The core of the Reformation is captured in five truths that lie at the heart of how to be put right with God:
- Scripture: the ultimate authority on salvation
- Faith: the means of salvation
- Grace: the basis of salvation
- Christ: the agent of salvation
- God’s Glory: the motive/end of salvation
Over time, however, those central Gospel truths had come to be overshadowed and corrupted to such an extent that a Reformation was necessary.
- To Scripture was added tradition until tradition came to dethrone Scripture itself as the authority.
- Faith was overshadowed by works until works displaced faith as the key to heaven (or, rather, purgatory).
- Grace was swallowed up by merit dispensed from the superfluity of merit accumulated by Mary and other saints. Dispensed by whom? That raises the next issue.
- Christ was supplanted by the church as the necessary mediator between man and God.
- God’s glory in salvation, therefore, ended up being overshadowed by man’s glory in the form of achievement.
Five expressions have come to summarize the Reformation’s recapturing of those original core Gospel truths: sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo Gloria.
In each of those phrases, the nouns are the weight-bearing words—Scripture, Faith, Grace, Christ, God’s Glory. But in each case the Sola is the indispensable qualifier, the reminder that these truths were not newly discovered, but merely rescued from additions and accretions that fundamentally changed the nature of each of those truths.
With that as context, here’s the question: How will you be accepted by and admitted into the presence of the righteous God, who hates sin with a holy passion, who is described as so pure that He cannot look at evil passively, let alone acceptingly?
Our problem is sin. Our need is righteousness.
“What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:9-10).
That’s the issue that separates us from God. We’re not righteous. So I need God to justify me so that I can have access into His presence. How does that happen? By becoming righteous by obeying God and keeping His law? After all, isn’t that what the law is for? To tell us what to do to get right and stay right with God? Right? Let’s see what Paul has to say about that:
“Now we know that whatever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:19-20).
That’s not very encouraging. The law doesn’t justify us by helping us to become more righteous. The law actually has the opposite effect. The law is designed to identify our offenses, specify our sins, quantify our failures, prove our guilt, and demonstrate our unrighteousness.
So what can we do? Actually, Paul says, there’s another way. In fact, it’s the only way.
“But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith in Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude …” (Rom. 3:21-28)
Okay, here it is, spelled out in 3:28—
- A man is justified—That’s what we need: righteousness/justification by God. How?
- By faith—There’s the fide.
- Apart from the works of the law—There’s the sola.
That’s the whole message wrapped up in a single verse. That’s as clear an assertion of sola fide in a single statement as you will find in the New Testament.
Is Paul making this up? Improvising his own theological agenda? He says that the Law and Prophets actually teach this way of justification. Where? Paul goes to Abraham to validate his argument.
“What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness” (Romans 4:1-3).
But wait a minute! About 10 years before Paul wrote this letter to the Romans, James—half-brother of Jesus Himself and one of the “pillars” of the church—wrote a letter that seems to argue the opposite of what Paul says here, and he even used Abraham to prove his point, just like Paul!
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? . . . Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only” (James 2:21, 24).
Paul says, “Abraham was justified by faith, apart from works”
But James says “Abraham was justified by works”
Paul says, “A man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law”
But James says, “A man is justified by works and not by faith only”
Paul says “Sola fide!” in Rom. 3:28 and proves it with Abraham.
But James says, “Not sola fide!” in 2:24 (or seems to) and proves it with Abraham.
So who’s right? We need to be sure we’re understanding James accurately, contextually, and on his own terms.
“What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works?” (James 2:14).
Though a man says he has faith—miss James’s starting point, and you misconstrue his entire argument. He’s not talking about a guy who has faith; he’s talking about a guy who says he has faith. James continues,
“… can faith save him?”
Literally, James writes, “Can that (kind of) faith save him?” What kind of faith? A faith that is nothing but words. James gives an concrete example (2:15-17):
“If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith …”
Again, literally, “that (kind of) faith”—a faith of mere words, like “be ye warmed and filled”—that kind of faith, he says,
“… if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.”
James makes it perfectly clear that he is talking about is a guy who merely says he has faith. Relying on mere words is as much of a problem as relying on mere works. Neither of those can save.
If quotation marks had been invented back in the first century when James wrote this, I suspect he would have put quotation marks around “faith” in v. 17 (even so“faith”). From his first introduction of the subject (2:14), he’s obviously talking about professed faith, claimed faith—someone who says he has faith, but no activity in his life (works) backs up that claim. And, like Paul, James goes to Abraham to prove his argument (2:21–24):
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness…Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.”
James admits that Scripture declared Abraham righteous on the basis of his faith (sola fide, Gen. 15). And that declaration was fulfilled—proved, demonstrated—by Abraham’s act of obedience later (Gen. 22). James is simply arguing works are the natural and inevitable outflow of genuine faith. Works demonstrate professed “faith” is real faith.
So where there are no works—no appetite for obedience, no hunger for righteousness, no thirst for God’s truth, no compulsion to Christlikeness—there is no saving faith there … whatever you may claim.
“For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:26).
A claimed faith that doesn’t produce works is a dead faith, and a dead faith can’t save.
Once you understand what both Paul and James are arguing, you discover they are not at odds in the least. James wrote to combat a common problem—a claim to a faith that doesn’t work and, therefore, cannot save. Paul wrote to combat another common problem—a misconception that law-works and good works are adequate to save.
Both passages, melded together, make a sharp-two-edged sword to combat two opposite errors: (1) the necessity of works to earn salvation, and (2) the sufficiency of mere profession to secure salvation. As someone has picturesquely put it, Paul and James are not crossing swords with each other; they are two swordsmen standing back-to-back fighting opposite errors and defending each other in the process.
Ironically, in his Preface to the Book of Romans, Luther summed up the teaching of both Paul and James:
“Faith is not that human illusion and dream that some people think it is…. [T]hey fall into error [who] say, ‘Faith is not enough. You must do works if you want to be virtuous and get to heaven.’”
That’s the error Paul battles in Romans. But just a few paragraphs later Luther says this:
“It is impossible that faith should ever stop doing good works. . . . Whoever does not do such works is without faith. . . . It is as impossible to separate works from faith as burning and shining from fire.”
That sounds surprisingly like the error James was battling in his letter.
Luther and the Reformers did not discover the doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from the works of the Law—they simply uncovered it from where it lay, right there in the text of Scripture, buried beneath the dust and dirt of traditions and additions by an unfaithful church.
If the church is to fulfill her role as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” then we—you—will have to be prepared to understand that truth accurately, celebrate it joyfully, defend it vigorously, and proclaim it confidently so that “the faith once delivered to the saints” will not be lost again in your generation.
This article continues our series on the Reformation—originally published on Dr. Sam Horn’s blog Life to Life. This post was taken from a sermon preached by Dr. Layton Talbert in chapel on Sept. 27, 2017.