In Acts 16, Paul and Silas are in prison when a violent earthquake occurs. Prisoners are escaping, and the jailer wakes up and is abso- lutely dismayed that everyone is running off. The jailer is about to kill himself, and Paul stops him. And the jailer asks this very famous question: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (v. 30). Paul gives him the short, biblical, absolutely beautiful answer: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household” (v. 31).
“What must I do to be saved?” There’s no more important question in this life or for the next life. The answer to our catechism question provides a wonderful summary of what it means to have faith in Christ—the sort of faith that saves—and how God saves through faith. This summary contains two key words. First is the very first word: only. Only faith in Jesus Christ. You see, it wouldn’t be terribly controversial to talk about faith. People are into faith and believing something. But it’s only faith, not faith plus something else. It’s not faith in addition to your background, faith plus your family of origin, faith plus how many good things you can do for social justice, or faith plus how often you pray. It’s only faith, and it’s faith in Jesus Christ—there is an object to it.
Many people will wax on and on about faith and belief and say, “I’m a person of faith” or “You’ve got to have faith.” But faith by itself doesn’t mean anything. It is the object of faith that saves us. It’s not being a person who has strong beliefs, who is sincere, or who has a mystical belief in spiritual things that saves us. It’s faith in Jesus Christ. He’s the object. It’s the object of our faith that saves us. Faith is only an instrument. It’s not the one good deed that God sees and says, “Well, you don’t have much going for you, but you have faith, and I really like that.” No. Faith is what joins us to Christ, and then he saves us. It’s the object that matters.
Growing up in a cold part of the country, I often went ice skating and played hockey. I might tiptoe out onto that first freeze of the year, and sort of wonder, “Is this ice thick enough?” Someone else might be on the ice zipping around skating with great freedom and having a lot of faith in the ice, while I’m gingerly tiptoeing and have just enough faith to get out on the ice. But what makes both of us secure? It’s not the level of faith, though you’d like to have the strong faith that’s zipping around there, but it’s the thickness of the ice.
It’s the object on which you’re standing that saves you. And that’s Jesus Christ. So it’s only faith in him.
The other word that is so crucial here is imputes. It is essential to the gospel and to the Christian faith that the righteous life that Christ lived is imputed to us. That means it’s reckoned to us. It’s counted to us. It’s sort of a wire transfer of funds. And there’s a difference between a righteousness that is inherent in us, infused in us, a kind of righteousness that says, “Well, look at me, I’m righteous. I do righteous things.” That’s not what this is talking about. This is talking about the righteousness of Christ that is outside of us, but because we’re joined to Jesus by faith, it gets counted as our righteousness, so that God can be both the just and the justifier of the wicked.
That’s the problem in Romans 3, and that’s the good news of the gospel—that though we are still sinners, God justifies us. And he is just to do so not because he waves a magic wand or says sin’s not a big deal (wink-wink); it’s because we belong to Christ and his righteousness is our righteousness that God can be just and we can be justified.