Dr. J. Ligon Duncan
If you have your Bibles I would invite you to turn with me to Acts, chapter four. Four hundred and eighty-five years ago from this coming Wednesday, on October the 31st, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses – 95 propositions for reform – on the church door in Wittenberg. That is usually marked as the point of catalyst for the ‘Europe wide’ Protestant Reformation. Consequently protestant churches are often given to remembering the work of the Reformation on the Sunday before October 31. And since that emphasis on the Reformation is one that is needful for today, my plan is, over the next several years on this Sunday, to look at some of the distinctive teachings of that Protestant Reformation.
The Reformation was basically a ‘back to the Bible’ movement. The medieval church had strayed in significant areas from the teaching of Scripture, and the Reformers sought to restore the church to the pristine teaching of Scripture in a variety of areas, not the least of which was ‘the doctrine of salvation’. And the emphases of the Reformation were encapsulated in popular slogans. Some of those slogans are found in what is known as the five solas of the Reformation – the five ‘onlys’ or the five ‘alones’ of the Reformation. I’ve listed them for you in the worship guide. Those five solas are: sola Scriptura – that is, that the Bible is the final authority in faith and life, that Scripture alone, as opposed to church tradition or to the authority of official clerics in the church; sola fide – that is, we are justified by faith alone, not faith and works, not faith plus works. We are not justified by works, but we receive that justification by faith alone, sola fide – faith alone. Thirdly, sola gratia – that is, we are saved by God’s grace to us, by His grace alone, and not because of anything we have done, or have deserved. Sola Christo is the fourth of the great slogans of the Reformation. Sometimes it’s done in a different form, solus Christus – by Christ alone. In other words, we are saved through the person and work of Christ alone; not Christ plus the sacraments or Christ plus good works, but by Christ alone. And then finally, soli Deo gloria – that is, all things are to be done to God’s glory.
Now, each of these solas is under attack today, and not just in liberal churches, or in the secular world. We would expect these things to be at a discount there, but these things are being undermined even in the evangelical church today, and if we lose them, we lose robust, biblical Christianity, because without them we lose the gospel itself. And so this morning, and God willing for the next several years on this particular Lord’s Day, we will explore some of the core teachings of the Protestant Reformation.
This morning, we will focus on the subject of sola Christo – for Christ alone. Let’s begin by looking at Acts, chapter four, verse eight:
“Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘rulers and elders of the people, if we are on trial today for a benefit done to a sick man, as to how this man has been made well, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ, the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead – by this name this man stands here before you in good health. He, that is Jesus Christ, is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the chief cornerstone, and there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” Amen, thus far this reading in God’s word.
Now, turn back with me to John 1:29-34, this is John the Baptist speaking: “The next day, he (that is John the Baptist) saw Jesus coming to him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me. And I did not recognize Him, but in order that He might be manifested to Israel, I came baptizing in water. And John bore witness, saying, “I have beheld the Spirit descending as a dove out of heaven, and He remained upon Him, and I did not recognize Him, but He who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘He upon whom you see the Spirit descending and remaining upon Him, this is the one who baptizes in the Holy Spirit. And I have seen, and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” Amen. This is God’s word. May He add His blessing to it. Let’s pray.
Lord, we thank You for Your word and we ask that in it You would show us the Lord Jesus Christ, and show Him to us as the ground of our salvation, as the only way of salvation, and as the proper object of our faith. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
As I mentioned before, the church today is in need of reformation. This is apparent in at least three ways. We are in need of doctrinal reformation in the evangelical church. By and large, the evangelical church, once characterized by a concern for truth, is not so concerned about the truth as it once was. And we need reformation in biblical teaching so that we take seriously what the Bible says. We also need reformation in our membership testimony. Poll after poll tells us that the behavior of evangelical church members is, in many respects, indistinguishable from the behavior of the pagan world and that weakens our testimony. In fact, the thing that holds us back more than anything else in our evangelism is that very problem, because the world looks at us and says, “Well, you’re no different from us. How can we possibly believe this extraordinary claim that you are making about the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ?”
And thirdly, the church -and you look around almost everywhere and see the church in this mode – the church tends to be frivolous and ‘man-centered’ in its worship. “Man, the creature, is large, and God, the Creator is small”, John piper often says, in the evangelical church today. And the evangelical church does, indeed, need reformation in each of those areas. But our own generation works against us in terms of reform, according to the Scripture, because we live in a day and age that doesn’t care much about truth.
Now, the Reformers and those that they taught in the days of the great protestant reformation at least understood this: hat you “think” can kill you, and we live in a day and age that doesn’t believe that anymore, because we either believe that truth is relative, or that your truth is fine for you and my truth is fine for me, or that there is no such thing as truth, or that humanity is at the center of everything, or that there are no absolutes, or that whatever works is right, or even that “thinking” is not important. And if you believe any of those things, truth rests lightly upon you as a claim.
From the scriptural standpoint, the claims of truth are paramount. One of the ways we may be reformed is in coming to terms with the claims of truth that Scripture makes about Jesus Christ. One of the ways that truth seems to be unimportant in evangelical circles today is the way in which people now question whether Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation, even in evangelical churches. Not long ago a Presbyterian minister, not, I hasten to add, not a member of this particular denomination, but a Presbyterian minister nevertheless, said, “What’s the big deal about Jesus?” He said it in the context of questioning whether it was intolerant to assert that Christ was the only way in the midst of so many world religions, and of course, he was implying that there are many ways into fellowship with God – Jesus or not. And so, “What’s the big deal about Jesus?” Now, whatever you would say about that, a hundred years ago you would hardly find a Presbyterian minister who -anywhere – would openly and cynically question “What is the big deal about Jesus?”
I. We must put our trust in Christ alone for salvation.
Let’s see what the Bible says is the big deal about Jesus and let’s start in Matthew, chapter 11, verses 27 and 28. The Bible says that Christ alone is the object of faith, and in fact, my friends, Jesus says that He alone is the object of faith. And we learn from Matthew 11, verses 27 and 28 that we must put our trust in Christ alone for salvation. Look at what Jesus says: “All things have been handed to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, nor does any one know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. Come to Me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.”
You see what Jesus is pointing out there? He points out several unique things. First of all, He says all things have been handed to Him by the Father. He is the ruler over all things according to the Father’s will. Furthermore, no one understands and knows the Son, comprehensively, like the Father. In other words, Jesus is asserting that they have a unique relationship of mutual knowledge. The Father understands the Son in ways that we, even Jesus’ disciples, do not understand him.
But then Jesus, even more strikingly, goes on to say that nobody can know the Father except the Son, and those whom the Son wills to reveal Him. Now, that’s an amazing statement. Jesus is saying that He is the only channel into the knowledge of God. And of course, in the Scriptures, to know God is to be in communion with God. To be in communion with God is to be saved. And so Jesus is saying, “if you want to know God savingly, you have to come through Me.”
And what’s the very next thing He says? He makes it plain. You don’t have to guess at this: “Come to Me and I will give you rest.” Here is Jesus saying that He alone is the object of faith and we must put our trust in Christ alone for salvation, if we want to know the Father savingly. That goes so much against our generation. Our generation says “Believe in yourself. Look within.” And Jesus says, “Don’t believe in yourself, and look within; believe in Me alone. Put your trust in Me.”
And we sing about this all the time, but I wonder if we catch it. Now take your hymnals in hand and let’s look at a couple of examples of places where we sing about this very point of Jesus as the alone object of faith. Look at number 468: “My faith has found a resting place” – a gospel hymn that many of you love to sing. And let’s look at the three stanzas and we’ll just do the refrain at the end. “My faith has found a resting place. from guilt my soul is freed. I trust the Everliving One, His wounds for me shall plead.” And so the author tells us that trust is in Jesus, the Everliving one. “Enough for me that Jesus saves, this ends my fear and doubt. A sinful soul, I come to Him; He’ll never cast me out.” Again, the focus on Christ and His work. “My heart is leaning on the word, the living word of God. Salvation by my Savior’s name, salvation through His blood.” And then the chorus: “I need no other argument, I need no other plea. It is enough that Jesus died, and that He died for me.” The whole thrust of the hymn is that we are trusting on Christ alone.
But turn back to number 257: “Stricken, smitten and afflicted” with its minor key, is probably the best hymn in the hymnal about the atoning work of Christ. That’s a strong statement to make, because there are a lot of good hymns in the hymnal about the atoning work of Christ. But what I want you to look at is the fourth stanza. The first three stanzas ask you to think about the atoning work of Christ in an extraordinary way, but listen to what the fourth stanza says: “Here we have a firm foundation. Here the refuge of the lost; Christ, the rock of our salvation, Christ, the name of which we boast. Lamb of God for sinners wounded, sacrificed to cancel guilt! None shall ever be confounded who on Him their hope has built.” Jesus is the lone object of faith. What’s the big deal about Jesus? He’s the only object of faith, the only hope of salvation. That’s one answer that the Bible gives to that question.
II. We must realize that Jesus is the only hope of salvation.
Let me point you to a second answer. Turn, now, to Acts, chapter four and remember that context that we read as we look especially at verse 12. Here, Peter boldly says there is salvation in no one else. He’s speaking of Jesus Christ, the Nazarene: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.” Now, our generation says, all paths lead up the mountain. All roads lead to heaven. There are many ways of knowing God. There are many religions that teach the truth. And the Bible’s response is, “There is one way of salvation. Christ, alone, is the way of salvation. Jesus is the only hope of salvation.” And so, over against all sorts of pluralistic teaching which says Jesus is one of the ways, among many, the Bible asserts that Jesus is the only way of salvation.
Now, I realize that that seems intolerant in our day and age, so I am going to say two things about that. First, the Bible explicitly asserts this. In fact, Jesus, Himself, has just asserted it in the passage we read in Matthew, chapter 11:27 and 28. So, it’s not Paul who came up with this idea. It’s not Peter who came up with this idea. It’s not James. It’s not John. It’s not anybody else. It’s Jesus. Jesus explicitly asserts that He is the only way of salvation, and Christians believe the Bible. As we say in our Confession of Faith – by faith a Christian believes to be true to whatsoever is written in the word. And so for the believer, believing that Jesus is the only way of salvation is an act of allegiance and obedience to Jesus, who says that He is the only way of salvation.
So when someone says to me, “You’re being intolerant,” I reply, “Oh my friend, I am simply doing what Jesus told me to do, which was to believe that He was the only way of salvation.” If I had come up with this on my own, it would be arrogant. But when Jesus tells me that I ought to believe this, that’s another matter. It’s a matter of humility to believe what Jesus says, as counter-intuitive, and counter-cultural, and as politically incorrect as it may be.
The second thing I want to say about it is, that once you understand what Jesus claims about Himself, and what the Bible claims about Him with regard to His person and work, it makes perfect sense that He’s the only way of salvation. Jesus claims to be God in the flesh. Now, if God in the flesh has got to come for our salvation, what other alternative could there be to that? If God in the flesh has to come for our salvation, you mean there are other ways, too?
And secondly, if Christ has died on the cross, if the Father has poured out the punishment for our sins upon Him, are you telling me that that wasn’t necessary, that there were other things that God could have done to have brought people into relationship with Him, other than shedding the blood of His own dear Son, and He didn’t do them and He didn’t use them?
You see, the very person and work of Jesus Christ argues against the idea that there are many ways up the mountain, or that there are many ways into fellowship with God. Jesus’ deity, and Jesus’ atonement, rule out all other options. If they are true, and Jesus says they are, and the Bible says they are, then no other way of salvation makes sense. Christ, alone, is the way of salvation, and the apostles were emphatic about that, and early Christians got themselves in trouble about that all the time. When the emperor, Severus, came to the throne, he added Jesus to the pantheon of gods who were worshiped by the Roman emperors. But you know what? He was stunned by the fact that Christians were not satisfied by that. It seemed a perfectly reasonable thing for a Roman emperor to do. ‘I’m showing these Christians some love and tolerance by adding Jesus into the midst of the other guys that I worship.’ They would not be satisfied until Christ, and Christ alone, was worshiped because He is the only way of salvation. He is the Son of God.
III. We must recognize that Jesus alone accomplished salvation.
Then, if you’ll turn back to John, chapter one and look especially at verse 29, we see thirdly that not only is Christ, alone, the object of faith, and Christ, alone, is the way of salvation; but also, Christ, alone, is the ground of our righteousness. John teaches us that Jesus, alone, accomplishes salvation. “The next day, he (that is John the baptist) sees Jesus coming and says, ‘Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’” John is acknowledging that Jesus, singlehandedly, deals with the things that separate us from God. Our sin, and our deserving of judgement because of that sin. Jesus is the lamb of God. He is the sacrifice that brings about a reconciliation of the whole world that believes in Him. All those who trust in Him, whether Jew or Greek, whether slave or free, whether male or female, trusting in Christ have their sins covered and are brought into fellowship with the living God.
And again, many of our hymns sing of this reality. We sing number 499, don’t we? “Rock of ages, cleft for me.” I love that stanza, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.” The emphasis is that we contribute nothing to the forgiveness of our sins. We contribute nothing to propitiate God’s wrath. We contribute nothing to the rectification of our sins in God’s administration of justice. Jesus, alone, accomplishes this salvation. It is simply ours to receive. It’s not Christ, plus our works; it’s not Christ, plus anything. It’s Christ, alone. So Jesus is the object of faith. He’s the one you need to trust in, and Jesus is the only way of salvation and He is the ground of our righteousness.
So what is the Christian’s response to this kind of truth? Well, I can’t think of a better summarization of the Christian’s response to this truth than Romans, chapter 12, verses one and two. Look at them very quickly. In Romans 12, the apostle Paul sums up this glorious teaching of the gospel in his book by saying, “I urge you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” If I can summerize, Paul is saying your response to the free gift of God, in Jesus Christ, is the stewardship of your whole person, given back to Him in worship.
Now, I want you to think about this response. Our response to Christ’s freely given salvation, Paul says, is to give ourselves freely to Him. Our response to this costly salvation, purchased at unfathomable price, but given to us freely, is to give ourselves back in wonder, love and praise. And we sing about that all the time. Let me ask you to take your hymnals again, and look at hymns 252, 253, and 254. Hymn number 252 is, “When I survey the wondrous cross.” We sing it all the time. Do we think about what we’re singing? Here’s the phrase I want you to zero in on. Look at this stanza: “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small, love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” Do you believe that? Isaac Watts is saying, “If I owned everything, that wouldn’t be enough. If the whole realm of the created order belonged to me, that would not be enough to give back to Jesus Christ.” Love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life, my all.
Hear Paul’s words: “In view of the mercies of God, give yourselves as a living sacrifice.” Does that come to mind when stewardship season comes around for some of you? Does your giving to the church, I’m not talking about your total stewardship, but does your giving to the church reflect that kind of devotion? “Demands my soul, my life, my all”? Or do we sing those words softly, during stewardship season, tentatively? Ambiguously ? Ambivalently?
Look now at 253. Now we’re to a William Cowper song, “There is a fountain filled with blood.” Again, we sing it all the time. Look at this stanza, “Ever since, by faith, I saw the stream, Thy flowing wounds supply, redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.” Is that true of you? That ever since you realized the mercy of God to you in Jesus Christ, that the theme, the totality of your life has been His redeeming work?
Look at number 254, “Alas, and did my Savior bleed.” Now, we’re back to Isaac Watts again. And look at what he says, “But drops of grief can ne’er repay the debt of love I owe; here, Lord, I give myself away, its all that I can do.” Is that our attitude? In the totality of our life, not only in our giving to the church, but in the totality of our existence, that we are letting “Goods and kindred go, this mortal life also”? Because we believe that “The body they may kill, but His truth abides forever”? Is that our stewardship? Do we realize that salvation is the free gift that costs you everything? Do we harken to the call of Paul to us? To climb up on the altar and give ourselves as living sacrifices? To die to self, to give Jesus not just our hearts, but the totality of ourselves, in His service? And if we do, how does it show? May God grant that we would tangibly respond to the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus.