Imagine facing judgment day every week.
Near to where I grew up, in the Oxfordshire village of South Leigh, is the parish church of St. James the Great. Over the chancel arch is a medieval wall painting depicting the final judgment.
To the left, the righteous rose from their graves to be welcomed into paradise. To the right, the damned were roped together to be dragged towards the gaping mouth of a huge red dragon. This is what the churchgoers of South Leigh saw every Sunday. And they would find no relief, even if they turned away. For on the wall of the south aisle, another wall painting depicted St. Michael weighing souls in a balance. More demons hover, ready to carry away those found wanting.
“Luther discovered a righteousness that would unlock joy.”
Heaven was a possibility for the churchgoers of South Leigh — but so was hell. And the church offered no assurance of salvation. Perhaps you might be righteous enough for God with boosts offered by the sacraments. Perhaps you might not. No one could be sure. Indeed, to claim any assurance was an act of pride. How could anyone consider himself good enough for the holy God? The best you could hope for was that the sanctifying torments of purgatory to get you into heaven.
Scrupulous, Joyless Monk
What was it like to live in this environment? Most people hoped for the best and had to get on with life. But one man refused to avoid the logic of the medieval church.
In 1505, when Luther was still a student, he was walking back to his university after a visit to his parents when a bolt of lightning narrowly missed him. This near-death experience changed his life. Ten days later, he applied to join the Augustinian order of monks.
Luther quickly gained a reputation for the zeal with which he pursued his new calling. Believing that he could only receive absolution for sins he confessed to a priest, he became obsessed with visiting the confessional. It drove his superior up the wall. At one point, his superior allegedly exclaimed, “Look here, Brother Martin, if you’re going to confess so much, why don’t you go do something worth confessing? Kill your mother or father! Commit adultery! Stop coming in here with such flummery and fake sins!”
But all Luther’s zealous endeavors brought him no joy.
Discovering Good News, Great Joy
In 1512, at age 26, Luther was sent to lecture in biblical studies at the new University at Wittenberg. It was studying Augustine and lecturing on the Psalms, Romans, and Galatians that eventually brought joy to Luther’s heart. Luther discovered a righteousness that would unlock joy that would serve generations to come.
“If you fear God’s disapproval, then you will not approach him with joy.”
In German, as in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, justice and righteousness are the same word. For Luther, “the justice of God” had meant one thing: the standard by which God finds us guilty. “I hated that word ‘justice of God,’ which, by the use and custom of all my teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically as . . . that justice by which God is just and by which he punishes sinners and the unjust.” Paul’s claim in Romans 1:17 that the justice or righteousness of God is “gospel” or “good news” merely taunted Luther. “I did not love — no, rather I hated — the just God who punishes sinners.”
But then Luther realized Paul was describing righteousness as a gift God gives, which we receive by faith. Speaking of Romans 1:17, Luther says, “I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the just person lives by a gift of God, that is, by faith.” God credits us with the perfect righteousness of Christ while Christ endures the punishment deserved by our unrighteousness. “All at once,” he continues, “I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates.” A little later he writes, “I exalted this sweetest word of mine, ‘the justice of God,’ with as much love as before I had hated it with hate. This phrase of Paul was for me the very gate of paradise.”
Here was a message that could bring assurance. Why? Because here was a confidence which was based not on our merits, but on Christ’s. The righteousness of Christ, credited to us through faith, promised God’s children heaven — no need for purgatory or fear of hell. The gospel moved Luther from fear to faith, from despair to joy.
Gospel Makes Glad
One of the key men responsible for introducing Luther’s rediscovery of joy into England was William Tyndale. In 1526, Tyndale published the New Testament in English. It was his second attempt to do so.
“The gospel moved Luther from fear to faith, from despair to joy.”
The first time around he had been forced to flee when the authorities raided the press where it was being printed. He was living in exile and would eventually be martyred for his passion to make an English Bible available to everyone in the land. He included a preface to that first edition which he later expanded into A Pathway into the Holy Scripture. In it, he beautifully describes the joy-bringing power of the gospel.
Evangelion (what we call “the gospel”) is a Greek word; and signifies good, merry, glad, and joyful tidings, that make a man’s heart glad, and make him sing, dance, and leap for joy. . . . Christ before his death commanded and appointed that such evangelion, gospel or tidings, should be declared throughout all the world, and thereby to give to all that believe all his goods, that is to say: his life, through which he swallowed and devoured up death; his righteousness, through which he banished sin; his salvation, through which he overcame eternal damnation. Now can the wretched man (that is wrapped in sin, and is in danger to death and hell) hear no more joyous a thing, than such glad and comfortable tidings of Christ? So he cannot but be glad and laugh from the low bottom of his heart if he believes that the tidings are true.
Leap for Joy
It is a message we need to keep on hearing. Even if we trust Christ for our acquittal on the final day, we can all too easily seek to establish our own identity today. Even as we preach justification by faith, we can be practicing justification by preaching instead, where our sense of well-being depends on how our sermons are received. We can think our approval before the Father depends on our behavior. And if you fear God’s disapproval, then you will not approach him with joy.
But the gospel “signifies merry, glad, and joyful tidings, that make a man’s heart glad, and make him sing, dance, and leap for joy.” For “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:1–2). And so, we can join with Tyndale and Luther as they laugh from the bottom of their hearts — as they rejoice in their righteousness.