By Word Alone … By Faith Alone … By Grace Alone
Oct 30, 2022
Text: Romans 3:19-28
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Today is Reformation Sunday. I’m guessing that most of you know what that implies, but some may not, or at least may find it difficult to explain, so we will do a condensed review.
You cannot have Reformation Sunday without a man named Martin Luther, a 16th century German Catholic priest who faithfully studied scripture, so much so that he began to question the ways the church’s teaching did not reflect what he read in the Bible, particularly in the book of Romans.
So it was that he created 95 statements that objected to a particular practice of the church of his day, which he felt was contrary to scripture – the selling of indulgences, a means by which people could buy their way, or a loved one’s way, out of purgatory and into heaven. His hope was to spark a discussion that would reform of the church; instead, he lit the flame of a reform movement that changed the world.
The central themes that Martin Luther discovered in scripture, and taught, have been summed up in the three “solas” – sola gratia, sola fide and sola scriptura – Latin for “by grace alone, by faith alone” and “by scripture (word) alone”. Today we have focused particularly on “by scripture alone” as we presented Bibles to children, thus doing our part as a congregation to fulfil the baptismal promise that we would “place in their hands the holy scripture.”
We also invited you to bring a favorite Bible from home to be blessed. I brought two – just as the children received Bibles today, I received one when I was 9 years old from the First Lutheran Church Sunday School in North Platte, Nebraska. My name is in the front, along with the date and the names of Sister Edna, a deaconess, and Pastor Slice, both of whom I remember. (OK, I’ll admit it, I was always a little afraid of Pastor Slice; he was a big man, with white hair and a booming voice, who, when I saw him, always wore black from head to toe. He did not allow much wiggle room when it came to memorizing the Small Catechism.)
The other Bible I brought is the one that I purchased in 1988 when I was about to start my first call. I matched the LBW hymnals, which I thought would look good, and was the same translation as the lectionary. As you can tell, it is falling apart, but I hesitate to send in anywhere for re-binding. In the front and the back are lists of my favorite scripture and a handy Bible history timeline. There is highlighting and marks throughout it, although not many notes since the pages are too small and thin for writing much.
Of these two Bibles, I imagine that the green one is what Martin Luther would like to see … a worn-out Bible. Martin Luther was so intent on scripture’s importance as the place where Jesus is revealed and the source of what we believe that he translated it from the original languages, Hebrew and Greek, into German, the people’s language. He wanted common folks to read the Bible themselves and not depend on others to tell them what it says, since they may not be reliable. Then, he became a champion of education, even for girls, supporting the ability to read for everyone so the scripture would be accessible to all.
It is in scripture, particularly in Romans 3, that the truth of “by faith alone” and “by grace alone” are introduced. We read, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus….” (Romans 3:22-24) Even the best behavior by the most righteous human being falls short when it comes to keeping God’s law, that is, doing God’s will. If judged by our own righteousness, the eternal future would not look bright for any of us.
Realizing this reality was what motivated Luther to delve into scripture. He judged himself severely, believing that he could never be good enough to earn or to deserve God’s forgiveness, or rich enough to buy the indulgences required to secure it. It was hopeless, he thought, until he discovered the concept of grace in the New Testament.
Grace is the word used to describe the gift of God of unearned, undeserved forgiveness; it comes to us through Jesus and our faith in him. “For we hold that one is justified by faith, apart from works of the law,” writes the Apostle Paul in Romans 8:28. I’ve read that next to this verse Luther wrote a big “SOLA” in his Bible, reminding himself that it is by faith alone that we are justified (made right with God), not some combination of faith and our works. In fact, faith also is gift of grace, Luther wrote. We cannot create it within ourselves, we can only nurture it or ignore it.
I’ve discovered over the years that the concepts of by grace alone and by faith alone are difficult for people to grasp. So, I want to share a story that may help us do so. Pastor Ron Rall tells about a woman named Denise who reported to him her experience with a final exam in her Youth Ministry class at Hannibal-LeGrange College in Missouri.
I’ll quote him/her: “When I got to class, everybody was doing their last-minute studying. The teacher came in and said he would review with us before the test. Most of his review came right from the study guide, but there were some things he was reviewing that I had never heard. When questioned about it, he said they were in the book and we were responsible for everything in the book. We could not argue with that.
Finally, it was time to take the test. ‘Leave them face down on the desk until everyone has one, and I’ll tell you to start,’ our professor, Dr. Tom Hufty, instructed.
When we turned them over, to my astonishment, every answer was filled in. My name was even written on the exam in red ink. The bottom of the last page said, ‘This is the end of the exam. All answers on your test are correct. You will receive an A on the final exam. The reason you passed this test is because the creator of the test took if for you. All the work you did in preparation for this test did not help you get the A. You have just experienced grace.” (1)
Think about that … while Denise might have studied and been prepared, it was not anything she did that gave her the A. Likewise, the person who did not study and was not prepared presumably got an A too, in spite of failing to do what was expected. It’s an example of what we often say around here: there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less. That’s grace.
When we are guided by a human point-of-view, we often experience the opposite of grace - the cold, hard reality of needing to prove ourselves. Then, we can either boast about what we’ve accomplished or justify why we did not succeed. In either case, the need to keep proving ourselves seems unending.
But the truth Martin Luther found in scripture was that when it comes to God’s point-of-view, such self-justification not only is not required, it does no good. We cannot add to what God’s gift of grace, which comes to us in Jesus, has given us – we are God’s beloved ones. It is a done deal, so the speak, and our task is to express our gratitude for grace in how we live. Today we celebrate sola scriptura, sola fide and sola gratia – that by word alone, by faith alone, by grace alone, we and Martin Luther are blessed. AMEN
A Righteousness from God” by the Rev. Ron Rall, The Lutheran Hour, October 28, 2007