What is a Reformed Church? (4) Sola Fide -- By Faith Alone
by Pastor Lars Larson, PhD
(A sermon delivered on October 19, 2008, at the First Baptist Church, Leominster, Massachusetts, USA)
By way of review for those who have not been with us, let me summarize what we are attempting to cover in this series. For a number of weeks we have been addressing what it is and why it is that we are a reformed church. We use the term, “reformed”, to identify ourselves with the principles and beliefs that were held by the Protestant Reformers of the 16th and 17th century. These foundational principles are five in number. They are commonly identified by five Latin phrases that were developed during the Protestant Reformation, each containing the word “sola”, being translated in English as “alone” or “only.” They are as follows: Sola scriptura, Solus Christus, Sola gratia, Sola fide, and Soli Deo Gloria. These five expressions are translated as the following: by Scripture alone, by Christ alone, by grace alone, by faith alone, and to the glory to God alone. These are the main tenants and principles that were espoused through the Protestant Reformation.
But second, the word “reformed” also speaks to a subgroup of the Protestant Reformation. There were a number of groups of Christians who were all Protestant, but each differed in some important ways from one another. When we say that we are reformed, we are identifying ourselves principally with the reformed movement that took place in Switzerland under the leadership of John Calvin. Another name for reformed Christianity is Calvinism. When we say that we are reformed, we are affirming five doctrines which the Bible teaches regarding God bringing salvation to us. They are frequently referred to as the doctrines of grace. These are (1) the total depravity of man, (2) God’s unconditional election of the lost to be saved, (3) the definite atonement of Jesus’ death for His people, (4) the irresistible grace of God in His calling to salvation, and (5) the final perseverance of the true believers unto their full and final salvation. And so, in summary, when we say that we are reformed, we are affirming our understanding of the Christian faith with the five “solas” as well as the five doctrines of grace. We are summarizing these teachings in this series.
We have already addressed three of the five “solas”, sola scriptura and solus Christus, and sola gratia. Today we wish to address sola fide, by faith alone.
IV. Sola Fide -- by faith alone
When we speak of sola fide, we are dealing with the means by which God forgives sinners, justifying them in His sight. To be precise, we affirm the biblical teaching that God justifies sinners by His grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. In justification God forgives the believer of the guilt and condemnation of his sin, counting the righteousness of Jesus Christ as if it were the believer’s, thereby enabling the believing sinner to satisfy the justice of God that was against him for having broken God’s law.
This is an essential doctrine. Without an understanding and acceptance of this biblical teaching, one cannot legitimately (biblically) claim to be Christian. Luther declared that upon this doctrine of justification through faith alone the church rises or falls. If a church does not teach rightly on this matter, it is no legitimate church of Jesus Christ. Luther had elevated sola fide to the principal cause of the Protestant Reformation. It was the rallying cry of the Protestant cause, and the chief distinction between Protestants and Rome. John Calvin taught that “every one who would obtain the righteousness of Christ must renounce his own.” According to Calvin, it is only because the sinner is able to obtain the good standing of the Son of God, through faith in him, and union with him, that sinners have any hope of pardon from, acceptance by, and peace with God. We affirm this as a true teaching of God’s Word. Now it is true that the precise expression “by faith alone”, is not to be found in the English Bible, but the teaching of justification through faith alone is found everywhere. Some have said that as many as 200 statements may be found in the New Testament that support and underscore this doctrine.
A. The biblical teaching of sola fide
Let us look at several passages of Scripture that teach justification through faith alone.
1. Luke 5:17-26. The paralyzed man carried by four men to Jesus.
Now it happened on a certain day, as He was teaching, that there were Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting by, who had come out of every town of Galilee, Judea, and Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was present to heal them. Then behold, men brought on a bed a man who was paralyzed. And they sought to bring him in and lay him before Him. And when they could not find how they might bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the housetop and let him down with his bed through the tiling into the midst before Jesus. So when He saw their faith, He said to him, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” And the scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” But when Jesus perceived their thoughts, He answered and said to them, “Why are you reasoning in your hearts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise up and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins” ‑‑ He said to the man who was paralyzed, “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” Immediately he rose up before them, took up what he had been lying on, and departed to his own house, glorifying God. And they were all amazed, and they glorified God and were filled with fear, saying, “We have seen strange things today!”
Notice that it was upon Jesus seeing the faith of these men, (I would assume of the paralyzed man also), that He pronounced the forgiveness of sins. It was not due to any work that any of them had done. It was not due to some prequalification in them. It was due to faith that Jesus freely and fully forgave sins. There was an ease in which Jesus forgave this man’s sins. It was a mere pronouncement and the thing was done. Jesus has that kind of authority. He forgives any and all who truly believe upon Him.
2. Luke 18:9-14. Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector
Also He (Jesus) spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men ‑‑ extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess. And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be abased, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This parable affirms justification through faith alone and repudiates the notion that people may become justified through their own works of righteousness. Jesus gave this parable when He saw some “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous” (v. 9). It is apparent that the tax collector merited nothing from God due to his own works. Rather, he prays and asks God to forgive him his sin.
Notice first, to whom the Lord addressed this story--to them that were confident in their own righteousness (18:9). They trusted in themselves. Their basis of confidence was not in God’s mercy, God’s provision, but rather in themselves. They saw works as the basis of God’s acceptance. God accepted them because they were good, or so they thought. They saw themselves as good, and thus did not doubt but that they were the objects of God’s love and favor. Moreover, these ones looked down on everybody else. They despised others. They were disgusted with them who did not live like they lived, believed like they believed. They saw themselves as having superior righteousness and therefore excluded most others from their company. It was to these that Our Lord addressed this parable. He desired to denounce their belief system and humble pride. He does so by describing two persons. Both went to the place of worship, but only one worshipped, the other didn’t. Both went to pray, but only one prayed, the other didn’t. One thought he was okay, but wasn’t, the other thought he was not okay, but was.
The Pharisee’s error is seen in his brashness, his presumptive trodding into the holy temple of God, his ignorance of personal sin, his boasting of religious deeds that he performed, and most clearly, in his denunciation of others. Never, never, is the work of God done in the soul a basis of boasting. This Pharisee gave lip service to thanking God, but all the while he was congratulating himself, taking credit for his own righteousness, after all was it not he who willing chose to serve God? “Was it not I?” he could say, “who chose of my own free will to do all these things? Who else should take credit if not I?”
This man viewed his acceptance to be based on two things: (1) what he didn’t do (18:11); and (2) what he did do (18:12). And so, we see that he was very religious, very proud, very confident, very self-centered, very judgmental. He was condemning of all but himself. But he was very lost, and very ignorant of his lost condition before God. There are some, even many, who think they are right with God, who are not. But try convincing them of that.
But then we see the tax collector (18:13f). This man was a Jewish man who had become a tax collector on behalf of Rome. He was given more authority than he should have had. He abused his authority, taking advantage of those under him. But a change had been wrought in this man. He was not the callous, scheming, cruel, indifferent man that he was formerly. What had made this man different? He had become sensitized to his sin; he had become aware that God’s judgment was upon him. We see this man coming, humbly, seeking a humble place, for the hand of God was heavy upon him. He found mercy because he sought mercy. And we too find mercy when we follow his pattern.
Notice this sinner’s pleading. He came into the temple and stood at a distance. A sinner under conviction is a strange thing. His awareness of sin draws him to God, but his awareness also keeps him at a distance. How different from the Pharisee who saw no reason at all why entrance should not be granted. In contrast to the Pharisee displaying himself, the sinner hid himself. We read that he would not even look up to heaven. How humble and lowly he was! His understanding of his sin gave him an understanding of a holy God. And he beat upon his breast. He knew where the problem was, right here, in the heart. The heart is the seat of sin. We see sincere, heart-felt-heart-deep sorrow and remorse.
Take note of his words: “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” He prays to God. This in itself revealed a measure of faith. He realized that although he was a great sinner he could still pray. Some do not have that much faith. They despair of all mercy. “God is harsh God, unmerciful and unyielding; He will not hear or respond, what’s the point?” And so, they give themselves over to their sin knowing full well the consequences. But this man had faith that God was a loving God who made provision for sinners. And that He could be approached, though He were a sinner, albeit humbly.
He prayed, “God, have mercy on me.” He pleaded for mercy. Here is an acknowledgement of guilt. He had no merit on which to make his appeal. He had no rights to claim. He was guilty, deserving of all that God said He would do to unrepentant sinners. His only basis of appeal was mercy. “God, don’t give me what I deserve, have mercy upon me. Blot out my transgressions. Forgive my sin.”
He pleaded the sacrifice. This is not apparent in the English, it is in the Greek. What he is asking God is that God be propitious toward him, that is, that God would forgive and remove his sin. He went to the temple where sacrifice for sin is offered. He plead for mercy, but it was on the basis of the sacrifice he made his request.
Here is a point to note: It is not merely God’s mercy that will move God to forgive. He is a just God. Payment must be made else His justice will suffer. He will not allow that to happen. You can say you are sorry to God all the days of your life and never be granted pardon until you come on the basis of, not of your humility, not your repentance, not even your faith, but on the basis of Jesus Christ and His sacrifice on the cross in the place for sinners. This man pleaded the sacrifice offered in the temple, that is the provision God had made for that time, but we are to plead the sacrifice of Christ. No mercy will be granted otherwise. We pray, “Father have mercy on me. Be gracious toward me--forgive my sin, based on the fact of Christ dying in my place and bearing the penalty that was justly mine.” He prayed, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” He identifies himself specifically as “the sinner.” He was a no alibi no-excuse sinner. He didn’t blame dad or mom, his wife or his past. It wasn’t society’s fault. He owned up to his true identity.
Then we read the Savior’s pronouncement (18:14). He pronounces the one justified (the other not). “Justified” simply means here that this sinner went home right with God, at peace with God, forgiven by God, the other did not. It is clear that this sinner’s faith alone was the means that God used to justify this sinner before Him.
3. Romans 3:21-31. Paul’s declaration of justification by grace through faith.
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God which is through faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth to be a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. Or is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also, since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.
Paul was laying out his case for justification through faith alone. He had demonstrated that all the world was guilty before God due to sin (Rom. 1-3). No man can be justified, that is right with God, through keeping God’s law, for no one keeps God’s law; rather, the law of God reveals to man that he is a sinner.
But then Paul announces that God has made a way that a sinner can be justified before God apart from the requirement to keep God’s law. God’s gift of righteousness is available to any and all who “believe.” Sinners are able to be justified by God’s grace through faith. God is just in justifying sinners because His justice was satisfied by the death of Jesus Christ on His cross. Jesus died as a sacrifice, as a substitutionary payment for the believing sinner’s debt that he owed to God’s justice. God’s justice being fully satisfied, God is free to bestow freely the gift of righteousness upon any and all who believe. Justification is through faith alone.
4. Romans 4:1-16. Paul proves justification by grace through faith from the Old Testament.
What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found accordingly to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something of which to boast, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.
But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works:
Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
And whose sins are covered;
Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin."
Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness. How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also, and the father of circumcision to those who not only also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised.
For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise made of no effect, because the law brings about wrath; for where there is no law there is not transgression. Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed, not only to those who are of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all.
Paul cites two Old Testament persons who both were justified through faith alone. He begins by asserting that Abraham was justified through faith. Paul quotes Genesis 15:16, in which the Scriptures declared that Abraham was justified when he believed on the Lord. “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Then Paul gave forth the principle that any and all who had faith like Abraham, God justifies as He did Abraham. Verse 5, “to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.”
Then Paul calls upon David to substantiate his doctrine. Paul asserts the positive side of justification through faith in verse 6: “just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works.” And then he quotes David from Psalm 32, “Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin.” When God justifies the believer, He no longer holds the believer’s sins against him. God has forgiven him his sins so that he can no longer be condemned by them.
Next Paul argues that Abraham had entered into the state of justification prior to him being circumcised (vs. 10-12). Paul set forth this point to show that it was God’s intention to bring the blessing of justification to Gentile believers also.
Lastly Paul argues that justification must be through faith only apart from works, otherwise salvation would not be of grace. Keeping the works of the law cannot bring to pass God’s blessing; rather, it can only assure God’s wrath. Justification must be through faith if it is to be of God’s grace.
Now, for better clarification of this vital matter, it would be good to assert some truths respecting justification through faith alone.
B. The nature of justification
1. Justification is an act of God, not a process. It is a single, one time forever, act of God in which He declares the guilty sinner to be pardoned of sin and regarded as righteous by God. Justification does not involve God making you to become righteous over time (that is God’s work of sanctification in your life). No, justification has to do with a single, one-time act of God in which He declares you to be fully pardoned and regarded as righteous. A person can be a guilty, condemned sinner one moment, the very next moment he can be justified. He comes to his knees a sinner; he gets up a saint. The Lord Jesus declared with respect to the believing tax collector, “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified” (Luke 18:14).
2. Justification is a forensic (legal) act of God. Justification has to do with a declaration of God regarding the sinner’s case. It is as though at the time of believing your case was brought before the judgment bar of God. It was laid out before you and before Him. You saw your guiltiness before Him (conviction). And you saw that He saw you guiltiness. You were without excuse, without hope in and of yourself. You plead that Christ stand in your stead. The Father sees Christ, accepts His life and work in your place. He pronounces you pardoned and righteous. Cleared of all charges. This occurred at the moment you truly believed on the Lord Jesus. Your case was heard and dealt with once and forever. It was declared that there is no condemnation for the one in Christ.
3. Justification is an objective act of God, not a subjective experience of man. Justification has to do with your actual guilt before God. It is not a matter that deals directly with your feelings of guilt. This is a great error among evangelicals. We have been influenced by secular, worldly psychology so that feelings of guilt are seen as the great evil that needs relief. Feelings of guilt are seen to be the major problem with the human condition. The gospel has been corrupted by many in evangelicalism to be a means of relieving people of their guilt feelings. Justification has to do with your actual guilt before a holy God. The fact is, even people who are filled with feelings of guilt frequently have no conception of their guiltiness before God. They could even become offended if you would suggest the fact. Guilty feelings is an issue of assurance, which is certainly related with justification, but it is not so directly. Justification has to do with your guilt as a condemned sinner before the judgment bar of God, not your feelings of guiltiness.
4. Justification is an act of free grace toward guilty, undeserving sinners. Romans 3:23f, “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” By definition, justification is of God’s grace. That simply means that it cannot be earned. It cannot be demanded. It cannot be taken from God. One cannot barter with God for it. God does not give His grace in exchange for your heart, your resolve, your repentance, or your good works. He bestows it freely on whom He chooses.
If you think that you deserve God’s forgiveness because you have confessed your sins, cleaned up your life in a measure, made confession, heard mass, eaten of some bread or drink from a cup, been baptized, attend church, read your Bible, live a moral life, then you are either still in your sins or you have fallen into grievous error. In Matthew 9:13 we read that Jesus said, “I am not come to call the (self) righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Jonathon Edwards stated it in the 18th century,
God, in the act of justification, has no regard to anything in the person justified, as to godliness, or any goodness in him; but that immediately before this act, God beholds him only as an ungodly creature; so that godliness in the person to be justified is not antecedent to his justification as to be the ground of it... God of His sovereign grace is pleased, in his dealings with the sinner, so to regard one that has no righteousness, that the consequence shall be the same as if he had.
Romans 4:5, “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” If you are ungodly and own up to it, then you meet the qualification for coming to Christ.
5. Justification is a just act of God. Romans 3:26, “To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.” God cannot be justly charged with injustice. Because Christ bore the penalty for the sins of His people, the demands of God’s righteous Law and His holy nature have been fully satisfied.
6. Justification is a once-for-all act of God. A justified sinner cannot become unjustified. Now there are many professing Christians who think themselves to be justified who will in life show themselves to have never had justifying faith. There will be those who will one day stand before Christ on the Day of Judgment that will be discovered never to have had a faith that justified. But there never can be nor ever will be a sinner that has been truly justified who will be found to have become unjustified. It is a once-for-all, never to be rescinded, declaration of God. Once Almighty God has stated His verdict of “Forgiven and Righteous”, that verdict will never be reversed.
7. Justification is complete, knowing of no degrees. Justification is the same for every true believer in Jesus Christ. One believer is not more justified than another is. Each is equally justified in God’s sight because each one stands in the perfect, unchangeable, undiminishing righteousness of Jesus Christ.
8. Justification leads to certain glorification. Romans 8:30, “Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.”
9. Justification results in becoming children of God. God is the Father of all them that believe (Rom. 4:11). Not everyone in the world is a child of God. Not even everyone who claims to be a Christian is a child of God. Only those who have a faith that justifies them before God have a right to be called the children of God. Galatians 3:26, “For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.”
10. Justification is received through faith alone in God and Christ. Our good works do not enter into our justification. Romans 3:30, “Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith.” God justifies the ungodly. Romans 4:5, “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” If you think that you are beginning to attend church with the hope of cleaning up your life so as to be right with God, you will die in your sins. You need to come to Christ now. He will receive you as a sinner. He will not receive you as a pretentious former sinner.
Now this biblical doctrine, that God justifies sinners by His grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, is a teaching that has suffered much corruption in Christendom, so-called. Next Lord’s Day, Lord willing, we will consider some of the errors respecting this doctrine.
C. Further biblical teaching of sola fide
There are numerous places in God’s Word that speak to this issue. We considered several last week. As we begin our study this morning, let us look at another. Let us turn to Galatians 2.
Paul was writing to a number of local churches in the region of Galatia. They had been troubled by false teachers who had taught that God justified sinners, that is, God forgave their sins and brought them into a favorable relationship with Himself, through both faith in Jesus Christ and through obeying the Mosaic Law. Paul had taken a strong stand against these teachers. In the portion of his epistle that we are about to read, Paul asserted his own commitment to the teaching of justification by God’s grace through faith alone. He told of the apostles in Jerusalem having endorsed him and his message. And then he related an incident in which he took a strong stand for the truth of justification through faith alone. Certain Jewish “believers” had traveled from Jerusalem to the churches at Galatia, which was comprised of both Jewish and Gentile believers. They led others in the churches to deny the truth that sinners are righteous before God through faith alone. Even the apostle Peter had faltered on this occasion. Paul tells of the strong stand that he took.
But from those who seemed to be something ‑‑ whatever they were, it makes no difference to me; God shows personal favoritism to no man ‑‑ for those who seemed to be something added nothing to me. But on the contrary, when they saw that the gospel for the uncircumcised had been committed to me, as the gospel for the circumcised was to Peter (for He who worked effectively in Peter for the apostleship to the circumcised also worked effectively in me toward the Gentiles), and when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. They desired only that we should remember the poor, the very thing which I also was eager to do.
But when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy.
But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews? We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.” (Gal. 2:1-16)
Peter had erred because he had begun to treat Gentile believers as though they were not on the same standing with God as Jewish believers, for the Jewish believers were maintaining the Law of Moses in addition to believing on Jesus Christ. Paul makes it very clear that faith and faith alone, apart from works is the means that God uses to justify sinners. The sinner is justified by God and before God through faith alone. Verse 16 clearly affirms the truth of justification through faith alone. God does not, will not, justify sinners based upon what they do, but rather based upon what they believe.
But clarification is in order. There are common errors among professing Christians about this matter. And so it is important to understand…
B. The nature of the faith that justifies
1. The faith that justifies is a faith that reflects a simple but complete surrender to God and appeal to God based on Christ and His work.
Justifying faith is the simple trusting of the sinner God’s provision in Christ for the forgiveness of sins and for a righteousness that he is in need of to stand before a holy God. A sinner may be easily justified by a simple, turning from sin toward God, petitioning God the Father to receive him on the basis and merit of Christ’s life and death. “Father, I know that I am not able or fit to be received of You. I am a sinner. But please receive me for Christ’s sake.” That is the kind of faith that justifies.
2. The faith that justifies itself a product of God’s grace (His working)
Although faith is something we do in order to receive the forgiveness of sins and obtain a righteous standing before God, faith should not be seen as something that we are able to do apart from grace. It is not as though God made a plan of salvation and then God leaves it up to us to accept it or not. It is not as though God does His part and He expects us to do our part. Rather faith itself is a fruit of God’s grace in the soul; saving faith occurs due to a work of God in the sinner. Saving faith is not a product of the fallen heart. It is a work of God that is produced in the heart and mind of an individual. God so works in the hearts and minds of His people that He gives them the desire and ability to understand and the desire and ability to believe the gospel. This is the work of the Holy Spirit working through the proclamation of the gospel to save sinners unto Himself.
The Holy Spirit first convicts the sinner of his sin and his just condemnation before God due to His sin. He does this by showing the sinner what God’s true righteousness is all about. And the Holy Spirit also convinces the sinner of his own certain condemnation in judgment due to his sin. A person under great conviction can very easily come to desperation during this time. He sees his sin as he had never known before. He perceives that others may have reason to hope, but not he. He is lost and undone. But then the Holy Spirit shows the sinner the glories of Christ and the sufficiency of Christ’s life and death for his own case. The Holy Spirit gives to him the desire and the ability to believe the promises of the gospel. This is what is referred to as a “work of grace” in the heart. He believes on Christ and becomes justified—forgiven of his sins and treated by God thereafter as righteous—as though he had never sinned, but had always been obedient to God’s law. And so, upon faith in God through Jesus Christ, all the privileges of justification come to him. He is adopted into God’s family. He is given an inheritance. He is brought out from under the realm of the devil and given citizenship in the Kingdom of God. All the blessings of Christ are His through faith in Christ. Saving faith is a product of God’s grace.
3. The faith that justifies will manifest itself in a holy life
The faith that justifies the sinner will also lead to the sanctification of the saint. But make no mistake, your works of righteousness have nothing to do with your justification other than prove to yourself and others that you have it. As the Puritan Thomas Manton once wrote: "By the righteousness of faith we are acquitted from sin, and by the righteousness of works we are acquitted of hypocrisy." In other words, as someone else described it, “the works of obedience add nothing to your justification; they are visible proof of it.”
It is at this point that we come to a very great problem area among evangelicals. (By evangelicals we mean those who profess to be Christians who profess to be Bible-believers and who view the Bible as God’s Word and who take the Bible seriously and literally.) Evangelicals have been taught pretty well about justification by faith alone. It is rehearsed and presented frequently, as it should be. We do this well. However, take note of this: evangelicals are generally very messed up in their thinking about the necessity of works in order to inherit salvation. You see, they know that faith is the only condition for justification, but they wrongly conclude that there are no other conditions that have bearing on their salvation. Although this wrong notion has always reared its down through church history, it is at this current time a major error that is held among evangelicals today.
This was apparently not a major problem in Jonathan Edward’s day. I mention him because he was the leading American evangelical pastor in America in the early to mid 1700’s. He is generally regarded to one of the most influential and significant Christian leaders that America has ever produced. Moreover I mention him because he was the one who was used of God to initially stir the colonies in the revival of the early 1700’s known as The Great Awakening. As many as one third of the colonists became Christian in just a matter of a few years. The entire fabric of society was transformed. Edwards championed the teaching of justification by faith alone as did the Puritans in England and New England and the Protestant Reformers of a century before him. He wrote a significant sermon entitled “Justification by Faith Alone.” In his sermon he wrote these words:
And there are many other things besides faith, which are directly proposed to us, to be pursued or performed by us, in order to eternal life, which if they are done, or obtained, we shall have eternal life, and if not done, or not obtained, we shall surely perish.
Later in the sermon he wrote,
So are many other things besides faith; and yet nothing in us but faith renders it meet (fitting) that we should have justification assigned to us.
And then later on in the same sermon he wrote,
We frequently find (in the Bible) promises of eternal life and salvation, and sometimes justification itself, made to our own virtue and obedience. Eternal life is promised to obedience, in Romans 2:7…
Obedience and salvation are connected in fact; which nobody denies . . .
But the fact remains is this, today, many do deny that obedience is in any way connected with salvation. “As long as you believe, it does not matter what you do” is often the message that is either explicitly stated or it is implicitly implied in a skewed, twisting of this doctrine. Although faith alone justifies, that faith is not a mere affirmation or assertion of who Christ is and what He has done. The faith that saves is a living vital thing that shapes the course and nature of the entire life of a justified person. So much so, that God can say that: “the just shall live by faith: but if any man draw back, my soul shall have no pleasure in him” (Heb. 10:38). In other words there is no salvation promised to one who does not live, as a Christian is to live.
4. Historical challenges to justification through faith alone.
a. Roman Catholicism
We have already shown how sola fide was one of the major principles that drove the Protestant Reformation. Justification through faith alone was the grand teaching of Martin Luther, the “material principal” of the Reformation.
How does the matter of justification differ between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism? First, Protestantism understands the Bible to teach justification as a legal act of God whereby God declares the believing sinner to be righteous. Rome teaches that justification is the outcome of God making a sinner to become righteous. In other words, Protestants would argue that Rome confuses the single declarative act of God that occurs upon faith in Jesus with the work of sanctification that God does in the life of His people.
Second, for Protestants, justification occurs when the sinner first believes on Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Rome, however, believes that justification occurs in the distant future, after the “believer” has undergone the process of becoming more holy in this life and through a future indeterminate period in purgatory. Only after having been fully cleansed of all sin, does Rome teach that God justifies the believer.
And third, whereas Protestants believe that the Bible teaches God’s justification of the sinner through faith alone, Rome denies this doctrine. During the 16th century the Protestants made great inroads in regions in which Roman Catholicism had dominated. Rome responded to the Protestant Reformation with the Council of Trent. Pope Paul III, who was pope from 1534 to 1549, called this Roman Catholic council. The Council began to meet in 1545. It was disbanded in 1563, but of the 18 years, it actually met formally for about 4½ years of that time. Trent made official declarations against the Protestant teaching of justification through faith alone. The council with the signature of the pope that sanctioned it, declared eternal damnation upon all who preached or believed this doctrine. Here are words from Trent regarding this subject:
Whosoever shall affirm, that when the grace of Justification is received, the offence of the penitent sinner is so forgiven, and the sentence of eternal punishment reversed, that there remains no temporal punishment to be endured, before his entrance into the kingdom of Heaven, either in this world or in the future world, in purgatory, let him be accursed. (Council of Trent, January 1547).
If anyone maintain that a man once justified cannot lose grace and, therefore, that he who falls and sins never was truly justified, let him be accursed” (Council of Trent, sess. 6, canon23).
This difference between Rome and Protestants remains to this day, although there have been several very weak and failed efforts to bridge the difference. This is a matter which distinguishes those who declare themselves to be Reformed.
b. “The New Perspective” on Paul
The New Perspective(s) on Paul is a very influential idea among many Protestant scholars that has emerged over the past generation. The “New Perspective” has to do with how to understand Paul’s writings. It is a challenge that asserts that Protestants have had it all wrong. They misread and misunderstood Paul’s writings. It argues that because Luther and the others were living in the context of Rome’s teaching regarding salvation by works, that they assumed and imposed upon Paul’s writings that he had been refuting works righteousness in the churches of the first century. But they said that this is wrong, therefore Protestants have had the matter of justification through faith alone as the way to salvation. They claim that Paul does not teach this.
This New Perspective had its beginnings in the 1960’s. Lutheran theologian, Krister Stendahl, published a paper in which he claimed that the typical Lutheran (and Reformed) view of the Apostle Paul’s theology did not fit with his statements in his letters. And then in 1977 E. P. Sanders published his book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, which developed this thesis. James D. G. Dunn and N. T. Wright are two other scholars who have written significant works to further this teaching among Protestant scholars. But the fact is that this movement is so significant, that since Sanders, one cannot do scholarly work in Paul’s writings without addressing the issues that he asserted. However, it would be wrong to assume that Protestant scholars are largely united in their assertions about these matters. In 2003, N. T. Wright, distancing himself from both Sanders and Dunn, commented that “there are probably almost as many ‘new perspective’ positions as there are writers espousing it – and I disagree with most of them.”
Now this is a matter that is discussed and debated among pastors and scholars in a seminary setting and in the books that are written about the matter. Few people in the pew are aware of this issue nor do they care much. But it is one of those issues that so influence the educated and informed preacher in the pulpit, that it will affect his preaching and teaching in a manner that he does not preach the biblical gospel, but the people will not generally pick up on it. The ministry of the men who hold this position will be void of the material principle of the Reformation, justification by grace alone through faith alone.
What did Sanders claim? Sanders had conducted a study of ancient Jewish writings of the first century and made the claim that Jews did not teach that salvation was through works-righteousness. Therefore, the problem that Paul addressed in his epistles was not an argument against works-righteousness for the sinner’s justification and Paul was not teaching against them the doctrine of justification through faith alone.
Reformed scholars have engaged the New Perspective advocates, challenging their assumptions and teachings. I believe that they have given solid biblical and historical proof of the Reformed view of justification through faith alone. But this debate continues and will not go away soon.
c. Easy believism
This doctrine is a perversion of the doctrine of justification through faith alone in that it promotes a deficient view of the nature of faith that justifies the sinner. This is an error that is characteristic of a large percentage of evangelicals. I would probably be wrong in my guess of what percentage, but I would say that it is at least 50%, if not more, of evangelicals in America; perhaps the percentage is much higher. It is a teaching that says saving faith is nothing more than an understanding and ascent (agreement and acceptance) of the doctrine of justification through faith alone. It denies the biblical teaching that saving faith includes an acknowledgement and submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. This teaching denies the need and meaning of repentance from sin as necessary for salvation. Easy believism says that repentance is not what you do--turning to Christ from sin; it teaches that repentance is merely changing your mind with respect to the person of the Lord Jesus; formerly you did not view HIm to be the Savior, but you "repent" when you come to believe that He is the Savior, the Son of God.
The prevalence of this false teaching came to the forefront years ago upon the publication of John MacArthur’s book, The Gospel According to Jesus, in which he set forth the biblical teaching of Lordship salvation. His book and teaching was met with a firestorm of objection among many evangelicals. Recently MacArthur sent out an article in which he wrote of this reaction to his book. Here is a portion of that article:
It has now been 15 years since The Gospel According to Jesus was first published and the lordship of Christ became a matter of intense debate among evangelicals. That book stood for the simple proposition that the gospel is a call to surrender to the lordship of Christ in humble, repentant faith…
When I wrote the book, I expected it to be somewhat controversial, of course, because I was defending a view that a handful of respected Christian leaders, (including Charles Ryrie, John Walvoord, and Zane Hodges) had already denounced as “lordship salvation.” But I confess that I did not anticipate the firestorm of intense debate that arose. The controversy seemed to dominate the evangelical world for several years after the book was published.
Most of my theological opponents in the lordship debate were fellow conservative evangelicals who had been my friends and allies in earlier controversies regarding the charismatic movement and the inerrancy of the Scriptures. They were men whom I deeply respected (and still esteem highly for much of the work they have done).
But they were promoting a view of the gospel that, from a biblical perspective, seemed seriously flawed. They insisted there is no place in the gospel for the proclamation of Jesus’ lordship. They said those who call unbelievers to surrender to Christ's authority are preaching a gospel of works. They taught that repentance is a false addition to the gospel message. They objected to any kind of evangelism that employed the language of denying oneself, taking up a cross, and following Christ (cf. Matt. 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). They declared that devotion to Christ, love for Him, and obedience to His commands are all matters that pertain to discipleship rather than saving faith. Faith, they said, is merely the acceptance of salvation as a free and unconditional gift--and they portrayed discipleship as a second-level commitment. Therefore, according to their view, the gospel presents Jesus as Savior only, not as Lord.
Nearly all the leading advocates of the no-lordship gospel were associated with Dallas Theological Seminary. In fact, Dr. James M. Boice, who wrote powerfully in defense of “lordship salvation” long before I entered the fray, referred to their view as “the Dallas Doctrine.” The pedigree of no-lordship doctrine at Dallas Seminary is traceable back to founder Lewis Sperry Chafer. The doctrine apparently stemmed from Chafer’s misguided attempts to develop a uniquely dispensationalist soteriology. Chafer (together with other early dispensationalists, including C. I. Scofield) was so zealous to eliminate every vestige of law from the dispensation of grace that he embraced a kind of antinomianism. That was the seed from which the no-lordship gospel sprouted.
 In the Revised Standard Version it is found in James 2:24, in which faith alone in which he asserts that faith, if alone apart from accompanied works, cannot justify the sinner.
 Works of Jonathan Edwards (Banner of Truth, 1992), vol. 1, p. 622.
 John MacArthur, R. C. Sproul, Joel Beeke, John Gerstner, John Armstrong, Justification by Faith Alone, Soli Deo Gloria Publishing, 1995, p. 164.
 N. T. Wright, "New Perspectives on Paul", a paper delivered at the 10th Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference: 25–28 August 2003.