The Reformation of the Church

Sunday, October 27, 2013

“Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Scripture Alone”

St. John 8:31-32


Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed him, “If you abide in my word you are my disciples indeed.  And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” St. John 8:31-32


The Reformation of the Church can be approached in different ways.  We can focus on a great man by the name of Martin Luther.  From his nailing of the 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517 all the way to his death he boldly confessed the true faith in preaching, teaching, and writing, providing the church with wonderful catechisms, beautiful hymns, and a sterling example.  Luther stands today as an inspiration for millions of Christians all over the world. 


We could consider the Reformation from the social and political perspective.  It was a tremendously important event.  No one can understand modern times without knowing something about it. 


But for us as Lutherans – and not just nominal or cultural Lutherans who bear the name and wear the label with no particular devotion to the truth – but as Lutherans committed to the truth of God’s saving word, we aren’t in the business of hero worship.  We don’t believe what we believe because Luther or any other fallible human being said so.  We believe what we believe because God said so.  And while the social and political events of the 16th century are fascinating for those of us interested in history, the Reformation is not for us primarily a history lesson.  It’s much more compelling than that!


The reason we celebrate this event nearly five hundred years after it happened is because the truth revealed in 16th century Germany is as vital and important for us now as it was for them then.  The truth of the Reformation can be summed up by a Latin phrase: sola gratia, sola fide, and sola Scriptura.  Translated, that is: grace alone, faith alone, and Scripture alone.  Our text from St. John’s Gospel clearly teaches the three solas of the Reformation.


Grace alone.  We are justified, that is forgiven of our sins, saved, that is, rescued from certain death and hell, and given eternal life in heaven as God gracious gift.  “The truth shall make you free.”  You shall not make yourself free.  The truth shall.  What truth?  Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)  The truth sanctifies.  That is, the truth makes you holy.  Jesus prayed to his Father, “Sanctify them by your truth.”  Nobody can sanctify himself.  Nobody can save himself.


The reason we cannot make ourselves holy and we cannot rescue ourselves from our sins is that our sins are more powerful than we are.  Humanity flatters itself with the false doctrine known as free will.  It sounds good.  It teaches us that we all have a free will to choose the good and avoid the evil.  Otherwise, we can’t be held responsible for our actions.  We must be free in order to be accountable.  Therefore, we all have a free will in spiritual matters.  Therefore, our salvation is a matter of our own choice.  It’s a matter of choosing to do what is right and carrying through with the right decision.


It sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?  But this is lying, twisted, and demonic reason.  It is a conceit that leads one to hell.  Just choose the good and avoid the evil and you’ll find your way to heaven!  Of course you will, but what about your sins?  What about your guilt?  What does the Bible say?  St. Paul writes in today’s Epistle Lesson:


Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.  Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:19-20)


If we are not saved by God’s grace alone we are not saved at all.  It isn’t a matter of our being required to choose love over hatred.  It’s a matter of our doing what we are required to do.  Have you?  Listen: the law doesn’t say, “Do your best.”  It says to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself.  Have you?  You have not?  Then the law shuts your mouth, says you’re guilty, and condemns you.  And should some religious know-it-all come up to you and tell you that you must choose your way out of your sin or decide your way back to God, don’t you believe him!  For as soon as you rely on your own choice and your own decision to do anything good, in comes God’s law to silence your boasts and remind you of your guilt.  The Ten Commandments are not yours to use to justify yourself while you judge your neighbor.  God’s law judges you and indicts you and condemns you and there is nothing you can do to escape.  You need God’s grace.  You are lost without God’s grace.  You haven’t got a prayer unless God saves you by his grace alone. 


“The truth shall make you free.”  Nothing less will do.  And without the truth, you are a slave, as Jesus went on to say, “Whoever sins is a slave of sin . . .  if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.”  Only if the Son, graciously, that is freely in love and without any help from you or anyone else, sets you free from your sin, your death, and the power of the devil over you will you ever be set free.  As St. Paul reminds us, you are “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  Grace alone means Christ alone.  Christ alone did the good works we needed to have done by obeying God’s law for us.  Christ alone suffered the penalty for our sins by dying in our place.  Christ alone has washed away all sins by his blood.  Christ is, as St. Paul puts it, “a propitiation by his blood,” in other words, his blood takes away God’s anger against us by taking away all of our sins.  That’s what grace means.  Jesus Christ has won for us forgiveness of sins and everlasting life in heaven and God gives it to us freely.  It is by God’s grace alone.


There are false notions of what grace is.  Some say that the grace that saves us is a quality or ability that God gives us so that we can do what needs to be done to be saved.  They mix grace with works.  They talk about grace, but teach salvation by works.  They begin with grace, but end up in works.  They offer the gift of God with one hand and take it away with the other.  St. Paul rejects this sleight of hand in Romans 11:6 where he writes:


And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace.  But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work.


If your good works help to save you in any way, you are not saved by grace alone and Jesus is not really your Savior.  And you are not saved through faith alone.  Faith receives the forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation that grace gives.  God by grace gives.  By his giving, he works faith to receive what he gives.  Faith doesn’t earn God’s grace.  Faith receives it.  Faith alone receives it.   It is through faith alone.  “You shall know the truth.” 


The truth does not set you free by some kind of medicinal indwelling as if by taking a pill of spiritual penicillin you get better.  You don’t have to believe in penicillin for it to work.  Grace works through faith.  Apart from faith nobody has ever received God’s grace.  The truth shall make you free.  How?  The truth captures your heart and your mind.  It penetrates into you and works faith in you.  You believe.  You don’t believe by an act of your will.  You believe by God’s grace alone.  As St. Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:8-9,


For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.


“If you continue in my word,” Jesus says.  Faith remains in God’s word.  Faith not only listens; it hears.  It believes.  It lives from what it receives, as the Bible says, “The just shall live by faith.”  Jesus uses the word “know” as a synonym for faith.  “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”  Faith is not our work.  It is God’s gracious work.  Through the word God elicits faith, nourishes faith, sustains faith, defends faith, and keeps us steadfast in the one true faith until we die.


Nowadays it is considered bad form to think that you know the truth.  To say with conviction, “I know” is regarded as boastful or chauvinistic.  We are told to express our faith in terms of our opinions or feelings, but not as if what we believe is actually true.  And why is faith as confidence in the truth so denigrated?  Because unbelievers are the ones in charge of the conversation!  We Christians want Jesus, not unbelievers, to set the tone of the conversation about religion.  And Jesus said you shall know the truth.  He who is the truth described the faith of his disciples as knowing the truth.  Not opining, not feeling, not wishing, or thinking; but knowing.  True faith is confidence.  Confidence in what?  Confidence in everything God tells us.  It believes that everything God says is true is true because God himself is truth.


This brings us to the last of the three solas: Scripture alone.  The word of God that reveals grace and works faith is the word of God that is written down for us in the Holy Scriptures.  Since God’s word is written down for us, we must consult what is written down in the Holy Scriptures if we want to know what God says.  How do you judge your preacher’s preaching?  By the Bible!  How do you know that the Catechism sets forth the truth?  By the Bible!  Here is how we Lutherans confess the principle of Scripture alone.  The last of the Lutheran Confessions, the Formula of Concord, written in 1577, begins with these words:


We believe, teach, and confess that the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments are the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged.


The Scriptures alone are the standard for our teaching, for our confessing, and for our believing.  We know what we know about God and his will for us from the Holy Scriptures.  It is true that men wrote the Holy Scriptures.  But God directed their writing so that they wrote exactly what he wanted them to write and he preserved them from all error.  This is how we can rely on the Holy Scriptures to give us God’s word exactly as God wants us to know it.


Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, then you are my disciples indeed, and you shall know the truth.”  You want the truth?  Read the Bible on your own in the privacy of your home.  Faithfully attend a church where the Bible is preached and taught in its truth and purity and pay attention.  Attend Bible class.  Read, mark, learn, and take to heart what is written in the Bible.  This is how you will be a true disciple of Christ, holding the true faith, continuing to receive the genuine freedom that Jesus Christ and he alone can provide.


When it comes to spiritual matters, God knows.  We don’t.  God knows how to rescue us from our sins.  It is by his grace alone.  God knows how we receive this salvation.  It is through faith alone.  God knows how we can know what to believe.  It is by Scripture alone.  As we celebrate the Reformation of the Church that God brought about through his servant, Martin Luther, we thank God for preserving for us today these three principles: grace alone, faith alone, and Scripture alone.  We pray that he will keep us steadfast in his word and truth unto the end, that we may enjoy true freedom here in time and hereafter in eternity. 


Rolf D. Preus


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