The Present Day Attack on Sola Fida –Dr. John H. Armstrong

Posted: December 9, 2011 in Calvinism, Church History, Devotional, doctrine, General Discussion, Luther, Scripture, Theology
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This is an excerpt from an article written by Dr. John H. Armstrong. 

 

“The church in every age is in constant need of reforming. The followers of Martin Luther in the sixteenth century recognized this need, speaking of semper reformanda (always reforming). Calvin and the theologians of Geneva also recognized this need. These theologians did not seek to “reinvent the wheel.” They were not radicals, at least in the sense that this term has commonly been used. They were determined to express the gospel properly, believing that justification by faith alone was the articulus cadentis et stantis ecclesiae (“the article by which the church stands or falls”). For them the whole reforming movement hung upon this recovery. Here was the material of the gospel. Here evangelical religion was truly defined. Let him who denies or ignores the doctrine of justification by faith alone realize that he is no longer an heir of the evangelical movement begun in the sixteenth century. He may still use the term “evangelical” but he uses it merely as an adjective to describe his conservative beliefs. He must understand that he is not evangelical in the truest, historical sense of the term.

In our time sola fide is once again being considered by both serious theologians and interested laity. Increasingly careful readers of Scripture are coming to understand that justification by faith alone is central to healthy, biblical Christianity. It is vital that the church be shown the significance of this truth. A recovery of sola fide will clarify the gospel that we believe and communicate. It will strengthen our confidence in God to do His work through the proclamation of that gospel and it will enable us to build up holy worship which is supremely addressed to God alone. For these reasons alone we need to note several modern errors regarding sola fide:

1. Sola fide leads to faith placed in the proper person and place.

Contrary to much modern evangelistic terminology “inviting Jesus into my heart” is not the invitation of the gospel. This oft-used phrase, based mistakenly upon John 1:12, Revelation 3:20, etc., is not what the Scripture tells the sinner to do. The gospel tells the condemned man that he must “look to Christ” (in faith) as His substitute. He must “believe” and “trust.” As long as we persist in thinking of faith as a mystical transaction wherein Christ comes from one place, outside of me, into another place, inside of me, we will have the tendency to fall into some of the same errors inherent in Roman Catholic confusion.

The gospel is the good news of what God has done outside of me in the actual person and historic work of Jesus Christ. This gospel is a message of historic, objective reality. It is not an experience, at least not my experience. It is the good news of Christ’s experience—He suffered, He died, He arose and He ascended to the right hand on high. This is the message preached by the apostles.

The message of righteousness through Christ alone, imputed to me on the basis of faith alone, is a message grounded in something entirely external. I am “reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (Romans 5:10), not by my religious experience.

There are two aspects of God’s work in salvation—His work for us and His work in us. In asserting justification by faith alone we do not confuse these as the church has been prone frequently to do. Faith, true faith, must be grounded in His work for us, not in my response or experience. A hundred ecstatic experiences and a moving testimony of how I felt when I invited Christ into my heart will not make me right with God. The essence of God’s work within me is to teach me to rely wholly on His work outside of me as the sole basis of my salvation. Sola fide protects this important point, and the church today needs this protection desperately.

2. Sola fide sees ultimate personal fulfillment in the next life.

This doctrine preserves me from looking for some kind of internal fulfillment in the present life that will fully satisfy. If I receive the salvation of God by faith alone then nothing I can or will do can make me more His child. Our fascination with perfectionism is patently observable in the modern evangelical church. What we need is a big dose of the realism of Martin Luther who, writing against a man named Latomus from his cell in Wartburg, said, “Every good work of the saints while pilgrims in this world is sin.” Because of sin none of us will ever experience, in this life, the fulfillment of God’s salvation. The Holy Spirit, who lives within the believer, is a down payment on what is to come. He is not the fulfillment. That follows in the age to come. Justification by faith alone, properly understood, will preserve believers from much disillusionment in the area of expectations that are false and destructive of genuine faith.

Christ is our ideal Man, the only human person in whom God’s purpose for man is perfectly fulfilled. In Him all aspiration is fulfilled, all hope is realized. Human nature is perfected here. This is the importance of faith alone, for through faith we are brought into union with this Man. He is the Man at God’s right hand. His humanity is my humanity. His righteousness is my righteousness. As Paul writes, “In Him you have been made complete” (Colossians 2:10). I like J. B. Phillips’ paraphrase of this: “Your own completeness is only realized in Him.

3. Sola fide keeps us from both antinomianism and legalism.

Justification by faith alone preserves the church from both antinomianism and legalism, both of which are rampant in the modern church. Romans 8:33-34 says, in part, “God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns?” Here we observe that the opposite of justification is condemnation.

It is faith that receives God’s gift. God’s gift is the righteousness of Christ. The justice of God, revealed in the Law, requires exact and perfect obedience. Man cannot be saved unless the law is fulfilled — every jot and every tittle. God does not look the other way when He saves the believing sinner. His holiness demands perfection. This is why faith alone is so important. The law must be honored and kept. If we are to be saved it must be justly and perfectly in accord with the demands of the law of God. Sola fide establishes the law. It protects against “cheap grace,” or antinomianism, because it truly upholds the law. Christ’s righteousness, which is ours in Him by faith, consists in perfect obedience to His Father’s law in our stead, on our behalf.

This guards, furthermore, against legalism. Why? Because we cannot earn or maintain God’s grace. We can only accept it with the hands of faith which look outside ourselves to Another. His sacrifice is vicarious. It is mine by faith, and it alone can satisfy God. John Bunyan said it well when he taught that Christ wove a perfect garment of righteousness for thirty-three years only to give it away to those who trust Him alone to save them.

The Holy Spirit’s role in the preaching of the gospel is to bring men and women to the place where they put their faith in “the righteousness of…Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:1). This righteousness of faith is not a quality seen within our hearts, or felt by us experientially. It must not be confused with the work of regeneration or sanctification, which is Rome’s error. This righteousness remains in and with Christ alone. John Bunyan, writing in Justification By an Imputed Righteousness, illustrates this well by saying: “. . . the righteousness is still ‘in Him’; not ‘in us,’ even when we are made partakers of the benefit of it, even as the wing and feathers still abide in the hen when the chickens are covered, kept, and warmed thereby.” Sola fide keeps the believer from falling into the legal ditch of associating anything done in us or with our cooperation contributing anything at all to our righteous standing before God.

4. Sola fide promotes genuine reformation and revival.

This doctrine of sola fide prompts genuine interest in true revival. The First Great Awakening in America most likely began in Northampton, Massachusetts, where Jonathan Edwards was preaching a series of sermons on this doctrine of justification by faith alone. As he set forth Christ and His righteousness one woman came under deep conviction and the spark of a great movement of God was lit.

In our time much talk regarding revival centers exclusively around experience. We desperately need the perspective of the gospel if we would pray for revival that will honor God and bring showers of true blessing upon the church. Revivalism, of the type seen in the past 150 years or so, has much more in common with Roman Catholic doctrine than sola fide. Until men and women cry out, “How can I be made just in the sight of a holy God?” rather than, “How can I find peace, save my marriage or remove the financial pressures of the moment?” I do not think we shall see another Great Awakening. As Puritan Thomas Taylor wrote, “The reason so few are willing to ask ‘What must I do?’ is because so few will ask, ‘What have I done?’

Modern evangelicals, with their emphasis upon the infusion of power, security and peace are much closer to Rome at this point than most of them could possibly imagine.

5. Sola fide must not be ignored by modern evangelicals.

Finally, we need to guard against the modern tendency to ignore sola fide altogether. This particular tendency, due either to ignorance, willful distortion, or a lack of concern for this great biblical truth of the Protestant Reformation, is observable in many quarters. A recent example can be seen in the much discussed document Evangelicals and Catholics Together (1994).

Here we have a total absence of the truth of sola fide. One wonders what kind of evangelicalism lists doctrines that remain as differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics and ignores sola fide. This is precisely what was done in this document. I find it a sad day when evangelicals consider what unites and divides us with Roman Catholics, and this important evangelical truth is completely passed over in silence. Has Rome come to embrace the Protestant understanding of sola fide? Not at all, as we have seen. Has evangelicalism, on the whole, lost its grip on this truth? I fear this is so. All efforts to recover this truth are a welcome sign that the blessing of God may fall once again upon Christ’s church. Let us pray and labor to that end!”

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