I have been captivated this week the successful landing of the Mars rover Curiosity. NASA has gone to great lengths to explain that this mission is unprecedented in regard to its complexity, intricacy, and difficulty. In their fascinating video “7 Minutes of Terror,” the folks at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) describe the harrowing 7 minutes as the capsule enters the Martian atmosphere at 13,000 mph, deploys the strongest high-speed parachute ever built, then is slowed further by rockets, and then finally the rover is lowered to the surface by a complex “sky crane” maneuver—and all of this happens during the “black out” phase when there is no radio contact.
The tension this created at JPL is understandable. Everything had to be perfect. The trajectory had to be exact. The heat shield had to hold up. The parachute had to deploy. The rockets had to fire. The sky crane maneuver had to work. And in all of this, the key question for the JPL folks was simple, “Will the work of our hands hold up under such intense pressure? Will all our labor prove to be enough?”
As I reflected upon this, I could not help but think of a similar angst felt by Martin Luther. He contemplated a much greater “7 minutes of terror”—the terror of standing some day before a holy God. Luther wondered whether his works would hold up. Would his labors be enough to withstand that sort of pressure? Could his own righteousness withstand the heat of God’s holy gaze?
Of course, we all know that Luther quickly realized the answer to that question was no. His own works were not perfect enough to withstand that sort of situation. The “heat shield” of his own righteousness didn’t just have a few scratches in it. It was in tatters. It was chocked full of rips and tears and gaping holes. It would never hold up.
And it was this angst—this concern about a future 7 minutes of terror—that drove him to rediscover the wonderful truth of justification by faith alone. We can withstand the pressure of God’s holy judgment if we are wrapped in the protective shield of Christ’s righteousness which comes by faith alone. And that righteousness is sufficient. It is perfect. It will hold up. It will hold up because it is the righteousness of God himself.
“But whatever gain I had…[I] count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes from faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” Phil 3:7-9