WONDERFUL THINGS: Martin Luther v. Rocky Balboa

Staff Writer
The Destin Log
James Calderazzo

On July 4, 1976, Rocky Balboa sought to justify his life by fighting the champ, Apollo Creed. Before the fight Rocky says, “Who am I kiddin'? I ain't even in the guy's league ... It don't matter, 'cause I was nobody before. If I can go that distance and that bell rings and I'm still standin', I'm gonna know for the first time in my life, that I weren't just another bum from the neighborhood.” That line from the movie Rocky resonates with most of us. We want to know that we aren’t nobodies — that our lives matter, that we’re not just bums but we are accepted, affirmed and of real worth.

On Oct. 31, 1517, an unknown German monk nailed some items, “95 Theses,” for debate on a church door, the bulletin board of the day. His name was Martin Luther. Luther could have helped Rocky, and he can still help us. If the non-fictional Luther had met the fictional Rocky I think he would have told him, “Don’t build your confidence on this fight. What happens the next time you lose or you can no longer fight? Build your confidence on Christ. Rocky, you will never be justified by looking to your own work. You are justified by faith alone.”

Justification by faith. These three words, justification by faith, don’t seem like much, but they are at the heart of the Gospel, and are a priceless truth that has melted and re-formed and re-enlivened the most recalcitrant of hearts — even my own.

So what do these three words mean? What is the treasure they contain? Let’s look at the first word in this radical phrase: Justification. In Romans 4:5, the Apostle Paul writes, “And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”

To justify means to declare to be not guilty before God. Not guilty; your sins are no longer held against you. You are accepted, loved and regarded by God as innocent. Every person longs for this. To know that, just as we are, we are considered worthy, approved and loved. We live in a world where condemnation seems to come at us from every direction, even from within. The Gospel tells us that there is a way for each of us to be truly justified — truly declared innocent and accepted--before the most important person in the universe, God Almighty, now and forever.

But it does not happen by our works, but by faith. As we saw in Romans 4:5 above, “faith is counted as righteousness” only “to the one who does not work, but trusts him who justifies the ungodly.” Luther had tried for years to work to make himself justified. But he knew that he could never do enough, confess enough, be righteous enough, even love enough. Many people are on the endless treadmill of works to justify their existence. They are exhausted from serving more, praying more, giving more, striving more, earning more. When does it come to an end? When have we done enough? We need to realize that God does not justify those who work hard, He justifies as Paul says the “ungodly.”

Here is where faith comes into the picture, for our justification is by faith. Faith is not working. Faith is resting in the work of Jesus. God did something so that it was right for him to say to ungodly people like you and me, “You are not guilty; you are righteous, accepted and loved — now and forever.” Just what did He do? He sent His one and only Son. Jesus was the perfect law-keeper who never sinned, but did all that God expects of any man. But not only that, when he died on the cross as an innocent man, he took on himself all the sins of those who would believe in Him. Jesus was our punishment-bearer and law-keeper.

To all who place their trust in Jesus, God will let Jesus’ punishment and Jesus’ righteousness count as belonging to them. Jesus is our perfect goodness and our perfect punishment. This is why God can say and continue to say to ungodly folks like us, “You are not condemned. You are accepted and beloved in my Son, Jesus. You are justified by faith alone.”

As Luther once said, “If you do not build your confidence on the work of Christ, you must build your confidence on your own work. On this truth and only on this truth the church is built and has its being. We are justified by faith.” Those are life-giving words for Rocky and for us.

James Calderazzo is pastor of Safe Harbor Presbyterian Church in Destin. He can be reached at safeharborpca@gmail.com.