by the Rev. David Petersen
The central hope and tenet of Christianity is that “people receive the forgiveness of sins, not on account of their own merits, but freely on account of Christ by faith in Him” (Apology to the Augsburg Confession IV). We call this the doctrine of justification.
What would you say if I asked you to name a single Bible passage that best embodies that hope? You only get one passage. What would it be?
I bet that most of you said John 3:16. A handful might have said, “For 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). Those are certainly where I tend to go, and every evangelism program I’ve been involved with has always emphasized those passages as well.
Did anyone say, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through Him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:1–2)?
Because if we asked Philip Melanchthon, who worked alongside Martin Luther, that is what he would say.
Melanchthon, in the Fourth Article of the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, wrote the most important exposition on justification that Lutherans have. His purpose was to refute the Roman Catholic complaint against the Augsburg Confession and explain that any burden laid upon Christians that they must contribute to their salvation or somehow maintain God’s favor through good works is demonic and threatens to destroy faith. It is a long article, and it is also rather repetitive. It is complicated in structure and themes, but it is not difficult to understand. (You can read it here.) If you’ve never done so, you should, because it is the epitome and heart not just of Lutheranism but of Christianity.
As already hinted, Melanchthon’s favorite passage in that article is Rom. 5:1–2. He used it twenty times in that writing, while he quotes Eph. 2:8–9 only once, and he never quotes John 3:16. In my reading, Luther rarely quotes John 3:16 either. My non-scientific survey of Luther suggests that his favorite passage is “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
It is funny that those that tend to be our favorite passages weren’t as important to Melanchthon and Luther. That doesn’t mean we are wrong to love John 3:16, but I think it does mean that if you don’t have Rom. 5:1–2 and Matt. 11:28 on the tip of your tongue, it is time to add them your arsenal.
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Rom. 5:1–2 ESV).