Faith Alone: A Misunderstood Call of The Reformation

Why faith alone? There are some that struggle with this point concerning the Reformation. Like all doctrinal positions of the Reformers, it is often misconceived. And, come to think of it, the Bible is often misunderstood as well. I have been challenged by some who will throw James 2:24 into the mix:

"You see then how by works a man is justified, and not by faith only." James 2:24 MEV

They say: "See, see! Salvation isn't by faith alone! James refutes your poor assumption!" Now, one may argue that the call for "faith alone" is not a good slogan, but the reformers didn't mean "faith totally absent of works." In fact, if you read their writings and sermons you will find that they agree heartily with James concerning piety. Martin Luther himself said the following:

“We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.”

The problem isn't with what James is saying in his text, neither is there a problem with the call for "sola fide," the problem is with what the Medieval Roman Catholic Church was saying and also the pietistic writers of today are saying about faith and works. There is a difference between a man growing in Sanctification by grace through faith, and a man trying to work his way to heaven by his own meritorious acts or by some new modified law. True salvation begins with Grace which results in Faith, and faith therefore is the catalyst for the works that James was promoting. Romans 14:23b says the following:

"for whatever is not from faith is sin." Romans 14:23b MEV

Therefore, if your works are not rooted in faith, it is sin. That is why someone can be a pious philanthropist and give tons of money to a good cause and not be saved. That is why Paul Quoted the Psalms in Romans 3:10:

As it is written:
“There is none righteous, no, not one;
11 there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks after God.
12 They have all turned aside;
together they have become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.”
13 “Their throats are an open grave;
with their tongues they have used deceit”;
“the poison of vipers is under their lips”;
14 “their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 destruction and misery are in their paths;
17 and they do not know the way of peace.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Romans 3:10-18 MEV

Even Isaiah in his work many years before Paul stated:

"But we all are as an unclean thing,
and all our righteousness is as filthy rags;
and we all fade as a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away." Isaiah 64:6 MEV

Even in the Old Testament time salvation came by grace through faith (Read Hebrews). That is why Jesus was so hard on the Pharisees and Sadducees. They modified the law to make it attainable, and then in arrogance thought they were better because of their open and perceived piety. However, Jesus called them "whitewashed tombs" (Matthew 23:27-28). Even the disciples were taken by the Pharisees self righteousness. It took some time for Jesus to undo what they had wrongly been taught about the Law and Gospel. Probably a good story to illustrate this is in Matthew 19:

The Rich Young Man
16 Now one came and said to Him, “Good Teacher, what good deed shall I do to have eternal life?”
17 He replied to him, “Why do you call Me good? There is One who is good. But if you would enter life, keep the commandments.”
18 He said to Him, “Which ones?”
Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19 Honor your father and your mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
20 The young man said to Him, “All these I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?”
21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go and sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow Me.”
22 But when the young man heard this, he went away sorrowful. For he had great possessions.
23 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly, I say to you that it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
25 When His disciples heard this, they were greatly amazed, saying, “Who then can be saved?”
26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”27 Then Peter answered Him, “See, we have left everything and followed You. What then shall we have?”
28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on His glorious throne, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for My name’s sake shall receive a hundred times as much and inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Matthew 19:16-30 MEV

"With men this is impossible." Salvation is of the Lord, not ourselves. Folks tend to struggle with this, but it is true. Grace is the catalyst of salvation, and faith always comes first before any work. It is an alien righteousness and Spirit that fills a man or woman. It comes from outside of us, not from a piece of goodness that remains in us. The fall made us unable to merit our way back to God. Christianity is a dependent faith, one that leans wholly on God for rescue and ability to do anything worthy. The story of the rich young ruler wasn't told to encourage us to sell everything we own in a garage sale to obtain a earned righteousness, but rather Jesus was showing the man how he fell short of God's high standard. Why do you think He said things like He did on the Sermon on the Mount? Things like "if you are angry with your brother without a cause, it is the same as murder." He was trying to show them their doom and inability to earn their own salvation through works. Jesus kept the law for us, and paid the penalty of our sins so that we might be able to approach God.

"14 Pursue peace with all men, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord, 15 watching diligently so that no one falls short of the grace of God, lest any root of bitterness spring up to cause trouble, and many become defiled by it, 16 lest there be any sexually immoral or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of food sold his birthright. 17 For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected. For he found no place for repentance, though he sought it diligently with tears." Hebrews 12:14-17 MEV

Who's holiness do we need to see the Lord? Jesus's holiness. It is that righteousness that we need, not our own. That is what Paul was laboring to tell everyone he was writing to in the book of Romans. There is no true peace or holiness without Jesus Christ, and beware of any teacher who says otherwise. We don't know if the rich young man ever possessed faith and repented, but I certainly hope he did for his sake.

Most of the writers and people today who argue for "works" or maybe even those who are proponents of "Lordship Salvation," try to add new law to make salvation harder than it is. They falsely interpret parables and the teachings of Jesus to formulate laws and ways to earn righteousness in the eyes of God. It is a tragedy because they are walking into a trap laid down by the devil himself. It is a result and a push back against "easy believism," which is something that was a result of poor evangelistic efforts during the 19th and 20th Centuries. Some call it Revivalism. Most people are looking for a miracle. They are looking for something epic and spectacular. The truth is that there are those things in the life of a Christian, but they aren't usually noticeable by most. God typically works through ordinary means of grace, and as a result, the conversion and growth of a believer in Christ is slow and even monotonous. God's means of change is the Holy Spirit and the Church. The church is the keeper of the written testimonies of God (Bible), and it is God Himself who does the ultimate and decisive work of grace which leads to faith and works. One thing that people don't see is the importance of confession to God and also repentance.

Repentance is a fruit of contrition. It works with faith and is important because humility is central to the Christian Faith. It is a realization that we are unworthy and unable to keep the Law according to our own strength and might (Total depravity). It is also a realization of our total dependence on God's righteousness, goodness, and holiness. We also see that we deserve eternal punishment for our transgression of the law, and that only God Himself can rescue us from this judgment through the death and resurrection of His Son Jesus the anointed King (Unconditional Election). We also realize that this offer is made to all, but that not all will receive it with a humble heart (Limited Atonement). However, those who the Lord draws in, they will respond to God's call with a sincere, humble, contrite, and penitent heart (Irresistible Grace). And those who are truly called will Persevere until the end (Perseverance of the Saints). Some don't care for this explanation, but it is Biblical. Certainly we are free agents and are given a choice to respond to this call. Not all receive it, and not all who receive it persevere. However, the saints of God will find their way to the Celestial City of God in the end, and it all begins by Grace through Faith.


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