A year before he died, Martin Luther wrote, “I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through gates that had been flung open.” These words point back to a defining time in his life. Perhaps, as some suggest, they have a hint of hyperbole. However, given how tortured his soul was prior to this moment, the flourish appears justified. Luther was a frustrated valedictorian in the School of Works; a school accredited to confer a status found praiseworthy by men, but unable to confer peace with God. What, then, brought about this testimony of heaven’s acceptance? “I … began,” he wrote, “to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith.” Well might he use such glowing terms! Right standing before God was not given in payment for effort; it was gifted in response to faith. Alone.
Salvation by faith alone rests at the heart of Luther’s experience. However, his testimony answers a pressing question: where did he come upon this doctrine? Could it be the figment of an over-fasted monk’s imagination? No! “I was seized,” he wrote, “with the conviction that I must understand [Paul’s] letter to the Romans.” There, in the inspired Word, the Spirit showed Luther what He had shown Paul, a previous summa cum laude grad of this School of Works. Self-Righteous Living degrees are worthless before God. God accepted Paul on the same basis as paupers and prostitutes—faith. Alone.
As Paul argues in Romans, saving faith isn’t faith in something in general or faith in faith. It is “faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:22). “All have sinned” (Rom. 3:23) and “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Humanity stands guilty and condemned under God’s judgement. The Bible’s heart, however, throbs with the message that Christ died “for us” (Rom. 5:8). His death was God’s judgement upon our sin and perfectly satisfied the demands of God’s justice. It is faith in Christ that flings those gates open! Luther’s Reformation doctrine is an echo of Paul’s inspired doctrine.
Self-Righteous Living degrees are worthless before God. God accepted Paul on the same basis as paupers and prostitutes—faith. Alone.
Paul spared no ink explaining this doctrine. Moreover, repeated attempts to morph “Faith alone” into “Faith and …” forced him into frequent and frank defenses of this truth. A faulty definition risks damnation; it’s false doctrine. To append anything to faith in Christ as the basis of acceptance with God does not merely dilute Terrific News into Tolerable News, it turns it into Terrible News. Such news cannot save. Preachers of the Terrible News are to be “accursed” (Gal. 1:8).
What is saving faith? An oft-used demonstration illustrates the Latin words Luther used to explain it: notitia, assensus, and fiducia. Imagine I ask my daughter, Hannah (6), to stand. I promise, “If you fall back, I’ll catch you.” If she falls, I can declare: “This is an illustration of faith.” The first element of faith, notitia, is the content believed. Here: “If you fall back I’ll catch you.” The second element, assensus, is confidence this content is true. If Hannah believes what I said, this is good and necessary. However, it is not yet faith. A line must be crossed to get to faith. That line is fiducia, or commitment. If, as she stands, I ask, “In your heart, have you already fallen? Do you trust me?” and she genuinely has and does – that’s faith. It’s the personal, inward entrusting of oneself to the promise giver. The promise isn’t considered true in general or in theory; there is a personal abandonment to it. Faith is exercised inwardly before it is expressed outwardly.
Likewise, a Christian has heard the content of the Gospel, is convinced of its truthfulness, and has committed himself to Christ. James warns: “The devils believe and tremble” (Jam. 2:19). They get the first two parts right! A Christian has gone on to transfer the weight of his trust exclusively upon Christ. The nature of this faith exercised necessitates an expression. To say our hearts have fallen in abandon into God’s arms of mercy (faith), while our lives refuse to fall into the arms of His will (obedience), betrays a dead faith. If, after claiming to have inwardly fallen, Hannah refuses to fall outwardly – it proves her claim to be mistaken.
To say our hearts have fallen in abandon into God’s arms of mercy (faith), while our lives refuse to fall into the arms of His will (obedience), betrays a dead faith.
Paul and James cite Abram’s starry night experience in their teaching on faith. As Abram gazes up, he believes God’s promise of innumerable descendants. Does his faith have content? Yes. Does he have confidence God’s promise is true? Yes. Does he inwardly entrust himself into God’s hands? Yes! Therefore, God “counted it to him for righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). This righteousness is granted before he has lifted a finger of obedience! On what basis is it granted? Faith! Paul’s logic in Romans 4 is that, likewise, a believer is declared righteous by faith. James’ logic is that if Abram truly did fall on the inside on that starry night, we must expect to see an outward falling in obedience. Do we? He refers to Abraham’s ascent of Mt. Moriah with Isaac. This costly obedience is the expression of the faith.
Justification by faith is central in Paul and Luther’s testimonies and doctrine. Wesley would become an alumnus of the same School of Works. Despite high honours, death terrified him. His Self-Righteous Living degree might garner applause in life, but was worthless in death. In a script only God could write, as Wesley listened to Luther’s words on Paul, the Spirit opened his eyes to see what they had seen. “While he [Luther] was describing the change which God wrought in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed,” he wrote. “I felt I did trust in Christ, and Christ alone for salvation.” His heart fell entirely upon Christ! And there, before he took a step of obedience – the gates of paradise opened. He felt the warm embrace of his Father’s acceptance. How? By faith. Alone.