The Radical Meaning of Sola Fide
. . . a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. — Rom. 3:28.
Sola fide (by faith alone) was the war cry of the Reformation. It was radical then. It is just as radical now. In its true biblical context it does not mean quietism, i.e., "Let Christ live the victorious life in you." Nor does it mean the slothful indolence of spineless do-nothingism. The Reformation was dynamic. Sola fide was not the slogan of a delicate, cloistered piety. It was the ensign of a movement of blood and fire.
What does "faith alone" mean?
1. "Faith alone" is a confession that all which is necessary for our acceptance with God has been done by God Himself in His redemptive act in Jesus Christ. It is an acknowledgement that Christ Himself, in our name and our behalf, met all our obligations before the bar of eternal justice. This redemptive act was so complete and perfect that we cannot add anything to it. Nothing needs to be added to it. Sola fide means that we cannot in the least contribute to our salvation, but that we must submit to what God has already done—fully and completely. That is the meaning of "faith alone."
"Faith alone" does not mean that faith itself will make us pleasing and acceptable to God. Only One is righteous, One is pleasing.
We in faith flee from our own acts even of repentance, confession, trust and response and take refuge in the obedience and faithfulness of Christ—"Lord I believe, help Thou mine unbelief." That is what is meant to be justified by faith. — Thomas f. Torrance, "Justification," Christianity Divided (New York: Sheed &Ward, 1961), p.293.
2. "Faith alone" is also a confession that God's saving work has been done completely outside of our own experience. There are some who will admit that God alone saves, but they imagine that this saving work is done inside of them. But it was done outside the gate of Jerusalem on a Roman cross. Faith is always directed to this outside-of-me action of God in Jesus Christ. As Bunyan aptly says, it is the righteousness which resides with a Person in heaven which justifies me, a sinner, on earth.
The book of Revelation shows that the ongoing cause of Christ depends on the action of Christ in the throne room of the universe. He alone can move history on toward the great consummation. And finally, He alone must come to bring salvation to those who eagerly wait for Him (Heb. 9:28). "Faith alone" is therefore a confession that salvation is won by mighty, conquering acts in which we had no share.
3. "By faith alone" is a confession that our righteousness is not in us, but in Jesus Christ at God's right hand. It means that we continually confess that we are sinners and have no righteousness to justify us save that which is outside of us in the Person of our Mediator. It means that life is not fulfilled here and now in this historical process. We abandon all hope of seeing perfection here below (although we press toward that mark). We know that all that we do is unworthy. Our best deeds, when tried before the undimmed splendor of God's law, are no better than filthy rags. We are never righteous before God by virtue of being born again, filled with the Spirit, or by our lives of new obedience. The truth of sola fide is a great No! against the aspirations of humanism, Romanism, Pentecostalism, and against all -isms which promise fulfillment through internal experience. "Faith alone" says, "Our completeness is realized only in Him" (Col. 2:10).
4. "By faith alone" means true self-surrender, true crucifixion of self. Hereby we admit our destitution. We confess before justice that we have nothing to pay. "Faith alone" means that we come to God relying on love and mercy and forgiveness unfathomable. "Faith alone" is a humbling of man in the dust, a dependence upon God to do for us that which we cannot do for ourselves. Nothing empties a man like "faith alone." That is the reason why we are filled with the Spirit by faith (Gal. 3:14). Let us never speak of faith plus self-crucifixion, but faith as self-crucifixion.
5. "Faith alone" is the fountainhead of all true obedience. The first commandment says, "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me." In his Catechism Luther says:
A God is that to which we look for all good and where we resort for help in every time of need; to have a God is simply to trust and believe in one with our whole heart . . . If your faith and confidence are right, then likewise your God is the true God. On the other hand, if your confidence is false, if it is wrong, then you have not the true God. . . . I say, whatever your heart . . . confides in, that is really your God. . . . If the heart is rightly disposed toward God and this commandment is kept, obedience to the remainder will follow of itself.
6. "Faith alone" frees a man for a life of good works. On the other hand, when a man fails to understand the gospel, he labors in vain and spends his strength for naught. His effort is directed to do what God alone can do. Deep down, every soul is conscious of the need to be right with God. But justification is a great work which only God can do. When a man blindly spends his strength and effort to do God's work, he cannot be about his own work. When he works his fingers to the bone trying to save himself, he cannot love his neighbor, for he has no time for him.
The soul released from anxiety about itself, is free to exercise concern about others. The heart is at leisure from itself to set forward the salvation of those around. — W.H. Griffin Thomas, The Princioles of Theology: An Introduction to the Thirty-nine Articles (London: Church Book Room Press, 1956), p.194.
This is a far cry from that false sola-fideism which removes all urgency for ethical action. "Faith alone" does not mean "Christ has done it all; there is nothing for me to do." "Faith alone" puts a man to work for God as nothing else can. It is not an opiate to put a Christian to sleep, but a stimulant to stir him to action.
"Faith alone" is mighty. It is mighty because in itself it is nothing. What makes it mighty is its mighty Object. Like John the Baptist, it points away from itself to the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. "Faith alone" lets God be God and man be man.