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A God of vast grace: let’s hear it for t

January 2010

2010 is a hugely significant anniversary for the Church of Scotland. 450 years ago this year, in 1560, John Knox and five friends wrote the Scots Confession and the reformed Church of Scotland was recognised by the Scottish Parliament.

The Reformation was many things but what lit it up and sent the citizens of Europe into the streets dancing was the rediscovery of the original, apostolic, Gospel of Jesus Christ. All that is best about Scottish distinctiveness flowed from that mighty work of God’s Spirit.

Would you look with me at Romans 3.19-31? All five elements of the Reformation genius are there, and all worth dying for, as some of the Reformers did. They are essential parts of the salvation which puts us in God’s favour and gives us our reason for living and our hope in dying.

1. Sola gratia: by grace alone. ‘We are justified freely, by God’s grace’ (v24). For two chapters Paul has been exposing our sin and guilt, stripping us of all self-righteousness. ‘None is righteous,’ he concludes, ‘not even one’ (v.10-20). Here we are, in other words, contaminated by our sinfulness and its outcomes in our behaviour and our guilt before God (v.19). What is the way to mercy, to forgiveness, to God’s smile? – why, the mere and miraculous grace of God! What a God.

2. Solo Christo: in Christ alone. This all happens through ‘God putting forward Jesus as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith, in his blood (= atoning death)’ (v. 25f). Why is a death needed? – because the wages of sin is death, and no other’s death is sufficient to expunge all guilt and present us, justified, to God. What God’s justice demanded, his love provided; it is awesome. The love is Christ’s, the death is Christ’s, our pardon and our new start are the achievement of our Lord Jesus alone. What a saviour.

3. Sola fidei: through faith alone. We aren’t required to earn our salvation, even if we could: ‘a person is justified by faith apart from keeping God’s Law’(v28). It destroys our pride, but it’s true: we contribute nothing to our salvation except the sin that makes it necessary. As Bonar wrote,

'Not what these hands have done
Can save this guilty soul …

… I bless the Christ of God,
I rest on life divine
and with unfaltering lip and heart
I call this Saviour mine'

Bonar hit Paul’s point exactly. Faith is to say ‘Jesus, Saviour, be my saviour’. Sola fidei: through faith alone. What a marvellous way.

4. Sola Scriptura: scripture alone (not human reason or church tradition) is the authority we turn to in order to know apostolic Christianity. We see this in v21: ‘to which the Law and the Prophets testify’. The Bible is the sceptre by which our Lord Jesus reigns over us: a safe, kind authority. We couldn’t, and wouldn’t, have dreamt up a salvation so totally of God’s grace, so devoid of our contribution.; what a message.

5. Soli Deo Gloria: to God alone the glory. As the catechism reminds us, that is what we are for: to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever. ‘Where then is boasting? It is excluded. There is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith’ (v.27ff). The glory is entirely God’s for our salvation. Have we made God’s honour our great vision and ambition?

E.T.Sibomana’s hymn finely captures the wonder of our God of grace:

O how the grace of God
amazes me!
It loosed me from my bonds
and set me free!
What made it happen so?
His own will, this much I know,
set me, as now I show,
at liberty.

Not for my righteousness,
for I have none,
but for his mercy’s sake
Jesus, God’s Son,
suffered on Calvary’s tree –
crucified with thieves was he –
great was his grace to me,
his wayward one.

Come now, the whole of me,
eyes, ears and voice,
join me, creation all,
with joyful noise;
praise him who broke the chain
holding me to sin’s domain,
and set me free again!
Sing and rejoice!

These five truths liberated Scotland from the real spiritual darkness of mediaeval Roman Catholicism into the dignity of the individual in Christ, the freedom of conscience in the Gospel, the renewal of moral energy in the Holy Spirit, the universal education, and the standing up for the weakest which have so marked the Scottish Church and influenced the Scottish character. All flow from the vast grace of God; let’s hear it for the Reformation!

Peter White

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