These reflections on the Five Solas of the Protestant Reformation were given throughout the worship service at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
Call to Worship | Glory to God Alone
Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. (1 Peter 4:10-11)
If you had to guess, what did you spend the most time thinking about this week?
What did you spend the most time doing?
What did you spend the most money on?
This first sola is about our priorities. In our lives, day in and day out, are we glorifying God, or are we glorifying other things? When the reformers coined this phrase, they were thinking of the system of saints and martyrs in the Catholic church, worried that people were spending more time trying to please other humans than God. But the problem did not go away just because we no longer place saints on such a pedestal. Instead, we set up other people, other things in their place. We worship at other altars, other idols. We get distracted. We give God our last thought, not our first.
To glorify God only does not mean we cannot love other things. We can love our work, love our families, our hobbies. We can love our church. I hope we love all these things. But we shouldn’t glorify them. They are human, and eventually they will break and let us down, and then it is easy to fall into despair.
If we glorify human things—money, sports, shopping, art, guns, politicians, spouses, countries, whatever—they will eventually let us down. They cannot hold the weight of being glorified.
But if we glorify God, then we can center our lives around joy. That is the first question of the Westminster Confession, a question centuries of protestant children had to learn by heart.
What is the chief end of humanify?
To enjoy God and glorify God forever.
We come each Sunday to glorify God, to set aside whatever else distracts us, whatever else is pulling at our pants leg saying “pay attention to me!” And we do it, I hope, because it brings us joy. Because it brings us joy to know that there is One, One Holy God, who will never let us down. Who is worth every bit of praise we can offer.
A friend of mine shared this poem this week, and I’d like to read it as our call to worship.
“Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.”
Confession and Assurance | By Grace Alone
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4-7)
The thing that got Luther really, really mad, mad enough to thumb his nose at the biggest religious institution in the world, was a badly done stewardship campaign.
Most of us know the word “indulgences.” Indulgences started out as a way of quantifying grace—do this act of service, get one year off your time in purgatory. Pray this prayer once a day, your brother gets to heaven faster. It relied on the idea of a banking system, where the really holy folks—saints and martyrs—had built up so much merit with God that they could trade it down to your average sinner.
By the time Luther rolled around, some bishops had dropped the idea that you actually had to do something holy to earn your indulgence. They had debts from building big cathedrals to pay off, and people were willing to pay for forgiveness. It was a stewardship campaign that promised salvation in return for a check, and Luther knew that was not how God worked. You can’t buy God.
If there is a keyword to the Reformed tradition, it’s grace—that God’s grace comes first, comes unearned. God’s forgiveness cannot be measured or quantified. It cannot be bought, sold, or traded away. We can’t manipulate it. God’s grace is God’s choice, full stop. God forgives us out of love, out of a desire to see us set free from our sin, out of belief that we can be the people God made us to be.
God’s grace falls on us like rain. We don’t deserve it, we can’t make it happen, and we can’t make it not happen either. It simply is.
So each week when we come to confession, it’s not that we “earn” God’s grace by being honest, but that we open ourselves to accepting the grace God has already given us. That’s why Presbyterian services always have a confession and an assurance—to remind ourselves that we are always messing up, and God is always forgiving us.
Many of us, deep, deep down, have a little voice that says “if you do this, then God won’t love you.” Or “God will never forgive you for doing that.” But that voice is lying. That voice is pretending to know better than God who can and can’t be forgiven. Part of giving God alone glory is not glorifying, not giving credence to those voices that say we have to earn God’s forgiveness. Part of giving God glory is accepting grace when it comes, even if that acceptance makes us feel vulnerable.
So I ask you to confess your sins with me, together and privately. I ask you to confess not to make you feel guilty, but to set you free. Confessing our sins is what gets us out the front door to go splash in the puddles of God’s grace. It’s what gets all that gunk out of our heads and hearts and clears out a space for God’s grace to take root.
Reading the Word | By Scripture Alone
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. (Psalm 19:7-9)
Some of you may recognize the name Johannes Gutenburg, from the Gutenburg Bible. In some ways, it’s actually Gutenburg, blacksmith and engineer, who paved the way for the Reformation to happen. Before the printing press, all written materials had to be copied over by hand, which made books too expensive for all but the upper classes, which in turn meant literacy was a luxury skill, irrelevant to most of the population.
Which means that for the first millennia of Christianity, most Christians never read the Bible.
Now, it might have been read to them. Certainly the stories of the Bible were told, and worked into plays, and depicted in stained glass and murals and frescoes. Just because medieval Christians didn’t read the Bible didn’t mean they didn’t know what it said. But they were reliant on interpreters, intermediaries to decide what details were important to share. And those Bible stories were mixed up with all the other stories, of saints and martyrs and modern miracles, and it was probably hard sometimes, for your average serf in the pew, to figure out which was which.
So when Gutenburg created the printing press, there was an explosion of printed material—not just Bibles but Greek and Latin dictionaries and commentaries and treatises on theology. And suddenly people had access to the Bible.
That was what grabbed the Reformers so, was actually reading the Bible. Reading it without all the centuries of accumulated interpretation. Reading it with new eyes. And what they read, about God and how God worked in their lives, didn’t jive with what they’d been told.
We take that for granted, that we can read the Bible. But it changed the reformers’ lives. They realized they could read God’s word for themselves, and draw their own conclusions. And the conclusions they drew—about grace, about holiness, about who gets to talk to God—led to a whole new way of being the church.
It’s no accident that Protestant countries insisted on access to education for children. In Geneva, where Calvin held sway, every child was taught to read, so that every child could read the Bible.
Calvin talked about scripture as a pair of glasses through which we see the world. Valuing scripture doesn’t mean we don’t look for God in creation, or in the face of our neighbor, or in the movement of our own hearts. What it does mean is that we use scripture as a counterweight, as a balance. We look to see if what we feel to be true about God resonates with how God is revealed in scripture. After all, it’s scripture that let us knew there was a God to be on the lookout for in the first place.
So every week I get up here and I read a scripture or two, and it happens right in the middle of the service. I read it in the language we speak and understand. That’s no accident. We put scripture right in the center of our worship, because that’s where we see God.
Proclaiming the Gospel | By Christ Alone
If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. (Romans 8:31-34)
I talked earlier about indulgences and Grace, how the reformers found that God’s grace could not be earned or bought, but only accepted. The counterpart of that idea is that God’s grace comes to us through Christ, and only Christ—not through any other intermediary. We can’t borrow our neighbor’s grace. We get it directly from the source.
When Martin Luther was young, he was overwhelmed by guilt. He was trying so hard to be “good,” whatever that meant. And he found himself confronted with his own sin wherever he turned, and he put Jesus’ face on that sense of guilt. He wrote, “I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul.”
How many of us have done the same? With Christ, or with God, believed that God was on the lookout for us to trip up, for us to show ourselves not worthy of God’s love?
But think about what Jesus did. Came to earth—earth where he would human, hungry and tired and persecuted. Came to heal and teach and preach. Came to show us how to love each other, came to show us we were loved. Came to say that sinners still have a place at his table, came to call ordinary folks to follow his footsteps. Came to be killed. Came to rise again, so that we’d see God is more powerful than death.
And do we really think we can top that? Do we really think that love that overcame death can’t overcome us? Jesus chose us, chose us to be his friends, his disciples. We are loved and chosen and Jesus is the proof of it.
Jesus is the center of our faith, because in Jesus we see our hope–hope for God’s new kingdom, where fear and hate and despair give way to peace and blessing. In Jesus we see a new life for us and for all people.
Charge and Blessing | By Faith Alone
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
If we have faith, faith in everything we have said is true–that God is our joy, that Christ forgives us, that we are chosen and loved from the first–then when we go out into the world, we do so with hope. We do not have to be afraid. We do not have to be unsure.
If we have faith, then we know there is work for us to do, not to earn God’s love, but to share it. This is what we were created for–to be conduits of the love and grace God pours into us every day.
So go out into the world, a world that is scared and hurting, and say glory, and say grace, and say hope. The world needs to hear it.
Go with the power of God’s love, and Christ’s grace, and the Spirit’s courage. Go and do not be afraid. You were made for this. Amen.