500 Years of Faith Alone
2017 marked 500 years since Martin Luther nailed 95 debate prompts to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany and publicly put into motion what became known as the Protestant Reformation. In the early years of the Reformation, Luther was learning a lot, and his understanding of Scripture was improving. His grasp on the Gospel improved noticeably between nailing the 95 Theses in late October 1517 and the following April.
2018 is another 500th anniversary for the Protestant Reformation because of the Heidelberg Disputation which took place in April 1518. A disputation is a formal debate, and Heidelberg is a town in Germany. Luther wasn’t debating the 95 Theses, but rather 28 new theses which more clearly demonstrated from Scripture that we are saved apart from our works, through faith in Christ alone.
Salvation comes only through faith in Christ. Paul writes in Romans 4:5-8:
“5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
7‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;
8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.’”
Paul shows from David’s words in Psalm 32:1-2 that the blessed man is he whose righteousness depends not on his works but on the mercy of God. Did you catch what he said in Romans 4:5? This is one of the clearest “faith alone” verses in all Scripture: “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” If it helps, read it out loud as if ALL CAPS, bold lettering, and periods follow the three words “to the one who DOES. NOT. WORK.”
The Heidelberg Disputation is a short read and quite interesting. The full text can be found here. I am only highlighting two of the twenty-eight points/theses presented by Luther.
Point 25: “He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.”
Luther elaborated, “…I wish to have the words ‘without work’ understood in the following manner: Not that the righteous person does nothing, but that his works do not make him righteous, rather that his righteousness creates works.” Luther continues, “Therefore man knows that works which he does by such faith are not his but God's. For this reason he does not seek to become justified or glorified through them, but seeks God. His justification by faith in Christ is sufficient to him. Christ is his wisdom, righteousness, etc., as 1 Corinthians 1:30 has it, that he himself may be Christ's vessel and instrument.”
Point 26: “The law says, ‘do this’, and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this’, and everything is already done.”
Luther elaborated again, “Through faith Christ is in us, indeed, one with us. Christ is just and has fulfilled all the commands of God, wherefore we also fulfill everything through him since he was made ours through faith.”
The 500 year-old Heidelberg Disputation is a breath of fresh air for us sinners who need to be reminded of this Gospel. It is one of the early documents of the Reformation in which Luther was further clarifying a summary of salvation through faith apart from works.
But the teaching of “faith alone” is more than 500 years old. The Heidelberg Disputation was only one step toward publicly restoring this teaching in the Church. The doctrine of faith alone is actually much older. Jesus and the apostles taught it, but it is even more than 2000 years old, since it was around before the books of the New Testament.
Shortly after the beginning of time, man fell into sin and needed to be saved. Immediately after God promised in Genesis 3:15 to crush the serpent’s head through the woman’s offspring, Adam named his wife “Eve.” Since Eve’s name means “mother of all living,” and since God had just promised salvation through one of her offspring, it is not impossible to interpret Adam’s name choice for his wife as an act of faith. Commentators Keil and Delitzsch write, “It was through the power of divine grace that Adam believed the promise with regard to the woman’s seed, and manifested his faith in the name which he gave to his wife.”*
If that is not a solid enough “faith alone” rock for you to stand on near the dawn of time, then look only one generation later at Abel. It is abundantly clear from Genesis 4:4 and Hebrews 11:1-4 that Abel was saved (commended as righteous) through faith.
Just as Abel believed in the savior God promised to his parents in Genesis 3:15, we are also commended as righteous before God as we continue to trust not in our own works but in Abel’s savior. As Luther said in the 26th point of the Heidelberg Disputation, “The law says, ‘do this’, and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this’, and everything is already done.” Friend, everything is already done for your salvation. Rest and rejoice in Jesus Christ!
*Keil, C. F., & Delitzsch, F. (1996). Commentary on the Old Testament (Vol. 1, p. 66). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.