful grace of God to send the Holy Spirit to smite the heart and bring one under the burden and conviction of sin, the powerful grace of God to give faith and to point to Jesus Christ as the sin-bearer and as the only Savior. It is a gospel, from beginning to end, of grace, the grace of God.
Why does anyone go to heaven? Only by grace. Why does anyone stand forgiven in the blood of Jesus Christ? It is only by grace. What will be the song, your song, the song of the church, throughout all eternity? “My God, it was Thy grace that did my strength supply.”
The Reformation of the sixteenth century returned this gospel of grace to the church. The Reformation did that, first of all, because Luther and his fellow Reformers proclaimed that grace is the ground of the sinner’s salvation. The question, then and today, can be reduced to its simplest form: On what ground or reason do you hope to stand in the favor of God? There are only two possible answers to that question. It is either based upon something in yourself, or it is grace. It is either a work that you perform, or that another performs for you by grace alone. You cannot mix those two. It must be one or the other. It cannot be both.
Throughout the medieval age the church had developed an ingenious and elaborate system of works and merits. We ought not be startled by that, for this is the reflection of the human heart. The default religion of man is works. The default religion of man is pride: I can make it; I can do it myself. So the church taught that there is a multitude of ways whereby the sinner could be made right with God. He could be made right with God through the intercession and the merits of saints or through the virgin Mary or through a purging of himself after death in Purgatory or through absolution from a priest or by money — indulgences, paid to the church. That was a gospel of works. That gospel of works under which Martin Luther was taught left the nagging question: “Have I done enough? Did I do it well enough?”
The Reformation was a return to the gospel of grace. It proclaimed: “Not of works, lest any man should boast” ( Eph. 2). It proclaimed that God, out of a favor found within Himself toward those miserable wretches of pride, gave His Son to perform a work for them. That Christ is the ground upon which all our hope rests to all eternity; that Christ, upon the cross, rendered a perfect obedience when He endured the just penalty for the sin of God’s people and replaced that penalty with perfect, loving obedience. The Reformation proclaimed: Justification by grace; the laying of my sin on Christ so that He had to answer for it; and the reckoning of Christ’s righteousness to my account, so that no one can condemn me. This is what we find in Romans 4:4, 5, “Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” The Reformation returned the gospel of grace to the church by teaching that it was Christ’s blood and Christ’s righteousness alone, imputed to the sinner by grace alone, that was the only ground and foundation of salvation.
But the Reformation returned the gospel of grace to the church in another way — by teaching that it was grace that was the only way whereby the sinner could receive that salvation. The heresy of “free will” lived in the soul of the church. That is, salvation by works and the free will of the sinner are the same thing. The heresy of free will, which has plagued the Christian church down through the ages, teaches that the completed salvation of Christ becomes the sinner’s only when the sinner, by an exercise of his own native or fallen will, shows an inclination to God that he would like to have that salvation. In other words, the heresy of free will declares that Christ has done all He can do and now He stands before the door of the sinner’s heart waiting for that sinner, untouched by Christ, to open his heart’s door and to ask Him to come in and give that salvation.
Erasmus, who lived at the time of Martin Luther and was a prominent scholar in the church, at the beginning of the Reformation encouraged Luther as Luther decried the abuses that were to be found in the church. But Erasmus did not join the Reformation. Erasmus has been, by historians, accused of cowardice, that he would not “stick his neck out,” with Luther. But that was not the case. The problem with Erasmus was a lack of conviction. Although Erasmus applauded Luther’s blasts against the abuses current in the church, Erasmus believed in free will. He believed that the sinner held God at bay and that God could not bring the salvation of Jesus Christ to the sinner until the sinner, of his own will, decided and indicated to God that he wanted God to do that.
The Reformation saw this as the crucial issue. The Reformation taught that not only the ground or the foundation of our salvation is entirely of grace in Christ, but the application or the bringing of that salvation to the heart of the sinner was equally a work of sovereign and irresistible grace. The vital question is this: “How am I brought to this complete salvation in Christ?” The Reformers did not simply proclaim that grace was the ground of (that is, had provided) this complete salvation and then give it all away by saying, “Christ did everything. There is nothing more He can do. Now He waits on you to indicate, by your own abilities as a fallen sinner, the smallest indication that you are willing to be saved. Then He’ll take the next step.” Say what you want, if you believe that, then you do not believe that salvation is by grace alone. Perhaps the best you could say would be this: “It’s by Christ and by me.” And there is the pride of man again!
The Reformation exalted God by trouncing human pride. The Reformation declared that the gospel is a gospel of grace, and that by grace that salvation is given to the heart of dead sinners by a quickening, life-giving work of the Holy Spirit within their hearts (Eph. 2:1), “And you hath he quickened [made alive], who were dead in trespasses and sins.” In John 6:41 Jesus said, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him.”
The gospel levels men and glorifies God. Boasting is excluded. I Corinthians 15:10, “I am what I am by the grace of God.” The Reformers, who had a deep personal knowledge of their own sinfulness, taught that by grace salvation was brought into the heart of a sinner and made to be his.
Then the Reformation exalted the grace of God by proclaiming that sinners’ confidence stood in grace. For, you see, a message that salvation is dependent upon the work or the will of the sinner is a message that cannot give the sinner assurance. That was a vital issue in Luther’s day. In Luther’s day, there was no assurance. There was terror. There was naked fear. But there was no assurance. There could not be. How can I be assured of my salvation if it is founded upon the work of man, the virgin Mary, or whoever it may be? If salvation is founded upon human work and human will, how can I ever have a moment of assurance? How can I ever know, as I said before, that I have done enough or that I did it well enough? Then God is looked at as a God who needs daily to be appeased. So there abounded in Luther’s day pictures of judgment, burnings in hell, sinners standing terrified, afraid of death, without hope. For without the gospel of grace the soul can only be plunged into gloomy shadows.
The Reformation proclaimed freedom from fear through the grace of God. The Reformation proclaimed liberty to the captives, the opening of the prison to those who are bound, the acceptable year of the Lord, for the Reformation preached the unchanging grace of God, told sinners who were brought to know their sin by grace, told sinners who were brought in faith to trust Christ by grace, told sinners who received Jesus’ salvation by grace, told these sinners that God cannot lie, that the Word that has proceeded from the mouth of the eternal God will not be taken back. God will not forsake, for God is gracious and faithful.
“I will not, I cannot forsake you.” That was the message that the church uttered from God.
And so the church of the Reformation looked up in joy and said with the apostle Paul, “The Son of God loved me and gave Himself for me!” And Luther, when he saw this glorious gospel, proclaimed the happiest day of his entire life: “I am forgiven at the seat of God’s judgment. I am made a new creature in Christ. I will enter into life eternal. God looks upon me as spotlessly innocent. I shall be kept and preserved, for I am saved by grace.” And to be saved by grace means that I am saved!
Does this gospel live in you? The gospel of the Reformation, the return to the gospel of saving, particular, almighty, irresistible grace? Does it burn in your soul as the only hope, the only truth? Is this your salvation, the salvation that you possess and enjoy? Then you will have profound humility before God and all men. You will say, “I am what I am by the grace of God. And this grace that was bestowed upon me was not in vain.” You will be profoundly humble.
Secondly, you will have a great zeal for this gospel. You will have a great zeal that this gospel be declared, that the church embrace it, that the generations following us know it. For this gospel is the gospel of hope, salvation — the only gospel of hope and salvation, the gospel of grace. This is the gospel that is worthy of dying for. This is the gospel that gives assurance. This is the gospel. Do you know it? Do you treasure it?
Let us pray.
Father, we thank Thee for the Reformation and for the glorious return to the gospel, the only gospel, of grace. May that gospel live still and beat within the heart of Thy church. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.