31st October 1517 was a pivotal day in the history of the church of Jesus Christ. The nailing of Martin Luther's 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral has been seen as the spark which lit the fires of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Whilst earlier men such as Wycliffe and Hus had also rejected the teachings of Rome and sought to turn the church back to the teachings of the bible it has been the actions of Martin Luther which have been traditionally viewed as the start of the Reformation. So significant were his actions on 31st October 1517 that this date has become known as Reformation Day, although sadly that fact has been forgotten by many Protestants. What better verse then to consider on this day but the words with which Luther had struggled, yet were also the means of converting that great Reformer, and bringing him out of the darkness of Romanism into the glorious light of the gospel:
'For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith'. (Romans 1:17)
For a long time Luther had struggled with a sense of guilt of his sin. Although he had lived the life of a monk, and been devout in doing so, he knew that was still unrighteous in the sight of God. The demands of the law were such that all his prayers, penance and pilgrimage had not given him peace, either within himself or with God. When he considered the justice and righteousness of God, he could not understand how a man could possibly be justified in the light of God's holy justice. Luther's own words describe how he felt:
'I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the justice of God,” because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but but rather hated and murmured against him'.The teaching of the Roman Catholic church had distorted the meaning of the righteousness of God over the centuries, as it had done with many biblical terms such as grace, faith and justification. As Martin Luther read the words of Romans 1:17 he only understood 'the righteousness of God' as the Church of Rome had taught it, that of it being the righteousness which God commands. This gave him no hope or confidence, for he knew he could never attain to the righteousness of God. It was during his Tower Experience in the tower of the Black Cloister in Wittenberg that the light of the gospel finally broke upon him and he understood the verse aright.
The verse did not speak about the righteousness which God demands, but that righteousness which he freely gives to all who will believe the gospel. It is a free gift, received by faith in Jesus Christ. Luther now understood that the sinner was declared righteous by God, not by what he achieved, but by what he had received. Martin Luther felt this moment to be pivotal in his life, indeed more so than the events at Wittenberg on 31st October 1517. In discovering the truth in Romans 1:17 he had discovered the great truth of the Reformation, justification by faith alone. It was this truth that would change the religious landscape of a whole continent, but also would change individual hearts, as men and women came personally to trust in Christ's atoning work for their salvation. That truth is still the same today, for God's justice is satisfied in Christ's sacrifice and through His righteousness we have acceptance before God. What better way to mark Reformation Day than to consider that great discovery of the Reformation; salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.