“A Season of Reform”
Fall is my favorite time of year. This has become an inside joke between my wife and me. With the first hint of a chill in the air all the way until the first snowfall I will randomly remind her how much I enjoy fall. I love the cool weather, the glory of golden aspens, and the call of geese overhead. I take comfort in a tall stack of firewood and the warmth from the stove at night. This is the time of year for harvest, hunting, and enjoying the fruits of summer’s labor.
But as a student of Scripture, a lover of history, and as a pastor it is this time of year that seems to always remind me of the Protestant Reformation and the men Christ used to protect and reclaim His bride.
It is usually accepted that it was on October 31st 1517 that a little German monk named Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. This document contained 95 reasons, from Luther’s perspective, why the selling of indulgences (a piece of paper signed by the Pope that would free a person from the guilt of a particular sin and thus lessen one’s stint in Purgatory) was wrong. Through the study of Scripture and the work of God the Holy Spirit, Luther would come to realize that indulgences were only the tip of the iceberg and that the church had many more sins of which to repent. But this event seems to be the “shot heard around the world” and would launch a full reformation and eventual break from the Roman church.
There were many issues that these new Protestants (or protesters) took with Roman theology. But it all can be boiled down to the true nature of the gospel and God’s Word. The river of reform flows into several streams, creeks, and rivers but the headwaters are summed up in five crucial truths: Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solus Christus, Sola Scriptura, Soli Deo Gloria. These are the Latin terms that are translated as: by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to Scripture alone, for the glory of God alone. These truths are the core of The Reformation.
Sola Gratia (Salvation by Grace Alone)
“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)
These are words that every Christian should know, love, and cherish. And yet, slowly but surely, the Roman church had begun to undermine the simple truth that salvation from sin and death is utterly disconnected from any work that man can perform. Rome had begun to prescribe many works for the remission of sin. Acts of penance (humiliation, giving, reciting prayers, etc.) began as prescribed outward signs of a truly repentant heart, but became the object that a person latched on to in order to prove their forgiveness.
The Reformers simply could not square that teaching and practice with the plain reading of Scripture. Salvation from sin and death is not earned but is purely and completely an act of grace. What does this mean? Grace (χάρις) is a Greek word commonly used in conjunction with the Hebrew word for favor. Noah found favor with God (Gen. 6:8). What did Noah do to earn this favor? Nothing. God spared Noah for no other reason other than God desired to spare him. That’s grace, undeserved and unearned favor.
There is no checklist one must complete before they have assurance of their salvation. There is nothing that can be done by human hands to earn favor with God. What could sinful man possibly do or bring to the table that a holy God would even want? Salvation is not earned; it is given completely and freely by the grace of God Alone.
Sola Fide (Salvation through Faith Alone)
“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.”
“Faith” is the translation of πίστις (pistis), which means trust or belief. This really goes hand-in-hand with grace because there are many who continue striving to earn favor with God. Do they not know that this gift of grace is given and cannot be earned? Where do you place your trust, your belief, and your faith? Is it in your own ability to be a good person? Is your trust bound up on your standing as an upright citizen? Do you compare your standing before God to the sins of others or to His holiness?
Understand that the gift of God referred to here points to both grace and faith. They are both divinely given gifts. Moses told the nation of Israel that they will by no means keep God’s commands because “the Lord has not given you a heart to know, nor eyes to see, nor hears to hear” (Deut. 29:4). There is nothing that you can bring with you that will tip the scales in your favor. Only God can grant this gift.
And yet faith requires an object. To believe, we must believe in something or in someone. If we cannot trust our work, or ourselves then who/what is our trust placed in?
Solus Christus (Salvation in Christ Alone)
“And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12).
In this verse Peter is speaking to the local authorities about Jesus Christ “whom you crucified” (v. 10). Jesus Christ accomplished what we could never dream of accomplishing. That is, satisfying the wrath of God aimed at sinners like you and me.
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed.” (Romans 3:23-25)
In describing the sacrificial and atoning death of Jesus, Paul mentions again the gift of grace and faith. As you can see, it’s difficult to speak of any single pillar by itself. But here let’s look at this word that is translated propitiation. The word (ἱλαστήριον) is used to describe the initiative taken by God to remove sin. Man did not remove sin from between himself and God. God took the initiative by sending His only begotten Son to die in the place of sinners. Our faith is placed in Jesus Christ alone. It is only by His death, burial, resurrection, and promise to return that we are able to stand before God. Do you believe that? Do you trust in Jesus alone? Or is your trust still in your ability to do good things, be a good person, keep your chin up and face life in your own strength? Peter was very specific. There is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved. Our faith is only in the person and work of Jesus Christ. We are saved by Christ alone.
Sola Scriptura (According to Scripture Alone)
“For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased”— and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts. But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (2 Peter 1:16-21)
So many people place their own experience as the ultimate authority. They do what makes them feel good. The say what the wish, they act in a manner that they desire and no one can tell them otherwise. In the church this attitude is painted with a veneer of holiness by stating “God is leading me to do…” or “God is telling me to do…” Who are you to say what God is saying or leading someone else?
Peter addresses this very question, the question of subjective human experience, in these verses. It is here that he brings up his own experience as an eyewitness to Jesus’ transfiguration (Matthew 17). Which one of you can top that? Which one of you can honestly admit to an experience that is even comparable to witnessing the Son of God revealing His glory? That’s a rhetorical question, because of course none of us can. And yet Peter upholds the prophetic word made more sure as something even more precious. We have something better than experience. We have God revealed within the text of 2 testaments consisting of 66 books divided into 1,189 chapters and 31,164 verses.
These words are not to be taken lightly, because they are not the whims of man. The Bible was written by humans, this is true. But each man was moved by God the Holy Spirit. The word used here (moved) is used in other writings to describe the way a ship is moved under the propulsion of the wind. If you have a sailing ship, you need wind. Just so, these words would go nowhere without the Holy Spirit moving and directing every jot and tittle.
“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16)
Every single syllable of Holy writ is inspired (literally – breathed out) by God and is good. We do not waste our time consulting human tradition or the tales of old women (1 Timothy 4:7). Our understanding of God and our obedience to Him is found on the pages of Scripture Alone.
Soli Deo Gloria (For the Glory of God Alone)
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us. In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory. In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.” (Ephesians 1:3-14)
This is a single sentence in the original Greek and so full of rich theology that it would take a month of Sunday’s to mine it all out. Yet there is a single phrase here that is repeated no less than three time: For the praise of His glory. As Paul very plainly states the predetermined plan of God for the salvation of these Ephesian saints was from before the foundations of the earth. While exulting in the beauty of this lavish gift of grace through faith, he makes certain that the Ephesians know why God has acted in the way that He has: For HIS glory.
God works all things according to the council of HIS will (v. 11). As the prophet Isaiah was moved by the Holy Spirit, “I am Yhwh, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, nor My praise to graven images.” (Isaiah 42:8). At the end of the day we must ask ourselves, “Does my theology give glory to God or man?” The reformers were convinced that the gospel is a message of salvation, but that salvation brings glory to God alone.
If you are reading this and are asking yourself, “Then what must I do to be saved?!” You are in good company. That was the response to Peter’s first sermon in Acts 2. I will tell you the same thing he told his hearers. REPENT. Turn from your sin and cling to Christ! If salvation from sin and eternal death is only a gift form Almighty God by His grace through faith in His Christ as found in His Word for His glory, then the response of man is very simple. Plead for mercy before a mighty God!
“If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved; for with the heart man believes resulting in righteousness and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says, ‘Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.’” (Romans 10:9-11)
It is always this time of year, when the glory of God is so obviously on display, that my mind turns to men like Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and William Tyndale. Men, who like the apostles before them, turned the world upside down. Not through political activism or militaristic revolt. But through unleashing the message of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to Scripture alone, and always with the goal of giving glory to God alone.
The danger for us, over 500 years later, is to think that we have somehow arrived. We have been lulled into the deception that the gospel has been recovered and is no longer in need of defending. And yet the world is full of pulpits that no longer proclaim salvation by grace through faith and in Christ alone. You are required to sign on to their charter, to be a part of their club, to affirm their pet projects in order to secure your salvation. Scripture has long been under attack and is no longer seen as the only message sinners need to hear. Today personal feelings, phycology, and political theory have undermined Scriptures authority. As a result, God is not glorified.
To these five pillars, I suggest a sixth: Semper Reformanda. This Latin phrase means always reforming. Let us never be lulled to sleep thinking that we can stand on the tradition of others. We must always and continually strive to search and study the Scriptures to confirm that our teaching is what God has said. This is the only way to stop ourselves from preaching a gospel that is graceless and based upon human achievement. Only by chaining ourselves to God’s Word can we proclaim a gospel that points only to Christ. Only by exalting His Word will we exalt and glorify Him.