Sola Fide: Faith Alone!
Topic: Protestant Reformation Passage: Galatians 2:16, Romans 1:17, Hebrews 1:1–1:3, John 1:11–1:12, Romans 3:21–3:24
“THE 5 SOLAS OF THE REFORMATION
SOLA FIDE: FAITH ALONE”
Galatians 2:16, Romans 1:17, Hebrews 1:1-3, John 1:11-12, Romans 3:21-24
If you have been to Niagara Falls, then the name Charles Blondin may be familiar to you. During the mid-19th century, this Frenchman gained international fame by performing the feat of walking across the Niagara Gorge by tightrope, a distance of 1100 feet and suspended 160 feet above the raging Niagara River.
Blondin performed the feat numerous times, often adding theatrical variation to his act. At times he would do so blindfolded, or on stilts, or carrying a man on his back across the 3¼-inch cable. One day, after having pushed a wheelbarrow across, he turned to the gathering of amazed onlookers and called out, “How many of you believe that I could put a person in this wheelbarrow and push them across the Falls on the tightrope?” Everyone cheered and screamed, “Yes, we believe.”
And then he asked for a volunteer. At first the crowd emitted nervous laughter, but they soon grew very quiet when they realized he wasn’t joking. In fact, only one man stepped forward.
We have set aside the month of October to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a movement which began when Martin Luther nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” to the church door in Wittenberg. The Protestant faith that you and I cling to this morning can be traced to that event, for it was there that the clear proclamation of salvation “by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone” was once again heard.
Today we arrive in the fourth message of our series on the great doctrines of the Reformation: “Sola Fide,” “faith alone.” Emerging out of the darkness of the Middle Ages, the Reformers discovered that it was “by faith” that a person was justified or “declared righteous” before God. As far back as Genesis 15:6, we read that Abraham “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” It wasn’t that the patriarch was “made righteous” by any works that he had done. Rather, it was because he believed the promise of God that “righteousness” or “justification” was credited to his account. In other words, he was “declared righteous” by “the Judge of all the earth” (Genesis 18:25).
You see, “justification” is the legal verdict handed down by the Lord to those whose faith is toward Him. Because He is a holy and just God, He demands perfect righteousness on the part of all His creatures. That is, of course, a standard which none of us is able to attain. Jesus was the only One who ever walked this earth who was able.
Long after Abraham, the prophet Habakkuk (2:4) confirmed that “The righteous shall live by his faith.” The New Testament writers repeatedly refer to that same truth (cf. Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:11, and Hebrews 10:38). But let’s be clear. Faith is not some nebulous notion that if we just “believe strongly enough” in some undefined concept, that will be sufficient to get us through this life and into the next. No, Luther was right when he said, “Faith is no faith without an object, and the only saving faith is in the saving One.”
Perhaps as much as any other single passage, the one that drove Luther away from the darkness of Roman Catholicism to a clear understanding of saving faith was found in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians. There, in chapter 2 and verse 16, Luther and countless others after him discovered these liberating and life-giving words: “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
“Faith alone in Christ alone!” How important it is for us to understand that it is not in the level of our faith, but in the perfect righteousness of the Lord Jesus, that one is able to have right standing with God. As Luther reminded Philip Melanchthon, the man who would succeed him, “The Gospel lies entirely outside of you.” It is by “faith alone” that we appropriate the benefits of Jesus Christ.
Therefore, as we explore “Sola Fide” this morning, we need to see that biblical faith—the faith that justifies, the faith that saves—involves three essential components...knowledge, belief, and trust.
Approaching these three components individually, we see first that...
Faith must begin with knowing (Romans 1:17, Hebrews 1:1-3).
Faith is not, as some would suppose, a blind leap of faith or a step in the dark. It begins with content that is knowable, because faith without content is not faith at all. “Objectless faith” is more akin to a “feeling.” R.C. Sproul has rightly observed that “I cannot have God in my heart if He is not in my head.”
Martin Luther knew that he was a sinner, and he knew that his fate rested entirely in the hands of God. But it wasn’t until he came to understand the meaning of Romans 1:17 that the light of the Gospel began to shine in his life. It was there that he found the words that would end up changing his life forever: “The righteous shall live by faith.” He had read them before...many times. But one day he came to “know” what they meant.
Our knowledge of God begins with creation itself. Psalm 19:1 says that “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” And while creation bears magnificent testimony to the reality of God, that information alone is incomplete in leading a person to saving faith. That’s why the psalmist added that “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul” (Psalm 19:7). Saving knowledge of God is revealed through the Scriptures.
That is because the Scriptures point us to Jesus. That is their purpose. We read in Hebrews 1(:1-3) that “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through who also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that Jesus Christ is the full and final revelation of God. As Romans 10:17 says, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Because the “faith alone” that saves is faith in Christ, faith must begin with knowing about this One.
The Holy Spirit does not call us to “faith” in general, but to “faith” in particular...to faith in the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. But before this faith can be born within us, there must first be the knowledge of the One in whom that faith is to be placed. This is why the Reformers stressed not only the translation of the Scriptures in the language of the people, but basic literacy as well. People needed to be able to read the Bible and see God’s Word for themselves.
While working on his English translation of the Bible, William Tyndale told a Catholic scholar over dinner one evening, “I defy the Pope and all his laws...If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plow, shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.” A few years later, at age 42, Tyndale paid for that pledge with his life. He was strangled to death and then his body was burned. His last words were, “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes.”
John Calvin wrote that “The object of faith is Christ,” and that “faith rests upon knowledge, not upon pious ignorance.” He went on to elaborate in his classic work, Institutes of the Christian Religion,
We do not obtain salvation either because we are prepared to embrace as true whatever the church has prescribed, or because we turn over the task of inquiring and knowing. But we do so when we know that God is our merciful Father, because of reconciliation effected through Christ (2 Cor. 5:18, 19), and that Christ has been given to us as righteousness, sanctification and life. By this knowledge, I say, not by submission of our feeling, do we obtain entry into the Kingdom of Heaven.
The content of which the Reformers—and we—speak is the information communicated by the Bible. This content includes the facts that God exists, that He entered history in the God-Man Jesus Christ, and that the foundation of our faith rests in the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and future return of that same One. Apart from a cognitive apprehension of these facts there is no true biblical faith, regardless of what some may call it.
So let me amplify the fact that it isn’t actually faith that saves a person. It is faith in Christ alone that saves. It is not the amount of faith that a person possesses, but rather the Object of one’s faith that saves and sustains.
To have the kind of faith that justifies a sinner, one must first of all understand who Jesus is and what He is all about. But that is not enough. As Paul reminded a 1st-century church of young believers, “knowledge (by itself) puffs up” (cf. 1 Corinthians 8:1). It is not enough to know about Jesus, but...
Knowing must lead to believing (John 1:11-12).
The faith that justifies must begin with the knowledge of that solid foundation upon which to build. But knowledge alone will not save. Some of us are familiar with the YouTube video entitled “Interview with an Atheist.” In it an intelligent young man speaks eloquently of the Christian faith, clearly explaining the purpose of Jesus’ death and rehearsing the biblical mandate to repent and believe the Gospel. His knowledge of the Bible appears impeccable, and it is not until the end of the video that the young man reveals that he is an atheist. He knew the content well, but didn’t believe a word of it.
The next essential component of faith is to believe what we know. The word “believe” (“πιστευω”) is actually the verbal form of the noun, “faith” (“πιστιs”). It is perhaps the most personally relevant word in all of Scripture. “Whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). To “believe” means “to give intellectual assent” to something or “to agree with” it. It is possible for someone to know the content of Scripture well and still be lost, if that content has not reached the level of “belief.”
When he introduced Jesus in his Gospel account, John wrote that “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to those who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:11-12). When the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas how he might find salvation, the response was “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). Belief must proceed from our knowledge.
To be a Christian, I must know that Jesus died on the cross, and then believe that His act was sufficient to pay the penalty for my sins and bridge the chasm that separates me from the Father. My mind must regard as true the content of the faith if I am to truly be a believer.
An illustration of this second point would be the conversion of John Wesley in 1738. As strange as it may seem, the founder of Methodism had been an active preacher before his conversion, but the Gospel had never truly affected him at a personal level. He had believed, in a sense, but he did not really love Christ or trust Him personally. One evening he went to a small Christian gathering on Aldersgate Street in London, where someone was reading from Martin Luther’s “Preface” to the Epistle to the Romans. Wesley later wrote,
About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation. And an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and save me from the law of sin and death.
Again, in his Institutes, Calvin writes,
It now remains to pour into the heart itself what the mind has absorbed. For the Word of God is not received by faith if it flits about the top of the brain, but when it takes root in the depth of the heart that it may be an invincible defense to withstand and drive off all the stratagems of temptation.
Luther would have agreed, writing earlier that “Genuine faith is hammered out on the anvil of temptation and trial.” Every belief that you and I is inevitably be tested. The genuineness of our faith will over time be revealed (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
Numerous evangelists and theologians from the early 19th-century preaching of Charles Finney to today deny and caricaturize the biblical doctrine of justification through Christ’s imputed righteousness on the basis of faith. To remove the doctrine of Christ’s imputed righteousness from our creeds and statements of faith is to strip away the essence of Christianity. If the righteousness of Jesus is not credited to our account, then what are we left with? Upon what basis are we able to hope for “right standing” with God.
While we must believe in order to be saved, we must believe the right things. This is precisely why the Old Testament is not outmoded, and why the Law must continue to be taught and preached from pulpits today. It is by the Law that we learn of sin, are convicted of our guilt, have our desperate need exposed, and are led to Christ (cf. Galatians 3:19-26). That was the core of the Protestant Reformation five hundred years ago, and it is still the essence of the Gospel today. We are sinners and must believe that salvation comes to us “by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone.”
The Scriptures insist that we are all “dead in (our) trespasses and sins” (cf. Ephesians 2:1), and hopelessly unable to remedy our damnable condition apart from the saving work of Jesus Christ. The reason that is hard to believe that today, is that most pulpits no longer preach it. In its place is substituted a “feel good gospel,” one that is no “gospel” at all.
The Apostle Paul delineated the Gospel’s true content in 1 Corinthians 15(:1-4) when he wrote, “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures...he was buried...(and) he was raised on the third day.” We must know those facts, and we must believe them, for there is no other “gospel” by which we are saved.
Faith is that attitude of the heart that moves from no longer believing in ourselves to believing in Another. It is believing that the source of our justification is the grace of God, the ground of our justification is the work of Christ, and the means of our justification is faith. But even then, something is missing. We can know and we can believe, but until we attach the third component, we fall short of the biblical description of saving faith. That third component is that...
Believing must result in trusting (Romans 3:21-24).
Faith is effectual only if one personally trusts in “Christ alone” for salvation and justification. Trusting extends beyond “belief” or intellectual assent because it “relies” and “rests comfortably” in the One who has given the promise. We can say that we believe in justification by faith alone and yet still think that we are going to get to heaven by our own achievements, our works, or our striving. It is one thing to get the doctrine of justification into our heads, but quite another to get it into our bloodstream.
In addition to reliance, trust also brings with it the aspect of affection. The reason an unregenerate person doesn’t come to Christ is because he does not want Jesus, much less love Him. In his mind and heart, he is fundamentally at enmity with the things of God and hostile toward Christ. He sees no need for a Savior, preferring rather to trust oneself. It is only when the Holy Spirit invades the heart that an affection for Jesus and a reliance upon Him and an affection for Him are born.
Many of us grew up having been taught that if we just “believe in Jesus” and pray the so-called “sinner’s prayer,” we are safe and secure. Many continue to cling to such a “profession of faith,” even though subsequent years have provided little evidence to its reality. Oh, they may “believe in Jesus,” have been baptized and joined a local church, but that is the extent of their religious commitment. Let us not forget James’ word of caution at stopping at “belief” as the measure of one’s faith. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” he reminded us (cf. James 2:19). To give intellectual assent to the things of God only elevates a person from the status of a pagan to the level of a demon! The New Testament teaches that the individual must act upon the content which he knows to be true.
Trusting faith, which is the definition of the kind of faith that justifies, involves a radical change of values. The truly born again person is the one who now pursues intently that which he once despised. Before, the person saw nothing that was desirable about Jesus, but now he cannot imagine life without Him.
When Jesus came preaching the Gospel, His first message was to call people to “Repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). There can be no relationship with God apart from a genuinely repentant heart, one that no longer pursues sin and is willing to turn away from it. The 19th-century Anglican bishop, J.C. Ryle, described how this kind of faith affects the whole person, when he wrote...
Saving faith is the hand of the soul. The sinner is like a drowning man at the point of sinking. He sees the Lord Jesus Christ holding out help to him. He grasps it and is saved. This is faith...
Saving faith is the eye of the soul. The sinner is like the Israelite bitten by the fiery serpent in the wilderness, and at the point of death. The Lord Jesus Christ is offered to him as the brazen serpent, set up for his cure. He looks and is healed. This is faith...
Saving faith is the mouth of the soul. The sinner is starving for want of food, and sick of a sore disease. The Lord Jesus is set before him as the bread of life, and the universal medicine. He receives it, and is made well and strong. This is faith...
Saving faith is the foot of the soul. The sinner is pursued by a deadly enemy, and is in fear of being overtaken. The Lord Jesus Christ is put before him as a strong tower, a hiding place, and a refuge. He runs into it and is safe. This is faith.
“Sola Fide!” As Paul reminds us in Romans 3(:21-24), “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
What that means, in language gleaned from the Westminster Confession of Faith, is that saving faith is not placed in God generically, nor in the church implicitly, but rests upon Jesus Christ particularly. It is personal trust and confidence in Christ and “Christ alone.” It is a heartfelt commitment, a casting oneself upon Jesus for pardon and mercy.
When our Lord called disciples to Himself, He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). The true believer is one who decisively and regularly says “no” to self, and “yes” to Jesus. His commitment to Christ is without qualification. It is total and absolute. The “cross” that he takes up is a symbol of dying to himself.
If that sounds like declaring Jesus to be the “Lord” of one’s life, that’s precisely what it is. Despite popular teaching to the contrary, Jesus cannot be Savior if He is not Lord. So-called “easy believism” and “making Jesus Lord” subsequent to salvation were doctrines that the Reformers knew nothing of. In fact, such notions are more closely akin to Roman Catholicism than to Reformation thought.
It is here where the relationship between faith and works must enter. Most of us are probably familiar with the classic statement found in James (2:17) that “faith without works is dead.” Luther himself stumbled over this because it seemed to conflict with Paul’s insistence that a person is saved “by grace...through faith...(and) not as a result of works” (Ephesians 2:8-9). There is no contradiction because Paul was speaking of the kind of faith that saves, whereas James was describing what saving faith looks like.
The historic position of the Catholic Church, and that against which the Reformers so strenuously fought, was that “faith + works = justification.” In response to that, the Reformers insisted that “faith = justification + works.” Or to say it another way, “it is faith alone that justifies, but the faith that justifies is never alone.”
Paul most certainly agreed with James in that regard, for right after saying that justification comes “by grace...through faith,” he added, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ephesians 2:10). So, let’s be clear. “Works” do not contribute in any way to the ground of our justification. As someone put it, they are the “fruit” and not the “root” of salvation. “Works,” therefore, are the evidence of saving faith. A faith from which no works flow is exposed as a counterfeit. Those who are saved will inevitably “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (cf. Matthew 3:8).
Calvin said that “Christ justifies no man without also sanctifying him.” Such individuals live by faith because they live from faith. Their trust in Christ springs from the belief they hold, which is founded on the true knowledge they possess. “Faith alone in Christ alone,” therefore becomes the controlling principle of their entire lives.
Martin Luther held “Sola Fide” to be “the article by which the church stands or falls.” John Calvin expressed the same thought when he called “faith alone” “the principal hinge on which (all true) religion turns.”
The first verse of Hebrews 11 serves to remind us that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” As with the testimonies of the men and women that are recorded in that chapter, we see that faith does not come without a cost. J.I. Packer wrote that “The life of faith is lived not on beds of ease, but on battlefields.” It is surely not for the faint of heart.
Not only was “Sola Fide” central to the Reformation and its widespread influence, but those two words still address the fundamental question that each of us must answer today. After all, life is short and eternity is long. One day we will stand before God. It is an encounter that we cannot escape and an appointment we each must keep. We should, therefore, constantly be living in the reality of that coming day. It is “by faith” that we are saved, and it is “by faith” that we must live each and every day.
Are you trusting anything or anyone else other than Jesus Christ as the means of your justification? If so, and if you persist, you will one day find the doors of heaven closed to you.
You and I should not view the Reformation as a remote history lesson, unrelated to us today. It is in the five “solas” where we find the heart of the Gospel and the key to missions and evangelism. Since the time of the Reformers every subsequent season of fruitful ministry has seen a renewed emphasis on “justification by faith alone.” The preaching of John Bunyan in the 17th century, Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield in the 18th century, and Charles Spurgeon in the 19th century—along with many who proclaimed the doctrine of “by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone” in the last century—demonstrate that to be the case. Who among us are willing to follow in their steps in our generation and leave a lasting legacy for the next.
Many had heard of Charles Blondin and knew of his amazing feat. They believed in his ability to cross the Niagara on a tightrope, and that is what they had gathered to see. But when the call came for a volunteer to get into the wheelbarrow, their belief was tested and found wanting. The only person who did get in was his agent, and he did so because he knew Blondin, believed in his ability to perform the feat, and was willing to entrust himself to him.
“Sola Fide!” No other doctrine so illustrates the sinfulness of man and the futility of his efforts to save himself.
No other doctrine so glorifies Christ as the sole ground of our salvation.
No other doctrine so establishes the security of the believer in Christ.
And no other doctrine is so vital to biblical preaching and effective ministry in this and every age.
That is why we must not relinquish it. And that is why the Reformation still matters.