Last week we began a 3-message series about the Reformation, and in recent days I have been doing a little bit of polling, asking some of my fellow clergy how many of them were doing sermons about the Reformation, since this month it its 500th anniversary. I have been surprised to get mostly disinterested responses, so maybe it’s not as interesting a topic to most people as it is to me. So, if you don’t find it interesting, there’s only one more week!

Today’s message is Sola Fide: Faith Alone. The Reformation was based, theologically, upon what are called the Five Solas. Sola is a Latin word that means only, alone, or single. The Five Solas are theological statements that provided the foundation for all that Martin Luther – and those who came after him – taught. The Five Solas, and a very brief definition, are –

  1. Solus Christus – Christ alone. Solus Christus affirms that there are no other mediators between God and humanity other than Christ. One of the most significant expressions of this belief, for our church, is the manner in which we practice communion. For Disciples churches – and to some extent other Protestants as well – it is not necessary to have an ordained individual officiate at the table. Generally speaking, it is most often an ordained minister who officiates at communion in a Disciples church, but not always. A few weeks ago, when I was on vacation on a Sunday, I attended a Disciples church where communion was officiated by a layperson. The significance of Solus Christus is that we do not depend upon a minister, priest, or other church official to act in any mediatory role; only Christ does this.
  2. Sola Scripture – Scripture alone. One of the most commonly misunderstood aspects of Catholic theology is related to this point. Protestants will often ask, why do Catholics believe that? It’s not in the Bible. Well, it might be in the Bible (the Catholic Church recognizes several more books as belonging in the Bible than do Protestants). Catholic theology also recognizes, however, the teaching of the church across the ages as being equally authoritative to the Bible. For Catholics, then, it is not necessary that a practice or doctrine be found in Scripture, as church tradition and teaching carries equal authoritative weight.
  3. Sola Fide – Faith alone. Sola Fide is the affirmation that we are saved by faith, not by works. While good works can serve as evidence of salvation, they are not a necessary prerequisite to being granted salvation. It is this point that we will talk about today.
  4. Sola Gratia – Grace alone. In some ways, Sola Fide and Sola Gratia seem very similar, as being saved by grace alone sounds like the same affirmation as being saved by faith alone. Faith, however, is the means by which we act and grace is the means by which God acts.
  5. Soli Deo Gloria – Glory to God alone. In this teaching Luther was taking aim at the practice of the veneration of the saints and other characters in Catholic theology. To Luther, it was God alone who should be given glory.

Our Scripture text for today comes from three passages in the book of Romans. Reading through the book of Romans is what brought Martin Luther to his awareness of the fact that it is faith alone that grants us salvation.

Romans 1:17 –

17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

Romans 3:22-24 –

22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Romans 4:1-8 –

1 What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter?

If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God.

What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation.

However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.

David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:

“Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.

Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them.”

  1. Salvation does not have to be earned.

I think, deep down, it is very difficult for us to free our minds of the idea that we do not have to earn our salvation. Even though we talk a great deal about salvation as a free gift, as much as we talk about grace, and as much as we talk about the love and mercy of God, I think most people still, down deep, believe we are still somewhat responsible for having to earn our salvation. We are, after all, are a do-it-yourself society. We pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We are not dependent upon anyone but ourselves. We don’t believe there is such a thing as a free lunch.

But, theologically speaking, there are a couple of problems with our sense of independence and do-it-ourselves. Number one, sometimes we not very good at doing it ourselves. I don’t have a lot of talents, especially when it comes to working with my hands. I can’t fix many things. I can’t build many things. I think some of you remember my stories about taking three years to build a deck. A deck that is nothing but a rectangle, with nothing fancy added. There are some things I cannot do, and one them, theologically speaking, is to save myself. And, secondly, we are not very good at asking for help. I am not. I prefer to do things myself and I really do not like to ask for help. That attitude seeps into our theology as well, as we find it hard asking for help – or thinking we need help – and this reinforces our idea that we can earn our salvation.

If you are still uncertain about how much we believe we can earn our salvation, think about what I call funeral home theology. Funeral home theology is a very works-based theology; that is, it demonstrates how deeply engrained it is within us that we must earn our salvation. Funeral home theology goes like this – you are in a funeral home for visitation. A friend comes in and says, I’m very sorry about your grandmother, and you respond, I’m very sad that grandma is gone, but I take great comfort in knowing where she is. And the reason we know where she is? Because, as we might say, she was such a…good person. Now, we should certainly affirm grandma’s goodness; it’s grandma, after all! But is salvation granted to her, or anyone, because of their goodness? No. And thank goodness it’s not. Salvation does not have to be earned.

Listen to some of the ways Paul expresses this in our text for this morning –

3:24 all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

4:If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God.

What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation.

However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.

Note that in verse 4 Paul says that to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. What this means is that, if we are trying to earn our salvation, we can never get ahead. Any good we do is only what we should have done in the first place. If you remember what I said last week about the idea of indulgences and the surplus of righteousness of the saints, you will know that it is an idea that is based upon the idea that there is a standard of righteousness that we can achieve, but there is not. Paul is very plain in telling us that we can never be good enough to earn our salvation.

Sola fide – Martin Luther wrote those words in the margin of his Bible as a young Augustinian monk. Write it in the margin of your Bible. If you like tattoos, that would make a great tattoo. Get it tattooed on your arm and it would be a great conversation starter about faith. Luther made great efforts to find God’s grace; he was haunted by the sense that he had to do something in order to earn salvation so he was constantly doing penance and all the other things people told him were necessary in order for him to find salvation. Eventually he came to the point of despair, understanding he could never be good enough, but then he had a moment of great awakening when he understood that –

  1. Salvation is a free gift.

Unfortunately, some people believe that love must be earned. Sadly, that is how some people operate. Some people want us to work to earn their love, but that is a very human way of operating and is not a way in which God operates.

God’s love is free; totally free, and does not have to be earned. There are plenty of people who believe there is no such thing as a free lunch, but there is free salvation. Actually, in one church where I served, we decided to offer a free lunch on the sidewalk in front of the church. Being located on the town square, we thought it would be a great place to offer a free lunch, so on a Friday we set up a grill and cooked hamburgers and hot dogs, had chips, dessert, drinks and other items and gave them away. For free. It was amazing how suspicious people were. What’s the catch, some would ask. There is no catch, we would tell them. Still, some people would walk back and forth, observing, but hesitant to receive a meal. One man actually started arguing with me. He tried to pay some money and we wouldn’t take it he got mad! And left his plate of free food on the table!

I think one of the classic Biblical stories about salvation as a free gift is the story of the thief on the cross, in Luke 23:39-43 –

39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence?

41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Jesus offered the thief a free gift. He did not say, well, you’ve waited kind of late in life to make this decision. We really need more time so that we can get you into six different classes and we would prefer if you had some experience serving on a bunch of church committees. No, Jesus offered the free gift of salvation to the thief in the final moments of his life.

Another great passage is the parable of the workers in the vineyard, in Matthew 20:1-16 –

1“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.

He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

“About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing.

He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’

So they went. “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing.

About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’

“‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

“The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius.

10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius.

11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.

12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?

14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.

15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’

16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

The workers who had been in the vineyard all day assumed they would be given more than those who were hired at the very end of the day, but all the workers received the same amount of pay, regardless of how much time they had worked. The free gift of God’s salvation means that everyone is offered the same, free gift. It matters not how much I have worked in church over the years, the person who comes to salvation at the very end of life receives the same, free gift. That is demonstrative of God’s love and generosity!

Luther, after experiencing his epiphany of the free gift of salvation, wrote of Romans 1:17 that at last, as I meditated day and night on the relation of the words ‘the righteousness of God is revealed in it, as it is written, the righteous person shall live by faith,’ I began to understand that ‘righteousness of God’ as that by which the righteous person lives by the gift of God…the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘the righteous person lives by faith.’ This immediately made me feel as though I had been born again, and as though I had entered through open gates into paradise itself.

In Romans 6:23, Paul writes that the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Salvation is a free gift!

  1. God is the grantor of salvation and he alone is our judge.

There is no shortage of people who are happy to tell us what we must do in order to be granted God’s grace. There is no shortage of people who are happy to heap upon us all manner of rules, regulations, and requirements that we must fulfill. Don’t let people do that to you, because God doesn’t do that to you. God is our judge, not other people. And yet we often find ourselves trying to please other people and trying to live up to their expectations and requirements of us. Thank goodness that God is not as hard to please as other people can be!

In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus says –

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

One of the reasons Jesus said that is not only for us to release our worries and cares, but also to release the expectations, rules, regulations, and legalism that people want to impose upon us. His followers were tired of so much of that being heaped upon them, and when he talks about his burden being light, he is talking about the absence of those rules, regulations, and legalism in what he asks of us.

In Matthew chapter 23, Jesus lets loose a scathing judgment of those who add all the requirements that they believe others must follow –

1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples:

“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.

They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

Jesus often heaped scorn upon the religious leaders because of the abundance of regulations they place upon people. Over the course of time, literally hundreds of regulations and laws had been enacted in order to fulfill the commandment to honor the Sabbath day and to keep it holy. Hundreds. Literally. Who could keep up with that many laws, and that’s just one commandment!

Who is your judge? Is it me? No! Is it another person? No! God is your judge and my judge. Who do you need to satisfy? Me? No! Someone else? No! We do not have to please someone else, we do not have to live up to the theological expectations of others, and we do not have to accept the theological baggage that someone else would desire to place upon us.

How many of you like a bargain? We all like bargains, don’t we? As the year is speeding towards its conclusion we will soon be looking for holiday bargains. In the coming days, many of us will make the short trip down I64 to the outlet mall and shop for bargains, getting excited when we see signs advertising 25% off. But even a very good bargain comes with a price, doesn’t it, because we still have to hand over our hard-earned money. Not everything, however, comes with a price. Salvation is free. Now, I’m not saying that following Jesus is always easy, but I am absolutely saying that salvation is God’s free gift. We do not have to earn it, we do not have to work for it, and we do not have to deserve it. It is God’s free gift, and that’s good news!