Against everything we are told today, happiness is not found in ourselves, in appreciating our own beauty or convincing ourselves of it. Deep, lasting, satisfying happiness is found in the all-glorious God.
“Evangelion (that we call the gospel) is a Greek word and signifies good, merry, glad, and joyful tidings, that makes a man’s heart glad and makes him sing, dance, and leap for joy.”
So wrote William Tyndale in the early years of the Reformation. For the fact that he, a failing sinner, was perfectly loved by a gracious God, and clothed with the very righteousness of Christ, gave Tyndale a dazzling happiness. And he wasn’t alone: just a few years earlier, Luther wrote of feeling “altogether born again,” as if he “had entered paradise itself through open gates.”
That was the effect of Reformation theology on those who embraced it: inexpressible joy. Through justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ, God was glorified as utterly merciful and good, as both supremely holy and compassionate — and therefore people could find their comfort and delight in him. Through union with Christ, believers could enjoy a firm standing before God, gleefully knowing him as their “Abba” (Romans 8:15), confident that he was powerful to save and keep to the uttermost.
The glory of God and enjoyment of him — these inseparable, twin truths were guiding lights for the Reformation and were its great legacy. The Reformers held that, through all the doctrines they had fought for and upheld, God was glorified and people were given comfort and gladness. And through these truths, lives can still blossom and flourish under the joy-giving light of God’s glory.
Little Glory, Little Joy
The Reformation started in October 1517 with a skirmish concerning the idea of purgatory. Purgatory was the Roman Catholic solution to the problem that nobody would die righteous enough to have merited salvation fully. It was said to be the place where Christian souls would go after death to have all their sins slowly purged from them — to have that process of becoming just or righteous completed.
But to the Reformers, purgatory quickly came to symbolize all that was wrong with the Roman Catholic view of salvation. John Calvin wrote,
Purgatory is a deadly fiction of Satan, which nullifies the cross of Christ, inflicts unbearable contempt upon God’s mercy, and overturns and destroys our faith. For what means this purgatory of theirs but that satisfaction for sins is paid by the souls of the dead [themselves]? . . . But if it is perfectly clear . . . that the blood of Christ is the sole satisfaction for the sins of believers, the sole expiation, the sole purgation, what remains but to say that purgatory is simply a dreadful blasphemy against Christ?
His logic is simple: purgatory strips Christ of his glory as a merciful and fully-sufficient Savior; it also destroys any confident joy in us. No joy for us, no glory for Christ. This went entirely against the grain of Reformation thought, which cared so passionately about those twin prizes.
Happy Theology of the Happy God
Luther himself knew all too well the effects of his pre-Reformation theology. The need to have personal merit before God had left him empty of joy and full of hate for God. Young Luther could not rejoice. It was the inevitable fallout of a theology where sin was something we can overcome ourselves, and therefore, where Christ was a small or only semi-savior.