by Steve Jolley & Ryan Wassel
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In the sixteenth century, Rome began the monumental building project of Saint Peter’s Basilica. Those who have visited Rome and the Vatican can attest that Saint Peter’s boggles the mind, especially when considering that this gigantic, ornate church was built so long ago. The artistic beauty is staggering. Whether one is a Christian or not, the building itself elicits hushed adoration. The problem, however, was that this building cost a fortune to build. To help pay for this project, the unscrupulous Pope Leo X made a special indulgence to those who gave money to support this work.
The church of sixteenth century believed that the pope had the power of the keys to heaven. This included the power to grant indulgences for people who did not have enough merit to enter heaven and were stuck in purgatory. Indulgences were granted by the church and were understood to be the forgiveness of the debt owed to God for sin. In the thinking of the Roman Catholic Church of the day, the pope had the ability to draw on a treasury of excess merit which other saints had amassed, but did not need, to gain access to heaven. This excess, or surplus, of spiritual good could be used on behalf of other sinners who needed more righteousness to get into heaven.
Many in the sixteenth century tried to literally purchase the salvation of friends and family who had died but may not be in heaven. Johan Tetzel was a Dominican friar who peddled these indulgences in the part of Germany where the soon-to-be-reformer Martin Luther lived. Luther listened to Tetzel’s crass soliciting of salvation for sale; Every time a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs. Luther, and others, pondered the question, Could salvation be bought for a price? Was righteousness something you could acquire on your own merit, or could you even buy the righteousness of someone else?
The central question of the sixteenth century Reformation was, how is a person saved? Last month, in our continuing series, Re-Forming the Reformation, we considered the Reformation teaching of sola gratia, or grace alone. Alongside of the affirmation that Christians are saved by grace alone, stands the teaching of the Bible that we are saved by sola fide, faith alone. Martin Luther said that this is the article by which the church stands, without which it falls. It is not too much to say that this biblical teaching, that a person is justified by faith alone, is the most important affirmation of historic evangelicalism.
In our culture, faith is often an elastic term that can mean many things. Faith is used as a synonym for peace of mind or even a vague spiritual health. Faith, for many, becomes a kind of spiritual-psychological key to unlock the inner doors of our life in the pursuit of peace and assurance of the soul. Generically, we refer topeople of faith. The Bible, however, uses the word faith in a very different way. It is a concrete word that means to trust. In the Scriptures when someone has faith, they have trust in someone or something.
So back to the question with which the Reformers were struggling. How is a person justified before God? How are we saved? What role does faith play in coming to God? The missing piece of the complex Roman Catholic scheme for salvation was the crucial word alone. The sixteenth century church believed that faith was necessary for salvation. The problem was, they just didn’t believe it was enough for justification. They believed that good works completed the act of faith. The Reformers, on the other hand, started with the Bible and found that faith alone was sufficient for salvation. It was because of passages like Romans 3:27-28, that the Reformers came to trust in faith alone.
Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.
R.C. Sproul says, It is not an exaggeration to say that the eye of the Reformation tornado was this one little word [alone]. The Reformers insisted the Bible taught that a person was saved by grace alone, by faith alone, and through Christ alone. Christians today can make the same mistake the church of Luther’s day made and forget this one little word, alone. There is a persistent and pernicious tendency to want to help God save us. As SBCC stands in the Reformed tradition we want to relish the marvelous truth that we are saved by faith — alone.