Sola fide: Faith alone
Transcription of Sunday, September 24, 2017 sermon.
It sounded like a really good deal. I could get the first month for free. No other obligation. Why not give it a try? I gave them my name and mailing address. Then they wanted my credit card number. Why do they want my credit card number? I thought the first month was free. Well the product is free, but you have to pay for the shipping. They also want to change my credit card every month after that when I forget to call them and tell them that and tell them I don’t want to receive this every month. I can see by the looks on your faces that you have been through this process yourselves.
Maybe it sounds like you got that kind of a deal this morning when first of all, I gave you the classic reformation text from Romans 3:28
We hold that one is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.
And then I hit you with James 2:24
A person is justified by works and not by faith alone.
We’ve got these two passages in scripture that seem to be a contradiction. We’re going to look and this and sort this out as we talk about the great reformation phrase sola fide, or faith alone.
To do that we need to review church history. We’re going back to the 4th century AD and a man named Pelagius. Pelagius was from Britain, he taught in Rome and the crux of his teaching was that people were basically good. People can make the right choices. They can live godly lives and they can be right with God. God’s grace pointed them and encouraged them in the right direction. But they had to get their lives together to be right with God.
The similar thoughts of the Buddha are echoed in our schools everyday in the morning announcements when the speaker says, “Make it a great day or not, the choice is yours.” Good wisdom. Not very good theology.
Another man named Augustine lived at that same time in the 4th century. He disagreed with Pelagius. He said you’re overlooking a very important bit of bible information, the teaching of original sin. Original sin is the sinfulness you are born with, by virtue of the fact that you are a human being. The first humans who disobeyed God brought sin into the world. Right from the start you are sinful.
The words of David describe our condition, “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5).
The apostle Paul wrote these words to the Ephesians: “Don’t forget who you used to be, before you knew Jesus. By nature you were children of wrath, just like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:3). We are all by nature people who want to do things our own way. We want to forge our own path. We are not inclined to do things God’s way.
The only way we can get out this mess we’re in is for God to send someone to rescue us. A Savior. That’s who Jesus is. When Jesus rescues us and we are baptized into his church, we can live a life that is right with God as we continue to go to Mass, and do the right things, and do penance. Augustine’s teaching shapes Christian teaching for the next 1,000 years.
This is the system of thought that Luther was born into. But for Martin Luther, it did not give him any assurance of being right with God. It haunted him. He never felt like he was right with God. He could never do enough to have a good relationship with God. He did everything. He left everything behind and became a monk. He studied for the priesthood. He went to confession and received absolution more than anyone else. He never felt like he and God were on good terms. The system didn’t work for him at all.
The same system would fail us, too. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you commit yourself, you can never be sure. You can never be sure that you’ve done enough. You can never be sure that you are truly in a right relationship with God. At the end of the day you have to resign yourself to the fact that you did your best and hopefully, God will give you some consideration. You aren’t as bad a some, you are as good as others, but at least you did your best.
Unfortunately, God doesn’t work that way. James 2:10 says if you break the law at just one point, you’re guilty. God says, “Be holy as I am holy.” The standard is perfection. We can’t do it.
That system of faith fails us, too.
While Martin Luther was translating the Bible into German, he came across a verse that changed his thought and changed the world. “The righteous will live by faith” (Romans 1:17). It’s a quote from the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk and it’s also quoted by Paul in Galatians 3:11. “The righteous will live by faith.”
As he read those words, thought about those words and prayed over those words, he realized that bring right with God was not something you acquired. It’s something you believed.
In the Old Testament lesson, God speaks to Abraham. It’s the second time God comes to Abraham. He takes Abraham outside, shows him the starry sky, in a time when it’s really dark there’s no light pollution. Thousands and thousands of star visible to the naked eye. “Abraham, just try and count those stars. That’s how big your family is going to be.”
But Abraham is an old man. He’s married to an old woman. They’ve never been able to have children. But Abraham takes God at his word. Abraham believes, and God counts it to him as righteousness. He is considered to be right with God, just because he took God’s word for it.
It sounds too good to be true. All you have to do is take God’s word for it and now you’re in a right relationship with God. That just doesn’t seem right.
That’s because we live in a world where people tell us that we are not good enough. We’re not good enough to get that job or get into that school. We’re not good enough for the promotion or raise. We aren’t good spouses and we can’t hold a marriage together. We’re not good enough parents and the kids get in trouble. We’re not good enough children and we don’t honor our parents. We’re not good neighbors. We ignore the people around us. Our world tells us that we are not good enough.
And they’re absolutely right. We all stumble in many ways (James 3:2). No matter how hard we try we sin many times in many different ways. We’re not good enough. We’ve got these human bodies that have these desires that lead us in the wrong direction. They’re very deceptive.
We freely admit that we are by nature sinful and unclean. Since then we’ve sinned in our thoughts, words and actions. We know we deserve nothing but God’s punishment.
But when God looks at us, that’s not what he sees. He sees the perfect obedience of his son, Jesus, who was like us in every way, but never sinned. That’s what he sees. He also sees the one sacrifice needed for sin, the sacrifice that his innocent son was on the cross for us. Sin is paid for. When God looks at us he sees the righteousness, he sees the sacrifice of Christ, he sees people who are right with him.
When you take his word for it, when you trust that this is true, this is real, you are in a right relationship with God. That’s sola fide. That’s faith alone. That’s all that it takes.
When that truth gets a hold of you, it’s a game-changing, a life-changing truth. If you’re in Christ, the old has gone, the new has come. You’ve put on Christ, and when God looks at you, He sees what Christ has done. Both his obedience and his sacrifice.
That’s what James was talking about. You’re faith will never just be something you know in your head, but will change everything about you.
Another way to look at that is to consider a tree, with trunk, branches and roots. The fruit of your faith isn’t at the root, but on the branches. Our works are not the root of our faith. The things we do are the fruit of our faith. So faith will never exist without the words James talks about.
Jesus explained what that fruit looked like. At the last day, when he talking to faithful he tells them they fed him, gave him drink, visited him in prison, took him in, gave him something to wear. They didn’t even know they were doing it for him as they served other people. But that’s what faith looks like.
Ephesians 2 say we are saved by grace through faith, a gift of God. We are God’s workmanship created to do good works. The only thing that really matter is faith expressing itself in love (Galatians 5:6).
It’s a hard thing to grasp and a hard thing to keep a hold of. So our ministry is to make sure you never forget that when God looks at you, He sees His Son and what He’s done for you. We announce it in the word. You can trust Him, you can take His Word for it. In baptism we are joined with the death and resurrection of Christ. He sees what Christ has done for us. At the supper we kneel and eat and drink the sacrifice Jesus made for us, so we remember this is what God sees, the things Christ has done for us.
Are good works necessary? Absolutely. Not for salvation, but necessarily a part of our lives as God’s people. What is going on inside of you will always show on the outside.
We live in a time when there have just been two hurricanes, two earthquakes in places not far from us. Lots of people who need rescue and recovery and rebuilding. We ask ourselves, “Have we done enough?” We made a donation, we sent supplies, we’ve helped neighbors clean up their yards. But in the back of our minds we wonder, “Have I done enough?” Probably not. There’s too many who need help. But we’re not sure what to do.
The trap there is “done enough.” We’ve forgotten that Christ has done enough. That the important thing. The focus is not on you and what you’ve done. The focus is always on Christ and what he’s done. That truth is the one thing that opens the cage and sets you free. Picture a bird in a cage, the door is opened, and he leave and that bird can fly.
God has opened the door for us. He has set us free from being haunted by not having done enough. So that we can fly. We can soar. We can discover what faith truly is.
Sola fide. Faith alone.