Reformation 500

RSS By: Metropolitan New York Synod

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. 

Grace Alone

Nov 14, 2016

By Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo


bprt16.025In mid-September, as the centerpiece of our Deans’ Retreat Jonathan Linman helped us focus on Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. I confess it had been years since I looked at them. And I was captivated by what they are NOT: They are not a laundry list of gripes about all the things Luther didn’t like about the Roman Catholic Church. They provide an academic argument focused on indulgences and purgatory.


Reading the 95 with our deans I was reminded that Luther’s main objection was to Tetzel’s tactics. Luther was afraid that they would lead Christians either to despair or to place their confidence in indulgences rather than in Jesus Christ.


So he offered an alternative which we would do well to offer.


Rather than purgatory or penalties or merit–the complicated system of the medieval church–Luther cuts to the gospel heart of the matter. One of the questions Jonathan Linman asked the deans was which is the most important of the 95? Mine was number 62: "The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God." I’m happy to say it was a favorite in our group. 


This Gospel is that proclamation of the incarnate Son of God, a gift given to us without any strings attached and no shipping and handling charges. It’s like Amazon Prime but you don’t even pay for the item. The Law is fulfilled not by our works, but by the grace of God, not by anything we offer God but by all we received from Christ.


Grace alone. It’s all gift! Grace isn’t something you save up in a treasure chest and later distribute piece by piece. Christ has already paid the full price. There’s nothing left for us to pay or for the church to charge. And this understanding of grace as a free gift has life-changing consequences. From the first thesis, Luther challenges us to think and to live differently: "When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance." 


True repentance is not about the priestly sacrament of penance nor is it simply a matter of feeling bad about our sins. It’s a matter of conversion and fundamental reorientation of one’s heart and mind and soul. It’s about how we live our lives in the real world in response to the true treasure of the gospel. We live lives of repentance, then, by serving others in Christ’s name. As Luther writes a few years later in The Freedom of the Christian: "A Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor. A Christian lives in Christ through faith, and in his neighbor through love."


The gospel of God’s free grace for sinners is central. We live our lives in response to this great good news, and those lives take shape in the service of neighbor.


I think we can also learn something from Luther’s moderation. Believe it or not, Luther gives the pope the benefit of the doubt, which is a lot easier today than it was then. Luther says that if the pope knew what guys like Tetzel were doing–"he would rather see St. Peter’s burned to the ground than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep."


Is Luther sincere in these statements? Or is he being politically savvy? Perhaps he wants to offer the pope an opportunity to see himself as others do or to save face by deflecting the blame to those who claim to represent him like some clerical campaign manager.


Even if Luther’s motives are mixed, I think we can learn something about how to behave toward those we disagree with. That seems a good practice in this particular season. Giving people the opportunity to maintain their dignity and to respond constructively is a better strategy than exposing their failings publicly.


This grace is apparent in the catechisms written a decade later. In explaining the 8th commandment Luther develops a constructive behavior from the divine prohibition. The positive dimension of the commandment to not bear false witness is that the Christian lives by grace and puts the best construction on what our neighbor says or does.


I confess that I am still working on that, every day, in response to many and email. And certainly Luther was not always able to live up to that standard.


But we still learn from his teaching that those who are saved by grace live that grace in an attitude of generosity rather than of suspicion and blame.



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