Reader Writes, December 2017
During a stay in a foreign university we made friends with Zaid, a Pakistani and devout Moslem; there was endless scope for leg-pulling since he needed to work out the direction of Mecca at least 6 times a day for his prayer devotions. Our dear Zaid accepted an invitation to come to church with us, a lively affair full of students, loud music and joy. The challenge of preparing him for what was going to be a cultural shock was revealing. I knew I had to explain to this Moslem, brought up on Pakistani B movies about corrupt bishops and dark convents, why there was so much unscripted fun and delight in our church. It all came down to what I think theologians call assurance of salvation; Zaid, as a Moslem, was seeking devoutly to qualify for heaven by his scrupulous religious life, whereas we, especially when we met in fellowship and celebration on a Sunday night, knew where we were going. We qualified because, as Paul put it to the Ephesians, “by grace you have been saved, through faith … not by works”. None of us can boast because Christ provided salvation by the cross, and we come with nothing but an open hand.
Well Zaid was indeed shocked and also delighted, and this idea of God’s free grace to sinful fallible mankind has been something of a scandal for centuries. Let’s only go back a round 500 years to Martin Luther’s growing conviction and insight into scripture when he nailed his 95 theses to the great door of the church in Wittenberg. This attack on the corrupt and mistaken sale of indulgencies was of course only a starting point for the Reformation, that broad movement in northern Europe among theologians, students, and very soon the laity.
At its heart the Reformation concerned authority: Church, Pope, priesthood versus scripture. Increasingly the Reformers went back to the original texts and translated them into their common languages. Luther, especially, and his German colleagues, found themselves standing on a theological rock that would not budge in the church storms that enveloped them. The Bible told them that salvation, our future and our assurance of that eternal future, lay in faith alone –sola fide- in God’s grace alone –sola gratia-; and the highest authority for this was not in popes or priests but in scripture alone –sola scriptura-, which also makes clear that you and I, if we are Christians, belong to a priesthood of all believers with equal personal access to our God.
The theological earthquake that shook Europe in the c16th also brought about a cultural revolution. This simple, this pure, biblical truth that every man and woman could hear, read and understand for themselves, invited them to a direct unmediated relationship with God. It gave Luther the joy and confidence to know that his salvation, notwithstanding his sins, was secure. No more the anxiety and doubt about his own worthiness; of course he was unworthy, but on Christ’s merits he was accepted by God. This anchors our self-esteem, our confidence, our courage and convictions, the pilgrim’s joy. Expecting conviction and burning as a heretic, Luther faced trial at the Diet of Worms in 1521; standing on the Rock he had found for himself, with the conviction of faith and truth, he declared Hier stehe ich. Ich kann nicht anders – Here I stand; I can do no other. Soli Deo Gloria.