One of my wife’s “favorite” memories from growing up as a Christian youth in the ‘90s is the Audio Adrenaline song “DC-10”:
If a DC-10 ever fell on your head,
Laying in the ground all messy and dead…
Do you know where you’re gonna go?
Straight to Heaven? Or down the hole?
From this twenty-five-year-old song, to the revivals of two hundred years ago that started our denomination, to the “Hell Houses” of last month – many well-meaning (though sometimes questionable) evangelistic efforts have asked the question: “Do you know where you will go if you died tonight?” It’s so common, many of us probably think that personal assurance about where we will go after death is a basic mark of being “saved.”
Yet this question, if asked to even a faithful Christian in Europe in the early 16th century, would not prompt assurance – it would provoke fear. Luther spent most of his monastic life dreading the righteous judgment of a holy God. The Church of Luther’s day certainly taught grace. You received grace at baptism, through the Eucharist, the other sacraments, prayers, good works, etc. But whether or not an individual had accumulated enough grace to attain salvation upon death was anyone’s guess! The Council of Trent, formed by the Roman Catholic Church as a response to the Reformation in 1547, put it this way:
If anyone says that man is absolved from his sins and justified because he firmly believes that he is absolved and justified, or that no one is truly justified except him who believes himself justified, and that by this faith alone absolution and justification are effected, let him be anathema.
When Luther looked at himself and asked if he had received enough grace to find salvation, he saw only wretchedness and the fear of eternal damnation. Yet in Scripture, he found the only way of receiving saving grace: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)
The unmerited grace of God is the only reason for salvation. And this unmerited grace is received through faith – through believing and trusting – that God has actually done what God has said he has done. Martin Luther found the way to peace and assurance with God through this faith: “The law says, ‘Do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘Believe in this,’ and everything is already done.” (Heidelberg Disputation, 1518)
For Cumberland Presbyterians, faith is neither a “good work” nor a way to “merit salvation,” but it is a “response to God, prompted by the Holy Spirit, wherein persons rely solely upon God’s grace in Jesus Christ for salvation.” (Confession of Faith, 4.08-09) Faith itself is a gift from God, not of ourselves. And it is through this gift of faith alone whereby we can have assurance that everything needed for our salvation by grace alone has already been accomplished in Christ Jesus alone. Glory to God alone, now and forever! Amen.