As we mark the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in Europe, we are considering five of the great principles that lie at the heart of the Reformation. These are the five ‘solas’ – the five ‘alones’ – that sum up some of the central emphases of this great time of theological and spiritual revival. Last month we considered ‘Grace Alone’. This month we turn to ‘Faith Alone’ – ‘Sola Fide’.
It might be thought that the order in which we are considering these principles is a matter of indifference – could the five not be taken in any order as long as they are all included? The answer in fact is a resounding ‘No!’ The order is not random. It matters very much where each principle fits into the sequence. This is especially clear when we consider grace and faith.
The placing of ‘Faith Alone’ after ‘Grace Alone’ is a recognition of the order of the elements of salvation revealed in the Bible. There is an order – an ordo salutis as it is sometimes termed – which is not the product of human ingenuity but a reflection of the way in which God in his sovereign mercy provides salvation. Thus when ‘Faith Alone’ follows ‘Grace Alone’ we acknowledge that sinners believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation because of the grace that the Lord has shown to them. To reverse the order would suggest that sinners receive grace because they have believed, a thoroughly unbiblical idea.
This crucial fact is set out in a text such as Ephesians 2:8, where Paul is expressing something of the wonder of the salvation that God has provided in Christ. The Apostle writes, ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith. And that is not your own doing, it is the gift of God’. Notice how Paul includes even our faith under the idea of a ‘gift’, given by the grace of God. Scripture everywhere emphasises the ‘gift’ nature of salvation, and that is because grace precedes faith in the order of salvation.
This principle in no way detracts from the fact that sinners must believe in order to be saved. When asked by the jailer in Philippi, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ Paul’s answer was, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved and your household’ (Acts 16:31). The necessity for believing in Christ must always be impressed upon sinners. They cannot avoid that responsibility. But the reason why any sinner responds to that exhortation and actually believes in the Lord Jesus is that God has graciously enabled him or her to do so. Behind the sinner’s response is the gracious action of God. A specific example of this is provided by the conversion of Lydia recorded earlier in Acts 16. In verse 14 we read that ‘The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.’ That ‘paying attention’ was not a merely outward listening to the message: Lydia clearly responded in saving faith, as a result of the grace of God she experienced.
The preservation of the biblical order of grace and faith is vitally important. Not least it protects against the ever-present danger of turning faith into a kind of ‘work’, subverting the truly gracious nature of salvation. We may reject the idea of works contributing to salvation, just as the Reformers did, yet think of faith in such a way that it becomes something we contribute to our salvation, something that God accepts in the place of the ‘good works’ we are unable to perform. Unwittingly we then allow works to enter again through the back door, a fatal mistake. We have nothing to offer God that has any merit, not even our faith.
As the Reformers recognised when they insisted on ‘Faith Alone’, there is always a danger of allowing something else to creep in alongside faith in relation to salvation. Medieval theologians were perfectly ready to speak of faith as necessary for salvation, but Luther and his spiritual descendants recognised that when any kind of good work was thought to play a meritorious role in salvation, the biblical order was corrupted and the grace of God fatally undermined. Faith plus anything destroys the gospel. The same battle has had to be fought many times since the days of the apostles who refused to yield to the pressure of the ‘Judaizing’ faction in the church which wanted to assert the necessity of law-keeping alongside faith for salvation. There is always a temptation to believe that, even in some tiny way, our efforts contribute something to our salvation. ‘Faith Alone’ humbles our pride.
The Reformers were absolutely correct to insist that all of salvation is ‘by faith alone’. Thus they taught the great biblical truth of justification by faith alone, emphasising that our right standing in the sight of God is granted freely to us when the righteousness of Christ is counted as ours. That blessing is received by faith alone, in harmony with Paul’s statement in Romans 3:28 that ‘one is justified by faith apart from works of the law’, and Luther was theologically correct to add ‘alone’ to his German translation of the verse, even though the word is not present in the Greek text.
Salvation by faith alone is a liberating truth that ensures we do not try to carry an impossible burden of earning that salvation by our works. Salvation, however, is not by a faith that remains alone – it inevitably leads to a life devoted to our gracious God, doing the good works he has prepared for us (Ephesians 2:10). It is a life lived to the glory of God alone, the last of our five ‘solas’.