God’s Glory Alone

As we mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in Europe, 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. In June we considered ‘Faith Alone’. This month we turn to the final ‘sola’ – ‘God’s Glory Alone’, ‘Soli Deo Gloria’.

When we think about salvation, one of the hardest ideas to clear out of our minds is the conviction that ‘it’s all about us’. Why has God gone to such lengths in order to provide salvation for unworthy sinners like us? We know that in eternity he set his love upon us, choosing us in Christ before the foundation of the world, as Ephesians 1:4 reminds us. That is an uplifting and at the same time a humbling truth, precious to every child of God. It’s easy then to conclude that the ultimate purpose of the work of Christ is our wellbeing, our enjoyment of the blessings in store for us in the new creation. Not so – it isn’t all about us, and we need to remember that.

Salvation, like everything else in God’s universe, ultimately serves God’s glory. He is the one who says, with reference to the refining of his people, ‘For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another’ (Isaiah 48:11). Although we rightly delight in the blessings of salvation that are and will be bestowed on us, we know that the final goal is not our glory or pleasure or happiness, but the glory of God.

Sin robs God of his glory. Sinners have ‘exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images’ (Romans 1:23) and thus ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). The chief goal of the work of Christ in his life, death and resurrection is the restoration of the glory of God. It is not that somehow God receives additional glory from salvation: he is and always will be infinitely glorious. In Christ, however, sinners are placed in a position where they may glorify God. Paul makes this clear in 2 Corinthians 4:6 by stating that, when a sinner is saved, God is shining into his heart ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ’. Saved sinners may now reflect, albeit imperfectly, the glory of God into a dark world. Thus God is glorified in the fruit of evangelism, and in this we have the supreme motivation for evangelism.

The biblical truths that we have considered so far in the ‘solas’ present a God-centred and God-glorifying view of salvation and indeed of all of life. How could any child of God want it to be otherwise? The framers of the Shorter Catechism got it exactly right when they wrote that ‘Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him for ever’ (Q1). We will not be able to do the latter unless by grace we do the former.

Salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone will inevitably issue in a life of increasing holiness and God-centred good works. Notice how Paul’s prayer for the Philippians ends with the desire that they will be ‘filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God’ (Philippians 1:11). Good works, as the Reformers understood clearly, flow from salvation: we do good works because we have been saved, not in order to be saved (as Ephesians 2:10 reminds us). These are works done as a result of the gracious enabling of the Holy Spirit and are evidence of the grace of God that is at work in us. As a result the redeemed are ‘God’s temple and…God’s Spirit dwells in you’ (1 Corinthians 3:16).

The resulting lifestyle has as its focus and goal the glory of God. This is a profoundly transformative understanding of our Christian calling. All of life is embraced in this perspective. As 1 Corinthians 10:31 expresses it, our Christian calling is centred on the pursuit of the glory of God: ‘So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God’. Even the most apparently mundane activities are to have in view the glory of God, done with an awareness of him and, in must be said, performed by his enabling grace. Grace does not bring us to the point of entrance to the kingdom of God and then leave us to go on in our own strength. Salvation is by grace from beginning to end.

At the last day it will be seen by every creature that all things glorify God alone. On that wonderful Day of consummation ‘every tongue [will] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:11). The Son and the Holy Spirit will share equally in that glory, as our Trinitarian theology reminds us. It will be Christians’ joy and privilege willingly to give all glory to God as they begin to experience the full fruits of God’s grace in Christ. God’s eternal plan of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, revealed in Scripture alone, all to God’s glory alone, cannot fail. Having begun a good work in us ‘will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ’ (Philippians 1:6). There we have a firm foundation for assurance, thanksgiving and service for the glory of God.

Faith Alone

As we mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in Europe, 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 ‘Grace Alone’. This month we turn to ‘Faith Alone’ – ‘Sola Fide’.

It might be thought that the order in which we are considering these principles is a matter of indifference – could the five not be taken in any order as long as they are all included? The answer in fact is a resounding ‘No!’ The order is not random. It matters very much where each principle fits into the sequence. This is especially clear when we consider grace and faith.

The placing of ‘Faith Alone’ after ‘Grace Alone’ is a recognition of the order of the elements of salvation revealed in the Bible. There is an order – an ordo salutis as it is sometimes termed – which is not the product of human ingenuity but a reflection of the way in which God in his sovereign mercy provides salvation. Thus when ‘Faith Alone’ follows ‘Grace Alone’ we acknowledge that sinners believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation because of the grace that the Lord has shown to them. To reverse the order would suggest that sinners receive grace because they have believed, a thoroughly unbiblical idea.

This crucial fact is set out in a text such as Ephesians 2:8, where Paul is expressing something of the wonder of the salvation that God has provided in Christ. The Apostle writes, ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And that is not your own doing, it is the gift of God’. Notice how Paul includes even our faith under the idea of a ‘gift’, given by the grace of God. Scripture everywhere emphasises the ‘gift’ nature of salvation, and that is because grace precedes faith in the order of salvation.

This principle in no way detracts from the fact that sinners must believe in order to be saved. When asked by the jailer in Philippi, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ Paul’s answer was, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved and your household’ (Acts 16:31). The necessity for believing in Christ must always be impressed upon sinners. They cannot avoid that responsibility. But the reason why any sinner responds to that exhortation and actually believes in the Lord Jesus is that God has graciously enabled him or her to do so. Behind the sinner’s response is the gracious action of God. A specific example of this is provided by the conversion of Lydia recorded earlier in Acts 16. In verse 14 we read that ‘The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.’ That ‘paying attention’ was not a merely outward listening to the message: Lydia clearly responded in saving faith, as a result of the grace of God she experienced.

The preservation of the biblical order of grace and faith is vitally important. Not least it protects against the ever-present danger of turning faith into a kind of ‘work’, subverting the truly gracious nature of salvation. We may reject the idea of works contributing to salvation, just as the Reformers did, yet think of faith in such a way that it becomes something we contribute to our salvation, something that God accepts in the place of the ‘good works’ we are unable to perform. Unwittingly we then allow works to enter again through the back door, a fatal mistake. We have nothing to offer God that has any merit, not even our faith.

As the Reformers recognised when they insisted on ‘Faith Alone’, there is always a danger of allowing something else to creep in alongside faith in relation to salvation. Medieval theologians were perfectly ready to speak of faith as necessary for salvation, but Luther and his spiritual descendants recognised that when any kind of good work was thought to play a meritorious role in salvation, the biblical order was corrupted and the grace of God fatally undermined. Faith plus anything destroys the gospel. The same battle has had to be fought many times since the days of the apostles who refused to yield to the pressure of the ‘Judaizing’ faction in the church which wanted to assert the necessity of law-keeping alongside faith for salvation. There is always a temptation to believe that, even in some tiny way, our efforts contribute something to our salvation. ‘Faith Alone’ humbles our pride.

The Reformers were absolutely correct to insist that all of salvation is ‘by faith alone’. Thus they taught the great biblical truth of justification by faith alone, emphasising that our right standing in the sight of God is granted freely to us when the righteousness of Christ is counted as ours. That blessing is received by faith alone, in harmony with Paul’s statement in Romans 3:28 that ‘one is justified by faith apart from works of the law’, and Luther was theologically correct to add ‘alone’ to his German translation of the verse, even though the word is not present in the Greek text.

Salvation by faith alone is a liberating truth that ensures we do not try to carry an impossible burden of earning that salvation by our works. Salvation, however, is not by a faith that remains alone – it inevitably leads to a life devoted to our gracious God, doing the good works he has prepared for us (Ephesians 2:10). It is a life lived to the glory of God alone, the last of our five ‘solas’.

Grace Alone

As we mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in Europe, 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 ‘Christ Alone’. This month we turn to ‘Grace Alone’ – ‘Sola Gratia’.

A vital emphasis of the Reformation was that salvation is by God’s grace alone, drawing on texts such as Ephesians 2:8-9 ‘by grace you have been saved through faith’. ‘Grace’ is to be thought of as the favour of God to those who deserved only condemnation and it is this grace that is the source as well as the guarantee of the sinner’s salvation.

We need to notice that the pre-Reformation church did speak about salvation ‘by grace’ – it is a caricature to say that the theologians of that period taught salvation by works. The problem was, however, that they tried to combine an element of grace and an element of works. They believed that God gave grace to assist those who made their best effort towards salvation. The ‘grace’ they believed in was thought of as a kind of substance that God infused into people to strengthen their efforts, like a kind of spiritual energy drink.

The Reformers, however, realised that a consistently biblical view of salvation meant that it is ‘by grace alone’. There is no contribution that the sinner makes, and indeed none he could make. With reference to salvation, grace excludes works entirely. One among many significant texts is Romans 11:6 ‘But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace’. Not only does salvation begin by grace, it also continues by grace. That is so despite the attitude of some Christians who seem to think that having had past sins forgiven by the grace of God, they must then stay in God’s good books by their own spiritual efforts. That is a deadly misunderstanding.

The grace of God provides everything required for salvation. God’s amazing love for a sinful world led to the provision of a Saviour, as the familiar words of John 3:16 remind us. That Saviour by his life of perfect obedience, his atoning death and triumphant resurrection, all as the Substitute for his people, provides full salvation for all who belong to him by the divine decree of predestination. Christ gives new life to sinners, so that Paul can say that God ‘made us alive together with Christ’ (Ephesians 2:5). In saving union with Christ we have justification, adoption, sanctification and eventually glorification. Romans 3:24, for example, tells us that we are ‘justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus’. At every point the explanation for what we have as Christians is the grace of God.

Such an understanding of salvation is profoundly humbling. There is nothing left in relation to salvation for which we can take credit. It is, however, also wonderfully liberating. Salvation by grace alone lifts a crushing burden from our shoulders, a burden we in fact cannot bear. We realise now that we cannot contribute to a salvation that is all by grace alone – and we do not have to. We do not have to do the impossible, and so we are set free from the bondage of trying to establish our own righteousness before God by our own efforts.

This was one of Luther’s great (re)discoveries. When he read a text like Romans 1:17, with its reference to ‘the righteousness of God’, he at first thought of a righteousness by which God judges sinners and a righteousness which he demands of them. In his mind this was a righteousness which he had to produce and which he could not, despite having tried everything that the church recommended. Then the Lord graciously opened Luther’s eyes to the wonderful truth that texts like Romans 1:17 actually refer to a righteousness that God gives as a free gift of grace, the very righteousness of Christ. In the Preface to his Latin writings this is how he describes the discovery: ‘Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me.’ He was free at last!

The truth of ‘grace alone’ flows from the sovereignty of God in salvation. He did not have to save any, yet he has fully provided for the salvation of a vast multitude of sinners (note Revelation 7:9). This Reformation assertion of ‘grace alone’ echoes the truth of Jonah 2:9 ‘Salvation belongs to the Lord’. It is a truth that exalts God and humbles men and women.

A further consequence of the sovereignty of God in salvation which should delight the heart of every believer is the certainty we have that the work that God has begun will certainly be completed. As Paul expressed it, ‘I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ’ (Philippians 1:6). Such certainty strengthens our assurance of salvation and fills our hearts with joy – ‘by grace alone’.

Christ Alone

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.

Scripture Alone

We noted last month that 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in Europe – on 31st October Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg and sparked such a revolution as he could never have envisaged. God was mightily at work.

But what is the heart of the Reformation? What were the great truths rediscovered during those momentous years? The fact is that the Reformation touched on every significant area of Christian doctrine. A great deal of attention was given, for example, to the biblical doctrine of the sacraments, especially the Lord’s Supper. The latter, sadly, was a cause of division among the Reformers themselves. The Reformation cannot be reduced to one issue, such as ‘justification by faith alone’, although that was a crucial doctrine much debated at the time. A useful way of approaching the core of the Reformation is through what have come to be known as the ‘Five Solas’ – ‘sola’ being the Latin word for ‘alone’. They are Scripture Alone, Christ Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone and God’s Glory Alone. These five truths do bring us close to the heart of the Reformation theologically and for the next few months Another Voice will be considering them briefly.

The foundation of the Reformation was ‘Scripture Alone’. What is the source of Christian theology? Rome relied on a combination of written Scripture and unwritten tradition, interpreted by the ‘magisterium’ of the Church. The Reformers realised that this positon was in fact profoundly unbiblical and in response asserted that we must base all theology on ‘Scripture Alone’. Without denying the value of centuries of study by scholars and preachers, the Reformers recognised that Scripture is the Church’s only infallible rule of faith and practice.

The Reformers understood that in the Bible we have a unique revelation. In the context of the Europe of their day the fact that the Bible was to be regarded as the Word of God was a largely unchallenged view. Theologians might differ as to how to interpret the Bible and as to what the text meant, but they generally agreed that what they were handling was God’s Word.

We face a rather different challenge today with regard to the place of the Bible. We live in a pluralist culture where other religions are on our doorstep, not in the far-flung regions of the world as they usually were in Reformation days. They too make claims to have divine revelations, sometimes in addition to the Bible. We also face the challenge of philosophers and theologians who assert that the very idea of ‘words from God’ is incoherent and incredible. In response we cannot allow ourselves to be moved from the position of 2 Timothy 3:16 – ‘All Scripture is God-breathed’. All Scripture – the Old Testament and also the New Testament then in process of production. In the Bible alone we have the Word of God written, given by the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit.

In the Bible we also have a unique authority. This follows from the God-breathed nature of the book. If God speaks uniquely in these pages, then they have absolute authority in all they teach. Submission to God’s Word is evidence of submission to God himself. As Christ said, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ (John 14:15).

Many of the great Reformation debates came back to the issue of the authority of the Bible. In response to Rome’s appeal to unwritten apostolic tradition and the Anabaptists’ appeal to the ‘inner light’, the Reformers were convinced that the Bible did not need to be supplemented and could not be replaced by any other source of authority.

We too need to keep asserting the unique authority of the Bible. Rome still appeals to tradition and to papal authority. Charismatics appeal to new revelations of the Spirit and ‘words from the Lord’. Many Christians in practice depend on their feelings as their authoritative guide. In the wider world all kinds of authorities are cited, often centred on human reason, science and ‘experts’. One major danger posed by our digital culture is the ease with which anyone can set himself up as an ‘authority’, subject to no checks of any kind. The very idea of authority crumbles in a Wikipedia world and the response we often have to contend with is ‘Who says so?’ with the implication that my view is as good as anyone else’s.

We must heartily defend ‘Scripture Alone’. In this book God has given us all we need to know (although not all we would like to know). No other source of authority must be allowed to usurp its place in theory or practice. Our love for the Lord must be demonstrated in obedience to his authoritative Word.

500 – A Big Anniversary

Anniversaries can be very important – ask any husband who has forgotten his wedding anniversary! They usually mark significant events, sometimes life-changing events, that ought to be remembered. The annual return of anniversaries such as Remembrance Day serves to keep the lessons of the past before our attention. Happy anniversaries can bring renewed joy in the recollection of good times, especially when they are viewed in the light of God’s providence in our lives. Some things ought never to be forgotten.

There is certainly the danger of living in the past – of letting what is now over govern our lives to an unhealthy extent. Old hurts, old grievances, old failures, old sorrows can shape us in ways that hinder our growth in grace. We need to learn when to remember and when to let go. Churches too can live in the past, keeping the focus always on past glories and successes, conveniently overlooking the weaknesses and failures that might suggest the past was not quite as glorious as we like to think. At times we as a denomination have fallen into that trap, idealising the Scottish Covenanters in ways that made it difficult to learn from them for the challenges of our own day. To forget history, however, cuts us off from the valuable lessons regarding the providence and purpose of God that it could teach us.

2017 marks an anniversary that should be – and no doubt will be – marked in a variety of ways. On 31 October, 1517, the German Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed a document to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, the accepted way of raising issues for academic debate. These ‘Ninety-five Theses’ however were profoundly radical and marked the beginning of what came to be known as the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Luther was by no means the only theologian raising vital questions about gospel truth – Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich, for example, also played a significant role in the reforming movement – but Luther was certainly used powerfully by God to shake the foundations of established theology and ecclesiastical life in Germany and much further afield.

Luther’s 95 propositions go to the heart of the gospel message and so demand our continued attention. Many historians offer explanations for the rise of the Reformation in terms of the historical and sociological circumstances of the time and some of these do have value, but we have not understood the Reformation unless we see it as a mighty work of God. In the Reformation the Holy Spirit transformed people and communities through the saving application of the Word of God. Whatever else the Reformation was, it was primarily spiritual.

The Reformation was a revolution that took the Church backwards – it was a rediscovery of great biblical truths that had been obscured by the Catholicism of the Middle Ages. The Reformers went back to the biblical roots of the Christian faith and, on the basis of Scripture alone, proclaimed a message of salvation by grace alone, through Christ alone and received by faith alone, all to the glory of God alone. Multitudes experienced the true spiritual liberation that comes through an undiluted gospel. This was not just an intellectual movement – lives were transformed.

Now Luther was not perfect. Nobody knew that than Luther himself. He had his weaknesses and, like most things to do with Luther, they were on a fairly large scale. On some issues, such as his view of the Lord’s Supper, he was beyond listening to contrary opinions. There was in some of his writing a streak of crudity (shared with Erasmus, among others) that forbids quotation. His positon on a variety of matters represented a kind of half-way house between Roman Catholicism and biblical truth. We are, after all, not Lutherans, and with good reason. Nevertheless he was – by grace – a mighty man of God who was instrumental in revolutionising the spiritual life of a significant part of Europe and ultimately the world. A lesser man, a smaller man, would not have been up to the job.

The 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting the Ninety-five Theses ought to be commemorated enthusiastically by the people of God everywhere. We will be doing so at the Shaftesbury Reformed Conference on 15th February. Why not take the opportunities that 2017 will bring to deepen your knowledge of your spiritual heritage and to thank God for these wonderful events?