Episode 131 - The Reformation: Faith Alone

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Last week we started what will be a series of podcast episodes for the month of October recognizing and in some ways, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. This is actually a really big deal, because those of us that are Protestants or Evangelicals today, are that in many ways because of what happened 500 years ago and because of the theology that came out of the reformation. One of those core theological truths was this doctrine of scripture alone, [sola scriptura and we talked about this last week.]

In fact, it's so important to understand that doctrine because all of the other doctrines that we're going to look at this month and really all of the other doctrines that ever could exist that are correct are found and grounded in scripture, and in scripture alone, because scripture is our highest authority. There is no authority above it. There is no authority we can use to confirm it because scripture is where God speaks. When God speaks, he does not err. Scripture is true and because it's spoken by the creator, holy, powerful, sovereign God of the universe, it's also authoritative.

One of the key doctrines that came out of the reformation—at least that was reclaimed then, it wasn't just created right then and there—was this doctrine of faith alone, sola fide.

What this means is that justification comes by faith alone. Now, what is justification? It's one of those big theological words. But this is actually really important because if you get justification wrong, you actually get the gospel wrong. In the Roman Catholic Church back in the time of the reformation and today, they got the gospel wrong. That might sound insensitive, but the Roman Catholic church actually says the same thing about Protestants. That's incredibly important for us to understand.

The Roman Catholic church actually condemns the view that Protestants hold. They say, "If you believe by faith alone the sinner is justified, let you be anathema." In other words, let the curse of God be upon you. This is what came out of the official proclamation of the Catholic church at the Council of Trent in 1546. They responded to what the reformers were saying about justification (how a person is declared righteous), and they said that it is not by faith alone only. No, you must have works also. If you say it's by faith alone, let the curse of God be upon you.

Let's be very clear on the lines. I'm not just picking on Roman Catholics. No, the Catholics have historically been very clear on the lines too. This line of justification has to do with if we get the gospel right or if we get the gospel wrong. In other words, can I contribute to my salvation or not?

What is justification? Tt's the doctrine that teaches that man is declared righteous by God. He's declared righteous in light of his faith, not because of his works, not in conjunction with his works. But by his faith alone, man is declared righteous.

Now, sometimes, people will say, "Justification is when we are declared not guilty," but that's only half of the story because it's not just that our sin is declared to be gone because of what Jesus did on the cross. There's another half, we're actually credited with the perfect righteousness, holiness and obedience of Jesus Christ. It's not just that we're left neutral because of what happened at the cross. No, we're credited with the same righteousness of Jesus. But this justification is actually a credit to our account. We are not actually made righteous people. We are not transformed instantly into righteous people. That's what sanctification is.

The word for this, the fancy theological word, is that Christ's righteousness is imputed to us. It is credited to our account. It is not infused into us. It is not imparted to us. We are not, in other words, created righteous. We are not transformed into righteous people. This is what Roman Catholics actually believed though, that you actually become a righteous person because of your works and your faith.

In Roman Catholicism, you can actually grow in justification. It's a process. What Protestants would call sanctification, Catholics would include in justification. But the problem is one of what scripture says. This is where we return to what we said last week: that scripture is our highest authority in faith and practice because scripture says that faith is not just necessary for salvation. Catholics believe that. Mormons believe that. Oftentimes, other people will believe that. It's not just necessary, however. Scripture says it's sufficient. It needs nothing else. It stands alone. It's a sola.

Let's look at some biblical support for this. Romans 5:1 says, "Therefore, having been justified," in other words, declared righteous “by faith, we now have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." We were declared righteous. We were justified and this was through faith. This leads to peace, which is something I wish we had much more time to talk about today: how correct doctrine influences how we feel, how we think, how we live, it leads to peace.

This passage continues.

“What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh has found? If Abraham was justified by his works, he has something to boast about but not before God. What does the scripture say? Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. Now, to the one who works, his wage isn't credited as a favor, but it's what's due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.

I think this is incredibly important because then Paul goes on to say that “God credits righteousness apart from works,” not in addition to it, not alongside of it, not that works are necessary but faith is also necessary. No, it's apart from works. The example he gives here is incredibly clear. If you actually earn something, it's not grace to give it to you. It's not a credit to you. No, you earned it. It's a wage. It has to be given to you. It's not a favor. But Paul is saying the opposite of that.

In fact, what you have been given, your justification, is not something you could work for. It's something that only comes by faith. Now, you might say, but where did that faith come from? Was that a choice I made? Did I, in some way, in some incredibly small way merit the reception of this justification? Was I the one who flipped the switch that made this possible? Well, we'll talk about that in a minute.

Galatians 2:16 also says, "Since by the works of the law, no one will be justified." Now, by faith, we've seen you're justified but by the works of the law, you're not justified. It can't just be that it's faith and works.

Ephesians 2:8-9 says,

”For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God. It's not from works, so that no one can boast."

Here is the central problem in some ways. If man contributes to his salvation—if man can work, do things, make choices that lead to salvation—in some way, that's meritorious, then he can boast about it. Just think of it. If someone made a choice, did an action that someone else didn't do and that action or choice resulted in salvation, well, then that person could rightly boast. Maybe just a little. Maybe they just did the last little half of a percent and Jesus did 99.5% of the work. But nonetheless, if they did something that someone else did not do that they chose to do, well, then they could boast in that.

Paul wants to be very clear that that's not actually possible for the Christian. The Christian cannot boast in their salvation. They can only boast in God. Now, why do I say all of these? Well, let's look back at this passage. This is one of those areas and there are not necessarily a lot of these, but where a correct understanding of a passage, actually in some ways depends on our ability or inability to read the original language. In this case, Ephesians is written in Greek and we lose a little of something when this verse is translated into English.

Not to get all “word nerdy” on you but you may have learned a foreign language in high school or since then and you may know that some words have gender in other languages. There can be masculine nouns or feminine nouns or neuter nouns (words that don't have a gender.) In this case, Paul says something very interesting, he says, "For by grace," which is a noun, "You are saved through faith and this is not of yourselves." Well, what does the "this" refer to? We should ask that question.

He goes on and says, "It is not from works." Well what is "it"? What is the "this"? What is the "it"? Well, interestingly enough, "this" and "it" are both neuter words. They don't have a gender. We may say, "Well, what's the neuter word that comes before, that this should correspond to?" Because that's how language works, a noun or a pronoun or something like that is going to refer back to a noun with the same gender and yet, we don't find any neuter words in this sentence. "Grace" isn't neuter. "Saved" isn't neuter. "Faith" isn't neuter and in fact, what we see here and this is one of the features of the Greek language is that when you have a neuter word and the previous words in the sentence are not neuter, that neuter word is referring to all of the previous things.

Paul's point here is not that faith is a gift, and something else is from works. No, his point is that the grace is a gift, that your salvation is a gift, that the very faith that brought you to salvation is a gift. What we see is that we can't even take credit for our faith. This verse allows us to peer behind the curtain to get a little more perspective on what we often thought was our decisive active of autonomous free will and come to realize that God actually gave us the very faith that we placed in him.

We'll talk about the other side of this, the other facet of this next week when we talk about grace alone, that salvation is by grace—God's sovereign, unmerited grace alone. Right now, we're talking about faith and faith is what man places in God and it's a trust. It's a trust in what you have good reason to believe is true but God is the one who gives us that faith. God is the one who imparts the faith to us that we then place in him and that's how we come to be saved.

Because we have to answer this question, “Why do some people place faith in God and others not?” Is it that they were more sensitive to the things of God? Well, that sounds meritorious. Someone who cares more about the things of God. Well, that sounds noteworthy. Were they simply more moral? Well, that sounds noteworthy too. Were they smarter? Were they in some way worthy of something that someone else wasn't? Did they have something intrinsic in them that led to them placing faith in God? The answer has to be no, because Paul has already said in this passage earlier in Chapter 2 that man is dead in his sin. Dead men do not choose God. They don't have the capacity to.

It's not necessarily that they can't, it's that they can't even want to, because men and humans in general act according to their nature and the nature of the unregenerate man is not to want the things of God. Paul in Romans 3 says that man doesn't please God. He doesn't seek God. He can't. Man can't even submit to the law of God. Well, the law of God is to repent. Man, apart from the gift of faith cannot even repent.

Paul in Romans 8 says that the unregenerate person lives according to the flesh. They cannot please God. Isn't repentance pleasing to God? Well, yes. So, how does unregenerate man repent? He can't on his own. God has to first regenerate him and then he repents. He understands and sees God as glorious and from that, he repents. God has given him the faith to trust God for salvation, and all of these flows from understanding that man is actually dead in sin. He's not sick. He doesn't just need a doctor. He is dead. He is Lazarus, dead and rotting in the tomb and God must do a miraculous act of sovereign work in his life to give him the very faith, as Paul says in Ephesians 2:8 and 9 to then cause him place that faith back in God. But that only happens because faith is a gift.

I think we have taken this word gift and westernized it, because in our minds, a gift is something you can accept or reject. In an eastern culture, that's not the case. It would have been incredibly rude to reject a gift. I think we read too much into this word gift sometimes and make it seem like, well, man can make an autonomous choice. Well, man does make a choice. He consistently does not choose God until God regenerates his nature, because he is dead in sin, cannot seek God, cannot please God, cannot even submit to the will of God or the word of God as Paul says in Romans.

We see this doctrine of faith alone doesn't mean that man contributes the faith. It means God contributes the faith, but certainly works are not necessary in conjunction with that faith, because God gives us everything we need in order to be saved. In fact, he brings us to salvation. He doesn't just take us halfway. He doesn't take us 99% of the way. He takes us all the way. Why is this important?

Well, very briefly, because I fear that many people say, "Yeah, faith is necessary for salvation." They might like this idea that salvation is by faith alone, but they think they mustered up the faith, that they made the autonomous choice to place faith in God and that actually robs God of his glory and doesn't fit with what scripture says.

This is an area that we have to be faithful to the biblical witness and that actually, if we get this wrong, it detracts from the glory of God and that's one of the other solas we'll get to, that we are saved to the glory of God alone. Because if I contribute, even the faith that makes my salvation necessary, I should get a little bit of that glory.

Now, obviously, everyone would say, "No, that's not the case." But if I contribute at something, shouldn't I get at least a proportional part of the credit? Well, I think that makes sense.

There's so much more I want to say but I briefly want to point out where we started, that Roman Catholicism still gets this wrong. By its official doctrine of the church, it actually totally rejects this idea that salvation is by faith alone.

Mormonism gets this doctrine wrong. Mormons believe you are saved after all you can do. If you go back to a sin you have previously repented of you, basically, destroy the grace that brought you to salvation. It's a very works based religion there too. Cultural Christianity often thinks it can work its way to heaven, that it's going to cooperate with grace and in addition to faith, and that is not true.

Now, this faith alone view is subject to abuse. But as Calvin said, "The faith that saves is never alone even though we are saved by faith alone." True saving faith, which is a gift of God, not a work of man or a willing of man, will produce good fruit, because it's God who works through us to produce the fruit. As Paul says, "God created good works that we would walk in them.” We don't even to take credit necessarily for the good works that we do because it's the spirit working it out through us.

Now, I wish I would have left time to talk about James too and this idea that faith apart from works is dead and how does this fit with sola fide and all of that, but I'll simply link to some previous podcasts above where we've talked about this before and some other podcasts where we've looked in more detail at what the official teaching of the Roman Catholic church is. But I hope what you've seen today is that the very faith we have is a gift of God that he did for us when we couldn't even want it, couldn't even desire, couldn't even repent on our own and that should drive us to praise him and be incredibly grateful for what he did when we couldn't even desire it.

I'll talk with you next week on Unapologetic.