by Natalie Smith
I attended a play on campus recently, 28 Steps: A Reformation Play, written by Mr. David Schwingle of our Fine Arts faculty. Although based on Luther’s beliefs and the reality of his situation during the reformation, the dialogue between Martin Luther and a nun who was sent to assassinate him was fictional. Watching this play helped me understand that at the foundation of the struggle between Martin Luther and the church- and the real difference between Catholics and Christians today- is accepting God’s grace alone through faith alone. The nun kept insisting she needed grace from God. She knew there was no way she could get into heaven on her own. But she also kept telling Luther that she had to access God’s grace through the means of doing enough good works, purchasing indulgences, confessing her sins to the priest, and by her own efforts living as pure and chaste a life as possible. She agonized and mourned over her sin, truly acknowledging how wicked she was and desperately wanting salvation. She even spoke of being purified by the fires of purgatory so she could enter heaven, calling purgatory a means of God’s grace. In the play Luther pleaded with her to understand that Christ took our punishment and died in our place, and that our acceptance of His free gift of salvation by faith alone gives us access to all the grace we need. He wanted her to understand that even if we could earn grace, God would get no glory in that. Grace is not grace if we are earning it. And God is not God if any of our merit reaches His holy standard of righteousness. So close and yet so far….so complex when it is really so simple. Grace alone through faith alone.
As I watched the play, I realized the nun was still living like Israel in the Old Testament. In Leviticus 9:5, the “congregation drew near and stood before the Lord”. God wanted to reveal His glory to His people and the priests. But at the time of the offering in verses 7 and 8, it is only Aaron the high priest who is told to “draw near to the altar” and offer the offerings to make atonement for himself and the people.
God wanted an audience with His people, but they had to draw near through a priest. And over and over again, blood had to be shed. The steps involved in each sacrifice were multiple and messy. And the people could only access God through the priest. In Hebrews 4, we are reminded of Christ’s sacrifice that paid the price for our sin once and for all. So now we can “draw near with confidence”. We can go to Him directly, not through a priest. And approaching Him is simple and clean. No animals to kill. No blood to pour out and spread on the altar. No handling of animal organs to be burned. The God of heaven-holy and righteous- the creator and sustainer of life has invited you and me to draw near, to approach him. And because of our perfect high priest who paid the price for our sin, we can. He loved us enough to draw near to us, to become flesh and dwell among us on the earth (John 1:14), to be tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin, and then to die in our place to redeem us. By grace alone, through faith alone we can know God and have eternal life. I wanted to tell the nun we do have a priest, a sympathetic one who knows how hard it is to fight against our flesh and the presence of sin. He is so sympathetic that He died in our place to pay a debt we could never pay.
This is a truth I need to rehearse with myself often. I learned about the Reformation and Martin Luther when I was in school, and I was familiar with the Solas before our emphasis on them this semester. But highlighting the reformation has been a wonderful encouragement and conviction for me. Being reminded of how corrupt the church had become and all that Luther and the other reformers were fighting against to make known the truth, has strengthened my faith and renewed by thankfulness for God’s grace. Grace that I, like the nun in the play, need to access every day. I realized that at times I have a tendency to rely on my good works as a means of sanctification. I know my works have not/don’t save me, but sometimes I act as though my works earn me favor with God and that if I try hard enough I can be humble, selfless, patience, kind, etc. all on my own. I know that’s not true, but do I really live that way? Unlike the nun, I know I have direct access to God to “find mercy and grace in my time of need” (Heb. 4:16) every day. The means of grace- His Word, His Ear (prayer), and His people (the church) – are free. And only by His grace can I live righteously before Him. This Thanksgiving I am thankful for the Reformation: God’s Word alone, salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, for God’s glory alone.