By Grace Alone, Through Faith Alone


A significant anniversary for Christians is approaching. On October 31, five hundred and two years ago, the grace of God once again took its rightful, prominent place in Christianity. Consequently, I’m re-posting this article from three years ago, with revisions, in commemoration of what God has done.

Part of my growing up included a spiritual education, so I learned early on that I was a sinner in need of a Savior. I understood that I could not do enough good things to make up for the bad. And I understood that no one could help me because they had their own sin problem. No one, except Jesus. His being the only sinless person who ever lived, qualified Him to be the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world for those who believed.

So nothing I did or could do would merit me to be acceptable to God. Only Jesus, standing in my place, taking the punishment I deserved, solved my sin issue.

Because I understood the basics of salvation at an early age, I have never grasped what it would be like to live any other way.

I’ve heard Jews and Catholics and Greek Orthodox joke in a knowing way about the guilt instilled in them by their religion, or more specifically, by someone who was holding them to a strict adherence to their religion—a parent, a priest, a teacher. I’ve also heard people refer to Christians as bound by guilt.

That thought seems odd to me. I don’t recall a time in my life when I’ve felt guilt-driven.

So I’ve been spoiled because I’ve believed from my youth that I’m forgiven because of God’s grace.

Christians haven’t always had this understanding. There was a period of time when grace took a back seat to doing good works, as the Church defined them. No doubt some people who were saved, gained that right standing with God because of His grace, but they were perhaps less aware of His free gift.

All that changed when Martin Luther went public with the results of his own doubts, questions, and struggles to understand God. On October 31, 1517, Luther sent a paper he’d written to his bishop: “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” This document became known simply as the Ninety-five Theses. Whether Luther ever attached a copy of the document to the door of the church at Wittenberg is a matter of contention, as was the document itself, when it first appeared.

But from the thoughts, question, and issues Luther looked at, grew the bedrock of Protestantism and a reformation (though more slowly, it would seem) of the Catholic Church, which is what he intended. Luther challenged the practice of selling indulgences, by which the priests grew richer because of the desire of the poor to do what they could to insure the salvation of their loved ones.

Luther contended that salvation depended on God, not on humans:

The most important [truth of Christianity] for Luther was the doctrine of justification—God’s act of declaring a sinner righteous—by faith alone through God’s grace. He began to teach that salvation or redemption is a gift of God’s grace, attainable only through faith in Jesus as the Messiah. “This one and firm rock, which we call the doctrine of justification,” he wrote, “is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness.” (see “Theology of Martin Luther,” Wikipedia)

Luther had much Scripture to support his position, not the least of which is 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 as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

The work is God’s, Luther proclaimed. A worker giving his copper to the church would not save the soul of his dead brother.

When I was growing up, I’d never heard of indulgences or even doing something to help a dead person reach heaven. The works I knew about were the kinds of things people did to make themselves acceptable to God. And these works included good things: going to church, reading the Bible, giving money to the poor, going on a short term mission trip, and so on. Good things.

But just like Paul’s list of good Jewish things recorded in Philippians, this Christian list of good things amounts to rubbish if its considered the means to a relationship with God. Paul’s birth status, circumcision, religious affiliation, and even his personal righteousness, were nothing in view of the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ (Phil. 3).

Essentially Martin Luther discovered and proclaimed what Paul had learned through his own quest. The two men were similar. They both wanted to please God, and they both went about it by trying to be good enough for Him based on the good things they did. Both eventually realized that there weren’t enough good things in the entire earth to make them good enough, but that God had given right standing with Himself as a free gift through Christ Jesus.

That’s grace.

Nothing earned here.

A free gift.

Undeserved.

I know that rankles American minds—perhaps the minds of others, too. But in this culture today we have two competing philosophies—an independent, “earn your own way” mentality, and an entitlement, “you deserve it” belief. God’s free gift is an affront to both of those positions. We humans don’t get to take credit for salvation, no matter how you look at it. We didn’t earn it, and we aren’t so wonderful that it ought to have been handed to us based on our incredible merit.

Luther did the hard work of sussing out from Scripture this truth, and I’m incredibly grateful.

Thanks be to God for His free gift of salvation, and thanks be to Him for teaching this truth to Martin Luther so that he could make it widely known.

The Reformation And The Five Solas


I may be one of the most ignorant Christians about Church history. It simply wasn’t something I learned in my growing up years, and I actually counted Church history as one of my least favorite subjects when I was in college.

But since those days I’ve had an increasing interest in What Went On Before. Consequently I dug out my old college Church history text book and even bought (a used) copy of a book about the development of Protestantism. What have I learned?

For one thing, I learned that the Church as it went from a group of persecuted followers of Jesus to an institutional organization of power became corrupt. Enter the reformers.

Men like Martin Luther had no intention originally of doing anything but bringing much needed reform to the Church. The problems were systemic. Not only had the Church lost its first love, but it had allowed false teaching to become embedded in the fabric of the institution.

As the power of the Church expanded along with the Roman Empire, “converts” were little more than conquered people. Salvation became little more than a requirement of Rome, achieved by doing the right things or paying the right price.

In the Medieval church, salvation was seen to be dependent upon a person’s participation in the Sacraments, obedience to church law, and the accumulation of “merit,” either through good works, spiritual disciplines (such as Pilgrimage), or borrowing merit from someone with far greater merit, such as a saint. (The Five Solas Of Our Faith)

Martin Luther, a priest, knew Scripture, and he wrestled with the concept of salvation in light of what the Church required, as well as a practice started by Pope Leo in 1517 that allowed people to buy “indulgences”—essentially the “forgiveness of sins” as granted by the Church. In October, Luther wrote a paper entitled “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” which was really a point by point discussion of the practice. Here’s one example, translated into English: “Christians are to be taught that the buying of indulgences is a matter of free choice, not commanded.” And another: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.”

Woven throughout Luther’s ninety-five points were five themes which have come to be known as the five solas, taken from the Latin meaning only or alone:

Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”): The Bible alone is our highest authority.
Sola Fide (“faith alone”): We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ.
Sola Gratia (“grace alone”): We are saved by the grace of God alone.
Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Savior, and King.
Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”): We live for the glory of God alone.

These points of emphasis have become the backbone of Evangelical Protestantism. I suspect, though I don’t know for sure, that the Catholic Church would agree with three of these. The first two would likely be disputed. The third would probably be understood somewhat differently by Catholics than Protestants.

In light of the fact that this year marks the 500 year anniversary of Luther making his objections public, I thought a closer study of these points might be in order. The plan is to take one a day next week.

To wrap up this introduction, let me say that one thing is certain: what resulted from Luther’s study of Scripture and public criticism of the Church changed the religious landscape of Europe and, it could be argued, of the entire world.

By Grace Alone, Through Faith Alone


martin_luther_lucas_cranach_1526I admit, I’ve been spoiled. I’ve grown up with so many great gifts—loving parents and siblings, an opportunity for a sound education, attendance in church from infancy on, a middle class existence that ensured I had three square meals a day and a warm place to live and many changes of clothes in my closet. I had a secure and happy childhood, though we moved many times.

Part of my growing up included my spiritual education, so I understood early on that I was a sinner in need of a Savior. I understood that I could not do enough good things to make up for the bad. And I understood that no one could help me because they had their own sin problem. No one, except Jesus. His being the only sinless person who ever lived qualified Him to be the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world for those who believed.

So nothing I did or could do would merit me to be acceptable to God. Only Jesus, standing in my place, taking the punishment I deserved, solved my sin issue.

Because I understood the basics of salvation at an early age, I have never grasped what it would be like to live any other way.

I’ve heard Jews and Catholics and Greek Orthodox joke in a knowing way about the guilt instilled in them by their religion, or more specifically, by someone who was holding them to a strict adherence to their religion—a parent, a priest, a teacher. I’ve also heard people refer to Christians as bound by guilt.

Those seem odd to me. I don’t recall a time in my life when I’ve felt guilt-driven.

So I’ve been spoiled because I’ve believed from my youth that I’m forgiven because of God’s grace.

Christians haven’t always had this understanding. There was a period of time when grace took a back seat to doing good works as the Church defined them. No doubt those who were saved, gained that standing with God because of His grace, but they were perhaps less aware of it.

All that changed four hundred and ninety-nine years ago when Martin Luther went public with the results of his own doubts, questions, and struggles to understand God. On October 31, 1517, Luther sent a paper he’d written to his bishop: “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” This document became known simply as the Ninety-five Theses. Whether Luther ever attached a copy of the document to the door of the church at Wittenberg is a matter of contention, as was the document itself, when it first appeared.

But from the thoughts, question, and issues Luther looked at, grew the bedrock of Protestantism and a reformation (though more slowly, it would seem) of the Catholic Church. Luther challenged the practice of selling indulgences, by which the priests grew richer because of the desire of the poor to do what they could to insure the salvation of their loved ones.

Luther contended that salvation depended on God, not on humans:

The most important [truth of Christianity] for Luther was the doctrine of justification – God’s act of declaring a sinner righteous – by faith alone through God’s grace. He began to teach that salvation or redemption is a gift of God’s grace, attainable only through faith in Jesus as the Messiah.[43] “This one and firm rock, which we call the doctrine of justification,” he wrote, “is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness.”[44] (see “Theology of Martin Luther,” Wikipedia)

Luther had much Scripture to support his position, not the least of which is 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 as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

The work is God’s, Luther proclaimed. A worker giving his copper to the church would not save the soul of his dead brother.

When I was growing up, I’d never heard about indulgences or even doing something to help a dead person reach heaven. The works I knew about were the kinds of things people did to make themselves acceptable to God. And these works included good things: going to church, reading the Bible, giving money to the poor, going on a short term mission trip, and so on. Good things.

But just like Paul’s list of good Jewish things recorded in Philippians, this Christian list of good things amounts to rubbish if its considered the means to a relationship with God. Paul’s birth status, circumcision, religious affiliation, and even his personal righteousness, were nothing in view of the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ (Phil. 3).

Essentially Martin Luther discovered and proclaimed what Paul had learned through his own quest. The two men were similar. They both wanted to please God, and they both went about it by trying to be good enough for Him based on the good things they did. Both eventually realized that there weren’t enough good things in the entire earth to make them good enough, but that God had given right standing with Him as a free gift through Christ Jesus.

That’s grace.

Nothing earned here.

A free gift.

Undeserved.

I know that rankles American minds—perhaps the minds of others, too. But here we have two competing philosophies—an independent, “earn your own way” mentality and an entitlement, “you deserve it” belief. God’s free gift is an affront to both of those positions. We humans don’t get to take credit for salvation, no matter how you look at it. We didn’t earn it, and we aren’t so wonderful that it ought to have been handed to us based on our incredible merit.

Luther did the hard work of sussing out from Scripture this truth, and I’m incredibly grateful.

Thanks be to God for His free gift of salvation, and thanks be to Him for teaching this truth to Martin Luther so that he could make it widely known.

Reformation Day


Lucas_Cranach_d.Ä._(Werkst.)_-_Porträt_des_Martin_Luther_(Lutherhaus_Wittenberg)Reformation Day, the commemoration of Martin Luther’s bold challenge to the Church, is 497 years old today. While Luther contributed a great deal to Christendom, specifically regarding the value of Scripture over tradition, his greatest gift to theology came that afternoon 497 years ago.

Luther did not intend to split the Church or start his own denomination. Rather, he wanted discussion about practices in the Church that conflicted with his understanding of Scripture—specifically the selling of indulgences or the release from purgatory for and salvation of a loved one for a price.

The corrupt practice was lucrative and enriched the papacy at the expense of the clear teaching of Scripture. Luther boldly confronted the practice.

Luther taught that every human being at every moment of life stands absolutely coram deo, before God, confronted face-to-face by God. This led him to confront the major misunderstanding in the Church of his day that grace and forgiveness of sins could be bought and sold like wares in the market. (“Reformation Day,” First Things web site)

Within months, Luther’s views went viral. The papacy reacted and Luther sought protection from a powerful landed aristocrat.

But through the centuries Luther’s views have spread and today are influencing the church he confronted.

The great celebration of Reformation Day, then, is not that Protestantism was born. Rather it is the reforming truth that a person is not dependent upon his own finite efforts to reconcile with God but that God, because of His lavish love, gifted us with grace through faith, resulting in the removal of our offenses which created a barrier between us and God.

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

In preparation for the 500th celebration of Reformation Day coming in three years, German Protestant and Catholic scholars are once again studying the 95 theses and finding some common ground.

“The focus on Christ, the Bible and the authentic Word are things that we as the Catholic Church today can only underline,” [Bishop Franz-Josef Hermann] Bode said. The bishop’s views reflect the ideas of many other Catholic theologians since the Second Vatican Council as Luther’s teachings, especially his esteem for the Word of God, have come to be appreciated in a way that would have been unthinkable just a century ago. (“Reformation Day,” First Things web site)

Fifteen years ago there was movement of this nature, too. A Joint Declaration of Justification between the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church was issued.

The Joint Declaration represents a measure of convergence between Catholic and Reformational understandings of that article of faith by which the Church either stands or falls, to cite a favorite Lutheran saying. For example, the Joint Declaration asserts, “We confess together: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.” (“Reformation Day,” First Things web site)

What a celebration, to see believers of various persuasions united by a return to faith and not works, to trust in Scripture and not tradition. Certainly there are differences that remain between Catholics and Protestant, but Reformation Day seems as if it may at last be a celebration of widespread Church reform, pointing people to the truth of the Bible, not the corrupt ideas of men.

Now, about the reform that’s needed among Protestants . . . 😉

Published in: on October 31, 2014 at 6:17 pm  Comments Off on Reformation Day  
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Luther’s Protests Go Viral


The date was October 31, 1517. Reformation Day. Martin Luther chose that day to make public the disagreements he had with his church.

The major issue dealt with the practice the church had begun regarding indulgences–“a grant by the pope of remission of the temporal punishment in purgatory still due for sins after absolution” (Oxford English Dictionary). The latest iteration of the practice included selling them, something that contradicts what Scripture says about grace being “the gift of God” and salvation “not of works.”

Luther also protested against doctrinal policies regarding purgatory, particular judgment (judgment given by God that a departed person undergoes immediately after death), Catholic devotion to Mary, the intercession of and devotion to the saints, most of the sacraments, the mandatory clerical celibacy, and the authority of the Pope.

In all, his disputation contained ninety-five points and has become known as the Ninety-five Theses.

What’s particularly interesting is that this document, written in Latin, was translated into German by January 1518. Two weeks later, it was printed and passed around throughout Germany. Within two months, it had circulated throughout Europe.

I can only imagine the despair men like Luther and John Wycliffe and Jan Hus felt at the state of the church. Corruption abounded. For example, one Pope, Alexander VI, the head of the church and according to church doctrine, God’s representative on earth, fathered seven children by at least two mistresses. Beyond that one man’s immorality was the systemic corruption which allowed the church to get rich at the expense of the common man and the increasing departure from what Scripture said.

Yet God was at work. Who knew that a little thing called the printing press would be such a powerful tool in God’s hands to bring about sweeping change. People read Luther’s Ninety-five Theses pamphlet and flocked to hear him speak.

His study, lectures, and writing in the years leading up to and shortly after he made the document public, focused on the doctrine of justification.

From 1510 to 1520, Luther lectured on the Psalms, the books of Hebrews, Romans, and Galatians. As he studied these portions of the Bible, he came to view the use of terms such as penance and righteousness by the Catholic Church in new ways. He became convinced that the church was corrupt in its ways and had lost sight of what he saw as several of the central truths of Christianity. The most important for Luther was the doctrine of justification – God’s act of declaring a sinner righteous – by faith alone through God’s grace. He began to teach that salvation or redemption is a gift of God’s grace, attainable only through faith in Jesus as the Messiah. “This one and firm rock, which we call the doctrine of justification,” he wrote, “is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness.” (Martin Luther)

Why did the Reformation take off? The time was ripe. People were ready for an end to the corrupt practices of the church, more so once the Bible was translated into vernacular languages. In addition, the means was available to disseminate information widely. This was something new. Because of the printing press, people in England or Italy could read Luther’s thoughts about salvation.

It was the Medieval equivalent of going viral.

I find the story of the Reformation encouraging on many levels. No, the men involved in initiating change were not perfect–not by a long shot. But God used them. That’s one of the encouraging things. He also brought change when it looked like the church couldn’t get much worse.

From time to time, I’ve decried the abundance of false teaching that seems to flood Christianity today. Sometimes it seems like revival is the only thing that could stop the tide, and yet revival seems remote and unlikely. As it undoubtedly seemed October 30, 1517. A day later, the tide turned.

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