I want to tell you a brief story of God’s grace.
You see, October 31st is also Reformation Day, when we celebrate the light that dawned when the so-called Reformers began to break out of the darkness of Roman Catholicism, and once again began to preach salvation by grace through faith.
It was more than 490 years ago [1517 A.D.] that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the big wooden door of the Wittenburg Church, denouncing the sale of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church, in which the souls of dead people were supposedly purchased out of the mythical Purgatory, or their time in Purgatory was shortened.
It was an evil practice, which preyed on the fears and superstition of the people, and made them poorer as the so-called Church grew richer.
But I want to begin our story much farther back in time, to a man called Abraham.
Abraham was called by God out of Ur of the Chaldees, a pagan land with a pagan superstitious culture. God called Abraham away from his people and his culture, to begin a whole new people and culture, which eventually culminated in the nation Israel, and eventually the promised Messiah of Israel, the Lord Jesus Christ.
And the reason I want to begin with Abraham is because of a covenant that God made with Abraham. And this covenant became the forerunner to what we now call the New Covenant.
God promised Abraham that he would become a mighty nation, that he would have millions of descendants, through which the world would be blessed. Now the whole story is too long to tell here, but there was one little problem.
Abraham’s wife Sarah was barren, childless. And the years had passed, and Abraham had assumed that his heir would be someone from his household staff. This was customary when there was no offspring.
Let’s read the promise of God from Genesis Chapter 15, verse 4 and following:
“Then behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘This man will not be your heir; but one who shall come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.’ And He took him outside and said, ‘Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’”
Now Abraham could either believe that or not. Did he believe it?
Well, let’s fast-forward to the book of Romans and see what Paul wrote to the Romans about it, and at the same time we’ll learn a very important Bible truth about salvation.
In Romans 4:3,5 we read,
“For what does the Scripture say? And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” “…but to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.”
Through the story of Abraham we learn something that has always been true:
Salvation is a free gift from God, through believing God. Or as the Bible says, by grace (that’s the free gift), through faith (that’s believing God).
And this salvation was paid for by Jesus Christ on the cross when he paid for our sins. The Bible says He became sin for us, so that we could become the righteousness of God.
In other words, He paid the price, so that we could be declared or reckoned righteous by God, Who gave us the gift of His own righteousness, when we believed in Jesus Christ.
There is no other way, and there never has been.
Even the blood of bulls and goats could not take away sin, the Bible says in Hebrews 10:4. All the blood of the sacrifices of Israel did were to temporarily cover the sins of the people until the time that the Messiah could shed His blood to pay for and take away sins.
But salvation was always by grace (a free gift) through believing God.
Now let’s fast-forward a few hundred years beyond Paul and the other Apostles, who taught this beautiful Gospel, good news, that whoever believes in Jesus Christ would be saved by grace through faith.
The Roman Catholic Church
The organized Church became infected more and more with the world’s view of religion. What is the world’s view of religion? It’s simply this: we must DO something, some obedience, some ritual, some work to EARN the favor or love or salvation of God. Salvation couldn’t be a gift, so it must be earned in some way.
And every religion of the world, except true Christianity, has that in common. Some aspects of doing good works or rituals to attain heaven, or Nirvana, or eternal life, or whatever.
And although the Church has always had that evil Legalism influence knocking at its door, after around 400 A.D. it became more and more of an organized Legalism, built into the very documents and teachings of the Church.
And on into the rightly-called Dark Ages, and into the Middle Ages, it became the norm. The headquarters of the organized Church became Rome, with its Bishop known as the Pope, and the Roman Catholic Church held its grip on most of the then-known world.
And without going into great detail, the basic doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church was that of works plus “grace”, or what they called “grace”. It really wasn’t grace at all, because as the Scripture says,
“But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.” (Romans 11:6)
In other words, if you add works to grace, as a requirement for salvation, then it’s not really grace at all. Because grace means “free gift”, and if you have to add works to get a free gift it’s not a free gift.
That was the problem with the Galatians, and Paul minced no words when he told them that by mixing grace and works, they not only were corrupting grace, but they were believing in another gospel, which is not really a gospel at all, and those who taught such a thing were accursed.
This is still, by the way, the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church today. You will hear their leaders talk about salvation by grace, or salvation by faith, or talk about justification, or the merits of Christ, or the mercy of God, even the Bible and the authority of the Bible.
But despite the twisted terminology, the final result is a teaching that it’s not grace by itself or faith by itself by which we are saved, but grace plus works, faith plus works.
Well, we come in our story to a Roman Catholic monk named Martin.
By his own admission, there was never a monk who strived any harder than Martin to gain God’s favor. There was never a monk who worked any harder, drove himself any farther, punished himself any more than Martin Luther.
But no matter how he worked and strived and prayed and worked and strived and prayed, he had no peace. And the reason was that he understood how righteous and holy God was, and that man’s works can never gain favor from such a perfect and righteous and holy God.
He was somewhat awakened to the corruption of the Church when he saw the practice of indulgences being stepped up drastically to pay for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The building program was financed by indulgences being sold to the people. And the chief salesman was a man named Tetzel.
Luther was appalled at the crass misuse of power and superstition, and nailed his complaint to the Church door as his 95 Theses.
But that was not Luther’s most important enlightenment. As a student of the Scriptures, he studied the books of Galatians and Romans intently. And he began to see something in the Scriptures, and finally the light dawned on him, as God opened his heart, just as he had opened the heart of Abraham, and millions of others since.
What Luther saw, what was revealed to Him by God through the Scriptures, was that salvation was not earned in any way, but was a free gift of God, through faith in Jesus Christ.
And it set Luther on fire.
In this modern day of gospel books and Bibles on every desk and shelf in America, we may take it for granted. But Luther was living in a day when the light of the gospel had almost been put out for hundreds of years. Darkness had settled in so deeply that when Luther began teaching salvation by grace alone through faith alone, HE was the one who was considered a heretic.
But by God’s grace, the Reformation had begun with gusto. Luther had meant to Reform the Roman Catholic Church, but they would have none of it. And thus the so-called Protestant Church became a whole new thing.
Through Martin Luther, and other Reformers, the Bible was widely spread in the language of the people. Formerly it had only been widely available in Latin, and many leaders had meant it to stay that way, so that doctrine could only be dispensed through them, twisted as they made it. But as people were able to read the clear teaching of Scripture, the good news spread.
One of the most influential of the Reformers was John Calvin, who headquartered in Geneva [Switzerland]. Another intense student of the Bible, by the time he was only 27 years old, he wrote The Institutes of the Christian Religion, and became one of the key streams for the spread of the grace message throughout Europe in this exciting time.
There were many others who caught fire with this light of the gospel that God blasted onto the earth in a new setting. Names like Zwingli, and Melanchton, and Knox. It was Knox who prayed, “Lord give me Scotland or I die.” And Scotland was revolutionized by the gospel.
Not to be thoroughly run out of town, the Roman Catholic Church lashed back with Inquisitions and persecutions designed to maintain its power and the false gospel of faith plus works. Many were tortured, burned at the stake, or otherwise martyred for the simple gospel of salvation by grace through faith. But the blood of these martyrs became the seed of the church, which grew rapidly.
And out of this storm survived some basic truths that we celebrate alongside Halloween, some 500 years later. Despite Halloween winning the popularity contest in our culture, I invite you to join me in celebrating what has become known as the Five Solas.
The first is Sola Gratia, by grace alone. Our salvation has to be a free gift of grace, because our own righteousnesses are as filthy rags, useless in securing our salvation in any way.
Another is Sola Fide, by faith alone. Faith will always be followed by works, but the works are never the requirement or instrument of our salvation.
Another is Solus Christus, by Christ alone. Only by the work of Christ, in shedding his blood and dying on the cross, may we be saved by grace through faith in Him. There is no other way to the Father except by Him, Jesus Himself said.
Another is Sola Scriptura, by Scripture alone. The Scriptures, the Bible, is the only authority we have from God for ultimate truth. Because it came by revelation from God, it is true, and He reveals to His children the truth of the Scriptures, and there is no other authority for doctrinal truth, including the Church itself.
And one more, Soli Deo Gloria, for the glory of God alone. That is the heart song of the redeemed, that He might be glorified in our lives. And He is.
One glimpse of the glory of the Lord makes the glory of the greatest Medieval Cathedral, or the glory of the splendor of the Vatican and its gold and fancy dress, fade by comparison.
Celebrate with me, and Abraham, and Martin and John, the Reformation, and the bright light of the gospel of grace through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.