This extract is from Why The Reformation Still Matters, by Michael Reeves and Tim Chester, Crossway, 2016. (available here)
Michael Reeves is President of Union and Professor of Theology. He is the author of The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Paternoster, 2012).
Tim Chester is a pastor with Grace Church, Boroughbridge, North Yorkshire, and a tutor with the Acts 29 Oak Hill Academy. He is the author or co-author of numerous books.
Years before the Reformation, in his days as a monk, Martin Luther had begun lecturing on the Bible at the university in Wittenberg. There he taught his students that salvation is by grace. ‘Not because of our merits,’ he explained; salvation is ‘given out of the pure mercy of the promising God’. No alarms went off; not a single eyebrow was raised among all the inquisitors in Rome. And why not? Because Martin Luther the monk was still then upholding Rome’s own theology. He was loyally teaching standard medieval Roman Catholicism, that salvation is by grace.
Eyebrows might not have arched in Rome, but perhaps yours did just then. For was not the whole point of the Reformation that medieval Roman Catholicism falsely taught salvation by works? That, certainly, is how many see it. Yet that idea actually fails to grasp quite how things really were. More importantly, it fails to grasp the true wonder and acuteness of the Reformers’ message.
Grace in medieval Roman Catholicism
What, then, did Luther the monk (before the Reformation) mean when he taught salvation by grace? He could state that salvation ‘is not on the basis of our merits but on the pure promise of a merciful God’. Which sounds all very Reformational – until he goes on to explain:
Hence the teachers correctly say that to a man who does what is in him God gives grace without fail . . . [God] bestows everything gratis and only on the basis of the promise of his mercy, although he wants us to be prepared for this as much as lies in us. 
So, according to this, God does save by grace, but that grace is given to those who are ‘prepared’ for it, who do ‘what is in them’ to be fit for grace. Or as others (‘the teachers’) of the day liked to put it, ‘God will not deny grace to those who do their best.’
Romans 5:5 is perhaps the single most helpful verse for under- standing this view of salvation by grace. ‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us,’ writes the apostle Paul. Instead of being read as a verse about the transformative work of the Spirit in those who ‘have been justified by faith’ (Romans 5:1), as the context proves, Romans 5:5 was taken as an account of salvation, meaning that God pours his love and grace into our hearts, transforming us and making us holy – holy enough, ultimately, for heaven.
Our problem, according to this theology, is that, while God is holy, we are spiritually lazy. Only holy people belong with a holy God in heaven, but, while we may recognize the problem, we really cannot be bothered. We do not seem able to summon up the energy needed to be truly holy. And so God in his kindness gives us grace. ‘Grace’ is thus a bit like a can of spiritual Red Bull. I find myself unable to pull myself together and get holy. Then God gives me Grace, and suddenly I find myself much more eager and able.
This, then, was a theology of salvation by grace: without this grace, we could never become the sort of holy people it claimed belong in heaven. But it was absolutely not a theology of salvation by grace alone. Here grace provided the necessary boost it imagined we all need to earn eternal life; but it did not actually give or guarantee eternal life itself. The Red Bull of grace would be given to those who wanted and pursued it, and it saved only in so far as it enabled people to become holy and so win their salvation.
This might all have been the theology of sixteenth-century Roman Catholicism, but it does not feel too unfamiliar to twenty-first century Protestants and evangelicals. ‘Grace’ is still routinely thought of today as a package of blessing doled out by God. And, small details aside, that picture captures well a common and instinctive view of salvation, that while we know God saves by grace, we still look to ourselves and our performance to know how we stand before him. Our prayer lives are often painfully revealing of this. Every day Christians should be able to approach the Almighty and boldly cry ‘Our Father’ all because of Jesus. As we read in Hebrews, ‘Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God… Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace’ (Hebrews 4:14–16). Yet in practice our sins and failings make us shrink back. Ignoring Jesus’ salvation, we feel we cannot approach the Holy One because of how we have performed. Continue reading