This is the 3rd post in the Sola series. Here’s the first two posts…
“Faith Alone” is almost inseparable from “Grace Alone” and “Christ Alone”, but we can discuss each one in distinct ways. Where grace alone describes the divine source of our justification, faith alone describes the human means by which we are justified (declared to be in right standing) in God’s eyes. In other words, faith is the way that we receive God’s grace, or to quote Ephesians 2:8-9, “by grace you have been saved through faith”.
The (Re)Discovery of Justification by Faith Alone
Martin Luther was fully and completely Roman Catholic. He was a monk and a theology professor at the University of Wittenberg, Germany. Luther lived life terrified by the thought of the judgment of God against his sin. A significant event in his life happened on July 2, 1505: he was on horseback during a thunderstorm and a lightning bolt struck near him as he was riding. Terrified of death and divine judgment, he cried out, “Help! St. Anna. I will become a monk!”
There was a reason why Luther was so terrified. He knew God punished sinners. This is what the Roman Catholic Church taught specifically about the righteousness of God. The words “the righteousness of God” were understood to mean in the Middle Ages Catholic theology and Scripture interpretation, “God’s personal and active justice through which he punishes the sinner” Luther said that every time he came across the phrase “the righteousness of God” when reading the Bible it terrified him.
Today, we know that the correct Biblical understanding of the phrase “the righteousness of God” is referring to God’s declaration of right standing over the sinner as he/she trusts in the work of Jesus on the cross to pay for his/her sin. Luther had never heard this teaching and did not read the Bible this way.
Even worse, Martin Luther hated what he read in Romans 1:17, the verse that eventually became the foundational verse for the Reformation, “For in it [the gospel, from v. 16] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” And there it was. In the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed. Luther knew that he stood condemned before God because of his failure to obey the Law, but because of the Roman Catholic teaching about “the righteousness of God” (see above paragraphs), in Luther’s mind this verse said that God also pours out wrath on us through the gospel.
Somewhere between the years 1515 and 1517 Luther had a breakthrough.
Listen to Luther’s testimony about his own salvation when he came to understand Romans 1:17,
“At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed’, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live’. There I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous [person] lives, namely by faith. … Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”
Justification by Faith Alone – Look in Romans
Justification (right standing before God) by faith is the central theme of Paul’s letter to the Roman church. The introduction to the letter is Rom. 1:1-17. Paul finishes his introduction by giving a summary of the letter in verses 16-17, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’.”
Romans 3:21-31 is the primary statement and explanation of justification by faith alone, with the key verse 26, “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”
Romans 4 is an illustration of the justification by faith alone at work in the life of Abraham.
Romans 5 begins with these words, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 5:1)