This was the last of the five solas (‘solaes’ for all your Latin purists!), after Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Scripture Alone, Christ Alone, and this one - All to God’s Glory Alone. In what may pass as the dividing line and touchstone of all human thought about God, Calvin said of this, “It is for God, above all things that we are born, and not for ourselves.” What you think of that reveals more of your heart than you know.
If you let the Bible alone be your guide, if you listen to God’s voice above all others, then you will see that what God says matters more than anything else or anyone else - this gives glory to him.
If you see faith alone as the reception of God’s saving rescue, then you will see you don’t deserve any credit for what God has done for you - this gives glory to God.
If you grant that grace alone is the grounds on which God saved you through the blood of Christ shed for you on the cross, then you will see how profound the love God has for you - this brings glory to God
If you know that Christ alone is the author of your salvation, then you will know that there is no one else on earth who can put you right with God - this also gives glory to God.
Let’s define God’s glory first.
It is all that is essential to his being, his ‘godness’ if you like. He goes beyond all finite and human reality. He is perfect and without limitation. The glory of God is shared equally between the Father, the Son and the Spirit. He lives “in unapproachable light” and he is the “God of unsearchable judgements whose paths are beyond finding out.” (1 Timothy 6:16 & Romans 11:13) He is utterly self-sufficient, self-existent, and therefore depends on no one else or nothing else. God is always consistent (Malachi 3:1) - meaning we can completely trust him. And ultimately our value as humans, created in his image, lies in his glory (Ephesians 1:12)
A: We are worse and more helpless than we realise (or like to think we are)
“God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.” (Ecclesiastes 5:2) Man must be put in his place; his silly boasting must be smashed. Man is but a creature. We can only understand ourselves by seeing ourselves in terms of our relationship with God and rebellion against him.
We are all sinners. And sin makes us miss the mark of God’s glory - we fail in not keeping God’s word; we are at fault; and we concretely do wrong.
Worst of all, our sin is directed against God - we are all idolatrous blasphemers. We want to live without God. We seek to dethrone him, we don’t want him to be God over our lives.
Sin is universal (Romans 3:10). Sin affects the whole of our lives - our minds, understanding, will, emotions and affections, speech, behaviour, even structure and society. There is no area in which we can claim moral justification - what theologians mean by ‘total depravity’ = not as bad as we can possibly be, but that there is nothing in our lives and selves not affected by sin, which leads to a total inability to put ourselves right with God, no matter how hard we try.
B: Christ is more sufficient than we realise ( or want him to be)
In face of the guilt we are helpless before God’s holiness and righteous demands and all that awaits us is the inevitable judgement that God in his righteousness brings against sin.
Yet throughout there is another story being told: the God of glory is the God of grace. From the very beginning it was so - when he promised in Genesis 3:15 that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head; when he provided the passover lamb whose blood covered and protected from the angel of death as he passed over; when he instituted the Day of Atonement as a propitiatory sacrifice (God’s wrath satisfied and sins forgiven); when he prophesied what the Suffering Servant would do.
But supremely, in the birth of Christ, born under law, but who obeyed all of God’s commandments; and on the Cross, where, one with God and one with us, he bore the full penalty of all our sins, even becoming a curse for us (Galatians 3:13) - “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24)
In his death our sins were judged and forgotten (Hebrews 8:12) so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21) - an act of unmerited mercy and kindness. Athanasius called it “the amazing exchange”. Calvin expounded it like this: “The Son of God, though spotlessly pure, took upon himself the ignominy and shame of our sin, and in return clothed us with his purity.”
C: God is more gracious than we know (or we will never know how much we owe him)
God loves us more than he loves himself. “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son to be the propitiation of our sins.” (1 John 4:9)
God’s grace stoops to embrace our fallenness and weakness for it is an unconstrained, unrestricted free love determined to rescue us - and as such it is an endless adorable wonder. It is an everlasting, gracious, redeeming love.
Our standing with God does not depend on our grasp of God and is not affected or qualified by our half-hearted commitment to him. RATHER, God’s heart beats for us, and in that he couldn’t bear to be without us, in that eternal covenant made with the blood of Christ, lies all our security and peace.
So all that by way of introduction!
Now all these great re-discovered teachings from God’s word in the Reformation led to lives that were radically altered, magnificently changed - more probably than we can conceive. In the age of the Reformation, the medieval church governed everything, and everything was seen through its impositions or teachings or sacraments. In life, God had to be placated, merit had to be earned, and life could be truly terrifying if you didn’t enjoy the church’s blessing.
Like a mighty gale the Reformation sweeps away superstition and ignorance, and the entrance of God’s word gives light, and suddenly major changes of perspective begin to take shape. Much of these happened in the context of what Luther called your “stations” in life - that is, who you are, what you have, what you do. Out of this developed a whole theology of living out the grace of God to his glory in what was called “vocations” or ‘callings’. At their most simple, these were the living out of faith in your being a son/husband/father/farmer/fisherman/mechanic/merchant/banker/baker/doctor/shopkeeper - whatever. There was no special vocation - like being a monk or a nun or even a priest. We are all priests and we all live out our differing vocations in the stations of life God has placed us in. Suddenly the faithful Christian began to take seriously these two verses:
“So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31) and
“For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 10:36)
Certain cataclysmic changes began to take shape in the lives of those gripped by these Reformation truths. I only have time to consider a few (there are many more):
The Church: The Reformers saw that you come to church first to be served - to be fed richly by Christ through Word and Sacrament, to be guided by Christ, to be gifted. Church is like gathering on Christmas Day and waiting for all the parcels and gifts to be handed out SO THAT all the members of the church equipped with the parcels might then go out in the week to serve their neighbours and the world. Thus faith became something not just for Sunday, but to be lived out during the week.
The Ministry: though the Reformers saw the need for trained and tested and ordained pastors of God’s flock, they passionately believed in the priesthood of all believers. This meant primarily that there was no hierarchy in roles - a pastor was not more significant than a mother, preaching not more worthy of honour in Christ’s kingdom than being a good husband or father, or serving the Lord in your ‘so-called’ secular vocation. There was no such thing as a sacred-secular divide since ‘from him and through him and to him are all things.’ You see, whatever you are doing, as you belong to Christ, as you are saved by his grace, as Christ’s Spirit lives in you, whether you are operating on a patient as a surgeon, or digging a ditch, or painting, or writing, or hiking in the countryside, or baking bread - whatever - God is the primary actor and we are his instruments. Luther writes, “God who pours out his generosity on the just and the unjust, believer and unbeliever alike, hides himself in the ordinary social functions and stations of life, even the most humble. God himself is milking the cows through the vocation of the milkmaid.” Calvin agrees: “From this will arise also a single consolation, that no task will be so sordid or base, provided you obey your calling in it, that it will not shine and be reckoned very precious in God’s sight.”
The World: If the Church is the theatre of God’s grace, expressed through the righteous rule of Christ, then the world is the theatre of God’s glory - fallen though it is. Calvin especially saw that God worked ordinarily through common grace in the everyday world. For the Reformer the true, the good and the beautiful were to be found in the concrete, the historical and the particular. That is why the Reformation had such a huge impact on the world of art (it was only now that ‘ordinary’ folk began to hang pictures and paintings on the walls of their homes), literature, science (“Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them” -Psalm 111:2), music (think JSB and hymns). It wasn’t so much that these people brought their work into the sanctuary (though some did); it was more that they went out into the world armed with the resources of the Kingdom of Christ to see the world impacted and changed. God created diversity of shape, colour, texture, taste, culture, style and calling - and we are foolish not to delight in them. (This, in part, explains Luther’s love of beer!)
Personal piety/devotion: sometimes I think this the biggest change - no longer were people held in thrall to priests, to an institution that captured you from birth to death. Now you could form your own walk with the Lord, not because you were trying to ascend to him through the means of all kinds of aesthetic practices, but because God had already descended and had come looking for you. By his grace, by his sheer kindness, you had been rescued from everlasting hell, and by having access to Scripture, and by knowing the power of God’s Spirit living within you, you knew God for yourself, and didn’t need the help of priests, monks, or saints. Furthermore, you didn’t need to hurry off to the monastery to prove that you were committed to the Lord - no, you could live your life, fully pleasing him, in the very station of life God had placed you, among your family and friends, in your neighbourhood, seeking to bring to others the love and saving message of the gospel that you yourself had been so enriched and changed by. The Reformers saw that much religious piety of their day was overly influenced by Stoic philosophy, or worse, Aristotle . But, the gospel of grace liberated the human conscience from being bound to such stuff - and any good works or self-denial happened only because GOD HAD FIRST worked his goodness and grace in them. The glorious result was that faith was not something just for Sundays but for the whole of life. And nowhere was it clearer than when it came to death. Gone were all the anxieties of purgatory, requiem masses, indulgences and doom arches. In their place came the assurance of God’s word: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels not rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, not height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38,39)
The gospel that humbles us frees us to be what God created and saved us to be. The gospel that makes us small and reveals Christ as big actually enables us to find our place in the world.
The gospel that is all about grace enables us to work in the world for God.
And this is what living to the Glory of God Alone means