A Close Look at “Sola Fide” (Part1)

December 11, 2005 | Speaker: Bro Jurem Ramos

  When we celebrated our 9th church anniversary last July 2005, I shared to you my conviction that if we are to appropriately express our gratitude and praises to God we are to do three things:  
  • Recall what the Lord has done for us.
  • Relate to the next generation the wonders the Lord has done for us.
  • Renew our commitment to steadfastly keep hold of the lessons that Lord taught us.
  Among the important lessons the Lord showed us are the five solas or the five great biblical doctrines of the Reformation period of the 16th century. Let me remind you that the Reformation is the 16th century religious movement in Europe that set out to reform some of the practices and doctrines of the Medieval Roman Catholic Church such as an unbiblical understanding of salvation, religious authority and theology. This resulted in a split and the development of Protestantism. This separation from the Catholic Church was led by Martin Luther, a German Augustinian monk and professor of theology who experienced a fresh vision and understanding of a holy God who justifies sinners by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone.   The five solas (Latin for “alone”) include the following:  
  • sola Scriptura—Scripture alone—the Scriptures are the sole and sufficient standard for preaching, doctrine, worship and life
  • sola gratia—grace alone—grace is the sole and sufficient cause for God's salvation of the ungodly
  • solus Christus—Christ alone—Christ is the sole and sufficient Savior who fully merited redemption of sinners
  • sola fide—faith alone—faith is the sole instrument through which God justifies the guilty
  • soli Deo gloria—to God alone be glory—Because all of these things are from him, to him, through him and for Him, God alone should receive glory for His saving work
  Many discerning ministers of the gospel today have identified that the weakness of the today’s church is rooted in ignorance of God and neglect of these five doctrinal truths. If we are to see a direction towards renewal in our churches, we need to rediscover these very doctrines that transformed the world for good.   We have looked at three doctrines already: Scripture alone, Christ alone, and grace alone. Today we will look at the 4th sola—sola fide or faith alone. This phrase teaches that faith is the sole instrument through which God justifies the guilty.   This definition of sola fide introduces to us two important words that will need explanation: faith and justification. Today, I am going to focus on justification; next week, the Lord willing, we are going to look at what faith means.   To help us in our study, we are going to follow this outline:  
  • The importance of justification
  • The necessity of justification
  • The nature of justification
  • The source of justification
  • The ground of justification

The Importance of Justification

Many discerning Christians who are monitoring the state of the evangelical church today observe that there is widespread theological ignorance, moral decline and ineffective witness in its ranks. They sense that what is greatly needed today is for “evangelicals to repent of their worldliness and to recover the great doctrines of the Bible, as the Protestant Reformers did in the sixteenth century.” James Montgomery Boice, author of the book Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace?, writes that there is no place at which our recovery needs to begin more rigorously than with the doctrine of justification by faith, since this is what the Reformers called the “material principle” of all theology.   To understand what Boice means we need to understand the two basic and controlling principles of the theology of the Protestants in the 16th century. They said that the doctrine Scripture alone is the “formal principle” of all theology and the doctrine justification by faith alone is the “material principle.”   One teacher says that the “formal principle” refers to “form” as used in the rules of debate. “Form” has to do with the sources from which arguments can be drawn or the authorities that are to be regarded as legitimate. The Protestants of the 16th century who debated with the Catholics argued that Scripture alone was the final authority. On the other hand, “the Roman Catholics argued that the church, its hierarchy, its tradition and its normative interpretation of Scripture were sources that could also be cited as equally legitimate.”[1]   The “material principle” refers to the core theological matter over which Roman Catholics and Protestants disagreed. This is what issue of justification. James Boice explains the material principle in this way:   … having established the sole source from which our doctrine comes, the Reformers turned to justification and called it the “material principle,” because it involves the very matter, substance, or heart of what any man or woman must understand and believe to be saved.[2]   Let me read to you statements about the importance and centrality of justification by faith that are found throughout the writings of Reformers. I have taken these examples from James Boice’s chapter Faith alone, in his book Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace:   John Calvin, the spiritual father of the Presbyterian and Reformed churches and the most systematic of the Reformation theologians, spoke of justification as “the main hinge on which salvation turns.”   Thomas Cranmer was the chief architect of the Church of England, the major figure behind the Book of Common Prayer. He believed that justification is “the strong rock and foundation of Christian religion,” declaring that “whosoever denieth [this doctrine] is not to be counted for a true Christian man . . . but for an adversary of Christ.   Thomas Watson was one of the finest of the English Puritans and one of their most readable writers. He said that “justification is the very hinge and pillar of Christianity. An error about justification is dangerous, like a defect in a foundation. Justification by Christ is a spring of water of life. To have the poison of corrupt doctrine cast into this spring is damnable.   Martin Luther was the first of all the Reformers, the founder of the Lutheran churches, and one of the most outspoken of any in this volatile but determinative period. Luther said, “When the article of justification has fallen, everything has fallen. . . . This is the chief article from which all other doctrines have flowed. . . . It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God; and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour.” He maintained that justification is “the master and prince, the lord, the ruler, and the judge over all kinds of doctrines.[3]   After quoting those statements, James Boice adds:   These statements are not exaggerations. They are simple truth, because justification is God’s answer to the most important of all human questions: How can a man or a woman become right with God? We are not right with God in ourselves. On the contrary, we are in a dreadful trouble with God. We are under His wrath for our sins. So either we must become right with God or we must perish eternally. If the evangelical church loses this doctrine, as it is in the process of doing, it will fall, as Luther said. Evangelical churches are falling. And this means that they are not only losing their soul, they are ceasing to be true churches. They are becoming something that is actually non-Christian.   In addition to the fact that the doctrine of sola fide is vital for the life of the evangelical church and salvation of the sinner, it is also the key to mission today. Let me read to you from book The Case for Traditional Protestantism by Terry Johnson. He writes:   We should not view the conflict [regarding sola fide] as a remote history lesson, unrelated to ministry. It is instead the heart of the gospel and the key to mission today. Since the Reformation every subsequent season of fruitful ministry has seen a renewed emphasis on justification by faith alone. The preaching of the great evangelists, whether John Bunyan (1628-88), George Whitefield (1714-70), John Wesley (1703-91), Jonathan Edwards (1703-58), or Charles Spurgeon (1834-92) demonstrate this to be the case. No other doctrine so illustrates the sinfulness of man and the futility of his efforts to save himself. No other doctrine so glorifies Christ as the sole ground of our salvation. No other doctrine so establishes the security of the believer in Christ. Hence, no other doctrine is so vital to biblical preaching and effective ministry.[4]  

The Necessity of Justification

In chapters 1-3 of his epistle to the Romans, Paul shows why justification is necessary. We learn that it is necessary because of the nature of both God and man. Listen to this explanation by Terry Johnson:   God is our judge. He is righteous. His ‘wrath’ is revealed against all human sin (1:18). His law-standard is unachievable. Man is a rebel, a lawbreaker, a moral and religious failure and hopelessly lost. This description applies to both Gentile (1;18-32) and Jew (2:1-3:8). Look at the Gentile record and what do you find; “unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, malice’ (1:29-32). And the Jewish record? It is no better.   You, therefore, who teach another, do you not teach yourself? You who preach that one should not steal, do you steal? You who say that one should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the Law, through your breaking the Law, do you dishonor God? For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you, just as it is written (Ro 2:21-24).   Drawing his indictment together, Paul summarized, ‘both Jews and Greeks (Gentiles) are all under sin,’ indeed,   There is not righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who understands good, there is not even one (Ro 3:10-12)   With this sweeping indictment of the human race, the apostle has condemned us all. Gone are all our pretensions of moral and religious goodness. Gone are our claims of self-righteousness. Gone are our self-congratulating self-portraits as ‘honest seekers’ after truth. ‘There is none righteous.’ There is non who does good.’ ‘There is none who seeks for God.’   Where does this place us in relation to God? His ‘wrath is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (1:18). Our situation is not just bad, it is hopeless. We are condemned as transgressors and ‘without excuse’ (1:20). The standard of God’s righteousness is beyond our grasp and his sanctions promise us destruction.   What can we do? Nothing but close our mouths. For two full chapters in Romans, 1:18-3:18, Paul’s argument has had one aim—to shut mouths—‘that every mouth may be closed, and all the world may become accountable to God’ (3:19).   Without excuse and without virtue, we stand silent, condemned.   How may we be saved? How may we stand before God? The gospel teaches that whatever we do in order to get right with God will not work. Our obedience is not pure enough. Our love is not earnest enough. It does not matter how many times we go to church, or say the creed, or put money in the plate. All our attempts are futile. They are worthless. Our religion will not save us. Our morality will not save us. There is nothing we can do to escape destruction. Our efforts to make ourselves right with God are completely futile; He is too holy, and we are too corrupt.   If we are to get right with God we must seek righteousness, not in ourselves, but in the direction of the clue given to us back in Romans 1:17—the righteousness that is ‘of God’ or ‘from God.’ This righteousness comes to us from God and is received ‘from faith to faith.’ In other words, it reception begins and ends with faith. . . . Justification is a righteousness which is God’s gift, given altogether by faith. The holiness of God and the wickedness of man make this, the only viable way for sinners to be saved.   What, then, can be done about our hopeless situation? We are under condemnation (Ro 5:16,18; 8:1). We need the opposite of condemnation. We need pardon and forgiveness. More precisely, we need to be justified or acquitted. It this possible? How can we be made right with God? The Apostle tells us [in Romans 3:21-24]:   But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.     A full definition of justification is this:   Justification is an act of God by which he declares sinners to be righteous by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone.   This is exactly what Paul is teaching in Romans 3:21-24. These verses include each of those elements. They refer to a righteousness that is not our own but is instead a righteousness from God revealed from heaven (v.21). They speak of God’s grace (justified freely by His grace,” v. 24). They talk about faith; the word appears eight times in vv. 21-31. And all this is said to be possible because of Christ. “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ” (v.22), and we are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (v.24).[5]   Let us discern several distinctions in this definition.  

The Nature of Justification

First, justification is judicial act of God. Here is how James White explains it.   Justification is said to be an act of God as judge wherein He declares the believer righteous. It is, therefore, a legal, forensic declaration on the part of God concerning the believer. Now the term “forensic” is hardly attractive at first glance. It seems distant and dry. But it serves a vital, and if I might be so bold, exciting purpose. It helps us to realize that God has done something about our lost condition. Sinners are condemned by God’s just and holy law. How can the person who stands before the Judge of all the earth, plainly guilty and condemned, find full freedom and restoration? The language in which the New Testament discusses this issue is the language of the courtroom, and the term “forensic” simply tells us that God has done something wonderful in the realm of law, guilt and forgiveness.[6]  

The Source of Justification

The source of our justification is the grace of God (Ro 3:24). Since “there is no one righteous, not even one” (Ro 3:10), it is clear that no one can make or “declare” himself or herself “righteous” (v. 20). How then, is salvation possible? It is possible only if God does the work for us—which is what grace means, since we do not deserve God’s working. In fact, we do not even seek it. Not only is there “no one righteous” and “no one who understands” (Ro 3:10,11). It is also the case that there “is no one who seeks God” (v.11). If it were not for the inexplicable grace of God, utterly unsought and utterly unmerited, no one would be justified.[7]

The Ground of Justification

The ground of our justification is the work of Christ. Here is how Terry Johnson explains this:   The ‘gift’ of justification, says the apostle Paul, is given ‘through’ or on the basis of ‘the redemption which is in Christ Jesus’ (3:24). The basis of God’s judicial act in pardoning sinners is the death of Christ.   Imagine for a moment, that you are a young boy at a county fair. Your father goes to the booth where he throws darts at balloons and, if he pops them all, he wins a prize. Your father steps up to the line, throws his darts and pops every balloon! He wins the prize, and he proudly brings it over to you and places it into your hands. Now answer the question, How did you come to have the prize? Do you have it because you opened your hand and received it? Yes, that is true. But your hand was only the instrument by which you received it. You and your hand deserve, receive, no credit for possession of the prize. The real reason, or ground, of your prize-receiving was your father’s prize-winning. His accomplishments secured the gift and made its possession possible for you.   Similarly, the ground of our salvation is the work of Jesus Christ. It is not faith per se (the means) that saves, but faith in Jesus Christ (the ground) that saves. Our faith is not in faith. Regrettably many are confused about this. They attribute saving power to faith, believing, or so they seem to say, that as long as one has ‘faith,’ one is safe. ‘Faith’ in this scheme takes on a life of its own. It can be placed in (literally) anyone or no one! Warfield was right when he said: ‘It is not, strictly speaking, even faith in Christ that saves, but Christ that saves through faith.” His life and work secured our salvation. What did He do? [We have seen this before but to refresh our memories….]   The New Testament uses a variety of terminologies to describe Christ’s work. We find the language of the market-place. Paul spoke of “redemption” (Ro 3:24), a word taken from the world of commerce, even the slave-market, which means to ‘purchase,’ ‘buy back,’ or ‘liberate.’ This gives us a valuable insight. Christ has paid a purchase price for us.   We find the language of sacrifice. The apostle Paul said in Romans 3:25-26: God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished-- 26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.   There was ‘propitiation in His blood.’ Christ’s death on the cross was a propitiating sacrifice, that is, a substitutionary sacrifice which satisfied the just wrath of God on our behalf. A holy God, to be consistent with His own nature, must and will punish sin. He will not evade the requirements of His righteous character in forgiving sin.   We also find that the apostle used the language of the law court. Romans 3:26 says that the work of redemption is carried out in such a way that God is seen as ‘just’ and ‘justifier.’ That is, the cross allows God to both uphold justice and justify sinners. God meets the requirements of His own justice by punishing sin in His Son.   In a historical sense there was a question mark hanging over the character of God. He had ‘passed over’ or forgiven the ‘sins previously committed’  by Moses, David, and other Old Testament saints, leaving those sins unpunished. How could he be holy and do this? The answer is, the cross. It was a public ‘demonstration’ which re-established His righteousness as Judge, as one who punishes sin without partiality. The sins of Old Testament and New Testament believers alike were punished in Christ and justice was satisfied. Only then could it be said that He is both a ‘justifier’ (One who forgives sin and declares the believing sinner righteous), and ‘just’ in doing so. Justice is not compromised because, [according to Paul in 2Co 5:21):   God made him who had no sin to be sin [a] for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.   A grand transaction took place. He received (became) our sin and guilt. We receive His righteousness, and we receive it by faith alone. Underlying this is our union with Christ, as he suffers as our Substitute, bearing our sin, dying our death. Christ is our Redeemer, our Sacrifice, our Justification.[8]     We will continue in The Elements of Justification and The Means of Justification next week, the Lord willing. [1] Terry L. Johnson, The Case for Traditional Protestantism (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth, 2004), pp. 75-76. [2] James Montgomery Boice, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? (Carlisle, Cumbria, UK: Paternoster Lifestyle, 2002), p. 129 [3] ibid., p. 130 [4] Terry L. Johnson, The Case for Traditional Protestantism, pp. 77-78 [5] James Montgomery Boice, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace?, p. 134 [6] James R. White, The Roman Catholic Controversy (Bethany House Publishers: Minneapolis, MN, 1996), pp. 143. [7] James Montgomery Boice, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace?, p. 134,135 [8] Terry L. Johnson, The Case for Traditional Protestantism, pp. 82-85