Published by Jeffrey Weima
Professor of New Testament
“I do it myself!” That’s what my four-year-old grandson typically says whenever I try to help him with some task. It’s the same thing his mother said to me when she was that age. There is a deep- rooted desire in not just little children but full grown adults to do things ourselves—to reject any kind of help from the outside, thereby allowing us to take pride in our accomplishments.
The same thing is true with our salvation: we want to do it ourselves. Even though we know rationally that we are saved not by our deeds but by grace alone (sola gratia), it is tempting to think privately that we are better than most people and so our good works make us worthy recipients of grace. Grace may be, as we sing, “amazing,” but it is also terribly humbling! It is hard for my ego and my self-justifying mentality to accept the fact that I can’t do it myself but stand helpless and in total dependence on God’s work in Christ.
This is the important biblical truth that the Reformers tried to recapture with the phrase sola fide. In a context where the Roman Catholic Church stressed a faith that needed to be supplemented with human acts of obedience, the Reformers boldly asserted that we are justified “through faith alone.” The phrase is a biblical one, as is clear from several passages of Scripture. Paul, for example, states in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” A similar sentiment is found in the apostle’s words in Philippians 3:9: “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.”
The Reformers saw texts like these and many others as teaching that we are sinners who are unable to live up to God’s call to holy living and so stand in his divine presence as condemned. Yet God has graciously provided salvation by means of the death and resurrection of Christ—a salvation not based on our works but one appropriated through faith alone. Faith is the means by which we are united to Christ and so take hold of the righteousness that he accomplished on our behalf.
But Faith is Never Alone
But though we are justified through faith alone, such faith is never alone. In other words, there is no room for the logic, “Since I am saved not by works but by grace through faith, it doesn’t matter how I live!” There is no just cause to recite the following ditty about salvation: “Walk the aisle! Pray the prayer! One-time faith will get you there!” Such misguided thinking leads to the charge of “cheap grace”—the accusation that an emphasis on a grace received through faith alone will result in an “anything goes” lifestyle.
This was the charge the Roman Catholic Church raised against those advocating sola fide, causing the reformer Melanchthon to respond: “Our opponents slanderously claim that we do not require good works, whereas we not only require them but show that they can be done” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession 1531). The Reformers were well aware of texts like James 2:14-26 that teach that a true, saving faith is one that naturally comes to expression in concrete acts of obedience. Works may not be a condition of being justified, but they are a consequence of being justified. James Payton, in his helpful book entitled, Getting the Reformation Wrong, writes: “For Calvin and all the Protestant Reformers, we are justified by faith alone—but faith is never alone. Justifying faith eads to good works, performed in love toward God and our neighbors, in grateful obedience to God. … No Protestant Reformer ever allowed that a justifying faith could be solitary—no, not one” (InterVarsity Press, 2010: 127).
All those today who, like Luther, struggle painfully with the mistaken notion that they must do enough good works before God will accept them ought to be comforted by the Reformation slogan sola fide, since this phrase expresses the gospel news that they are justified through faith alone—no good works required! Nevertheless, all those who glibly cite sola fide to ease their conscience about any unChrist-like conduct in their life ought to be challenged by the reality that true faith naturally leads us to delight in God’s law and, with the empowering help of the Holy Spirit, to live a life full of love and good works.
By Jeffrey A.D. Weima
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