Have you ever had someone take credit for your work? Maybe you had a boss claim your team’s innovation as his own to gain a promotion. Maybe you remember that group project in school where that one group member did little of the work – only to take much of the credit when it was time to present.

As frustrating as these occasions are on their own, they’re made more frustrating by the fact that the people taking credit for others’ work sometimes won’t even realize they’re doing it. Sometimes, a person genuinely thinks he came up with the innovation, idea, or did the work when he clearly didn’t. Sometimes, we’re no exception to this blindness. As people, we have a tendency of making ourselves the heroes of our own stories.

And as Christians, we have a tendency of making ourselves the heroes of our own story. After the baptism of someone who’s professed faith, we are quick to say, “Congratulations!” We are slow to say, “Praise God!” How many of our contemporary worship songs focus more on our feelings or thoughts or imaginations than on what God has done? But this isn’t just a problem for the contemporary church. Go back one hundred years and count the number of songs about a heavenly mansion, receiving a crown, or streets of gold. Go way back and look at the way James and John asked to sit on thrones beside Jesus – only to be told that the “great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:43).

If we know by scripture alone that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, then it’s clear that glory belongs to God alone. God is the subject of our salvation. Any glory we have is participatory glory, glory that shares the divine glory of God. It’s not a glory we can manufacture. And it’s not a glory for which we can take credit.

Worship in the heavenly throne room in Revelation is very different from what many of us expect. Instead of glorying in the crowns they receive, the elders cast their crowns before the throne and say, “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power.” God is worthy because God “created all things” (Revelation 4:11).

And God is worthy because in Jesus Christ, God descended from glory and became one of us for us. Jesus is glorified because he exemplified his own teaching that the great must become the servant. Jesus is glorified because by his blood he “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). Indeed, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Revelation 5:12)!

Glory to God alone, now and forever! Amen.

The Five Solae: Solus Christus

solus christus

In Scripture alone we know we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

In Acts 4:12, Peter and John make the clear proclamation of where salvation is found: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” What is that name? It is Jesus Christ.

In Christ alone. This means that because Jesus is our Savior, then he is our Lord. If he calls us to move, we move. If he commands us to go, we go. If he tells us to act, we act. No questions.

When the citizens of Rome would greet each other in the streets during the time of the Early Church, those citizens would say to one another, “Caesar is Lord!” It was the type of “hello” and “goodbye” that a hearty “Roll Tide” or “War Eagle” has become in our time and place. When the first Christians were greeted with “Caesar is Lord”, their response was markedly different. Instead of affirming what the worldly powers proclaimed, the early Christians would respond with the words, “Jesus is Lord!”

These words were treason. They threatened the security of the state. They struck at the heart of “law and order” as the political powers understood it. Why? Because the political leaders during the time of the Early Church believed that they themselves were divine. They had, in their estimation, a connection with God and that meant that their decrees and leadership must be followed and worshipped. But Jesus was God. And the followers of Jesus could not serve both the world and God (Matthew 6:24)

The Protestant Reformation was centered upon the truth that man is saved by Christ alone. This means that our lives and service are dedicated to Him alone. The heresy that we as individuals can merit salvation by what we do must always be defeated in our lives. In his Letter to the Galatians, Paul fought against the idea that faith in Christ must be accompanied by works of the flesh (circumcision) to be true. Martin Luther fought against the idea that monetary donations to the church ensures salvation of the soul. In our day, we must always fight the idea that any political or social idea is necessary for us to have and understand rightly salvation in Jesus Christ.

It is clearly and definitively in Christ alone that we have salvation. He is the bridge, the door, the way to eternal life. He is the Christ. May we never forget the sufficiency of Jesus for our salvation and life. Amen.


The Five Solae: Sola Fide

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.

The Five Solae: Sola Gratia

sola gratia (2)

In Scripture alone we know we are saved by grace alone.

I probably speak for most people when I say two intolerable states of mind in our world is ungratefulness and entitlement. To be ungrateful is to deny the giver the proper gratitude for gifts given. To be entitled is to believe you deserve those gifts. It is truly soul-draining to have to live among ungratefulness and entitlement.

Ephesians 2 points us to the cure for ungratefulness and entitlement for the Christian. In this section of Paul’s letter, he clearly spells out the foundation of our life in Jesus Christ. Jesus clarifies the truth about who we are as God’s people. You see, our lives do not belong to us. Every one of us have been saved by Jesus, but the battle we wage in the Christian life is not forgetting where we came from. If we have all been saved by Jesus from sin and death, we know that we have an eternal home with Him. But that eternal life does not first begin when we die. Eternal life has already begun. And if it has already begun, then how and why do we live?

Scripture teaches us very clearly that God is holy. It teaches us that we are a fallen people. It teaches us that this fallenness separates us from God. And if we take this truth seriously, we begin the attempt to find out how to repair the division caused by our sin. But Scripture also teaches us that there is nothing we can do to repair the rift between us and God. As it is, we need a miracle. We need something other than we can give. We need grace.

Grace is defined as the “unmerited favor of God”. Where do we find such a thing as grace? Contrary to our plans and schemes, we cannot purchase it, nor can we earn it. It is a gift. If it were an answer to the question “What can I do to be saved?” the short answer would be “Nothing in your own strength and power, but only the grace of God can save you.”

Jesus is the embodiment of the grace of God. He takes on our sin and death and defeats both definitively. He then extends this victory over sin and death to his people. Grasping the grace of God in Jesus Christ is professing that all our strivings to be made right before God are ineffective. No good work, regardless of how great it is, can save you. Instead, it is only the grace of God in Jesus Christ that saves.

When we forget the grace of God in Jesus Christ, we live ungrateful lives ignoring the giver of the precious gift of salvation. We see our blessings as the result of our own efforts. We then do not worship with gratitude. We might even slip into the realm of believing we are deserving of the good gifts of God. Because we have done this or that, then somehow God owes us for our good work. Yet again, this is another affront to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

May we live with gratitude to God by understanding that while we were yet sinners, Jesus died for us. May we life knowing that our good deeds are not work deserving of eternal compensation. Instead, may we see the life changing truth of Ephesians 2: it is by grace that we are saved, so that we may walk in the good deeds God has already done. This makes the content of our lives a source of glory and joy to God alone. Amen.

The Five Solae: Sola Scriptura

“What is truth?”

In thinking of “fake news” over the past year, many of us have probably asked that ancient question – especially since we cannot agree on what even constitutes “fake news.” But when Pilate said these words to Jesus (John 18:38), he did not realize that he was staring at the Truth himself (14:6) – the Word of God made flesh (1:1-14) – the answer to his question. By his education, he had been trained to ask this question, a deeply human question, and to uncover the answer by dialogue and reason. He missed that the man he was about to hand over to be executed was God’s own demonstration for him of the Truth.

For Christians, Jesus Christ is the Truth of God in the flesh. But there was some disagreement at the time of the Reformation in how we approach or understand this Truth. Four years after Martin Luther mailed his Ninety-Five Theses to his archbishop, he was on trial. The pope himself had pronounced that there were errors in his writings, and several of them had been banned. At the Diet of Worms in 1721, Luther’s works were laid out on a table in front of him, and he was asked to recant. His famous reply:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me. Amen.

For Luther, the only completely trustworthy way of knowing what’s true about the Truth – Jesus Christ – was through the Bible. This was the “formal” cause of the Reformation, the reason Luther thought that his teachings were justified. The ancient councils were important for understanding the Truth. The church was essential for coming to know the Truth. But the teachings of councils and the church must be measured against the teachings of Scripture.

Three hundred years after Luther, the founders of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church used Scripture as their justification for breaking away from the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.: “All church-power however exercised, is ministerial and declarative only; that is, the Holy Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith and practice.” (Introduction to 1883 Confession) This is carried on in our current Confession when we say that the Bible is “the authoritative guide for Christian living” because “the authority of the scriptures is founded on the truth contained in them and the voice of God speaking through them.” (1.05-06) We do not interpret Scripture alone – we need the help of the church, other Christians, the ancient councils, and especially the illumination of the Holy Spirit – but when justified by the teaching of Scripture, we hold that even one person can help correct the whole church.


When I teach classes about the history of Presbyterianism in America, I like to use a chart that outlines the different denominations and when they were formed: the schisms, the occasional unifications, the schisms-within-schisms. It’s complex.


Someday, I’ll lay this chart out for Will, but I’ll have to wait for him to get over his fear of spider webs. There’s a great cartoon of a similar chart on a chalkboard in a classroom with the teacher saying: “So this is where our movement came along and finally got the Bible right.”


“Jesus is so lucky to have us.”

Almost five hundred years and somewhere around 30,000 new denominations later, we are still talking about what Martin Luther did on “All Hallows’ Eve” (the day before All Saints’ Day) in 1517. On the door of All Saints’ chapel at the University of Wittenburg, Luther posted a protest of the Church: “Disputation on the Power of Indulgences” or the “Ninety-Five Theses.”

The background to this event was complex, and the Reformation of the Church that swept Europe over the next 130 years was even more complex. But the predominant issue on Luther’s mind on that date was the sale of “indulgences.” The understanding of grace by the Church at the time was an incremental one. You received grace for your original sin and all of your other sins at baptism. Sins after baptism needed more grace, and you received this grace within the church through the seven sacraments – especially the regular sacraments of communion and confession. The Church taught that if you died with minor (or “venial”) sins, your soul had to be purified in Purgatory to make you holy enough to enter Heaven. But there was another way to “spring” your soul – or the soul of a loved one – out of Purgatory. You could buy an “indulgence,” and the Church would absolve the sin.

Luther objected to this as something not found in Holy Scripture. In 1521, he was excommunicated, but the shockwaves were already spreading throughout Europe. Indeed, they reverberate to Cumberland Presbyterians today. Luther’s protest within the Church became the Protestant Reformation.

It is certainly right to mourn the schism of the last half-millennium, and we should, like Christ, desire the unity of the whole Church. Yet, it is also right for us to lovingly pursue the truth of the gospel as revealed in Holy Scripture. In trying to understand how we got here, Derek and I will be looking at the five summary statements, the “Five Solae,” for why Protestants broke away from the Roman Church. We will look at the “formal cause” – sola scriptura, Scripture alone – which was how Luther justified himself in protesting the teachings of the Church at all. And we will look at the content of his protest itself, that we are saved sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, soli Deo gloria –  through faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. May Christ bless his Church and help us to better understand his gospel. Amen.