Lutherans assert that the chief doctrine of the church is justification by faith alone, the doctrine by which the church stands for falls. That is a very bold statement. Not only does that make this doctrine the determinative factor in theology, but it also defines the understanding of the church. This may seem a logical conclusion, but viewed from a different perspective, it also raises the question whether those churches, which do not hold this position, are truly churches. That is both an intriguing and unsettling thought.

Complicating this matter is the fact that the notion of “justification by faith alone” does not have a great deal of warmth or human touch or “warm fuzzies” or the like. If one says, “God loves you,” that seems much warmer, much more interpersonal. Importantly, however, these two expressions point to one and the same dynamic.

The doctrine of “justification by faith alone” is driven by “grace alone.” If one reads the Bible even in only a cursory fashion, one sees lots of law and legal arrangements. This commandment and that commandment or this rule and that rule pervade the Bible, especially the Old Testament. According to the Old Testament, those who follow God’s laws are blessed for many generations, and those who do not suffer the consequences usually only for “three or four” generations. This limited detriment is itself a form of grace in that God does not drive sinners into the ground for all time.

Within the legal framework of the Bible, the notions of being righteous, of righteousness, of justice and of justification are at home. Those who follow God’s laws are righteous, and those who do not ere not. Biblically, God is a righteous God, even if sinful human beings do not always perceive God as such, as if sinners could truly understand God’s true nature. So, when the righteous God judges, he can declare those judged to be innocent or guilty and thus righteous or unrighteous. When God forgives, that does not diminish the guilt. Instead, it means that despite being guilty, the sinner is forgiven because of God’s favor or grace.

Viewed this way, both God’s love and God’s grace are one and the same. Interpersonally, the relationship between God and human beings results from God’s love. Biblically-legally, the relationship between God and human beings is based on God’s grace. To clarify this, if one appears in a secular court for a parking ticket, the judge would not forgive the ticket out of love, but may do so out of grace or favor. The language that we use is contextual, even if is describes a similar or the same dynamic.

On the face of it, like other denominations, we Lutheran’s are tempted to think that stressing God’s love is more attractive than talking about justification by grace alone through faith alone, and it some ways it is. So, why do Lutherans stress the latter? Whether we do so in relation to God’s laws, society’s laws, or our own personal standards, we human beings tend to judge our lives and the lives of others by the deeds done, by the words said, and by the thoughts thought. Where those are “good,” one is often rewarded, and when they are “bad,” one is often punished, whatever that may mean in any given circumstance.

In relation to God, however, the situation is more complicated. Even though God does love us, God also expects us to be not simply sinless (as a negative) but righteous (as a positive) in all aspects of our lives all of the time. For us to be in relationship with the one, true, righteous God, we too need to be true and righteous. As we all know, this is an impossible order for fallen human beings. This impossibility is reflected in the idea that if we love God, we will obey his commandments. Sadly, we do not keep his commandments, and when we do, we think that we have gained, or worse, have accumulated some sort of righteousness. Such “righteousness” is in reality mere self-righteousness, which is just another expression of our sin. So, our doing “good” in our own eyes is all too often also our undoing.

The doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone, however, is rooted in the communication of the good news from and about the crucified and risen Christ who in God’s love died for our sins on the cross and was raised for our righteousness (see Romans 4:25). As a negative, God in Christ takes our sin from us onto himself, and as a positive, he gives us in exchange his own righteousness so that we can be in relationship with the one, true, righteous God. This all happens when Christ’s word and Christ’s sacraments create the gift of faith in us alone by which we receive his righteousness or just judgement.

The doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is both a description and a doctrine of the reality of God’s love for us in the legal framework of the Bible. Where this doctrine is not preached and taught, neither is this Christ preached and taught. Where this Christ is not preached and taught, there cannot be a Christian church because this Christ is for all intents and purposes absent! Pray continually that this Christ will be preached and taught at St. Luke’s. If he is not, then as a church you should neither stand for it nor fall for something else.