“Faith alone” is an absolute lynch pin to Biblical Christianity, and Martin Luther’s unwillingness to compromise on that doctrine brought the Protestant Reformation to a head. As 21st Century Christians, we need to understand how passionately the reformers fought for this doctrine. Post-modern evangelical thought threatens to erode many doctrines, making it necessary to heed Jude’s example.
3 Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. 4 For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. ~~Jude 3-4 (ESV)
Contending for the faith ultimately requires reliance on God’s Word, as Luther did. And when we study the great Reformers, we learn the importance of Christian doctrine–particularly the doctrine of justification by faith.
Luther’s 95 Theses initially grabbed Rome’s attention, but his belief that man can find justification through faith in Christ alone, and never through human effort, caused him to be excommunicated. In the summer of 1519 (almost two years after posting the 95 Theses) he found himself debating John Eck in Leipzig, Germany. Eck, a professor of theology at the University on Ingolstadt, believed Luther’s teaching on justification by faith threatened the structure of the Roman Catholic Church. According to James Reetzke in “A Brief History of the Lord’s Recovery“:
The Leipzig Disputation was crucial to Luther’s development, for it helped him to see clearly why he was so opposed to the indulgences. He discovered that his teachings involved much more than a simple protest against some abuses of the church. This revelation destroyed within Luther any basis for the worship of saints, the reverence of relics, and useless religious pilgrimages.
He saw more than ever before the sharp contrast between the free pardoning grace of God and the monastic life with all of its vigils, fasts, scourgings, and mortifications of earthly and family affections. Three important matters in particular became clear to Luther in this debate: 1) The distinction between the law and the gospel. The law can only condemn people, but through the preaching of the gospel they can be saved. 2) All men and all institutions can and do err. 3) Jesus Christ is the sole Head of the church. Men must obey Christ and His Word.
Following the Leipzig debates, Pope Leo X issued a Papal Bull in 1520 demanding Luther to recant roughly half of his 95 Theses. Of course, Luther had no intention of complying with the pope’s command, resolute in his Biblical convictions. His refusal led Leo to excommunicate him in January of 1521.
Four months later, Luther was summoned to the Diet of Worms, an Imperial Council of the Holy Roman Empire which would determine his fate. When they asked him one last time to recant his teachings (planning to burn him as a heretic if he refused), his reply demonstrated a commitment to Scripture that should challenge every one of us who professes the name “Christian.”
Your Imperial Majesty and Your Lordships demand a simple answer. Here it is, plain and unvarnished. Unless I am convicted [convinced] of error by the testimony of Scripture or (since I put no trust in the unsupported authority of Pope or councils, since it is plain that they have often erred and often contradicted themselves) by manifest reasoning, I stand convicted [convinced] by the Scriptures to which I have appealed, and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word, I cannot and will not recant anything, for to act against our conscience is neither safe for us, nor open to us.
On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me.
There’s much more of Martin Luther’s story to tell, but right now I want to bring our conversation back to his insistence on justification by faith. Having shown you his courage to stand on God’s Word rather than renounce this doctrine, I want to direct you to his explanation of his commitment to it.
Of this article [justification] nothing may be yielded or conceded, though heaven and earth and whatever will not abide, fall to ruin; for ‘there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved,’ says St. Peter (Acts 4:12); ‘and with His stripes we are healed’ (Is. 53:5). And on this article all that we teach and practice is based, against the pope, the devil, and the world. That is why we must be very certain of this doctrine and not doubt; otherwise all is lost, and the pope and the devil and all things gain the victory over us and are adjudged right.
Next time, I plan to examine some of Calvin’s writings about justification, as well as looking at some of his history. The Reformers, by going back to the Bible, restored the proper understanding of the Gospel message. We dare not obscure this central truth that they worked so hard to make available. If we expect to receive salvation for any reason other than Christ’s death on the cross as complete payment for our sin, we shall be damned.