by David N. Samuel
When we consider this subject, we must remember the circumstances in which the Book of Common Prayer was compiled. It took shape in the crucible of the Reformation. A new light had dawned from the Scriptures. That light was the message of salvation which had lain hidden for centuries previously in the dark ages of the Church in Europe.
It is difficult for us today to appreciate what really happened, and how new this all seemed to the Reformers, both on the Continent and here in England. The way of salvation in the Church of the Middle Ages was that of good works. Good works, it was taught, made a good man, made a righteous man. Good works made it possible for you to stand before God and to be accepted by Him. However, in order to do those good works you had to receive grace to strengthen you. Grace, at that time, was thought of as a sort of thing or substance that you received automatically, (ex opere operato), through the sacraments, through baptism, through the mass, through penance, and through the prayers of the saints. It was unlikely that anyone would go directly to heaven because he would not be good enough (only a few, exceptional 'saints', might do that), and therefore every baptized Christian would have to spend time, a very considerable time, thousands of years, in purgatory after this life, where his sins would be purged out by fire.
That was broadly the scheme of salvation taught by the medieval Church. Then came the dawn of the Reformation. That dawn came from the great light that shone from the Bible. It was as if a bright light suddenly illuminated a room that had formerly been in darkness. The central message of the Scriptures, which the Reformers discovered, was this: that we are justified by grace, that is, the free mercy of God, and not by our works, not by our merits. We are justified, that is, declared righteous before God, by grace through faith alone, not by works, lest any man should boast.
This is the great emphasis of the New Testament. The Reformers rediscovered it. They found, by reading the New Testament in Greek, that "to be justified" does not mean "to be made righteous in ourselves", which is what the Latin translations seemed to imply, but rather "to be counted righteous" before God, for the merits of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. That put an entirely different complexion on things. "He [that is Christ] is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption" (1 Corinthians 1:30). At the heart of the Gospel message is the concept of "the great exchange". Christ, as the innocent and righteous One, came into the world to take our place as the guilty, condemned sinner and we, by the mercy and free grace of God, take His place, and are seen in the eyes of God as justified and righteous.
Let me quote from a passage by Martin Luther in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians which, I think, sets this forth so vividly:
"The doctrine of the Gospel speaketh nothing of our works or of the works of the Law, but of the inestimable mercy and love of God towards most wretched and miserable sinners; that our most merciful Father sent His only Son into the world and laid upon Him all the sins of all men, saying, 'Be Thou Peter that denier, Paul that persecutor, blasphemer and cruel oppressor, that sinner which did eat the apple in Paradise, that thief hanged upon the cross; briefly be Thou the person which hath committed the sins of all men. See, therefore, that Thou pay and satisfy for them.' Now cometh the Law and saith: I find Him a sinner, One that hath taken upon Him the sins of all men, and I see no sins but in Him, therefore let Him die upon the cross; and so it setteth upon Him and killeth Him. By this means the whole world is purged. God would see nothing else in the whole world, if it did believe, but a mere cleansing and righteousness."
Now that is the Gospel as set forth in the Scriptures, especially in the Epistles to the Romans and Galatians. That is the Gospel that our Reformers, Cranmer, Ridley, and Latimer, also rediscovered in the Bible: "The Lord our Righteousness", for we have no righteousness of our own. "He hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness" (Isaiah 61:10). This is the robe of Christ's imputed righteousness, counted to us who are sinners. We are still sinners even when we are saved, we are still sinners in ourselves, but we are righteous in the sight of God, because Christ's righteousness is credited or imputed to us by faith.
Now that is the teaching of the Thirty-Nine Articles, and of the Book of Common Prayer. When Cranmer and the other Reformers found afresh this teaching in the Bible, they incorporated it into the official teaching of the Church of England. Article 11 Of the Justification of Man, which is one of the fundamental articles, on which hinges the doctrine of the Church of England, as reformed and catholic, states,
"We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification."
If you refer to the Book of Homilies, you will find that the title is in fact not the Homily of Justification, but the Homily of Salvation. Did Cranmer make a mistake in calling it the Homily of Justification? No, but by so naming it he intended to show that salvation is justification by faith, and justification by faith is salvation. They are one and the same thing. Justification by faith is not a part of what it means to be saved, but the whole thing. Justification by faith is not just the entrance or beginning of the Christian's life, it is the whole of it from beginning to end.
Iain Murray, in his biography of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, writes that on one of the last occasions he saw Dr Lloyd-Jones, when he was dying, he said to Mr Murray: "I am nothing but an old sinner saved by grace." He was quoting the words of Daniel Rowlands, which underline this experience of the saints, that salvation is of grace, through faith, from beginning to end....
So you see, the Book of Common Prayer is full of the grace and salvation of God. It expresses clearly the Biblical Gospel, the Gospel of justification by grace through faith alone. The Book of Common Prayer is no random sequence of prayers and devotions, but through it all, undergirding it, informing it, and structuring it, is the Gospel of the free grace of God to us, in Jesus Christ. As a body is supported by its frame, by the bones, by the skeleton, which give it shape, beauty and strength; so it is with the Book of Common Prayer and its Biblical doctrines. It is the doctrines of grace that give it its real beauty, strength, and power. I am fully aware that it is composed in very beautiful language, and this has a special appeal, but its real strength and beauty, its lasting power, reside in the doctrine that informs and shapes it. The Book of Common Prayer and the true message of God's salvation in Jesus Christ are closely and inseparably conjoined.