Today I’m continuing a short 5-part series on the five solas of the Reformation. The five solas are specific Latin slogans that emerged from the Reformation era as a means of identifying specific doctrinal positions that stand in contrast to the beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. The slogans are:
- Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone)
- Sola Gratia (Grace Alone)
- Sola Fide (Faith Alone)
- Solus Christus (Christ Alone)
- Soli Deo Gloria (To God Alone Be Glory)
Today’s focus is on the third of the solas—sola fide (faith alone). Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) that was considered to be the “formal cause” of the Reformation while sola fide—justification by faith alone was considered to be the “material cause” and reason for protest.
As Luther was progressing as a monk, his soul was unsettled. He continued to battle with an unsettled spirit and his father confessor, Johannes von Staupitz, felt that Luther should embark on a pilgrimage to Rome—the holy city for the Roman Catholic Church. It would be there that he would visit different monasteries and see the different relics which would allow him to receive certain indulgences and spiritual blessings. In Rome at this time in 1510 the city of Rome boasted of having the following relics:
- Rope with which Judas supposedly hanged himself
- Branch from the bush that once blazed with the visible presence of God
- Chains of Paul
- St. Paul’s Cathedral and fountain is in Rome – where the Roman Catholic Church claims that at the spot where Paul was beheaded—when it hit the ground it bounced three times causing three springs to spring up from the ground.
Most committed Roman Catholics would travel to Rome and be overjoyed with the “spiritual” experience of a lifetime. That was not the case for Martin Luther. He would see Rome as a “city of harlotry.” Luther witnessed the false and empty worship of the priests, sexual perversion by priests who were engaging in adultery and homosexual sins with prostitutes. On top of this was the increasing intensity of indulgences and all of this troubled Luther.
This would serve as a starting point to the eventual Ninety-Five Theses that would be nailed to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg in 1517. Even then, Luther was unsettled and concerned, but he merely wanted to engage in a public debate—one that would be local in Wittenberg, Germany. God had other plans as we know—and that document was published and spread all around the surrounding regions and it turned into a national (and eventually and international) debate.
In 1520, Luther would receive an official papal bull calling for him to recant of his positions. At this point, Luther has already become a Christian and what was starting out as a localized conversation was now about to erupt into an all out war. What was the driving issue? It was the “material cause” of the Reformation—justification by faith alone in Christ alone without any mixture of works. This stand would come to a boiling point at the Diet of Worms where we see the Reformation as we know it begin to take shape as a definitive protest. At the heart of this protest was the issue of sola fide.
Defining Sola Fide
When Paul writes to the church at Galatia, he addresses the false teaching of the Judaizers that had crept its way into the church. He called out the false teachers and fenced up the truth of the gospel by delivering a powerful statement of damnation to anyone who would dare to add anything to the gospel of Jesus Christ (see Gal. 1:6-10).
In Galatians 3:10-14, Paul made a very important statement that solidifies the position of the apostles and the teaching of Jesus. He writes:
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith (Gal. 3:10-14).
Years later, the Roman Catholic Church would come along and add a lengthy list of works to the work of Jesus on the cross making them required teaching and practices in order to receive salvation. This is precisely what the Judaizers were doing in the days of Paul in Galatia. Paul said, “Let them be accursed” (Gal. 1:8).
Misunderstanding Sola Fide
While Paul was correct to stand firm and to defend the pure gospel, what about works? Are good works a bad thing? Should we not emphasize any need for good works in the life of a believer? Certainly Luther was correct in his passionate protest against the offer of indulgences in exchange for money in his day (along with a long list of other perversions), but what about works?
Often times, we allow the pendulum to swing too far in our protest. We must be reminded of what James said in the New Testament. James writes, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17). We must also remember the language of the New Testament regarding perseverance of the faith. All who persevere in the faith to the end will receive salvation, but those who don’t persevere will be lost in their sin and judged eternally. What does perseverance involve? It involves hard work, diligence, pursuit of holiness, and a lifelong attempt to become more conformed to the image of Christ than God.
The diligent effort of a Christian to work and serve God will not take away his sins. The pursuit of holiness will not save a sinner. In fact, we must remember to balance these truths. Unless God causes a person to be born again, that individual will never have a desire to serve, worship, kill sin (mortify the flesh), or become conformed to the image of Christ. That is a work of God in the new birth that causes a sinner to desire God and to hate sin.
Good works cannot save anyone, but all of God’s children should strive to live a life that honors God in faithful perseverance of the faith.