In recognition that we are fast approaching the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, I am offering a series of articles on some of the great pillars of Lutheranism. These are all things that distinguished the Lutherans from the Roman Catholics in the 1500s, but also set us apart from all other Christians today. Last month we looked at Sola Scriptura – Scripture Alone. Sola Scriptura is that doctrine which teaches that we look only to the Word of God for doctrines of faith and practice. Even today, this still places us Lutherans in sharp disagreement with the Roman Catholic Church as they continue to adamantly reject Sola Scriptura. It also separates us from much of the rest of Christianity, who have abandoned the Scriptures in favor of human reason, human emotion, arguments from culture, or whatever I feel like Jesus is saying to me today.
Another pillar of Lutheranism is Sola Gratia – “Grace Alone.” Just as God speaks to us by His Word Alone (Sola Scriptura), He saves us by Grace Alone.
When all the dust settles, there are really only two religions in the world. The first is a religion of the law, where all people are compel-led to please their god by doing something. And if their god is pleased, he/she/it/they reward them for doing the law well. The second is a religion of grace, where people are saved as a free gift.
Let’s look at a couple of examples, and you can see how easy it is to recognize the religion of law.
- Islam is required to pray a certain number of times a day, adhere to a strict diet, and kill the infidel. If a good Muslim does that (and a lot more), he will inherit 72 “well developed” virgins in paradise. (Quran 78:33). If you are a woman, you only get one husband, but you’ll be satisfied with him.
- In Buddhism, it’s about karma, which means “action.”
Every action must have a reaction. Do good and good will happen to you. Do enough good and you’ll be reincarnated to a higher realm – eventually achieving the status of Deva, “heavenly” or “god.” Do evil, and you’ll be reincarnated to a lower realm– eventually in Naraka, “hell.” It’s a full step below being a ghost.
We could keep going. But the reason Lutheranism developed a confession of Sola Gratia wasn’t because of Islam or Buddhism or any other non-Christian religion. Sola Gratia was confessed because Christians in the 1500s were teaching that we are not saved by grace alone, but also by our works. They were taking Christianity, which is a religion of grace, and turning it into a religion of works.
The thing is, this still sets Lutherans apart today. 500 years later, the Roman Catholic Church still rejects Sola Gratia. And so does any church teaching that says we must do something to be saved. That includes making salvation depend on anything but grace alone, such as making a decision for Jesus, committing your life to Jesus, living a good life for Jesus, being a better Christian than your neighbor, etc. 2 Timothy 3:1-5 speaks to those who rely on themselves for their salvation rather than on Jesus. In that passage, Paul calls them “lovers of self.” Luther would say that any effort to save ourselves by our good works is a violation of the 1st commandment, “You shall have no other Gods.” A person who thinks they have even the smallest thing to offer God for salvation has become their own god.
Of course, believing that Jesus has died for your sins and risen again from the dead should drastically change the way we should see the world. Our lives should be marked by good works! But the beauty of the doctrine of Sola Gratia is that because our salvation was accomplished 100% by Jesus, we don’t have to worry one bit about our salvation, or pleasing God, or impressing Him with our good works. Instead, we are now set free to serve our neighbor.
And, we are set free to simply receive the grace of our Lord Jesus. Our Lord makes His gracious gifts available to us in what we call the “means of grace.” They are the physical ways in which our Lord has given to deliver His grace to us. You know what they are. Water, Word and Supper. Romans 10:17 teaches us that Faith comes from hearing and hearing through the Word of Christ. Acts 2:38 and a bunch of other verses teach us about how Baptism gives us God Himself by means of Word connected to Water. And Matthew 26:26-28 and other places teach us that God gives us His Word connected to bread and wine to be what He says they are: His Body and Blood for the forgiveness of our sins.
We thank God for this beautiful, comforting, saving doctrine of Sola Gratia. Without it, we would still be on our own to save ourselves! But Jesus has done all that is needed for our salvation, and He gives it to us for free – Sola Gratia! By Grace Alone!
Pastor Thomas Brown