While Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) was arguably the most important of the Solas of the Reformation, Sola Fide (Latin for ‘by faith alone’) is a close second.
While the Catholic Church taught human beings are justified by both faith and works, Luther and the Reformers taught people are justified by faith alone. Salvation is a trusting in God through Jesus Christ to save a person and is not at all based on anything that one does.
How important is this emphasis? I would agree with Luther himself who called it (justification by faith alone) the “article with and by which the Church stands.” In other words, it is foundational to Christianity; everything builds upon it. If we err here, we have departed from biblical Christianity. For the doctrine of justification by faith alone defines the Gospel and makes it unique among the world religions. All of the other world religions (Judaism, Islam, Buddhism) are based on some form of works as the means of making men and women righteous. The Gospel, on the other hand, is not based on works but on a person trusting totally in the work of Another.
It is not surprising that Luther made this one of the central tenets of the Reformation. His own struggle attempting to be justified by his works is well known; he went beyond any of his contemporaries in his struggle to find peace with God. Some have dismissed Luther’s struggle as an indication that he was emotionally unstable and therefore susceptible to false guilt. But that was not the case at all. Rather, Luther understood what far too many modern Christians don’t—that he was in an unrighteous state before God and therefore condemned to eternal judgment. Far from being a by-product of an unstable character, he understood his guilt before God was real. It was then that the heavens were opened and Luther saw the core of the Gospel—that only by trusting what God did through the perfect work of his Son for sinners through his death at Calvary could he ever be made righteous before God. He grasped that in himself he was too sinful to be saved by anything he could do. Only through faith could he find hope.
In a day when the awareness of our true guilt before God is almost non-existent due to our having shorn God of his holiness, this emphasis is sorely needed. Without it, salvation is not a matter of rescuing sinners from their desperate plight but improving their life in this world. Jesus is reduced from being our Savior from sin without whom we would perish to being our ‘life-coach,’ who came to make us feel better about ourselves and help give us a better attitude. The largest church in America preaches this gospel of self-improvement; people flock to hear the good news of what they can become with God’s help. But when one understands the depth and reality of their personal depravity and that nothing they can do can change their status as guilty before him, then the good news that Jesus died for guilty sinners can be received by faith.
My personal experience in my first church is typical of many. While I was first taught my standing with God was not based on my personal performance but on faith in the Gospel, once I was saved my relationship with the Gospel ended. Then, I was taught all of the things I was responsible for doing in order to be a fruitful disciple; prayer, Bible reading, sharing my faith, church attendance, tithing were all taught as the duties of a believer. Slowly, without realizing it, I began to view these things as stepping-stones that would bring me closer to God if performed faithfully. Because I was not hearing the Gospel weekly and was not preaching it to myself, I was subtly smuggling works into my standing with God.
It took a brush with burnout where I left the ministry and began learning the Gospel to come to the understanding of Sola Fide—that my standing with God is never based on my personal performance but always and ever on what God did in Christ. In other words, no matter how successful I became at living the Christian life, performance of duties was never the basis of my being righteous. I must always receive righteousness as a gift which is based not on performance but on the perfect work of God’s Son on my behalf.
Any Gospel which promotes the idea that your righteousness is based on something you do is not the Gospel of God. Paul reserved his strongest words for those teaching the Galatians that they were saved by something they did (Galatians 1:6-9). He told the believers at Galatia that they were deserting God if they embraced such a Gospel (which he said was not the Gospel at all but a distortion). Yet because this doctrine of justification by faith alone is not faithfully taught and preached today, millions of believers are embracing a false gospel and don’t even know it! They live their lives with a profound sense of failure, and their church affirms this by verbally beating them up each week.
There have always been those who fear that preaching such a Gospel will encourage lax living. If we are accused of that we are in good company—the apostle Paul himself was accused of this! (see Romans 6:1) But Paul is careful to teach that biblical faith always produces godliness; we need not fear that we will lower God’s standards and promote ungodly living.
As Reformation Day draws near, let us celebrate the central tenet of that powerful move of God—that men and women are justified by nothing they do but upon the sacred work of God the Father which he accomplished at Calvary when his Son died for sinners.