Reformation, Part 1: Why Works Won’t Work

The central protest of the Protestant Church is that justification is by faith alone and not by the works of the law.

When it comes to our standing before God, works won’t work.

Why? Because the law says that we’re guilty. When the law speaks, we become aware of our sin and are held guilty before the law (Rom. 3:19 & 20).

Martin Luther, whom God raised up to begin a Reformation of the Church 500 years ago this month, saw this very clearly.

Martin Luther believed that he could be justified by his works. He tried very hard to be declared righteous on the basis of what he did.

He also saw that he had sin, so he would spend two hours confessing his sins, walk away, and realize he had committed more sins that he had forgotten. This led him to adopt very strict practices and even to inflict pain on himself as a way of paying for his sin.

The more he worked, the more he saw the futility of it.

He realized that no one would be justified by the law because all have sinned, and all stand condemned and guilty before God.

Now, most people don’t take that approach. Most people aren’t trying that hard to do what’s right.
Most people get around the weight of their sin by bringing the law down to their level.

We can do this in a variety of ways. Most of the time, we think we’re OK with God because we’re not that bad, perhaps go to church, and don’t do anything society considers really bad.

Sometimes, people avoid the law by focusing on a few moral issues. However, usually that morality does not touch our heart. It’s external things that we can easily avoid and look down on others for. “We don’t smoke, and we don’t chew, and we don’t run with boys who do” (see Mt. 23:23).

Sometimes, we can make religious knowledge or awareness the basis of our standing before God. I know these doctrines, so I’m OK. Those who don’t are not in the club.

Sometimes, even grace can become a sort of club. I’m better than others because I get grace!

Wherever we tend to view ourselves highly and look down on contempt on others is a place where we are tending to rely on as our righteousness before God.

But none of these will work. They’re actually a distraction from the real issue.

They won’t work because God’s holiness demands that we obey His law, all His law, to be declared righteous.

And we haven’t. We’ve all sinned. So, we’re in trouble.

We all stand guilty and condemned before a holy God.

So, where does that lead us? To Luther’s glorious insight. We stand guilty and condemned before God, but God offers us acceptance as a free gift because of what Jesus has done.

“All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).

That’s justification by grace alone through faith alone. This is what the Reformation is all about. This is what the Bible is all about.

We all stand guilty before God, but God accepts us a free gift to be received by faith alone because of what Jesus has done.

That’s a rallying point. Think about it. Meditate on it. Live it. Let it transform you. Let it transform your churches. Let it soften your heart.

Works won’t work, but the Gospel will.

Every Christian Should Memorize This Chapter

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is Isaiah 53. I think it is probably a favorite for most Christians. This is the passage where we read: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Vv. 5 & 6).

I have enjoyed reading what some famous Christians have said about this passage. I hope that you will find them edifying as well:

“This in many respects may be regarded as the most important in all the writings of the Old Testament, and which is better adapted than any other to lead us to a right understanding of the whole. The partial obscurity which usually accompanies the representations of the prophets seem here to have entirely vanished.” — E.W. Hengestenberg

“Though some things need explanation, this alone is enough, which is so plain, that even our enemies, in spite of their disinclination, are compelled to understand it.” — Augustine
Continue reading “Every Christian Should Memorize This Chapter”

Luther on the Great Value of Good Works

Some beautiful quotes from Martin Luther on the value of good works:

  1. Outside the article of justification we cannot sufficiently praise and magnify these works which are commanded by God. For who can sufficiently commend and set forth the profit and fruit of only one work which a Christian does through faith and in faith? Indeed, it is more precious than heaven or earth.
  2. We teach that to reconcile God, to make righteous, to blot out sin, is so high and great and glorious a work that alone Christ, the Son of God could do it and that this is indeed such a pure, special, peculiar work of the one true God and His grace that our works are nothing and can do nothing. But that good works should be nothing or be worth only a penny, who ever heard of such a thing, or who could teach such a thing except the lying mouth of the devil? I would not give up one of my sermons, not one of my lectures, not one of my treatises, not one of my Lord’s Prayers, nay, whatever small work I have ever done or am doing, for all the riches of the world (Cited in Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1953), 3:59–60

What Is Crooked Cannot Be Made Straight

The following selection is Martin Luther’s comments on Ecclesiastes 1:15: “What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be numbered.”

Cicero writing from his own experience says, “Alas! How constantly it happens that as sure as anything has been devised, and planned for the best, and with the greatest industry, it turns out so badly and so strangely!” God however herein does well, that He blows away and brings to nothing whatever man meditates and undertakes. For as soon as any plan of us men succeeds a little, from that hour we begin to take the honor to ourselves. Forthwith ambition begins to stir within us, and we think to ourselves, this I have done, for this are my country and fellow men indebted to me; and we grasp at the honor which belongs alone and entirely to God. Wherefore, if God is to continue Lord, and to assert and maintain His first commandment, He must only suffer the lesser part of our thoughts to turn out well, and both in the courts and councils of kings and princes, and in all other affairs, so soon as, and whenever anything has been deliberated and determined, show that the words “if God wills it” still retain their full force. Continue reading “What Is Crooked Cannot Be Made Straight”