October 22, 2017
What must a person do to be right before God? You see, most people in their heart of hearts know two things: first, there is a God, and second, we will one day give an account to Him. So, what must a person do to be right when they stand before Him? This is the goal of religion. This ought to be the question any rational person asks. If there is a God – there is – and if I will stand before Him – you will – and if my eternity hangs in the balance – it does – what must I do to be right?
The question plagued a young, German law student. He was born on November 10, 1483 to Hans and Margaret Luther. The next day, per church instruction, he was baptized – the first step, you see, in doing something to be right before God. It day was St. Martin’s day, and so his parents named him after the saint. Now as he grew up, by all counts, Martin Luther was a serious and sensitive young man. His father, in the mining industry, had saved to send his son to the university in Erfurt. There, in remarkably short order, bright Martin earned his Bachelor’s, then Master’s degrees. His father’s plan was for his oldest son to earn a law degree, and become a lawyer. Dutifully, Martin enrolled in law school.
But one day, after a visit home and on his way back to school, he was caught in a serious thunderstorm. The date was July 2, 1505 – he was 21. A close lightning strike knocked him to the ground. So scared was Martin, he cried out, “St. Anne, help me! I will become a monk.” That’s interesting. Why St. Anne? Well, she was supposedly the mother of the Virgin Mary, and was also the patron saint of miners. Notice, his initial, terrified response was to cry out, not to God, but to a saint. Notice second, in time of terror, he made a vow to become a monk. Why? Because he saw this brush with death a wakeup call. Ever had one of those? What must I do to be right before this righteous God? I will become a monk. He sold his possessions, to include his law books, and presented himself to the local austere, Augustinian monastery in Erfurt.
As we saw last week, in his monkery, he tried to be right before God. Perhaps no one tried harder. Through constant vigils, prayers, fasting, self-denial, the sacraments, to include constant confession, Luther tried. But he could not find the peace for which he longed. Once, his confessor, Johann von Staupitz, thought a pilgrimage to Rome – the holy city of the Mother Church – might do this young, plagued priest some good. So, in November, 1510 accompanied by another priest, Luther made the 800-mile journey, on foot, to Rome – which meant traveling over the Swiss Alps in winter. A month later, upon first seeing Rome from a distance, Luther fell to the ground and cried out, “Holy Rome, I salute thee.” However, arriving in the city, he was appalled at the vile, blatant immorality and corruption he witnessed, even in the church.
But, still trying, he made his way to St. John Lateran Church. It had been the papal home and most important catholic church for centuries, before St. Peter’s. Not only that, there were the scala sancta, the holy stairs, said to be relocated from Pilate’s judgment hall in 326 AD by Emperor Constantine’s devout mother, St. Helen. These were the very stairs containing the very blood of Christ. Per instruction – trying to be right before God, Luther ascended the 28 marble stairs on his knees, meditating on the suffering of Christ, and reciting the Our Father, the Ave Maria, and others, on each step. When he got to the top, he stood up, looked around and said, “Who knows if this is true?”
By the way, in 1908, Pope Pius X attached a plenary indulgence to the completion of ascending the holy staircase, as long as it was preceded by confession and communion. When I was at the Lateran Church last month to see these stairs, many were ascending on their knees. And the sign at the bottom to the left of the staircase read,
“The following indulgences may be received in accordance with the usual conditions:
Plenary Indulgence: on all Fridays of Lent, and once more each year on occasion of one’s choice.
Partial Indulgence: on all other days of the year, as long as one is sincerely repentant of one’s sins.”
You see, the Church still teaches indulgences. Back to Luther. Disillusioned, he made his way back to the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt. Staupitz had been transferred to Wittenberg, so in 1515, he called for Luther to come to the new university there. He could earn his bachelor’s in Bible, eventually, his doctorate in theology, teach in the university, pastor the people in the Castle Church. Why, he’ll be so busy, he won’t have time to despair in his incessant self-examination – trying to be right before God.
Study and teach, Luther did, through the Psalms, Galatians and Romans his first three years there. It was while studying Romans Luther had a spiritual breakthrough. Some question whether he truly became a believer then, but it was Romans 1:17 that struck. “For in it [that is, in the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed.” Stop there. Upon first reading the text, Luther despaired about the righteousness of God. How can an unrighteous man, especially like me, be made right to stand before a righteous God? It was not until later he was thunderstruck again – this by the rest of the words of the text – the righteous man shall live by his faith!
God began to do a work in Luther’s heart – justification was not to be found in works – whether works of the Law, or works prescribed by the Roman church. Justification was to be found by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ and His all-sufficient work, alone.
It was that third year then, 1517, October 31, Luther posted his 95 Theses on the church door in Wittenberg. He was questioning the abuse of indulgences, and the Pope’s authority to forgive sin through these indulgences. You see, he was at least beginning to understand salvation is through faith, alone. As you remember, the 95 Theses was not meant to be a public document, but an invitation written in Latin to his academic colleagues to a debate – to discuss his 95 propositions. But, someone translated the document into German, and through the use of the printing press, disseminated them throughout Germany, such that most Germans had heard or even read them within a two-week period of time. And the Protestant Reformation was born.
As you well know, during these five Sundays of October, 2017, 500 years later, we have been remembering the truths once lost, but recovered in the Reformation. They can be summed up in the Five Solas – Sola Scriptura, Solus Christus, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, and Soli Deo Gloria. That is, Scripture Alone, Christ Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone, and the Glory of God Alone. This morning, we arrive at Faith Alone.
The church had gotten off track. They had created an entire sacramental system by which people did things to earn salvation. How is a person made right before God? By keeping these works we’ve prescribed. Salvation was no longer by grace through faith in Christ alone. No, keep our system. And, as we’ve seen, by introducing works into the equation, the church held people in incredible bondage, with no assurance of salvation. Try hard, and you might make it, but likely the best you can do is millenniums in purgatory, burning off sin not completely removed. It’s no wonder Luther abused himself, trying desperately to remove or at least reduce his suffering in the fires of purgatory.
So, we go back to the question with which I began – what must a person do to be right before God? The church said work; Luther, and the Reformers said, nothing, save faith alone. And even faith is a gift of His grace. You should know the Catholic Church, in response to the Reformation, held the Council of Trent from 1545 to 1563. In it, they addressed justification and this concept of faith alone. In Canon 14, they said, “If anyone says that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to the obtaining of the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.” Excommunicated and cursed. Further, the Council pronounced an anathema on those who claim we can be justified by faith alone apart from the sacraments.
Luther, however, called this doctrine of Sola Fide the articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae. It is the article upon which the church stands or falls. We have seen through our study the Solas are interconnected. God’s free gift of grace, provided through the all-sufficient work of His Son, Jesus Christ, comes through faith. Faith is not a work, but simply means by which we receive God’s grace.
We can simply define faith as trust – trust in the gospel. Trust that God, in the person of Jesus, took on flesh, lived a perfect, died a death He did not deserve, bearing in His body our sins, being raised the third day. And by trust in His all-sufficient work, our sins can be removed. By trust in His work, we can be justified – that is, declared righteous, having received the very righteousness of Christ. And we do nothing – that is, we do not work, but simply believe. Righteousness is received as a free gift of His grace – through faith. Salvation does not come from looking at our own works of righteousness. It comes from looking outside ourselves to another – the person and work of Christ.
It’s so important we understand the difference. The Church taught we receive the grace of Christ to transform us, and by our righteous works, to receive justification. The Reformers taught we are declared righteous in justification, and receive the righteousness of Christ. In other words, the Church taught we are counted righteous because of our works, the Reformers taught we are counted righteous because of Christ.
So, what is the biblical basis for faith alone? It’s all over the Bible. Consider these verses:
We could look at the Gospel of John. He tells us why he wrote, “these things have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” Eternal life come through believing. In fact, John uses the verb believe 98 times in his gospel. He started with, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.”
Belief or trust – that is, faith [in John] is clearly necessary for salvation. But what about faith alone? Is it only faith, or faith plus works, as the Catholics teach? The Books of Romans and Galatians deal decidedly with this issue. In fact, that is the purpose of Galatians, one of the first Paul wrote. He was battling Judaizers who said faith plus keeping the Law of Moses were necessary for salvation.
In chapter 2, he writes rather redundantly, “nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.” It seems Paul is trying to get a point across! He goes on in Galatians 3:
6 Even so Abraham BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.
7 Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.
8 The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “ALL THE NATIONS WILL BE BLESSED IN YOU.”
9 So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer.
10 For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO DOES NOT ABIDE BY ALL THINGS WRITTEN IN THE BOOK OF THE LAW, TO PERFORM THEM.”
11 Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “THE RIGHTEOUS MAN SHALL LIVE BY FAITH”…
13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us– for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE” —
14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
It seems clear salvation is by grace, through faith alone. A couple passages from Romans 3 and 4. Last week, we read from chapter 3:
21 But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets,
22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction;
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus;
25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith…
27 Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith.
28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.
In the next chapter, Paul writes:
1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found?
2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God.
3 For what does the Scripture say? “ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS CREDITED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS.”
4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due.
5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness…
Again, while we don’t see the words Faith Alone, clearly we see that a person is justified by his faith, and his faith is credited, imputed to him as righteousness. To be clear, faith is not the ground of our justification – it is the grace of God through the finished work of His Son that saves us. In other words, faith does not save – Christ does. Faith is the instrument or means by which we lay hold of Christ. Faith saves because it unites us with Christ.
A couple more quick passages:
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.
Titus 3:5-7 – He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
There are more, I think we get the point. Now, very quickly, we do have a challenge to address. The only place in the NT the words faith alone appears is in James 2. When we read it, you’re going to say, wait – James just said we are not justified by faith alone. And you’ll be right. That is what he says. In fact, early in his life, Martin Luther called James a right strawy epistle. I don’t what right strawy means, but Luther struggled James because of this passage – listen to it:
14 What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?
15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food,
16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?
17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
18 But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”
19 You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder.
20 But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?
21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?
22 You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected;
23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS,” and he was called the friend of God.
24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.
Wow, that just undid my whole sermon – the Catholics are right – a person is justified by faith and works! Not so fast. The point James is making is this: a person is justified by faith alone, but faith that justifies is never alone. In other words, works are not the cause of justification; they are, however, the result or the proof of justification. A person who has come to faith in Jesus Christ – who is trusting Jesus and Him alone for his or her salvation – is a new creation, and his or her life will prove it. If you say you’re a Christian, and don’t live like it, James is saying that kind of faith is dead. So faith alone saves, but faith that saves is never alone. Jesus taught the same thing when He said things like, by their fruit, you shall know them.
Listen to what Luther said in his introduction to Romans – even as he expressed his dislike for James. Luther stated saving faith is,
“a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith. Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever…Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire!”
We are out of time, but what I want you to hear this today: Salvation is by grace, through faith, in Christ alone. It is not, and never has been, by works. The answer to the question, what must I do to be right before God is simply this: Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.