The Shocking Truth of the Lutheran Reformation
The 3 great truths of the Lutheran Reformation are sola Scriptura, sola gratia, and sola fide. These Latin words are found on the official seal of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. They mean Scripture alone, grace alone, and faith alone. The shocking truth of the Reformation, however, is not Scripture, grace, or faith. It's that little word sola, alone, only, solely.
"Alone" doesn't sound shocking, but it is. Every Christian denomination says it's founded on Scripture. In their statements of faith, you find phrases like "according to Scripture," "as Scripture says," "in accordance with Scripture." Now add the word "alone." In our Formula of Concord we "pledge ourselves to the prophetic and apostolic writingsas the only true norm by which all teachers and teachings are to be judged and evaluated." In the Smalcald Articles we confess this shocking truth: "God's Word shall establish articles of faith, and no one else, not even an angel can do so."
Catholics, east and west, appeal to the church fathers to establish articles of faith. They recognize them as on par with Scripture. Pentecostals appeal directly to the Spirit apart from the Word. The Reformed say God does not do anything contrary to reason, thereby setting up what they can get their heads around as a standard to judge all teachers, and teaching. Lutherans say, "The Word alone is enough."
I can see you're not shocked by this. Then you don't really know what "Scripture alone" means. It means: Scripture alone tells us all that we need know about God for salvation. Scripture alone is an accurate guide for faith and life. Scripture alone is to be trusted even when it goes beyond my senses and reason.
Scripture alone tells us all we need to know about God for salvation. It doesn't tell us how a holy angel fell into sin, why God allowed Adam to fall, or how come guilty Peter is saved and guilty Judas is damned. But Scripture alone tells us that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself by counting the sins of the world against Christ and by putting the holiness of Christ over the world.
Scripture alone is an accurate guide for faith and life. Your Baptist friend regularly puts himself on the rack of "finding the will of God for his life." Your Pentecostal friend regularly looks for signs from God to know where and what to do in life. Your Catholic friend agonizes over how he can be sure of God's will. You rest on Scripture alone. What God hasn't told you you're glad not to know. What God hasn't revealed in Scripture alone you are free to do or not to. God's will is expressed in Scripture alone not in your feelings or in your interpretation of signs.
Scripture alone is trusted even when it goes beyond my senses or reason. Scripture says Bread is Body and Wine is Blood; that sinners are saints, the sick healthy, the suffering blessed, and the dead alive. Try to get your head around any of those things. While you're at it, try to get your head around a virgin birth, invisible angels, and a 6 day creation. But we go by what Scripture alone says rather than what are senses can apprehend or our reason can comprehend. And that's good because you'll never be able to apprehend how a sinner like you can be a saint, and your reason will never comprehend how God became Man and redeemed mankind.
Still not shocked, are you? Let's move on to being saved by grace alone. Catholics will say we're saved by grace but not by grace alone. God's grace alone deals with their original sin, but not with their actual sins. The sin they're born with is graciously washed away in Baptism, but the sins they've committed since then aren't. Oh grace is involved, but as a fuel not a gift. Grace from Jesus' perfect life and innocent death, as well as grace from the good works of the saints is poured into them so they can do good things to offset their sins. So the Catholic receives Communion not for complete forgiveness by grace but to get the grace to do good things to be forgiven.
What about Methodists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Episcopalians, and Baptists? Surely they believe in grace alone! Yes, they believe, as we do, that grace is in God's heart not something He pours into ours and that apart from any merit in us God sent His only beloved Son into the world to live the perfect life needed to keep the law and to die the death needed to pay for our sins. But where the other Protestants trip is how does salvation that is by grace alone get to sinners?
You know what they say because some of you are about to say it. You're about to say that the forgiveness, life and salvation that Jesus graciously won for the world of sinners gets to sinners by faith. This is a problem. This makes faith a means of grace. This puts the weight of your eternal salvation on your faith, and only someone who hasn't faced real trials, terrors, or temptation can bear it there. The rest of us know that the best we can ever say is, "Lord I believe; help my unbelief." The more a trial, terror, or temptation hammers on our heart with the question, "Do you believe?" the more we see our faith pounded into tiny pieces.
How does the forgiveness, life, and salvation that Jesus graciously won for sinners get to them? If you say, "By faith" then you make faith a sacrament and you have faith in faith. No, faith needs a place to hang its hat. Faith must be in something. It can't be, "I believe in faith." Most of the other Protestants do see the Word as a means of delivering grace. They speak of faith in the promises, faith in the Word. That's good; their faith is hanging on what God has promised, on what God says.
But these other Protestants don't recognize Baptism or Communion as means by which the gracious forgiveness Jesus won on the cross comes to us in time. To them Baptism and Communion are signs, symbols of how God in Christ feels, but they aren't means of grace. They are for us. Because when we touch our Baptismal waters Scripture says we touch a life giving water rich in grace. And when we touch the Bread and Wine of Communion Scripture says we touch the Body and Blood of God the Son once given and shed on Calvary come down again from heaven to forgive us.
Being saved by grace alone mean God does all the work and that your salvation is as sure as God Himself. Why then do we say we're saved by faith alone, and don't all churches say this? All Christians speak of faith, but they don't speak of faith alone. Catholics won't say it at all. Something more than faith in Christ is needed to save a person. Faith must be active in good works. You think we're not susceptible to this but we are. When Satan attacks we don't stand on faith alone. We stand on our going to church; our supporting the church, our doing good works or our not doing works as bad as others.
But we fall off on the Protestant side too. They confess that salvation is by faith alone, but then they make faith something it's not. To some, it's a decision they make. To others, faith is something that God sees and is pleased with and so rewards it with salvation. That's not really salvation by faith alone but by big faith alone, a firm faith alone, a sure faith alone. What happens to faith when you talk this way? Faith becomes unsure, doubtful, inadequate. It can't stand alone; something needs to be added to it whether good works, certainty, or boldness.
We've all been here before. Many of us live here. What a far cry, and I mean "cry" literally, we are from Paul saying, "We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the Law." We add the law of doing good works or the law that faith must be certain and heartfelt. This leaves us never being able to say, "I know I'm going to heaven. I know I'm justified before God. I know I'm forgiven for all the sins my conscience is afraid of."
Dear friends, let faith be really alone, all alone. It's not faith's bigness or certainty that justifies, forgives or saves a person. If it were then Jesus would not have repeatedly pointed to a tiny faith, mustard seed in size, receiving all the power of God. Faith saves because it receives salvation; it doesn't cause salvation. If it did, then you would need to be sure you had the right amount or size to save. Faith receives what God first puts there. God puts salvation in His Word of promise, in His Waters of Baptism, and in His Body and Blood in Communion, and faith receives it there.
Faith is the only way to receive salvation because salvation is a promise that God makes to sinners in His Word, in His Water, in His Sacrament. You don't instantly go to heaven when you're absolved, baptized, or communed. You are promised heaven in them. Faith receives that promise, even a teeny, tiny faith does. But God doesn't want you focusing on your faith but on His promise. Faith withers when it's focused on. Faith blossoms when God's gracious promises are focused on.
Picture a beggar led into a room full of food. The only way he can have it is by eating it, but you wouldn't stand there saying, "You'd better eat this; you'd better put it in your mouth; you'd better chew and swallow it." No, you'd simply put the food before him and the eating would take care of itself. God in His means of grace sets the table of salvation, and faith eats. But what if you found a beggar who for some reason wouldn't eat? Still you wouldn't get him to eat by focusing on his eating but by focusing on the rich food. Likewise when faith falters don't focus on why you doubt or how small your faith is. No, focus on the new life given in Baptism, the full forgiveness given in Absolution, and the everlasting life given in Communion.
Keep the word alone, only, solely, sola with you this week. When you stray into worries and doubts let it call you back to only Scripture. When you see you're many sins as too many, let it call you back to grace alone. And when you consider how weak your Christian life is, let it call you back to the joyous truth that salvation is yours sola fide. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Reformation Day (20061029)