Dying (and living) on the slopes of “sola fide.”
There is only One Person powerful enough to cancel sin and that person isn’t you.
A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
I was recently invited to speak at a Bible conference on the subject of justification by faith alone, a.k.a. “sola fide.” May the Lord bless your reading of these words.
Whenever one broaches the subject of sola fide (“faith alone”), I perk up. I’m always fascinated to hear what one might say on the topic of justification by faith alone, not only because that topic is near-and-dear to my heart, but also because it is very regularly a topic that’s desecrated. Early on in my ministry career, I was counseled by several wise men to “pick the right hill to die.” That was sage advice, as not every minute thing in the church is something worth “falling on the sword” for. Over the years, though, I have found that “the hill I’m willing to die on” is the hill of sola fide. As I see it, there is, perhaps, no more misunderstood doctrine than the doctrine of justification by faith alone. And the results of that misunderstanding manifest in all manner of confused and frustrated churchgoers.
Consequently, there is no more urgent belief that needs to be recovered in churches across these United States, and the world, than the resolute belief that we are justified unconditionally, freely, by faith alone. That great stalwart of the Reformation, Martin Luther, concurs: “If this article [of justification by faith] stands, the church stands; if this article collapses, the church collapses.”1 The stakes, then, couldn’t be higher when it comes to this subject. The matter of faith alone is a matter of eternal significance. Indeed, every time sola fide is discussed or declared, souls are on the line. What do I mean by that? Well, in short, sola fide is the only suitable answer to the question of heaven.
In all likelihood, you’ve heard this illustration before.2 Say you die tonight (God forbid). And as you approach the pearly gates, you see St. Peter is stationed there, clearing folks for entry. As you near the front of the line, he asks you: “Why should you be let in? Whose merits are you counting on to grant you access to this place?” Those are, certainly, sobering questions. But I submit to you that any answer other than the answer of sola fide is wrong. Faith alone is the only answer to the question of eternity — precisely because its one appeal, its only plea, is the merits of Someone Else. Rather than responding to that question with some form of “because I . . .,” sola fide answers that question with a resounding “because he.” Because he lived perfectly. Because he died victoriously. Because he spilled his blood for me. Because he resurrected triumphantly. Because of him, my spot in glory was settled 2,000 years ago when God’s own Son was nailed to a cross to pay in full the price of my sins. Because when the Savior cried “it is finished,” I believe he meant it.
When we talk about sola fide, this is what we are talking about. Namely, because of God’s only begotten Son and what he did “once for all,” the question of my eternity has already been resolved. And this is true for everyone who comes to faith. Your entry into heaven has nothing to do with you. And that’s the point: access is granted because of Someone Else (Rom. 5:1–2). “Faith looks away from oneself and trust in what Christ has done,” writes Thomas Schreiner.3 The old Scottish reverend Horatius Bonar eloquently declares:
In the settlement of the great question between the sinner and God, there was to be no bargaining and no price of any kind. The basis of settlement was laid eighteen hundred years ago; and the mighty transaction on the cross did all that was needed as a price. “It is finished,” is God’s message to the sons of men in their inquiry, “What shall we do to be saved?” This completed transaction supersedes all man’s efforts to justify himself, or to assist God in justifying him. We see Christ crucified, and God in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing unto men their trespasses; and this non-imputation is the result solely of what was done upon the cross, where the transference of the sinner’s guilt to the divine Surety was once and forever accomplished. It is of that transaction that the gospel brings us the “good news,” and whosoever believeth it becomes partaker of all the benefits which that transaction secured.4
In many ways, everything I’ve written so far hasn’t been controversial. I don’t doubt that most, if not all, would say “yes” to any survey inquiring about your views of sola fide. You’d affirm faith alone enthusiastically, unquestionably. And yet, even still, the reason why I say sola fide is the most urgent doctrine the church needs to recover is because we often live like we don’t believe it. If you were to have your religious life scrutinized, put under a microscope, would what you believe line-up with how you live? In my experience, while we are quick on the draw to affirm our belief in sola fide in theory, we are even quicker to deny it in function. The spiritual lives of far too many Bible-believing Christians look nothing like those who are sure that their salvation is settled. In fact, there’s seemingly an abiding anxiety and restlessness on the face of the church and the majority of its members, with some Christians living with almost permanent grimaces. All of which suggests that there’s more than a little doubt as to whether or not the gospel is true. Did the cross work? Did it really? Perhaps we’d never be caught dead verbalizing such things, but more often than not our lives say it for us.
It’s telling that our default setting is performing. It’s proof positive that Satan’s greatest deceit has worked, has taken hold deep in the core of our beings, just as he planed. You see, the greatest lie that nasty devil ever came up with isn’t that “God does not exist.” It’s that God didn’t save you all the way. That hellish bastard wants you to believe that the promise of God in Jesus Christ got you some of the way, but if you really want to be a Christian, you have to do something else. Something more. Something extra. And if you want to stay a Christian, then brother, you better “straighten up and fly right.” Again, maybe we’d never say such things, but that’s how we live and how we expect others to live, too. Our Christian lives are lived under the never-waning pressure to perform something left undone instead living in the life-changing joy of knowing “it is finished.”
When faith and works are mingled, as they so often are, the resulting cocktail is a gross castration of God’s law. And I mean castration in its fullest sense. The fearsome, holy, just law of God, which articulates the intrinsic holiness of his nature, is reduced to nothing more than a list of “golden rules” that every little boy and girl is bound to follow if they want to be “good.” The law, then, no longer holds that supreme place of divine holy self-disclosure. Rather, it is demoted, becoming nothing more than guidelines for virtuous living. “One disarms the law,” Gerhard Forde writes, “and makes it into a gentle guide which we use in our quest for virtue. Thus domesticated as the ‘house pet’ of the pious, the law indeed remains but it has lost its teeth.”5 These silly ideas look to eschew the animus of the law, which is a fool’s errand really. The law cannot be tamed (Ps. 22:13), no matter how we might try. It is a roaring lion we’ve been duped into thinking was a house cat. In the end, believing we can keep the law in and of ourselves doesn’t make us righteous, it only makes us arrogant. And such is why we are desperate for another Reformation.
If you’ve come to believe that the Reformation ended centuries ago, you’re gravely mistaken. If you thought that the need for doctrinal and ecclesiastical reform died when Luther and Calvin died, you are dead wrong. “We need these solas just as much today as the Reformers needed them in the sixteenth century,” attests Matthew Barrett.6 Case in point, in a 2009 article in The New York Times, Paul Vitello profiled the then-recent reintroduction and reinstitution of the offering of indulgences within the Catholic Church. An “indulgence,” of course, is, according to Catholic doctrine and dogma, “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven.” You know, after certain conditions are met.7 The Times article proceeded to talk about the ramifications of the announcement and sanction of indulgences on a broader scale after the year 2000. One Roman church official, Cardinal William Baum, stated explicitly that a full indulgence could be obtained by “a significant contribution of works of a religious or social nature.”8 That’s not language from the 16th but from the 21st century.
Without question, there still exists a crusade to keep our works and our faith intertwined as we march toward Zion. But it’s not just the Catholics who are desperate to hear anew the message of sola fide. A few years ago, a prominent evangelical theologian published a post online which read: “If you don’t want God more than you want anything else, you are not a Christian.” I remember hastening to my keyboard to compose a response. It frustrated me to no end to see sola fide castrated and called into question like that. In the intervening years since, there have been not a few follow-up posts reinforcing the notion that one’s works are integral to one’s “right standing” with God. One such article asserted that, “If you have a pet sin, you must renounce it at once. Your salvation depends on it.” Again, those aren’t words from some heterodox preacher. They’re from an esteemed and respected evangelical thinker and writer and pastor. And such is why I am so concerned.
There are scores of churchgoers who are being hoodwinked into thinking that their spot in heaven is up to them. That it’s on their shoulders. That same pastor, by the way, has even gone on to say in a recent book that “love and obedience — inherent righteousness — is . . . required for heaven.”9 Can you imagine living with that weight? Can you imagine living with that burden? Can you imagine living with that kind of pressure? Maybe you don’t have to imagine because that’s how you’re living right now. Well, sola fide bursts that bubble. Unconditional justification, by faith alone, detonates any notion that we have anything to do with our salvation, even the tiniest fraction. “The gospel of justification by faith,” Forde declares, “is such a shocker, such an explosion, because it is an absolutely unconditional promise. It is not an ‘if-then’ kind of statement, but a ‘because-therefore’ pronouncement: Because Jesus died and rose, your sins are forgiven and you are righteous in the sight of God!”10 Which brings me, finally, to Galatians 3.
Galatians sees the apostle Paul at his most spirited. Indeed, I think if Paul were alive today and saw what was going on in the modern church, he’d write another letter like Galatians. The feisty apostle to the Gentiles gets in the face of the Galatian believers in an attempt to curtail the burgeoning influence of the Judaizers, who had infiltrated and infected the early church like the plague. The gist of the Judaizers’ message was that salvation could not be had by mere faith alone, but had to be augmented by one’s obedience. These “false brethren” were telling anyone who’d listen that they had to add works to their faith in order to be truly saved. Faith alone was not enough for justification. Those who wanted to be justified were bound to keep the law, too. Namely, they had to be circumcised. Paul, as you well know, takes great issue with this idea, boldly writing against any notion that “works of the law” can result in justification.
In the apostle’s mind, all these Judaizers were accomplishing was effectively putting would-be believers back in “bondage” (Gal. 2:4; 5:1). In so doing, they were losing Christ, losing the faith, altogether. “Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:2–4). This, then, constitutes Paul’s primary burden. His zeal is predominantly aimed at correcting those who had been seduced by the charms of the Judaizers. And those are his words, not mine:
O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you? This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh? (Gal. 3:1–3)
In the span of three verses, Paul proceeds to call the Galatians “foolish” twice. This gives us a sense of his exasperation that sola fide would so quickly be opposed. “How could you be so unwise? How could you be of such little understanding? You’ve been bamboozled,” he says. The great bewitching came about through that blasted assertion that a sinner’s justification could be merited “by works of the law,” to which the apostle defiantly says is categorically untrue (Gal. 3:3). What was first inaugurated and established by the Spirit cannot now be maintained or managed or, least of all, “perfected” by the likes of you. By no means! A sinner’s justification has always come sola fide, by faith alone. This has been true from the beginning of time. Even Father Abraham was made righteous by faith (Gal. 3:4–9; cf. Rom. 4:1–25). He “believed God, and it was accounted [imputed] to him for righteousness” (Gal. 3:6). Likewise, those who’d say they are “Abraham’s sons” are such only as they believe what Abraham himself believed (Gal. 4:1–7).
The apostle’s point, then, is clear. There is no such thing as “working your way” into blessing. There is no such thing as “obeying your way” into a right standing with God. You and I have zero ability to justify ourselves. None. Nada. Zilch. The “works of the law” cannot be your ticket into heaven (Gal. 2:16), nor were they ever intended to be. Your justification and mine is a gift of grace that we receive by faith alone.
But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Gal. 3:11–14)
The curse of sin is done away with because Christ has become the curse for us (Isa. 53:3–4, 12). “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). “The things that He did not do were laid to His charge,” proclaims Horatius Bonar, “and He was treated as if He had done them all; so the things that He did do are put to our account, and we are treated by God as if we had done them all.”11 He is the “Someone Else” to which our faith is joined. He is the One who “gets us in” and keeps us in. Our status as God’s sons isn’t dependent upon us (Gal. 4:6–7). You and I don’t enter the kingdom of heaven because we’re good, but because we’re are God’s, we are his.
What about Hebrews 12:14, where it says without holiness “no man shall see the Lord”? In short, that verse is not referencing a holiness that is inherent to us, seeing as just a few verses prior the same writer says that we are “partakers of his holiness” (Heb. 12:10). “Believers aren’t righteous because of a righteousness inherent to them,” Thomas Schreiner says succinctly.12 Well, what about James 2:18, where we read “shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works”? In short, what James has in mind is how one in the church appears “righteous in the sight of men.” What Paul has in mind, however, is how we are righteous “in the sight of God” (Gal. 3:11; cf. Hab. 2:4). There is no contradiction. There is no confusion. There is only one righteousness that merits both a right standing before the Father and unbridled entry into the courts of his heavenly kingdom. And it’s a righteousness you have nothing to do with. It’s the righteousness Jesus came to fulfill (Matt. 3:15). It’s the righteousness which comes from canceled sin. And there is only One Person powerful enough to cancel sin “once for all” (Col. 2:14). And that person isn’t you!
My one hope of not only entering a right relationship with God but also stepping into glory is the same: it’s Christ. It’s always Christ. And by grace through faith in him alone, I am confident that at the End of All Things, I will be welcomed home. Not because of anything in me. Not because any righteousness inherent to me. But always and only and forever because Christ has done away with my sin and the need for meriting heaven on my own. Such is what was finished at Golgotha. Such is the sublime rest offered in the gift of sola fide. “Here we rest,” Bonar attests, “sitting down beneath the shadow of the cross to receive the benefit of that justifying, saving, protecting sacrifice.”13 He has merited heaven on my behalf. Therefore, by faith, I am his and he is mine. By faith, heaven is my home already. I am a citizen of the kingdom of heaven precisely because there is no righteousness inherent to me. Christ has fulfilled all righteousness in my stead. I don’t have to “earn this,” because he already did.
Sola fide, therefore, lays hold of Christ who did all that was necessary for our justification, salvation, and glorification. His merit is ours by faith and our demerit is his by account of his substitutionary sacrifice on the cross. We who believe are made “more than conquerors” by faith alone (Rom. 8:37). Not because we have conquered anything but only and ever because of him. The only “conqueror of sin” is Christ alone. “In Christ,” Martin Luther declares, “all sin is vanquished, killed, and buried, and righteousness remaineth a conqueror and reigneth for ever.”14 Sinner, this is your only plea. This is your only justification. Come and by faith receive the “righteousness of God” (Rom. 1:16–17), which is all the righteousness you’ll ever need.
This rendering comes from Thomas Schreiner, Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification, The Five Solas Series, edited by Matthew Barrett (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015), 40n20. For more insight into this oft-misquoted saying of Luther, Justin Taylor has a helpful blog over on The Gospel Coalition examining its origins.
This is the scenario popularized by evangelist and pastor D. James Kennedy. See his Evangelism Explosion: Equipping Churches for Friendship, Evangelism, Discipleship, and Healthy Growth (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1996), 77–78.
Schreiner, Faith Alone, 45.
Horatius Bonar, How Shall I Go to God? And Other Readings (London: Religious Tract Society, 1881), 13–14.
Gerhard O. Forde, Justification by Faith: A Matter of Death and Life (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1991), 47–48.
Matthew Barrett, foreword to Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification, by Thomas Schreiner, 9.
Listen to how one Catholic tract describes how you can “acquire” an indulgence: “To gain a partial indulgence, you must perform with a contrite heart the act to which the indulgence is attached. To gain a plenary [full] indulgence you must perform the act with a contrite heart, plus you must go to confession, receive Holy Communion, and pray for the pope’s intentions. The final condition is that you must be free from all attachment to sin, including venial sin. If you attempt to receive a plenary indulgence, but are unable to meet the last condition, a partial indulgence is received instead.”
R. Scott Clark’s article for Tabletalk, entitled, “Are Indulgences Still Sold?” proved helpful here.
John Piper, foreword to Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification, by Thomas Schreiner, 11.
Forde, Justification by Faith, 24.
Horatius Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness: or, How Shall Man Be Just With God? (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1993), 84.
Schreiner, Faith Alone, 39.
Bonar, Everlasting Righteousness, 38.
Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians, translated by Erasmus Middleton, edited by John Prince Fallowes (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1979), 169.