Assurance and the Gospel: A Post in Celebration of Reformation Day

It’s no coincidence that Reformation Day, the day Martin Luther posted his 95 theses, falls on All Hallows Eve. Luther’s 95 theses was a protest primarily against the Catholic Church’s system of indulgences, and there were few bigger days for indulgences than All Saints Day itself. On this day faithful pilgrims would visit the relics of the saints in hopes of earning an indulgence (remission from purgatory) for loved ones in purgatory. Even today the Catholic Church promises special indulgences in connection with All Saints Day.

At the heart of the indulgence debate was the question of who could ultimately forgive sin. Could a person buy a letter of forgiveness from the pope (an indulgence) and then be certain of forgiveness? Luther said this idea was “madness” (theses 75). He instead insisted, “We say, on the contrary, that papal pardons are not able to remove the very least of venial sins, so far as guilt is concerned” (theses 76). Ultimately, Luther argued that the practice of issuing indulgences for the forgiveness of sins deceives the people (theses 24) and any assurance of salvation by a letter of pardon is vain, “even though the pope himself were to stake his soul upon it” (theses 52).

Although the Protestant Reformation sprang from a number of people, ideas, and movements, Luther’s posting of the 95 theses is considered its beginning. In reading through his theses it is obvious that nothing less than the gospel of Christ was at stake, and in the years following the true, biblical gospel was once again made plain to the masses. Thankfully, the Reformation reminded Christians once again of the supremacy of Christ, the true nature of saving faith, the glory of Christ’s righteousness imputed to the believer, and the sovereignty of God over all of life. Eventually, “after darkness, light” came to be the slogan that represented the recovery of the great Reformation truths.

Time, however, can dim even the greatest of lights.

Today, even among many evangelical churches, assurance of faith is too frequently peddled to the masses in the guise of a gospel that is just as inadequate as the gospel Luther struggled against. Too often the gospel is promoted as a pathway to wholeness, and not forgiveness. Too often the gospel is marketed as a product to be purchased, when it is in reality a truth to be obeyed. Too often people are urged to merely have faith, while Christ, the proper object of true faith, is ignored. Too often God is presented as a helpless, would-be guest knocking on the doors of our hearts, when he is actually the sovereign Lord and Judge over all. Too often the cross is presented merely as an example of love, and not as the place where both God’s mercy and justice meet. Too often the gospel is viewed as a means to wealth and happiness, and not as a call to holiness. Too often the gospel is grounded in our works, and not in the finished work of Christ.

Today you need not buy an indulgence to receive false assurance, you need only believe any number of the false gospels available. Another Reformation, another recovery of the biblical gospel, the old gospel, is desperately needed. J.I. Packer describes the “old” gospel of the reformers in the following way, “It was always and essentially a proclamation of Divine sovereignty in mercy and judgment, a summons to bow down and worship the mighty Lord on whom man depends for all good, both in nature and in grace. Its center of reference was unambiguously God.”

On this Reformation Day, pray that the biblical gospel, the old gospel, would be recovered. And after you’ve prayed – proclaim!

Ephesians 2:1-10 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience- among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ- by grace you have been saved- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (ESV)