For the last 100 years or so we have had this little Lutheran slogan, you’ve probably seen it on stained-glass windows and church seals if you were paying attention: “Grace alone. Faith alone. Scripture alone.” The “sola’s of the Reformation.” It doesn’t go back to Luther, in fact, putting the three together is a pretty new thing. And, I think we should do all that we can to avoid slogans and clichés and theology that can fit on a bumper sticker, there is something helpful in these three alones, or maybe simply in the word alone.
After all, every church teaches about grace, but when we say grace alone, that God’s grace is our only hope for salvation, that we start to get into the theological fights. The same is true with Scriptures alone: every church has the Scriptures, but when we say that the Scripture alone is infallible and powerful, and we exclude tradition and the authorities voice of the church and reason and experience and every form of internal hearing of God’s voice apart from the Word, then we are really saying something, and the fighting can start.
It’s the “alone” that causes all the trouble.
And the same is true with “faith alone,” every church talks about faith, but the alone excludes all of our works, all of our efforts, all of our goodness and holiness and obedience, and it is the alone that causes the trouble. This is what the fight was about in the Reformation, and it is why we Lutherans are still fussing with the other churches today, they all, in one way or another, deny the “alone-ness” of grace or faith or the Scriptures.
But those differences are for Bible class, from the pulpit (this post is excerpted from a sermon) the Lord wants to deal with you, and there is plenty to deal with here, because even if we use “faith alone” as a rally point for our doctrine and the clarity of the Gospel, it is first given to us for our repentance, for our humility.
And this is because, when the Lord says that we are justified through faith alone, He takes everything away from us. When the Lord tells us that we have to come to His with empty hands, he knocks everything else out of them. When the Lord says that we need an empty sack, then He checks to see if the sack is really empty.
Out flesh, your flesh, always wants to bring something to God, do something for God, please God in some way, do something to earn His smile, His love, His salvation, and this desire does not look evil to us; it looks good, it looks holy. Good works seem, to us, to be good. Our heart seems like a nice thing, like something that God would want.
But look how radical faith alone is: our good works are excluded from justification.
Imagine being invited to a famous doctor’s home for dinner. You ask what you can bring, and they say, “Just bring your appetite.” Sola appetita, appetite alone. But you was to be a generous guest, so you pick up a bottle of wine and a loaf of bread on the way. Who would fault you for that? But you get to the door and there is the security guards, and they see the wine and the bread in your hands, they grab them from you and smash the wine on the ground and throw the bread into the fire. Appetite alone. You can bring nothing else. Everything else is excluded.
This seems rude, but it starts to make sense if this doctor who you are going to have dinner with has sorted out that all the food in the world has been poisoned, and only the food that he has is safe to eat. But still we look and the wine running into the dirt and the bread burning in the fire and we are sad. We love our works. We love our efforts. We love our service to God. But God wants none of it.
Listen: “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,” (Romans 4:5). We wouldn’t believe it unless God had said it, justification comes to the one who does not work. Faith alone means that we come to God with nothing in our hands, nothing to offer, nothing to bargain with, all we have is hope in His mercy. All we have is faith in His promises. And He provides us with the richest feast.
The blind man did not bargain with Jesus, He didn’t have anything to offer, he had nothing but faith in His name. Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me. And Jesus, the Son of David, did. This is true worship, to cry out to Jesus for mercy.
When you ask most people what worship is, you get an answer like this: Worship is us serving God, and giving Him praises for who He is and what He’s done. To an extent, this is true, this is the worship of the law, but there is another worship, the worship that God desires, the worship of the Gospel, which is faith alone, standing before the Lord with an empty sack, as a beggar, with nothing to give, an unholy sinner simply believing that He is good, and merciful, and crucified for us, knowing that we deserve destruction and that the Lord instead gives us life and joy and peace. This is true worship. This is faith alone. This is justification.
Now, good works follow faith. Works are the fruit of repentance, the result, not the cause of justification. Works are for your neighbor. But when we stand before God we stand with nothing, nothing but faith and a cry for mercy, and He gives us everything: righteousness, forgiveness, peace, life, everything.
In the prayer of the church there are always two prayers, no matter what liturgy you are using: the Lord’s Prayer, and the Kyrie, the prayer of the blind beggar: “Lord, have mercy.” That’s our prayer, the prayer of faith alone, the prayer of a beggar, of a sinner. And the Lord hears it, and answers it, and saves you. Amen.
Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller