Some weeks ago, while cleaning the attic, I came across a zippered, knit pouch I had never seen before. Curious, I unzipped it and pulled out a tarnished silver dollar, dated 1882. How on earth did we get this?
An unknown ancestor must have set it aside a century ago in hopes that a future generation would reap the profit of its rarity. Except, as I found out on the web minutes later, it’s not all that rare. And its current, thirty-dollar value is not close to a fortune.
Which brings me to Martin Luther. I’ve been reading a biography of him and came this week to the first confrontation that he had with a representative of the Pope. At issue was the practice of indulgences. For the first time, I understood the larger context.
The church’s belief was that everyone’s good deeds – including Christ’s – went into a kind of heavenly vault. The amount that exceeded what was necessary to pay for each person’s salvation could be used to help the spiritual accounts of repentant sinners who had no shot at the high price. The pope held the keys to the vault, allowing that surplus of merit to be sold off through indulgences.
Luther took a hard stance against this. He pointed out that Scripture taught that only Christ’s life and sacrifice could meet salvation’s costly expense. Jesus’s merit alone counted before God. And Jesus was the only one who decided who received his merit through grace.
For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. (Romans 10:12)
The idea that we can earn our salvation is a persistent one. I’ve been thinking that the problem isn’t that good deeds aren’t important to God. They are. Rather, it’s that we have too small a concept of what his holiness requires. It’s partly an issue of scale.
In our house, we collect loose coins in a beautiful jar. It doesn’t take long to fill it up. But imagine that our receptacle was a swimming pool. Or that we were dropping our coins into a stadium. Imagine now that we were throwing our change into the Grand Canyon and you’d get a bit closer to the demands of a perfect God.
Which should fill us with awe and wonder that Christ could meet such a demand through his perfect life, and purchase our salvation for us through his substitutionary death.
That silver dollar’s value was constricted by time and culture. The riches of Jesus are “vast, unmeasured, boundless, free.” Through faith, they’re ours. And God’s intent is to spend eternity showing us “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” (Eph. 2:7)
Jesus, forgive us for ever thinking that we could add to your saving work with our paltry good works. We receive your riches as a gift, knowing that you choose to give us eternal life simply because you love us. We’ll never understand why you love us so. But we are eternally grateful.