A week like this can’t pass without each of us being forced to do some sober reflecting.
Last week, the news that Hugh Hefner had died sparked a lot of punditry about his life and legacy. I was asked to join the conversation, and my thoughts were posted here.
And of course, the heartbreaking news of the massacre in Las Vegas on Sunday night once again brought us face to face with the reality of evil in our world. Again, I wrote a short piece that was posted on the Gospel Coalition website. You can read it by clicking here.
And Sunday, we’ll spend revisit the events of this week in the context of what Paul teaches in Romans 8 about groaning and glory.
But our focus in this week’s newsletter is on one of the 500 year old slogans that defined an area where a Roman Catholic monk in Germany took issue with what his church was teaching.
Martin Luther went to the heart of the gospel when he declared that the Roman Catholic understanding of salvation was at odds with what the Bible teaches. Salvation, said Luther, comes to us not by human effort energized by God’s grace, but Sola Gracia – by grace alone.
This is no simple difference of opinion on a minor issue of theology. If Luther’s understanding of the Bible is correct on this issue – and reformation theology has steadfastly affirmed it is – then those throughout history who have put their hope in the Roman Catholic understanding of salvation have believed a false gospel, with eternal consequences.
There are two important clarifications we need to make about the divide between Protestants and Roman Catholics on the part that grace plays in salvation.
The first clarification is that most of your Roman Catholics friends would not be able to articulate the official teaching of their church on grace. You should not assume that your friends understand how the Roman Catholic church views grace any more than you should assume that the average person attending a Protestant church understands Sola Gracia.
There are people who are lifelong members of the Roman Catholic Church who would quickly affirm that they have a reconciled relationship with God solely on the basis of God’s grace. Their view conflicts with what their church affirms. But at least some Roman Catholics today believe that salvation is by grace alone.
Secondly, we need to acknowledge that many Protestants have routinely mischaracterized what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about salvation and grace. Some of us have said things like “Catholics believe in works but Protestants believe in grace.” That kind of mischaracterization would be deeply offensive to any faithful Roman Catholic.
Every Catholic would affirm what Ephesians 2:8-9 teaches – that we are saved by grace through faith.
Where the division comes is with the word “alone.”
Roman Catholicism teaches that when a person is baptized in the church, they have begun their journey of faith. Each person on that journey is being conformed into the image of Christ. It’s the journey of sanctification. And it’s a journey that will take a lifetime – or longer.
Catholic dogma teaches that the path of sanctification ends when a person is finally, fully conformed to the image of Christ. Only at that point, they say can that person be declared right before God. In other words, Catholics believe that it is at the end of the sanctification journey that we are pronounced righteous. Our justification follows our sanctification in Roman Catholic doctrine.
So where does grace fit into Roman Catholic thinking about salvation?
The Roman church teaches that when a person participates in the life of the church – attending mass, taking communion, doing acts of service for others, etc. – those activities provide a person with an infusion of God’s grace that helps them grow more and more like Jesus. Our works have no value on their own. We need our works to be infused with God’s grace in order for them to have any merit or value.
This understanding of grace and works was not good news for Martin Luther. He lived every day under the weight that his sins were piling up faster than any grace infused good works. He was convinced that by the end of each day, he had earned for himself more of God’s righteous judgment than His forgiveness and mercy.
What Luther saw when he read Romans 1:17-18 where Paul declares that the just shall live by faith, was for the first time in his life, real good news. He saw that we don’t work our way up to justification by compiling a track record of grace infused good deeds. We are declared righteous by God because Jesus’s perfect life earned the reward that is now imputed (freely transferred) to all who by faith follow Him.
Sola Gracia teaches that our justification is a gift God gives us. We don’t earn it with grace infused good works. Jesus earned it for us by living a life of perfect obedience.
So what part do our good works play in our salvation? Ephesians 2:10 answers that. “We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which He prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
The order is important. Paul doesn’t talk about our good works in this passage until after he has laid out that we are saved by grace though faith, and that your salvation is “not your own doing.” Good works are the way we regularly express our gratitude to God for His gracious gift of salvation. They are literally what we were made for.
Augustus Toplady understood Sola Gracia when he wrote Rock of Ages.
Not the labors of my hands
Can fulfil thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears for ever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and thou alone.
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling.
The next Kids Small Group happens this week! Thursday, October 5 from 5:45-8:15 at the church. We hope we’ll see even more kids and friends this week. Feel free to email Matt Gurney with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And while we’re talking to moms and dads…
This month, Paul Tripp is releasing a video event for parents called Getting to the Heart of Parenting. The event is being hosted by Pleasant Valley Church of Christ on Sunday, October 15 from 2:00 pm – 6:30 pm. The cost is $30 per family, and that includes child care and a box dinner. You can click here for more information or to register.
I saw this graphic that Michael Horton posted on line recently. Thought it was worth passing on to you. It’s a reminder for all of us about why being a part of a local church congregation is so important for our spiritual growth.
And just FYI – Dr. Horton (who is a Professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido CA) wrote a column in the Washington Post this week commenting on some very unfortunate remarks Pat Robertson made about the Las Vegas shooting. You might want to check it out.
The news of the week – any week – can leave you groaning. Whether it’s the news we read on line or the news we get from family or friends, we live in a broken world where tragedy is a part of our reality.
But that’s not the whole story, as we’ll see in our ongoing study of Romans 8 this Sunday.
See you in church!
Soli Deo Gloria!