I started this month with a guessing game, asking readers to guess what October’s theme would be here at Rebecca Writes. Leslie, looking ahead to today, Reformation Day, guessed that the theme had something to do with the Reformation. Her question was interesting, but technically, the answer was “no.” Or so I said. I answered that way because my theme for the month is the gospel, and the gospel is not about the Reformation. But—and here’s where we see that Leslie was not really that far off and a flat-out “no” without explanation was not completely right—while the gospel is not about the Reformation, the Reformation was very much about the gospel.
The division between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic church was not, mind you, over the historical facts of the gospel—that Christ died for our sins, was buried, and raised on the third day. Everyone agreed with those statements, but they disagreed on the meaning of those events. The dispute was over what it means for us that Christ died for our sins and was raised. What did Christ accomplish by living and dying and being raised for us? Was his work all that was necessary to save us?
If you’re up on your Reformation history, you may be thinking that I’ve not got it quite right, because everyone says the material principle (or the central theological issue) of the Reformation was sola fide, or the teaching that faith “is the alone instrument of justification,”1 not solus Christus, which has to do with Christ’s work. And you’d be right in thinking that the core matter of the Reformers disagreement with Rome was justification by faith.
But faith can be the sole instrument of justification only if Christ’s work is entirely sufficient grounds for our justification. If anything from us or anyone else—anything besides Christ’s work exclusively—contributes grounds for our justification, then that human contribution must also be put alongside faith as an instrument because it, too, would be something by which we lay hold of our justification.
And if justification is by Christ’s work alone, then it must also be through faith alone, faith being unique as a wholly receptive instrumental agent. The faith that is alone in justifying us is complete trust in Christ and his saving work only. It is faith that “embraces Jesus Christ, with all his merits, and makes him its own, and no longer looks for anything apart from him.” That quote, by the way, is from the Belgic Confession, Article 22, which goes on to say that
…it must necessarily follow that either all that is required for our salvation is not in Christ or, if all is in him, then he who has Christ by faith has his salvation entirely.
Therefore, to say that Christ is not enough but that something else is needed as well is a most enormous blasphemy against God— for it then would follow that Jesus Christ is only half a Savior. And therefore we justly say with Paul that we are justified “by faith alone” or by faith “apart from works.”
See! Where faith alone goes it brings Christ alone with it. We can’t have justification by faith alone unless Christ’s life, sin-bearing death, and resurrection provide the whole grounds of our salvation. And if the historical events of the gospel were meant to provide the entire grounds of our justification, then justification can only be by faith alone—faith that is a “looking to Christ as our righteousness, a clasping of him as the ring clasps the jewel (so Luther), a receiving of him as an empty vessel receives treasure (so Calvin), and a reverent, resolute reliance on the biblical promise of life through him for all who believe.”2
Today we celebrate Reformation Day, and I can’t think of a better way to end a gospel-themed month. Because at it’s heart, the Reformation was all about the gospel.
1Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 11, Section 2
2Sola Fide: The Reformed Doctrine of Justification by J. I. Packer