Sola Fide: By Faith Alone
July 13, 1997
This is the final message in the series on the four solas of the Reformation. I have saved sola fide-by faith alone-for the last because it is the logical climax of all we have said so far. If sola scriptura is the “material principle” of the Reformation, then sola fide is the formal principle. That is, “faith alone” brings us to the heart of the dispute between Protestants and Roman Catholics. So important is this doctrine that Luther called it the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. I would add that it is also the doctrine by which we stand or fall. In the words of J. I. Packer, “a church that lapses from justification by faith can scarcely be called Christian at all.”
Here are two texts to keep in mind as we think about this important doctrine. Romans 1:17 tells us that in a gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, “a righteousness that is by faith from first to last.” In the Greek the final phrase literally reads “from faith to faith.” It means that the whole Christian life is a life of faith-that you enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ through faith and continue by faith every step of the way. It was while teaching Romans that Martin Luther came to this verse and finally realized that what he was seeking-righteousness-could never come by outward acts of piety or inward disciplines of the soul. What he needed God has supplied and now makes available solely on the basis of faith.
Some years later Luther made his own translation of Romans and created considerable controversy by adding the word “alone” to 3:28, which reads in our version as “we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” When the Catholic theologians objected to the word “alone” after “faith,” Luther replied that it was necessary to add the word in order to make the sense of the passage clear. This did not convince his critics, but Protestants have agreed with him that Romans 3:28 does indeed teach sola fide-faith alone.
I. The Meaning of Justification
The word “justify” means “to declare righteous.” The term comes from the courtroom of the first century. As a trial drew to a close, the judge, having heard all the evidence, would pronounce his verdict. To justify a person meant to declare that they were not guilty in the eyes of the law.
There is another way to understand the term. If you have a computer, you probably know what it means to have justified margins. A “justified” margin is one which is absolutely straight from top to bottom. The computer arranges the words and spaces so that all the lines end up at exactly the same place. In that sense to justify means “to make straight that which would otherwise be crooked.”
Now take those two concepts and put them together. When you trust Jesus Christ as Savior, God declares you “not guilty” of sin and “straight” instead of “crooked” in his eyes. It is an act entirely of God, performed by God on the basis of Jesus’ death on the cross, and is received by us through the instrumentality of faith. Nothing you do and nothing you ever could do contributes to your own justification. It is entirely an act of God on the sinner’s behalf. The crooked is declared to be straight and the guilty sinner is now declared righteous in God’s eyes.
The Stairway to Heaven
I have already mentioned that this is the doctrine that radically changed Martin Luther’s life. Here is his story told in his own words:
I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression “the justice of God” because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore, I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that “the just shall live by his faith.” Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sincere mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into Paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning. Whereas before “the justice of God” had filled me with hate, now it became inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven. (Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, 49-50)
This was Martin Luther’s Highway to Heaven.
The doctrine of justification is central to our faith. Until you understand this, you could hardly say that you understand the gospel at all. Luther called it “the cornerstone of Christianity”. It is the doctrine that answers the question, “How can a man be made right with God?”
II. The Impossibility of Justification by Human Works
But why is it that good works cannot save us? Here are five answers to that question. First, good works can’t cancel your sin but sin ruins your good works. Suppose you invite me over for breakfast one morning and offer to fix a three-egg omelet. As you begin to cook, I smell a putrid odor coming from the kitchen. What’s that awful smell? Oh, it’s just a rotten egg. But don’t worry, I added a few good eggs that will cancel out the rottenness. Do you think I would eat your omelet? Not for a million dollars. Why? Because goodness doesn’t cancel rottenness but rottenness ruins goodness. The same is true in the spiritual realm. You canÃt be good enough to cancel out the putrid effect of your own sins.
Second, good works can’t save you because God doesn’t grade on a curve. He demands absolute perfection. If you understand the Bible, you know that it only takes one sin to send you to hell. Let’s suppose that you somehow only committed three sins a day. That’s impossible for most of us because we commit that many sins before getting out of bed in the morning. But let’s give you credit for being very, very good. And let’s further suppose that you never committed more than three sins a day for your entire life. That would be over 1000 sins a year, which would mean that in 70 years you would end up with over 70,000 sins on your record. Now let’s further suppose that those sins were really speeding tickets. If a police officer stopped you for running a red light and discovered that you had 70,000 outstanding speeding tickets on your record, what would he do with you? You’d end up in jail so long they would throw away the key. Do you think God is any different? But you and I commit far more than three sins a day. Our sins are like a mountain-so high we canÃt climb over it, so wide we can’t walk around it, so deep we can’t tunnel under it. Our sins are so great that our works could never save us.
Third, good works can’t save you because you can never be good enough long enough. Just when you get a “good streak” going, you sin and have to start all over again.
Fourth, you can never be sure you’ve done enough. That’s why most religious people have no assurance of their salvation. They truly believe that being good will get them to heaven. But as we’ve already seen, “doing good” is never good enough because we can never do enough to pay for our own sins.
There is one more answer to consider. Good works can’t save you because if they could, you wouldn’t need Jesus at all. Why would Jesus die on the cross if somehow you could save yourself? When we get to heaven, no one will be able to say, “You and me, Jesus, we did it together. I baked the cookies and you died on the cross.” It’s either all by Jesus or all by your own efforts-and nothing in between.
III. The Application of Alien Righteousness
How, then, are we saved? If is it not by our own good works, how will we ever get to heaven? If not by our righteousness, then where will we find the righteousness we need?
Let me answer that question by using a term coined during the Reformation. John Calvin and Martin Luther said that we are saved by the application of an “alien righteousness.” In recent days we’ve heard a lot about UFOs landing in New Mexico 50 years ago, and the word “alien” conjures up visions of strange little creatures with no hair and bulging eyes. But that’s not what Luther and Calvin meant at all.
The word “alien” simply means “from another place.” This week Greg Kirschner (he is a missionary in Nigeria) told me that he carries a card that identifies him as a resident alien in Nigeria. That simply means that he is “from another place”-in this case, America.
To say that we are saved by an alien righteousness means that we are saved by righteousness that comes “from another place.” It comes not from within us as a result of our good deeds, but from outside of us entirely. Where, oh, where can a guilty sinner find righteousness “from another place?” He can find it in Jesus Christ! That’s the “alien righteousness” that saves guilty sinners.
Going to Heaven on the Back of a Crucified Man
To make myself clear, I am saying that salvation is completely outside you and me. We do not save ourselves and we contribute nothing to our salvation-nothing at all. God calls us, his Spirit draws, he gives us faith to believe, and he applies to us righteousness “from another place”-the righteousness of his Son, Jesus Christ.
This means there is nothing you can do to add to the work of Christ. It stands complete on its own. You either accept it or reject it-and there is nothing in between.
Some years ago, Josh McDowell debated a Muslim apologist on the relative merits of Christianity and Islam. At one point in the debate the speaker for Islam-who was very knowledgeable in Christian theology-thought to ridicule the Christian view of salvation by saying, “You Christians are trying to go to heaven on the back of a crucified man.” To which Josh replied, “Sir, you are entirely correct. We believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died for the sins of the world. We are indeed going to heaven on the back of a crucified man.” He’s right, and if Jesus can’t take us to heaven, we’re not going there. That’s what it means to be saved by righteousness “from another place.” You know what they say about putting all your eggs in one basket? We’re putting all our trust in Jesus and none of our trust in anything else. If Jesus isn’t enough, then we’re in big trouble, because we’re pinning everything we’ve got on his death and resurrection.
I’ve said several times that we aren’t saved by works, and that statement is true when it applies to our good works, but it’s not true when it applies to Jesus. We are indeed saved by works-not ours, but his!
IV. Justification by Faith Alone
That brings me to the final point – we are justified by faith alone. Note four things about justification from Romans 3-5.
It is …
Based on God’s grace (Romans 3:24).
Grounded in the blood of Christ (Romans 5:9).
Not according to our works (Romans 4:5).
Through faith alone (Romans 3:28).
Sometimes people talk about justification and forgiveness as if they were the same thing. They are not. It is true that they happen at the same time and are inseparable. No one is forgiven who is not also justified. No one is justified who is not also forgiven. But they are not the same.
Forgiveness is the subtraction of that which is sinful from your record.
Justification is the addition of that which is righteous to your record.
God’s Report Card on Your Life
Let’s put it this way. If God gave you a report card on your life without Jesus Christ, what would it look like? It would be covered with black marks for all the sin you committed. Indeed, God gives you and the whole human race an “F”. You flunk every test. But when you come to Jesus, your “F” is washed away and your sins are gone.
But now what grade would God give you? A “C” (barely passing)? A “B” (OK but not great)? No, the moment your “F” is washed away (that’s forgiveness), God gives you an “A” (that’s justification). You get the grade Christ earned because he finished his course as valedictorian of the class. You don’t squeak by with God. You make the honor roll. You go to the head of the class.
Why? Because you are so good? No. Left to yourself you would still flunk every course. You get an “A” because you are united with Jesus Christ.
The same righteousness that once demanded that you get an “F” … now demands that you get an “A”. You are not half justified and half condemned. You are not partially forgiven and partially punished. You are altogether forgiven. Your record is wiped clean. You are declared righteous. You are made straight in the eyes of God. ThatÃs what justification is all about.
Do Versus Done
You can see why this changed Martin Luther’s life. It was this doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone that sparked the Protestant Reformation. It is the central doctrine of our faith and the one doctrine that sets Christianity apart from the religions of the world.
Do you know the difference between religion and Christianity? It’s two letters versus four letters. Religion is spelled with two letters-D-O. Religion is a list of things people think they have to do in order to be accepted by God-go to church, give money, keep the Ten Commandments, say the Rosary, be baptized, pray every day. The list is endless. ItÃs always Do … Do … Do. ThatÃs what religion is all about. If you want to go to heaven, youÃre going to do something and keep on doing it until the day you die.
Christianity is spelled with four letters-D-O-N-E. Christianity is not based on what we do but upon what Jesus Christ has already done. If you want to go to heaven, you donÃt have to do anything; you just have to trust in what Jesus Christ has already done for you.
ThatÃs it. That’s the whole difference-Do versus Done. Either you do it or you believe that Jesus Christ has already done it for you.
Who Will Condemn Me?
Listen to these triumphant words of the Apostle Paul as he exults in his justification before God:
Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died-more than that, who was raised to life-is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us (Romans 8:33-34).
Will my enemies condemn me? No, God justified me.
Will my friends condemn me? No, God justified me.
Will the demons condemn me? No, God justified me.
Will Satan himself condemn me? No, God justified me.
Will Jesus turn on me? No, he died for me.
Will my sins rise up to condemn me? What sins? My sins are gone forever. My slate is wiped clean. Will my conscience condemn me and guilt overwhelm me?
Maybe on earth but not in heaven. Up there the record is clear forever. IÃm justified. I am declared righteous in the eyes of God. I am acceptable to him on the basis of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And that wholly apart from my works. And only through faith in Jesus Christ.
Best of all … God is not confused by my confusion. He does not doubt because I doubt. He is fully satisfied with Jesus. And I have put my faith in Jesus. Therefore God is satisfied with me. I’m justified.
Ruth Bell Graham
Most of you know the great evangelist Billy Graham. His wife, Ruth Bell Graham, is a vibrant, dynamic Christian who is worthy of recognition in her own right. Several years ago she wrote a wonderful book entitled It’s My Turn. In one of her chapters she quotes from her journal … from a day when she was burdened with many cares … from a day when she felt totally inadequate as a mother and wife. These are her words:
I am a weak, lazy, indifferent character; casual when I should be concerned, concerned when I should be carefree; self-indulgent, hypocritical, begging God to help me when I am hardly willing to lift a finger for myself; quarrelsome where I should be silent, silent where I should be outspoken; vacillating, easily distracted and sidetracked.
Thou knowest how soon my mind
from Heavenly things to earthly
is drawn aside.
How oft I fail and fall.
I have found tremendous comfort in this old hymn:
Come ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded,
Sick and sore;
Jesus, waiting, stands to help you,
Full of mercy, love and power …
Let not conscience bid you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
All the fitness he requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.
“What would I do,” wrote Chalmers, “if God did not justify the ungodly?”
And “What would I do,” said Thomas Boston of Scotland, “but for the imputed righteousness?”
There it is. All that I am not, He is; all that I am and should not be, He forgives and covers (pp. 104-105).
What Would You Do?
There it is-the doctrine of justification in one simple question. “What would I do if God did not justify the ungodly?” Ask yourself that question. What would you do? Where would you go? Where would you be if God were not willing to justify the ungodly?
The answer is, you would be where Martin Luther was-crawling on your knees, praying desperately to God, sinking ever deeper under the crushing load of unforgiven sin. Reformation Sunday is all about this great truth-That God does indeed justify the ungodly. And he does it by faith alone.
Let me put it to you directly. Where do you stand with God today? Are you straight with him or is your life still one big crooked mess? Have you been justified by faith alone?
Let your mind pause to consider the phrase Ruth Bell Graham quoted from that old hymn: “All the fitness he requireth is to feel your need of Him.” Think of it. The only requirement is that you admit you need Jesus. Do you need him? If the answer is yes, then come to Jesus and you will discover that he will take you just the way you are.
Sola fide is “the article upon which the church stands or falls.” It is also the article upon which we stand or fall. Are you standing or falling together? If you are standing on anything besides Jesus, you aren’t really standing at all. But if you rest your full weight on Jesus, you’ll still be standing when everything else around us is falling apart.
Our Father, we thank you that you are able to straighten that which is crooked and make right that which has gone wrong. Some of us have struggled under such a load of guilt for so many years that we hardly believe that anyone-even you!-could ever take it away. Grant us faith to believe your word, and in believing, to find rest for our souls. This we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.