The term "Sola Fide," or "by faith alone," is actually the oldest and most characteristic motto of the Protestant Reformation. Traditionally, it has been traced to Luther himself who while still in the Augustinian Monastery in Wittenberg in 1515, gave a course of lectures to the university students there on the Book of Romans. The study of the Scripture though a rarity with laymen or parish priests at the time, was not forbidden nor was it neglected among the "regular" or monastic clergy or in the universities; and in his lectures Luther, puzzling over the phrase "the righteousness of God," supposed at first that it meant an attribute of God manifested particularly in His just condemnation of the wicked. But as he studied Romans 1 and the citation there that "the just shall live by faith" (v. 17), he realized that God's righteousness meant the sinner's justification by grace through faith and not his condemnation. He afterwards wrote, "This passage of Paul became to me a gate of heaven." In the midst of the spiritual struggle Luther is said to have added to the quotation above, the word "sola" in his personal copy of Romans; hence our phrase, "sola fide," or by faith alone are we justified and not at all by the works of the law. This glorious truth is called the material principle of the Reformation, the very stuff out of which it is made and must be distinguished from all substitutes and modifications.
From the beginning the Catholics have attacked "justification by faith alone" as "too easy," and as allowing the sinner to remain in his sins while entertaining a hope of heaven; if this were true, it would be a serious fault indeed. Holy Scripture plainly teaches that without holiness no man shall see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). But Protestants have always answered this accusation by saying that, although faith in Jesus Christ alone justifies, such faith does not stand alone, but, as we read in the Westminster Confession (chapter XI): "It is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love." The "other saving graces" include such things as regeneration, repentance towards God, and a new heart by which God is acknowledged and His holy law embraced, so that (as our own Catechism puts it) "it is impossible that those who are implanted into Christ by a true faith should not bring forth fruits of thankfulness."
Some Protestants have lent credence to the Catholic charges, however by falling into antinomianism or lawlessness precisely through their emphasis on "faith alone." This is characteristic today of much of Protestant Fundamentalism as well as Protestant Liberalism which, in spite of their radical differences, tend to unite in their rejection of the Law as a rule of life, and to adopt such watchwords as "no law but love." We must ask such teachers and their followers: "Why did God then move His prophets and apostles to write so much of His will for our lives? Surely He did not do so only to show us our sinfulness and need of a Savior. Surely He expected His redeemed by grace through faith to live not only according to some but according to all of His commandments, weak and partial though their obedience might be!" Many antinomians are not, of course, as bad as their creed, and they recognize the common principles of Christian morality. But their viewpoint is bearing fruit in increasing carelessness among present-day Christians of the obedience which the gospel requires. "After all," they reason, "if I am a child of God by faith in Jesus Christ, how can I fail to have a place in the Father's house?" The Savior Himself, however, replies (Matthew 7:21), "Not every one that saith unto me 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven." And where do you find the will of His Father but in His holy commandments?
Both Catholics and Protestants tend to weaken or modify the truth of justification by faith alone by certain other emphases. Catholics (and indeed some Lutherans as well) tend to equate regeneration with baptism; but since regeneration must inevitably lead to peace with God through Jesus Christ our Lord, where then is the greatness of justifying faith? It is put in the shadows. Some of the Reformed tend to speak of justification in eternity (in connection with our election) or justification in the covenant of grace, or justification in the sin- atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross, all of which must certainly enter into the picture. Justification is unthinkable apart from the decree of God, His covenant mercies and the precious blood of Christ, but the Scriptures plainly show us that justification is not ours apart from faith in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 11:6): "But without faith it is impossible to please Him." Our Catechism is also clear on the matter when it says in the answer to Question 60, "How art thou righteous before God? Answer: "ONLY by true faith in Jesus Christ"!
Faith Not a Work
Still another misunderstanding of this precious truth arises when men think of faith itself as a meritorious work, and this is a particularly subtle error some very evangelical people make when they look upon their first profession of faith as a work which has gained God's favor, saying, "I made a decision for Christ"; or "I joined the church" implying that God in turn must now forgive their sins and adopt them for His own. Others betray this lingering error when they judge that some family member or acquaintance, having died, has surely gone to heaven because "she had such great faith."
But faith does not justify as a work. Our fathers called it rather the "hand that receives the grace of God in Jesus Christ our Lord." He has worked and merited our justification by His atoning work and we receive it without merit by faith in His Name.
Justification, or peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, is certainly the heart and soul of the gospel as it was recovered and proclaimed abroad by the protestant Reformation; and it was and is justification by faith alone that gives hope and joy to dying sinners. If the message is tainted however, by a toleration of careless, sinful living, or if it is compromised by any kind of works' righteousness at all, it gives no joy. Justification by faith alone, "sola fide," receives the benefits of Christ's death on the cross, even life eternal, righteousness and glory, and enables the child of God to sing:
Fountain of never ceasing grace,
Thy saints' exhaustless theme,
Great object of immortal praise,
We bless thee for the glorious fruits
Thine incarnation gives;
The righteousness which grace imputes,
And faith alone receives.AM Toplady