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Romans and the Reformation

Because of his towering influence on Western Civilization, more books have been written about Martin Luther, the German reformer, than about any other person in history, except Christ. It was 500 years ago this coming October, that Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church in the university town of Wittenberg where he taught theology and Bible.

He was coming to understand the biblical gospel of grace. His act of defiance was an invitation to church authorities to debate and try to defend the errors and abuses that were being promoted by traditional religion. He challenged the authority of the pope who claimed to have the power “to shut the gates of hell and open the door to paradise.”

It has been said that after October 31, 1517, Europe was never the same again. News of Luther’s 95 Theses spread like wildfire.

What was it that moved this Augustinian monk to question church tradition and religious authority? It was the reading, over and over, of the Greek text of Paul’s epistle to the Romans. Luther’s biographers have pointed out that just as his theological “father, ” St. Augustine, was converted through reading Romans, so was Martin Luther. He launched the Protestant Reformation on Romans 1:17, “The just shall live by faith.”

If there is one book of the Bible every Christian should understand, it is Romans. Luther and the other reformers believed that God continues to speak to us through the inspired writings of the prophets and apostles. Beliefs and church practices are valid only if they conform to the written Word of God.

One of the great principles of the Reformation was derived from the book of Romans. It was the doctrine of salvation by the free and undeserved grace of God. Those who trust in Christ alone – apart from good deeds – are justified, declared righteous, made acceptable to God. Good deeds are the product of justification, not the basis for it.

Luther fearlessly preached and taught justification by faith alone until his death in 1546. He translated the Bible into German, wrote numerous hymns, books and tracts, engaged in theological debates, and emphasized communion, congregational singing and biblical preaching.

During this anniversary year of the Reformation, we are studying the book of Romans together on Sunday mornings. It is perhaps the most complete and systematic presentation of Christian truth in the New Testament. An understanding of Romans is a key to unlocking the entire Word of God.