Leading Students to Live by Faith Alone

As we approach its 500th Anniversary, we at Rooted wanted to address how the Reformation (and particularly the five Solas) continues to specifically impact teenagers today.

Historical Context of “By Faith Alone”

“What price would you be willing to pay in order to ensure your eternal security and well-being?”

Such is the question that the “sellers of indulgences” were authorized to ask the Catholic faithful of the 1500s. The sale of indulgences was authorized as a method of raising funds for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Set against the backdrop of the Roman Catholic doctrine of Penance, the fundraiser proved to be powerfully manipulative indeed.

While medieval Catholic theology acknowledged that the sinless life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ removed the eternal punishment of sin from the life of the believer, it also held that God needed to be “paid back” over the course of a lifetime in order to be compensated for the dishonor he incurred as a result of the believer’s sin.

And if that believer did not make satisfactory payment over the course of his or her lifetime, he or she would be required to spend time in Purgatory – a “refining by fire,” as it were, which would take place in the afterlife before a believer could enter into the paradise of Heaven.

Indulgences were a method by which Catholic congregants could minimize or altogether eliminate the time they would spend in Purgatory. By asking the people to contribute to their own salvation, and by doing so in order to raise money for a building project, the Roman Catholic Church of the sixteenth century both minimized the importance of the saving work of Christ and took advantage of countless people.

One man in particular was not content to sit idly by as these things happened.

Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, and “By Faith Alone”

Martin Luther was a monk who had become enraged at the abuses of church power he had witnessed through the sale of indulgences. And when he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Chapel on a crisp October night in 1517, he set into motion a movement of Christians that became known as the Protestant Reformation. Taking a specific protest against the Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences, Martin Luther wrote the following as portions of his monumental work:

  • Thesis 33: “We must especially beware of those who say that those pardons of the pope are that inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to God.”
  • Thesis 79: “It is blasphemy to say that the cross adorned with the Papal arms is as effectual as the cross of Christ.”

From these words, a wonderful gospel truth was rediscovered. Man is saved not through his works. He is saved through abandoning his futile attempts to save himself in favor of faith in Christ alone. Luther’s message in the Ninety-Five Theses (and indeed, throughout his ministry as a Reformer) can be summarized as follows:

God’s people are not saved through their pure and potent actions, but through the perfection of Christ in whom they place their faith.

Indulgences in Our Day

Thankfully, most of us do not encounter a friendly neighborhood indulgences salesman in the course of our day-to-day lives. And yet there remains a strong temptation to buy into the lie that we must contribute to our salvation through works of our own doing.

Perhaps no segment of the population is more bombarded by this temptation than students and the families who shepherd them.

For some students, this temptation plays itself out through legalism: a mindset which views right-standing as a transactional process. Legalism says, “If I do my part by accomplishing _______, then I’ll be owed _______ by the powers that be.”

In explicitly religious terms, one example of legalism is the student who feels spiritually superior to her peers on account of her consistent quiet time, but who also feels worthless or inferior when that quiet time is missed. An example which may be more common in our student ministries is the student (or family) who forgoes family vacations, church gatherings, rest, and other opportunities in order for the student to maintain her position on the travel sports team.

Legalists attempt to garner blessings through obedience: to pry open the tightly-clinched fist which God has wrapped around his grace and goodness. At the other end of the spectrum of works-based righteousness is license, an approach which views God (or the powers that be) as powerless to deliver the blessings we crave. Students who appeal to a process of license will live as the ultimate authorities of their lives.

License is the mindset which says, “If I only have ____, then my life will have meaning, purpose, and value.”

The common ills of the teenage years are examples of this mindset: drug usage, alcohol abuse, unbiblical sexual expression, and overt rebellion against authority. And there are also more “moral” expressions of license: such as the student who pursues entrance to a dream college at the expense of a relationship with Jesus, or the one who pursues financial stability over and above the will of God.

While legalism and license may appear as different as night and day, they each flow from the same brokenness of the heart: the lie that our right-standing is mostly dependent on us. Therefore, for both the legalist and the licentious student, the same gospel antidote is needed.

Jesus Christ: The Cure to Works-Based Righteousness

Students today so desperately need to recover the message of Luther’s ministry: God’s people are not saved through their pure and potent actions, but through the perfection of Christ in whom they place their faith. This message perfectly combines the truths that human efforts are both insufficient and unnecessary for our eternal right-standing. We are so sinful that we could never save ourselves. And we don’t have to, because Christ has done every work necessary for our salvation.

How do we go about this communication? By pointing to Christ as the provider of everything for which our hearts so deeply long. And by doing so in such a way that our students abandon their efforts at self-justification, in favor of reckless abandon to the person and work of Christ (i.e., “faith”).

  • To the student who believes that salvation will come through rote religious ritual and ineffable church attendance: Christ himself is God’s temple which was broken on the cross and rebuilt three days later through the resurrection (John 2:19). And he did so not so much that we would come to his house, but that he himself would make his home in us (John 14:23).
  • To the student who believes that the ultimate aim in life is the praise which flows from athletics, academics, or extracurricular activities: Christ was mocked, beaten, stripped, and crucified so that you might be united to the One to whom every knee will bow (Matthew 27:27-31).
  • To the student who craves relationship at the expense of holiness: Christ was despised and rejected by men (Isaiah 53:3), and was treated as such so that you might be fully known and fully accepted for all of eternity.
  • To the student who hopes in financial security and accomplishment: Christ willingly emptied himself to obediently suffer death in the form of a servant (Philippians 2:5-8), in order that you might receive every blessing of heaven in Him (Ephesians 1:3).

Christ has already accomplished every work which we ourselves would attempt as a means of self-justification. Instead of continuing our futile efforts to provide right-standing to ourselves, may we live in surrendered abandon to the One who has already accomplished it all.

May we trust in Christ, and not ourselves, for salvation. May we live by faith alone in Him.

A veteran of vocational student ministry, Davis Lacey now serves as the Lead Planter and Pastor of Autumn Ridge Community Church in Ellijay, GA. He is also a member of the Rooted Steering Committee. He holds the MTS and MDiv degrees from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as an Engineering degree from Mercer University. He is married to his childhood sweetheart Charis, and the two of them love having adventures with their two children: Evelynn and Haddon.

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