Jesus Christ’s teaching on justification has such power that it changed the course of history not only in the first century A.D., but again in Europe nearly 1,500 years later. So, Jesus’ own teaching is crucial to an understanding of the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith as formulated by Martin Luther and others, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Provost Craig Blaising said in chapel, Oct 31.
Blaising discussed Jesus’ doctrine of the justification of a sinner during Southwestern Seminary’s annual “Reformation Day Chapel,” this year celebrating the 489th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. In 1517, the German monk-turned-Reformer Martin Luther nailed on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg his 95 theses criticizing the Roman Catholic practice of indulgences. This act “was the fire that ignited the Reformation,” Blaising said.
“Luther had already come to personal faith in Christ by that time in his life,” Blaising said. “(Luther had realized) that it was Christ who had provided atonement for his sins.” However, as Luther applied this insight to his work in the church and in the university at Wittenberg, he came into conflict with the Roman Catholic sacramental system, specifically with the problem of indulgences. “Indulgences were part of the practice of penance. By acquiring indulgences, one could supposedly acquire absolution for one’s sins,” Blaising said.
The doctrine of justification by faith was not among Luther’s “immediate” concerns when he nailed his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg church. However, this doctrine came to the forefront shortly after.
The late-fourth, early-fifth century church father, Augustine of Hippo, did not clearly articulate the insight on justification that Luther later put forth. Confusing justification with sanctification, Augustine believed that people were righteous in God’s sight only to the extent that God by grace had actually made them so. Later Catholic theology located this grace in sacraments, especially the sacrament of penance. The result was a “system of sorrow” in which people conscious of their sins repeatedly sought sacramental grace to try to become righteous in God’s sight.
Luther, however, understood justification as a “full and complete pardon and forgiveness of sins,” Blaising said. “In addition, there is the blessing of a standing of full and complete righteousness in God’s sight that is not dependent on our state. And that standing is given to us in Christ when we receive it by faith.”
This truth allows Christians to live with joy, since they can know that in Christ they are forgiven of their sins, even when they see the presence of sin and spiritual failure in their lives.
“The Reformers all knew that faith receives grace,” Blaising said. “But, most of their treatments of faith focus on the faith of the already-saved, the faith that can testify to having already received grace, the faith that is wholly, totally confident in Jesus rather than in one’s self.” This is the faith that accords with the “testimony of the Spirit,” the Spirit’s witness that confirms a Christian as a child of God.
Turning to Luke 18:9-14, Blaising said that Jesus taught about coming in faith to God for a grace and mercy that was yet-to-be-received. Jesus told the parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector who enter the Temple in Jerusalem to pray. Blaising drew attention to the fact that Jesus told the parable to some men “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt.”
The Pharisee in the parable entered the Temple and did just that: He boasted to God about his own righteousness, and he looked down on other people, such as tax collectors, for their sinfulness. According to Blaising, the Pharisees that Jesus confronted in his ministry applied ceremonial laws of the Temple to everyday life in an attempt to define the “proper way to live before God.” They saw these practices as evidence that they were righteous in God’s sight.
“The human heart always looks for a way to justify itself,” he said. According to Blaising, the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable had forgotten the purpose of the Temple. It was a place for God’s people to come before Him and ask for forgiveness and mercy, as can be seen in Solomon’s prayer in 1 Kings 8. Blaising also noted Isaiah 66:2, a passage concerned with the Temple, which says that God honors the prayer of the humble.
In contrast to the Pharisee, the tax collector portrayed humility toward God. This tax collector — who represented a class in society that was infamous both among the Romans and Jews at the time — knowing that he was a sinner, asked in faith that God remove His wrath from him. “God declared him righteous . . . which meant that God did in fact remove His wrath from him,” Blaising said.
“The application of Jesus’ parable of the justification of a sinner to the full New Testament doctrine of justification by faith is the recognition that Jesus Himself is the One who has the power and ability to save. He Himself, in His death on the cross, is the only propitiation for my sin,” Blaising said. “I receive justification when I not only believe that these things are true in a provisional sense, but when I humbly and sincerely ask Him to apply His atonement to my sin, believing in the asking that He is in fact applying it to me, forgiving my sin, and crediting me with His righteousness. When I receive justification — a standing in the presence of God — I receive it not because of the state of my heart, but I receive it by faith because of the sheer grace and mercy of God alone in Jesus Christ.”
Archived Flash Media and MP3 recordings of this chapel sermon can be viewed, listened to or downloaded through the seminary’s Web site, www.swbts.edu.
With reporting by Benjamin Hawkins