by Rev. Dr. Mark Birkholz

What was the Reformation about?  Indulgences?  Purgatory?  The authority of the pope?  Education?  Luther?  Here (as in Sunday School) the answer is simple: Jesus. The Reformation was all about Jesus. Specifically, the Reformation was about Jesus Christ’s death on the cross as our only source of forgiveness, life, and salvation. Luther said, “The cross alone is our theology.”[1] Another way to say this is Solus Christus, or “Christ alone” saves us.

Salvation through Jesus Christ alone is the heart of the Reformation. All of the practices and teachings that Luther and the Reformers wanted to change were problematic because they got Jesus wrong. They either added to or took away from His work, and replaced Jesus’ works (gospel) with human works (law).

In many cases, people were told that they had to do something in addition to what Jesus had done for them. Whether it was an outward action (indulgences, fasting, pilgrimages), or an inward disposition (repentance, love, devotion), people were told that the works of Jesus were not enough, that they had to cooperate with Jesus and do their part in order to be saved. Sometimes these actions and dispositions were good in themselves, but the problem was requiring them as something that needed to be added to what Jesus had already done.

In other cases, the Lutheran Reformers fought to keep others from taking away from what Jesus was still doing through His Word and Sacraments. Some of the more radical reformers taught that Jesus’ body and blood weren’t given or received in the Lord’s Supper, or that Jesus didn’t really save through Holy Baptism. They taught that the Sacraments were about obeying Jesus’ command rather than receiving Jesus’ gifts. Luther insisted that these Sacraments were also Christ’s work alone in giving forgiveness, life and salvation.

Understanding our salvation as the work of Christ alone helps us to get the other three “solas” right.

We are saved by grace alone (Sola Gratia), but this grace that we receive from the Father comes to us through Jesus Christ. “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17; see also Acts 15:11; Romans 5:21). We receive grace and blessing from the Father only because of Jesus’ death on the cross in our place.

We are saved by faith alone (Sola Fide), but our faith is merely receiving all the saving works of Jesus as a gift. “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Romans 3:21a, 22a; see also Galatians 3:26; 1 Timothy 1:14). Faith is trust in Christ, and not faith in our own faithfulness. It’s not our act of believing that saves us, but Jesus’ death that brings us forgiveness. Faith clings to Jesus as our only hope in the face of eternal death.

Our theology flows from Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura), but Scripture is trustworthy because it is about Jesus from beginning to end. Jesus told His disciples, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44)  We listen to God’s Word in the Scriptures because there we hear Jesus speaking to us.

As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it’s easy to get caught up in the various personalities, the historical events, and the literature of the 16th century. Our challenge is to see Jesus Christ at the heart of the Reformation, and at the heart of our teaching and practice still today.

The Rev. Dr. Mark Birkholz is pastor of Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church, Oak Lawn, Ill.

[1] WA 5.176.32-3