Can we earn our forgiveness with God? For many centuries of the Christian church, the issue of how we are saved from our sins and reconciled to God has been center stage. The term the church has used to describe one’s salvation has been justification. The term implies a legal reckoning, that there has been a breach against certain laws which a person was required to keep. Due to Adam’s sin in the garden humanity is now seen by God not as righteous, but as sinful and wretched living in open rebellion. God therefore instituted the covenant of grace in His Son Jesus Christ and His work on the cross for humanity. The death of Jesus Christ provides the opportunity for justification before God, for our sins to be wiped clean and a verdict of righteousness given to us. How then does this justification take place, is it earned?
Luther, Pope Francis, and Indulgences
In the 1500’s, a German monk named Martin Luther took this question on in full force. He bucked the answer that the Catholic Church church gave and thereby defied the most powerful institution in the world. The Catholic Church, under the leadership of the Pope, held as orthodox that salvation is obtained not entirely by God’s grace, but instead may be earned by works on our part. Chief example was the widespread practice of indulgences, an assurance that one could purchase for themselves or a loved one that ensured their salvation. Just yesterday the current pope (Francis) continued this practice of indulgences, promising those who follow him on Twitter will be recipients of “indulgences.” In response to indulgences, Luther wrote his famous 95 Theses on October 31st, 1517 (a date often referred to as the beginning of the Reformation) as a vehement rebuttal of the theological abuse the Catholic Church was practicing. Luther says:
Indulgences are most pernicious because they induce complacency and thereby imperil salvation. Those persons are damned who think that letters of indulgence make them certain of salvation…His Holiness abuses Scripture…I deny that he is above Scripture. Bainton’s Here I Stand, 63.
Justification by Faith Alone Luther instead insisted that our theology of justification be based upon the Word of God alone. He came across passages such as Ephesians 2:1-10 (for by grace you have been saved through faith) and cried “foul!” The clear means of justification to Luther according to God’s Word was that it happened by faith alone, through grace alone. Justification was not a by product of something that we merited, something that we earned by either being good (which would do nothing since the law was already broken) or by purchasing indulgences which promised salvation (though no such authority is given according to Scripture). To Luther and the Protestant Reformers, nothing but the grace of God alone could justify a person and declare them righteous. It had nothing to do with our striving and any such effort on our part was “striving after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14).
While the Reformation was successful in that it instituted faithfulness to Scripture in the Protestant church, there are still many who have yet come to know this glorious reality of God’s grace. It is part of every Christian’s calling to communicate the truth of the Gospel, that it is by grace alone that we are forgiven, that we are justified in God’s sight. This is the good news of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, the foundation of our faith.