To God Alone Be Glory

“To God Alone Be Glory”

1 Tim 1-17 immortal, invisible, words

1 Timothy 1:12-17 (1:17) – October 8, 2017

When I was young, I was a member of a Lutheran church on the northwest side of Chicago, baptized and confirmed Lutheran, and well trained in liturgical practice and classic hymnody. Later in high school and into my twenties, I spent a number of years in Evangelical churches. I memorized dozens of bible verses, learned pietistic practices, and completed an undergraduate degree in church music from a local bible college. I sang many beloved old hymns and gospel songs, including “Rock of Ages,” “Amazing Grace,” “Blessed Assurance,” and “To God Be the Glory.”

It’s this last gospel song I would like to quote: “To God be the glory—great things He hath done! So loved He the world that He gave us His Son, Who yielded His life an atonement for sin, And opened the Life-gate that all may go in.”

“To God be the glory!” Exactly the topic of my sermon today. Pastor Kevin asked me to preach on one of the “solas,” the foundations or main principles of the Protestant faith. Soli Deo Gloria is one of the “solas” or “onlies” of the Reformation. As we remember Martin Luther and his posting of the 95 Theses, or grievances against the Catholic Church on that chapel door in the town of Wittenberg in October 1517, this October 31, 2017 is the 500th anniversary of his brave act that sparked the Protestant Reformation.

“Soli Deo Gloria,” or, to God alone be glory, is one of the foundational principles that sets Protestants apart. One of the rallying cries of the Reformation, this principle meant that all glory (and honor and worship) is due to God, alone. Not God plus the saints, not God plus the Virgin Mary, not God plus the church hierarchy. God alone is worthy of our glory—and only God is to be worshipped. That was one principle that Protestants were willing to die for, and did.

Our Scripture reading today comes from 1 Timothy 1, starting at verse 12. Paul states: “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that He considered me trustworthy, appointing me to His service.” Paul is just overflowing with thankfulness here. He is absolutely grateful to the Lord Jesus for extending His grace to Paul and designating Paul a worker for God, in the service of Jesus Christ.

Just to refresh everyone’s memories, the Apostle Paul was not always a follower of Christ. Before he had that sudden, come-to-Jesus experience on the Damascus Road, Paul was called Saul. He was a Pharisee of the Pharisees, and an up-and-coming member of the Sanhedrin—the ruling council of the Jews in Jerusalem. Saul/Paul had studied at the equivalent of the University of Tarsus, a cosmopolitan city where he grew up, in modern-day Turkey. He saw this breakaway sect of Jews following some “false Messiah” as a clear danger to the worship of the one God who made heaven and earth.

Paul tells us himself what his personal situation was—in brief—in the next verse of 1 Timothy 1: “13 Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.” Sure, Saul/Paul was a fire-breathing zealot, ready to grab these “Christians” off the street and throw them in prison. As he himself states, Paul was formerly “a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man.”

How on earth could God use someone awful like this? A self-admitted bad guy, too! But, wait. This isn’t the end of the story. Not by a long shot. Jesus steps into the picture.

What does Paul say in the next verse? “14 The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” What happened? Jesus Christ happened. God’s grace was poured out on Paul, and he had a true conversion experience. He once was blind but suddenly was given the gift of sight—spiritual sight.

Here in this letter to Timothy, the Apostle Paul gives his testimony. He tells everyone what a rotten guy he was, and how God reached down and saved him, and what’s more, put Paul into his service. In many Baptist and Evangelical churches, “the sharing of testimony was [and is] a vital practice of faith. Such sharing of stories, such narrating of God’s faithfulness in our lives was not a moment to extol the speaker’s virtues as a follower of Jesus so much as a way to name God’s acting.” [1]

Paul certainly had a different kind of past life, before coming to Christ, and he definitely remembered aspects of that life. We can see that from these two verses: “15 Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His immense patience as an example for those who would believe in Him and receive eternal life.”

We can hear rumblings of several other “solas” from our Reformation in these verses, can’t we? Sola Fide—faith alone, and Sola Gratia—grace alone, and certainly Solus Christus—by Christ alone. It is at this earthshaking, deep emotional point that Paul can’t stand it any more and breaks into a glorious doxology: “17 Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

If we are paying close attention to what he just said, it is at this point that we—all of us—ought to join Paul on our knees and lift our arms to God in praise and awe and honor and glory. Here, in brief, is the tremendous order of events that Paul wrote about at the beginning of his letter to Timothy. Saul/Paul was “the chief of sinners,” came face to face with Jesus, went into God’s service, had his life amazingly changed, and wrote a glorious doxology about it.

Look at this Protestant principle from the point of view of the 1500’s. Was it God—plus the saints, or the Virgin Mary—that caused such a life-changing experience for Paul? I think not. Was it God—plus the church hierarchy—that made Paul do a complete 180 degree turn? No, not that either. It was God alone who brought Paul to his knees. God alone, God’s grace and mercy in Paul’s life, heart and soul had a life-changing effect on Paul. Heart-changing and soul-changing, too!

Sadly, in Martin Luther’s day, many people had (in effect) contingency plans for their salvation. Or, add-ons to get to heaven. For example, they would believe in Jesus Christ and His atonement—plus prayers to the saints; or Jesus Christ and His blood shed on the cross—plus the petitions of the Virgin Mary. All of these additional things were and are blessings, and were and are embraced by people all over the world. Just not to be elevated to the point of worship.

However, Martin Luther and John Calvin and the other Reformers said that it is God alone who was to receive our worship, honor and glory. That is what bursts out of Paul here in 1 Timothy 1. “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, In light inaccessible, hid from our eyes. Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days, Almighty, victorious—Thy great name we praise.”

Which leads us to our response. Yes, we can celebrate! Yes, such a marvelous God is truly to be given all praise. Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God and to the Lamb.

But, some of us do not readily burst into speech that might be mistaken as quotes from the King James version of the Bible. I was moved by several paragraphs of a recent book by the noted Christian author Anne Lamott. It comes from the third section of the book “Help Thanks Wow,” which is an exploration of three essential prayers that we all pray at one time or another.

“The third great prayer, Wow, is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty or destruction, of a sudden unbidden insight or an unexpected flash of grace. “Wow” means we are not dulled to wonder.” [2]

Isn’t this another way of expressing Paul’s glorious doxology? It might not be as elegant, but if the Holy Spirit can take the deep, wordless groanings of our hearts and make them understood in prayer, why not the heartfelt, or exuberant, or awestruck simple “Wow!”

As the Reformers tell us, all of us are sinners, saved by God’s grace. So, all of us can say with Paul that God alone is to be worshiped—to God alone be the glory.

We can see from the life of the apostle Paul as well as from the lives of countless followers of Christ throughout the centuries, God can use anyone whom God wishes to use. Paul’s heart-stirring testimony can move us to pray, to serve, to live for God. Our Lord Jesus can take us, wherever and whomever we are, and use us. Here I am, God. Here are we. Send me. Send us.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3034 , September 11, 2016, Eric Barreto

[2] Help Thanks Wow, Anne Lamott, (United States of America: Riverhead Books, published by the Penguin Group, 2012) 71.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)