Our Spiritual Roots: Grace Alone. Faith Alone, Christ Alone
It all began with a question. Times change, and so do the questions people ask.
But some questions should be asked in every age. The question was, “How can I be right with God?” and people all over Europe were beginning to ask that in the early 16th century. The answer may be obvious to us; it was not obvious to them. It is something we all need to know.
It was a time of social change. That produces anxiety. Sometimes it moves people towards the fundamental questions of life. It also leads to a lack of confidence in social institutions (in that era – the Church). The population was largely churchgoing. People believed in a heaven and a hell. “How can I be saved from hell and go to heaven” was an important question.
There had been a widespread belief that the Church (as an organisation) would take care of such matters. People confessed their sins to priests and received absolution. They were offered indulgences – buying an indulgence would get you to heaven sooner, or so they thought. But as time went on the answers they were given seemed unsatisfactory.
Personality, discovery, publicity
The power of an idea depends on someone putting it into words. And an individual often gets the credit for something that involves many people. That is the case with Martin Luther.
His experience was vivid. His life was public. And he was able to express what many people were discovering for themselves.
He shared the question many of us have had, “What must I do to be saved?” He made many attempts to put himself in the clear with God but his conscience always told him it was not enough. God requires righteousness”, he thought. “How can I ever be righteous?”
As he pondered God’s Word the Spirit showed him that there was a righteousness – the perfect person and life of Christ. Christ had paid a debt he did not owe. His righteousness was a gift to sinners from God. Luther need do no more – Christ had done it all. Salvation was by grace alone.
It was a liberating experience. He was a new man. And he had to tell the truth he had discovered. That was not difficult. The invention of the printing press made it much easier to publicise ideas. And the hostility of many church leaders added to public interest in such matters.
Before that time the Bible had been the preserve of the clergy; ordinary people did not read it. The invention of printing allowed Bibles to make their way into the churches. The ‘new ideas’ encouraged a renewed interest in spiritual things, and it was not long before many people were making the same discovery as Luther had made.
Salvation by grace alone was an idea whose time had come. Luther’s name was linked with it. ‘Justification by grace alone through faith alone’ was his trademark, and he promoted the idea widely. But it was not just one man’s idea. People were finding it in the Bible, which they had not read before. It became obvious that the Holy Spirit was at work all over Europe. This became a mass movement.
It’s not surprising that it provoked a reaction. The church is never perfect, and there were many clergy who wanted people to remain dependent on them. The movement was strongly opposed.
There is something in the human heart that dislikes being in debt to God – we prefer to think we have paid our way to heaven. The Pharisees were like that; so were many of Luther’s contemporaries. But that road leads to hell, for we all need God’s forgiveness.
Some of the clergy had a different objection. “What about good works?” they said. Surely Christ saves by making us better and then we do what God requires and he is pleased with us?”
No. People who ask those questions have forgotten an important difference. It is the difference between God accepting someone, and God making that person holy. Or, to put it another way, it is the difference between someone being entitled to heaven and someone being ready for heaven, between justification and sanctification.
Luther and others realised that God accepts a sinner without any conditions. God has accepted what Christ has done. He then accepts the sinner for Christ’s sake, and declares him free from all guilt. We do not have to change for God to accept us. It is a once for all action on God’s part.
But salvation is more than just God accepting someone freely. It includes being part of God’s family, and that requires us to become holy, as he is holy. Once God accepts people he proceeds to shape them into the image of his Son. He uses the Bible, prayer and the sacraments, and the person’s life experiences. The Holy Spirit moulds them slowly. That is when we see good works beginning. To make the change a condition of acceptance is to put the cart before the horse. We cannot be sanctified before we are justified.
Luther came to this understanding when he realised what Christ had done, and what God’s purpose was in all that. He saw that salvation was a gift. It is from God’s grace alone.
We recognise Christ as the ‘Last Adam’ (Romans 5:12-21) who represented his people at his crucifixion and now represents them in heaven. Just as we had no part in Adam’s sin and the guilt humanity contracted, so we have no part in Christ’s obedience, and the righteousness God confers on sinners for his sake. Salvation is by Christ alone.
That excludes any good thing a sinner may do. It also excludes the work done by the church. That was one reason many priests found the teaching hard to accept – it encouraged people to go direct to God rather than depend on them. There was and is no room for confession to a priest, repeated sacrifice of Christ’s body, indulgences, penance, etc, as a means of gaining credit with God. The Church should declare God’s Word but it cannot contribute to a sinner’s acceptance.
Since salvation is a gift it comes to us through faith alone. We cannot earn it. It is an offer we simply accept. The gospel involves God offering Christ to us and commanding us to receive him. But it would be a mistake to think of this as a situation where we feel we have a right to choose and can keep God waiting. It is not like that.
If someone realises and accepts what Christ has done it has a profound effect. As well as gratitude for the gift of God they feel a sense of obligation to receive the Saviour he has given. They cannot think of doing otherwise. A glimpse of Christ as Saviour, and us as sinners, produces deep reverence and a total commitment. It moves us to do good works.
Effects on spirituality
It is deeply comforting. The fact that we do not earn salvation but receive it as a gift should bring unspeakable relief. Since it is from God’s grace alone we should realise something of the love God has for us.
That is profoundly liberating. Anxiety about ‘making the grade’ should be a thing of the past. A sense of freedom should follow the Bible’s assurance that God accepts us when we receive Christ in faith.
It is also humbling. The more we realise the depth of God’s love and realise that it is love for oneself, the more we will feel indebted to him. And we will appear smaller in our own eyes, for such grace shows a greatness that is incomparable.
And it is motivating. The blend of freedom, gratitude and admiration compel a response. It is what Isaiah said, “Here am I; send me.”
When we consider these things we realise how important the Bible’s doctrines are. They are important because God has revealed them, of course. But they are also important because of the practical effect they have on a person’s life. If we think we live in an age of stunted Christians the reason may be that we have paid too much attention to feelings, and too little to what God has told us in his Word.
Lessons for us
And that is the first lesson we learn. Do we want doctrine? Do we go where we hear it preached? Do we read good books? Do we ask the Lord to teach us? For if we do not understand his grace then we cannot expect to be mature Christians.
Have we ever asked the question, “What must I do to be saved?” Is being right with God our main concern? It is those who hunger and thirst after righteousness who will be filled. What is our hope? Is it the grace of God through our Lord Jesus Christ? If our hope is anything else, that is evidence we have not received the only Saviour of sinners, and are still in Adam, on the road to hell.
Too many people have depended on their attachment to a certain denomination to get them to heaven – that can never happen.
Have we received Christ? Faith in Christ is receiving Christ. And when we receive Christ we are receiving the beginning of all the blessings God has promised to give his people. Christ will work, and make us like himself, ready for heaven.
Is our Christian profession corroborated by the way we live? A growing likeness to Christ is a sure result of saving faith. Persistent ungodliness would suggest we have never known him. “Let him who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity” (2 Timothy 2:19). “He who has begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:9).