A Primer in Pauline Theology

There are many reasons to celebrate the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, but some of them have little to do with the message of the Reformers.

For example, it is said that the Reformation upheld freedom of conscience against the authority of a dictatorial church. Such an emphasis, however, is more properly associated with the Renaissance than with the Reformation.

Or, the Reformation is thought to have prepared the way for democracy. While this has some historical corroboration, the underlying motivation for that spiritual reform movement was quite different.

Again, it is alleged that the Reformation was basically a protest against the dismal state of morals in the church of that period. Although Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others did express their profound displeasure over the flagrant disregard of the commandments of God, especially among the clergy, that is not what finally impelled them to place their lives on the line against the principalities and powers of that age.

We do not adequately understand the Reformation apart from its rediscovery of the Pauline doctrine of the righteousness of faith. It is this doctrine that contained the seeds of the spiritual ferment that the church of Rome could not contain, and which it finally had to resist with all its power.

An Enduring Biblical Theme

The message of the Protestant Reformation, that we are accepted by God only on the basis of the righteousness of faith, is particularly evident in the Pauline epistles, but it is a recurring theme throughout the Bible. In Genesis 15 it is said of Abraham that he believed the word of the Lord, and God “reckoned it to him as righteousness” (v. 6). This does not mean that his faith as a human act was ...

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