As we continue our series on “Convictions that Connect,” our study of the Five Solas, we come to the one on Christ. Sola Christus. Christ alone. The concept behind this sola is that our salvation was secured by Christ alone. That means that Jesus was exclusively the only one able to save us and that his saving work on the cross was sufficient for all of us to be saved. It also means no one else has saving authority and that no other attempts bring the forgiveness of sin. So far, so good, right?
But we’re the church. We live and breathe this stuff. We know that salvation is only in Jesus. We just sang In Christ Alone – one of my favorites, by the way. Many of us can give chapter and verse to prove it.
John 14:6, “Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”
Acts 4:12, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
That’s the gospel in a nutshell. Jesus is our exclusive Savior. So why do we need a sermon devoted to something we already know and embrace?
Here are the lingering issues, the nagging questions that need to be answered. The first is, Why is salvation in Christ alone part of Reformation theology? Isn’t it standard, 2,000 year old church doctrine rather than a new discovery 500 years ago? We’ll take a look at that. The second is, If this doctrine matters so much, how does it impact your daily life and mine? We want to take an unshakeable theological conviction and draw out the practical day to day impact. Third, if these are truly “Convictions that Connect,” how will this one help us connect better with God and each other? We have a lens through which we are viewing these convictions. You may have studied and are already familiar with salvation in Christ alone, but have you ever looked at it through this “connect” angle?
Speaking of which, I think it’s helpful to see how these five solas themselves connect together.
There may be other ways to view them, but here is one I put together that helps me. If these five convictions were like a house here is what you would have: The glory of God alone is the roof. It points up to God, it is the completion of the entire house. Without the glory of God as the ultimate aim, the home is exposed to other elements and ultimate ruin. The foundation of it all is the bedrock conviction in the word of God. It’s firm. It’s true. It’s worth building our lives on. The walls represent God’s saving grace he gives us and the simple faith we exercise in him for our salvation. And how do we access this house of God’s gracious salvation? Through the only entrance, Christ, the door.
This teaching of faith in Christ alone is absolutely central. It’s in the middle for a reason: the other truths are understandable through this one. Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck wrote over hundred years ago that
“The doctrine of Christ is not the starting point, but it certainly is the central point of the whole system of dogmatics. All other dogmas either prepare for it or are inferred from it. In it, as the heart of dogmatics, pulses the whole of the religious-ethical life of Christianity.”
In other words, we want to get this right! Christian theology professor Stephen J. Wellum simply writes, “Christ alone is what makes all Christian theology coherent.” So if we misunderstand this, we never fully understand all the other teachings of the Bible.
But on to our first question.
Why is salvation in Christ alone part of Reformation theology?
Why is salvation in Christ alone part of Reformation theology? We’re using a 2,000 plus year old book to explain truths that were argued 500 years ago. We see Martin Luther, one man standing against the established Church, the most central and powerful institution of the day. How do you think the Church leaders responded when Luther claimed things like this?
Jesus is God’s Son. He’s fully God and fully man. He came to earth, was born of a virgin, lived a perfect life, and he died on the cross to save us from our sins. He rose again, stands at the right hand of the Father, and he calls us to follow him?
Do you know how they would have responded to this? They would have said, “We agree completely.” They agreed with all of that. They would agree that Jesus is our Savior. They would agree with the sermon title on the front of our bulletin, “Jesus alone is Lord.” So again, why is this Reformation doctrine? What was the dispute with the Catholic Church that the Reformers had? It was that the saving work of Christ on the cross is applied to us by God as through faith. In other words, Jesus’ work was sufficient to save us, so sufficient that no works on our part could ever add to what he did.
If you want to trace some of the history here, this goes back to the medieval era. Theologians, including Anselm, wrote extensively about the person of Christ but very little about the work of Christ. Who Jesus is rather than what he did. Both are of course important, but Jesus was not viewed as our substitute on the cross. He was instead seen as the one who secured saving grace that could be applied to us through works. In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas developed an idea called “supererogation,” which basically means Jesus’ work on the cross is applied to us through faith and sacraments. Under the Catholic system, people had to perform certain sacraments to earn the forgiveness of sins, and a lifetime of those good works can never apply enough grace to cover them all, so people were told they’d have to spent several thousand years or more burning off the extra sins in the torments of purgatory. Does that sound like salvation in Christ alone to you?
All of this reminds me just a little bit of football. If you’re interested getting season tickets for your favorite football team, you’d need to buy a set of eight tickets for each home game, right? It turns out the answer is no. In an effort to generate even more revenue, about half of the NFL team stadiums have developed PSLs – Personal Seat Licenses. What this means is that you have to make a one-time purchase of a PSL so that you have the right to purchase the tickets. I suppose that’s a similar concept to member’s shopping clubs or time shares or even airlines that have you pay extra for luggage. The Rams are having a new stadium built at a projected cost of $2.6 billion, and the Rams are offering premium PSLs at a minimum price of $175,000. Then you have the right to purchase tickets for at least $300 apiece for club level. I looked up the average lifespan of an NFL stadium, and its 31 years. If you want to maximize your PSL value, you’ll pay a total of $249,400 over that span, which equates to $1,000 per game. So your $300 ticket has more than tripled in price. It got me thinking, so I asked Pastor Mark this week if we could maybe institute a Purple Seat License right here in our sanctuary. Let’s just say that there are a few details to work out on that front.
But I am amazed at the human ability to take a simple concept and complicate it, exploit it, add layers of detail, you name it. These are the kind of ideas that are so audacious that I can’t imagine them getting out of the board meeting. And yet they do. What the Church did with Christ alone was shackle it with layers of effort. It reminds me of a beautiful example of our salvation, a courtroom scene. The accused has just been found guilty and sentenced to death, and the judge’s son steps in to take the punishment instead. In the time of the Reformers, that had become twisted to the point where the judge tells the accused, “You’re in luck. My son has died in your place and secured a spot for you in a hard labor prison where you can work until your death. With any luck you’ll be exonerated in a few thousand years.”
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Luther’s favorite book of the Bible, we see warnings of something very similar. Some false teachers came in after Paul established the church there and told the Galatian believers they had to obey all of the Old Testament law for their salvation to stick. This is why Paul wrote to them and said,
“If righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain” (Gal 2:21)
Our text makes it clear that no hard labor is required for our salvation, and any trust in our efforts to bring salvation or open up that treasury of forgiving grace are futile. Romans 3:21 declares God’s righteousness to be revealed – both to us and through us – “apart from the law.” Verse 22 says this happens through faith in Jesus Christ. Verse 24 calls this a gift through the redemption in Christ, by Jesus blood, we see in the next verse. You can find all five of the “solas” – the convictions that connect – in this passage. You might choose to study it this week and see where you can find them.
So why was Christ alone ultimately part of Reformation theology? It’s because the Church failed to teach the whole counsel of God. It emphasized one aspect while ignoring other aspects, which meant substitute teachings crept in. That’s why it matters to us. If this sort of distortion can mangle the most central doctrine, it certainly can wreck any others. It’s not enough to simply teach true things. We must teach the whole truth of things. That is a huge warning for church leadership, but it doesn’t end there. Theology cannot be centralized and dictated to the masses. Instead it must be wrestled with and discussed by all of us. We all have the responsibility to understand the truths of God’s word.
And every people in every time in every culture have a struggle with understanding truth through their own cultural understanding. Apparently if you’re in the hierarchy of the Church in the middle ages and happen to be the most powerful institution on the continent, you tend to include yourself in the ability to dispense grace and forgive sins. So what if you’re a westerner living in a prosperous country in the twenty-first century? Where do we get squeamish when we read God’s word? What parts do we wish had been worded differently? What teachings do we emphasize at the expense of others?
Are we communicating the whole truth, or have we left room for another spiritual PSL fiasco? Let’s say for the sake of argument that we agree that Jesus saves and our works do not add to it. Here are just two areas where I think we are tempted to stay silent. The first is the exclusivity of Christ to save us. We are so often tempted in this society to allow other methods of salvation, to consider other belief systems to be valid. The second area is the seriousness of our sin and the judgment of God. We’ll deal with both of these later on, but we need to understand something important: A cheapened understanding of our salvation leads to a cheapened understanding of our Christian life. If your commitment to our Savior is stale, weak, average, basic, stagnant, slowing, or fledgling, then it may be because your understanding of what Jesus has done is just as basic or lacking. One way to help with this is to go deeper. Some books are listed in the bulletin to help with that. They’re all available in our library.
If this conviction matters so much, how does it impact our daily lives?
But on to our second question. If this conviction – our salvation was secured by Christ alone – matters so much, how does it impact our daily lives? I believe it brings laser focus to them. When we understand that “Jesus paid it all,” we recognize that “all to him we owe.” That sets the pace and the direction of our lives. One of the big questions Martin Luther and the other Reformers had to answer was about what happened to our works. If good works are no longer required for salvation, then why do them? Fortunately, Scripture is filled with answers to this question. In Ephesians 2:10, we are told that the purpose of our salvation was to do the good works God prepared in advance for us to do. Romans 6 makes it clear that since we are no longer slaves to sin we are now slaves to righteousness. And that righteousness in our passage is applied to us who believe (3:22). God’s righteousness was on display through Jesus at the cross, and because I believe, God says it is now on display through me.
Perhaps our daily question should be, How have I displayed the powerful righteousness of God today? Sometimes we take God’s powerful, righteous act at the cross and minimize its impact on our lives to being civil and having good manners. By all means, show respect on the road and be nice to the cashier in the checkout line, but exhibiting the righteousness of God should turn heads. You can see it in the Bible. It was shown when Jesus overturned the tables of all the money changers in the Temple as he chased them out with a whip. It was evident when Jonathan said to his armor-bearer, “Hey, let’s you and I go up against that Philistine garrison and see if our powerful God delivers them into our hands.” It turned heads when Barnabas donated the sale of his property for God’s purposes. It was unmistakable when the apostles defied the religious leaders and said, “We can’t help but speak about what Jesus has done.” Friends, our works could never motivate God to save us, but God saving us can motivate us to serve him and serve him dynamically. Jesus didn’t die to civilize you and make you a polite version of a world under a death sentence. He died to revitalize you and bring you a life worth living.
This is where we need to get back to those areas where we are too often silent.
We need to remember to share that salvation happens exclusively through Christ. Our pluralistic culture struggles with the notion that no one has access to God except through Jesus Christ, but that’s exactly what Jesus himself claimed in John 14. To paraphrase the verse from Galatians earlier, if salvation can be found apart from Jesus’ death, then Jesus died in vain. If there were another way to forgive sins and restore a relationship with God, then why sacrifice God’s Son? The centurion at the cross stood back and said, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” He didn’t say, “Well that’s one way to do it.” There is no other way. Allowing that there is another way means works get reintroduced and we’re right back where we started. It also takes away our sense of urgency to share the message of the gospel. That urgency can’t diminish, but it will if we don’t stress Christ Alone as Savior.
The second area is silence about seriousness of our sin and the judgment of God. We tend to excuse our sin and explain it away so much that we’re no longer sure what Jesus came to save us from. Add to that an emphasis on God’s love while almost never talking about his judgment, and you have an incomplete picture of our sinful predicament. And something takes its place. It always does. The result is a cheapened salvation. Instead of the realization that we have been saved from an eternal death sentence by the sacrifice of Jesus’ own life, sometimes it feels more like we were about to be sent to bed without dessert, but Jesus stepped in and shared his ice cream with us.
You might feel like that’s an extreme example, and you may be right, but it’s better to be warned about a rotten destination before we’ve gotten there. A dessert understanding leads to a “moose tracks” faith when our call is to follow in Jesus’ footsteps. That has daily impact on how we live, intentionally as those saved by Christ, and he calls us to walk a much rockier road than you can find in your grocer’s freezer.
How will this conviction help us CONNECT better with God and each other?
But let’s answer our last question. How will this conviction help us “connect” better with God and each other? Since connection is central to this sermon series and our vision for this year, how will a fuller understanding that our salvation is secured by Christ alone help us to connect better with God and each other. I think there are more ways than we can cover in a single sermon, but here are a few that our text references.
Our goodness is connected to God’s own goodness. I tend to see my goodness as the accumulation of the good things that I do, but that isn’t how God sees it. God sees my goodness and your goodness as an event that occurred 2,000 years ago at Calvary. When we placed our faith in Jesus as our exclusive Savior, his goodness became our goodness. We set aside our own faulty, broken goodness that we knew couldn’t save and instead took on his. Our text says God’s righteousness “has been manifested for all who believe.” If you look at the surrounding verses, it becomes clear that God wasn’t simply painting a picture of righteousness; he was making us righteous. Verse 24 says that we are “justified,” which means a declaration by God that we are righteous. So any good that I do is now an expression of God’s own goodness, which he enabled me to express. This connection means my goodness is not about my effort but rather God’s strength working in me.
Our humility increases. We are declared righteous, the text tells us, “apart from the law.” That means none of my effort could ever add to my salvation. In fact all of us on our own “fall short of the glory of God.” That means the drug dealer who is an abuser falls short, but so does the straight-laced kid with good morals from the nuclear family. One might look better to us on the outside, but both are equally in need of Christ to save them. As a matter of fact, in verse 27, Paul says, “Where is boasting then? It is excluded.” We don’t boast in our own effort at all. We humbly admit that Jesus paid it all.
Our unity increases. When we humbly recognize Jesus as our Savior, the “our” takes on new importance. Romans 3:22 says “there is no distinction” when it comes to our guilt, and that salvation is available to “all who believe.” This truth is the basis of our unity. It’s the strength of our connection with each other. We are the bride of Christ, the body of Christ. He has unified us. That gives a special character to our relationships that cannot be found elsewhere.