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Happy Reformation Day!

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‘The first and keenest subject of controversy between us’

Thus Calvin described the doctrine of justification in his response to Cardinal Sadoleto. He could not have put it more accurately, for, from the moment Luther understood from Romans 1 that God’s righteousness is an entirely unmerited gift, justification was the matter of the Reformation. ‘Nothing in this article can be given up or compromised,’ wrote Luther, ‘even if heaven and earth and things temporal should be destroyed’. It is the belief, he said, ‘on which the church stands or falls’. Not everybody grasped or shared this: men like Erasmus thought Reformation could be a mere moral spring-clean; radicals took it to be a simple revolt against the old ways; Zwingli just opened the Bible, but not really to find Luther’s idea of justification there; and some, like Martin Bucer and Richard Baxter, just understood justification differently. However, Luther’s experience with Romans 1 was to be the model for the mainstream Reformation: through the Bible, the essential matter of justification was discovered. Justification was what made the Reformation the Reformation.

For those who accepted that God freely declares sinners to be righteous, justification was a doctrine of comfort and joy. As William Tyndale put it, ‘Evangelion (that we call the gospel) is a Greek word and signifieth good, merry, glad and joyful tidings, that maketh a man’s heart glad and maketh him sing, dance, and leap for joy.’ Luther himself felt that by it he was ‘altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.’ And no wonder: the fact that he, a failing sinner, was perfectly loved by God because he was clothed with the very righteousness of Christ himself gave him a dazzling confidence.

When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know One who suffered and made satis­faction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Where he is, there I shall be also.’

This happy, heartfelt reaction to justification can be sensed in the music of the Reformation. Take, for instance, the traditional ‘Hosanna’, sung at the Mass. In 1555, Palestrina, then almost the official musician of Rome, wrote a new score for the ‘Hosanna’ in his Mass for Pope Marcellus. To hear it is to hear Rome’s Counter-Reformation spirituality: it is exquisite music, but there is something cerebral and dutiful about the choir’s intoning of the Hosannas. A hundred and ninety years later, Johann Sebastian Bach, an ardent Lutheran all the way down to his tapping toes, wrote his version of the ‘Hosanna’, and the difference is striking. The exact same piece was set to music, but in Bach’s Lutheran hands, it has an entirely different resonance: now the Hosannas are belted out with an unmistakeable, unbounded enthusiasm and joy. Such was the natural effect of believing Luther’s doctrine of justification.

Taken from pp171-173, The Unquenchable Flame


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