During this 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, we are commemorating the Protestant Reformation to acknowledge its legacy. It’s an opportunity to recall this fundamental truth: Without the gospel as the ballast of our lives, we are feeble boats in a raging ocean of guilt and shame.
Over the course of the coming months, we will remember how Luther and his fellow Reformers confronted the abuses of the Roman Church and retrieved an understanding of the justifying grace that makes us his children. Such reflection promises to fortify our grasp on Christian identity and calling.
Here I would like to shift the spotlight from defining our doctrine of justification to celebrating three specific gifts God imparts as a function of our justification: peace, self-forgetfulness, and transformation.
1. Gift of Peace
In a society haunted by fragmentation, hi-tech distractedness, and the loneliness of individualism, where hearts—even Christian hearts—are empty theaters of longing, we crave divine peace. The increasing emptiness people feel amid prosperity eloquently exposes the importance of this missing peace. But where do we find it?
Here’s how Paul answers the question: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). God’s peace is first and foremost a redeeming peace, moving us from bitter condemnation to the inexpressible joy of being God’s children.
What does this mean for our dry and thirsty souls? Everything. In Christ, God has already made us his beloved children, gracing us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realm. Among such blessings is peace that surpasses understanding. We therefore no longer approach God from a place of privation, unsure of whether he wishes to allay our distress. We recognize, rather, that he has already provided limitless resources of peace as integral to our identity in Christ.
2. Gift of Self-Forgetfulness
In his play No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre offers a portrait of hell. A man and two women enter a room, anticipating torment. Instead, they are sentenced to remain in the room together forever, without any sleep and without eyelids. Full of pretensions from their past, they begin to inflate their earthly accomplishments and hide their failures. But in the sterile intimacy of the room, all their dark secrets are eventually disclosed. Nothing can be hidden, nothing can be altered. The moral of the play is the line toward which the narrative moves: “You are,” Sartre concludes, “your life, and nothing else.”
In contrast to Sartre’s portrait, Christians are not abandoned to a fruitless reliance on our own resources and achievements. Instead, as new creations in Christ, we have been liberated from the torment of self-centeredness to serve God and his world. In Oswald Bayer’s words, “The new human is no grotesque caricature who spends his life in a darkened room, reciting with closed eyes, ‘I am justified by faith alone, I am justified by faith alone.’” Rather, through all the hopelessness and despair, we offer the good news. In this way, self-forgetfulness becomes not only a gift we receive, but a gift that enables us to boldly announce it.
3. Gift of Transformation
Not only do we proclaim the good news to the world, as witnesses of how God justified us through it, we also invite God to perform a continuing work of renovation in us. After all, we are debtors of grace before we are dispensers of grace, and we remain debtors throughout our lives. The justifying word shines the light of grace into the darkness of condemnation. As Caroline J. Simon poignantly states: “The gospel of justification in Christ rests on the alchemy of grace—the power of grace to transform enemies into friends, to take the ungodly and put them on the road to godliness.”
This is not to say that justification springs from within. The Protestant Reformers rightly emphasized that our acceptance by God is in no way based on anything residing in us. It is altogether external, extra nos, the righteousness of Christ reckoned to us by faith. Yet we shouldn’t think transformation is altogether disconnected from justification. “We are saved by faith alone,” Luther famously counseled, “but the faith that saves is never alone.” Justification motivates sanctification.
One way the Bible develops this idea is with the metaphor of the parent/child relationship. You know how this works. Children enjoy a certain status that makes parental love impervious to circumstance. In other words, our children’s identity as children remains intact even when they disappoint us. No condemnation. So it is with our status as sons and daughters of God.
But just as parents want their children to grow and learn, God desires our moral flourishing—the spiritual maturation in which childlike faith develops. Such sanctification is not extra credit for religious over-achievers; it is the necessary unfolding of our adoption as children of God.
Unwrap These Gifts
This year of commemorating the Reformation, in which we recall the 16th-century retrieval of biblical truth, should illumine our gospel identity and calling. In addition to praying this would occur in our families and churches, we pray it would engage our communities, drawing lost people from the shadows of sin into God’s holy presence.
To embody this gift with the integrity and vitality it deserves, we will want to embrace the personal gifts bound up in our justification: peace, self-forgetfulness, and transformation.