This is the second in our series on the Five Solas of the reformation. The first dealt with Sola Gratia: Grace Alone. This post looks at Sola Fide: Faith Alone.
Faith Alone relates to our justification – our status before God as right and acceptable to his sight. So with the help of Theopedia again, here is a definition for Sola Fide:
Justification is by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. In justification Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us as the only possible satisfaction of God’s perfect justice. Our justification does not rest on any merit to be found in us, nor upon the grounds of an infusion of Christ’s righteousness in us, nor that an institution claiming to be a church that denies or condemns sola fide can be recognized as a legitimate church.
Justification by faith alone stands as the doctrine which split the church during the reformation. Martin Luther reacted to the misuse of indulgences – papal writs which, after the payment of a sizeable fee, would absolve the sinner from punishments and cleansing in purgatory allowing straight access into heaven. To Luther this was not only a misuse of indulgences (reading through his 95 Theses it’s clear that he wasn’t necessarily against them, but was against their abuse and misuse) but, after reading the New Testament, completely at odds with the way in which God allows people to stand upright before him. He would later write:
“I had been captivated with a remarkable ardour for understanding Paul in the epistle to the Romans. But up until then it was not the cold blood about the heart, but a single saying in chap. 1, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed,’ that stood in my way. For I hated that word ‘righteousness of God,’ which, according to the use and custom of all the teachers, I had been taught to understand philosophically of the formal or active justice, as they called it, by which God is righteous and punishes sinners and the unrighteous. Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt I was a sinner before God with a most disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not live, indeed, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners. Secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.
Finally by the mercy of God, as I meditated day and night, I paid attention to the context of the words, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ Then I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. This, then, is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, viz. the passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous one lives by faith.’ Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of all Scripture showed itself to me. And whereas before ‘the righteousness of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gateway to heaven. Then I ran through Scripture, as I could from memory, and I found an analogy in other terms, too, such as the work of God, i.e.,, what God does in us, the power of God, with which he makes us strong, the wisdom of God, by which he makes us wise, the strength of God, the salvation of God, the glory of God.” (emphasis mine)
Martin Luther, “Preface to Latin Writings ,” in Luther’s Works 34:336-37; WAusg 54.185-86
In some ways this is one of the major doctrines taught by the New Testament generally, and Paul’s letters in particular. Key verses include Romans 1:17, 3:28, 4:5, 5:1, and Galatians 3:24.
While James 2:24 seems to suggest the opposite, contextually James is arguing that a life justified by faith will be revealed in good works, and therefore a life which claims justification by faith but has no works is a life probably not justified in the first place. Paul says something similar, from a different angle, in 2 Corinthians 5:17.
In light of that…
What does Sola Fide mean:
- The sole foundation of our justification is the righteousness of God imputing the perfect righteousness of His Son to the believer by faith alone
- It is faith only, not our deeds in any way, that connects us savingly to Jesus Christ
- Justification must not be confused with sanctification. Justification is a once off, perfect and whole event, applied to the believer perfectly by faith alone. Sanctification is the ongoing process of gradual transformation from brokenness to Christ-likeness. When a Christian confuses the two then justification is seen as a process by which we are made right before God gradually by the carrying out of good works. I’ve seen this most often with Christians who chide themselves and feel guilt for not choosing to do something more ‘godly and productive’ with their time (but also see point 2 below).
- Coupled with Grace Alone, it is the ultimate root of joy in the Christian life and the ultimate foundation for ongoing Christian living (sanctification)
What does Sola Fide not mean (impossible applications):
- Justification by faith alone does not mean we are free to sin (cf the argument in Romans 6)
- Justification by faith alone does not mean we are free to not do good works – as mentioned above, good works are the result of justification not a means to earn it
- Justification by faith does not mean it is the act of faith which is the justifying righteousness – faith connects us to Christ who becomes your righteousness in God’s sight
Put simply: Faith alone, rooted in Grace alone, demonstrates the great kindness, mercy and sovereign grace of God. Our entire salvation is by free and sovereign grace only – and its application by faith alone demonstrates the free and sovereign grace of God in justifying sinners.
This doctrine is the head and the cornerstone. It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God; and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour. – Martin Luther
Wherever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown. – John Calvin