By Rev Dr Clive Chin
As the Christian church around the world marks the 504th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, there is a desperate need to renew our commitment to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is at the heart of the Reformation, because it is the key to Jesus’ teaching: “‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe in the good news’” (Mark 1:15). The apostle Paul repeatedly affirms this in his epistles. He writes, for example, in Romans 1:16-17: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’”
This gospel truth was rediscovered (not discovered!) during the Reformation. Many credit Martin Luther (1483-1456) for instigating the movement, when he posted the ninety-five theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany on 31 October, 1517. To be sure, Luther never intended to start a new church. Rather, he wanted to reform it by pointing out ecclesiastical abuses, and to restore the gospel as the very basis for church ministry. He states, for example, in his 62nd thesis: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.”
Personally, Luther had an acute sense of his sin and doubted that doing penance and a monk’s work could earn him a right standing before God. He pondered Romans 1:17, which linked the justice (or righteousness) of God to the gospel. Luther described his agony and his discovery this way: “Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteousness of God who punishes sinners… Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by his faith.’ Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which, through grace and sheer mercy, God justifies us through faith. Then I felt myself reborn… This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.”
Luther asked, “What does this mean, that there’s this righteousness by faith, and from faith to faith? What does it mean that the righteous shall live by faith?” And he began to understand that what Paul was speaking of was a righteousness that God in his grace was making available to those who would receive by faith.