“There’s something wrong with his heart. We’ve got to investigate this right away.” Those are fearful words because when there’s something wrong with your heart, you know it’s life threatening, or worse.

But if the doctor tells you, “He’s got a strong heart, this should be no lasting problem,” you have a good sign for hope, at least physically speaking.

So when we say something is at the heart and core of an issue, we’re talking about an absolute essential.

What is the “beating heart” of Christian teaching on the basis of Scripture? Simply this: “[W]e cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God through our merit, work, or satisfactions, but… we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for His sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us” (Augsburg Confession, Art. IV, Kolb and Wengert, pp. 38, 40).

Lutheran Biblical theology is more than a list of positions we take on the basis of Scripture, positions that one can take or leave separately. Our theology is of one piece, an organic whole and justification by faith and the forgiveness of sins in Christ are the beating heart of that organism.

What does that mean for us? How do we receive all this?

The Bible has many ways of showing this (to cover all of them would take a book), but here are some of the most common:

+ God declares us righteous, by grace for Christ’s sake.
+ Christ redeems us (buys us back) from sin and death by His blood and His innocent death for us.
+ Christ covers our sin with His goodness.
+ God forgives our sin for the sake of Christ, thatis, He removes the sin so that it no longer gets in the way of our relationship with Him.
+ “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
+ God declares us “not guilty” by reason of the death and resurrection of Christ for us.
+ Christ has defeated our enemies, sin, death and hell, rescuing us for His kingdom.

There are many more ways of describing what Christ has done, though they are all part of the teaching of “Justification” described in Article IV of the Augsburg Confession. In every instance, however, the benefits described are never earned by our action, but are always given by God’s action. We simply receive them through faith in Jesus Christ.

In short, we are saved by God’s grace alone, for the sake of Christ alone and this is received through faith alone. That’s how we can say, “faith alone saves.” Not because faith is so great a work, but because faith receives Christ and all Christ has done for us.

Here you have the “beating heart” of our teaching and of the life of the Church.

If anything else is allowed to crowd this teaching, there’s something wrong at the heart. For instance, should anyone say or imply, “Yes, Christ is our savior, but to be saved (or to know that you’re saved) you’ve also got to___,” it doesn’t matter what you put in the blank. You’ve got doctrinal heart trouble. And it’s serious.

Why? Whenever we are told to find comfort in anything or anyone other than Christ and His work for us, we can never be sure. Only Christ saves, only in Him are we sure of God’s favor. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2 NIV). 

It’s never our due, but always God’s gift, and the gift is given through faith in Jesus. “By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God…” (Ephesians 2:8). Everything in our teaching revolves around and comes back to this.

+ Herbert Mueller
First Vice President, LCMS