Right with God
How can man, laden with a bad conscience because of his disobedience before God, actually find peace with his Creator? How can he be accepted before him, and be counted as a friend rather than an enemy?
Almost five centuries ago an Augustinian monk wrestled with this burning issue in the privacy of his own cell. He was still young, having an ardent desire to serve God in the integrity of his heart. But the more he tried to become perfect, the more it dawned upon him that he was really attempting the impossible.
In his mind there glowered one single thought: God is righteous!...and since he is righteous, I will obtain nothing from him except his condemnation because of my sins.
He undertook a strict discipline: occasionally he spent several hours in the confessional, consulted his religious superiors, flogged himself with a whip, went on pilgrimage to Rome and climbed the Sacred Stairs. He realized that he wasn't accomplishing anything.
How many people can relate a similar story! Even today, in the depth of their heart they want to find acceptance before God, but are actually torn apart with the thought that there is no success in view. Some succomb to despair, some reach a solution that at the end of the day is no solution at all, and still others discover the divine answer to their quest.
This was the experience of Martin Luther, the monk we already mentioned. As professor of theology, he had committed himself to do some profound studies in Scripture, especially the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans.
The message he discovered in Romans was brand new to him. He could hardly believe his eyes. All around him the common folk were trying their utmost to win Heaven by purchasing indulgences and a host of other religious exercises. Luther himself was trying to gain enough merit for Heaven.
As a cleric, he desired to discuss this things. So he nailed a whole list of ninety-five theses to the church door, a common practice in those times. This meant an invitation to a debate.
But things didn't turn out the way he expected them. His writing was published and disseminated to the four winds. Luther was almost constrained to do what he didn't like to do.
On the 17th of April, 1521, enmeshed in endless controversy, the German monk appeared before the emperor Charles V, to defend his writings, stigmatized as "heretical." He was requested to recant. His reply: "As long as I am not convicted by Scripture or reason (for I do trust neither popes nor councils, for they have frequently erred and contradicted each other) - if I am not shown my error by the Bible, I remain bound to it. My conscience is a slave to the Word of God. I cannot and I don't intend to recant even a little bit of what I said, for it is neither right nor expedient to act against one's conscience. So help me, God. Amen."
What he insane? How could he assault a megalithic church, how could he resist pope and emperor?
What caused him to stand fast? Principally, it was this discovery of how can man find peace with God. Let me read you this quotation, and try guessing who said it: "For we maintain that a man is justified (that is, reckoned as righteous before God) by faith without the deeds of the law...To him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness...We know that a man is not justified by works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ; even we have believed in Jesus Christ, so that we may be justified by faith in Jesus Christ, and not by the deeds of the law, for by the deeds of the law nobody will be justified."
Who uttered such sentiments? Who is affirming that we are accepted as perfect before God on the infinite merits of Jesus Christ, who died instead of sinners? None else than the apostle Paul. Luther simply brought back to the light the proclamation of the apostles.
But what is exactly this doctrine of justification, in which Luther rejoiced so much? Why did he insist upon it, even to the point that he caused an irreparable schism in Christendom? Is truth, then, more important than unity?
Christ said: "You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free."
The glorious gospel of Christ grants us spiritual liberty that not only Luther but all of us need urgently.
The Bible depicts us as guilty creatures because of our evil practices. "All those who sinned without the law shall perish without the law, and all those who sinned in the law will be judged by the law." It also says that the law, known in our conscience and in the Ten Commandments as well, renders us inexcusable before God in such a way that our self-defense becomes useless.
But the Good News, which Luther preached in its purity, tells us that now God justifies freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Without being forced or obliged to act in the way he did, God, who loves his elect, provided for them a way of escape from his judgement.
"Through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." So, in the same letter to the Romans, we are told that we are justified by his blood. That means, upon the merit of his sacrifice on Calvary.
To whom does "we" refer? It is clearly apparent that only believers are reckoned as righteous before God. "Therefore," Paul tells us, "being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."
The Gospel, then, humbles you; for it informs you that there is no hope of salvation for you except when you come empty-handed, repentant and appealing only to God's mercy manifested on the cross. Christians love to sing this stanza:
Just as I am, without one plea,
But that thy blood was shed for me,
And that thou biddest me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
Paul has good reason to assert that before God nobody can boast. Either you pay for your sins in hell, or else you look to Christ as your substitute, the Liberator who endured the penalty instead of you, and recieved in his own body the punishment due to your sins. There is no other alternative.
And those who flee to Christ to find refuge in him, no accusation can prevail against them. For Christ has already atoned for all their transgressions.
Justification, then, can be explained in this way: God counts all those who trust in his Son as righteous by forgiving all their sins. It is God's sentence as the Supreme Judge, that now the believer is no longer guilty. Rather, he is accepted; God is well-pleased with him because of his Beloved Son. This blessing is a free gift from him. That is why Luther, just like the apostles, enphasised that justification is by faith, that is, we simply accept Christ's unique sacrifice for us. The apostle Peter says: "Christ once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God."
God's pronouncement in justification is effectively his decision where we will spend eternity; it's his pronouncement brought forward to the present time. That is why God justifies the faithful once for all, and his sentence is never revoked.
You may retort: Well then, I will believe in Christ and live carelessly, stealing and murdering and lying, since there's free forgiveness.
Nothing could be further from the truth. For as soon as God justifies you, he also gives you a new life so that you may no longer live unto yourself but for him who died and rose again.
The Reformers of the sixteenth century were careful to emphasize the importance of a holy life. "All those who are justified," they said, "will find it impossible to continue wallowing in sin." Calvin explained it this way: "We are justified by faith alone, but justifying faith is never alone." If we truly believe in Christ, he will make us new creatures and will give us new ambitions, to serve him, who loved us and gave himself for us.
So what do we find with faith? We find supreme love towards God and a sincere love towards our neighbour. Otherwise, as James warns us, we have nothing but a dead faith, just as a body without the soul is dead.
If you have really turned to Christ and are trusting in him for your salvation, you may ascertain yourself that nothing can separate you from his love towards you.
If you have not yet turned to him, may the Lord put it in your heart to seek him while he may be found, and call upon him while he's near. As Luther did. And like Luther you will find rest for your soul in Christ.