As printed in the January STAR

Throughout this year we will be celebrating the Gospel, using the witness of Martin Luther as a symbol of how that Gospel transforms individuals and the church. The Gospel is woven into what Dr. Luther said and wrote. There are several phrases of Luther’s theology that exemplify this and the real life impact these teachings have on people.

Saved by Grace Through Faith

Ruth’s confirmation pastor was ordained by the Lutheran church but was not a Lutheran. He taught her, among other things, that she would need to go into her clothes closet and pray until the “light of Christ” broke into her closet. She did exactly that because her pastor had told her to do so.

The light never shattered her closet door. Consequently, she went to college knowing that she was going to hell.

“For by grace you have been saved.” This verse liberated Martin Luther and frees all who hear this Good News.

By the way, Ruth heard the Gospel while I was in seminary and it changed her life.

Simul Justus et Peccator

Luther introduced the concept that we are simultaneously saint and sinner. Again, this is a liberating word to people who have been taught that you are either one or the other. Simultaneously we are saved and condemned. That is why we must rely on Jesus Christ to save us. Our righteousness, our works, our piety, our faithfulness do not save us. Only Jesus does.


Sola is the Latin word for “alone.”

Martin Luther claimed that we are saved by:

  • “Grace alone”
  • “Faith alone”
  • “Scripture alone”
  • “Christ alone”

If “alone” means to be by itself, how could there be multiple “alone”s?

The answer rests in Luther’s understanding that salvation always comes from outside of ourselves. Grace, Faith, Scripture, Christ all bring the power of salvation to us apart from our own “understanding or effort” (Luther’s explanation of the Third Article of the Creed).

God is the actor. God makes the decision. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). In the waters of baptism, it is God who makes the claim on our life.

God’s activity “alone” saves us. That adds the fifth “sola.” “To God ‘alone’ be the glory.”

This is the Gospel. Alone.

Alien Righteousness

“Righteousness” is a word that we in the church believe everyone understands. That may not be true for all.

I remember, as a young pastor, a presentation to the synod assembly by a seminary professor who told the story of his car breaking down in a Middle Eastern desert. The driver was able to repair the problem, clapped his hands and said in his native tongue, “righteous.” The car had been restored to its intended purpose. It was now “righteous.”

When God makes us righteous we are restored to our intended purpose.

We become what God intends us to be, human beings created in the image of God.

We become “right with God.” Righteous.

Righteousness always and only comes to us from outside of ourselves, namely through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We live in a culture that seems to believe that we can become righteous through our decisions and our actions. Pray enough, go to enough Bible studies, be right on the pressing social issues of the day. Then you will be righteous.

No, says Martin Luther. You have no hope for righteousness if it is left up to you. That will only bring on the sin of self-righteousness.

Righteousness always comes from outside of ourselves. It only comes from Jesus and is given as a gift.


Luther was raised in a church that used the word “vocation” to mean the callings of those who serve within the church. Priests, nuns, and monks exercised their “vocations,” their callings from God, by serving the institution of the church.

“Vocation” took on a new meaning for the Reformers. Each person who is baptized is called to a lifetime of service of others. That service is a “vocation,” a holy calling that is exercised in the baptized daily life, not simply within the structures of the church. Scrubbing floors, making shoes, teaching, parenting, farming, waiting tables, working in a factory are all “vocations” that serve others and, in so doing, serve God.

The Gospel that comes to us in the waters of baptism calls us to lives of service, our vocations.

Theology of the Cross

This is a very difficult challenge for us in a culture based on a theology of glory. The theology of glory begins with the phrase “If you only …, then ….” Once again, grace is dependent on you and your decisions, rather than the unconditional love and grace of God in Jesus Christ. A theology of glory also holds that our good actions bring us “blessings,” particularly financial success.

The cross, which includes the resurrection according to John’s Gospel, is about laying down your life in service of others ­— particularly “the least of these.” The cross is not about my personal financial success. It is about carrying the cross of Jesus Christ in service of others.

The Christian faith is a response to the Good News of Jesus Christ by serving those in need. Anything other than that is about self-interest and not about the Gospel.

We celebrate the Gospel each and every day. This year we give thanks in a particular way, even as we honor Martin Luther who led us into the reformation of the Christian church.

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About The Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson

The Rev. Dr. Joelle Colville-Hanson has been Director for Evangelical Mission, ELCA for the Northeastern Iowa Synod since late 2013. Part of her job description is to help leaders and congregations use social media and other digital means for outreach and mission. She writes and edits this blog as well as runs the social media accounts for the synod.




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