Sola fide…no really: the offense of picking up the check.
The gospel of grace isn’t for those who insist on having some “skin in the game.”
A few nights ago, I opened Twitter and saw an intriguing comment from one of my connections. He was replying to a tweet shared by Desiring God linking to an article by Greg Morse, entitled, “How to Train Your Dragons: Killing Pet Sins Before They Kill You.” At first I wasn’t concerned, but then I saw a quote that was lifted from the piece — and then I started reading the piece and found out that the quote wasn’t just clever (deceitful?) click bait. This was an actual discourse. An actual case was being made in opposition to sola fide. I read the whole thing. Then I read it again to make sure I didn’t just make all that up in my head. And then, well . . . to allay my head exploding, I wrote this piece.
The tweet and piece are questionable enough — let alone the reactions that came pouring in after I called them out on it. I’m more surprised now that some of my “Twitter friends” have given such push back on the notion of sola fide. As such, I figured I’d collect my thoughts on the matter and put them in some form of logical order. I do not mean to disparage the character of the author. I do, however, feel obligated to speak out on the erroneous claims that this piece puts forth. I don’t often desire to get engaged in social media controversy. I’d rather stay out of that room and just keep my head down as I pursue the gospel of grace in writing, speaking, and relationship building. But when such a popular publication releases words like these, I feel it necessary to not let them go unchecked or unchallenged.
My primary issue with what Desiring God shared and published is that it continued the fallacy of mixing up our active and passive righteousnesses. In short, there’s a righteousness we’re given, an alien righteousness that’s imputed to us. This is the righteousness of Christ given to us passively and by which we’re made righteous coram Deo, “in the eyes of God.” There’s also a righteousness we prove and evidence, by which we’re made righteous coram mundo, “in the eyes of the world.” Your passive righteousness is the fuel and ignition of your active righteousness. And your active righteousness is the proof and evidence of your passive standing. Your sanctification doesn’t win your justification, it proves it.
Nevertheless, the embers of the sanctification debate seem to have been stoked once again. The nomists have risen from the grave (or maybe they just found their megaphones again), as they’ve sought to nuance the words of God to a degree that conforms with their “corpus of salvation” that includes dual stages: initial and final. R. Scott Clark refers to such erroneous thought as a “coup” upon Reformed and orthodox theology. Likewise, I’d say such sentiments put forth by Desiring God are the very same heresies for which the Reformers lived and died for. By such claims, they put neonomism at the forefront of religious inquiry, thereby scaring people into a semblance of goodness, if not a pretend righteousness.
Furthermore, the timing of this piece couldn’t be more ironic. We are literally celebrating a movement that sought to correct and reform errors such as the denial of sola fide. Indeed, if my “hope of heaven” and “final salvation” is conditional upon me “killing sin,” I’m hopeless. If our “final salvation” is dependent upon something more than Christ’s utter defeat of sin on the cross, we’re all in deep crap. Thankfully, graciously, it’s not. The Word alone announces that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone all for the glory of God alone. Period. Full stop. No add-ons. No addendums. No stipulations. No fine print. This is the gospel. “You are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8–9).
Yes, peace and pardon are two non-negotiables of paradise. Peace with the Father and pardon from condemnation are what we’re proffered in the gospel. And, furthermore, both have nothing to do with you. You can’t make peace with God. You can’t secure your own pardon. Nothing you can do, no amount of effort of your own — however noble, however godly, however “righteous” — can ever make up the infinite debt of sin you owe. No amount of working will make it up. No amount of spiritual activity will pay this sentence. No amount of pet-sin-killing zeal will cover the cost of your spiritual rebellion. No amount of moralism whatsoever will pacify the righteousness of the law. Regardless of how busy you are for God, if you’re not resting in his completed work of salvation — the salvation he gives you freely by grace and promises to finish on his own time and for his own purpose — your spiritual bustling amounts to nothing but a hamster on a wheel: spinning and striving and sweating but going nowhere. Accomplishing nothing. Unless you are wholly dependent on the Father’s mercy and the Spirit’s grace, secured for you by the Son’s sacrifice, you are on terribly dangerous ground.
There’s one thing and one thing only that spans the crevasse between sinner and Lord — the cross of Christ. The chasm between you God can only been bridged by law-fulfilling grace and death of the crucifixion. On that cursed tree, all of God the Father’s wrath for your sin, for your retribution against his holiness, was borne by God the Son. All the disgust God has for you was poured out in the brutal death of Christ. There’s nothing left for you to win, or finish, or accomplish, or merit. All’s been done by Christ. All that’s left for you to do is to just live. Live soli Deo gloria, by sola fide, knowing that this life — and all “good works” done in it — is merely joyful expression of what has been accomplished for you, accomplished on your behalf, accomplished free of charge.
And this is extremely offensive to us. No one likes to hear that their works don’t matter. No one truly wants a free lunch. We want to have a part of it. We want some skin in the game. We want so desperately what we do to matter, to amount for something, that we’ll even risk nuancing the Scripture to death in order make our effort “finalize” salvation.
One of the hardest lessons for man to learn is that everything that God does for us is by grace. Man is so eager to have some credit for his blessings that it is difficult for him to admit his utter spiritual bankruptcy.1
You see, the gospel of grace isn’t for those who insist on having some “skin in the game.” The truth is, there’s no more game. It’s already been won on your behalf by the deeds of Another. And the skin was his, not yours. The blood was God’s and the sweat divine. We offend God greatly when we protest this unmitigated mercy. By determining that “there is a holiness that, if you do not have it, will keep you from seeing the Lord,” and further determining that it’s up to you to secure it, we’re making the transaction of salvation two-way. “Here, God, take my goodness! Take my sacrifices! Take my works!” we scream. And in so doing, we’re demanding to pay the check that Christ has already accounted for.
Have you ever done that? Have you ever been out with someone who insisted on paying some portion of the bill — even after you intimated that you’d cover this one? Remember how offended you felt when that person shook off your niceties and neglected your kindness? Or, again, have you ever bought a gift for someone only to have the givee protest the exorbitant nature of it when you offered it to them? “This is way too nice for me. You need to return this.” Now, amplify those offenses a million-fold and you’ll get a small inkling of God’s feeling towards us when we demand our works pay for something tending towards righteousness.
The truth is, the religion of the gospel isn’t a system wherein you can barter for more holiness by performing better or working harder. In this way, we’re insisting God let us pay our due. We’re shoving the Gift back in God’s face and saying, “Nah, I got this. I can do it on my own. I can kill my own sin.” But you cannot have Jesus as a partial Savior. It’s all the way or nothing. His salvation is complete and perfect, lacking no small thing undone. “Either Jesus is not a complete Savior, or they who by a true faith receive this Savior, must find all things in him necessary to their salvation.”2 “Therefore, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, since he always lives to intercede for them” (Heb. 7:25).
Man tries gradually to lessen the distance between himself and God, by his own doings; God annihilates it at once, by the doings of another, which accomplished in a moment that which a whole eternity of doings could not have enabled man to effect . . . Man tries, by endless instalments, to pay the eternal debt which has cast him into prison, and made him an alien from his Creator; God comes forth, and in one sum pays the infinite debt, and the prisoner goes free.3
Furthermore, the obedience in the Bible is not a “so that” reality, rather, it’s a “because of” reality — we obey because of the work of Another, not so that we can be with him. Not to achieve some sort of “mystical holiness” without which no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). The “good” we do and strive towards is for our neighbor, springing out of the reality and assurance of salvation freely extended and sealed for you (Eph. 1:13; 4:30). Your works as a Christian are never, nor ever should be, the basis for your faith. Rather, they are a byproduct of it and the Spirit’s grace. Your works don’t make you more or less righteous. They merely evidence the righteousness you’ve been imputed, the righteousness that’s been transferred to you by the life and death of Christ.
Take the following passage from Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation:
He is not righteous who does much, but he who, without work, believes much in Christ. For the righteousness of God is not acquired by means of acts frequently repeated, as Aristotle taught, but it is imparted by faith, for “He who through faith is righteous shall live” (Rom. 1:17), and, “Man believes with his heart and so is justified” (Rom. 10:10). Therefore I wish to have the words “without work” understood in the following manner: Not that the righteous person does nothing, but that his works do not make him righteous, rather that his righteousness creates works. For grace and faith are infused without our works. After they have been imparted the works follow. Thus Romans 3:20 states, “No human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law,” and, “For we hold that man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Rom. 3:28). In other words, works contribute nothing to justification. Therefore man knows that works which he does by such faith are not his but God’s. For this reason he does not seek to become justified or glorified through them, but seeks God. His justification by faith in Christ is sufficient to him. Christ is his wisdom, righteousness, etc., as 1 Corinthians 1:30 has it, that he himself may be Christ’s vessel and instrument.
Christ is at once the Author, Agent, and Advocate for all our sanctified activity. He initiates its beginning and inspires its perseverance. Therefore, when it comes to the matter sanctification, I’ve concluded that we’re either messing it up or missing the point. We very rarely get it right. Each day there are things I do that I wish I didn’t, and things I don’t do that I wish I did. That, my friends, isn’t a unique position, that’s the norm. The normative status of every believer is simultaneously sinner and saint — simul justus et peccator (Rom. 7). Each day my cry is, “Who will save me from this body of death?” Who will rescue me from my continued sinning? Who will forgive my incessant wandering? Who pardon all my pet sins? And each day I’m reminded that Jesus already has. Jesus already did. And Jesus will continue to do so, today, tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. I go to God each morning to be released from present, persistent sin — not to renew my sin license, not to be justified again, not because my sanctification is lacking, not because my pet wasn’t tamed properly — but because I know in the depths of my heart that notwithstanding my perfect position in Christ, the old man still roars within me and shakes his fist at the freeness of the gospel. The old Adam cries and schemes his way into religion by making it about his work.
But, as for me, I’ll continue confessing along with Martin Luther:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church he forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.4
Donald G. Barnhouse, Expositions of Bible Doctrines Taking the Epistle to the Romans as a Point of Departure (Philadelphia: Evangelical Foundation, 1963), 3:3.111.
The Heidelberg Catechism: or Short Instruction in Christian Doctrine, translated by J. H. Good and H. Harbaugh (Chambersburg: M. Kieffer & Co., 1849), 78.
Horatius Bonar, Man: His Religion and His World (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1851), 50–51.
Martin Luther, Luther’s Small Catechism Developed and Explained (Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1893), Article 3, 9.