Always Being Reformed: “Sola Fide (Faith Alone)”
Lidgerwood Presbyterian Church
Grant, Almighty God, that as we are at this day tossed here and there by so many troubles, and almost all things in the world are in confusion, so that wherever we turn our eyes nothing but thick darkness meets us, O grant that we may learn to surmount all obstacles and to raise our eyes of faith above the world, so that we may acknowledge that governed by [Your] wonderful counsel is everything that seems to us to happen by chance, in order that we may seek [You] and know that help will be ready for us through [Your] mercy whenever we humbly seek the pardon of our sins, through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen. (John Calvin, prayer for faith from his Commentary on Lamentations 3:39)
This Fall our sermon series will be a little more “teaching” and a little less “preaching”. This is not my normal style, as you will recognize, but the history that leads to today’s context and the theological discussions that inform that history, I believe, are vitally important.
This year, many people are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Many are. But certainly not everybody.
Let me set the background:
500 years ago, 1517, was a world in which the printing press had only very recently been invented and put to use. Prior to 1440 literature in the western world had to be hand copied, page by page, word by word, letter by letter. You can imagine how time-consuming it would be to make a copy of a book. And what book was copied most? The Bible. (Sidebar note: the Chinese had invented a wood-block printing press some 600 years earlier, but it was so cumbersome it was still only rarely used.)
Because of how laborious it was to copy a book, very few people owned their own Bible. It would just be way too expensive. (Who here has been in Gothic Cathedrals? What do their windows look like? Stained glass windows was the Church’s way of providing Bibles for the masses!) But after 1440, Gutenberg’s invention made printing books much more affordable! And, of course, his most famous book is “the Gutenberg Bible” – worth well more than $2 million today.
It was just a generation after Gutenberg’s invention that a German Roman Catholic was born who grew up into his divine vocation as a RC priest. Father Martin Luther was priest in Wittenberg, Germany. And history was changing right before his very eyes.
In the pre-Reformation Church, the Bible was widely recognized as authoritative for faith and obedience, as the rule for faith and life. In 21st Century America (and Europe) the Bible is more questioned and ridiculed than it is read and obeyed, but that was not the way it was in Europe in the 16th Century. But the Roman Catholic world of Europe did offer another challenge to the Bible as our main authority – that was the Church itself.
My favorite professor at CSUF was a Roman Catholic, former-priest, named George St. Laurent. Most of his students were protestant, but he was well loved by everybody. He used to tell us that you could tell a Catholic from a Protestant in two ways: 1) by the way someone pronounces Augustine (accent on the GUS is RC, accent on the AUG is Protestant); 2) by how important “church” is (RC’s cannot be saved outside “the Church”, Protestants can).
In 1517, when Father Martin Luther read the New Testament book of Romans (and other Bible passages) not only could he not defend that view, he found no evidence for it at all. Here is what Romans alone says about FAITH ALONE being the means of salvation:
- 3:28-30, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from worksof the Law. 29Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30since indeed God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith is one.”
- 4:5, “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Himwho justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness,“
- 5:1, “therefore having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ;“
- 9:30, “What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith;“
- 10:4, “For Christ is the end of the lawfor righteousness to everyone who believes.”
- 11:6, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace.“
Admittedly, before Bibles were available to the public to own and read, the priests were the carriers of God’s Word. The Bible was of utmost importance, but only as read and taught by those called by God into the priesthood. We cannot be saved outside “THE Church” (that meant the Roman Catholic Church, partly because that really was the only Church in Europe); and since it was the Church who owned the Bible, the Church’s authority of over faith and life was at least equal to that of the Bible, and maybe more.
One of Father Martin Luther’s insights in 1517 was that, especially post-Gutenberg, the Bible should regain its role as sole authority over body and soul; and the Church should back off from claiming its necessity for salvation.
Whoa! Did you hear what I just said?! The Church is NOT the biggest voice in the discussion? Luther was pushing against the biggest corporation in the world, and trying to take away its power! And the Pope was not happy about that!
Luther was not saying that the Church is unimportant. In fact, he would argue that the Church is God’s instrument for bringing the Gospel into the world. John Calvin, another Protestant Reformer would agree with that. The Church is vitally important, necessary even, But, we are saved, not by the Church, but by faith alone!
Listen to this keynote passage from Paul’s epistle to the Church in Ephesus, chapter 2, verses 8-9: 8 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.”
John Calvin tells us that it is “the doctrine of justification … [which] is the principal ground on which religion must be supported.” Justification is the means by which salvation is attained.”
The first theological point about which those 16th Century Reformers Protested was that the Bible is the only means by which we come to know what God wants for us. What do you think the language of the Church was in the 1500s? Latin, of course. “Sola Scriptura” was the first principle of Christian theology. We introduced it today, but we’ll dig a little deeper next week.
The second theological point of dispute was “Sola Fide” – Faith Alone! This becomes the central question of human existence – if we believe there might be a God, how can we be reconciled to Him?
What we believe the Bible teaches is that it is God alone who has the right and the ability to declare us righteous in His sight.
We cannot work hard enough to deserve God’s favor.
We cannot give enough money to the church, say enough prayers, pay enough penance, no amount of “hail Marys” or “our Fathers”, not flagellation, not even perfect obedience. Scripture alone teaches us that it is God’s grace alone, received through FAITH ALONE (Sola Fide) that puts us in place for this gift of God.
As you may well be aware, the Roman Catholic Church excommunicated Luther, then responded to the outbreak of the Protestant movement with a major church council, the Council of Trent, which was part of the so-called Counter-Reformation and took place in the middle of the 16th century. The sixth session of Trent, at which the canons and decrees on justification and faith were spelled out, specifically appealed to James 2:24 to rebuke the Protestants who said that they were justified by faith alone: “You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” How could James say it any more clearly? It would seem that that text would blow Luther out of the water forever.
Of course, Martin Luther was very much aware of this verse was in the book of James. Luther was reading Romans, where Paul makes it very clear that it’s not through the works of the law that any one is justified and that we are justified by faith and only through faith. What do we have here? Is this an irreconcilable conflict between Paul and James? Was James trying to correct Paul. Was Paul trying to correct James.
I’m convinced that we don’t really have a conflict here at all. What James is saying is this: If a person says he has faith, but he gives no outward evidence of that faith through righteous works, his faith will not justify him. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Knox would absolutely agree with James. We are not saved by a profession of faith or by a claim to faith. That faith has to be genuine before the merit of Christ will be ascribed to anybody. We can’t just say we have faith. True faith will absolutely and necessarily yield the fruits of obedience and the works of righteousness. Luther was saying that those works don’t add to that person’s justification at the judgment seat of God. But they do justify his claim to faith before the eyes of man. James is saying, not that a person is justified before God by his works, but that his claim to faith is shown to be genuine as he demonstrates the evidence of that claim of faith through his works.
I’m going to try to be shorter for these sermons, and offer a little feedback time – so if you have comments you’d like to add, or questions you might want to ask, you’ll have a chance in just a minute.
And, if they’re a little more private or personal, I’ll be downstairs during the Fellowship Time where we can talk even more.
So I’ll close today with the two questions on the bottom of your Sermon Notes Page, and open the floor for your comments, insights, and questions:
- Can we be saved by the works or the words of, really, ANY human being?
- Where do we find the only means of forgiveness?
Grant, O God, that we may learn to surmount all obstacles and to raise our eyes of faith above the world, so that we may acknowledge that governed by [Your] wonderful counsel is everything that seems to us to happen by chance, in order that we may seek [You] and know that help will be ready for us through [Your] mercy whenever we humbly seek the pardon of our sins, through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
Godfrey, W. Robert.; “Continuing the Reformation”; TableTalk; October 2017; Pp. 33-36.
Nichols, Stephen J.; “The Ninety-Five Theses of Martin Luther, October 31, 1517”; TableTalk; October 2017; P. 70.
Sproul, R.C.; Into the Word; TableTalk; June 2017; P. 33.
Sproul, R.C.; Sola Fide; www.ligonier.org/blog/faith-and-works/; October 21, 2015
Waters, Guy Prentiss; “Sola Scriptura and Sola Fide”; TableTalk; October 2017; Pp. 18-22.