Faith at Work: Sola Fide
Faith at Work: Sola Fide by Rev. L. John Gable
October 16, 2016
A number of years ago I was leading a confirmation retreat for a group of 7th and 8th graders. We were talking about “basic Christianity” and in one of my talks I was trying to tell them about what it means to have faith and why having faith in Jesus is essential to having a right relationship with God. I explained the gap that exists between the holy God we worship and us, an unholy people. As we read in our passage from Romans this morning, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”; God is holy, just, pure and right, and we are not. As much as we may desire to close that gap between us and God, through our good works and best efforts, which of course we think will be sufficient, we are incapable of doing so. We need another way to bridge that gap. We need someone who can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves; that is, we need a Savior.
Now, I was explaining all of this as best I could, but they just weren’t getting it. These were all just words to them. They were giving me that blank adolescent stare, which even adults can give at times.
So I abandoned my carefully written notes and had them stand on one end of the room and told them to imagine God was on the other end, then asked them to imagine a great chasm between us, too far to bridge, too far to jump. Then I asked them how they were going to get over to the “God-side” of the room? and they realized there was no way. Standing on our side of this great divide we were helpless and hopeless to get to God.
Then I took a wooden cross which just happened to be in the room we were using and laid it on the floor, across the great divide, and told them about Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross for us and our salvation. I told them how Jesus bridged the gap, then I invited them to walk across it. That act of walking by the way of Jesus, of trusting that the cross of Jesus is sufficient to hold us, is what it means to have FAITH. Faith alone in Christ alone, there is no other way.
If you were with us last week we are talking about the three pillars of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century and their importance and significance for us still today. Last week we spoke of Sola Scriptura. Scripture alone gives us this message of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ alone. Today we look at the second pillar, Sola Fide/Faith Alone and Sola Christus/Christ Alone. Christ alone is able to do this work for us that we are unable to do for ourselves, that is the work of salvation, and faith alone is the means by which we make His sacrifice effective in our lives.
If we were to call Paul’s letter to the Romans the “pure Gospel”, then this passage we just read from Romans 3 is the “essence of that purity”. The Protestant Reformation was sparked when Martin Luther read a verse in Romans 1:17, “The one who is righteous will live by faith” and suddenly that single passage “re-formed” the entire way he understood God and the meaning of Scripture, saying of himself that he was “reborn”. No longer did he see God as an angry, wrathful diety, but as a God of “grace and sheer mercy as He justifies us through faith.” Our passage then from Romans 3 is Paul’s explanation of that earlier verse. If you don’t have it underlined in your Bible I encourage you to do so, because this short section of Scripture contains the entire truth of our faith. We read in Romans 3:21-26. “But now, (that is, in Christ God is giving us a new way of salvation), but now, apart from the Law (the old way of trying to gain access to God), But now, apart from the Law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the Law and the prophets (that is, the Old Testament Scriptures have been preparing us and pointing us to the coming of Christ), But now…the righteousness of God (comes) through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, who God put forth as a sacrifice of atonement (the means by which we are made right with God) by His blood, effective through faith…God justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.” Friends, this is the Good News of the Gospel. As we put our trust in Christ, and Him alone, we are forgiven of our sins and made right with God because Jesus has made the way for us.
But what does it mean to “put our trust in Jesus”, or even to “have faith”? Is faith a matter of simply “believing in” Jesus, or of “saying” right things about Him, or of “affirming correct doctrine”? NO! Is it a matter of simply believing that Jesus has done this sacrificial work for us? Yes, but it is something more than that as well. It is also acting on that belief, living as though it is true. As Fredrick Buechner reminds us, “Faith is much better understood as a verb than a noun, as a process than a possession.” Faith is not simply something we have; it is something we do.
We spoke last week of how Scripture (alone) reveals the way of salvation, but is “knowing” the way of salvation sufficient? I don’t believe so. Having faith is something different than having mere knowledge. It requires some act of trust or confidence on our part.
When the Latin scholars sought to clarify all the variations of the word faith they used three words: fides, fidelitas and fiducia. Fides emphasized knowledge. An oft-used illustration of this is, one might say, “I believe that airplanes fly”, much as they might say “I believe there was a man who once lived named Jesus whom they called the Christ.” Fides denotes knowledge.
Fidelitas emphasizes acceptance of that truth. “Not only do I believe that airplanes fly, but given the opportunity to take a long trip, I would actually get on one”, or “I believe that Jesus really was the Christ, and if ever I was going to be a religious person I would choose to be a Christian.” Fidelitas is acceptance of the truth.
But neither of these is real faith; while both require thought and acceptance neither requires any action on our part; not so the third, Fiducia. Fiducia requires an act of trust. There is a far cry between saying that airplanes fly and even believing that airplanes fly, and actually getting on an airplane, actually trusting that it is capable of doing what you have heard it can do. The same is true of faith in Christ. To say, “I believe in Jesus Christ is to confess, not only that you believe Him to be who He says He is, and that He has done what He said He would do, but it is actually putting your trust and confidence in the claim that His sacrificial death on the cross was able to accomplish what He promised it would- restoring us to a right relationship with God.” To have faith is not simply to believe that Jesus was a man, even a good man, but to actually trust Him to do what we cannot do for ourselves, that is, bridge the gap between ourselves and God by His sacrificial death, believing that there is no other way to do it; in short, faith alone in Christ alone. Sola Fide. Sola Christus.
Do you remember hearing stories about the great tightrope walker Blondin? He would boast of doing remarkable feats of daring, like walking across Niagara Falls or between tall buildings, and then he’d actually do it, to prove that he wasn’t just bragging. One day, after performing some incredible high wire act, he turned to the crowd that had gathered to watch him, and said, “Today I am going to push a man across the wire in a wheelbarrow! Do you believe I can do it?” All the crowd shouted, “Yes! Yes! We believe you can do it!” Then Blondin turned to one enthusiastic man and said “Good, then you are the man, get in!” In that instant that man was asked to shift his interest and enthusiasm beyond knowledge and acceptance, and put it into action, into trust and confidence, and that is faith.
Faith then is not so much what we believe, that is only the starting point; it is actually acting on what we say believe; putting our whole trust and confidence in the One in whom we say we believe. This may be what James is getting at when he says, “Faith without works is dead.” Faith itself is not a good work. We haven’t “earned” our faith; it is a gift of God, “a gift of grace, not the result of works so that no one may boast”, but it is something we need to put into action. We know that good works without faith will never bridge the gap between us and God, but here James is also saying that faith without that necessary step of action, of trust, is also insufficient. So, while we cannot be saved by our good works, neither can we be saved without them. We are not being asked to build the bridge, but we are asked to walk across it, trusting that it is sufficiently strong to hold us. We can know all about Jesus and what He has done, but still not have accepted, much less trusted, that He has done it for us and our salvation.
Of course this story is apocryphal, but you’ll get the point. A fellow dies and goes to heaven. As he stands at the Pearly Gates he is greeted by St. Peter who says, “Here’s how it works. In order to get in to heaven you need 100 points. You tell me all the good things you’ve done, and I’ll give you a certain number of points depending on the value of each good deed and once you reach 100 points, you get in.”
“Okay,” the man says rather proudly, “I attended Tabernacle Presbyterian Church my entire life. I had perfect Sunday School attendance as a child and never missed a single Sunday as an adult.”
“Wow! That’s pretty impressive!” says St. Peter. “That’s worth two points.”
“Two points?!” the man thinks to himself, that was about the best thing he had to offer. So he adds, “Well, I was married to the same woman for 60 years and never cheated on her once, not even in my heart.”
“That’s wonderful,” Peter says approvingly, “That’s worth three more points!”
“Three points?” he thinks to himself, “Getting in to heaven is going to be a lot harder than I thought. Ummm, I started a soup kitchen in my city and volunteered in a shelter for homeless veterans and taught the middle school Sunday School class for 43 years.”
“Fantastic, that’s good for two more points!” Suddenly the man begins to panic as he does a little mental math and realizes he’s only got seven points and is running out of good deeds. Finally in desperation he cries out, “Lord, help me! At this rate only Jesus can save me.”
“Exactly!” says St. Peter, “100 points! Come on in!”
Friends, the cornerstone of our faith, the central message of Scripture, the turning point of the Protestant Reformation is this: Faith alone in Christ alone, for there is no other. He alone is able to bridge the gap between our sinful, broken, selves and a just and holy God. He has done His part, now we must do ours. He has laid before us the way of the cross and ALL- anyone and everyone- who walks across it is welcomed in.
“The righteousness of God by faith in Jesus Christ is for all who believe.” Hear this as plainly as Scripture gives it to us No longer do you need to try to earn your way into God’s good graces by your good works. It doesn’t work that way; it never has and it never will. But God has made a way, through His Son Jesus Christ. “God justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.” Which means, either we are made right with God by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone or we are not made right with God at all. Sola Fide/Sola Christus. Amen.