by Luke Wayne
One of the foundational divides between Protestant Christianity and Roman Catholicism is the Protestant doctrine of "Sola Fide" or "faith alone." The reformers sought to restore the biblical doctrine that justification before God is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. While true saving faith will always lead one to turn from sin and progress toward a godly and sanctified life of good works, these works are the result of our justification, not one of the causes of it. They are the fruit of regeneration and the new birth, not prerequisites for it, and though a person who is saved will repent of their sins and do righteous deeds, these deeds are not part of the basis for our eternal salvation. God doesn't save us because of our faith and our good works. He graciously saves us on the basis of faith in Christ alone, and it is that faith which also leads us to go on to do good works to please our master who already saved us. This was the position that the reformers defended and that the Roman Catholic church condemned at the Council of Trent. This is the central gospel issue that divides Rome and the Reformation. This is why it is so important to note that the doctrine of "Sola Fide," the doctrine that salvation is through faith alone, was taught by our Lord Himself and has been the revealed gospel truth from the very beginning.
When the Jewish leader Nicodemus came to Jesus to inquire more about Him and His message, Jesus explained:
"As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God," (John 3:14-18).
Note, first, that Jesus plainly says that everyone who believes will have eternal life and that he who believes is not judged. Jesus does not say that some who believe will have eternal life so long as they also live up to a certain standard or perform certain necessary rites. All the believing ones have eternal life and will not be condemned. But secondly, Jesus emphasizes this further by making an important comparison. He points to Moses raising up the serpent in the wilderness. This takes us back to an event recorded in Numbers 21, where God punished Israel for their sin by sending deadly snakes into the camp. God then gave Moses these instructions:
"Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.' And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived," (Numbers 21:8-9).
If you trust God enough to simply look upon the one lifted up, you will be saved from the judgment on your sin. This was the comparison Jesus made to clarify his plain statements that eternal life belonged to all who believe. Salvation is provided graciously by God through faith in Christ alone. As Jesus would say shortly thereafter to another group of Jewish leaders:
"Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life," (John 5:24).
Jesus further expressed this idea again to the crowds that followed him after he had miraculously fed the five thousand.
"'Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.' Therefore they said to Him, 'What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?' Jesus answered and said to them, 'This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent,'" (John 6:27-29).
The crowd plainly asks, "what work must we do?" Jesus answer is "believe." He doesn't say, "begin first by believing, then there are a number of things you must also do. Let me list them out for you..." No, he says that the "work" that is required is for us to believe. Faith alone. He goes on to explain:
"'For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.' Then they said to Him, 'Lord, always give us this bread.' Jesus said to them, 'I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst,'" (John 6:33-35).
"Coming" to Jesus is equated here with believing in Jesus. The one who believes in Jesus will never hunger or thirst. Obviously, that does not mean physical hungering and thirsting in this life. Many believers, both then and now, live in poverty, hunger, persecution, and suffering. In context, the reference here is to eternal life in the age to come, and it is promised to everyone who comes to Christ in faith. Jesus continues:
"All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day," (John 6:37-40).
Everyone who beholds the Son and believes on Him has eternal life and is raised up on the last day. This is the will of the Father. The is the reason Jesus came. This is the eternal promise. This is the whole point. Our salvation is by faith in Christ alone. Jesus affirmed this yet again at the tomb of Lazarus, saying:
"I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?" (John 11:25-26).
Jesus' disciples asked him to increase their faith. In answer, Jesus said to them:
"Which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come immediately and sit down to eat’? But will he not say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me while I eat and drink; and afterward you may eat and drink’? He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done,’" (Luke 17:7-10).
To increase their faith, Jesus reminded them that their works are worthy of nothing. Even if they do everything right and nothing wrong, day in and day out, they are simply doing what they are supposed to do. They are merely doing their duty. This does not earn them a privileged place in the household of the master. No, our faith is increased as we realize that our works are not meritorious. They add nothing to our salvation, nor can they. We are incapable of going above and beyond the call of duty. Jesus similarly gave this parable about two men seeking to be justified before God:
"Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted," (Luke 18:9-11).
Both men had a faith of sorts. The Pharisee thanked God that he was a man of good works. He gave God credit for all of his pious deeds and his life of outward goodness. Yet, he still supposed that, because of these works, he was a man more worthy than the sinner next to him. He supposed that, on the basis of his works along with God's grace, he could stand before God. He believed that it was by God's grace that he could do these meritorious works, but he still believed the works gave him merit and he held his head high thinking that he had some credit before God on the basis of his life and deeds. The other man fell on his face and cried out to God for mercy solely on his faith in God's grace, wholly apart from his own works. It was this weeping sinner with nothing to offer but his faith who went home justified. The Pharisee, whose faith was mixed with hope in his own good works, did not. Indeed, as Jesus hung on the cross between two violent criminals, one of them expressed his faith in Jesus, begging our Lord to remember Him when He came into His kingdom. Jesus said to the man:
"Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise," (Luke 23:43).
Jesus directly promised eternal life with Him to a man who did no works nor sacramental rites but only expressed his faith in Jesus. Jesus taught Sola Fida, salvation through faith alone, and the reformers were right to look to the Scriptures and reclaim this gospel truth. May we believe and rest in that truth as well, and may it lead to lives of obedience and good works untainted by a self-seeking effort to attain our own salvation by the good we do for others.