The hallmark of the Reformational tradition is perhaps this tenet of the Five Solas—sola fide, which means “faith alone.” This is the article upon which, Luther said, the church stands or falls. We are saved by God’s grace alone received by us through our faith alone (Eph. 2:8-9).
Now, just as sola Scriptura does not mean that Scripture is the only authority in a Christian’s life (just the ultimate and only infallible authority), sola fide does not mean that all Christians need to be saved is some disembodied intellectual assent. This is the controversial point that James is making in the second chapter of his epistle. The way many Reformed scholars and preachers have put it is this: We are justified by our faith alone, but not by faith that is alone. It is impossible, then, to have faith and not have works corresponding to that faith. That would be nonsensical. Faith, then, would not be faith. Yet we are not justified by our works, but by our faith, which is evidenced by our works.
While we can often make this distinction pertaining to definitive justification, however, it can be a difficult thing to maintain this distinction throughout the Christian life. When Martin Luther recalled Habakkuk 2:4—“The righteous shall live by his faith”—he was not just bringing to mind the new life experienced at conversion but the new life experienced day to day thereafter. When an unsaved person, by God’s grace, exercises faith in Jesus Christ alone, he suddenly lives by faith. And when a saved person, by God’s grace, exercises faith each day in Jesus Christ alone, he is living by faith.
Sola fide is not just for justification, but also for the reaffirmation of our justification in the ongoing work of sanctification. It is not as though what has begun by faith is now continued by works (Gal. 3:3). Here is a gem from Spurgeon:
Oh that we might always live so that the Lord might see in all our actions that they spring from faith. Then shall our actions as well as ourselves be always accepted of him by Christ Jesus, for the Lord has plainly declared, “the just shall live by faith; but if any man draws back, My soul shall have no pleasure in him”—that is, draws back from faith and runs in the way of sense and feeling. Having begun by faith we are to live by faith. We are not to find life in the Gospel and then nourish it by the Law. We are not to begin in the Spirit and then seek to be made perfect by the flesh, or by confidence in man—we must continue to walk by the simple faith which rests only upon God, for this is the true spirit of a Christian. (Charles Spurgeon, “The Hiding of Moses by Faith”, sermon delivered at the Metropolitan Tabernacle)
But what is faith? If it is not mere intellectual assent—which the demons exercise but not to their salvation (James 2:19)—how can we define it? The author of Hebrews defines faith this way: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).
Faith is convicted trust, not vague belief. Faith is a placing of hopes in such a way that hope gets redefined. In the Scriptures, “hope” does not have the connotation of “I hope such and such will happen,” as if there is some chance it may not. No, in the Scriptures, “hope” is an assured trust. Our hope is Christ, and this hope will prove true; it will not put us to shame (Rom. 5:5).
Another simple way of illustrating faith is by the empty hand. That is what faith is: an empty hand with which to receive Christ and his riches. Or an empty vessel in which to be filled by the Spirit through trust in Christ. The reason why these illustrations are helpful is because they necessitate the emptying of our hands of all else.
Primate specialists study the way chimps reason through desire and logic by placing food outside of a hole in a barrier that is too large for their fists to pass through. The chimps are able to slip their open hand through, but once they grab the food, they cannot bring it back to themselves. Frustration ensues. The chimps cannot figure out that to get their hand back; they have to unclench their fist and drop the object of their desire.
We can be much like chimps this way. We will always be shackled until we release the idols we so desirously clutch. And then, with that free open hand, we receive a treasure incomparable.
This is an important perspective for pastoral ministry, because we pastors far too easily succumb to trust in the idols of our churches or in our own power and giftedness. I find myself wielding my well-preached sermon or my successful counseling session or my high attendance like badges of merit, not realizing the demonic bondage these things can keep me in when my faith is put in them.
Pastors, let us commit to “Walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7).
(This is a slightly edited excerpt from The Pastor’s Justification: Applying the Work of Christ in Your Life and Ministry)