There were a lot of reasons why the Protestant Reformation started almost 500 years ago. The fact that the Bible was only available in Latin and services were conducted in Latin rather than in the language of the people. The fact that the church was so clergy centered and so wealthy and so dismissive of the laity. But undoubtedly the biggest issue was dissatisfaction over how the church had come to understand the issue of salvation.
When Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door of Wittenburg, Germany, on October 31, 1517, the first two of these points on which he wanted the church to have debate had to do with this issue. A number of the other theses also touched on it in one way or the other.
Discontent had been growing for some time, but the match that finally ignited the powder keg came when the church wanted to build the magnificent St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. One of the marketing concepts they came up with was to sell what were called “indulgences.” These were marketed to the laity, saying the purchase of an indulgence would lead to the forgiveness of sins. It was like a buying a “get out of jail free” card. That was bad enough, but it was also advertised that you could purchase an indulgence to help a loved one who had died make it into heaven.
How could that be, you ask? Well, one of the teachings of Catholicism is that after you die you go to purgatory to await ultimate judgment. While you are in purgatory your loved ones can pray on your behalf. But with the sale of indulgences came the promise that in buying these you can do something concrete to help the pendulum swing to heaven in the judgment of your loved one. A priest named Tetzel went from town to town selling indulgences with this pithy little rhyme: “for every coin that in the coffer rings a soul from purgatory springs.”
Luther was appalled. First, he said, the pope is as rich as Croesus, so he should just pay to have St. Peter’s built himself. Secondly, he said, Scripture is clear that one cannot buy the forgiveness of sins or buy one’s way into heaven.
Of course, the Scriptures where one might learn this were written in Latin and taught in Latin, so there was no way for the laity to know this. So one of Luther’s emphases was to have the Bible translated into the common languages and made available to people, and for worship to be conducted in the language of the people so that it would be edifying. And he taught about the Bible and wrote commentaries about the books of the Bible and worked hard to help people have resources not only to read the Bible but to understand what they read.
Luther himself had been overwhelmed by guilt when he became a monk. He was constantly despairing over how God could possibly love him and how he could be absolved of all his guilt. But as he read his Bible he began to hear alternative voices and verses from those that had always been emphasized.
The heart of that liberating message is found in today’s passage from Ephesians, chapter 2 verse 8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” The watchwords of the Protestant Reformation became “Grace alone; faith alone; Scripture alone.”
The Old Testament had taught that salvation is to be earned by obedience to God’s law. By the time of Jesus the main roles of religious authorities were to interpret those laws to people so they would not disobey them in any way, and to offer the sacrifices people brought and intercede for them with God.
Jesus brought a new lens and taught people to pay more attention to the spirit of the law than the letter of the law. Even more importantly, he taught that his Father God loved people and wanted more than anything else to be in relationship with them, not to judge and condemn them. He told stories about God being like a shepherd who leaves the ninety nine sheep who are safe and sound to go search for the one which is lost and restore that lost lamb to the fold, and about God being like a Father who runs to meet the prodigal son who has demanded his inheritance early and gone away and squandered it and now comes groveling home – he doesn’t criticize or condemn, he embraces and clothes and restores his sonship.
John summarizes the Gospel by saying, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever lives and believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. God did not send his son to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” God’s overwhelming disposition toward the people of the world is love.
As Paul took the Gospel to the Gentiles, he had to face the question of whether Gentiles had to become Jews in order to become Christians. Did they have to obey the Jewish laws, practice Jewish customs including circumcision, in order to be part of the church? His answer was no. “At the right time, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us, the ungodly.” “By grace you have been saved through faith alone. This is not your own doing, not the result of good works, it is the gift of God.”
But it seems like the default position churches tend to revert to is to view God as a demanding, judgmental God who is eager to punish us for each and every wrongdoing. We revert to legalism and litmus tests and guilt trips and impossible expectations. We tend to believe that God can’t possibly love us unless we do enough for him, or buy him off. Free, unmerited grace just sounds like one of those advertising promises that sounds too good to possibly be true, so we put it in the trash can with those ads and trudge along hoping we can earn our way into heaven.
Here’s what you need to throw in the trash can. If you get a solicitation from a television evangelist that if you send in a certain amount of money you will receive certain blessings, throw that in the trash can. If you hear a promise that by giving this much money or by doing that many volunteer things you will receive God’s blessing, turn it off.
Paul talked about these things as well, but he talked about them in the correct order, and that matters. The first truth, the baseline of what we need to know in this life, is that God loves us. The God who claimed us in baptism has never wavered in his love for us. We are saved by the free gift of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. Period. We receive it by faith. We are assured of it by Scripture. This is the blessed assurance we rest in.
The Heidelberg Catechism from Luther’s Reformation era Germany gets it exactly right. The very first question is: “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?” And the answer is: “That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil; that he protects me so well that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.” That sounds like it would be the concluding statement rather than the opening statement, but it is correct to start with that good news.
Because everything we do should be done in glad and grateful response to what God in Jesus Christ has already done for us. Because God has already assured us of eternal life, we are wholeheartedly willing and ready to live for him. So after Paul declares that we are saved by grace through faith, he goes on to say, “We are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
God has created us to do good things, to use the gifts he has given to make a positive difference in the world. He wants us to give gladly and generously of our possessions to advance important causes and help the needy; he wants us to volunteer our time and energy to a variety of good causes; he wants us to live a life that will be pleasing to him and in accordance with his plan for us. But he wants us to do all these things because we want to, because we are so thankful for what he has done for us, not because we think we have to do them in order to somehow earn his love and appease his anger. It is the difference between doing something for someone you love because you feel under obligation to do it or feel guilty about not having done enough versus doing something for that loved one out of abundant gratitude for having been blessed by that person’s life in so many ways.
Paul was talking about money when he said this, but he could have been talking about so much more: “Each one should give as they have made up their own mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, because God loves a cheerful giver. “ Giving cheerfully comes from gratitude, from knowing how abundantly we have been blessed and who the source of those blessings is. As you think this week about your stewardship of finances and of time and talents, I hope you will make a conscious effort to do so from this perspective of gratitude and cheerfulness. Not “I ought to do this,” but “I am able to do this,” and “I want to do this.”
The starting point makes a huge difference. The starting point is that we are saved by grace through faith, and it is a gift of God not anything we do or earn. For my grandfather, also a Presbyterian minister, this was the starting and the ending point. He believed this verse was the key to understanding the Scriptures, as well as one’s existence as a human being and a child of God. The verse is inscribed on his tombstone in Summerton, S.C., so that he is still bearing witness to this great truth of the Scriptures after his death more than 50 years ago. “By grace you have been saved through faith…”
The Brief Statement of Faith of the Presbyterian Church says, “In life and in death we belong to God. With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The book of Acts gives this summary of life in the post-Pentecost church: “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
Faith, hope, and love abide, these three; the greatest of these is love. The greatest love is the love of God which knows no bounds, which will not let us go, which extends amazing grace to people who do not deserve it in any way, shape, or form. Thanks be to God for this amazing grace through which alone we are saved.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
October 25, 2015
Central Presbyterian Church