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The Great Issues of the Reformation

The New Testament presents two aspects of God's work:

Number 1 — God's work for us in Christ.

Number 2 — God's work in us by the Holy Spirit.

Number 1 is what God did outside of us in the person of Jesus. This is the gospel – God's act of redemption in Jesus. Number 2 is what God does within our hearts by the Holy Spirit. This is the fruit of the gospel, for faith in Number 1 brings the Holy Spirit to the believer.

Number 2 must not be confused with Number 1; neither must it be divorced from Number 1. While faith must rest on the objective work of God in Christ, faith always brings the Holy Spirit with His renewing and sanctifying work in the hearts of men.

If you take a long pole, you can balance it in an upright position on your finger if you keep your eye focused on the top of the pole. The movement of your finger will follow naturally, almost unconsciously. But if you start watching what your finger is doing, the pole will become unbalanced and fall.

As the believer looks away from self to Christ and rejoices in what He has done for him and what He is to him, the Spirit of God will live in his heart and continue to transform his life. But if the believer begins to make his experience the center of his concern, the true balance of Christian faith is lost.

The tendency of human nature is to make the subjective aspect of Christianity the focal point of concern. This is what happened in the early church. It lost sight of the great Pauline message of justification by God's work outside of man. Even in the teachings of the fathers of the post-apostolic church, the objective truth of justification by faith held no prominent place. More and more the church began to focus on the experience of sanctification. Indeed, justification came to be looked upon only as an initiating step at the beginning of the Christian's life; the mighty Pauline truth about justification was subordinated to what was thought to be the higher blessing of sanctification. The focus of attention was away from the gospel to the fruit of the gospel, away from Christ's experience to Christian experience, away from the objective to the subjective.

We do not depreciate Christian experience when we say it is not the most important thing. Indeed, true Christian experience is attained when men make God's work outside of themselves the foundation of their hope, the focus of their attention and the object of their glorying.

As the church continued to lose the objective truth of the gospel, it became more and more centered in religious experientialism. The pursuit of an extraordinary religious experience became the great passion of the medieval church. Men began to do all sorts of weird and wonderful things in order to attain what they thought was a successful religious experience. Society was so drowned in its religious subjectivism that mankind made no scientific or sociological progress. Rather, civilization went backwards under the influence of so-called Christian teaching. Men carried crosses around Europe or sat on poles looking for some rare vision of God and truth. People went on useless pilgrimages, venerated “holy” relics and indulged in the most incredible superstitions. Christendom became a great cesspool of fantastic ignorance and stagnation.

At the heart of all this corruption was the medieval church's doctrine of justification. Amazingly enough, the church did not abandon such Biblical expressions as Justification and salvation by grace. The words of Paul were still used freely by the theologians (as they are today), but the great Pauline words (justification, grace, etc.) had evolved a new meaning altogether. Justification had lost its objective, forensic meaning. Instead of meaning what God did outside of man in pronouncing him righteous, it came to mean God's renewing, sanctifying act in man's own heart. (Thus Number 1 and Number 2 were utterly confounded.) Instead of justifying grace meaning the disposition of forgiveness, mercy and favor in God's heart, grace had come to mean a God-given quality that adorned the human soul. The classical doctrine of the church declared that men were justified by God's work in their own hearts and experiences. That is to say, it taught justification by Number 2 instead of by Number 1.

The Reformation Rediscovers Paul

Martin Luther has been called the clearest teacher of the righteousness which is of faith since the days of the apostle Paul. He utterly rejected the church's teaching that God's work within a man qualifies him to be accepted in the sight of a righteous God. He saw that no man could find enough righteousness or grace in his heart to confront God with an easy conscience, and that no one could have any certainty of salvation if it were to be based on his own experience. Justifying grace, Luther discovered, is not some quality that God infuses into the soul, but is God's favor given to those who are sinful, lost and undeserving. God's grace in the believer's heart is not the foundation of a Christian, proclaimed the Reformer, but God's grace in Christ. Christ's objective work of doing and dying for us, rather than His work within us, is the sole basis of our acceptance with God; for the moment justification becomes based on a subjective experience, confidence toward God and assurance of justification flee.

The contrast between the medieval church and the Reformation may be summarized as follows:

The Medieval Church
The Reformation Church
Justified and forgiven on the basis of God's work of grace in the heart.

Justified and forgiven on the basis of God's work of grace in Christ.

Justified and forgiven on the basis of Christ's work in our hearts.
Justified and forgiven on the basis of Christ's work outside of our hearts, i.e., on the cross.

The medieval thought was man-centered, experience-centered, and subjective. The Reformation thought was Christ-centered, cross-centered, and objective.

The Reformers did not deny the Spirit's work of renewal and sanctification within the hearts of God's people. But they saw clearly that we must first be justified by faith in a work completely outside of us. Then will the guilty conscience be cleansed, the heart will find peace with God, and a life of good works will flow from the certain conviction of being accepted of God.

The Nature of a Christian Man

Is the believer in Christ a sinner or a saint? Does grace make him more and more righteous, less and less sinful? Are the good works of a Spirit-filled man still defiled with human imperfection and sin?

Rome and the Reformers were agreed that man was born with a corrupt, sinful nature, although the Reformation did have a much clearer view of the radical nature of human corruption.

The medieval church thought of grace as being infused to change and transform the sinful nature of man. By this transforming change within him, the believer was said to be made just in God's sight. Then, as he received more and more grace, the believer was said to become less and less sinful and at the same time more and more just in the sight of God. Good works were done in the believer by the indwelling of Christ and, because of this, were thought to be entirely pleasing and acceptable to God. Rome held out to men the possibility of becoming pure and sinless "Saints" (ontological perfection), and those who attained this perfection reached "Sainthood" and were qualified to enter heaven at the hour of death. Those who did not become perfect and absolutely sinless in the flesh would need to go to Purgatory after death and thus be made completely just and qualified to enter heaven.

On the other hand, the Reformers said that God justifies and forgives the ungodly who believe on Christ (Rom. 4: 5), and that God covers the repentant sinner with the mantle of Christ's righteousness. Therefore the believer is accepted as just and righteous, not because of grace or righteousness poured into him, but because of the righteousness reckoned to Him by the imputation of Christ's sinless life. There is no such thing as the believer becoming more and more just, said the Reformers, for he is fully just before God. There are no degrees of righteousness with God. Either a man is fully righteous with Him or not righteous at all. Man is either accepted fully or not at all. Thus the relative stance of Romanism was utterly rejected.

Furthermore, said the Protestants, grace does not change the sinful nature of the believer. The sinful nature is so desperately wicked that it cannot be reformed by all efforts with or without grace. This nature will always be sinful as long as life shall last, and whether a man is a Christian or not makes no change in the "sinful flesh." But, said the Reformers, the Holy Spirit brings to the justified sinner a new nature, even a new man which is created in righteousness and true holiness (Eph. 4:24). A Christian therefore has two natures. The old nature is called "flesh" because it is born of the flesh; the new nature is called "spirit" because it is born of the Spirit (John 3:6). Furthermore, these two natures are contrary one to the other. Says the apostle Paul, "For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would." Gal. 5:17. And in a parallel passage he describes the reality of two natures within a justified saint:

"For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing; for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me. I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin." Rom. 7:15-:25.

To the Reformers there was no such thing as the believer becoming more and more just; neither did the believer's old nature become less and less sinful. Luther coined a Latin expression to describe the nature of a Christian man: simul justus et pecator (at the same time righteous and sinful).

A Christian does not live by trying to reform the flesh, much less by purifying the flesh from its corruption; but he gets above it and walks in a new state in Christ. This is the theme of Paul's thought in Romans 8. The believer does not live "in the flesh" but "in the Spirit." That is, he follows the desires, promptings and dictates of the Spirit; and by His indwelling power he denies, fights and puts to death the desires and inclinations of the flesh. In this way the Christian is called to a life of suffering (Rom. 8:10-18; 1 Peter 4:1, 2), to constant warfare against the sinful nature. The Spirit is not given to release him from painful conflict but to sustain him in successful conflict until the end.

"… ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body. For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it." Rom. 8:23-25.

Thus, the believer is always a saint, always a sinner. In Christ he is fully righteous; in himself, by reason of the sinful nature, he is fully sinful. He has peace, but it is in the midst of war; he has rest, but it is with tribulations.

Then too, the Reformers had a very different view from the medieval church on the matter of a Christian's good works. God must first accept our persons, they said, quite apart from any of our works (Rom. 3:28; 4:4-6). Whereas the medieval church taught that God accepts men's persons because of their works (done with God's help of course!), the Reformers declared that God accepts our works because He has accepted our persons through faith in the Substitute. No good work of the saints is entirely without sin, said Luther and Calvin many times. True, God's Spirit causes Christians to do good works, but the sinful nature of man corrupts all these works with the taint of human imperfection, said they. Good works are accepted only by mercy and by the intercession of Christ's merit at the right hand of God. Neither our persons nor our works are ever perfect, declared the Reformers, but our perfection, righteousness and entire satisfaction to the law reside only in and with our Head.

There is no fulfillment in human experience in this life. Our righteousness with God is only by faith and not by the reality of our own experience. Christ is our righteousness, and His person is not here on earth but in heaven. Now we are righteous by faith; but hope looks to the coming of Christ when we shall be altogether righteous by nature as the angels. Faith pertains to the "now," hope to the "not yet." Faith looks to the cross and what has been done for us; hope looks to the glorious future that will be ushered in at Christ's return. Hope refreshes faith in this waiting period between the first and second coming of Christ. Faith restrains hope from trying to bring the "not yet" into the "now." By faith the Christian knows that sin, the sinful nature, death and Satan are already vanquished; but he still feels sin within, the devil without, and sees death on every hand. If this were not so, there would be no need to fight the good fight of faith. But by the Spirit he waits and groans for the day when sin, death and the devil will be abolished as threatening, visible foes.

1 The Roman Catholic theologians invariably contended that this passage in Romans 7 described a man's experience in his pre-conversion days. Not so, said all the Reformers; it describes a man at the height of a Spirit-filled experience.