Ninety-Five Theses (Free Bonus Chapter)

Ninety-Five Theses (Free Bonus Chapter)

Want a free bonus chapter from my book Know the Creeds and Councils? At the bottom of this post, there is link to download a PDF of a chapter on Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses that includes discussion questions and further reading.

Historical Background

If people know only one thing about the Protestant Reformation, it is the famous event when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of Wittenberg Chapel in protest against the Catholic Church. Within a few years of this event, the church had splintered into not just the church’s camp or Luther’s camp but also the camps of churches led by theologians of all different stripes.

Luther is known mostly for his teachings about scripture and justification. Regarding scripture, Luther argued that scripture alone (sola scriptura) is our ultimate authority for faith and practice. About justification, Luther taught that we are saved solely through faith in Jesus Christ because of God’s grace and Christ’s merit. We are neither saved by our merits nor declared righteous by our good works. Additionally, we need to fully trust in God to save us from our sins, rather than partly relying on our own self-improvement. 


These teachings were radical departures from the Catholic orthodoxy of Luther’s day. But you might be surprised to learn that the Ninety-Five Theses, even though it was the document that sparked the Reformation, was not about these issues. Instead, Luther objected to the fact that the Catholic Church was offering to sell certificates of forgiveness, and that by doing so, it was substituting a false hope—that forgiveness can be earned or purchased—for the true hope of the gospel—that we receive forgiveness according to the riches of God’s grace.

The Roman Catholic Church claimed that it had been placed in charge of a “treasury of merits” of all of the good deeds that saints had done (not to mention the deeds of Christ, who made the treasury infinitely deep). For those who were trapped by their own sinfulness, the church could write a certificate transferring some of the merits of the saints to the sinner. The catch? These “indulgences” had a price tag.

This much needs to be understood to make sense of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses: the selling of indulgences for full remission of sins intersected perfectly with the intense struggle Martin Luther had experienced regarding salvation and assurance for many years. And it is at this point of collision between one man’s hope in the gospel and the Catholic Church’s denial of that hope that the Ninety-Five Theses can be properly understood.

Content of the Ninety-Five Theses

Luther’s official response to indulgences came in the form of an academic document that he addressed to the local archbishop, who happened to be the same Albert of Mainz who had authorized the campaign. Significantly, Luther penned his grievance—titled “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” but known to posterity as the Ninety-Five Theses—in Latin rather than in the common vernacular. That fact combined with the intended audience and the largely academic tone of the writing indicates that Luther did not write his document for mass consumption. Rather, he intended it to spark a scholarly debate. Regardless, the document was translated into the common Germanic language of Saxony and was reportedly posted on the door of the Schlosskirche (the Castle Church of Wittenberg) on October 31, 1517.

Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses focuses on three main issues: selling forgiveness (via indulgences) to build a cathedral, the pope’s claimed power to distribute forgiveness, and the damage indulgences caused to grieving sinners. That his concern was pastoral (rather than trying to push a private agenda) is apparent from the document. He did not believe (at this point) that indulgences were altogether a bad idea; rather, he believed that they were misleading Christians regarding their spiritual state:

 41. Papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love.

 As well as their duty to others:

 43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.

 44. Because love grows by works of love, man thereby becomes better. Man does not, however, become better by means of indulgences but is merely freed from penalties. [Notice that Luther is not yet wholly against the theology of indulgences.]

 And even financial well-being:

46. Christians are to be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they must reserve enough for their family needs and by no means squander it on indulgences.

 Luther’s attitude toward the pope in this document is also surprisingly ambivalent. In later years, he called the pope “the Antichrist” and burned his writings, but here his tone is merely cautionary, hoping the pope will come to his senses. For instance, in this passage he appears to be defending the pope against detractors, albeit in a backhanded way:

51. Christians are to be taught that the pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money.

Obviously, since Leo X had begun the indulgences campaign in order to build the basilica, he did not “wish to give of his own money” to Tetzel’s victims. However, Luther phrased his criticism to suggest that the pope might be ignorant of the abuses and at any rate should be given the benefit of the doubt. It provided Leo a graceful exit from the indulgences campaign if he wished to take it.

So what made this document so controversial? Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses hit a nerve in the depths of the authority structure of the medieval church. Luther was calling the pope and those in power to repent—on no authority but the convictions he had gained from Scripture—and urged the leaders of the indulgences movement to direct their gaze to Christ, the only one who is able to pay the penalty due for sin.

Of all the portions of the document, Luther’s closing is perhaps the most memorable for its exhortation to look to Christ rather than to the power of the church:

92. Away, then, with those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “Peace, peace,” where in there is no peace.

93. Hail, hail to all those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “The cross, the cross,” where there is no cross.

94. Christians should be exhorted to be zealous to follow Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hells.

95. And let them thus be more confident of entering heaven through many tribulations rather than through a false assurance of peace.

In the years following his initial posting of the Theses, Luther became emboldened in his resolve, strengthening his arguments with Scripture. At the same time, the church became more and more uncomfortable with the radical Luther, and in the following decades, the spark that he made grew into a flame of reformation that spread across Europe. Luther was ordered by the church to recant in 1520 and was eventually exiled in 1521.


Although the Ninety-Five Theses does not explicitly lay out a Protestant theology or agenda, it contains the seeds of the most important beliefs of the movement, especially the priority of understanding and applying the gospel. Luther developed his critique of the Catholic Church out of his struggle with doubt and guilt as well as his pastoral concern for his parishioners. Luther longed for the hope and security that only the gospel can bring, and he was frustrated with the structures that were using Christ to take advantage of people and prevent them from union with God. Furthermore, Luther’s focus on the teaching of the Bible is significant, because it provided the foundation upon which the great doctrines of the Reformation found their origin.

Indeed, Luther developed a robust notion of justification by faith and rejected even the notion of purgatory as unbiblical; he argued that indulgences and even hierarchical penance cannot lead to salvation; and perhaps most notable, he rebelled against the authority of the pope. All of these critiques were driven by Luther’s commitment, above all else, to Christ and the Scriptures that testify about him.

The courage and outspokenness that Luther demonstrated in writing and publishing the Ninety-Five Theses also spread to other influential leaders of the young Protestant Reformation.

Today, the Ninety-Five Theses may stand as the most well-known document from the Reformation era. Luther’s courage and his willingness to confront what he deemed to be clear error is just as important today as it was then. One of the greatest ways in which Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses affect us today—in addition to the wonderful inheritance of the five Reformation solas—is that it calls us to thoroughly examine the inherited practices of the church against the standard set forth in the Scriptures. Luther saw an abuse, was not afraid to address it, and was exiled as a result of his faithfulness to the Bible in the midst of harsh opposition.


For more on Ninety-Five These, download this free bonus chapter from Justin S. Holcomb, Know the Creeds and Councils (Zondervan, 2014).

What Does Jesus’ Resurrection Have to Do with Me?

What Does Jesus’ Resurrection Have to Do with Me?

The cross is God’s gracious response to our own sinful and willful irresponsibility, choices, and actions. We sin. We are perpetrators of evil—and this separates us from God. It is this aspect of sin that has been dealt with by the vicarious sacrifice of the atonement.

But we are also victims of sin. We have enemies who harm us. We are victims who have been sinned against in numerous ways. Because of sins done to us, we are also captive, held in bondage by powers in some sense external to us and greater than we are. Or we may be held in bondage to our own desires or fears, our self-centeredness or despair. Sometimes the Bible describes the human problem as suffering, being in bondage, slavery, or captivity, each and all of which separate us from God.

What we need in this regard is for God to fight on our behalf, against our enemy, for our freedom from bondage. This is what God did in the Exodus for his people. The clearest and most powerful manifestation of God doing this for us is Christ’s victory over death in the resurrection (Eph. 1:19–20). In this victory over principalities, powers, and death, the Son reclaims creation for the Father and freedom for you. “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:15)

In answering the question, “How does Christ’s resurrection benefit us?” the Heidelberg Catechismanswers: “First, by his resurrection he has overcome death, so that he might make us share in the righteousness he won for us by his death. Second, by his power we too are already now resurrected to a new life. Third, Christ’s resurrection is a guarantee of our glorious resurrection.”

God accomplished redemption in Christ’s victory over sin and death, but the effects of that victory have yet to be fully realized. So while the ultimate outcome has been assured (Rom. 8:18–211 Cor. 15:51–57; Revelation 21), the struggle between life and death, good and evil, continues. However, the shalom (i.e. peace in its fullest sense), freedom, and rest of redemption will one day be fully realized when Jesus returns.

Jesus was physically raised from death as “the firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18), securing a future resurrection like his own for all those who are united to him through faith. Through his triumphant resurrection, Jesus opened the way for us to experience resurrection and eternal life in the new earth when he returns instead of the death we deserve.

Christ’s victory gives us back our identity and restores our meaning. We recognize, and may truly know for the first time, that we have a future that ends in peace, as well as a past that can be healed and forgiven, and now live in the hope of the gospel. Christ opens up for us a new identity because he himself remained always true to his identity, a share of which he offers to us.

In Christ’s victory, fear and shame are banished, to be replaced by profound joy that we are no longer strangers to God and to one another, that we are no longer so utterly isolated and alone.

Adapted from On the Grace of God

The Work of Christ: A Q&A with R.C. Sproul

The Work of Christ: A Q&A with R.C. Sproul

Dr. R.C. Sproul is the founder of Ligonier Ministries, the author of more than 70 books, and a beloved Bible teacher, pastor, and scholar. He was also my seminary professor at Reformed Theological Seminary. Dr. Sproul recently wrote a new book, The Work of Christ: What the Events of Jesus’ Life Mean for You, and I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about it.

Justin Holcomb: Is it helpful to distinguish between the person of Christ and the work of Christ? Why or why not?

R.C. Sproul: This distinction is not one that I make. It’s one that’s been made classically, and there’s a reason for it. In order to understand the significance of everything that Jesus did, his work, we have to understand who Jesus is. To understand who Jesus is, we have to look at what he did. So there’s a symbiotic interaction, an interconnection between who Jesus is and what Jesus did. We distinguish them, but we can never separate them because it’s the same Jesus who did what he did and who is what he is.

JH: In the book, you describe Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism as the most important text in the New Testament for defining the work of Jesus (p. 74). Why is Jesus’ baptism so important, and why does it matter for our salvation?

RS: It’s so important because, first of all, it was when his public ministry began, when he was ordained as the Messiah. He was anointed at his baptism by the Holy Ghost coming down from heaven, and his baptism itself showed his ministry of taking upon himself, in his human nature, all of the obligations given by the law of God to the people of Israel. You remember that John the Baptist was reluctant to perform the baptism of Jesus since it was for repentance of sin. Jesus has no sin, and John knew that. He tried to stop Jesus.

Jesus said, “No, wait. It’s necessary. I have to do this.” In his baptism, he was identifying with his fallen people that he had come to redeem and taking upon himself the whole weight of the demands of the law as the new Adam.

JH: Jesus Christ lived a life of perfect obedience to God the Father. You distinguish the active obedience of Christ from the passive obedience of Christ. Why is this distinction necessary, and why do you think it has been neglected?

RS: First of all, let me be quick to say that this distinction, again, does not originate with me. There’s a classic distinction in theology between the active obedience and the passive obedience. Here’s what it gets at.

The passive obedience of Jesus describes the work that he did to take upon himself the punishment due to us for our sin. Jesus was like the lamb led to the slaughter: he passively allowed himself to be killed and to be crucified and to have our sin imputed to him. All true Christians will certainly grant that Christ bore our sins for us, and that his work on the cross was the work of obedience.

“One issue came up that the Protestants and Catholics could not agree on . . .”

Remember, in the garden of Gethsemane, he asked that the cup be removed, but he said, “Not my will, but thine, be done.” Jesus passively obeyed that mandate and went to the cross. Without the cross and without the imputation of our sin to Christ, there’s no salvation for us, and Christianity is nothing but moral suggestions.

In distinction from that, we talk about his active obedience. To understand the importance of that, let’s realize that the cross achieves and the atonement effects for us the removal of our sin. And the removal of our sin makes us innocent before God. It puts us in the position that Adam was before the fall. But for Adam to inherit the kingdom, he not only had to be innocent, he had to be righteous.

So again, to obtain the goal of saving us, the Savior had to not only take away the guilt of the people he was trying to save; he also had to provide for them the positive righteousness that God required in order to be saved. As the new Adam, Christ succeeded where Adam failed. By one man’s disobedience, death came into the world. By another man’s obedience came life and salvation. The active obedience of Jesus has to do with Jesus’ living a life of perfect obedience to the commands of God and achieving, in himself, perfect righteousness, which righteousness is the grounds for our justification. His righteousness imputed to us covers us and gives us the righteousness that God requires for us to be saved.

“. . . the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to believers as the grounds for our justification.”

This whole idea of imputation has been coming under attack in recent decades, partly because of what happened in the Evangelicals & Catholics Together (ECT) discussion. If you go back to the 16th century after the Reformation, after the split, there was an enormous effort to heal that breach. Significant discussions between leaders of the Reformation, the Protestants, and leaders of the Roman church were held. They came together to try to resolve their differences. There was a point at the Regensburg meeting when many thought the breach was resolved and healed and it was going to be okay, but then one issue came up that they could not agree on: that was the issue of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to believers as the grounds for our justification. The Roman Catholic Church insisted then and insists now that the only way God will declare a person righteous is if righteousness inheres within him. The Bible and the Reformers teach no, the only way God ever declares us righteous is by imputing to us righteousness that is not inherently ours. Martin Luther called it a foreign righteous. He stated that it is an alien righteousness that is outside of us. It is the righteousness of Christ, which is accomplished through his perfect obedience.

“Our whole salvation is linked to what Jesus spoke of [during] the Lord’s Supper.”

So you have people now who want to keep this rapprochement with Rome, who want the Protestants to drop the imputed righteousness or the perfect active obedience. There are also certain dispensationalists who don’t like the doctrine of the active obedience of Christ because it’s so closely related to the idea of the covenant. Adam was in a covenant with God that we call that the covenant of works. It can be fulfilled only by somebody performing those good works. We say we’re justified by faith alone. That’s the graciousness of the covenant. But the point is that the demands of the law, the works that are required, are graciously provided for us by the active obedience of Jesus.

If you don’t like or don’t believe in a covenant of works, then you don’t like the whole concept of Christ’s active obedience. So, from that circle among evangelicals, we’ve had strong, sometimes fierce, attacks on the active obedience of Jesus in recent years. I think it’s a great tragedy.

JH: In the book you note that when Jesus held the Last Supper, he was taking the Old Testament liturgy of the Passover and transforming it. What do you think is the significance of this for our understanding of Jesus and for how we celebrate the Lord’s Supper?

RS: Clearly the Lord’s Supper was instituted in the context of an Old Testament liturgy. Jesus met with his disciples to celebrate the Passover, and he changed the liturgy of the Passover. This is where the church was born and the new covenant was instituted because Jesus instituted a new covenant in his blood. That new covenant was not a radical split from the old. It was the fulfillment of the old.

Jesus is the Passover Lamb. It’s his blood that gives the atonement, not the blood of bulls and goats, and it is his blood that keeps us from the avenging angel of death, that is, the blood of the lamb that we now have on our doorposts. Jesus is the perfect fulfillment of the historic Passover and the whole system of redemption in the Old Testament. That’s why he said this is a new covenant “my blood . . . which is shed for many for the remission of sins.”

“Without the resurrection, the mission of Jesus would have been a failure.”

I think that the new covenant was instituted with that declaration, and it was ratified the next day with the pouring out of that blood in Jesus’ atoning death. It is extremely important for us to understand that our whole salvation is linked to what Jesus spoke of in the upper room when he instituted the Lord’s Supper.

JH: Why was Jesus’ resurrection necessary for his mission? And what does it mean for our future?

RS: Again, Jesus’ mission was to save his people. The New Testament tells us he was raised for our justification. What does that mean? Obviously, if Jesus died on the cross and stayed dead, there’s no reason to believe that his atoning sacrifice was acceptable to God. But God’s message with the resurrection is that God declares him to be the Just One, the Holy One, the One who is our Redeemer. So without the resurrection, the mission of Jesus would have been a failure.

JH: This book comes as a continuation of a long and fruitful writing and ministry career for you. What do you believe is the most important book you’ve written? What issues do you believe need to be addressed by the next generation of Christians?

RS: You know, I don’t know which is the most important. I keep coming back to The Holiness of God. I also think that Faith Alone is an important book, and The Truth of the Cross. Different books are important for different reasons. When I write in apologetics, that has a certain kind of importance that is different from when I write in theology. So, it’s hard for me to say.

JH: What other books do you recommend for those who want to dig deeper into the work of Christ?

RS: Well, there’s been work done by David Wells at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary on the work of Christ. G. C. Berkouwer, my own mentor in my doctoral studies, has two volumes, The Person of Christ and The Work of Christ, both of which, I think, are extremely important and are two of the better works in his career. I recommend those.

JH: Thank you for serving the church by writing this book. I hope many readers will get it and benefit from it as they continually look toward the work of Christ for their hope and assurance.

Dr. Sproul’s new book is called The Work of Christ: What the Events of Jesus’ Life Mean for You.

God The Rescuer

God The Rescuer

“Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.” Exodus 14:21–22

The Exodus from Egypt and the journey to the Promised Land is the great story of deliverance in Jewish history. This passage recounts the parting of the Red Sea, when God miraculously opened the way for the Israelites to escape from the pursuing Egyptian army. It reveals God showing up to rescue his people in the middle of pain, insecurity, and confusion.

For thousands of years now, Jews have remembered and celebrated how God took them from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. The Psalms celebrate this deliverance: “Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man. He turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot. There did we rejoice in him” (Psalm 66:5–6). At a crucial moment, on their way out of Egypt and to the Promised Land, God divided the Red Sea so the Israelites could avoid being slaughtered by the Egyptian army. If God had not provided, they would all have died.

For Christians, the Exodus foreshadows the ultimate story of deliverance. It points to the death of Jesus on a cross. We look back at the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the work of God on our behalf. The Exodus and the ministry of Jesus tell us that God is a God of those in need, that God brings life and flourishing where death and destruction try to reign. The Exodus and the cross tell us that God’s nature is to rescue us. God comes near to us—down here in the thick of our fear and suffering.

There is no work we can do in exchange for this rescue. It is undeserved and unearned. The psalmist is highlighting the mighty works of God on our behalf, and now we see this fulfilled in Christ. Jesus did the work we couldn’t do, on our behalf. We couldn’t be good enough. We couldn’t fulfill the righteousness required by the Law. So God, in the person of Jesus, did the work we couldn’t do for us. God attributed Jesus’ work as our work. God exchanged our sin for Jesus’ righteousness. The work of God on our behalf is the best news possible to those under threat of destruction. God is our rescuer.

Jesus and the Day of Atonement

Jesus and the Day of Atonement

[The priest] shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull’s blood: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it. In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been. . . .

When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness. . . . The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place; and the man shall release it in the wilderness.

Leviticus 16:15–16, 20–22 NIV

The priestly rituals described here were done on the most important day of Israel’s year: the Day of Atonement. And it is no coincidence that the word “atonement” (often translated as “propitiation”) is used throughout the New Testament for what Jesus did by dying on the cross. It is safe to say that these goats are a foreshadowing of the cross.

The scapegoat achieves purity and cleanliness for the people.

The first goat was sacrificed as a sin offering to God on behalf of the people. The second goat was presented alive before God, where the priest confessed all the sins of the people, symbolically placed them on the goat’s head, and then sent it out to the desert as a “scapegoat,” taking the sins of the people with it. The first goat deals with wrath: the slaughtered goat diverts the wrath of God from the people to the goat. The second goat deals with shame and guilt: the scapegoat achieves purity and cleanliness for the people by removing their sin far away.

Whatever Our Sins

The first sacrifice was for “whatever their sins have been.” This means everything—your dark secrets that only you know, the ones that you are too ashamed to tell anyone, the embarrassing sins, and the reoccurring sins. Four times, in the context of the second goat, the chapter refers to “all” the Israelites’ transgressions and sins—every last one of them, especially the shameful ones.

How can you know that God loves you? Not by just “feeling it.”

The Bible speaks of sins we’ve committed and sins committed against us by using words like “defiled”—which means filthy, unclean, dirty, and shameful. Many of us have a sense of defilement, and the consequence is feeling shame and judgment.

The Cross Tells Us So

So how can you know that God loves you? Not by just “feeling it” or because you’re inherently lovable. You know God loves you because Jesus was the fulfillment of the sacrificial goats. The cross tells you that God loves you and how God loves you—he willingly died for you to make you clean. The love of God is not sentimental or weak; it is effective, it redeems, it embraces, it renews. It is a courageous, restoring, transforming love. The cross expresses the love of God.

God calls you pure, clean, and without blemish.

Because of the cross, you can be fully exposed, because God no longer identifies you by what you have done or by what has been done to you. The cross is for whatever your sins may have been, what they are, and what they will be—all of them. You are forgiven. You have been made new. Now God calls you pure, clean, and without blemish.

We Need Rescue, Not Just Advice: Machen on Salvation

We Need Rescue, Not Just Advice: Machen on Salvation

This is the sixth installment in our seven-part series based on J. Gresham Machen’s seminal work, Christianity and Liberalism (1923). In the book, still relevant almost a century later, Machen contrasts the modernist theological liberalism of his day with biblical Christianity. In this post we see how theological liberalism and Christianity have completely different hopes for salvation.

J. Gresham Machen shows us that liberalism’s view of salvation is human-centered, while Christianity is God-centered. Liberalism thinks that human nature inherently has the resources for our own salvation, but Christianity teaches that the resources for salvation only come from God’s supernatural act of redemption through the atonement of Jesus.

Belief in the substitutionary atoning work of Jesus on the cross in the place of sinners is criticized by modern naturalistic liberalism. Instead, the death of Christ is seen as an example of self-sacrifice, as a picture of God’s hatred of sin, or as a display of God’s love, but not as the propitiatory substitution of Jesus in our place, for our sins. Aside from viewing substitutionary atonement with disgust, liberalism criticizes salvation by the cross of Christ because it is dependent upon history, makes for a “narrow” and “exclusive” religion, and seems to challenge the character of a God of love.

All sin at bottom is a sin against God. (p. 130)

Four Objections

Machen answers liberalism’s objections in several ways. First, Christianity is dependent upon history because the good news of the gospel is rooted in the historic event of the death and resurrection of Christ, not mysticism. The good news of the gospel announces that this event has ushered in a new age for the world, and that God has redeemed sinners. Second, Christian salvation has always been centered on devotion to Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation.

Third, Christian salvation is consistent with the attributes of God. Jesus’ love and the Father’s wrath do not separate the triune God. The Father and Jesus are both angry at sin: the Father is a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24), and Jesus grabs a whip to rid his temple of corrupt moneychangers (Matt. 21:12–13). Machen shows the falsehood of the common caricature of the angry Father taking it out on the innocent Son, because it is God himself who pays the penalty he requires: “God himself in the person of the Son who assumed our nature and died for us, God himself in the person of the Father who spared not his own Son but offered him up for us all” (p. 132).

Fourth, the New Testament says that Jesus died not merely as a martyr, but as the divine Son of God who is able to bear the sins of others and who willingly chose to die for us (John 10:18).

The New Testament does not end with the death of Christ; it does not end with the triumphant words of Jesus on the Cross, “It is finished.” The death was followed by the resurrection, and the resurrection like the death was for our sakes. Jesus rose from the dead into a new life of glory and power, and into that life he brings those for whom he died. (p. 114)

Redemption is applied to us through the creative act of God by the Holy Spirit in the new birth. This is necessary because humans are not innately good (as liberalism assumes), but dead in sins, in need of regeneration and God’s life-giving grace. People must have faith, but faith itself is a gift to be received from God, not a work to be done by us (Eph. 2:8). Instead of liberating humanity, in reality liberalism denies the freedom it promises, which is only found in the liberating grace of God.

Much More than a Means

Liberalism offers a social salvation that believes religion is a means to some greater goal, like more socially conscious institutions and healthier communities. Biblical Christianity is not less, but much more than that. It does not withdraw from the world, but seeks the welfare of the world. Most importantly, it seeks the welfare of the world by calling people to repent of their sin and accept the reconciling work of God in the death of Jesus for them.

Christianity will indeed accomplish many useful things in this world, but if it is accepted in order to accomplish those useful things it is not Christianity. (p. 152)

The message of Christianity is not primarily about religious virtues, but the message that God has acted in history on behalf of sinful humanity to reconcile us to God. This reconciliation then brings freedom to live a life of love toward God and others. God does not exist primarily for our sake; we exist for the sake of God. Salvation is not found in a way of life, but through faith in the act of God in Jesus Christ.

In the next and final post, we’ll see how Machen shows that Christianity and liberalism have incompatible visions for the church. 



Read the book for free online or listen to it as a free audiobook.


The Five Solas of the Reformation

The Five Solas of the Reformation

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century changed Christianity forever. Roused to action by the corruption and abuses they saw in the Roman Catholic church of the time, visionary pastors and leaders like Martin Luther and John Calvin spearheaded a movement that transformed Christianity and eventually led to the emergence of the Protestant denominations that exist today.

The Reformers were guided by the conviction that the church of their day had drifted away from the essential, original teachings of Christianity, especially in regard to what it was teaching about salvation—how people can be forgiven of sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and receive eternal life with God. The Reformation sought to re-orient Christianity on the original message of Jesus and the early church.

The Five Solas are five Latin phrases (or slogans) that emerged during the Reformation to summarize the Reformers’ theological convictions about the essentials of Christianity.

The Five Solas are:

  1. Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”): The Bible alone is our highest authority.
  2. Sola Fide (“faith alone”): We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ.
  3. Sola Gratia (“grace alone”): We are saved by the grace of God alone.
  4. Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Savior, and King.
  5. Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”): We live for the glory of God alone.

Let’s have a brief look at each of these five statements.


The Scriptures are our ultimate and trustworthy authority for faith and practice. This doesn’t mean that the Bible is the only place where truth is found, but it does mean that everything else we learn about God and his world, and all other authorities, should be interpreted in light of Scripture. The Bible gives us everything we need for our theology.

Every word of the 66 books of the Bible is inspired by God’s Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit also helps us to understand and obey Scripture.

When rightly interpreted, the Bible is about Jesus Christ and his role as God and Savior. Additionally, Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.


We are saved solely through faith in Jesus Christ because of God’s grace and Christ’s merit alone. We are not saved by our merits or declared righteous by our good works. God grants salvation not because of the good things we do, and despite our sin.

As humans, we inherited (from our ancestor Adam) a nature that is enslaved to sin. Because of our nature, we are naturally enemies of God and lovers of evil. We need to be made alive (regenerated) so that we can even have faith in Christ. God graciously chooses to give us new hearts so that we trust in Christ and are saved through faith alone.

God graciously preserves us and keeps us. When we are faithless toward him, he is still faithful.

We can only stand before God by his grace as he mercifully attributes to us the righteousness of Jesus Christ and attributes to him the consequences of our sins. Jesus’ life of perfect righteousness is counted as ours, and our records of sin and failure were counted to Jesus when he died on the cross.

Sola fide and sola gratia express the teaching of Ephesians 2:8-10:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”


God has given the ultimate revelation of himself to us by sending Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Only through God’s gracious self-revelation in Jesus do we come to a saving and transforming knowledge of God.

Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and humanity. Because God is holy and all humans are sinful and sinners, we need a Savior who mediates between us and God. Neither religious rituals nor good works mediate between us and God. There is no other name by which a person can be saved other than the name of Jesus. Jesus intercedes on our behalf, and his sacrificial death alone can atone for sin.



Glory belongs to God alone. God’s glory is the central motivation for salvation, not improving the lives of people—though that is a wonderful by product. God is not a means to an end—he is the means and the end.

The goal of all of life is to give glory to God alone: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). As The Westminster Catechism says, the chief purpose of human life is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

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How Good Is Good Enough?

How Good Is Good Enough?

“A person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” Galatians 2:16

How good is good enough to be saved? Are you good enough? This verse answers those questions.

Let’s briefly define “justified.” It’s a very important word. It means “counted righteous” or “to be declared righteous before God,” that is, to enjoy a status of being in a right relationship with God, to be accepted by him.

This verse tells us that it is impossible to be good enough to be considered right with God. Paul’s point is that while the law is good, it is totally inadequate as a means of salvation (Romans 3:19–20). That’s because the law cannot generate what it commands. No law exists that provides the power to follow what it demands. The law does not deliver what it mandates.

The grammar of this verse highlights the difference between the two options: not by doing what the law demands but through faith in Jesus Christ. Negatively, we are incapable of any kind of self-justification. Positively, we stand before God empty-handed, depending on Christ’s righteousness given to us and his death on the cross as our substitute.


The law shows us our sinfulness and our need for Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection to deal with our unrighteousness. From Jesus Christ “we have all received grace upon grace” (John 1:16). We are saved solely through faith in Jesus Christ because of God’s grace and Christ’s merit alone. We are neither saved by our merits nor declared righteous by our works. We do not deserve grace, or else it wouldn’t be grace. This means that God grants salvation not because of the good things we do, or even our faith—and despite our sin.

“Faith in Jesus Christ” is key to our being right with God. But what is faith? J. Gresham Machen defines it like this:

Faith means not doing something but receiving something; it means not the earning of a reward but the acceptance of a gift. A man can never be said to obtain a thing for himself if he obtains it by faith; indeed to say that he does not obtain it for himself but permits another to obtain it for him. Faith, in other words, is not active but passive; and to say that we are saved by faith is to say that we do not save ourselves but are saved only by the one in whom our faith is reposed; the faith of man presupposes the sovereign grace of God.

This is the ring of liberation in the Christian proclamation. If our salvation is not grace all the way then we will spend our lifetimes wondering if we have done enough to get that total acceptance for which we desperately long: “I said the prayer, but did I say it passionately enough?” “I repented, but was it sincere enough?”

It’s not about how sincere we are. We are justified by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. In justification, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us as the only possible satisfaction of God’s perfect justice. Justification does not rest on any merit in us.

Faith in Christ puts our hope exactly where it should be: in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The Day Jesus Died

The Day Jesus Died

The day that Jesus died—the day we remember as Good Friday—goes down in the history of the world as a day of great suffering, when Jesus Christ endured the weight of sin and shame on our behalf. As we remember what it cost him to reconcile us to himself on this day, it is worth walking through what Jesus endured that day.


The Bible records that after being arrested, put on trial, falsely accused, spit on, and beaten, Jesus was handed over to be scourged, or whipped, in accordance with the Roman custom of scourging a condemned criminal before execution. The Roman scourge was a short whip called a flagrum made of a wooden handle connected to a few strips of leather or rope, with pieces of metal knotted along the strips. The condemned person was stripped naked (or nearly so), stretched out and tied down so as to leave the neck, shoulders, back, buttocks, and legs completely exposed, and lashed repeatedly with the scourges.

This flogging was so severe that often the victims were killed, though the goal was to inflict as much pain as possible while keeping the criminal alive for the execution later. Jesus would have emerged from the scourging with deep lacerations, exposed muscle, covered in blood, and half-dead—already fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah that the Suffering Servant would be marred beyond human recognition (Isa. 52:14).

Sin is not just some misdeeds here or there. Sin is an autonomous, enslaving power.

Next Jesus was given a crown of thorns and forced to carry the heavy crossbar that he would soon die on. It would have weighed more than a hundred pounds, and it was laid across his traumatized back to carry to the place of the execution.

At the place of crucifixion, Jesus had large 5- to 7-inch nails driven through his hands and feet to secure him to the cross. Crucifixion victims would often die from asphyxiation because in their weakened state, they would slouch down on the cross, keeping air from reaching the lungs. They would pass in and out of consciousness, pushing themselves back up on the nails to get enough oxygen to stay conscious.

Jesus was on the cross enduring this for roughly six hours, while his family, friends, and enemies stood around watching him as he was utterly exposed, shamed, and tortured. At around 3 p.m. in the afternoon, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Soon after this, he declared, “It is finished,” and called out, again with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” before he breathed his last breath.

Later the Roman soldiers came to ensure that all the crucifixion victims were dead. Jesus was so obviously dead that instead of breaking his legs as they normally did, the guards jabbed a spear into his side, piercing his lungs and heart so that blood and fluid poured out. There was no question that Jesus had truly died.


As terrible as the physical pain Jesus endured was, the emotional and spiritual suffering must have been even greater. In the lead-up to his crucifixion, he experienced betrayal by his friends, false accusations, mockery, and the shame of being exposed naked in front of his family, disciples, and worst enemies.

And far beyond all this, he endured the full weight of the wrath of God against the sin of the human race. It was the reason he came into the world (1 Tim. 1:15).

Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” is known as the Cry of Dereliction. It shows his intensity of suffering and his radical vulnerability.

Scripture tells us that everyone who does not follow the law of God perfectly is under a curse (Gal. 3:10–14). Sin is the cause of this curse. Sin is not just some misdeeds here or there. Sin is an autonomous, enslaving power. Romans 3:10 tells us, “None is righteous.” There is no distinction because all have sinned.

Christ became cursed for us. In his death, Jesus takes the part of all those who suffer from the curses of others and the curse of their own sin. On the cross, Jesus voluntarily and willingly bowed his head under the penalty for sin and the curse of God. The Father did not do this to the Son; the Son and the Father did this together. God submitted to God’s own wrath.

Fleming Rutledge makes the point that no other form of execution would have reflected the enormity of the dark powers holding us in bondage. Jesus’ situation under the harsh judgment of Roman persecution was like our situation under sin. He was condemned, he was rendered helpless and powerless, he was stripped of his humanity and reduced to the state of a beast, and he was declared unfit to live and deserving of death.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.

Jesus Christ took our place under the dictatorship of sin. He was condemned by the law and subject to death because only he, the perfectly righteous one, could break the hold of these powers and bring us out of slavery to sin, attributing to us his righteousness in what is called the Great Exchange.

This why Scripture says that God made Christ, who knew no sin, to be sin, so we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). The full weight of our enmity with God fell on him. No wonder he cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His forsaken condition was a direct result of his identification with us.

God the Creator, in the person of his Son, put himself into our place and made himself to be our own sacrifice. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.

Our heavenly Father sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world through him would be saved—that all who believe in him would be delivered from the power of sin and death and become heirs with him of everlasting life.