Luther identified the doctrine of justification as the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. God attaches the same importance to the doctrine.
Daniel M. Deutschlander
Every doctrine in the Bible is important. We teach every doctrine in God’s Word precisely because it comes from God’s own heart and mouth in the Bible. But we also defend and teach every doctrine because to pervert any doctrine undermines this doctrine by which the church—and our faith—stands or falls. That’s how important it is to get this doctrine right.
Justification is God’s diamond in his golden bowl. First, let’s marvel at that diamond’s beauty. The holy writers in the Bible never tired of doing that. For example, St. Paul, among his most beautiful summary definitions of this doctrine, writes, “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:22-24). It’s so simple and so brief, so deep and so profound. Let’s spend a few moments examining this jewel.
Jew or Gentile: Each one of us is one or the other. Together we are descendants from Adam and Eve. In them we were created to reflect the glory of God, his wisdom, his might, his goodness, his justice. We were created to receive him and all that he wants to give us of himself and of his heavenly and eternal kingdom. But we fell short, so short! Through the fall of Adam, we have become a total perversion of God’s gracious intent. What is there for us then? What would you do with a vacuum cleaner that didn’t fulfill its purpose? Throw it in the trash to perish with other such rubbish! That’s what reason would expect God to do with us.
But look! “All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” To be jus-tified means to be forgiven, to be acquitted in God’s courtroom. He doesn’t throw us into the trash heap of hell. Instead, out of grace, undeserved love, he declares us to be the opposite of what we are both by
nature since Adam’s fall and by our own thoughts, words, and deeds. He declares that he has redeemed the whole world, not by anything we have done or intended to do or tried to do. He has done it all by Christ, the one anointed by God to be our Savior. He did it all! He did it for all! He did it freely, not because he was forced to do it but because of his own measureless love for us. He did it freely, not because we would somehow earn or deserve or pay him for it but because he alone wanted the title of Savior; he would share that title and that work with no one, not a bit of it!
Luther captured the splendor and the simplicity, the beauty and the depth of this diamond doctrine with arguably the most beautiful words ever penned outside of the Bible itself. Of Jesus, he says in the Small Catechism’s explanation to the Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed: “He has redeemed me, a lost and condemned human being. He has purchased and freed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death.”
What Luther says applies to everyone. Were it not so, each of us would have reason to live and die in dread with the question: Does justification cover even me? But there is no such question to torment us! He justified all! He justified me! Christ came for me. By his death and resurrection, Jesus is my Savior too!
God’s golden bowl
How does this verdict from God’s high court come to us? It is in a golden bowl. It comes to us and we receive all of the benefits of this redemption in the golden bowl, that is, the gospel message of the Word. Yes, the Bible is precious simply because it is God’s Word. But it is precious beyond measure because it
is the vessel that holds this diamond from God’s own heart, this decree of justification. Even more important, we would never believe the message of justification were it not that God has attached power to that message. That power in the gospel proclamation of justification overcomes our inborn unbelief and hostility to God. It brings us to trust his Word, to breathe a sigh of relief at the message: Christ redeemed all! Christ redeemed me too!
Again, Luther has captured it so well for us in the Small Catechism. What was Jesus’ goal in redeeming us? “He has done all this in order that I may belong to him, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in eternal righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as he is risen from the dead and lives and rules eternally.”
And how does it all become my own? Luther points to the golden bowl in the explanation to the Third Article: “By my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith.”
Oh, may we never tarnish the golden bowl through false doctrine, lest we darken the radiance streaming from the heart of God in this diamond of justification! Instead, give thanks, worship, and adore the Savior for this diamond in God’s golden bowl.
Dan Deutschlander, a retired professor, is a member at St. Mark, Watertown, Wisconsin.
As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, this is the first in a 12-part series on our Lutheran heritage.
Small Catechism quotes are from The Book of Concord.
Luther still speaks
For Luther there was no more important teaching in Scripture than justification. Writing to a friend in 1530, he stated, “This doctrine is the head and the cornerstone. It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves , and defends the church of God; and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour” (What Luther Says, Vol. 2, #2195).
Simply put, in the courtroom of heaven, God the holy Judge declared the whole world of sinners not guilty. He did this not because he ignores sin, but because his Son Jesus paid the penalty for all sinners. When the Holy Spirit brings the sinner to faith, Jesus’ payment becomes the sinner’s very own. God signed the check of forgiveness for the world. The Holy Spirit writes our name on the recipient line when he brings us to faith.
In Luther’s time, this precious truth was buried deep under the debris of man-made teaching and tradition. Thank God he used his servant Martin Luther to blow the dust off and restore it. Without the doctrine of justification we would never be sure of our salvation. If we were serious about reaching heaven, it would be by pounding the rungs of our own works on the ladder and never being sure it was tall enough. When we would sin daily, there would be only dread of punishment instead of the comfort of heavenly forgiveness. When we would close our eyes for the last time, it would be without the assurance that we would open them in heaven.
The doctrine of justification has rightly been called the article by which the church stands and without which it falls. We don’t know if Luther ever used those words, but that’s what he taught. So do we. God help us ever to do so.
Richard E. Lauersdorf is a pastor at Good Shepherd, West Bend, Wisconsin.
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Author: Dan Deutschlander
Volume 104, Number 2
Issue: February 2017
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