This extract is from Why The Reformation Still Matters, by Michael Reeves and Tim Chester, Inter-Varsity Press London, England, 2016. Used by Permission. You can buy the book online here.
Years before the Reformation, in his days as a monk, Martin Luther had begun lecturing on the Bible at the university in Wittenberg. There he taught his students that salvation is by grace. ‘Not because of our merits,’ he explained; salvation is ‘given out of the pure mercy of the promising God’. No alarms went off; not a single eyebrow was raised among all the inquisitors in Rome. And why not? Because Martin Luther the monk was still then upholding Rome’s own theology. He was loyally teaching standard medieval Roman Catholicism, that salvation is by grace.
Eyebrows might not have arched in Rome, but perhaps yours did just then. For was not the whole point of the Reformation that medieval Roman Catholicism falsely taught salvation by works? That, certainly, is how many see it. Yet that idea actually fails to grasp quite how things really were. More importantly, it fails to grasp the true wonder and acuteness of the Reformers’ message.
Grace in medieval Roman Catholicism
What, then, did Luther the monk (before the Reformation) mean when he taught salvation by grace? He could state that salvation ‘is not on the basis of our merits but on the pure promise of a merciful God’. Which sounds all very Reformational – until he goes on to explain:
Hence the teachers correctly say that to a man who does what is in him God gives grace without fail . . . [God] bestows everything gratis and only on the basis of the promise of his mercy, although he wants us to be prepared for this as much as lies in us. 
So, according to this, God does save by grace, but that grace is given to those who are ‘prepared’ for it, who do ‘what is in them’ to be fit for grace. Or as others (‘the teachers’) of the day liked to put it, ‘God will not deny grace to those who do their best.’
Romans 5:5 is perhaps the single most helpful verse for under- standing this view of salvation by grace. ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us,’ writes the apostle Paul. Instead of being read as a verse about the transformative work of the Spirit in those who ‘have been justified by faith’ (Romans 5:1), as the context proves, Romans 5:5 was taken as an account of salvation, meaning that God pours his love and grace into our hearts, transforming us and making us holy – holy enough, ultimately, for heaven.
Our problem, according to this theology, is that, while God is holy, we are spiritually lazy. Only holy people belong with a holy God in heaven, but, while we may recognize the problem, we really cannot be bothered. We do not seem able to summon up the energy needed to be truly holy. And so God in his kindness gives us grace. ‘Grace’ is thus a bit like a can of spiritual Red Bull. I find myself unable to pull myself together and get holy. Then God gives me Grace, and suddenly I find myself much more eager and able.
This, then, was a theology of salvation by grace: without this grace, we could never become the sort of holy people it claimed belong in heaven. But it was absolutely not a theology of salvation by grace alone. Here grace provided the necessary boost it imagined we all need to earn eternal life; but it did not actually give or guarantee eternal life itself. The Red Bull of grace would be given to those who wanted and pursued it, and it saved only in so far as it enabled people to become holy and so win their salvation.
This might all have been the theology of sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism, but it does not feel too unfamiliar to twenty-first century Protestants and evangelicals. ‘Grace’ is still routinely thought of today as a package of blessing doled out by God. And, small details aside, that picture captures well a common and instinctive view of salvation, that while we know God saves by grace, we still look to ourselves and our performance to know how we stand before him. Our prayer lives are often painfully revealing of this. Every day Christians should be able to approach the Almighty and boldly cry ‘Our Father’ all because of Jesus. As we read in Hebrews, ‘Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God… Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace’ (Hebrews 4:14–16). Yet in practice our sins and failings make us shrink back. Ignoring Jesus’ salvation, we feel we cannot approach the Holy One because of how we have performed.
Having tasted the bitter dregs of this self-dependent theology, Luther wrote:
It’s true. I was a good monk and kept my order so strictly that I could say that if ever a monk could get to heaven through monastic discipline, I should have entered in. All my companions in the monastery who knew me would bear me out in this. For if it had gone on much longer, I would have martyred myself to death, what with vigils, prayers, readings, and other works . . . And yet my conscience would not give me certainty, but I always doubted and said, ‘You didn’t do that right. You weren’t contrite enough. You left that out of your confession.’ The more I tried to remedy an uncertain, weak and troubled conscience with human traditions, the more daily I found it more uncertain, weaker and more troubled.
Grace in the Reformation
Luther’s Reformation message of salvation by grace alone could hardly have looked more different when compared to that old pre-Reformation teaching of his about salvation by grace. This is how he began to talk: ‘He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ.’ Here grace is not about God’s building on our righteous deeds or helping us to perform them. God, Luther began to see, was the one ‘who justifies the ungodly’ (Romans 4:5), not one who simply recognizes and rewards those who manage to make themselves godly. God is not one who must build on our foundations; he creates life out of nothing. It meant that, instead of looking to God for assistance and then ultimately relying on himself, Luther was turning to rely entirely on Christ, in whom all righteousness is achieved. ‘The law says, “do this,” and it is never done. Grace says, “believe in this,” and everything is already done.’
Here Luther found a message so good it almost seemed incredible to him. It was good news for the repeated failure, news of a God who does not come to call the righteous, but sinners (Matthew 9:13). Not many today find themselves wearing hair shirts and enduring all-night prayer vigils in the freezing cold to earn God’s favour. Yet deep in our psyche is the assumption that we shall be more loved when (and only when) we make ourselves more attractive – both to God and others. Into that, Luther speaks words that cut through the gloom like a glorious and utterly un- expected sunbeam:
The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it . . . Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive.
In Reformation thought, grace was no longer seen as being like a can of spiritual Red Bull. It was more like a marriage. In fact when Luther first sought to explain his Reformation discovery in detail to the world, it was the story of a wedding that framed what he said. Drawing on the romance of the lover and his beloved in Song of Songs (especially 2:16, ‘My beloved is mine, and I am his’), he told the gospel as the story of the ‘rich and divine bridegroom Christ’ who ‘marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all her evil, and adorns her with all his goodness’. At the wedding a wonderful exchange takes place whereby the king takes all the shame and debt of his bride, and the harlot receives all the wealth and royal status of her bridegroom. For Jesus and the soul that is united to him by faith, it works like this:
Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life, and salvation will be the soul’s; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself the things which are his bride’s and bestow upon her the things that are his. If he gives her his body and very self, how shall he not give her all that is his? And if he takes the body of the bride, how shall he not take all that is hers?
In the story the prostitute finds that she has been made a queen. That does not mean she always behaves as befits royalty, but, however she behaves, her status is royal. She is now the queen. So it is with the believer: she remains a sinner and continues to stumble and wander, but she has the righteous status of her perfect and royal bridegroom. She is – and until death will remain – at the same time both utterly righteous (in her status before God) and a sinner (in her behaviour).
That means that it is simply wrong-headed for the believer to look to her behaviour as an accurate yardstick of her righteousness before God. Her behaviour and her status are distinct. The prostitute will grow more queenly as she lives with the king and feels the security of his love, but she will never become more the queen. Just so, the believer will grow more Christlike over time, but never more righteous. Thus because of Christ, and not because of her performance, the sinner can know a despair-crushing confidence:
Her sins cannot now destroy her, since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by him. And she has that righteousness in Christ, her husband, of which she may boast of as her own and which she can confidently display alongside her sins in the face of death and hell and say, ‘If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and all mine is his’.
For the rest of his life Luther took this message as good news that needs continually to be reapplied to the heart of the believer. From his own experience he found that we are so instinctively self-dependent that while we happily subscribe to salvation by grace, our minds are like rocks, drawn down by the gravitational pull of sin away from belief in grace alone. So he counselled his friend as follows:
They try to do good of themselves in order that they might stand before God clothed in their own virtues and merits. But this is impossible. Among us you were one who held to this opinion, or rather, error. So was I, and I am still fighting against the error without having conquered it as yet.
Therefore, my dear brother, learn Christ and him crucified. Learn to pray to him and, despairing of yourself, say: ‘Thou, Lord Jesus, art my righteous- ness, but I am thy sin. Thou hast taken upon thyself what is mine and hast given to me what is thine. Thou hast taken upon thyself what thou wast not and hast given to me what I was not.’
What is grace?
There is far more than first meets the eye standing between the Roman Catholic idea of salvation by grace and the Reformation’s message of salvation by grace alone. The fact that just one little word (‘alone’) distinguishes them makes one feel that only the fussiest theologian could tell them apart. But the difference actually involves even more than where we should look for confidence before God: the very meaning of the word ‘grace’ is quite different in each.
In Roman Catholicism grace was seen as a ‘thing’, a force or fuel like Red Bull. Catholics would pray ‘Hail, Mary, full of grace’ as if Mary were wired with spiritual caffeine. Perhaps the clearest illustration of this concept of grace is seen in Father (later Cardinal) John Henry Newman’s otherwise marvellous hymn ‘Praise to the Holiest in the height’:
Praise to the Holiest in the height,
And in the depth be praise;
In all His words most wonderful,
Most sure in all His ways.
O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame,
A second Adam to the fight
And to the rescue came.
O wisest love! that flesh and blood,
Which did in Adam fail,
Should strive afresh against the foe,
Should strive and should prevail.
And that a higher gift than grace
Should flesh and blood refine,
God’s Presence and His very Self,
And Essence all divine.
In Newman’s mind ‘God’s Presence and His very Self’ is some- thing different to ‘grace’. Grace is a gift, but God’s presence is a ‘higher gift than grace’.
That was nothing like how Luther and his fellow Reformers saw grace. For them, ‘grace’ was not a ‘thing’ at all; it is the personal kindness of God by which he does not merely enable us, but by which he rescues and (note the contrast to Newman) freely gives us himself. Or, to be even more precise: there is no such ‘thing’ as grace; there is only Christ, who is the blessing of God freely given to us. That being the case, Luther tended not to talk much about ‘grace’ in the abstract, preferring to speak of Christ. For example:
Therefore faith justifies because it takes hold of and possesses this treasure, the present Christ . . . the Christ who is grasped by faith and who lives in the heart is the true Christian righteousness, on account of which God counts us righteous and grants us eternal life.
In other words, the grace and righteousness we receive in the gospel are not something other than Christ himself: ‘Christ . . . is the divine Power, Righteousness, Blessing, Grace, and Life.’
Dear Christians, one and all, rejoice,
With exultation springing,
And with united heart and voice
And holy rapture singing,
Proclaim the wonders God has done,
How his right arm the victory won;
What price our ransom cost him!
To me he [Christ] spoke: ‘Cling fast to me,
I am your rock and castle.
Your ransom I myself will be;
For you I strive and wrestle.
For I am yours, and you are mine,
And where I am you may remain;
The foe shall not divide us.’
For Luther, God does not give something other than himself; in his grace he unites us to his Son by his Spirit that we might share the life and righteousness of the Son. Instead of handing out some enabling blessing, Christ makes himself ours, and so totally that we may plead what is his as ours.
Living under grace alone
What difference does living under grace alone make? Clearly, anyone who can know that they are accepted and loved by God because of Jesus and not because of how well they have done can know a confidence as secure as Jesus himself. In him they have an unsurpassable righteousness that is, like him, ‘the same yesterday and today and for ever’ (Hebrews 13:8).
But may it lead them to be perhaps a little too confident? With heaven in the bag, may they feel they can ‘continue in sin that grace may abound?’ (Romans 6:1). May they not argue that while they like sinning, God likes forgiving? That was just what many Roman Catholics wondered when they heard the Reformers’ message. And ever since it has not just been Roman Catholics who have seen the dangers. In the twentieth century, surrounded by a people – and a church – that had so easily capitulated to Hitler, the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer felt that a wrong attitude towards grace was partly to blame. On the eve of the Second World War he wrote a scalding attack on what he called the ‘cheap grace’ that had allowed such moral spinelessness:
Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. ‘All for sin could not atone.’ The world goes on in the same old way, and we are still sinners ‘even in the best life’ as Luther said. Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin . . . Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance . . . Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. 
Bonhoeffer’s phrase ‘grace without Jesus Christ’ is really the key here. For ‘grace without Jesus Christ’ was precisely what the Reformers were stepping away from. With their message of grace alone they were not offering more of grace as ‘stuff’ or spiritual fuel; they were offering Christ. In other words, salvation by grace alone is simply another way of saying salvation by Christ alone. ‘Through faith in Christ,’ wrote Luther, ‘Christ’s righteous- ness becomes our righteousness and all that he has becomes ours; rather, He Himself becomes ours.’ And that puts a world of difference between the message of grace alone and cheap grace.
As Luther showed in his marriage illustration, salvation by grace alone is about the believer’s being united to Christ as a bridegroom is united to her bride. In the story the prostitute receives the royal status of her husband, but that does not tell us about the point or intent of the marriage. Marriages are supposed to point to the ideal marriage between Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:31–32). And in an ideal marriage a man and a woman come together in order to get each other. Just so, believers trust in Christ and are united to him in order to get him. Not, first and foremost, to get heaven, righteousness, life or any other blessing, but to get Christ, in whom all those other blessings are then found. Take the apostle Paul, who wrote so emphatically on salvation by grace alone. Writing to the Philippians he declared that his desire was to depart and be, not ‘in heaven’, but ‘with Christ’ (Philippians 1:23). For him, Christ was the greatest attraction of heaven.
It all means that nobody can truly receive the Christ who justifies without receiving the Christ who makes us holy. The eternal life that believers freely receive by faith alone is the life of the Spirit, who transforms us so that we become ever holier and more Christlike (2 Corinthians 3:18). That means that holy living is not the awkward small print of the gospel, a catch hiding behind the good news of grace alone. This is itself wonderful good news: through this gospel God acts to free us not only from the horrifying future penalty of sin, but also from its present enslaving power. Grace alone is the most potent message of liberation: total liberation from hell, and gradual liberation even from its foul but addictive foretastes. Thus Paul can write that
the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11–14)
Because true grace is never ‘grace without Jesus Christ’, Paul has no intellectual difficulty in putting ‘free salvation’ right alongside ‘good works’:
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. (Ephesians 2:8–10)
There is no difficulty here, for that is the only true life, and the life for which believers are freely saved: to be freed from the captivity of sin, to know God and to share his good and holy life.
My chains fell off
There is a consistent testimony down through the centuries: those who have accepted that God saves by his grace alone have found the message to be one of unutterably sweet liberation. Martin Luther wrote that, on his discovery of it, ‘I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.’ A few years later in England William Tyndale would call it ‘merry, glad and joyful tidings, that maketh a man’s heart glad and maketh him sing, dance, and leap for joy’.
But two reactions to this message stand out as near identical, though almost a century separates them. The first is that of John Bunyan, the seventeenth-century author of Pilgrim’s Progress. On discovering that his righteousness was all to be found in Christ and not himself, he exclaimed, ‘Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed, I was loosed from my affliction and irons.’ The second is that of Charles Wesley, the eighteenth-century hymnwriter. In his well-known hymn ‘And can it be?’ he describes his discovery of the salvation that is ‘mercy all, immense and free’:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray –
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head,
And clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach th’eternal throne,
And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
For both Bunyan and Wesley the message of grace alone was a prison escape.
And so it remains today. The Reformers’ tenacious insistence on grace alone is no relic of the history books to be looked on with embarrassment as the sorry squabble of pernickety theologians. It remains today as the only message of ultimate liberation, the message with the deepest power to make humans unfurl and flourish. For by grace alone all who know themselves as failures can know not just a bit of spiritual enabling from God, helping them do better; they can know a wholly new and victorious identity in Christ. They can know assurance, relief from guilt and sweet intimacy with an Almighty Father who cares for them. And, as Charles Wesley showed, knowing that, they begin to find a hearty desire rising up in them to follow the one who is the source of all grace and every good. Once they might have attempted holiness out of the desperate desire to earn eternal life; now they do so out of a heart transformed to want Christ and to see the beauty of his kindness, goodness, generosity and all his holy ways.
 Luther’s Works, vol. 11, pp. 396–397.
 Luther’s Works, vol. 11, pp. 396–397, emphases added.
 D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, 127 vols. (Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1883–2009), 38.143.25 (trans. Alister E. McGrath).
 Thesis 25, Heidelberg Disputation, in Luther’s Works, vol. 31, p. 55.
 Thesis 26, Luther’s Works, vol. 31, p. 56 (emphasis added).
 Thesis 28, Luther’s Works, vol. 31, p. 57.
 Luther’s Works, vol. 31, p. 352.
 Luther’s Works, vol. 31, p. 351.
 Luther’s Works, vol. 31, p. 352.
 To George Spenlein, in T. G. Tappert (ed.), Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel, Library of Christian Classics (Vancouver: Regent College, 2003), p. 110 (emphasis added).
 Luther’s Works, vol. 26, p. 130 (emphasis added).
 Luther’s Works, vol. 26, p. 282 (emphasis added).
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (London: SCM, 1948), pp. 35–36 (emphasis added).
 Luther’s Works, vol. 31, p. 298 (emphasis added).
 Luther’s Works, vol. 34, p. 337.