If ever there was a man with a one-track mind, it was the apostle Paul. Few men have ever exhibited the singleness of purpose that Paul displayed in preaching the gospel. Paul was not concerned about his own reputation. He cared little for his own comfort and safety. He was not interested in Christianity as a social movement or a political cause. The only thing that mattered to him was the person and work of Jesus Christ. So he said to the Corinthians, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Paul said this in reference to his first visit to Corinth, when he planted the Corinthian church. The first time he went to Corinth, the only thing he talked about was Jesus Christ. His message was Christ alone.
There were many things that Paul might have said about Jesus Christ. He might have said that Jesus was God as well as man, that he was God the Son incarnate. He might have said that Jesus was a perfect example, that he lived a life of sinless obedience. He might have said that Jesus was a moral teacher, that he spoke the true words of God. He might have said that Jesus was a miracle-worker, that he healed the sick and raised the dead. Paul could have spent an entire lifetime speaking about the deity, the perfection, the wisdom, and the power of Jesus Christ. And in fact, Paul did preach about all these things on many occasions.
But of all the things that he could have said about the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, the one thing that he emphasized was his death on the cross: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Paul’s only purpose and sole ambition was to preach Christ alone-not as a Greek philosopher or as a Jewish miracle-worker-but as the Savior who suffered and died for sinners.
The historical records show that Jesus of Nazareth was put to death in or around the year a.d. 30. He was executed in the Roman fashion. After he was stripped and beaten, he was led outside the city of Jerusalem to the Place of the Skull. There they nailed him to a rough piece of wood and left him to die a horrible bloody death. These are the facts of history.
But Paul also knew that what they meant. Jesus was the perfect Son of God. Therefore he was able to offer his body as a perfect sacrifice for sinners. He took all the sins of his people upon himself, paying once and for all the penalty that their sins deserved: God’s wrath and curse unto death. That is what Paul preached. He preached Jesus Christ and him crucified. He preached that Jesus had paid the price of our sin. He preached that everyone who trusts in Christ and in his cross will be saved.
Tonight we are praising God for the great biblical truths that were recovered during the Protestant Reformation: Scripture Alone, Faith Alone, Grace Alone, and Christ Alone, all to the Glory of God Alone. What these doctrines share in common is that they all find their meaning in Jesus Christ and him crucified.
Start with sola Scriptura, “Scripture alone.” When the Reformers said “Scripture alone” they meant that the Bible is the only foundation for faith and practice. No person, no institution stands in judgment over God’s Word. Our only ultimate authority is the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture.
Once you accept the Bible’s authority, and start to study it, one of the first things you notice is that it is all about Jesus Christ. That is true not only of the Gospels, which give biographical information about Jesus; and of the epistles, which provide theological interpretation of Jesus; but also of the entire Old Testament, which holds the messianic expectation of Jesus. After his resurrection Jesus, walked to Emmaus with two of his disciples. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Salvation in Jesus Christ is the message of the whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. When we accept Scripture alone, the Scripture itself points us to Christ alone.
What about sola gratia, “grace alone”? Grace is unmerited favor, undeserved blessing. When the Reformers said “by grace alone,” they meant that salvation was God’s free gift for undeserving sinners. God does not owe us anything except wrath. Nevertheless, he has saved us by his grace. If we ask, How has God shown us this grace?-the answer is that he has given us his grace in Jesus Christ, especially in his death on the cross for sinners. Jesus Christ is God’s gracious gift to sinners. The reason that salvation is by grace alone is because it is offered in Christ alone.
This brings us to sola fide, “faith alone.” If there was a way for us to contribute to our own salvation; if it depended on our own merits; if there was something we could do to earn it or deserve it-then we would not be justified by faith alone; we would be justified by faith plus works. But salvation is God’s free gift. It is all by grace! There is nothing we can possibly add to what God has already done to save us in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the only thing we need to do or even can do is to hold on to Jesus and his cross, which is what the Reformers meant when they said “faith alone.” It is because salvation was accomplished by Christ alone that it is accepted by faith alone, without the addition of any works of our own. As Martin Luther said, “The cross of Christ is nothing else than forsaking everything and clinging with the heart’s faith to Christ alone.”
Christ alone-that is another great Reformation doctrine that finds its meaning in the cross. James Boice explained it like this: “The Reformers taught that salvation is by and through the work of Jesus Christ only, which is what the slogan solus Christus refers to. It means that [through the cross and the empty tomb] Jesus has done it all so that now no merit on the part of man, no merit of the saints, no works of ours performed either here or in purgatory can add to that completed saving work.”
All of this is for the glory of God alone: soli Deo gloria. When we give praise to Christ for his work on the cross, we are giving glory to God, for Jesus Christ is God incarnate. Since we are saved by Christ alone, and not by ourselves, all the honor and glory of our salvation returns to God, and to him alone.
The reason that we are taking the time to talk about these great Reformation doctrines-and also to sing about them-is not because we want to live in the past. We are not holding this Hymn Festival because we have an antiquarian interest in church history. No, we are celebrating these doctrines because they are biblical truths of eternal significance and perpetual importance. Indeed, these doctrines, which find their meaning in the cross of Christ, are a matter of spiritual life and death. What we need to know is exactly the same thing that Paul resolved to know, and what the Reformers wanted to know, and that is Jesus Christ and him crucified.
We need to know the crucified Christ for two reasons: First, because this knowledge is essential for our own salvation. An example of what it means to trust in Christ alone for your salvation comes from the life of Donald Smarto, a national leader in prison ministry. Before he came to Christ, Smarto was in seminary, preparing to enter the Roman Catholic priesthood. He had developed a fascination with all the trappings of Catholic religion-the sacred rituals and the ornate vestments. One night he went out to the movies, where he saw a scene that shocked him: A bishop dressed in sacred robes was caught by a gust of wind that parted his garments to reveal what was underneath: a rotted skeleton. At that instant, Smarto’s conscience cried out, “That’s me!” But as he soon as he said it, he tried to deny it. He drove back to the seminary, and the whole way back he was muttering, “That’s not me. It can’t be me. I’m a good person!”
Frantically Smarto rehearsed his many pious deeds-his fasting, his penance, his prayers-searching for some assurance of his salvation. Finding none, he went out into the corn fields, where he wandered for hours. Eventually the moon clouded over and the night became so black that he could not even see his hand in front of his face. He began to panic, and in his fear he cried out for a sign from God. As he waited, panting in the black darkness, he heard a faint humming sound. Slowly he walked toward it, until he bumped into a hard, rough, wooden post. He put his hands out to feel it. “Of course!” he said to himself. “It’s a telephone pole!” As he stood there, the clouds parted, and he was able to see again. He looked up, and there, silhouetted against the moon, was the wooden crossbar that supported the phone lines. He was standing at the foot of a giant cross.
In that moment, everything Don Smarto had ever learned from the Bible came into focus, and he realized that all he needed to do to be saved was to hold on to Christ and his cross. He described his experience like this:
Now I knew, I really knew, that Christ had died for me. It was coupled with the more important revelation that I was a sinner, that I was not the good person I had thought I was a moment before. All at once I embraced the telephone pole and began to cry. I must have hugged that piece of wood for nearly an hour. I could imagine Jesus nailed to this pole, blood dripping from his wounds. I felt as if the blood were dripping over me, cleansing me of my sin and unworthiness.
If you are not yet a Christian, that is what God is inviting you to do tonight: to know Christ and him crucified, to trust in him alone for your salvation. He is calling you to admit that you are a sinner in need of forgiveness, and that if you are to be saved, there is nothing else you can do except hold on to the cross of the crucified Christ.
If you have already come to the cross, do not let go! The crucified Christ is the only hope for this fallen world. As a Christian, your purpose is not to get people to conform to your lifestyle or to convince them to adopt your point of view. Your purpose is to point people to Jesus Christ, and to his cross, which alone has the power to save.
It was this great truth of salvation in Christ alone that led Billy Graham to become an evangelist. In December of 1951, Graham was wrestling with God’s call on his life: Should he continue doing student work, or should he become a full-time evangelist? As he hiked the trails near his home in North Carolina, Graham searched the Scriptures, reading and rereading every Bible passage on the call to evangelism. In the end, what persuaded him to preach the gospel was “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
“I thought about Christ’s death on the cross,” Graham later wrote. “Above all other motives as a spur to service and incentive to evangelism is the cross of Christ and its irrepressible compassion.” His decision made, he walked back down the mountain-side, singing the old mission hymn:
Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
Weep o’er the erring one, lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus, the Mighty to save.
From that point forward, Billy Graham had “no other desire, no other goal, no other ambition.” Like Paul, and like everyone who holds on to the cross, he “resolved to know nothing… except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).
© 2023 Tenth Presbyterian Church.
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in its entirety or in unaltered excerpts, as long as you do not charge a fee. For Internet posting, please use only unaltered excerpts (not the content in its entirety) and provide a hyperlink to this page, or embed the entire material hosted on Tenth channels. You may not re-upload the material in its entirety. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by Tenth Presbyterian Church.
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2023 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org