I’m reminded of the fairly recent hymn, “In Christ Alone”, by Keith Getty and Staurt Townsend” (2001), which sets the tone for today's post. The second stanza of that hymn is:
“In Christ alone, who took on flesh
Fullness of God in helpless babe
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones He came to save
'Til on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied
For every sin on Him was laid
Here in the death of Christ I live, I live.”
The reader can note that I highlighted one of the phrases in the stanza. To some, it may seem odd that expressing how Christ's work on the cross had satisfied God's wrath would stir opposition. Yet, the 21st century American church scene is, in many respects, in need of reformation just as much as the European church of the Middle Ages. So how controversial did the song "In Christ Alone" become in the eyes of some?
The General Session of the PCUSA (Presbyterian Church in America), in 2013, decided that unless the lyrics “The wrath of God was satisfied”, were changed to “the love of God was magnified”, it could not include it in its hymnals. One PCUSA minister expressed his agreement with this sentiment in his refusal to think of "God killing Jesus", since the cross, to him, was not an instrument of wrath. To their credit, Getty and Townsend refused to change the lyrics, thus, the PCUSA expunged the hymn. Getty and Townsend's refusal to compromise is an expression of why it is the church always needs reformed.
The church in every age always needs to measure its experience, doctrine, and practice by Scripture and the Lordship, Saviorship and Headship of Jesus Christ. Paul reminds us in Colossians 1:18 "He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything."
Reformation Day, October 31st
October 31st will mark the 504th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation was a combined effort on the part of certain leaders in 16th century Germany, France, Switzerland, England and Scotland to get Christianity back to the original truths of the Gospel revealed in the Old Testament; taught by Christ and preached by the Apostles in the New Testament; and nearly lost by Roman Catholicism in the Middle Ages (which I'm defining as spanning from 590-1517).
One of the doctrines that was recovered by the Reformation is summarized by the two-word phrase: “Christ Alone”. If we had lived in the 16th century, we would had heard the Reformers, who had studied theology in the Latin language, express "Christ Alone" as "Solus Christus". This truth, along with four others (grace alone, faith alone, the Bible alone, and God's glory alone), is, in terms of the history of Christian doctrine, the root from which the other four follow. In other words, if one affirms the necessity and sufficiency of Jesus Christ to convey the grace necessary for salvation and the Christian life, apart from Mary, appeals to saints, or reliance on human merit; then the four other Biblical truths (grace alone, faith alone, the Bible alone, the glory of God alone) follow. Once "Christ Alone" began to be eclipsed in the Middle Ages, the other "alones" would become altered. Truly, if the Biblical reclamation of the Gospel, which the Reformation of the 16th century sought to achieve, is to be held in the 21st century, the church must assert "Christ Alone".
In this post, I will briefly explain the Biblical, historical and personal significance of “Christ Alone”. It is important to understand what is meant by this terse phrase: "Christ Alone". James Montgomery Boice in his book, "What Happened to the Gospel of Grace", defines what is meant by this foundational doctrine of the Reformation:
“Justification because of Christ Alone means that Jesus has done the necessary work of salvation utterly and completely, so that no merit on the part of man, no merit of the saints, no works of ours performed either here or later in purgatory, can add to His completed work.”
So in defining this phrase, let us first consider the Biblical foundations of this truth by observing how it is featured in an episode of Christ's earthly ministry in Mark 4:33-41.
1. The Biblical significance of “Christ alone”. Mark 4:33-41
In this text we find Jesus having finished a series of parables about the Kingdom of God. As He and His disciples prepare to cross the Sea of Galilee, Jesus decides to get some rest. While He is asleep in the boat, a sudden storm blows up, rendering the Sea of Galilee into a tulmult. What follows below is a summary of three sub-themes that characterize this truth reaffirmed by the Reformers: "Christ Alone".
*Christ’s Work Alone Can Save Your Soul. Mk 4:33; Mt 13:34
Mark 4:33 has a parallel in Matthew's Gospel. Matthew writes in Matthew 13:34-35 -
All these things Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables, and He did not speak to them without a parable. 35 This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: “I will open My mouth in parables;I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world.”
The reason why Matthew's remark is important is because the fulfillment attributed to Jesus derives from Psalm 78. When we turn to Psalm 78:2-4, we read:
I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old, 3 Which we have heard and known, And our fathers have told us. 4 We will not conceal them from their children, But tell to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, And His strength and His wondrous works that He has done.
Why would Matthew attribute Jesus’ parables to fulfillment of Psalm 78? If we were to read Psalm 78, we would find that it rehearses the history of God’s faithfulness in delivering His people, His wondrous grace, and Sovereign purpose being fulfilled through what He promised to David. It would be Christ Himself, descended from David per His humanity, that would become our Sole Mediator. Amazingly, where Psalm 78 ends (referencing David), Matthew 13:34 picks up with referencing its fulfillment to David's descendant according to the flesh - Jesus!
These observations scream out "Solus Christus" (Christ Alone). Paul reminds us in 1 Timothy 2:5-6 For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6 who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time. Also, Luke records one of the clearest summaries of the Gospel of salvation as having to do with "Christ Alone" in Acts 16:31, They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
*Christ’s Person Alone can soothe your troubled soul. Mark 4:35-39
Jesus is asleep. We read Mark’s account of the disciples’ accusations: “Do you not care?” Luke 8:24a grants further detail about the disciples: They came to Jesus and woke Him up, saying, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” God certainly cared for His people, even when they didn’t care about Him. Remember, Matthew is attributing Jesus’ telling of parables to fulfilling what is found in Psalm 78. Let us consider another portion of that Psalm that is relevant to Mark 4:35-38, Psalm 78:24-26 -
"Yet He commanded the clouds above and opened the doors of heaven; 24 He rained down manna upon them to eat And gave them food from heaven. 25 Man did eat the bread of angels; He sent them food in abundance. 26 He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens And by His power He directed the south wind."
Yahweh, Jehovah God, is attributed with complete authority over the wind and storm. Here in Mark, Jesus exercises Divine power over the wind and storm. He shows Himself all-caring, as well as all-able to soothe the soul.
*Christ’s power alone addresses what can paralyze your soul. Mark 4:41
What can paralyze the soul? We could name several things: Satan’s accusations, the condemnation of the law against our sin, the cravings of our flesh and intimidation. Romans 8:1 deals with Satan. 2 Corinthians 5:21 shows how God the Father credits to me Christ’s righteousness, thus appeasing the law’s condemnation. Galatians 2:20 and Romans 13:14 enable me to fight the good fight of faith against the flesh. Christ alone grounds me in silencing such things.
But what of fear? Intimidation? When the Disciples responded the way they did to Jesus, they were face-to-face with the fear of God. Whenever you and I have a proper fear of God, it means we fear the thought no longer sensing His presence in our lives (see Ephesians 4:30). The fear of God leads to hatred of sin (Proverbs 8:13) and is the heart of true worship, since to fear God means to be in awe of Him (see Isaiah 6). When we fear God, all other things that can bring crippling fear are put in their proper perspective.
2. Historic significance of Christ alone.
What led to the erosion of “Christ Alone” in the Roman Catholic Church (hereafter "R.C.C") of the Middle Ages? We could cite several causes in the long and involved history of Roman Catholic teaching, yet two major doctrines, which are still held to this day by the R.C.C, can be cited.
*The first is the rise of Papacy.
As to the Pope as head of the church, the belief that the Bishop of Rome was above all other Bishops became certified shortly after the days of Pope Gregory I in 590 A.D. Gregory I never accepted attempts to make him chief among the Bishops of the Western church in his day. Regardless, Gregory's leadership and writing embodied for many what such an authority could look like. The Roman Catholic Church had taught already the doctrine of Apostolic succession, meaning that subsequent Bishops of Rome could trace their office back to Peter. Due to a certain interpretation of Matthew 16, in which Jesus states: "upon this rock I will build my church", many Roman Catholics today assume that Jesus was referencing Peter as "that Rock", hence making him the first "Pope". As one studies Matthew 16:18 in concert with other passages (such as Ephesians 2:20 and 1 Peter 2:6-9), the "rock" to which Jesus references is not Peter, nor Peter's faith, but Christ Himself.
As the office of Pope grew in influence, the much later crowning of the Holy Roman Emperor by Charlemene in 800 A.D. by Pope Leo III at a Christmas Mass would be a second major event. What would follow for the next several centuries would raise the question: "who has more power, the Emperor or the Pope?" Much of the wrangling that would ensue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Emperor and nations of Europe centered on that very question. Truly, whenever Christ is no longer understood as Supreme Authority in all matters of life, confusion can abound, whether in the secular realm or churchly sphere.
The Middle Ages had cast a trajectory that would lead the R.C.C to reaffirm Papal supremacy in the Counter Reformation church council known as "The Council of Trent". To risk oversimplification, we skip several centuries to developments in the 19th century. The doctrine of papal infallibility became affirmed 1870, meaning that when the Pope spoke "ex cathedra" or "from the chair" of Peter in Rome on matters affecting Roman Catholic faith and practice, he could not err in such instances. As we will see below, most of what has been spoken "ex cathedra" has had to do with the R.C.C view of Mary.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 882, notes of the Pope:
"For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered."
There was good reason why before the Protestant Reformation of 1517, cries for Reform were being heralded all over Europe. John Huss, in 1413, wrote in his major work,“The Church”, the following in chapter 12: "But Christ is the Roman pontiff, just as he is the head of the universal church and every particular church." Huss would give his life at the stake on July 6, 1415. Ironically, the same Council of Constance that condemned Huss for opposing Papal authority was tasked with trying to resolve a 70 year long dispute as to who was the rightful Pope of the R.C.C. (known by historians as "The Babylonian Captivity of the Church").
Nearly a century later, the Reformer Martin Luther, who posted his 95 Theses, opposing abuses by the R.C.C over a system that distorted grace (called Indulgences), wrote near the end in thesis #94: "Christians should be exhorted to be diligent in following Christ, their Head, through penalties, death and hell."
*The second major source of erosion in the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, especially as the sole Mediator between God and sinners, came about through the elevation of Mary.
In the New Testament we find reference to Jesus' Mary in almost a dozen episodes. Too often, none-Catholics (also known as "Protestants", which was first coined at a government sanctioned meeting called "The Diet of Spyer" in 1529), almost ignore Mary. Mary was used greatly of God in bring forth the humanity of Jesus in the Spirit's miraculous work of His virginal conception. With that said, the opposite error is to make too much of Mary. Virtually all that the R.C.C. has taught about Mary developed through centuries of tradition, rather than from the New Testament. It may surprise some to note that after only one appearance in the Book of Acts, Mary is never mentioned again in the New Testament. If anything, Christ as the Sole Mediator between Himself and His people for their salvation and subsequent Christian life is asserted (Acts 4:12; Romans 10:9; Galatians 3:16; Ephesians 1:7; Philippians 3:7-10; Colossians 1:16-20; 1 Peter 2:6-9; 2 Peter 3:9-10, just to name a few). A couple of examples from the teaching of the R.C.C. will suffice to show how its elevation of Mary departs from the New Testament insistence upon "Solus Christus" (Christ Alone).
Pope Pius IX in his Apostolic Constitution "Ineffabilis Deus" (December 8, 1854) expressed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, asserting the non-Biblical idea of Mary herself having been conceived without having inherited Adam's sin nature through her mother. In 1950, another pope expressed the doctrine of Mary’s assumption into Heaven, thus signifying Mary's authority to intercede for Christians in Heaven alongside Jesus. The current Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 975, states: We believe that the Holy Mother of God, the new Eve, Mother of the Church, continues in heaven to exercise her maternal role on behalf of the members of Christ.
Protestant Reformer John Calvin, in a letter to Richard LeFavre, dated January 1551, expresses one of the clearest denialsof the R.C.C doctrine of Mary as a "Co-Redeemer" with Christ: “it is not for us to appoint advocates in paradise, but for God, who has appointed Jesus Christ a single one for all.”
Why the Reformation must still carry on among our American Protestant Church world, particular evangelicalism.
As we saw at the beginning of this post, contemporary attacks within our American church scene on the doctrine of “Christ Alone” persists. In the 2020 “State of Theology” poll conducted by Ligonier ministries and Lifeway research, 52% affirmed that Jesus was a great teacher, but not God. Also, less than 50% of American evangelicals agree that Jesus is the only way to the Father. The slide away from Christ as the unique way to the Father and as uniquely revealing the truly Divine nature, which He shares with the Father and the Spirit as the One Triune God, is increasingly eclipsing Gospel preaching in many quarters of the American Church. This is why the effort of Reforming the church is never done. As Erwin W. Lutzer notes in his book, “Rescuing the Gospel”, our task of continual reform is more challenging, since we not only protest unity with R.C.C, but also protest the health and wealth Gospel, pluralism and attacks on Christ’s uniqueness.
3. Personal application of “Christ Alone”.
We saw today those three Biblical truths of Christ’s uniqueness, or "Christ Alone", Christ alone means He alone can save the soul; Christ alone can soothe the soul and Christ’s power alone can address what paralyzes your soul. Let me close out this post with why this Biblical truth has personal meaning.
In the last few weeks, there have been a number of things I have been praying about, some of which I can honestly say could be paralyzing. The little two word phrase: “Christ alone”, or “Solus Christus”, is what has kept my faith anchored. Applying "Christ Alone" in the realm of prayer is exemplified by the writer of Hebrews in Hebrews 4:14-15
"Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin."
I have also found in thinking upon “Christ alone”, my soul is soothed in the face of what is going on in our world, as well as waiting Him to answer some major prayer requests. Hebrews 4:16 Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Lastly, Christ alone can save your soul. Romans 10:9-10,
"that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; 10 for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation."