Solus Christus: Christ Alone!
Topic: Protestant Reformation Passage: John 3:16–3:18, 1 John 2:2, Romans 3:25, 1 Timothy 2:5–2:6
“THE 5 SOLAS OF THE REFORMATION
SOLUS CHRISTUS: CHRIST ALONE”
John 3:16-18, 1 John 2:2, Romans 3:25, 1 Timothy 2:5-6
The 18th-century French philosopher, Voltaire, once called history “the tricks we play on the dead.” What he implied is that interpretations of history are always subject to the perceptions of those who record it and those who later read it.
Perhaps more so in our day than in any other, history is being revised according to our contemporary perceptions and biases. The result is that it is difficult over time to know with certainty what really took place. Exposed to an aspect of history with which they are uncomfortable, many opt to simply expunge it from the historical narrative, remove all reminders of it, and hope that the next generation doesn’t catch on to what actually occurred. As if to say, “If we ignore it, maybe it will just go away.”
There is inherent danger in doing that. A century after Voltaire, another philosopher named George Santayana said, “Those who do not learn from the past are destined to repeat it.” In other words, there is always the need for the accurate portrayal of history and the learning of lessons both positive and negative. Try as we may, ours is not the task to bend and shape historical events into what we wish they were. It is what it was, and hopefully we will be the wiser for having learned from it.
Christians ought to recognize this more than others, because the entire Christian faith is founded upon an accurate historical record which dates back to the Garden of Eden where man’s sinful need was first exposed. The Reformers believed in that historical record, which is why they cried “Sola Scriptura”—“Scripture alone.” And it was through the historical narrative they held to that they rediscovered Jesus Christ—He and He alone—as being the only way to God. The New Testament clearly states that it was “in the fullness of time”—real historic time—that “God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, that He might redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).
If the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ did not occur historically, then there is no solid foundation upon which our faith rests. In words found elsewhere, we “are still in (our) sins” and are “most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:17 and 19).
The issue around which the 16th-century Protestant Reformation most centered was the question of soteriology, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:31). The Reformers answered, “By grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.” It was that word, “alone” (“sola”), which served as the line of demarcation between the Church of Rome and the Reformers. And, as history has demonstrated, that is still the case today.
This morning we will be looking at the second of the five “solas” of the Reformation, “Solus Christus,” by which the Reformers meant that God accomplished the salvation of believing sinners solely through the mediation of His Son. Specifically, the phrase “Christ alone” places emphasis upon the cross of Christ. Take away—or even diminish—the cross-work of Jesus and there is no true Christianity.
According to Roman Catholic theology, Jesus’ death on the cross did not fully and finally deal with the penalty of man’s sin. Instead, what it did was to provide grace, which might then be applied to the individual through the Church’s sacramental system—specifically the three sacraments of baptism, penance, and observing the mass. In fact, it has been and remains the official position of the Roman Catholic Church that an “anathema” is pronounced on anyone denying the efficacy of these sacraments as necessary for salvation.
The Reformers saw such a belief was unbiblical, for when Jesus breathed His last on the cross, He said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). The moment we begin adding anything to the completed work of Christ, it becomes null and void to us in terms of its ability to provide salvation. These men insisted that it was “Christ alone” who provided the full and final payment for sins through His death on the cross. It is not even our response to what Christ did on the cross that saves us, but what Christ has done. Faith and repentance are necessary, to be certain, but even those are gifts from God (cf. Ephesians 2:8 and 2 Timothy 2:25).
What we all need is what theologians refer to as an “alien righteousness,” meaning a righteousness that we cannot produce for ourselves. It must come from another source.
The one who understands the cross understands the Bible. To the extent that Christ and His cross are no longer central, every other Christian doctrine is diminished and reduced to whim and sentimentality. If you come to the Scriptures ultimately looking for anything other than Christ, then you’re basically coming to the Bible as a closed book. In John 5:39, Jesus asserted that it is the Scriptures that “bear witness” to Him. And as the disciples upon the Emmaus Road learned, “all the Scriptures” have Him as their subject (cf. Luke 24:27).
From Genesis through Revelation, the Bible tells the story of Jesus Christ. The most natural corollary, therefore, after declaring “Sola Scriptura,” is to proclaim “Solus Christus,” “Christ alone!” And there is no proclaiming Christ apart from the message of His cross. He and His finished work must be the object of our faith. Luther said, “Faith is no faith without an object, and the only saving faith is faith in the saving One.”
What drove the Reformers to declare that salvation was found in no one other than Jesus Christ was their recognition that His death completely satisfied the wrath of a holy God toward sinners, that it was a sufficient sacrifice for sin, that it and that He was the perfect substitute for those who could not pay the debt of sin they owed.
Let’s consider those three factors, taking them one at a time. In the first place, from the Scriptures, they saw that...
The cross of Christ was the complete satisfaction of God’s wrath (John 3:16-18).
The wrath of God is not a popular topic of conversation. Even in churches where the Scriptures are upheld as authoritative, it is a subject that tends to be avoided. And yet the Bible makes it abundantly clear that our sin separates us from God and brings with it eternal condemnation unless God’s wrath is turned away. In John 3:36, for example, we read that “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”
It is not that God is capricious or vengeful, but rather because He is perfectly holy and altogether righteous that sin must receive its just reward. As sinners, we have offended God’s character. To make “satisfaction” means “to make reparation for damage done”...“to make amends” or “to provide compensation,” if you will. In our case, the damage that has been done is to God’s law and God’s honor. We cannot understand the cross until we take God’s honor seriously. The sin which we tend to treat so lightly is an infinite offense by man against the holy and righteous character of God. If we are unable to comprehend the seriousness of sin, we will assume that all God needs to do is to forgive us. Indeed, we may even feel that He owes us forgiveness. But God’s holiness will not permit sin to go unpunished. To think otherwise is an offense to Him. There are no human conditions in which we should expect that God will simply forgive us as a matter of course.
Obviously, God can save us...and He must be the One who saves us. We cannot attain salvation for ourselves, since we are the ones who have rebelled against God in the first place. If anything is to be done to remove us from under the condemnation of God and provide us access to Him, then it would have to be achieved by that One whom God chose to stand in our place.
Most of us have known John 3:16 since we were children, but we must not separate it from verses 17 and 18, which give it context. The entire passage reads this way:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
As the foreordained hour of His arrest, trials, and crucifixion drew near, Jesus declared to His disciples, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The wrath of the Father would only be satisfied through the cross-work that the Son would accomplish. That exclusive claim was reinforced a few weeks later when one of those disciples (Peter) boldly asserted before a quickly-convened Jewish council of religious leaders, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
There is only One who ever walked this planet who was able to deal with man’s sin problem, and that was the Man who never sinned...God’s own Son, Jesus Christ.
The 11th-century theologian, Anselm, wrote that, “The debt of sin was so great that while man alone owed it, only God could pay it, so that the same person must be both man and God.” Without compromising His divine justice, it was out of God’s immense but inexplicable love that He designed and then carried out the atonement. It was the only way that God’s wrath would be assuaged.
Martin Luther understood this great truth and expressed it well when he wrote,
Since all of us, born in sin and God’s enemies, have earned nothing but eternal wrath and hell so that everything we are and do is damned, and there is no help or way of getting out of this predicament...therefore another man had to step into our place, namely Jesus Christ, God and man, and had to render satisfaction and make payment for sins through his suffering and death.
Such a discovery brought light out of the darkness. The wrath of God, which had hung like the sword of Damocles over the heads of men during medieval times, was removed with the realization that, in the words of the later hymn writer,
Jesus paid it all, All to Him I owe
Sin had left a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow.
Luther’s “Ninety-five Theses” signaled the beginning of the end for the Catholic “indulgence” system. The priests were no longer able to unquestioningly dangle promises of forgiveness and absolution before fearful and gullible worshipers. The Reformers showed that God’s wrath is satisfied only through the blood of His precious Son for believing sinners. And that is because...
The cross of Christ was the sufficient sacrifice for man’s sin (1 John 2:2, Romans 3:25).
The Lord had instructed the ancient Israelites that in order for God’s wrath to be satisfied, a blood sacrifice had to be offered. In preparation for the first Passover, where a spotless lamb was to be slain and the blood painted on the doorposts of their dwellings, God had said, “When I see the blood I will pass over you” (Exodus 12:13). Later on, He explained that “The life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls” (Leviticus 17:11). And then in the New Testament we read that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).
As with many other concepts, we have watered down the idea of “sacrifice” today. To us, going without dessert for a week is a great “sacrifice.” When the Bible speaks of “sacrifice,” it is generally within the context of there being an obligation that needs to be met or a debt that needs to be paid. Biblically, a sentence of death has been pronounced. Our sin has placed us at the mercy of God because it has incurred a debt we could never pay. There is no sacrifice that we could make that would satisfy the demands of a holy God and cause Him to act on our behalf.
If there was to ever be a sufficient sacrifice that could deal with our sin, then God Himself would have to be the One to provide it. Enter Jesus Christ, who at the very beginning of His public ministry was pointed out by John the Baptist as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Later on—years after Jesus had died on the cross, risen from the grave, and ascended back into heaven—Peter would affirm John’s testimony with these words: “Knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19).
The writer of Hebrews reminds us that, in contrast with the repeated sacrifices of the Old Testament Levitical system, Jesus Christ was offered “once” (cf. Hebrews 7:27 and 10:10) and that “by a single offering” (cf. Hebrews 10:14) He keeps safe those who are His.
Roman Catholic Church theology teaches that the Mass is “exactly the same sacrifice that Jesus Christ offered on the cross at Calvary.” Because of their doctrine of “transubstantiation,” they believe that the bread and the wine offered in the eucharistic sacrament of the Mass, “become in reality the body and blood of Jesus” when the priest pronounces the blessing. The most obvious and serious reason that this doctrine was rejected by the Reformers—and by us today—is that it is viewed as a perpetual “re-sacrificing” of Christ for our sins, or as a “re-offering” of His sacrifice. The testimony of the New Testament rather states, “Christ...suffered once for sins” (1 Peter 3:18).
In 1 John 2:2 we are told that Jesus is “the propitiation for our sins.” “Propitiation” (“‘ιλασμοs”) is a significant theological term. It means “atoning sacrifice.” Specifically within the context of salvation, it refers to the turning aside of God’s wrath. Among other places, that same word also appears in Romans 3:25, which the New International Version renders, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.” What this infers is that our sin has incurred God’s wrath and must be dealt with. And that is precisely what God has accomplished through Christ.
Regrettably, it is now in vogue to refer to the cross of Christ as “cosmic child abuse.” Scoffers insist that God would never punish His Son in such a way. If that is so, then one of two things is true: either God will save everyone in the end, or we are all left to face the consequences of our own sin.
God cannot ignore sin. His character demands that it must be punished. His wrath is real and must be dealt with. Because this is so, people in every age have reason to fear God. He loathes sin and must punish it. And while “propitiation” speaks of turning God’s wrath aside, it is never a case of human beings appeasing God’s wrath but rather of God Himself satisfying His own righteous demands through the death of His Son so that He is now free to act on behalf of believing sinners.
It is never “we” who take the initiative or make the sacrifice. It is God Himself, because of His great love for sinners...a characteristic that is not inconsistent with His wrath toward sin. It is He alone who provides the way by which His condemnation may be averted. Moreover, He is Himself that way. Through the sacrificial death of Jesus, God placates His own wrath against sin so that His love may be displayed toward those who call of His name.
The Church in medieval times did not preach this Gospel. Throughout the history of God’s people there has been an ebb and flow in the acceptance of God’s truth. Peering seven centuries into the future, Isaiah prophesied, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwell in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (Isaiah 9:12, cf. Matthew 4:16). There must have been a similar sense when after a thousand years of spiritual darkness, the Reformers rediscovered the amazing truth that salvation was “by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. “Solus Christus!”
The cross of Jesus satisfied the righteous demands of a holy God with respect to His wrath. The cross provided a perfect sacrifice for sinners who believed. But there was one more vital factor that the Reformers came to realize with regard to the cross of Christ. They, as well as we who now carry on their legacy, must see that...
The cross of Christ was the perfect substitution for sinner’s condemnation (1 Timothy 2:5-6).
What this means is that we need a mediator who will act on our behalf. It is through the mediation of the Lord Jesus Christ that the cross becomes personal for us. In 1 Timothy 2:5 and 6, we are told that “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”
This verse tells us that there is but one way to God. The role of a “mediator” (“μεσιτηs”) was to serve as a “negotiator” who helped two parties to bring about a transaction. He is one who stands “between” the two parties, in effect representing one to the other. Here we find a testimony to the priestly work of Christ. Just as He came to earth to reveal God to man (cf. John 1:18, Hebrews 1:1-3), so now stands as the “advocate” for believing sinners before God (cf. 1 John 2:1).
In one of his more memorable quotes, Martin Luther said, “If you...want to make atonement to (God) apart from Christ the Mediator, making your works...the mediation between Him and yourself, you will inevitably fall, as Lucifer did...and in horrible despair lose God and everything.”
The Englishman Thomas Bilney is at times referred to as “the forgotten Reformer.” At age 21, he discovered the truth of the Gospel from reading 1Timothy 1:15, which says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” He recognized that being right with God was not on account of anything done by him, but rather because of something done for him. When he began preaching the Gospel of “Christ alone,” churches closed their doors to him. So he was arrested, released, re-arrested, tried, and executed by being burned at the stake. The bishop of Norwich, who ordered and witnessed Bilney’s execution, later decried, “I fear I have burned Abel and let Cain go.”
Jesus bore the punishment of sin in our place, and it is because of this sin-bearing atonement that God is able to impute Christ’s righteousness to us. This is how we are justified. This, and this alone, is how we attain right-standing with God. The ancient church father Irenaeus stated with amazement and accuracy, “For the sake of infinite love He (Jesus) has become what we are in order that He may make us entirely what He is.”
The Apostle Paul put it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Charles Wesley captured that same thought in musical verse when he wrote,
Amazing love! How can it be
That Thou, my God, should die for me!
“For me!” we can hear Wesley exclaim. Indeed, Charles, for all who believe. Many passages of Scripture emphasize the fact that Jesus took the place of sinners when He died on the cross. Often the preposition “for” is used in this regard. That little word carries a big implication. At times it means “on behalf of” (“‘υπερ”), while at other times it means “in our place” (“αντι”). The difference can at times be subtle, but it is not insignificant.
Take for example Romans 5, verses 6 through 8, where we are reminded that “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for (‘υπερ) the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for (‘υπερ) a righteous person—though perhaps for (‘υπερ) a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for (‘υπερ) us” (Romans 5:6-8). Here we are told that Christ died “for us”...“on our behalf.”
But well before His death, Jesus had said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for (αντι) many” (Mark 10:45). Here the meaning is that He died “instead of us.” He literally “took our place.” As has often been said, Jesus lived the life that we could never live, and He died the death we should have died. Praise God!
When the Reformers declared “Solus Christus,” they insisted that it was through “Christ alone” and His death on the cross that the righteous demands of a holy God were met, so that He is now free to act in mercy and grace on behalf of believing sinners.
As we have seen, the cross satisfied the wrath of God. Not only is God perfectly holy, but He is the source and the pattern of holiness. Therefore, He cannot and will not compromise His holiness by treating sin lightly. If sin is to be forgiven at all, it must be on some basis that would vindicate the holy law of God. But man could never pay such a debt. God would have to do it, and such vindication must of necessity be supremely costly. In fact, it would come at a cost so immense that the angels of heaven would look on with amazement and redeemed sinners would be compelled to worship.
We also saw that the cross provided the sacrifice for man’s sin. It was at Calvary where this price was paid. Paid by God, and paid in full. The Father gave His only Son, the Son whom He dearly loved. And the Son gave Himself, bearing our sin and its curse.
And finally, we have seen that the cross served as a substitute for the sinner. Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice for sin in our stead. He suffered not only the physical agony of a brutal death, but the unthinkable spiritual horror of becoming identified with our sin and being separated from His eternal and perfect fellowship with the Father. Herein, God showed His infinite abhorrence of sin by being willing to suffer in the place of those who were guilty in order that He might justly forgive.
Can you see why God must one day pour out His wrath on those who reject Him? Do you understand how the rediscovery of “Solus Christus” lit a flame within the Reformers that must be stoked within each succeeding generation so that it is never again be reduced to smoldering embers.
Just three brief concluding points, from which I hope we will find practical application:
- First, the center of Christianity finds its focus at the cross and not at the manger. As much as we love celebrating the birth of Jesus, we must remember that the purpose of the Incarnation was to bring the “God-Man” into the world was so that He might, through His death, provide redemption for repentant sinners.
- Second, since the death of Christ is the true focal point of Christianity, there can be no Gospel apart from the cross. The life of Christ—as perfect as it was—is not the Gospel. Jesus did not come to set for us an example. Any so-called “gospel” that focuses on Jesus’ life and example, but minimizes the satisfactory, sacrificial, substitutionary work of Christ is a “partial gospel” at best and a “false gospel” at worst.
- And third, just as there can be no Gospel apart from Christ’s work on the cross, so there can be no Christian life without it. Apart from the cross, “religion” becomes a subtle form of self-deception, if not self-deification. Calling yourself a “Christian” does not make you one anymore than calling yourself a king or a queen grants you a kingdom. As the Reformers discovered and declared, unless you have been to the cross, you have never come to terms with the wrath of God, the awfulness of sin, or the fate that awaits those who attempt to come to God in any other way.
God the Creator stepped into human history in order to become the Redeemer, and, in doing so, to cause everything in His creation to glorify His name forever.
“I must listen to the Gospel,” so said Martin Luther. “It tells me not what I must do, but what Jesus Christ the Son of God has done for me.” “Solus Christus!” “Christ Alone!”
More in The Reformation at 500
October 15, 2017Sola Gratia: By Grace Alone!
October 1, 2017The 5 Solas of the Reformation - Sola Scriptura: Scripture Alone