Hanging in St. Mary’s Church in Wittenberg is a painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder.
The scene depicted in the painting has Martin Luther standing in the pulpit, with one finger pointing to the Bible before him and another finger outstretched before him. In the middle of the painting is Jesus Christ who is hanging on the cross and adorned in white.
Undergirding the other paintings on the altarpiece that represent core Reformation theological teaching, the very location of this painting at the base of the altarpiece proclaims something central.
Jesus Christ alone is the very foundation of the Reformation — and life itself. Jesus Christ alone is the only hope people have, both then and now.
The truth of this good news is found in the ways people have been challenged by it, not only in the time of the Reformation but also well before and after it, even in the time and place in which we now live.
Some are challenged by the good news that it is Jesus Christ alone who is our only hope and salvation precisely because it seems so singular in its exclusivity.
“Sure,” some might say, “Jesus Christ is our salvation. Jesus Christ is our hope. But our only salvation and our only hope?” Questions like this come on the heels of postmodern suspicion of anything that looks like a foundation upon which to stand or live. Still others raise questions like this precisely because this confession challenges what we know through other fields of inquiry such as the natural sciences.
Still others raise questions such as this at another level. The question of whether Jesus Christ alone can be our hope and salvation comes because of a fear that Jesus Christ alone might not be enough for us.
This is one of the real problems people have with the confession of Jesus Christ alone as our sole source of hope and salvation: Will Jesus Christ save us? Will Jesus Christ be our hope? Will Christ make room enough for us and for those for whom we care?
Exclusive and inclusive
Another problem people have with the confession of Jesus Christ alone is this: What of those who do not believe in Jesus Christ alone? Will they be cast into hell? What of those who are good people, but still don’t believe that Christ alone is their hope and salvation? Is all hope and salvation lost for them?
These are vexing and persistent questions. At one level or another, these questions raise just how exclusive “Christ alone” is on the one hand, and how inclusive “Christ alone” is on the other. Some grow nervous at the very questions, because to answer them, they fear, might either alienate or tread on the border of heresy.
These questions are neither philosophical nor hypothetical. These questions come from people who know the weight of sin and suffering, death and separation, despair and hopelessness.
These questions call on us to do something more than speculate. They call on us to proclaim the hope that is within us. These questions call on us to proclaim the radical exclusivity and inclusivity of Christ alone who is for and with us.
It is Jesus Christ alone who dies and is raised from death for our sake. In his crucifixion, Christ destroys and thus excludes the ultimate power of sin, death and the devil himself on us.
In his resurrection, Christ excludes the need for us to see salvation as a self-help program, as something we need to help out with at any level. In and for the sake of Jesus Christ alone, salvation is a gift given freely and fully to and for you.
Through his death and resurrection for our sake, the confession of Jesus Christ alone is also radically inclusive. The Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8,”nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.”
This “nothing” is actually something in which we can take refuge and rest. Since Jesus Christ loves sinners, Christ does not separate himself from us, but finds every way he can think of to come among us.
Where human promises of love and fidelity fail, Christ is steadfast and true, even to those who have no right to claim Christ as their own because the weight of their sin is so great. Jesus Christ alone does not and will not give up on us. His descent into hell itself for our sake is proof enough. We are his, and he is ours.
Jesus Christ alone is enough for us — and then some!
Paul Lutter is a visiting instructor at Gustavus Adolphus College. He is working toward his Ph.D. from Luther Seminary.