Re-Forming the Reformation 3: Sola Gratia

Steve JolleyCommunity News

by Steve Jolley & Ryan Wassel
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In our continuing series, Reforming the Reformation, we are considering what it means when we say Santa Barbara Community Church stands in the Reformed tradition.  Last month, Benji Bruneel introduced us to the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli and compared his understanding of the Lord’s Supper with that of SBCC. This month we will ponder one of the central teachings of the Reformation: salvation by grace alone. This contentious issue caused leaders such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, and John Knox to confront the religious establishment of their day and literally face death because they saw the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3) being corrupted.  They protested (where we get the name “Protestant”) against the teaching of the church and reaffirmed the Biblical teaching that God saves us bysola gratia, grace alone.

In the sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church affirmed that justification is by grace, through faith, because of Jesus Christ.  What the church in those days did not believe was that justification was by gracealone, through faith alone, and because of Jesus Christ alone.  The issue was not the necessity of grace, but rather the means and sufficiency of grace.  Everyone in the sixteenth century agreed that grace was needed for salvation. The problem arose, however, because monetary indulgences (a giving of money to purchase salvation), prayers to Mary and the saints, hours of confession, and the individual merits of the sinner were added to find salvation.  The Reformers reacted, asserting that grace was ceasing to be sufficient grace because of these added works.

It is in this context where we encounter Martin Luther (1483-1546), an Augustinian monk who understood from the scriptures that God was a holy and righteous judge.  When Luther was a young man, he spent hours in confession hoping that God would notice him for his many tears.  His fear was that if he failed to confess even one sin, it would be enough for God to condemn him.  He later wrote, Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly . . . I was angry with God (Luther’s Works, 34, 336-37).  In 1511, hoping to encourage the young priest, Johann Staupitz (Luther’s confessor) sent young Martin to Rome to walk around the great capital city of the church.  Rather than being encouraged, Luther was extremely disappointed at the immorality and blasphemy of the city.  Returning to Germany disillusioned and confused, Luther was given the responsibility at The University of Wittenberg to teach Biblical Studies to aspiring priests and ministers. It was during this time when something remarkable happened.  While teaching on the Psalms and the book of Romans, the gospel began to leap off the pages as he encountered the phrase, the righteousness of God.  For the first time Luther understood that the righteousness of God is not only what God is, but what Godgives (Romans 1:17).  Finally, Luther realized God’s grace is not only necessary, but fully sufficient to save the sinner.  The church of Luther’s day believed that justification was accomplished by the infusion of grace, a boost that helps the sinner to cooperate with God in salvation, rather than imputation of grace that actually declares the sinner righteous.  The Reformers affirmed that grace actually saves.  Grace alone means, grace at the start, grace in the middle, grace to the end, grace without merit, and grace without addition.

The Apostle Paul, speaking of God, put it like this, [God] who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began (2 Timothy 1:9).  In his letter to the church at Ephesus Paul says, 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 (Ephesians 2:8-9). It is God’s sovereign act in Christ to consider the guilty innocent solely because the innocent one was considered guilty.  If we ever stop being amazed by this life-transforming grace, we will have missed the essence of the good news of the gospel.  Grace is, indeed, amazing!