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Reformation 500

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Marking the commemoration of Reformation is an exciting time for us as Lutherans. As we all prepare, this blog will offer resources, tips, and background on a number of issues. 

Faith Alone

Nov 14, 2016

by Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo 

 

bprt16.031I am so grateful for the witness of all of you especially those who brought their reflections on Lutheranism today. Your reflections and meditations have been gifts to us and offer us bread for the journey of our life together.

 

Today I want to talk about Faith Alone, which has been something of an issue from the beginning of the Lutheran movement.

 

My friend, Tim Wengert, told me that in 1550, four years after Luther’s death, there was a fight between some super-Lutherans–the so-called "gnesio Lutherans"–remember them?–and a professor at Wittenberg named Georg Major. It was about the role of good works in salvation. One of the accusations against this professor was that he failed to use the phrase sola fide enough. And he replied that from then on he would always use it in his writings and always capitalize it–S-O-L-A  F-I-D-E–so it would be seen which seems a lot like a good work to my thinking. Faith Alone.

  

The Augsburg Confession is very clear on this central insight:

It is taught that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God by our own merit, work, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. (Article 4)

 

To quote one of our presidential candidates: Wooo! That was one sentence!

 

The point is not just that we have faith, since one can have faith in anything–a friend or family member, one’s own ability, the Chicago Cubs. Christians aren’t justified by the strength or sincerity of our belief but by the one in whom we believe. Only faith in Christ restores our relationship with God, because such faith trusts the promises God has made–and kept–in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

 

"Out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith"–this is so central to the way Lutherans think about the Christian faith that it has been called "the article by which the church stands or falls."

 

But justification by faith alone is not the last word that the Confessions and Luther have for us. It’s only the beginning of the Lutheran understanding. Faith in Christ isn’t just about what happens when we die. It’s about how we live. And it’s about how we live not just for ourselves but for and with others.

 

My seminary professors said it’s the hub of a wheel from which the spokes radiate out. Without the center, without the hub, all you have is a bunch of disconnected parts. With the right center, everything falls into place. Everything else in the Augsburg Confession–sin, the sacraments, worship,married clergy, the role of bishops–everything else is developed in relation to the core belief of justification by faith alone. Including where all of us fit in as pastors of the church.

 

Following Article IV on justifying faith, is Article V on the office of the ministry which declares where such faith comes from and Article VI which tells us what such faith does.

 

So, Article 5 says:

To obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching, giving the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, God gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, when and where the Spirit wills, in those who hear the gospel. (Article V)

 

Faith is not my own personal connection to God. I have had more than one conversation with a parishioner who claimed "I can worship God just fine on a golf course on Sunday morning." I suppose it’s true that one can praise God sitting on a mountaintop or watching a sunset or playing golf (though that is particularly hard to believe for me). But those experiences only tell part of the story. They don’t communicate the great good news that God in Christ is Savior–my Savior, our Savior. "How Great Thou Art" is true, but it’s incomplete unless I can also sing "Jesus Loves Me!" We call Word and Sacrament means of grace because they point to where and how God ministers to us with the promise of forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Worship is our response to God only after God’s gracious initiative first reaches out to us.

 

Luther knew firsthand how easy it is to get trapped in our own mental and spiritual ruts. He insisted that the Word of God comes to us from outside ourselves, breaking into our sinful self-centeredness. We hear God’s gracious "for you" most clearly when we hear it in a voice other than our own. We feel God’s gracious "for you" when we are washed with water from the font. We receive God’s gracious "for you" when we taste the bread and wine and Christ’s own body and blood give life to ours.

 

The most frequently quoted passage from the Bible in the Lutheran Confessions is John 15:5: "Apart from me you can do nothing."

 

Faith alone–only faith–justifies. But in the Christian life, faith never is alone. In his lectures on Genesis, Luther wrote, "We know indeed that faith is never alone but brings with it love and other manifold gifts." In his preface to the New Testament, Luther described faith as "a living, busy, active, mighty thing." He said, "It is impossible to separate works from faith, Quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire." Article 6 of the Augsburg Confession calls this "The New Obedience." So you catch the 4, 5, 6 sequence of the Confession?

 

I think of it as something that we don’t "have to" do but something we "get to" do.

 

God comes to us in word and sacrament, in Jesus himself. And through us God reaches out to others. In a very real sense we are means of grace, too.

 

So while we speak clearly against works righteousness we also boldly proclaim that righteousness works.

 

____________________

At the 2016 Bishop's Retreat, Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo preached on the Lutheran solas. Read his reflections on Scripture AloneFaith Alone, and Grace Alone

 

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