Solus Christus: Against the Idol Making Factory
D. Blair Smith
Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte
Editor’s note: The following is a message delivered at “The Gospel of Grace and Glory: The Reformation at 500 and Counting,” a conference co-sponsored by Christ Covenant Church (PCA), Matthews, NC, and Reformed Theological Seminary Charlotte, October 27-28, 2017. A video of Smith’s presentation (along with those on the other “Solas” of the Reformation) can be viewed here: https://christcovenant.org/reformation-conference/.
Each of the great Reformational solas can stand on its own as a study, but they also stand together. On the one end, how do we know anything of Christ, faith, and grace? Scripture alone. On the other end, all that we think and do is for the glory of God alone.
The three in the middle – faith, grace, and Christ – lead from the one end to the other and form an integrative heart of our faith. Paul saw this clearly in Ephesians 2 where he says we have been saved by God’s grace, which we receive through faith, and that that grace and kindness is shown and communicated to us in Christ Jesus.
Faith and grace are aimless and empty without Christ. They flow into and find their meaning in solus Christus. Faith alone is faith in Christ alone. Grace alone, is the grace of God alone extended to us in Christ alone. The Gospel has integrity, an integrity the Reformers saw as being lost in the late Medieval Church. Studying the solas together helps one appreciate this integrity and puts on display the brilliant facets of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This talk will unpack “Christ Alone” through two points. Each point has a point of contrast, that which the Reformers were protesting and, I would submit, we should still protest:
- Strong Savior (and not strong Church)
- Sufficient Sacrifice (and not repeated Sacrifices)
In every point we are seeking for the beauty of the Son of God as he is to shine through. The need of every era, whether of the 16th century or the 21st, is for the true God to be known, worshipped, and obeyed. And in every age we are tempted to pollute the beauty of Christ through our idols. John Calvin said it is in our very nature: “Man’s nature… is a perpetual factory of idols…. Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity.” With the Reformers, we seek the pure Christ as the only answer to our polluting idol factories.
I. Strong Savior (and not strong Church)
In each of these two main points, I am going to follow this sequence: (1) look to the problem the Reformers identified in their day, (2) their Biblical and theological solution, and (3) some points of application to our own day.
- The Problem of a Strong Church
In the early sixteenth century the Church was at the center of people’s lives in Western Europe. She had evolved, especially in the two hundred and fifty years or so leading up to the Reformation. She had gone from what my old professor Harold OJ Brown called the “Company of the Saved” to the “Salvation Company.”
What is meant by “Salvation Company”?: Luther recognized that in his day people had become enslaved to the sacramental system of the Church, and instead of looking to Christ for their standing before God they looked to the Church. It was thought that because of Christ, Mary, and the saints there was a storehouse of grace in the Church. Priests were its sole dispensers and the faithful had to come to them. There had been a sort of mechanization of grace.
In 1520 Luther wrote three key treatises of the Reformation, one of which was The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, where he attacked the sacramental system of the church. That system, Luther said, represented a captivity from cradle to grave within Rome, which had become its own Babylon holding captive the people of God.
How did the sacramental system work? One was baptized as an infant, confirmed as a youth, married as a mature person, and received extreme unction at one’s death bed. Each of these ceremonies, along with ordination, were seen as sacraments, conveying grace when administered by a priest (The church and her priests were the sole administrators of grace.). The grace conferred through these sacraments was supplemented throughout one’s life by regular confession of sin to a priest (the 6th sacrament) and the reception of the Eucharist (the 7th sacrament) through a priestly Mass. From cradle to the grave the Christian was dependent upon the Church, tethered to the sacraments in order to receive the grace by which one can be saved.
Luther looked to Scripture and saw only two sacraments. The effect of his teaching was to shift focus from the church and its clergy to Christ alone. Salvation not from a company with priests turning on the taps of grace, as it were, but salvation in a singular person: Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Stripped of this ornate sacramentology, and the whole edifice the Church had established in religious life through priests, the Mass, and so on, one might ask where one went for grace. If the Church had it very wrong, what were believers to do? Where would men like Luther point them? There’s a famous painting of Luther in the City Church, the Stadtkirche, in Wittenberg where he is standing in the pulpit preaching. He holds one hand up with his index finger extended, pointing to Christ on the cross. Believers should look to Christ alone.
When Luther said “the cross alone is our theology” it was an affront on the whole the whole Roman system. Christ Alone drove the whole program of reform in the Church, scrubbing away the pollution of man-made tradition: priests were redefined as pastors, tables replaced altars, and the ministry of the Word replaced sacramentalism. Thus, Luther and the other Reformers, in seeking to redress centuries of harmful teaching regarding how we are made right before God, will chip away at the accumulated traditions and focus upon Christ. As they burrow down into Christ they will see how his person and work are central to our faith.
2. The Solution of a Strong Savior
If the problem of a Strong Church was the problem identified by the Reformers starting with Luther, what was the solution? Instead of a Strong Church, it was a Strong Savior. Consider 1 John 1:1-4:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
On the one hand, the Reformers did not have a Christological complaint with the Roman Catholic Church in its day. That is to say, Jesus Christ as having two natures – 100% God, 100% Man – in one person was the classical Christology that the Reformers carried forward in their own teaching. As John says, this Son was with the Father from all eternity, but has also been touched with our hands: one Son, both divine and human.
This beautiful Christ, though, needed to be freshly presented in order for people to see that he and he alone is the source and sum of our salvation. It is as if the Reformers in their preaching and writing took up their brush and filled in the whole picture of salvation with nothing but Christ – not even the smallest brushstroke could display the church and her priests as adding to that picture—for to do so would be to pollute the picture of salvation.
Well, as Bible people where did the Reformers go to fill in their picture of Christ? Let us remember, each of these solas rests on the first: sola scriptura. Scripture alone is the place where we go to gain our picture of Christ. So, they went to places like 1 John 1 aware the book started off with a picture of Christ and ended with a warning to keep from idols. They went to Colossians 2:9: “For in [Christ] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” But they also went to sources before them who had given close attention to the biblical Christ.
If you take a big view of history you can often see that when God is doing something monumental in his Church he is also positioning key building blocks within the broader culture that will uphold and sustain what he is doing in the Church. Think about the very first centuries of church: where would they have been in their ease of travel and communication without the roads and peace of Rome and the common language of the Greeks? Likewise, where would the Reformation have been without the broader cultural movement of the Renaissance? Ad Fontes! To the sources! What sources? Well, for many in the broader Renaissance it was the pagan classical sources in Greek and Latin. For the Reformers, though, it was the Greek and Hebrew of the Bible, yes, but also the Church Fathers—those early preachers and theologians who thought deeply and clearly about the Trinity and Christ. It is vital to remember that the Reformers were not schismatics, but were seeking to restore the one holy catholic and apostolic church. So they went to the Bible, yes, but also to the early Creeds and the Church Fathers.
And as the Reformers went to the Fathers on the question of the Son of God the answer they would have received is: only this Christ can save. Only the Son of God as fully divine and fully human can bridge the gap between us and God. The Church Fathers of the 4th century taught a clear Creator-creature distinction, with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit one side – the divine side – and a fully dependent creation on the other. What is more, given the human Fall into sin, we are not merely dependent creatures we are fallen creatures opposed to our Creator.
Who can bridge the gap? The Fathers reasoned with the Scriptures and said, only the God who had the power to create also has the power to save. And only a mediator who is fully human can heal us in the deepest recesses of our humanity: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).
The Church Father Athanasius knew the importance of the divinity of Christ when he said, “There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word who made it in the beginning.” And Gregory of Nazianzus knew the importance of the full humanity of Christ, body and soul, to our salvation when he wrote, “The unassumed is the unhealed” – that is, if Christ didn’t assume all of our humanity, then something is left unhealed. John Calvin picked up this truth when he wrote, “Unless [Jesus Christ’s] soul shared in the punishment [of the cross], he would have been the Redeemer of bodies alone.”
The Reformers echoed the Fathers on this crucial point: the full incarnate Son of God – fully God and fully Man in one person – is our only hope of salvation. In all his strength he must save us, bridging the gap with his powerful mediation. In Christ there is not only perfect humanity but also “the whole fullness of deity.” The Reformation Gospel is the holding forth of this, the announcement of all that is in Christ Jesus. If we add to the picture of salvation, through the church assuming power that rests in Christ alone, then we preach what Luther called a “theology of glory” instead of a “theology of the cross”— thus robbing Christ of his glory as our strong Savior.
3. When We are Strong, He is “Weak”
Is this still a temptation for the Church today? It might take different forms from the late medieval Roman Catholic Church, but certainly it is! We are always tempted to pursue a “theology of glory” by adding foreign and corrupting elements, to pollute the pristine picture of salvation given to us in the Word. A theology of glory wants God but bypasses the cross, thus inserting man’s devices in reaching up to God. Solus Christus is continually needed to confront our quests to have our relationship with God mediated by things other than Christ.
We have an unhealthy desire today for immediacy in our user-friendly mediators which are very adept at bringing us to themselves. But do they bring us to the living God? A great temptation for evangelical Protestant churches today is to make a subtle exchange. We say we preach the Gospel. We have Gospel-driven this, and Gospel-centered that. But what is at the heart of our Gospel? Is it the person of Christ and his cross? The second person of the Trinity? The transcendent yet immanent Lord of our lives? Or does the Church and its identity and what it is on about become the heart of the “Gospel” we preach? Do we exchange the person of Christ for a cheap man-made glory, a synthetic thing that we can constantly reinvent, shape, and fit into our lives?
We pollute the Gospel when we present Christ with a worldly wisdom, when a worldly wisdom of present glory shapes our churches’ message such that we have an ecclesiology of glory—that is, a church drawing attention to itself, seeking itself above Christ. The fruit of that is poisonous pride.
This is something Paul had to take up with the Corinthian church. They were tempted to shape the life and message of the Church according to the wisdom of the age—today maybe it’s political posturing of a variety of stripes that provides an overlay on the church’s message and programs, or perhaps certain activities that elbow in and take center stage, or is it a slick audio/visual apparatus.
Paul said, “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25). He goes on in 1 Corinthians 1 to impress upon the church the need for an ecclesiology of the cross, that is, a church shaped by the humble logic of the cross.
The problem the Reformers identified in their day, and the problem of our day, is not the Church. The Church is God-ordained and a great gift. The problem is a church seeking glory, rather than a Church rightly ordered according to the Word alone, where Christ the Strong Savior and the cross shape its ministries.
What do we add to Christ in order to mediate our relationship with God? Whatever that is, it mirrors the strong sacramental system the Reformers dealt with. We must repent of it and turn to the person of Christ, who says, “Come to me…”
In closing out this first point on a Strong Savior, Calvin provides us the exclamation point when commenting on the great temptation before the Church at Colossae, which was the temptation for the Church during the 16th century, and is the temptation before us today:
The only remedy for fortifying [us] against all the snares by which the false apostles endeavor to trap us is to understand accurately who Christ is. For how is it that we are “carried about with so many strange doctrines (Heb. 13:9), because the excellence of Christ is not perceived by us? For Christ alone makes all other things suddenly vanish. Hence there is nothing that Satan so much tries to effect as to call up mists so as to obscure Christ; because he knows that by this means the way is opened up for every kind of falsehood. This, therefore, is the only means of retaining, as well as restoring, pure doctrine: to place Christ before the view such as He is with all His blessings, that His excellence
be truly perceived.
II. Sufficient Sacrifice (and not repeated Sacrifices)
Our second point is that our strong savior, Jesus Christ, offered a sufficient sacrifice for sins on the cross. Our first point looked especially to the person of the Son. We now give attention to his work.
- The Problem of Repeated Sacrifices
There’s a famous scene from the English Reformation that many of you will know well. On the 16th of October 1555, during the reign of Mary I, known to history as “Bloody Mary,” Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were burnt at the stake in Oxford. The two men, along with Thomas Cranmer, are known as the Oxford Martyrs. You might know this scene because of these lines. Latimer said to Ridley before being burned: “Be of good cheer, Ridley; and play the man. We shall this day, by God’s grace, light up such a candle in England, as, I trust, will never be put out.”
A year earlier, while Ridley was in prison waiting to be burned for heresy, he reflected on the Roman Catholic Church of his day. He said Satan’s old world of false religion stood on two “most massy posts and mighty pillars…. These two…are they in my judgment: the one is false doctrine and idolatrical use of the Lord’s supper; and the other, the wicked and abominable usurpation of the primacy of the see of Rome.” Thus, the two pillars of the Mass and the central role of the Pope and church hierarchy. These two come together as we unpack this point on Christ’s sufficient sacrifice.
To understand Roman Catholic teaching the first thing to know is it is well-thought out and it often has a touchstone, even if quite small, within Scripture. This is the case with their foundational doctrine of Totus Christus, the “whole Christ.” You could see this as standard fare from Ephesians 4 and 5 where Christ is head of the Church and the Church is his body. But by the 16th c. this had developed into something quite different.
If you boil it down, the Roman Catholic teaching on Totus Christus is very simple: As the body of Christ, the Church is in some sense the continuing incarnation of the Son. The sacraments, as they grew to seven and were cemented in Church teaching in the 13th – 16th centuries, were said to be “the seven arteries of the Body of Christ, through which the lifeblood of God’s grace was pumped.” So you have the Church as the body of Christ, understood as continuing the incarnation, and the sacraments as the arteries through which God’s grace flowed. Here’s the great question: who has authority to turn on the taps of grace, as it were?
At the head of the Church on earth is the vicar of Christ (vicar from vicarius in Latin: meaning “substitute”), the Pope. The Pope ordains Bishops. Bishops ordain priests. Priests are clergy who have the authority to “turn on” the taps of grace for the faithful. At the center of Roman Catholic spirituality, in the 16th century as well as today, was the Mass where the elements of bread and wine are transubstantiated when the priest pronounces hoc est corpus meum – “this is my body.” The outward appearance of the elements, the accidents, still appear to be bread and wine, but their substance becomes the actual body and blood of Christ. Thus, in the work of the body of Christ, the Church, Christ himself becomes repeatedly and really present in the daily Mass celebrated throughout the world.
I say all that all as foundation for understanding this point: There is a sacrifice brought to God by the hand of the priest after transubstantiation. This is the sacrifice of the Mass repeatedly offered every day throughout the world wherever the Roman Catholic Church is active. It is bloodless but it is still understood as a sacrifice. In response to the Reformation the Roman Catholic Council of Trent solidified this teaching that the Mass is a true sacrifice of propitiation – a work obtaining mercy for the living and the dead. Indeed, the Council of Trent declared, “The sacrifice of the Mass is properly offered not only for the sins, penalties, satisfactions, and other needs of the faithful who are living but also for the departed in Christ who are not yet fully cleansed.” In sum, the cross of Christ does not justify full stop, but merely opens justification, makes it possible, and hence the Mass is continually offered as a work of the Church in order to obtain remission of sins for the living and the dead, to make it possible to store up merits for eternal life.
2. Jesus is the Only Sacrifice for Sin
In your Bibles turn again to 1 John, over to 1 John 2:1-2:
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
Jesus is the only Savior and his death on the cross is the only sacrifice that can pay the debt of our sin. How does Jesus save? We could talk about His actively righteous life, from conception until death. But let’s focus here briefly on the Cross.
Key to understanding the cross is that, we are not simply dependent creatures; we are sinners. God is holy and does not wink at sin. In his just and moral order, sin demands punishment. Forgiveness requires death. Hebrews 9:22 says without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sin. Jesus died our death on the cross. It is these scriptural truths that led the Reformers to understand that Christ’s death on the cross was both substitutionary and penal.
Jesus is our Substitute: Jesus gave his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). He died “for” or “on behalf of” his people. He’s died in our place, for our benefit. That is why at the heart of the Gospel we can say God is for us in Christ. Listen to Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:20-21:
Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
It is because of this Scripture, and others like Romans 5, that the Reformers spoke of a double imputation on the Cross: our sins were imputed to Christ and his righteousness was imputed to us, his people. In that double imputation, then, we see how the cross-work of Christ was both substitutionary and penal: Jesus received legal punishment for crimes committed, that is, the penalty we deserved for the breaking of God’s law. As our substitute, he bore our penalty, the penalty our guilt incurred. Thus God can forgive while also upholding His justice. Luther called this the “wonderful exchange” – Christ becoming a curse for us so that in him we might become righteous.
Christ’s death was justice-satisfying, wrath-quenching. It was propitiatory – that word we read in 1 John 2 – turning God’s wrath away from us that we might receive his favor, that we might be forgiven and looked upon as righteous. As we contemplate the cross, we must recognize our sins put him there. Luther said the Law stands before Jesus on the cross and yells, “I find him a sinner!…Therefore, let him die upon the cross.” But if we are united to him by faith, that is our death. He suffered and died for me and for you.
Was it for sins that I have done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity, grace unknown,
And love beyond degree. (Isaac Watts)
We caused his pain. Our sins put him there. In my, in your place condemned He stood. What a savior!
This all took place on the cross at once. Christ’s sacrifice was full: It was final, sufficient, complete. Remember Christ’s last words: “It. Is. Finished.” There is no more sacrifice. We cannot add to it or take anything away from it. Hebrews 7:26-27:
For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.
You can see why the Reformers would have opposed the Mass so vehemently: there can be no more sacrifice for sin. A continual sacrifice, no matter how tethered to the cross, denies the finality and sufficiency of the cross.
3. Reclaiming the Priesthood
As we think about the contemporary application of this point I want for our thoughts to stay in heaven, from Hebrews 7: we have a high priest who carries on a heavenly ministry, daily, hourly, minute-by-minute interceding on our behalf. As fully human he represents human beings before God and, as fully divine, he represents God to humanity. What is more, he has given to his people united to him to be a “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9). There is, as the Reformers taught, not a priesthood legitimized through the hierarchy of Rome but a “priesthood of all believers.”
Now, this doctrine is not one which indulges a “Jesus and me” approach to spirituality. God has given us the Church as our family. We are united to Christ not individually but through a body. God gives elders who shepherd us and ministers who preach the authoritative Word of God. The Sacraments, which find their home in the Church, are a means by which we are to regularly draw on the grace of God. The priesthood of all believers is not the Good News of American Christian individualism.
So what is it? It means every member of Christ by faith holds personal communion with the Divine Head. In that communion there is pardon and strength from Christ directly, not mediated through a priest. And instead of a priest offering a sacrifice on behalf of the people at Mass, all Christians offer sacrifices. We offer a sacrifice of praise (Hebrews 13:15-16) and we are also that sacrifice – we present ourselves as living sacrifices. Because of the work of Christ, we go directly to God through Christ. Because of the Spirit, our offerings are sanctified and acceptable to God (Romans 15:16).
Now, given the Reformation emphasis on the ministry of the Word we do set apart and equip men to toil in the ministry of the Word, regularly preaching to the people of God. But unlike the Roman Catholic priest regularly offering the sacrifice of the Mass, the ministry of the Word is not the work of the preacher alone.
One of the more discouraging elements in the church today, including in our most conservative reformed evangelical churches: there is a yawning gap between our stated belief in the authority of Scripture and our actual literacy in Scripture. Large sections of the evangelical church are growing in their biblical illiteracy. Now, this might say something about the biblical content heard in some sermons, certainly. But it also says something about the people of God taking seriously the priesthood of all believers.
Luther saw that, according to Malachi 2:7, the principal task of OT priests was to teach people the law of God. The minister of the Gospel feeds the Word to the people. Fed by the Word, we then as priests minister the word each to the other in discipleship and counsel. Paul says we address one another in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19). Peter says the function of the royal priesthood is to “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
I think a decisive issue now and in coming decades among the priesthood of all believers is and will be biblical literacy. As one author put it,
An attenuated sense of what’s in Scripture is making us all live and work in thinner and thinner air. Good preachers will say great things, but their words will be weak unless our congregations somehow become more alert and alive to [biblical] resonances. When we hear of defections from biblical authority, it seems increasingly to come from a lack of saturation in Scripture itself. The commands of God in Scripture seem unpersuasive to Christian cultures that aren’t already deeply immersed in biblical ways of thinking.
The Christians who labored before us did astonishing things to get the words of Scripture into their minds and hearts, “transfused,” as [one Scottish poet] put it, “through the texture of the soul.”
A Church always reforming today clings to Christ alone as our Strong Savior. As our one mediator, Christ brings the wisdom of the cross to bear on our lives. On that cross the Son of God offered a singular and sufficient sacrifice that has secured our salvation once and for all. Now in heaven as our high priest, Jesus has given to us to be a royal priesthood who minister to one another the life-giving Word of God. He’s a Strong Savior and Sufficient Sacrifice—Solus Christus, Christ Alone
In a recent interview Rosaria Butterfield said that our own day has one great ordering sola: sola experientia. By experience alone we know what is true. By personal experience alone we produce a myriad of Christs, a myriad of idols. She goes on in the interview to perceptively observe that when we do not honor the Christ, we will demand others honor our Christs. Isn’t that what we are seeing today in our fitful, seething, ruptured public square with its increasing fundamentalism? Don’t we see the self emerging from experience turning into a myriad of Christs to which we must be true? Don’t we see that faith has been replaced by sincerity? As long as someone is sincere you must leave them to themselves, for their self and sincerity to self reigns. What a recipe for tyranny! What a recipe for anxiety! What a recipe for the endless psychoses that stalk our land.
In 1505, 12 years before the nailing of the 95 theses, one of the more dramatic scenes unfolds in Luther’s young life.
“Help me, St. Anne; I’ll become a monk!”
These were the words Luther yelped when he was caught in a terrible thunderstorm in which he was thrown to the ground after nearly being struck by lightening. Here is Martin Luther traveling from his home to college in Erfurt, where he was studying to become a lawyer. But fearing for his life, he vows to enter the cloister.
I want us to think for a moment about what he clings to in the midst of danger.
St. Anne? Why her? During that time different professions would have their own patron saints that they would pray to. St. Anne was the patron saint of miners, which was Luther’s father’s profession. During this thunderstorm Luther feared for his life and did not know how to find safety in Christ. He goes to what feels nearer, and safer: a saint, a saint that would have been regularly invoked in his household.
Only a year earlier he did something similar. He had accidently stabbed himself with his dagger. As he lay there bleeding, waiting for his friends to return with the doctor, he cries out to Mary. So within the span of a year we have two life threatening incidents and Luther seeks solace in a patron saint and the mother of Jesus. Why not Jesus himself?
The spiritual imagination of late Medieval Roman Catholicism was a crowded and confusing place. You could not ignore the cult of the saints. You had shrines crammed into every corner that were not only vital to the spirituality of the times, but also the economy. With the proliferation of these shrines and their saints, as well as the ever-present Mary, Christ was beginning to recede from view—at least in those moments of peril and need. He was a high Lord and Judge, not a comforting, merciful Savior—at least not for many in the Church. The very thing the incarnation was to teach us about the Son of God had been replaced. Christ had been shoved up to the top of a grand hierarchy, almost beyond reach, needing himself mediators to bring grace to poor sinners.
Heaven was crammed with saints and the earth full of their relics. And these relics, they themselves had turned into portals of grace. So add them to the seven sacraments constantly buzzing in the ear of the faithful, creating anxiety over whether one was doing enough to get grace to be right with God. If Christ’s mediatorship was not fulsome enough, if the cross was only the first payment rather than the final payment, then you need a little help from Jesus’ friends: Mary and the Saints. Contrast that with the assurance we can sing of in the Gospel:
No power of hell, no scheme of man
Can ever pluck me from His hand
Till He returns or calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.
It was not until Luther could stand freely in Christ through the Good News of the Gospel, that he could take sweet solace in Christ—no longer seeing him as an active judge seeking recompense, but a generous savior who brings him into a family with brothers and sisters, calling in the Spirit on a merciful Father.
In the glorious Gospel we meet the Selfless Son who graciously meets us as our mediator, who has accomplished our salvation and reconciled us to God. Christ continues to meet us as we are united to him by the Spirit – he meets us where we are and fulfills us. You see it 500 years ago, you see it today: life can be wearying and troublesome, and we often feel empty. How does Jesus fill us and satisfy us? It starts with his call. Have you heard it? Do you hear it?
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).
Jesus says rest is found in Him. Jesus claims to have the capacity to fulfill the deepest longings, aspirations, and needs in our soul. We all, from the Fall, have a sense of emptiness and the world – and sometimes the church – promise all kinds of shiny things and shiny people will satisfy us. We indulge in sensual pleasure, we accumulate material things, we achieve great success, we try chemical stimulants, all seeking fulfillment. That’s what they promise. That’s why we chase after them. But we remain unfulfilled, empty, unsatisfied.
Our age is enamored with the self, but God created the self never to be an end. It cannot bear the load we seek to put on it. The self can only truly find itself by losing itself in the Son. Prior to his conversion, why was Luther so anxious even though he was such faithful a man of the Church? There was nothing there! Just because the church said grace was found in this place and that, doesn’t mean it was. Where do you go to find favor, grace, rest, today?
To the empty, hungry soul Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). In John 7:37-38, “If any man is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water.’” To the doubting, fearful, confused soul, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world; he who follows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12). To those weighed down by or enslaved to lies, whether their own or the world’s, Jesus says, “[In me] you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
Rest for the weary, bread for the hungry, water for the thirsty, light for the lost – Jesus promises all these in himself. He’s a big Savior who provides all in Himself. And only he can provide these because he is God, He has the resources of heaven, and he brought those to earth to give to all those who entrust themselves to him.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), I.xi.8.
 Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word (Grand Rapids, MI.: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), I.1.
 St. Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 158, Epistle 101.5.
 Calvin, Institutes, II.xvi.12.
 John Calvin, “Commentary on Colossians” in Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 21 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 145-146.
 The Letters of John Bradford, volume II: Containing Letters, Treatises, Remains (New York: Cosimo Classics, 1848-53), 161.
 Michael Reeves, The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2009), 18.
 Isaac Watts, “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed” (Hymn).
 Fred Sanders, “The Danger of Running a Spiritual Deficit” (February 26, 2012), The Gospel Coalition: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-danger-of-running-a-spiritual-deficit/
 Keith Getty and Stuart Townend, “In Christ Alone” (Hymn).