On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther posted 95 theses for debate on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. Thus began a revolution in theological affairs that rocked the ecclesiastical and secular worlds for centuries to come. We are all still heirs of Doctor Luther’s stand for faith.
The story of the Protestant Reformation is well known. Law student Martin Luther, frightened of sin, God and lightning, called out to God (well, Saint Anne, actually) for deliverance in a thunder storm and vowed to become a monk. Become a monk he did, and a professor of New Testament studies as well. As Doctor Luther became better versed in the writings of the New Testament – especially the writings of Paul – he saw a grave sin in the medieval practice of selling indulgences. Luther posted his 95 theses as a challenge to this custom. The church excommunicated Luther in 1520, but – at the insistence of the Frederick III, Elector of Saxony and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor – offered Luther an opportunity to recant at a the Diet of Worms in 1521. There, Luther is famously reported to have responded to his accusers, “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.” His life in danger, Luther went into hiding at the Wartburg castle near Eisenach, where he translated the New Testament into the German language. Under the protection of Frederick, he returned to Wittenberg in 1522. There he resumed preaching and teaching. There he also married Katherine von Bora and established the practice of clergy marriage (for which I and my wife are extremely grateful).
And they all lived happily ever after. Well, not quite.
When Luther opened the door to dissent, a flood of dissenter came rushing through. From the beginning, Luther’s reformation resulted in profound ideological and civil conflict. He returned to Wittenberg in 1522 to stand against even more radical reformers. The so-called Peasants War presaged the theological and military battles that would engulf Europe for over two hundred years.
On one hand, the Reformation divided the church and resulted in literally thousands of distinct Christian identities.
On the other hand, the Reformation gave us principles that have endured for nearly 500 years: by scripture alone, by grace alone, by faith alone, by Christ alone, to God’s glory alone.
- By scripture alone (sola scriptura) – It’s not that other books aren’t important, but scripture has a unique, divine authority which books, church councils, ecclesiastical leaders and charismatic prophets all lack. It is the canon – or measuring rod – for all faith claims.
- By grace alone (sola gratia) – Salvation comes by God’s mercy at God’s initiative. God has revealed himself and provided the means for our deliverance. Human beings can do nothing on their own to know God, earn God’s favor or exceed God’s demands. All human beings, in fact, fall short of God’s righteous requirements. Salvation comes by God’s grace alone.
- By faith alone (sola fide) – Grace is God’s side of the equation; faith is the human side. Faith is the human response to God’s initiative. Faith is the total response of the total person to God’s grace. It is more than assent to theological propositions. In one sense, faith has no independent substance at all. It does not add anything to God’s grace, but merely trusts it. In another sense, faith encompasses all human thinking, feeling, acting and relating. What we do reveals what we believe.
- By Christ alone (solo Christo) – God’s grace is not an abstract principle, but is found in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Neither is faith an abstract principle – faith in faith. Rather, Christian faith is in Christ alone.
- Glory to God alone (soli Deo gloria) – There is no boasting in faith, for everything comes by God’s grace in Jesus Christ. No one – no matter how saintly their lives – does anything more important than simply believe. All truly good works are the response of faith. We are all sinners redeemed by God’s love in Christ Jesus, and all glory belongs to God alone.
Roots in Romans
It was in Paul’s writings (especially Romans and Galatians) that Luther found his theology transformed. Romans 3:21-28 is a locus classicus of Reformation theology and contains all five Reformation themes: Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, to God’s glory alone.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it– the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.
Paul says that God put forward Jesus as a “hilasterion” by his blood. The translation above renders “hilasterion” as “propitiation.” What is that? It’s certainly not an everyday word for most people. Others translate the Greek word in question as “expiation,” an equally obscure word. The translation of this word has become the source of a typical Reformation style argument. Propitiation means “something that turns away anger.” Expiation means “something that covers sin.” Proponents of both translations can become quite heated in their assertions.
Personally, I think Paul here is drawing a word picture. I doubt he’s hanging a carefully nuanced theological doctrine on a single word. Paul seems to be comparing Jesus to the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) sacrifice in the Holy of Holies. The Day of Atonement occurred just once each year. In the Biblical era, the High Priest – and only the High Priest – entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement to offer a sacrifice of atonement for all Israel.
The Holy of Holies was the innermost part of the temple in which the Ark of the Covenant was located. God was envisioned to sit enthroned above the cherubim which decorated the cover of the Ark. As God’s throne, the covering of the Ark was called – in the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament into Greek – the hilasterion.
As the throne room of God, the Holy of Holies was completely off-limits to almost everyone. Even priests could not enter it. Only the High Priest could enter this sacred space, and he could enter only once a year. On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest prepared to enter this most holy place by first offering sacrifices for his own sin. To offer the Yom Kippur sacrifice on behalf of all the people, the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies and sprinkled the blood of a bull on the mercy seat – the hilasterion.
When Paul says that God gave Jesus to us as a hilasterion through his blood, he’s telling us God gave us the cross of Christ to be the place where sins are forgiven and we come into the presence of God.
An Invitation to Faith
Something that turns away wrath – covering for sin – place where sins are forgiven and people experience the presence of God: we could have a very interesting discussion about this passage in the letter to the Romans. To be sons and daughters of the Reformation means that we think deeply about these things. It also means more than that.
Our predecessors in the Reformation faith would not only want us to think about the scripture, but to hear and heed its invitation to faith. The question that most presses upon us as we hear Paul’s words is not, “what do you think about this” but “have you begun to entrust you life to Christ in faith” and “are you living by faith in Christ today?”
By scripture alone – by faith alone – by grace alone – by Christ alone – for God’s glory alone is not just an interesting theory, but an invitation to live by faith.
The sons and daughters of the Reformation today can continue to learn a lesson from one of its earlier sons. John Wesley’s story is different that Luther’s in many ways, but both were deeply influenced by Paul’s doctrine of grace. Wesley, you may remember, had his heart “strangely warmed” in 1738 as he listed to Luther’s preface to the Commentary on Romans being read. By the time Wesley came on the scene, however, the church was already deeply divided. In a sermon entitled “Catholic Spirit,” Wesley expounded on 2 Kings 10:15: Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? If it be, give me thine hand. Here Wesley distinguished between what he considered essentials – grace, offered in Jesus Christ, received through faith and acting in love – and the many opinions and modes of worship that then characterized Christianity. Those who belonged to Christ should love each other as brothers and sisters, Wesley said, despite their differences of opinion and practice.
On this anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, let us all continue to seek to understand the truth that God has revealed in his scriptures . As we do, let us all also kneel together as brothers and sisters at the cross of the one who loved us and who gave his life for us.