Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses on a church door. His purpose was to initiate a debate about teachings of the church which were running contrary to the Bible. The debate was meant for theologians of the day, but the topic spread farther and wider than expected, and the great Reformation was underway. The result was a return for many to the core principles of the Reformation that come straight out of the Bible: 1) we are saved by grace alone, 2) a message that comes to us by Scripture alone, and 3) no earning of salvation is asked of us because it is received by faith alone. Sometimes you see these core principles written in Latin: Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide.
Our midweek question and answer for these three Wednesdays surrounding Reformation Day (Oct. 31st, the day in 1517 when the posting of those theses ignited the spark) will look at each of those principles. Today, what do Lutherans mean by “grace alone”?
First of all, we call ourselves Lutherans simply because we want to teach as Luther did, with those core principles from the Bible. And leading them off is the emphasis on God’s grace as the source of our salvation. I can’t personally answer for all churches or preachers or individuals who go by the same name throughout the world. But I can say that in our church body or synod and in our congregation we take those core principles very seriously. And a solid understanding of God’s grace is not only at the heart of the Bible’s teaching and therefore at the heart of sound Lutheran doctrine, but it is really a distinguishing mark of genuine Lutheranism in a world of many Christian theologies of many different slants.
What is “grace”. Grace is simply defined as “undeserved love”. In the Bible we see grace as God’s faithful love that moves him to forgive sins. It is his kindly attitude toward sinners like us. It’s not something in us. It’s not a gift given to us in the sense of being something that’s planted in us that somehow helps us gain a better standing with the Lord. Grace is a quality of God himself.
You remember the famous passage, John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. It’s God’s love - his amazing grace - that moves him to give his Son for us as a perfect sacrifice for sin. Ephesians 2:8,9 make the same point very clearly: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. Our salvation comes from the faithful, undeserved love of God for sinners.
That salvation is not something I can earn. In Romans 11:6 we hear it this way: And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace. No, it’s not something I can earn. Forgiveness and salvation come from the heart of our God, just like every good gift that he gives. Luther describes it this way in the Catechism: All this God does only because he is my good and merciful Father in heaven, and not because I have earned or deserved it. (explanation to the 1st Article of the Apostles’ Creed)
Unfortunately, we have to go back a little farther in our own personal situations to entirely appreciate God’s grace. As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins. (Ephesians 2:1) We had no spiritual life, no power to help ourselves, no ability to work our way out of the guilt we carry before a holy God – dead. That’s our natural condition as sinners in a sinful world. Romans 6:23 gives it to us straight: The wages of sin is death. That’s what we’ve earned, and there’s nothing we can do about it. And it would be eternal death, if not for our Lord’s intervention. A solid understanding of God’s holy Law and the righteous punishment that we all deserve gives us a solid appreciation of God’s grace.
Thank God for his undeserved love! Thank God that he sent his Son Jesus for us, to live and die as a perfect sacrifice in our place. Thank God that Jesus in grace has paid the price and cancelled our debt of sin. As the old hymn says, nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.
There’s no other source. Our forgiveness and salvation come from God’s grace, grace alone. Grace is centered in Christ. His grace is for the whole world, that he so loved. It is complete. The blood of Jesus his Son purifies us from all sin. (I John 1:7) God’s grace is free.
What do Lutherans mean by “grace alone”? It means to know that we are at peace with God because of God, as the Bible says: There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:22-24)
Next week, “by Scripture alone”.
Blessings in Christ,