The Joyful Exchange: Justification by Faith Alone

This coming All Saints Day (otherwise known in America as Halloween) Protestant Christians celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 Thesis to the church door at Wittenberg, and the Western world would never be the same again. Luther discovered that a salvation apart from the works of the law was available by faith in Christ alone. He discovered this truth in his study of Romans. In chapter 3 Paul says:

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. 

I was reminded of the power of this “alien righteousness” recently as I was listening to a talk given by Michael Reeves as he was describing the “joyful exchange,” our sin for Christ’s righteousness. I believe many Christians live out their faith daily without having ever having heard of or experienced the wonder of this exchange.

In a church we used to attend, every Sunday there was a confession of sin and assurance of pardon and forgiveness. I always appreciated this, but over time I realized there was a problem. It was never explained exactly what we were forgiven from, and if there was anything for us in addition to forgiveness. The gospel is about so much more than forgiveness.

First, what are we saved from? God’s wrath and judgment against the guilt of our sin, all taken out on Christ. His justice was fully satisfied in Christ for all our sins, past, present, and future. At that moment on the cross when Jesus cried, “It is finished,” our sin was exchanged for Christ’s righteousness, his innocence for our guilt. Before God we are now in Christ the very righteousness of God himself! Good news indeed.

The phrase that Martin Luther made famous, simul justus et peccator, captures perfectly why the gospel is such good news: We are simultaneously sinners and justified. We are both righteous and sinners. When we really, and I mean really, understand this, we will have some small sense of God’s accomplishment for us in Christ, how he could have a relationship with wretches like us. How, you ask? Good question.

Christ’s righteousness, available to us by simple faith, which means trust, is sufficient. No matter how guilty and horrible and disgusting we feel about our sin, and who doesn’t know these feelings, before our sovereign and holy God, he sees us as Christ himself! We don’t have to worry about how God really feels about us; we know, objectively. The peace we have with God comes not from our performance, from what we have or haven’t done, but from what God in Christ has done for us!

The beauty of all this theologizing is that it will help us look at life, and our lives, more realistically. We can live with all the imperfections and frustrations, all the disappointments, both of ourselves and others, with equanimity. We can accept life as it is, as it is lived by sinners in a fallen world, and not fall into bitterness and anger, and a judgmental pride both against ourselves and others. We can know mercy and grace in all our relationships, and finally understand in some small degree the greatest commandment, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.