As soon as the gold in the casket rings, the rescued soul to heaven springs.” Ever heard those words? They form one of the outrageous claims of the 16th century Roman Catholic cleric John Tetzel. Some people quote the last phrase in the claim as saying, “another soul from purgatory springs.” Tetzel was put in charge of raising money for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome through the sale of “indulgences,” and he became famous (better, infamous) for being good at the job. The wacky idea of indulgences is that a full or partial remission of the punishment of sins could be procured, even for dead people, by contributing money to the church. The teaching was popular, especially among the rich! To be fair, the official position of the Catholic church is that they never sanctioned indulgences. Sanctioned or not, Tetzel sold them. Ray Cavanaugh said Tezel was “peddling purgatory relief” (“Peddling purgatory relief: Johann Tetzel” @ nconline.org). The idea that forgiveness and grace could be bought and merited by human payment stirred the ire of Martin Luther who became the seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation. He rejected some teachings and practices of the Catholic church, and in particular disputed the sale of indulgences. Rejecting the idea sinners could earn or buy forgiveness, Luther taught that salvation is by “sola fide,” Latin for “faith alone.” So it is that phrase and the phrase “grace alone” have been around since Luther’s day in the early 1500’s. In our time preachers are heard saying, “We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, as revealed by Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone.”
But let’s hold our theological horses for a minute! Our tweety world loves to use cliches and sound bytes in an attempt to squeeze huge, vast ideas and subjects into a few catchy words, even in religion. The problem with that is well stated by David Servant in these words: “It isn’t easy, however, to summarize all that God has revealed about salvation in Scripture with four Latin words. In fact, it is impossible. That is one reason why God gave us an entire Bible, and not just four words” (“Grace Alone and Faith Alone: What is Wrong With the First Two Solas?” @ davidservant.com). The Bible is clear we are saved by grace (Romans 3:24) and justified by faith (Romans 5:1). But it never says we are saved by “grace alone” or “grace alone through faith alone.”
In Galatians 3:6-12 the apostle Paul affirms we are, indeed, children of Abraham, if we exercise the trusting, obedient faith he did, as opposed to believing we earn or merit salvation by perfect performance and rule keeping. The spectacle of God’s bloodied, battered Son on a cross is proof enough we could never do that. Add to that the words Servant said above, “God gave us an entire Bible.” It is most unwise to try and squeeze the Bible’s doctrine of how God saves into a few selected verses and words. The Bible says in Hebrews 11:8, “By faith Abraham obeyed …” (see James 2:21-24). Let us say what Scripture says in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” But let us also affirm what another inspired writer said at Hebrews 5:9 (speaking of Jesus): “He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him.” Bible writers stiffly opposed the idea sinners can ever earn or merit salvation. But they never taught we are saved by grace alone through faith alone. They taught that faith obeys God’s commands. We will teach that, too, if we teach what they taught.