In honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I am spending my reflections considering five statements that summarize the beliefs of the Reformed Tradition. This week, we deal with the second Sola statement: Sola Fide- by faith alone.
How is a person made right with God? What does a person need to do to be saved from God’s wrath? People throughout history have come up with many solutions. Perhaps an offering of a bull or a goat would suffice? Perhaps keeping the moral law? Perhaps contributing to the financial needs of a church? For many in the Reformation, this was not just an academic or a theological question. This was a question that cut right to the heart of what it means to be right in the eyes of God. This question is the ultimate question. If one day we will stand before God, the Holy and Righteous Judge, how could we stand? Eternity is in the balance.
What the Catholic Church taught is that while Christ has died on the cross for our sin, we must contribute deeds of righteousness in order to merit heaven. The rite of Baptism cleanses a person from sin but only sins committed up to the moment of Baptism. After Baptism, the person must maintain a life of purity through participating in confession and receiving the elements. The body and the blood of Jesus clean a person from sin but also empower them to do righteous acts. That is why it’s very serious when a person is not allowed to take of Communion. Their sins cannot be washed and they are without power to do works of righteousness.
This theology leads to an understanding that we need to contribute good deeds to merit our salvation. If we have not merited enough good deeds in this life, we can earn it through a stay in purgatory. From there it is only a small step for an individual to try and earn a shorter stay in purgatory for their relative for a good deed. This lead to the practice of indulgences- a practice where someone who contributed money to the church in the hopes of earning credit before God.
The problem with this practice is that it contradicted the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles. Scripture teaches that a person is made right before God through faith in the work of Jesus- not by good deeds done in the power of the flesh. Martin Luther was a man who was obsessed with fear over Judgment Day. He would spend hours in the confession booth repenting of even the slightest act tainted with sin. Although the priests would rebuke him for taking things so seriously, Luther’s conscience would not let him go. Though to the outside observer he was a pious man, inside, he knew he was a guilty sinner. It caused him to resent God because there was no way for him to be rid of his sin. That is until he read Paul’s letter to the Romans (1:16-17). The verses told of this thing called, the gospel. In the message of the gospel, a person can be saved. But it is a salvation that makes a person righteous in God’s eyes. But it’s a righteousness that is earned not by works, but by faith. It is earned by trusting in what Jesus has done for us. Luther would later write that once he understood the meaning of this verse, he felt as if the heavens were opened.
This message of justification by faith is earth shattering. It means that God has made a way for us to be made right. One of the reasons why Luther’s conscience would not let him go was because he recognized that even in attempting to do a good deed, sin is not far behind. The Bible didn’t assure Luther by telling him his sin wasn’t so bad. The Bible actually leaned in on the sin and made him realize even more how deep his sin was. But Scripture calls us not to look to ourselves, but to look to our Savior. The Christian is called not to trust in our own futile attempts, but to trust in Jesus, who fulfilled our righteousness for us.
This has a few implications. First it changes why the believer does good deeds. We don’t do good deeds to get into heaven, but because we’ve been promised it. Good works don’t merit our salvation, but is the fruit of our salvation. We don’t boast over our works, but we boast in what was done for us. Second, it keeps us from boasting. If our righteousness is not from our own deeds, we have no reason to boast in ourselves. The only thing we can contribute to our salvation is our sin. Normally, when a person increases in their knowledge of something, it leads to greater boasting. But if a person grows in their knowledge of Jesus, they become more aware of their sin. But Jesus becomes a greater Savior.
Lastly, it gives the believer hope. It is a hope not found within us, but in our Savior. A believer lying on their deathbed does not need to wonder if they have “done enough”. Instead they are called to look to the one who said, “It is finished!” When Jesus declared these words on the cross, Jesus’ work was truly complete. Jesus’ resurrection confirmed that his work of salvation was enough to make even the worst sinner clean. We can enter into eternity by faith in God’s promises.