This morning we're going to continue in our study of some of the major theological reforms that occurred in the life of the church during the 15th and 16th centuries AD. This is a time in church history that we refer to as the Reformation, and it is a time in which the darkness of the traditions of man that had invaded the church centuries before was shattered by the Light of the truth of the word of God.
Last week we looked at the very foundation of all of these changes that occurred in the church -- which is the fact that the reformers found the Bible alone to be the sufficient authority for everything as pertains to salvation and to the church and to everything necessary for a Christian life.
No tradition, no institution, no interpreter, no person has authority above the Word of God.
This truth is encapsulated in the phrase Sola Scriptura, and it is so important that all the others which we're going to study over the coming weeks during the series all have their origin in the fact that the Bible alone is our authority.
We would have no insight or understanding into the major doctrines that affect the life of the church and the nature of our Salvation were it not for the fact that the Bible is the authoritative word of God. When the Bible speaks it is as if God speaks. And the Bible speaks God's thoughts clearly and plainly for all humanity to be able to understand for themselves, by aid of the Holy Spirit without the need of other interpreters to guide them.
And for today we’re going to consider the idea behind the phrase, Sola Fide. This principle encapsulates something we find in Scripture to be true -- that a person is justified before God through faith and through faith alone.
Among the many problems of the Roman Church in the 14th and 15th centuries AD, a glaring and critical error was this issue of the role of faith in salvation.
It was not difficult to realize through what was taught in the Roman Catholic Church in this day that faith was necessary for salvation to be sure, but it was not exclusively necessary for salvation. The general teaching of the church was that faith necessarily had to be accompanied by works of merit in order for it to be something that could yield justification. The church taught that justification was not by faith alone, but rather was by a combination of faith and works.
Let me try to explain what it was that the Roman Catholic Church taught that needed to be so direly reformed.
There are a number of important facets of the doctrine of salvation that we find in Scripture -- Redemption, election, conversion, regeneration. But one that is clearly a foundation for the rest is the doctrine that we refer to as justification.
Justification refers to legal or judicial realities. It deals with how a person can legally or rightly have the grounds to have fellowship with God. To be justified before God is to be fit for fellowship with him in his sight. It is to be declared righteous. Not MADE righteous, but rather regarded or counted as righteous in God's eyes.
And the question that lay at the heart of our thinking behind the idea of faith alone is this -- Does God justify a sinner solely because of their faith, or also because of their works? Or, we could ask it this way -- Are works required for justification?
The Roman Catholic Church in the 1400s and 1500s had come to the place where they clearly and fervently taught that faith could not justify a person alone. The church taught that faith could bring a person into a relationship with God such that he could get to the point of justification, but that faith didn't do the whole job. The Council of Trent in the mid-1500s even made this notion explicit, and indicated that it could not be contradicted.
And so by holding this position, the Roman Catholic Church could say that it was faithful to certain texts such as Hebrews 11:6 which says that without faith it is impossible to please God. The official canons of the church state that “without faith no one has ever attained justification, nor will anyone obtain eternal life.”
This sounds correct for sure -- to say that without faith no one will be justified -- but we have to listen carefully to the way in which the Roman Church has worded their position on faith and justification. They teach that without faith no one can attain to justification, which implies that faith isn't sufficient in and of itself to render someone justified before God.
According to the Roman Catholic Church, when a person is justified on account of the sacrament of faith, which they believe to be baptism, that persons have merely taken the first step towards attaining justification. They hold that justification is a cooperative work, between God and the sinner. Part of the work of justification has to do with God and part of the work of justification has to do with the works of the sinner.
This viewpoint could not be more explicit in Rome’s official doctrines, where they state that “justification establishes cooperation between God's grace and man's freedom.” And they indicate that man is obligated to express that freedom, as it says, “in cooperation of charity.”
So to the Roman Church “justification” is no more than an initiation to walk upon the road of works to attain to real justification.
The church taught that your justification could never even be completed in this lifetime, because you would have accrued an immense volume of sins that you could never atone for in one lifetime. Therefore the doctrine of purgatory was invented in order to facilitate a means by which partially justified sinners who died could eventually become fully justified thus merit heaven.
The church taught that your justification could be lost completely if you committed a mortal sin. If you died without going through the proper rituals necessary as penance for mortal sins then you would be doomed to hell, even if you had formerly been justified in baptism.
But by far the most dangerous thing that the Roman Church taught concerning justification is that it was NOT fully and completely rendered to a person because of faith alone apart from works.
Martin Luther was a 16th century monk who was painfully plagued by a guilty conscience. He was tasked to teach on Romans to his students, and he could not reconcile the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding justification with what he read from scripture in Paul's letter to the Romans.
And his contentions lay in the fact that as he read through Romans chapters 1 through 3 he understood that Paul was arguing for the fact that all people rightly sit presently condemned in the eyes of God. He wrote:
“God has said that all mouths are shut... All men are ungodly and guilty, deserving to be punished by God. These things are so clear that no one can whisper a word against them!”
His point is this -- if being just before God is up to man, then all of us are equally hopeless. Because we are all guilty, and because our mouths of excuses have been completely stopped by the truth of God's holiness and our depravity, not a one of us would be capable of earning justification. It is not highly unlikely; it is absolutely impossible.
Luther looked at the church's teaching that justification was attained not just by faith but also by works and he could not reconcile it with the truth of the Word of God. And so he poured over Scripture for a series of years in order to find a resolution to his turmoil.
He continually compared Scripture with the teaching of the church and tried to find a satisfying answer to the question of how a person can be justified before God.
In all reality there is no more pressing question for any of us than this one: How can we be right with God?
Justification itself might sound like a fancy term, but all that the doctrine deals with is the idea of the holy Creator being rightly related to the sinful creature. To be justified in the biblical sense is to be considered in such a way by God so as to have his favor and not his wrath. All that is really necessary to be justified before God is to appear before God fit for fellowship with him.
Sounds simple enough, right?
Well let's just follow what Martin Luther would have been reading in the Book of Romans to see how simple this actually is.
We will begin in verse 16 of chapter 1 where Paul says that he is not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
In this verse, Paul is assuming something that he will develop soon in thorough detail -- which is the fact that everyone needs salvation. And he implies that no one could even dream of attaining to this salvation on their own because he says that the gospel is the power, or the enabling, or the working of God for salvation. His point is that salvation requires the effort of God.
And all of this truth concerning why it is that God must accomplish salvation for the sinner is thoroughly developed beginning in verse 18 of chapter one running throughout the rest of the next two entire chapters of his letter.
He begins in verse 18 saying that the wrath of God is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. And from there he launches into a comprehensive description of why it is that all men sit equally under God's continual condemnation because in their hearts they practice all forms of rebellious iniquity against his holy character.
In John chapter 3 Jesus says that those who do not believe are condemned already. And Paul here says that the wrath of God already rests against all who are unrighteous.
Friends, our situation is not that we have an entire life to live and then get to the end of it at which time God will render a verdict about us. We don't get to have 40, 50, 60, 70 years to live a life the best we can and hope that in the end we won't be condemned. No, Paul is saying that every single person without exception from the moment they are born is already condemned.
We aren't free citizens living our life the best that we can, only to be brought before a judge after we die. And then this judge would render a verdict of justification or condemnation based upon how we lived our lives. This is the prevailing notion in the world today even among those who go to church and consider themselves religious. Perhaps even among some of you -- you have the impression that you are in an evaluation period currently, and that God will assess your life later on.
But this is a completely false notion.
God has already rendered the verdict on us. He actually rendered the verdict on us back in the Garden of Eden when Adam sinned. Romans 5 tells us that in Adam all die. This means that because we are connected physically to Adam we all inherit the same condemnation that his sin deserved. All of us are born such that God's gavel of judgement has already swung. The hammer has already fallen and our sentences already been read for us.
We merely are waiting for the time to lead to our execution. We are trapped in a cell, prisoners only to the mercy of the judge. At whatever time he deems appropriate he can send the word for us to be lead forth to the gallows.
And all of this is right and just. we were born hating God in the sin of Adam.
We can see that Paul certainly thought this way from some of the things that he writes in Romans chapter 2. In verse 1 he says that we have no excuse, all of us who judge others, because when we judge others were actually condemning ourselves because we are guilty of the same thing that we are inviting others for. We all sit under the same condemnation.
And in verse 3 he says, do you suppose oh man you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself that you will escape the Judgment of God? It is insane for a person chained up in a cell on death row waiting for the executioner to think that he has any way of escaping what lay before him.
Paul goes through chapters 2 and 3 then of this letter completely demolishing any argument that Jews or Gentiles, or that seemingly good-natured people might throw against his contention that every person equally already sits under the Judgment of God. And he gets to the conclusion of this argument and says in Romans 3:19, now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight.
By the works of the law no human being will be justified. No person can be regarded as fit for fellowship with God on account of his own works. Again, this is not a matter of high improbability, but a matter of utter impossibility.
This conundrum is what Martin Luther wrestled with. How could the church teach that justification in it's full of sense -- that being fit for fellowship with God for eternity hinged in any way upon our efforts? Paul has made it abundantly clear that justification can never occur through works.
And so we go back for a moment to Paul's thesis statement in chapter 1 and verse 16 where he states that salvation -- and the justification which is a part of this salvation, can only come to the sinner on account of the Gospel. And then in verse 17 he says that the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written the righteous shall live by faith.
Luther said the following about how the truth of this text was made clear to him:
I began to understand that in this verse the justice of God is that by which the person lives by a gift of God, that is by faith. I began to understand that this verse means that the justice of God is revealed through the Gospel, but it is a passive justice, i.e. that by which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written: “The just person lives by faith.” All at once I felt that I had been born again and entered into paradise itself through open gates.
Pickowicz, Nate. Why We're Protestant: An Introduction to the Five Solas of the Reformation (Kindle Locations 1075-1078).
Luther saw correctly that this text tells us that God fits sinners to be right in his eyes -- that he justifies them all on account of only faith on their part.
The gospel is the message of truth that tells us that Jesus died in our place for our sins once for all on the cross, and then was resurrected from the grave in order to vindicate his perfection and God's satisfaction with his death. These gospel events -- the death and resurrection of Jesus -- are the actual grounds by which God is able to work justification, and what Paul tells us in these verses, and what Luthor has rightly interpreted, is the fact that God always accomplishes this gospel salvation of sinners by means of their faith alone. The actual justifying work of God on behalf of sinners is accomplished by means of no work of their own, but rather by the work of the Son of God who loved us and gave himself up for us all.
This is starkly different from what the church in in Luther’s day taught concerning justification. The common teaching of the church that Luther served in was that faith begins a cooperative work in the life of the sinner which will eventually attain to justification.
But what Paul clearly teaches is that there is no cooperative work. The work is entirely God’s. God accomplishes the gospel -- Jesus came to Earth, lived a perfect life, died for sinners on the cross, was raised the third day, and ascended it to the right hand of the father. This is the gospel that the God-man accomplished, and it is the only grounds by which justification can occur.
What do we think we have to add to Jesus perfectly obeying God for us and then dying for us?
What cooperation is there for us to engage in when we behold God himself suffering eternal hell for us on the cross? What else is there for us to do in order to put ourselves in a right standing before God?
If you come up with anything necessary to add to what Jesus accomplished in his life and death, then you have made an offensive mockery of the Gospel.
There is only one way to be justified before God. There is only one way to be fit for having fellowship with God... It is to have God himself strip you of all of the sinful offenses that you have willfully committed against him, and then to have him hurl them in righteous fury and indignation at the God-man, Jesus Christ, the son of God as he hung nailed to a Roman cross. and then it is for God to draw from the eternally pleasing and all satisfying righteous Glory of Christ and fashion for you a garment of radiant splendor, and then to clothe you with it and set you before himself.
And all of this has nothing to do with any of your work whatsoever. It has nothing to do with your intellect. It has nothing to do with your ability. it has nothing to do with your inherent goodness or your sincerity or your religious deeds or of your noble works of valor.
As Paul said a few chapters later in Romans chapter 4 and verse 3, “What does the scripture says? Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness. Now to the one who works his wages are not counted as a gift but as his do. And to the one who does not work -- which is referring to everyone who comes to the point of realization that there is no works that they could ever do to earn God's favor oh, these are the ones who do not work but as Paul says are those who believe in him who justifies the ungodly. And their faith is counted as righteousness.”
So everywhere we look in Scripture about this idea of justification, whether it is in Genesis 12 or Genesis 15 with Abraham or Psalm 32 or Habakkuk 2 or Isaiah 53 or John 10 and the teaching of the Good Shepherd, or Romans 1 through 4 or Galatians 1 through 3 or 2 Corinthians 5 or anywhere else that this glorious doctrine is expounded, we find that it has everything to do with the work of God and of Christ, and nothing to do with the work of man. But we also find that it also has everything to do with faith.
So what is faith?
Faith cannot be at work, because it is already been firmly established that justification could never come on account of any work. In fact, it must come apart from works entirely. If you bring your own works to the table then you will by no means find justification. If you bring any of your own deeds in order to find audience before God, then you will never find yourself fit to be in his presence. We come to him empty and only on the merits of the Son.
But we see clearly indicated that there is a connection between faith and justification. We become fit for fellowship with God on account of a faith that Scripture indicates actually belongs to us.
It's not a foreign faith. We are not justified because of the faith of our neighbor or or even because of the faith of Jesus. We are justified because of our own exercise of faith and belief in the gospel.
A quick survey through Romans 4 makes this very clear.
Romans 4:3. Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.
Subject = Abraham. Transitive verb = believed. Direct object = God.
The grammar in English as well as the original Greek could not be more clear that this is a faith, a belief that belongs to Abraham.
Verse 13 says that “the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.”
Here Paul compares and contrasts a righteousness which comes through the law and a righteousness which comes through faith. He’s saying that you either seek righteousness through your own keeping of the law, or you are seeking righteousness through your faith instead of your keeping of the law.
Verse 16 says “that is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring, not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham.”
Paul is not saying that we have the exact faith of Abraham -- it's not that Abraham is believing for us. But rather Paul is saying that the faith required for justification is of the same type of faith that Abraham demonstrated. And those of us who are justified share in the kind of faith that Abraham had.
And let us be very careful at this point to understand something of infinite importance.
If justification comes on account of faith like Abraham’s faith, we must be very clear in our thinking to realize that any faith unlike Abraham’s faith does NOT justify the sinner. That is to say that ONLY the faith which is like Abraham’s is the one which will result in a sinner being fit for fellowship with God.
There are more than one type of faiths in the world.
There is colloquial faith -- an imperfect and fallible confidence that people will do what they say they will do. There is systemic faith -- another imperfect and fallible confidence in the preservation of order and balance in the world around us. There is cognitive faith -- this faith is nothing more than knowledge; nothing more than apprehension of facts. There is reasonable faith -- an ability to agree with facts; to consent to something’s validity and truth. There is implicit dependent faith -- this is the kind of trust that you are exercising in your pew bench right now.
But NONE of these are the precise kind of faith as Abraham had. His faith was all of these other kinds combined...and then much, much more. His faith was FAR more than the confidence you put in the chair you sit in.
All of those kinds of faith I just described are but natural manifestations of trust. But the faith of Abraham that warranted justification is one that is altogether supernatural in every respect.
Let me begin to make this clear by what Paul says next in Romans 4.
Verse 19 says that Abraham did not weaken in faith when he considered the logistical difficulties to bearing a son with Sarah in his old age. This is interesting because it indicates to us that the faith that Abraham first evidenced when he believed God and was justified was a kind of faith that was able to grow.
Instead of growing weaker in his faith Abraham grew stronger in his faith. This indicates to us very clearly that it's a faith that certainly belonged to Abraham, if it was one that could grow stronger as he grew older. We see the same thing in verse 20 where Paul says that “no distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”
And then we get to verse 22 where Paul writes an important key concerning why we should make such a big deal about the kind of faith that Abraham had.
Paul says, “that is why his faith was counted to him as righteousness.” He's referring to what he just wrote in verses 19 through 21 where he indicated that Abraham's Faith grew stronger and that he was fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.
Because his faith was this special, supernatural kind of faith that grew and was fully convinced of what God promised (and it was even more than this we learn from James) -- because Abraham’s faith was such, it was counted to him as righteousness.
The point Paul is trying to make is that there is only one kind of faith which justifies.If Abraham had a merely natural faith that anyone could conjure up, he would NOT have been counted righteous on account of it.
Martin Luther called this kind of faith fides viva, which is Latin for “a living faith.” Faith that justifies the sinner is one that lives - it grows and it functions as a living thing should function. It does what it’s supposed to do, which is to hold fully onto the promise of God, AND it grows in what it’s supposed to do.
The implications of this kind of faith are astounding.
How does faith grow?
Jesus tells the Apostles in Luke 17 that the way to increase faith is by decreasing in your own sense of value and greatness. Does that sound like something any of us will naturally do?
And what does it mean to hold fully onto the promises of God?
It means that you believe everything in the Bible. It means that you believe that God is just to destroy every person in the Lake of Fire. It means that you believe that a Jewish carpenter who lived 2000 years ago was actually born of a virgin, was conceived of the Holy Spirit, was God in flesh, that he never sinned, that he always obeyed God, was nailed to a Roman cross, that he suffered eternal hell for his people in 3 hours, that he chose to die, that he walked out of the tomb 3 days later and that he ascended to heaven where he now sits at the right hand of God.
Is anyone naturally convinced FULLY of these things?
Yet this is the faith of Abraham -- the kind of faith that justifies the sinner.
And the supernatural faith of Abraham that Paul wrote about in Romans 4 -- the faith which grew and held firmly to the promises of God -- is the same faith that James wrote about in his epistle, in chapter 2.
James 2:14 - “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?”
And then a few verses later he brings Abraham as an example for his readers of true saving justifying faith.
James 2:21–24 - “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works;and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God.You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
Paul says that faith grows and holds onto the promises of God. So why would it astonish us that James says that faith must be accompanied by works? Is that an unreasonable thing to be true? Of course not.
Works do not result in justification. Only faith results in being right with God. But a faith that does not also result in works in NOT the kind of faith that results in justification.
The Catholic view of faith and works and justification could be summarized in this formula -- Faith plus works results in justification. But the true, biblical understanding of faith and works and justification is actually this formula -- Faith results in justification and works.
Rome has moved works into the wrong side of the formula. But please realize that works still belong in the formula!
If yours is a faith that does not also produce true works of righteousness -- what Paul in Galatians 5 calls the fruit of the Spirit; what John the Baptist in Matthew 3 calls the fruits which naturally follow repentance. If your faith does not result in such fruitful works, then it is impossible for you to have justification. Because it is only a faith which necessarily results in works that justifies.
And we also find throughout the NT that the faith like Abraham’s that justifies the sinner is something that is supremely valuable (1 Pet. 1:7), supremely powerful (Matt. 17:20), supremely victorious (1 John 5:4), supremely reconciliatory (Rom. 5:1), supremely established (1 Cor. 2:5), supremely illuminating (2 Cor. 5:7), supremely motivating (Gal. 2:20), supremely emboldening (Eph. 3:12), supremely intimate (Eph. 3:17), supremely effective (Eph. 6:16), supremely stabilizing (Col. 2:5, 7), and supremely life-giving (Col. 2:12).
So you might think: “It’s impossible to have that kind of faith!”
The apostle John affirms this in 1 John 5:1 where he writes: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God.”
To believe rightly about the person of Christ we know to be a mark of the kind of faith that justifies. And John here says clearly that what is the thing which precedes and enables this kind of faith?
The new birth. Having been born again, we can believe like Abraham.
The miracle of being born again grants to the sinner the faith necessary for justification.
The supernatural work of God in regeneration grants a supernatural faith to the sinner which results in his supernaturally-declared justified standing before God.
It’s a work of God from the very beginning. Which is our topic for next Sunday.
But perhaps you're here as a Christian and you are going through a season in which you wrestle with doubts about your own salvation. Did I believe hard enough? Do I really believe the right thing?
Or perhaps you're here and you're not sure if you have ever experience this kind of faith before. You might have had a faith that was confirmed by outward acts, perhaps a baptism or confirmation. You might have had a faith that you believed was initiated upon the recitation of a prayer or of a life commitment. But you don't have a faith that grows and endures through testing and results in righteous works.
So how can we be assured that we have true justifying faith? Or how do you take a first step towards having this faith if you know that you don’t yet have it?
I believe the best place for us to go is to what Paul himself says here in Romans 4 and verses 4 and 5. He writes: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.”
If you are working, then what comes to you as a result of your work is what you have earned and it is no gift. If you are laboring and striving in order to gain assurance that you have justifying faith, then you are always going to find fault with your faith. Because if justification and faith were left up to ourselves then we would certainly miss the mark.
And in contrast to wages for our labor, he says this in verse 5: “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith (or, that kind of faith that this person has) is counted as righteousness.”
Paul clearly says that the kind of faith which is counted as righteousness is completely opposed to work for wages.
What is the direct opposite of work?
This is the same thing as believing in him who justifies the ungodly. Which is believing in God who works salvation through the gospel. This is the same thing as believing in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
Either God's provision of atonement for your sins is sufficient to you or it isn't.
Either rest in what God has provided to justify you in his sight or don't.
Either give up all efforts to earn the favor of God and rest in the provision of Jesus Christ Alone, or work through your religious deeds to try to earn it and end up with only reaping the reward of his eternal judgement instead.
The opening question of the New City Catechism goes like this:
“What is our only hope in life and death?”
Answer: “That we are not our own but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Savior Jesus Christ.”
Our only hope in all things is that we belong to Christ. That he holds us. That he is gracious to us. That we would be united to him. And so we rest in that hope.
This is the essence of Sola Fide.