As we mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in Europe, when on 31st October, 1517, Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, we are considering five of the great principles that lie at the heart of the Reformation. These are the five ‘solas’ – the five ‘alones’ – that sum up some of the central emphases of this great time of theological and spiritual revival. Last month we considered ‘Scripture Alone’. This month we turn to ‘Christ Alone’ – ‘Solus Christus’.
To say that salvation is by ‘Christ Alone’ reminds us that in Christ we have a unique Saviour. It is at this point, perhaps more than at any other, that we are also made aware of the difference between the world of the Reformers and our world. The Reformers wrestled mainly with conflicting understandings of precisely how Christ saves sinners. In our context we face a pluralism in which any assertion of a unique way to God is met with amazement, horror or even, increasingly, hostility. ‘How,’ it is asked, ‘could anybody in this day and age believe that there is only one way to be right with God and, worse still, that they have a monopoly of it?’
The ‘politically correct’ view is that, if there is a God at all, there are many ways to him. Indeed it is possible that every way is valid for someone. Thus Christ may be fine for you, yet entirely inappropriate for others. No-one can be told he is wrong and needs to change. The very suggestion is taken as a sign of our bigotry.
If we are to be faithful to God and to Scripture, however, we must assert with Pater that ‘there is salvation in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12). Jesus Christ as God incarnate is not one among many saviours. In John 14:6 he makes the absolute and unequivocal claim, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.’ We must not be ashamed to assert Christ’s uniqueness, although increasingly we will face pressure to be silent.
‘Christ Alone’ also speaks of a unique salvation. The uniqueness of Christ relates not only to who he is but equally to what he has done. As we read the biblical account of the life, death and resurrection of Christ it is evident that this is the only and the God-given way for the plight of sinners to be addressed.
Consider the natural state of sinners like us: we are ‘dead in…transgressions and sins…by nature children of wrath’ (Ephesians 2:1,3). We are under the just wrath of God and unable to change ourselves. Christ addresses every aspect of that terrible plight. As man he atones for man’s sin; as God he is able to save a vast multitude. The Reformers understood how comprehensive Christ’s work needs to be and indeed is, and as the Reformation progressed that understanding became richer and deeper.
Christ’s life of perfect obedience supplied what we lack – the keeping of God’s law in its entirety. His death pays the price for our sin – ‘God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). This unique saviour is ‘the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 4:10), taking the punishment for the sins of his people, thus turning aside God’s righteous wrath. His resurrection as ‘the first fruits’ (1 Corinthians 15:20) guarantees the resurrection of his people.
Every dimension of the sinner’s need is addressed by Christ’s redeeming work. The more we understand the true nature of our situation as sinners, deserving only condemnation and punishment, the more we will appreciate the necessity for the rich saving work of our Saviour. If we are mildly unwell, an aspirin may be all we need to put us back on top form. If, however, we are dead, a miraculous work of Almighty God is the only way of restoring the life that has gone.
‘Christ Alone’ testifies to a unique Saviour who has secured a unique salvation. The Reformation understanding of the person and work of Christ recaptured the essence of the biblical gospel which medieval Catholicism had done so much to obscure. Under the blessing of God the Reformers’ preaching of this Saviour and this salvation brought new life and spiritual freedom to multitudes. In the intervening centuries such preaching has continued to have the same effect. Although we live in a very different culture from that of the Reformers, the heart need of every man and woman remains the same, and the proclamation of ‘Christ Alone’ still can and still does bring life and freedom.