A Reformation Meditation Series on Solus Christus: Martin Luther & Solus Christus (1/4)
by Corey McLaughlin
*This article is the first in a four-part series. This first part has been published in a recent issue of the Advent Christian Witness. Though not appearing in the Witness, parts 2-4 will be featured on Advent Christian Voices in the following weeks.
Martin Luther & Solus Christus Calling On The Name Of Idols
The first time Martin Luther thought he was going to die he cried out, “O, Mary help!”[i] The second time, only a few years later, during a mighty thunderstorm he fell off his horse and screamed, “Save me, St. Anne, and I’ll become a monk!”[ii] Years later after washing in the cleansing waters of Gospel grace and drinking the living water of Gospel life thus truly becoming born-again he would launch the Protestant Reformation. In one sermon he would reflect back soberly saying, “St. Ann was my idol.” He told the congregation the despicable truth of the human heart is that “it is easier for us humans to believe and trust in everything else than in the name of Christ, who alone is all in all…”[iii]
Standing on Christ alone, Luther would go on to face the Roman Catholic juggernaut and a thousand years of false teaching. He was no mere fly in Rome’s ointment, he was an electric eel in her eye. Pope Leo X condemned and excommunicated Luther, calling him a “wild boar” in the official Papal bull and decreed all his writings to be burned.[iv] Rome’s elite believed and actually passed on the story that he was the product of a bathhouse liaison between his mother and the Prince of darkness himself.[v] At the infamous Diet of Worms he was called before the Roman authorities to recant his teachings. When he refused unless they could show him the error of his ways by “Scripture and plain reason” as he said, they condemned him as a “demon in the appearance of a man.”[vi] He became an outlaw and lived his life in exile, but would not, could not, give up Christ, “For the one doctrine which I have supremely at heart,” he writes in his commentary on Galatians, “is that of faith in Christ, from whom, through whom, unto whom all my theological thinking flows back and forth day and night.”[vii]
Calling On The Name of Christ Alone: Solus Christus
Rome preached her salvation equation “Jesus plus.” Jesus plus Mary seen as a mediator of His grace. Jesus plus the good works of all the saints of all time which can be applied to any sinners account to cleanse their soul. Jesus plus deeds done in righteousness. Jesus plus purgatory when all else fails. Here the Reformers brought down the high places and dashed the conceptual idols by preaching Christ and Him alone as both necessary for salvation and sufficient to meet all its requirements.
Solus Christus is the doctrine that salvation is found in Christ alone and no one else because He alone has earned it, and He alone then distributes it as the sole mediator to all those who trust in His name.[viii] Here we are reminded that Christ alone took the initiative in our salvation, not us. He left the clouds of glory, we did not ascend. He obeyed His Father, unlike Adam. He resisted temptation in the desert, unlike Israel in the wilderness. He embodied the promises of God and fulfilled the Law of God with every jot and tittle, or as we might say, with every “i” dotted and “t” crossed. On Calvary, His substitutionary atonement emptied heaven of its justice and Hell of its wrath. His resurrection purchased the verdict of our innocence (what we call our justification), and His subsequent ascension appointed Him our forever defense lawyer in the heavenly court daily interceding for us.[ix] Is salvation earned? You better believe it is, just…not…by…us! To God alone be the glory!
What Does Solus Christus Mean For You?
What does Solus Christus mean for your salvation? At least three observations come to mind.
(1) Christ earned it by his life, death, and resurrection.[x] Often Christians simply collapse these down so they speak of “the blood of the lamb,” or the “cross of Christ.” Since the cross was placed on Calvary, a hill, this furnishes a simple illustration for us. Christ’s sinless life fulfilled the Law of God and all righteousness, this leads up to the cross. On the cross, Jesus experiences the justice of God and pays the penalty for sin thus turning away God’s righteous wrath against all ungodliness of humanity.[xi] On the other side of the cross, Christ rises from the tomb thus finalizing our justification by conquering death. He ascends as High Priest and mediates His grace for us which we receive via the Holy Spirit in us. We contributed not one fraction of a mite to any part of this process.
(2) Christ gives it by grace alone through faith alone to those who trust in Him alone. When Christians declare, “You are justified by grace,” they mean you have been declared in right standing with God the Father and this, not of yourselves, it was a gift of unmerited, unearned, scandalous grace (Eph. 2:8-10). But, “grace” as an act of God’s free will does not actually justify anyone; it simply proclaims that they are in fact justified and that they have had no part in God’s work. When theologians say you are justified by grace “through faith,” they mean that faith is the way in which you receive God’s gift of salvation. But, faith does not actually justify you either. Faith does not save you. Faith cannot save you. We do not put our faith in faith; we put our faith in Christ who is the object of our faith. Faith is how one receives the work of Jesus, already completed, already accomplished, into their lives. If Christ is the power station, we might say, then faith is the power line and we are the home. Faith cannot create power it can only transmit it. Little faith or big faith matters not.[xii] Remember, Peter had “little faith” and still walked on water! Any faith is a conduit for Christ’s atoning work no matter your past (just ask Zacchaeus, Lk 19:1-10). Thus, the actual ground or foundation of our salvation then, that which actually justifies us, the reason that God as holy Judge can excuse us, is because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the living Lord of glory (Rom. 4:25; Is. 53:4-5). Or, if you like, “God thought it, Jesus bought it, the Holy Spirit wrought it - in other words, the blood bought it, the Bible taught it, the devil fought it, love sought it, faith caught it, and happy is the person who can say, “I’ve got it!”[xiii]
(3) Christ sustains it by His Spirit in His children. In the song made famous by Stevie Wonder, he sings about showing up at his lover's house presenting himself, “signed, sealed, delivered,” and declaring, “I’m yours!” In the same way, Jesus presents himself to the church, his bride, and the two remain engaged until the wedding feast of the Lamb (Rev. 19). Those who are part of the true church are likewise “sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30), because “he who began a good work in you, will continue it on to the very end” (Phil. 1:6). We tend to think that solus Christus is a doctrine just for when we get saved (past tense), but in Scripture a careful eye will notice there are actually three tenses of salvation: you are saved (past; 2 Tim. 1:9), you are being saved (present; 1 Cor. 1:18), you will be saved (future; Rom. 5:9-10). All of these rely on, issue from, and end with solus Christus. Michael Horton writing in Union With Christ describes the second tense of salvation as our sanctification, but rightly corrects themisunderstanding that solus Christus has nothing to do with it (emphasis mine):
The righteousness that alone will withstand God's judgment always remains Christ's rather than the believer's. Therefore, even in our sanctification we must look outside of ourselves and cling to Christ alone, realizing more and more each day the effects of the fact that we have been declared righteous in Christ and that we have been baptized by the Spirit into his death and raised with him in life.[xiv]
So, as Martin Luther said, “sin boldly!” He did say that, but to be fair his words are often taken out of context. He was writing a letter to a friend who was especially beaten down by his sins from which he realized he could not escape. Luther counseled, “Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (“sin boldly”), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”[xv] In other words, you cannot deny who you are by nature (a sinner), but you can let that drive you to become dependent on Christ with abandon. Just to make his point colorfully Luther reminded his friend hyperbolically, “No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day.”[xvi]
Luther would know. He had his serious failings we often overlook, especially during the 500-year anniversary of the Reformation. He attacked his enemies with a rude, crude, vocabulary and rhetoric,[xvii] drank lavishly, would later suffer bouts of depression, lash out in bursts of anger aimed both at friend and foe alike, and even wrote some pretty terrible things about Jewish people (e.g. an entire book called On The Jews and Their Lies).[xviii] In short, he was not perfect by any means, but rather than sweep this under the rug, we ought to let his life marinate the doctrines he rediscovered in the Word. Canadian Lutheran Matthew Block righty sees the Gospel all the more savory through this lens:
“The fact is, Luther was a man. God accomplished incredibly important things through him . . . but he was nevertheless human. He was flawed and sinful, like you and me. And really, when you think about it, that is the good news of the Gospel. God justifies us despite our failings. He covers us with the blood of Christ and forgives our sin. The recognition that we are simul iustus et peccator (“at the same time righteous and a sinner”) is a cornerstone of the faith rediscovered by Luther. On the one hand, we understand that we are sinners because of our evil inclinations and actions; on the other hand, we know we are saints because God has forgiven us.”[xix]
In another article, he raises the question of how to answer someone who accusingly asks, “Don’t you know the terrible things Luther did?” And then he answers, “Say yes. Then respond, “But let me tell you what Christ did.”[xx] This is the Gospel story, and the controlling center of all the solas that causes us to sing, “On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand.”
[iii] Vol. V, p. 79 in The Complete Sermons Of Martin Luther, 7 volumes. Baker Books 2000.
[iv] Condemning The Errors of Martin Luther (Exsurge Domine). papelencyclicals.net, n.d. Web. 28 June 2017. For a deeper understanding of the conflict both historically and theologically see Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification by R.C. Sproul.
[vi] See Edict Of Worms transcript under “Punishments” at http://www.crivoice.org/creededictworms.html. His response was, “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason - I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other - my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” The infamous saying, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise,” while certainly fitting and found in the earliest printed versions, are not in the official transcripts and therefore appear not to come from Luther but legend.
[vii] A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians: A revised and completed translation based on the “Middleton” edition of the English version of 1575 (Logos Bible Software), 16.
[viii] Christ alone is the only sola rendered in two different ways, either Solus Christus (nominative case meaning Christ is the ground of our justification), or, solo Christo (ablative case like the other Solas indicating instrumental means as in “by Christ alone,” or “through Christ alone.”). Thus justification can be said to be by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone (Solus Christus) or through Christ alone (solo Christo).
[ix] Heb. 7:25; Rom. 5:10 (note we are “saved by his life”), 8:34; Jn. 14:16 (we often use the term paraclete only in reference to the Holy Spirit but Jesus referred to himself as the first paraclete, making him the key advocate for his people (1 Jn. 2:1), a term that also meant in some ancient contexts “lawyer”).
[x] We include here the sinless life of Jesus as part of his act of obedience unto God that fulfilled the law and demonstrated Jesus’ righteousness making him the perfect spotless lamb. Piper explains how his sinless life is connected to his atoning death, “Is the death of Jesus sufficient to cleanse us from all our sins? Yes, but only as the climax of a sinless life. The book of Hebrews is most explicit about the necessity of the Son of God being perfect and without sin so that he can bear our sins once for all....” (for more see The Sufficiency Of Christs Obedience In His Life and Death at desiringgod.org).
[xi] Systematic theology terms this whole process the active obedience and passive obedience of Christ (for more on this see James Buchanan in The Doctrine of Justification).
[xii] Despite what some wrong-headed theology teaches, see John Macarthur’s correction in Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending The Holy Spirit With Counterfeit Worship, and his older work Charismatic Chaos. Since Macarthur does not affirm gifts of tongues, healings, miracles as active today he does go overboard in some of his critiques, however, the extreme abuses do warrant correction.
[xv] Paragraph 13 of Luther, Martin. Let Your Sins Be Strong: A Letter From Luther to Melanchthon, Letter no. 99, 1 August 1521, From Wartburg. Project Wittenberg (https://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg /luther/letsinsbe.txt). n.d. Web. 26 March 2017.
[xvii] Go to http://ergofabulous.org/luther/ for revolving insults at the click of a button. Or, visit Talking Tough – Martin Luther’s Potty Mouth at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ru4DiHVSAYU (be sure to visit the sources listed especially German Hercules at academia.edu). The Swiss Protestant reformer Heinrich Bullinger said of Luther, “Alas, it is as clear as daylight and undeniable that no one has ever written more vulgarly, more coarsely, more unbecomingly, in matters of faith, and Christian modesty, and in all serious matters, than Luther” (quoted in The Facts About Luther by Patrick F. O’Hare, p. 350).
[xviii] Luther’s contention was not racial but theological, nonetheless, he appears to favor persecution as a legitimate response to the Jews: “Let their houses also be shattered and destroyed . . . Let their prayer books and Talmuds be taken from them, and their whole Bible too; let their rabbis be forbidden, on pain of death, to teach henceforth any more. Let the streets and highways be closed against them. Let them be forbidden to practice usury, and let all their money, and all their treasures of silver and gold be taken from them and put away in safety. And if all this be not enough, let them be driven like mad dogs out of the land” (cited in Martin Luther’s Attitude Toward The Jews by James Swan found at http://archive.li/pzVhG).
For a full treatment of Luther that intertwines his life and theology together from an evangelical perspective see the recent work by R.C. Sproul and Stephen J. Nichols, The Legacy Of Luther.