A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Five Hundred Years – Now What? Part II: Grace Alone, Faith Alone
October 5, 2017
As we prepare later this month to observe the Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary, we imagine Martin Luther a heroic lonely figure standing against Rome, declaring his allegiance to the Word above all churchly authority: “Here I stand, I can do no other.” This statement is popularly attributed to Luther at the trial in which he contested his recent excommunication. The only problem is that there is no record of Luther actually saying those words.
Yet Luther certainly stood alone in many ways. The Holy Roman Empire called for his capture, dead or alive. He was a pariah to the Roman Church. Fortunately, he was shielded by sympathetic local governors, who kept him safe from harm. Yet the word “alone” is surely an apt descriptor of Martin Luther. Reformation begins with people willing to act alone for the truth.
Ever since, Protestants have been willing to go it alone if they believe the Word so leads them. Our penchant for confessing “alone” is reflected in our Book of Order, which declares our fidelity to the Reformation themes of “grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone.” (F-2.04) What does it mean to confess these “alones”?
Grace alone is about how we are reconciled to God and God’s world. It is God’s response to our stubborn self-rule, our hostility toward others, and our estrangement from our Creator. We are broken and unable to heal ourselves. We have fallen and cannot get up. Except for God’s healing, restoring grace. It is our only hope. But it is more than that – it is our sure hope in Jesus Christ. In and through his atonement, God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves, restoring us to wholeness. The word “atonement” is literally “at-onement.” Through Jesus, God heals and unites all that is broken and scattered in the world. No wonder the early church carried always on its lips the word Maranatha, “Our Lord, come!” (1 Corinthians 16:22)
Faith alone is about what God requires of us. In a world that teaches us to trust no-one, we are called to trust ourselves fully into God’s hands. Trust that God’s grace-gift of salvation for the world through the life and work of Jesus is for us, not just for others. Trust that following in the way of Jesus will lead us to life abundant and eternal. Trust that we need no longer defend ourselves or our turf, because God is our defender as well as our deliverer. Martin Luther’s singular personal breakthrough that set the stage for the Reformation was an epiphany over Romans 1:17, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” Faith alone. That was all that God required of Luther too, he suddenly understood. A lifetime of compulsive agonized efforts to prove his worthiness melted away.
Ephesians puts together grace alone and faith alone succinctly: “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) Salvation is God’s gift to us, impossible for us to earn yet indisputably ours in Christ. And the faith to accept that gift is also a gift. We can’t work it up on our own, no matter how hard we try. Saving faith is ours to receive, not something we are demanded to produce. So, paradoxically, the faith that God requires of us is something only God can give us. In Christ, and in Christ alone, God does just that.
This doesn’t mean that the world’s brokenness is no longer a big deal. The world is far from what God intends, and we are called to do all we can to work with Jesus in the healing of the world. The brokenness rampant in the wake of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria cries out for us to join God’s healing work in Jesus’ name for all whose lives and lands have been devastated. Add to this the horror of America’s deadliest-ever gun attack this week in Las Vegas; what can we possibly do to work for healing in a world so brutally riven by violence? One thing we can surely do is redouble our declared resolve as a presbytery to stand against the proliferation of weapons that make such a mass slaughter so easy for the malevolent to perpetrate.
Finally, like the early church, we are compelled fervently to pray, Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus! Come, You who beats swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks. Come quickly, Healer of all brokenness! May God’s kingdom come, God’s will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
Yours in yearning for peace,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
Next week we will examine “Scripture alone,” which functions as the bedrock of the Protestant Reformation.
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