Rector’s Weekly Letter to the Congregation for Sunday,
September 15, 2019
The Gospel and the Five Solae of the Reformation
It is amazing how God does things. He has chosen to execute his divine plan on earth in partnership with us, his sinful human friends. There are times when human beings mess up the plan to the point of almost derailing it off the tracks. But God always comes in before the whole thing tips over to salvage it. Then it blooms afresh. And then human sinfulness later brings it to near collapse. Then God intervenes and steadies the boat.
For example, in the Old Testament, the Messiah was to come through the line of David. But in 1 Kings 11:1-3, Athaliah seized the throne and killed all the children of King Ahaziah. Ahaziah’s sister managed to steal away Ahaziah’s infant son, Joash, and hid him. Joash remained hidden for six whole years while Athaliah ruled Judah. Later Joash became king at age eight, and David’s line remained on the throne of God’s people. It was a close call to thwarting God’s program.
In the New Testament, when Jesus was born, Herod ordered all children of age two and under to be killed in Bethlehem in a bid to kill baby Jesus. God didn’t send angels to wield heavenly swords with flames of fire to fight for the Son of God. No. God told Joseph to take Mary and baby Jesus to Egypt to escape the wiles of Herod. This was another close call.
After Jesus’ ascension to heaven, the church started on a strong note. The book of Acts tells the story of the Church’s confounding growth. On the day of Pentecost, three thousand people became believers in Jesus Christ. Growth continued as the apostles traversed the land of Judah and beyond taking the message of salvation. Later there was grappling with issues of belief, and the apostles wrote letters to explain and clarify what the gospel is, and how the Christian life should be lived.
What is this gospel? The gospel is the message that God sent his son to die on the cross for sinners, and that the son’s life and death paid the debt of the sinner who puts faith in Christ. This good news was handed down by the apostles as a deposit to be proclaimed for all time without alteration from generation to generation. No church council, no Bishop, no Patriarch, no one has the authority to tamper with the gospel.
Unfortunately, as years went by, teachings were introduced into the Church that did not match what the apostles taught. The gospel message itself was lost. The gospel said that Christ’s death is what saves a believer. That was lost sight of. Instead, one’s own holy living came to be understood as what saves the believer. Indulgencies were introduced. These were sold by the Church on the promise that once you buy an indulgence you would have no more need to repent and change your life in order to be forgiven because the indulgence will draw from the treasury of merit and get you all forgiven. The treasury of merit consisted of the merits of Christ, the prayers and good works of Mary the mother of Jesus, and others. Indulgencies could also be bought for souls that were in Purgatory to propel them straight to heaven.
Purgatory was said to be a place where a person who died with small (venial) sins would go to be punished and cleansed and made fit for heaven. A person with big (mortal) sin would go straight to hell after death. The question of formulating doctrine from nowhere also was a problem. The church and the Pope would formulate doctrine without a definite guideline. For example, the Pope was declared infallible, that once he sits on his papal throne, he cannot make a mistake. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was declared to have been born without the sin nature, the immaculate conception. Clergy were barred from marrying. All these were arbitrarily arrived at.
The fires of the reformation smoldered underground for many years. When they finally erupted, there was mayhem in the Church. The reformers declared Five Solae (plural) from sola (singular), meaning “only” or “alone”: Sola Scriptura—only Scripture. Any doctrine that cannot be proved from Scripture was to be thrown out. Sola Fide—only Faith. Salvation is granted to a human being by God based only upon the substitutionary death of Christ on the cross and is acquired by putting faith in Christ, period. Sola Gratia—Only by Grace. Salvation is the free gift of God. A person doesn’t work for it. It is God’s unmerited favor that grants it. Solus Christus—only Christ saves, not the good deeds we do. Soli Deo Gloria—To God Alone Be Glory. These five solas were the slogans the reformers used to summarize the core reforms they sought. The Protestant Reformation had started. The dark days when the gospel was shackled and consigned to a dungeon by the Church were over. It was rescued from the dungeon and lifted high to light the souls of men and women. That fire continues to burn today. Let us join in spreading it far and wide.
It behooves every Christian to know what he/she believes. Every Christian is charged with the task of knowing what the Christian gospel is and what it is not. That understanding of the gospel must be the underlying compass that guides one’s daily discipleship. If we don’t get a firm grasp on the gospel, we end up doing empty religion which has no life and does not save. Actually, such religion is useless. It leaves us in the position of being enemies of God. It is dangerous.