It’s customary, for some reason, to depict the 16th Century Reformers as dour old men with no sense of joy. Actually, as a Charismatic I was encouraged to characterize Calvinists as humorless legalists who worshiped doctrine rather than enjoying vital relationships with Jesus. This mischaracterization of Calvinists quite likely stemmed from an ignorance of both Reformed Theology and church history.
The 16th Century Reformers rightly took the motto, Post Tenebras Lux (after darkness, light), to describe God’s wonderful work of restoring sound doctrine to His people. The light of God’s Word had at last dispelled the darkness of Roman Catholicism, and the Reformers preferred persecution and death to compromising their theology. Does that mean they idolized theology over the Lord? Does that sound joyless?
Not to me! If you’ll examine Martin Luther’s life alone, you’ll discover that he suffered enormously during his time as a Roman Catholic monk, always fearful that his works of penance and his fastidious observances of the sacraments never pleased God. He went so far as to declare that he hated God because nothing he did satisfied Him.
And essentially, Luther was correct. Our works of human righteousness have no hope of appeasing God’s holy wrath. The Holy Spirit inspired Isaiah to confess:
6 We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
7 There is no one who calls upon your name,
who rouses himself to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities. ~~Isaiah 64:6-7 (ESV)
Luther felt the crushing weight of that truth. That weight was compounded, however, by the Roman Catholic system that insisted on penance, sacraments and the threat of Purgatory.
But in reading Romans 1:17‘s declaration that the righteous shall live by faith in the original Greek, rather than in the Latin Vulgate, he discovered the key! As R.C. Sproul explains in Justification by Faith Alone: Martin Luther and Romans 1:17:
Now there was a linguistic trick that was going on here too. And it was this, that the Latin word for justification that was used at this time in church history was—and it’s the word from which we get the English word justification—the Latin word justificare. And it came from the Roman judicial system. And the term justificare is made up of the word justus, which is justice or righteousness, and the verb, the infinitive facare, which means to make. And so, the Latin fathers understood the doctrine of justification is what happens when God, through the sacraments of the church and elsewhere, make unrighteous people righteous.
But Luther was looking now at the Greek word that was in the New Testament, not the Latin word. The word dikaios, dikaiosune, which didn’t mean to make righteous, but rather to regard as righteous, to count as righteous, to declare as righteous. And this was the moment of awakening for Luther. He said, “You mean, here Paul is not talking about the righteousness by which God Himself is righteous, but a righteousness that God gives freely by His grace to people who don’t have righteousness of their own.”
By going to the language that Paul actually used in writing the letter to the Romans, Luther found peace. He, as well as other 16th Century Reformers, learned from Scripture that Christ has paid the penalty for the sin of all who put their trust in Him!
How could the discovery of Scripture’s actual promise of justification by faith alone in Christ alone be anything less than joyous and exhilarating? The Reformers all entered this wonderful freedom, as do present-day Reformed believers. After the darkness of trying to atone for our sin, the light of God’s Word and its promise that we have forgiveness in Christ causes absolute rejoicing.
I would argue that the Reformers’ love and passion for Christ emanated from their return to Biblical theology. As they rediscovered the doctrines of grace in the pages of Scripture, the light shone brightly, leading them to know and love the Lord, Who had been in the shadows of Catholic tradition for almost six centuries. To those Reformers, the theology that shed light on the Lord and His will caused them to rejoice in His remarkable grace. They gave Him all the glory. Indeed, the appearance of light after darkness fueled their passionate love for Him.