Stretch yourself out.
Turning to D. G. Barnhouse and John G. Paton for help with capturing the essence of sola fide.
One of my theological mainstays is the prevailing necessity to affirm and articulate the doctrine of faith alone, a.k.a. sola fide. That a sinner is justified by faith in Christ, apart from any of his own merit or effort, is, of course, a truth which is easily derived from Scripture, most notably from Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians. The apostle states quite explicitly, “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:16). That, in a nutshell, is what sola fide is all about. Sinners are declared righteous in the eyes of God because of Jesus’s death and resurrection. The Son’s accomplishment on the cross is all that’s necessary in order for anyone to get into a right standing with the Father, notwithstanding how sinful their record might be.
This message is perennially necessary because if we are consistent in nothing else, we are, at least, consistent in forgetting that our salvation comes by faith alone, without the slightest prerequisite for goodness on our part. Salvation by grace through faith in Christ seems too easy. Our works have to matter, don’t they? They have to count for something, we determine, as we fail to remember what the Scriptures say about even our “best” works. “We have all become like one who is unclean,” the prophet Isaiah declares, “and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isa. 64:6). “Filthy rags,” the King James calls them. We almost can’t help it, though. We are so easily deceived into thinking that our works are winning us favor, approval, and acceptance with God, when, in fact, all the favor, approval, and acceptance we will ever need is already given to us in Christ crucified and risen again. “One of the hardest lessons for man to learn,” notes D. G. Barnhouse in his commentary on the book of Romans, “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” (3.3.111).
It’s a hard lesson to learn precisely because we are so self-confident, so self-assured, and so self-absorbed. We’d almost do anything but admit how deficient, depraved, and desperate we truly are, little knowing that such an admission is the only thing that opens us up to hear the resounding news of the gospel, which is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Rom. 1:16–17). Sola fide, then, is the only hope for those who’ve come to realize it is their Only Hope. And to capture how total the notion of sola fide is, you’d do well to turn to an earlier passage in Barnhouse’s commentary on Romans, where he relays a splendid anecdote about John G. Paton and his missionary work in the New Hebrides islands of the South Pacific. It turns out that not having a native vocabulary for terms like “faith,” “trust,” or “belief” was actually a gift, since it led to what is one of the more illustrative ways to express what sola fide looks like. Barnhouse writes:
In the early days of the gospel in the South Pacific isles there were many missionaries killed by the natives who were in a state of savage cannibalism. Finally, John G. Paton arrived at his destination in the New Hebrides, and by one of the acts of Providence, which unbelieving men call chance, he came to the island at the moment when there was a terrible epidemic that had decimated the population. He entered into the huts of the sick and began to care for them. He buried the dead and tended to the sick. When the epidemic had passed, he was received by all and began to take up his life with them. His first thought was to learn their language, and he began to listen to their speech and write down in his notebook all the words and phrases which he learned.
The natives became accustomed to having him stop them in the middle of a sentence, repeating words, and waiting while he wrote them down. Then came a time when he decided that he would begin to translate some of the gospel stories into their language. But to his dismay, when he began the task he discovered that there was no word in his book for faith, confidence, trust, belief. You will not get very far in translating the Bible without such words, and he turned his full attention to finding something that would convey the missing idea. Nothing availed.
He imagined stories that would bring up possible conversations that would contain such a word. The natives knew that he was seeking something but they could not imagine what it was. After some time of frustration he went on a hunting trip with one of his helpers. They shot a deer-like animal and several smaller game, and started to carry their kill back to the house of the missionary. The equatorial weather was oppressive, the hill in which they hunted was trackless, and they arrived at the house almost exhausted. They dropped their heavy burden, and then cast themselves down on the grass to rest. The native said, after a moment, “Oh, it is good to stretch yourself out here in the shade.”
The missionary revived on the instant. Excitedly he had his companion repeat the sentence again and again. He put every bit of it down in his book; and, when the Gospels were ultimately translated, this was the word that was used to convey the idea of faith and belief. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever stretcheth Himself out on Him, shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” And “stretch yourself out on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” And again, “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and in thine heart stretch thyself out on the fact that God hath raised Him from the death, thou shalt be saved; for with the heart one stretcheth himself out unto righteousness and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” (1.1.209–10)
I am moved by the image of “stretching yourself out” as a metaphor for the faith that justifies. It is a relinquishment of all ability, proficiency, energy, and the like, trusting in the strength of another to prevail on your behalf. Such is the faith that saves. It’s not the faith that sweats and works and strives that earns its way into God’s favor. It’s the faith that “believe[s] in him whom he has sent” (John 6:29). That’s all the “work” we’re called to do. “The just,” Barnhouse says, “shall come to life by turning away from any hope within self and by stretching himself out on the finished work of the Saviour” (1.1.211). As soon as we try to take matters into our own hands, thinking that Christ’s work needs our involvement, we annul the work that’s already been finished for us. Paul says as much in Galatians, where he declares, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal. 2:21). You see, the stakes for sola fide couldn’t be higher. Either you are “stretching yourself out” in work already done, or you are living in such a way that makes Christ’s cross purposeless. The faith that saves is the faith that’s continually stretched out on solid rock of Jesus’s passion and resurrection.
Grace and peace to you, friends.
Donald G. Barnhouse, Expositions of Bible Doctrines Taking the Epistle to the Romans as a Point of Departure, Vols. 1–4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982).
The 'article of the standing or falling church' indeed. What a neat story. There is nothing that the human mind likes less than the idea of justification through condemnation, that our one hope is in a guilty verdict, and that it is only after all of our works, especially our religion, convict us that 'another book' can be opened and no one found written in it shall be cast into the lake of fire.