Yours in Christ: Pastoral Letters from Resurrection, State College

Sola Fide: Faith Alone

Dear Resurrection,

The second of the five “solas” of the Reformation is sola fide, or “by faith alone.” If “grace alone” emphasizes God’s initiative in giving us the free gift of salvation, “faith alone” focuses on how we receive that gift.

To understand what sola fide is getting at, we need to understand clearly what the Bible means by “faith.” Many people use the word “faith” in a vague and general way, meaning little more by it than a feeling, perhaps of hopefulness or dependence on something bigger than yourself. But faith isn’t just a hazy sense of religiosity; true faith is (in the words of the Boston hit) “more than a feeling.”

Historically, theologians have spelled out three essential aspects of faith: knowledge, assent, and trust. Faith includes, first, being aware of certain facts, the core content of the gospel message. The gospel is, after all, good news—news about something that has happened, that God has done to save sinners. But faith is not just knowing about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (after all, “even the demons believe—and shudder,” James 2:19). It also means embracing the truth of that message, assenting to it in what Louis Berkhof calls “a deep conviction of the truth and reality of” the good news about Christ and “an absorbing interest in it” (Systematic Theology, pp. 104-5). Finally, true faith involves trusting in Christ—placing all your hope for forgiveness and blessing in Him, letting all of your spiritual weight lean on Him. This is what the Shorter Catechism means when it says, “Faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel” (#86). So, as you can see, faith is indeed much “more than a feeling”—it involves your intellect, will, and emotions (cf. Berkhof, 503-5) in a whole-self embracing and leaning on Jesus.

Other religions have certain beliefs their adherents are expected to accept, which is why we sometimes refer to them as other “faiths.” But no other religion teaches that people can be forgiven of their sins and accepted by God through faith alone. Instead, other religions propose various ways that people must earn future happiness through human effort.

In the medieval period, even the Christian church had fallen into this error. Faith was part of the way sinners were to receive God’s grace, but the medieval church also taught that your acceptance by God depended in large part upon your cooperation with God’s grace through your religious works. Your assurance that God would accept you as righteous depended partly on your faith in Jesus, yes, but also partly on your performance. The result, in practice, was a burdensome system of rituals that taught people to accumulate merit with God through religious works. To become extraordinarily righteous, you could devote yourself full-time to these religious works by becoming a monk, nun, or priest. And although many ordinary Christians could not attain the highest reaches of religious achievement, you would be taught to depend on the righteousness of the famous saints, who had done more than enough good works for themselves and could share their merit with other people.

The Reformers sought to bring the church back to the Bible’s clear teaching that no human effort can add to the perfect obedience of Jesus, who fulfilled the whole law in our place precisely because we could never do it ourselves. Martin Luther threw himself into monastic life and agonized over the severity of his sin and the inadequacy of his penance and other ritual efforts to make up for it. But this agony transformed into relief and joy when he began to see and embrace the message of Romans 1 that in the gospel “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” As a result, he and other reformers after him became zealous to emphasize and safeguard the core Gospel principle of Galatians 2:16: 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.”

Grace-Based Action Point

The tendency to fall back on our own effort as at least part of the reason God should accept us is still with us today. Our pride leads us to want to take part of the credit. Our fear leads us to wonder whether we’ve done enough. Our discontentment with the simplicity of the gospel message still tempts us to center our religious life on religious rituals, social activism, mystical experience—there are so many ways to transfer your trust and hope from Christ to yourself, from His obedience to your performance. More than ever we need to embrace that “the righteous shall live by faith”—the message of sola fide.

Yours in Christ,

Pastor Simmons