Lecture 4, Faith Alone (Part 1):

Regarding salvation, what is the fundamental difference between true Christianity and all the other religions of the world? Considering the question of salvation from the historical and theological framework of the Protestant Reformation, Dr. Sproul looks at “Faith Alone.”

Message Transcript

We are continuing our study on the basic themes of Reformed theology. In our last session, we looked at the formal principle of the Protestant Reformation, the doctrine of sola Scriptura. In this session, we are going to look at what the historians call the material cause of the Reformation, the central controversy over which the whole debate raged, the doctrine of sola fide.

The Critical Importance of Sola Fide

The term sola fide contains the word sola again, which means “alone.” And fide is the word for “faith” coming from fidelis. We remember the Marine Corps motto semper fi, or semper fidelis, or the hymn Adeste Fidelis, Oh Come All Ye Faithful. Sola fide means “faith alone.” This was the central assertion of Martin Luther that provoked the serious controversy of the sixteenth century. He was speaking to the question, How is a person justified in the sight of God?

Before I give a brief exposition of the doctrine of justification by faith alone, I want to take a few moments to recap for you the urgency that the magisterial Reformers felt about this issue. They did not think that the debate over justification was an argument over some fine point of theology whereby theologians get together and nitpick over secondary issues. No, they were not only convinced of the truth of justification by faith alone but also believed that it was of critical importance.

The Article upon Which the Church Stands or Falls

Luther said that justification by faith alone is the article upon which the church stands or falls. Now, we could view that from the vantage point of the twentieth century as an exaggeration or an overstatement, but it was clearly Luther’s conviction that this doctrine was so important because it touched the very heart and soul of the gospel itself.

It was Luther’s contention that justification is the article upon which the church stands or falls, and it’s the article upon which we stand or fall, because it is the article that reveals to us how we are redeemed.

The Hinge upon Which the Christian Life Turns

Calvin took a similar view of the importance of the doctrine. He used a different metaphor. He said that justification by faith alone is the hinge upon which everything in the Christian life turns.

The Atlas That Holds Everything Else Up

In our own day, in his preface to Buchanan’s nineteenth-century work on justification, J.I. Packer used another striking metaphor. He likened the doctrine of justification by faith alone to the mythological figure of Atlas, whose task it was to bear the world on his shoulders. Dr. Packer was saying with this analogy that, just as Atlas is required to hold up the world, so the doctrine of justification by faith alone is that which holds everything else up.

The controversy over justification flared, as we know, and ended in the most serious fragmentation of Christendom in the history of the church. It became the most volatile controversy of all time.

Utter Death and Darkness without It

Before I get into an exposition of justification by faith alone, I’d like to read a couple of comments from Martin Luther. First I want to read an expanded comment of his view of the importance of it, and then second, a comment that refers to his profound concern, in the later years of Luther’s life, that the recovery of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone would be short-lived.

First, I’ll read his expanded comments on the importance of it. He said: “This doctrine is the head and the cornerstone. It alone begets, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the church of God; and without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour.”

And again he said: “The article of justification is the master and prince, the lord, the ruler, and the judge over all kinds of doctrines; it preserves and governs all church doctrine and raises up our conscience before God. Without this article the world is utter death and darkness. No error is so mean, so clumsy, and so outworn as not to be supremely pleasing to human reason and to seduce us if we are without the knowledge and the contemplation of this article.”

Then, in his later life, he made this observation: “There are few of us who know and understand this article, and I treat it again and again because I greatly fear that after we have laid our head to rest, it will soon be forgotten and will again disappear. And indeed, we cannot grasp or exhaust Christ the eternal Righteousness, with one sermon or thought; for to learn to appreciate Him is an everlasting lesson which we shall not be able to finish either in this or in yonder life.”

The Centrality of Its Content

If I can add my own personal observation to those of Luther, Calvin, and Packer it would be this: of all the doctrines of systematic theology, the doctrine of justification by faith alone is relatively easy to grasp with the mind. It’s not so complicated, arcane, or obtuse that only specialized experts in the field of theology can grasp it. But to get the doctrine from our heads into our bloodstreams is another matter altogether. It is one thing to understand a doctrine; it is another thing to have it be the controlling aspect of the faith by which we live before God.

Another thing I want to say before we proceed to an exposition is that we are not saved by a doctrine. It’s not faith in the doctrine of justification by faith alone that redeems a person; it’s the content to which the doctrine points that is so central and crucial to our salvation. So now we ask, “Why?”

“If Thou Should Mark Iniquities, Who Could Stand?”

The fundamental question that the doctrine of justification answers is this: How can an unjust person survive the final judgment of a just and holy God?

As soon as we ask that question, we see instantly why it is a matter of great importance. It’s not just a question of dotting i’s, crossing t’s, and passing an exam in systematic theology. It is the question of how we are to stand before God.

We remember David’s anguish, pathos, and poignancy in his question, “Oh, Lord, if Thou should mark iniquities, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3). It was a rhetorical question because David understood the answer. He was experiencing something that we all should experience the moment our conscience alarms us to the presence of sin in our lives. He’d say, “Oh, God, if you keep a record, if you keep track, and if you bring this into judgment, who can stand?” And the answer is obviously what? No one can stand.

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine who is Jewish, and he was asking me questions about Christianity. He wanted to know the basic difference between the Christian faith and his own religious background. I asked him, “What do you do with your guilt?” And he began to fumble around and said, “Well, I guess I just have to keep trying harder to obey the laws to keep kosher and to repent when I do wrong,” and so on. Then I went beyond that and said, “How is God going to forgive you if no atonement has been made for you other than the sacrifices of bulls and goats?” That led us into a lengthy discussion of what the gospel proclaims at its heart, because the good news is that God, according to the Apostle Paul, is both just and justifier of sinful people (Rom. 3:26).

God Does Not Look at Sin through His Fingers

Let’s look at those concepts as they are put together, that God is both just and justifier. Both of these concepts have to be clear in our minds if we’re going to understand the gospel of the New Testament.

The gospel does not say that God simply declares forgiveness unilaterally to everybody in the world. Certainly, the doctrine of justification includes the doctrine of divine mercy and the remission of sins. That’s very important to us, and it sets forth before our eyes a God who is a forgiving God.

I remember when I was a student in the Netherlands that I had great difficulty trying to learn a foreign language in which to do my doctoral studies. One of the biggest problems I had with the language was the same kind of problem we all have when we learn other languages—the problem of learning the peculiar idioms of a nation or particular language.

Somebody was talking to me the other day and he said, “I don’t make any bones about that.” One of the people who was standing nearby was a guest in this country. He had learned English, but he was completely befuddled by that expression, “make no bones about it.” He said, “What in the world does that mean?” And we had to explain the nuances of that strange idiom.

One of the idioms that threw me when I was in Holland was an idiom used by one of my professors when he was talking about how God responds to the sin of human beings. He said, “God does not look at sin through His fingers.” That stopped me in my tracks. I said, “I have no idea what he’s talking about when he says that God doesn’t look at our sin through His fingers.”

It wasn’t until much later when I was trying to practice learning vocabulary by reading Perry Mason novels in Dutch that I read a little episode in a Perry Mason case where a policeman was talking to a man who was illegally parked. There was an urgent reason for his illegal parking, and the policeman was talking to the man about another matter. He wanted the man to accompany him somewhere, and the man said, “I can’t keep my car here or you’re going to give me a ticket for parking in this way.” And the policeman said: “Oh, don’t worry about it. I’ll look at it through my fingers.” I thought, “Ah, we use the expression ‘to wink at it.’”

The point is that when God, in His mercy, offers forgiveness to those of us who are guilty before Him, the whole process of divine forgiveness does not mean that God simply winks at our sin and thereby compromises His own righteous character or His justice. His way of justifying guilty people is worked out from all eternity in such a manner that God Himself remains just. That brings us back to the original question.

Just and Justifier

If God is just and I am not just, and I have to face His just judgment, how can I possibly stand? What I am in need of, most desperately, for all eternity, is to be justified.

The Bible says that God is both just and the justifier, so that however He works out His justification, He does it without compromising His own justice.

The second point here, which is so crucial, is that it is God who does the justifying. Now that’s not difficult to understand, and the implications are clear, aren’t they? If God is the one who justifies, what does that say about my ability to justify myself? I can’t do anything to justify myself, nor can anyone else justify me in this world, nor can the church justify me. It is God, and God alone, who can pronounce the final verdict of my justification or my lack of it.

A Legal Declaration

The Reformers of the sixteenth century insisted that justification is forensic. They were teaching what is called forensic justification. This term is not commonly used in the church. The most frequent place where we hear references to forensics is in criminal trials—on Perry Mason or the O.J. Simpson trial for instance—where we hear about forensic pathology or forensic evidence. We have state forensics that involve competition in debate, public speaking, and so on, because the term forensic here has to do with some kind of announcement or pronouncement in the arena of law.

When we talk about justification being forensic, we mean that, in the final analysis, God justifies us when He pronounces that in His sight we are considered, deemed, or regarded as just. Forensic justification involves God’s declaration of a person being just in His sight. It is a legal declaration by which God declares a person just.

Simul Iustus et Peccator

I used a string of words a moment ago that I want to elaborate on. I said that He judges us, declares us, deems us, reckons us, or counts us as just. To understand that, we have to do a little foray into some simple Latin.

Luther’s summation of the sum and substance of the doctrine of justification by faith alone is found in his famous slogan, simul iustus et peccator. Simul is the word from which we get the English simultaneous. Iustus is the word for “just.” Et is the word for “and.” Peccator is the word from which we get the words impeccable or peccadillo; it’s the word for “sinner.” So Luther is saying that, in the doctrine of justification by faith alone, those who are justified are at the same time just and sinners.

Luther is not engaging in contradiction. He doesn’t mean that we are just and sinner at the same time and in the same relationship. In other words, the sense in which we are just is different from the sense in which we are sinners.

The good news of the gospel, according to Luther, is precisely at this point. Luther is saying that the glory of the gospel is that God pronounces people just while they are still sinners. He declares a person to be righteous in His sight and before His law when, under analysis, they are still sinners.

It is that judgment of declaring somebody just who in and of himself or herself is not just, that creates so much of the controversy over the doctrine. It has led some critics of the Reformation to say that the Reformers postulated a “legal fiction” that has God guilty of lying and saying that somebody is righteous when, in fact, they are not.

But the biblical concept of justification rests upon God’s reckoning, or counting, people to be something that in and of themselves they are not. It reaches all the way back to the fifteenth chapter of the book of Genesis when God made certain promises to the Patriarch Abraham. The author of Genesis tells us that Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness (Gen. 15:6).

The Reason God Counts Us Righteous

In the New Testament, Paul speaks of this same concept by which God accounts, or reckons, people who put their trust in Christ as being just. They are not just because their faith atones for all their sins or because their faith is such a supreme form of righteousness that it covers all their unrighteousness. Rather, the reason God counts us righteous is because of the work of Christ on our behalf.

So, I conclude this introduction to the doctrine of justification, which we’ll continue in our next session, by saying that the expression, “justification by faith alone,” is really theological shorthand for “justification by Christ alone.” The fundamental issue is this: On the basis of whose righteousness does God declare anyone just? The Reformation answered clearly that the only ground by which God will ever view me as being righteous is the ground of somebody else’s righteousness—the righteousness of Christ.


This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.