LUTHER 500: Sola Gratia


The 500th Year of Luther’s Reformation

The 15th Annual Evangelicals Concerned Preaching Fest

Ocean Grove, New Jersey, October 6-8, 2017

An Introductory Lecture and Three Sermons

Dr. Ralph Blair

(PDF version available here.)

LUTHER 500:  Sola Gratia

Well, what did you bring with you this afternoon – besides all that coffee you drank to stay awake? What did you bring with you? What I’m really asking is this: What did you bring with you when you came into the world?

When you came together in your mother’s body, when one of your father’s millions of sperm made it into your mother’s egg – and then and there, you were! – what did you bring with you? The truth is, on your arrival, you brought nothing that you hadn’t been given. And, that’s a given. That’s God’s grace.

What were you given? Gifts galore! And those gifts keep on giving. That’s a given, too. That’s God’s grace.

You arrived packed with protection and promise in your DNA – a random mix of your parents’ genes. They, in their turns, decades before you, inherited their genes from their parents. Their parents inherited theirs from their parents, and so on, back down through the distant and now long forgotten past, probably beyond the seas.

That past, though, is here and now, in you, personally. You got it as a gift. You didn’t earn it. You didn’t intend it. You were totally oblivious to all of these gifts that came wrapped in the gift that’s you. That’s a given. That’s God’s grace.

In your blissful oblivion, your mother gifted you by keeping you safe, “hooped in her ribs and staved by her spine”, in words by Marilynne Robinson. And you escaped what’s forced on over three thousand pre-born Americans each day, whose lives in this world are cut short. Your life was left as a gift to live out in this world. That’s a given. That’s God’s grace.

In your mother’s infancy, her tiny ovaries held some two million immature eggs, follicles. By the time she reached puberty, she still had around 400,000 of those follicles. With every menstrual cycle, she lost a thousand, and still, around 400 matured into actual eggs. You, in part, came from among those two million follicles and then from among those 400 eggs. That’s a given. That’s God’s grace.

And even with the more than three million differences between your unique genome and everyone else’s, you nonetheless share 99.9 percent of your DNA with everyone else – even with those in this room! So, be nice. We’re genetically connected with each other – as Scripture, rather more poetically put it long ago: “God made all of us of one blood to inhabit the earth”. (Acts 17:26) And it’s all a gift. That’s a given. That’s God’s grace.

In each of your body’s one hundred trillion cells, your body was given genes of instruction. And in every cell of 23 pairs of chromosomes, the pair of sex chromosomes has determined, essentially, whether you’re a male or a female. That’s a given, too. That’s God’s grace.

You were given yourself, your own particular – or, even, rather peculiar – you, this you who is, indeed, uniquely you, yet, is, as well, uniquely related to everyone else. Still, there never was another you. There’ll never be another you. You’re a gift from God to you and you’re a gift from God to others, too. And, they are gifts of God to you and to themselves and others, too. That’s a given. That’s God’s grace.

We came into a world that was waiting for us, though we had no clue that this was true. It was a world within a universe that was already, just right for our life, for our physical needs for air, water and sunshine. Long ago, the earth was meant for our arrival and was prepared for our arrival and for our flourishing here and now.

You also were given your more personal world within the wider world, at a particular time in history, and at a particular place on the planet. There were already established socioeconomic, ethnic, cultural, political, racial, religious and other circumstances in both your more immediate context and in the wider world around you. That’s a given. That’s God’s grace.

So, we all arrived with nothing that we hadn’t been given. We, ourselves and our place in this wide world of time and space were, and still are, gifts to ourselves, gifts to others – for better or worse – who’re gifts to themselves and us – for better or worse.

Whatever we are and whatever we’ve found here, has been given to us for us to make something of it. That’s a given. That’s God’s grace. We’ve been given God’s call to use what we’ve been given to develop the latent potential that we find here. (Gen 1:26ff) That, too, is a given. That, too, is God’s grace.

The prophet Jeremiah relayed God’s own words: “Even before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and even before you were born, I consecrated you’.” (Jer 1:5) Consecrated before birth! So, even had you been aborted, or after having been abandoned or otherwise abused, God’s own blessing on you was never revoked. That’s a given. That’s God’s grace.

We were dedicated by God – each with his or her own special part to play in conserving and cultivating what we’ve been given in ourselves and in all we’ve found around us as we’ve grown up around others, in order to treat them as we wish to be treated. God did not call us to boredom, but to adventures for our good and for the good of others. That’s a given. That’s God’s grace.

Said Isaiah: “Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer and Creator who formed you from the womb: ‘I AM the Lord, who made all things’.” (Isa 44:24) “Redeemer”? Uh-oh! “Redeemer” means we’ve gone wrong. Bad news! Yet, “Redeemer” means One Who rights wrongs. Good news! That’s a given. That’s God’s grace.

Martin Luther’s life and work helps to prepare us for living our Christian lives, with our Redeemer, these five centuries later. Do we not see, in Luther’s preaching, that, that redemption, too, is all of grace, as is all else, all of grace?

Systematic divines divvy up God’s grace into what they call “common” grace and “special” grace, and that can make some sense. But both creation and redemption have always been and always will be, in all ways, about the sovereign grace of God.

And best of all, as Paul said, we’re called to be made fit to be God’s children, co-heirs with Christ, that we might suffer with him that we may also be glorified with him, for life is in Christ and to die is the gain of the joy of even a closer relationship with Christ. (Rom 8:17; Phil 1:21).

Five days before the tenth anniversary of his posting of his 95 Theses, Luther wrote to his dear friend, the shy yet brilliant young scholar, Phillip Melanchthon, systematic shaper of Luther’s often rambling but profound insights. In that letter, Luther shared his overwhelming gratitude for the generosity of God’s grace, not as that distorted, so-called, “grace” that had been twisted so badly into Rome’s demands for “strenuous efforts, endeavors, or works” to win pardon and approval from God, but as it truly is, as Luther noted, “that favor with which God receives us, forgiving our sins and justifying us freely through Christ.” That’s a given in Christ. That’s God’s grace in Christ. So Luther told Phillip: “I’m seeking and thirsting for nothing else than a gracious God. And”, Luther added, “God earnestly offers Himself exactly that way and urges even those who spurn Him and are His enemies to accept Him as the gracious God that He is.”

Luther said that this free gift of justification is how God “wishes us well”. It’s all about God’s “grace: the forgiveness of sins for the sake of the Christ” who bought our redemption on the cross, and not what we’re told comes from sales of indulgences. Luther’s personal testimony was this: “Grace is freely given to the very most undeserving and unworthy.”

Of his own experience in discovering God’s grace, he exclaimed: “I felt myself absolutely born again. The gates of Paradise had been flung open and I had entered. Then and there the whole of scripture took on another look to me.” This Gospel of God’s free grace is at the very center of God’s continuing relationship with us.

And thus, on the authority of God’s Word in Scripture alone, sola Scriptura, we, too, may learn, we need to learn, are blessed to learn, what Luther learned: That our only hope, as the sinners we obviously are, is in God’s gift of free grace alone, sola Gratia.

Luther understood from his own miserable experience that we’re all tempted to try to buy God’s forgiveness by trying to put God in our debt, instead of admitting that, we’re all in debt to God. God’s grace is not ours to grant to us; God’s grace is already given to us, for God, in Christ, created and redeems us. Luther learned that, by trying to bribe God, we’re only “adding sins to sins”.

He understood that our “sin and death were overcome for us in and through Christ. Grace and life were given to us, but it meant bitter work and agonizing death for Him. He earned it for us, at the greatest of costs: His own life’s blood and body.” Moreover, as Luther learned from Scripture, this “Lamb, was slain from the creation of the world.” (Rev 13:8) His crucifixion was set in place before the world was set in place. And that sacrifice was finished when he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Therefore, and again, as Luther wrote: “Anyone who thinks that he, himself, will come to grace by doing whatever he is able to do on his own is, indeed, adding sin to sin, and he then becomes even doubly guilty.” Having said this, Luther quickly adds these words of comfort, reminding readers that, this is “no cause for despair. Rather, it moves us to humbly seek this free grace of Christ.”

Three days after the twentieth anniversary of his 95 Theses, Luther was preaching on John the Baptist’s pointing to Jesus and announcing: “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) Said Luther: “Either sin is with you, lying on your shoulders, or sin is lying on Christ, the Lamb of God. If it’s lying on your back, you’re lost, but if it’s resting on Christ, you’re freed, and you’ll be saved. Choose what you will.”

Is the choice so hard? To self-righteousness it is a hard choice. Self-righteousness is the same now as it was in Eden – the deadly temptation to try to be God’s god, to assert control over God. So, Luther examines this lunacy of humanity’s refusal to take God at His word. He writes that our resistance against God is truly pitiful, when God Himself makes the offer, saying: “My friend, two ways lie before you; choose one. Would you rather have My grace and eternal salvation for nothing, bestowed and delivered without any expense or toil on your part, or would you prefer to try to earn these good gifts with your works and yet not attain any of them?”

Self-righteousness stalls in annoyed resistance: “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!” It foolishly finds that the choice between self-righteousness and God’s righteousness is too hard to make. So, lost in daydreams of saving ones’ self, one chooses to stay lost.

In his sermon on John 1:29, Luther noted: “I must simply say that the Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world and that I have been earnestly enjoined to trust and confess this, nay, to die on this fact.” He asks: “Do you not hear what St. John says at this point: This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world? Surely, you cannot deny that you are a part of the world of human beings; for you were born a man or a woman and not a cow or a hog. In consequence, your sins must certainly be included in Christ’s burden as well as the sins of St. Peter or St. Paul! … So, do not follow your own notions, but grasp onto the Word that promises you forgiveness of sins through the Lamb that takes away the sins of the world if one but trusts.”

Knowing how resistant we all can be, Luther observed, “Human nature wants to have a sense of certainty before it believes. Faith wants to believe before it feels.” Psychologically, we feel as a result of what we believe. So Luther calls for our need for greater light than we ourselves can give us. He says: “This is the reason why human nature goes no farther than it can see by its light. But”, he explains, “God’s grace steps forth cheerfully into that darkness, follows the plain Word and Scripture, no matter how things seem to be; whether human nature thinks them to be right or wrong, grace clasps onto the Word.” So, the seeker of God’s grace alone is brought back to Scripture alone.

It’s with such dependence on the truth of God’s Word, where we find, revealed, God’s grace, that we leave behind our ludicrously self-righteous efforts to put God in our debt and move on under the welcoming love of God’s grace, to trust in the One who came for us by way of the cross.

As Luther presented this Gospel one Christmas, he said that, “we receive grace at once and fully. Thus, we’re saved. Good works do not need to come to our assistance in this, but they are to follow. It is”, he said, “precisely as if God were to produce a fresh, green tree out of a dry log. That tree would then bear its natural fruit.”

Luther went on to describe the evidence of such fruit of God’s grace: “Grace hears, it leads, it drives, it draws, it changes us, it works all through us, and lets itself be distinctly experienced. It’s hidden, and yet its resulting fruit is evident. Words and works then reveal where grace is living.”

Neither Luther nor Paul invented God’s grace. Luther and Paul were found by God’s grace. Luther learned what Paul learned and then explained to Ephesians: “By grace you’ve been saved through faith. It’s not of your doing; it’s the gift of God, it’s not based in any works of which you can boast in yourselves.” (Eph 2:8f)

This was in Scripture for more than a millennium. By Luther’s day, it was replaced by ecclesiastical corruption. In later times it was rejected by self-help and self-esteem movements and, later still, by whatever else became the latest in self-righteousness.

In the fall of 1537, Luther preached the biblical promise that the grace of God in Christ is unlimited. He took as his text, John 1:16: “We have all received grace upon grace from Christ’s fullness of grace.” He encouraged people to focus on this inexhaustible grace in Christ. He pictured the grace in Christ as, “the sun [that’s] not dimmed and darkened by shining on so many people or by providing the entire world with its light and splendor. It retains its light intact. It loses nothing; it is immeasurable.” He continues to illuminate by saying: “I suppose that a hundred thousand candles can be ignited from one light, and still this light will not lose any of its brilliance. … Whoever wishes to enjoy Christ’s grace – and no one is excluded – let him come and receive it from Him. You will never drain this fountain of living water; it will never run dry. …All of us, without exception, no matter how devout we may be, we come empty and fill our little casks from His well and His fullness.”

In his greatest hymn, Luther stated: “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing; were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing. Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He, Lord Sabaoth His Name, from age to age the same. And He must win the battle.” Did we in our own strength confide, all our striving would add up to losing … to loss!

Those who are hell-bound to hide their palpable spiritual poverty with a pretense of spiritual pride are, indeed, hell bound. Those who, in truth, admit their palpable spiritual poverty and plead for the mercy of God, so freely given, are, indeed, bound for Home.

Let us here, in this chapel this afternoon, these many centuries later, drink freely of this living water of God’s free grace in Christ, again and again and again, for his deep well never runs dry. Amen.

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Luther 500: Introductory Lecture

Luther 500: Sola Fide

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