More than anything, the Reformation began as a soteriological struggle. Medieval Christianity had degenerated so much that the gospel had become a demand to make oneself acceptable to God by improving on the infused grace received in baptism and the Lord’s supper (see Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity) rather than a donation, that is, a gift from God. This soteriological struggle was envisaged in Luther’s life personally as he wrestled with this theme. We are not talking about an esoteric or abstract theological idea. The Reformation was about the gospel and the Christian life. In some ways, the Reformation was the result of Luther’s personal struggles and the resultant outcomes. He wrestled with the things he saw when he journeyed to Rome. He struggled with his understanding of grace as he read and taught the book of Romans. At the heart of his struggle was the text of Romans 1:17: For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith as it is written ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ Previously he had been burdened by the phrase, “righteousness of God,”
because he understood it as meaning something to the effect of, “the righteousness which God requires.” And he was honest about his life and his sin. He fell horribly short. Finally, though, he came to see that the righteousness of God described here was not a demand but a donation, a foreign righteousness that comes not from the inside—that is, from one’s own works—but from the outside, from God, through Christ. Rather than understanding God’s grace as an assistant or a tool used to make oneself better, Luther came to understand grace as God’s favorable disposition toward sinner because of Christ. All that was required by God was also accomplished by God. It was a departure from seeking to earn God’s favor.
The Reformation was about the gospel and the Christian life.
Having finally come to understand that it was God who effectively accomplishes forgiveness by the mere declaration of this word, Luther said he felt reborn. It was “as if he had gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on new meaning.” This new understanding would become later known as Sola Gratia: By grace alone.
The departure of Luther and Calvin from medieval church of their day not only involved a new understanding of God’s grace, but also a new understanding of human nature. For medieval Catholics human nature was goofed up—on the surface—but if you bore done deep enough you find some goodness, some decency, an impulse toward God. And this impulse and decency, when tapped into, can make its way toward God. No so for the reformers. No matter how deep you go, the problem is the same. We are sinners through and through. Totally depraved. Dead in sins and incapable of orienting oneself toward God.
It’s in this context that the scriptures began to make sense and come alive. “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked” (Eph. 2:1). But, “…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.” (Eph. 2:8-9)
No longer a demand, but now a donation. This is why grace changes everything.