The Righteousness of God: Sola Fide

Text: Romans 3:19-28

This year we mark the 498th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. To celebrate, we’ve been looking at three pillars of the Reformation, the truths that the Holy Spirit worked to preserve among us: Scripture Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone. God’s Word comes to us in the Scripture alone, it is the only place where we hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. We hear through it that we justified through faith alone, which we receive through God’s grace alone. Last week we spent some time looking at the Scripture Alone part; this week we will look at the idea of Faith Alone. It is only through faith that we are counted righteous in God’s eyes. We are justified by faith alone, without any merit or work on our part.

There was a period of time while I was back in seminary where I thought that record collecting was a cool thing. I would take weekly trips down to Neat Neat Neat Records to peruse the bins until I found something I had to have. Then I would take it back to my dorm room and fire it up. Almost always, everything would work just fine. But, was I ever filled with fury when a record skipped. That thing that I most hated about records, I also love about Lutheranism. Lutheranism is like a broken record. No matter what we’re talking about, no matter where we are, we always return to the fact that we are saved by God’s grace through faith. We preach Christ and Him crucified for the forgiveness of sins. That is what the Bible is all about, and so it’s what we’re all about. This week as we look at the Faith Alone pillar of the Reformation we confess with St. Paul that the righteousness of God comes to us through faith in Jesus, and by this faith we are justified, that is, forgiven our sins.

I.

As Lutherans, that is our bread and butter. We eat, sleep, and breath justification by faith alone. We all have those verses in our text from Romans and from Ephesians 2 in our brains, and rightly so, but this was not always the case in God’s Church. I’m going to read you a little bit of a lengthy quote from Martin Luther, but I want you to pay close attention because it is very telling of the Church at the time:

I hated that word “righteousness of God,” which…I had been taught to understand philosophically…God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly…I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted. [1]

What Luther was confessing here is that during his time, the Church had lost faith in the words of Holy Scripture – that man is saved by faith alone. Instead, it taught that our works contribute to our salvation. It held that, since God is righteous, we must also be righteous. How do we become righteous? Not by faith, but by following God’s Commandments. As if the keeping the commandments wasn’t hard enough, God then punishes with eternal damnation those who fail to keep them. So much for a righteous God, thought Luther. God is not love, God is not mercy. According to Luther at the time, God was an unjust tyrant.

The Church was mired in a misunderstanding and a misapplication of the Mosaic Law (The Ten Commandments). They taught that the chief work of the Law was to justify sinners. Here what St. Paul says in our text, “we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.”[2] The role of God’s Law in the Commandments is not to justify, but to condemn. The Law stops mouths. It cuts through our lies, our false pretenses, our attempts to justify ourselves; it shows us for what we really are: sinners. It shows that, according to God’s standard of righteousness, we aren’t.

St. Paul continues, “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”[3] The role of the Law, the right understanding and application of it, is to show us our sin. True, it is God’s will for our lives, and after repentance and as a result of faith, we do try to keep it. But that’s the key – without faith, the Law only kills. Jesus said that those who live by the sword die by the sword. In another context: those who attempt to justify themselves through the Law will die by it. As Paul said, through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. No human being will be justified in God’s eyes through its works. And at that thought, Luther crumbled. “If there ever was a person who could be saved through monkery,” he said, “I was that monk.” But, alas…

II.

With Luther we come to these words in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, “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.”[4] What a brilliant statement! Such profound gospel! The righteousness of God is not something that He alone has and then demands of us. The righteousness of God is something He has, and He gives it to you. The righteousness of God comes apart from the works of the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it. This means that the entire Old Testament testifies about the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ. Remember on the road to Emmaus, how after the resurrection Jesus went through the books of Moses and the Prophets to show how it was about Him? Or, remember how Abraham was credited as righteous, even over 400 years before the Ten Commandments were given? The text says, “Abram believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness.”[5]

This is the chief article of the Reformation, the chief article of our faith. Luther, and those with him, really did face the possibility of death for their confession of faith, but they knew – as we do – that it’s all about Jesus. It’s all about Jesus because, as the text says, “there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”[6] There is no distinction among us. We have all sinned. We are all sinners, and, because we are born this way, we lack the glory of God. Man no longer exists as God created him to be. Therefore, the Son of God took on human flesh. He became the new Man, the new Adam, to obey God’s will and fulfill the Law in our place. Apart from Him there is no salvation, be we who believe 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.”[7]

Therefore, in this the 498th anniversary of the Reformation, let us hold fast our confession. From Luther’s own words:

Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification…

All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works or merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood…

Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls…

Upon this article everything that we teach and practice depends.[8]

We confess that we are all by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned in thought, word, and deed. We deserve nothing but God’s eternal wrath and punishment. But, He sent His Son Jesus to take on human flesh and die in our place for the forgiveness of sins. We are justified by God’s grace through faith alone. We receive faith through the preaching of the Word and the Sacraments, and faith becomes the channel through which we grasp the forgiveness of sins. We neither earn eternal life, nor do we deserve it. We made righteous before God only through the blood of the Lamb, who sets us free through alone.


[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 34: Career of the Reformer IV, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 34 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 336–337.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ro 3:19.

[3] Rom. 3:20.

[4] Rom. 3:21-22.

[5] Gen. 15:6.

[6] Rom. 3:22-23.

[7] Rom. 3:24-25.

[8] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 263.

“Sola Scriptura: The Sword of the Spirit”

Text: Hebrews 4:1-13

We are just 2 years away from the 500th anniversary of the posting of the 95 Theses. Though it would be a while before Luther stumbled upon the true teaching of Scripture, his action ignited the powder keg of the Reformation. But, the work of the Lutheran reformers some 500 years ago was not just the work of men. Rather, the work of the Lutheran Reformation was begun and led by the Holy Spirit to return the Church to the well of God’s pure Word. In hindsight we describe this work by the three pillars that held it up: Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, and Sola Fide. We’re going to celebrate the Reformation this year by looking at each of these in turn. The Sola Scriptura principle states that it is through God’s Word alone that we learn of His grace, which we receive through faith.

Today we’ll look at three primary aspects of God’s Holy Word: A) The Bible is God’s divine Word, which alone has the power to kill and make alive; B) Because the Bible is God’s Word, it alone is perfect and sufficient for salvation; C) Because the Bible is God’s Word, and because it is perfectly sufficient for salvation, it also is open and accessible to all who read it.

A.

We begin with our text from Hebrews 4, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”[1] From this we see that the Word of God, the Bible, is not just a collection of words on pages; it is a living and active thing. The first thing we believe as Christians about the Bible is that it’s inspired. This means that Bible comes from God, as individual books and as a whole, and was written by the direction of the Holy Spirit.

This is what we mean when we say that the Bible is inspired and inerrant. St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God.”[2] This means that Scripture comes not from man, but it originates from God – and what God creates, He creates perfect. Now, when Paul was addressing Timothy the Scripture he was talking about was the Old Testament. From Paul, we know that the Old Testament is holy. But, what about the New Testament? St. Peter addresses this in his writing. He wrote, “our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters.”[3] Peter goes on to say that some of the things Paul writes are hard to understand, and that people twist them as, “they do the other Scriptures.”

By Paul’s writing we know that the Old Testament is from God, and by Peter’s, we know that Paul’s writings are to be included in Scripture. We know that though they were physically written by men, they are in fact God’s words. Peter once wrote, “No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”[4] Not just the subjects spoken about in Scripture are God’s Word, but the exact words. The Lord once told Jeremiah, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you.”[5]

B.

As the Bible is the Word of God, both in subject matter and in the exact words, it alone is perfect and without any error whatsoever. Now, this is where we come to the Sola Scriptura [Scripture alone] aspect of the Reformation. What Lutherans teach is what has been confessed by the orthodox Church for all time. That is, that the Bible contains all that is necessary for salvation. There is nothing that you need to know that isn’t in the Bible, and there’s nothing outside the Bible that can be added to it. This aimed not just at who you might think – the Roman church that insists on tradition – but also the Protestants who teach that in order to have a full knowledge of God you must add human reason, such as the study of science and mathematics.

While others teach that Scripture must be measured against human reason or tradition, the Lutheran church teaches that, “the only rule and norm according to which all teachings, together with ‹all› teachers, should be evaluated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures of the Old and New Testament alone.”[6] All human teaching is to be judged by Scripture and never added to it. The Scripture alone, as Paul teaches, is what makes man wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.[7]

It is true that the Bible does not teach us everything. The Bible is not a science textbook or a technical manual. It does not even tell us all the things of God, for we see, as Paul says, through a glass dimly. St. John also says that, were every one of the things that Jesus did to be written down, the world itself couldn’t contain the books. But, “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”[8] That is the goal and aim of all Scripture – the salvation of mankind. Through the Law God reveals His wrath against sin, and through the Gospel He gives us the Good News that Jesus Christ died for the forgiveness of our sins and creates faith within us. There is no other book or teaching in the world that does this. Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ alone.

C.

So far we’ve learned that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. Each word on the page is from the Holy Spirit and is without error in part or whole. In addition to being the living and active Word of God, it also contains all we need to go to heaven. There is no information that we need to be saved that is not in the Bible, and nothing should be added to it. The Bible is the standard by which we judge all teachings. Now, with the Bible being the inerrant Word of God and profitable for salvation, we also confess that the Bible is an open book. The good news of Jesus Christ and the faith that comes through hearing it is accessible to all people.

The Bible is not a book of hidden knowledge. It is not a hard book to read. The Bible is written in plain words so that all who read it may understand and believe the doctrine necessary for salvation. God’s Word is, as David says, “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”[9] The Bible is not just a book for pastors, but it is for all people. Jesus commanded that the things He spoke be delivered to all people, and this comes through His written Word. King David also says, “the law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.”[10] St. John testifies that little children are able to understand the Scriptures.

Okay, if Scripture is such an open book, what about all those passages with the long names, all the whos-its and whats-its? And what about the Small Catechism, why do we make our children learn that? To the first question: there are parts of the Bible that are unclear to us. Typically, there are three reasons that. The first is a plain lack of familiarity. If you read Ag reports eight times as much as you read the Scripture, you should expect that the one will appear harder than the other. Second, the Bible appears unclear to those who are hostile towards it. This is what St. Paul writes, “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”[11] Third, the Bible is unclear to those who, though Christian, are prejudiced against certain parts of Scriptural doctrine. This would apply to those who believe the Baptism is simply a sign of our commitment to God rather than a washing of renewal and rebirth in the forgiveness of sins. They allow their human wisdom to rule over the Word of God. Within all this, we maintain that the more obscure portions of Scripture are mostly dealing with history and geography. If they do pertain to doctrine, then they are explained more clearly elsewhere in Scripture.

As for the Small Catechism, and for the rest of the Lutheran teachings, please open to page 273. It asks, “Do you confess the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, drawn from the Scriptures?” We use the Small Catechism not in addition to the Scriptures, but because what’s in the Catechism comes straight from them. It is merely a restatement of what the Church has always believed against the errors that have crept up over time.

God gave His Word for a definite purpose: To save man from sin and death through faith in Christ; to educate and train in holiness; and to magnify His glory. No other book in all creation is able to do this. Only in Scripture are we told that God exists, that He loves us, and that He sent His Son Jesus to die for our sins. God’s plan of salvation is revealed nowhere other than in the Holy Bible, and faith comes through the preaching of Scripture alone. That is the meaning of Sola Scriptura.

By the guidance of the Holy Spirit through Scripture, Martin Luther and the other Lutheran Reformers worked to purify the Church and bring it back from the many errors that had developed over time. Fundamental to that was the teaching the Bible alone is God’s Word. It alone is the verbally inspired Word of God in all its parts. It alone is God’s power to put to death the impenitent sinner and make alive the one who repents in faith. It alone contains all that is necessary for salvation and is accessible to all who read it.

May God the Holy Spirit continue to call people to faith through His Holy Word and direct the study of and growth in among us here.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Heb 4:12.

[2] 2 Ti 3:16.

[3] 2 Pe 3:15–16.

[4] 2 Pe 1:21.

[5] Je 30:2.

[6] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 473.

[7] 2 Tim. 3:15.

[8] Jn 20:31.

[9] Ps. 119:105.

[10] Ps. 19:7.

[11]1 Co 1:18.

The Augsburg Confession, Article I – God

In the Thursday morning men’s Bible study we’ve begun looking at the Lutheran Confessions. They are a collection of documents that mark us as specifically Lutheran Christians. Though they were written close to 500 years ago we continue to use them (and our pastors swear to uphold them) because they are a rightful exposition of the Holy Scriptures. We believe that like Scripture, the Lutheran Confessions can also speak to the common issues of our day as well. The first article of the Augsburg Confession is on God. Specifically, it was written to show that Lutherans are continuity with the historic Christian faith, we hold the same confession that Christianity has held for all time. We believe in one God, yet who exists in three divine persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. These three are of the same essence and power.

On this side of the grave we will never understand the doctrine of the Trinity fully. We must rest content on what is revealed to us in the Bible and know that we will understand more fully in time. Article I of the Augsburg Confession follows:


“1 Our churches teach with common consent that the decree of the Council of Nicaea about the unity of the divine essence and the three persons is true. 2 It is to be believed without any doubt. God is one divine essence who is eternal, without a body, without parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness. He is the maker and preserver of all things, visible and invisible [Nehemiah 9:6]. 3 Yet there are three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit [Matthew 28:19]. These three persons are of the same essence and power. 4 Our churches use the term person as the Fathers have used it. We use it to signify, not a part or quality in another, but that which subsists of itself.

5 Our churches condemn all heresies [Titus 3:10–11] that arose against this article, such as the Manichaeans, who assumed that there are two “principles,” one Good and the other Evil. They also condemn the Valentinians, Arians, Eunomians, Muslims, and all heresies such as these. 6 Our churches also condemn the Samosatenes, old and new, who contend that God is but one person. Through sophistry they impiously argue that the Word and the Holy Spirit are not distinct persons. They say that Word signifies a spoken word, and Spirit signifies motion created in things.”[1]

[1] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 31.

 

The Three Universal Creeds, Pt. I

The Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.

And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell. The third day He rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.[1]

A Brief History

In a way, the foundation for the Apostles’ Creed was laid down by Christ when He commissioned His Disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”[1] The Baptismal formula briefly indicates what Christ wants Christians to be taught, believe, and confess. The Apostles’ Creed is evidently an amplification of the Trinitarian formula of Baptism.

During the Medieval ages the Creed was known as the “Twelve Articles,” because they believe that the Apostles gathered together shortly after Pentecost to draft this confession. This is a legend, but it’s not super offensive. Nathanial confesses in John 1, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God,” Peter confessed, “We believe, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn. 6:69). Thomas confessed that Jesus was, “My Lord and my God” (Jn. 20:28). These confessions came about through the demand of Christ, “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is even heaven” (Matt. 10:32).

In light of these and similar passages, the formula prescribed by Christ required the candidate for Baptism to give a definite statement of what he believed concerning the things of God. Of Timothy it is said that he made, “the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” (1 Tim. 6:12) Right away it seems there acclamations such as, “Jesus is Lord.”[2] These became sort of a litmus test for identifying people as Christians.

Early Christian writers provide proof that from the beginning candidates for Baptism were required to make a confession of faith and there existed in the congregations a regular confession that was used, though we do not have the exact words. The way in which Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin, and many others write suggests that some form of the Creed existed even in the 1st and 2nd centuries. Justin Martyr, who died in 165, writes in about 140, “Our teacher of these things is Jesus Christ, who also was born for this purpose and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, that we reasonably worship Him, having learned that He is the Son of the true God Himself, and holding Him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third.”[3] Language such as this is also used by letters of Ignatius, who died in 107.

Tertullian, who died in 220, writes, “When we step into the water of Baptism we confess the Christian faith according to the words of its law.”[4] The language often used was “canon of truth.”[5] It seems that most congregations had a formula of the profession of faith, though not all were exactly the same. Instead, they were shaped by tradition as they were passed down. The oldest known form of the Apostles’ Creed is the one that was used in the church in Rome prior to 150, though we don’t have it quoted entirely until 331 by Bishop Marcellus of Ancyra in a letter to Bishop Julius of Rome, to show his orthodox faith.[6] It developed as the Church began using earlier Gospel acclamations and adding phrases to it to combat growing heresies.  The creed was originally in the form of question and answer, and Augustine, Ambrose, and Rufinus all testify that the Apostles’ Creed was developed in Rome.[7]

The complete text we have today dates to the 5th century and is first found in a sermon by Caesarius of Arles in France, about 500 A.D.[8] In Luther’s translation of the Creed, “Christian” was substituted for “catholic.”


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 28:19–20.

[2] Charles Arand, Robert Kolb and James Nestigen, The Lutheran Confessions: History and Theology of the Book of Concord, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012. 16.

[3] Friedrich Bente, Historical Introductions to the Book of Concord, St. Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1965. 20.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Arand, 16.

[6] Bente, 23.

[7] Arand, 21.

[8] Bente, 24.

[1] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 16–18.