Sola Fide: Faith Alone–Oh Sweet Exchange

Luke 22:31-37 – The Five Solas
19th Sunday after Pentecost–October 15, 2017 (am)


Intro and Road Map

A couple of weeks ago Ray opened his message with this loud greeting, “Hello your protestants!” I want to follow that up this morning with this question, ‘who are you, protestants?  I’m not asking what you believe, but who you are, what do you love, and why all the fuss, why does it matter?  The great contemporary of Luther, scholar, philosopher, humanist and somewhat reluctant Catholic Erasmus [then as now, when you only go by one name you must be somebody special] gave this useful summary of what it means to be a protestant.

“they are like young men who love a girl so immoderately that they imagine they see their beloved wherever they turn, or, a much better example, like two combatants who in the heat of a quarrel, turn whatever is at hand in to a missile, whether it be a jug or a dish.”

Grace church, that is our heritage and it is in fact who we are.  We are a people with one great love and that is the person of Jesus Christ bound up in the Father and the Holy Spirit, and that is the Trinitarian lense through which we see everything.  And Erasmus is right, we see our beloved Jesus Christ everywhere we look…….  But he is also right in describing us as combatants, ready at the drop of a hat to start tossing flatware around the kitchen!  This should not surprise us.  For anybody with a great love will find within themselves a ferocity of purpose and a willingness to fight and perhaps to die for the cause of their beloved………  After all, ‘faint heart ne’er wins fair maiden.’

As we look at the heart of the reformation, and at the foundation stone of ‘sola fide’ this morning, I want to accomplish a few things.  First, I want us to begin to understand why it was that this doctrine lit such a fire under the soul of the reformers, and Luther.  Second, I want us to take a fresh look at what ‘sola fide’ is, and what it is not, and I want for us to praise the Lord more richly because of it.  Finally, I want to take a look at ways that we, kind of like a 1970 vintage Chevy Malibu are prone to pull to the left and even with accurate knowledge of the truth, continually have to fight the adding of accessory baggage to our faith, and to do it in a way that robs us of our joy and demeans the beauty and the power of the gospel.  So, let us begin with what may seem like an unlikely portion of scripture:

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”
Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.”
Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me” (Luke 22:31-34).

You know the story of course and we will be circling back to these verses a couple of times with a couple of questions:   What do these verses tell us about this Jesus?  The second question is this:  What do these verses tell us about the faith of Peter?  While these questions are percolating (remember what a percolator is?)  I would like to quickly take us back in time 500 years.

A Fly-By of the Reformation

Here’s a tip for all of you students out there, junior high, high school, college. [a show of hands].  If you ever have to take a history test where they give you a historical event or person and then they have you select the corresponding date by multiple guess……. In general, always choose 1492.  It probably will not be far wrong. [does anybody remember the old McGee and me videos put out by Focus on the Family maybe 30 years ago now? There is the famous scene where the high school kids sum up all of history, “In 1492 Christopher Columbus discovered this place, and now…. we’re here!”

If you pick say, 50 years either side of this date, an avalanche of famous people descended on the stage of history. Galileo, Mary Queen of Scots, the first queen Elizabeth, Nostradamus, Copernicus [of Brian Regan fame] Francis Bacon, Machiavelli, Sir Walter Raleigh, John Calvin, Amerigo Vespucci, Tyco Brahe, John Knox, Miguel de Cervantes, Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci………………. I will include Shakespeare in that list though he was just a few years too late.  But according to Time magazine and others no one in that list cast a larger shadow on history than the Augustinian monk and professor from a little-known university in Wittenberg.   You know the story of course,  his challenge to the Roman church,  his famous vandalism to the door of the cathedral,  his trial, his ‘here I stand, I can do no other’ speech, his conviction, excommunication, his kidnapping by friends actually, the year that he spentas a hostage for his own protection in the castle in Erfurt,  during which time he translated the bible intoa robust and accessible German, the burning of his books,  his energy, his scathing rebukes of all enemies near and far and especially the fire in his soul that he could be loved by a Holy God, sinner though he was:   Here’s how Luther has been described by one biographer:

Luther’s theology was not a doctrine; it was a love affair. Consuming love for God has been part of Christian experience since the beginning, but Luther’s passion had a reckless extravagance that set it apart and which has echoed down Protestantism’s history.  He pursued his love for God with blithe disregard for the bounds set by church and tradition.  It was an intense, desolating, intoxicating passion, sparked by his life-upending glimpse of God’s incomprehensible, terrible, beautiful love for him.   Like any lover, he found it incredible that his beloved should love him, unworthy as he was (Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern WorldRyrie, 20).

There are at least two great hinges on which our understanding of the reformation turns.  First, the reformers did not claim to have some sort of extra dispensation to see new truths in scripture.  They were reclaiming truths that had been recognized throughout the history of the church.  Listen to this and tell me the date:

But when our wickedness had reached its height, and it had been clearly shown that its reward, punishment and death, was impending over us; and when the time had come which God had before appointed for manifesting His own kindness and power, how the one love of God, through exceeding regard for men, did not regard us with hatred, nor thrust us away, nor remember our iniquity against us, but showed great long-suffering, and bore with us, He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!

So, here’s a test.  When was this written?............. No, the answer is not 1492!  The correct answer is that it is from the 2nd century ad.   The point is this, that the notion of ‘faith alone', ‘through Christ alone', by 'grace alone’ had lit up the souls of believers long before Martin Luther screwed up his courage and nailed it to a church door!

The second thing we must not miss is that the fire in Luther’s soul was forged in the cauldron of the recognition of his own sin, the horror of it, and likewise this core doctrine will never light the fires of our souls until we have our noses rubbed into the only thing that we bring to the table of our salvation, our overwhelming earned guilt before a Holy God.   And we begin to do that when we call it what it is.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Romans 3: 21-28).

This verse was transformative for Luther.   Freedom in Christ began for him only when he saw that justification was and must be found by some other means than somehow bootstrapping himself into an indwelling personal righteousness.  Is there a person or two in this room who has seen first-hand what it looks like to make a total hash of their life? …This is not a rhetorical question Anyone here hurt and maimed those you have loved? Anyone here know the mixed and rotten motives of even your best impulse?  If you have, then you are linked arm in arm with Luther and the apostle Paul.

For us protestants, we are marked by one great love, even as we know well the darkness in our souls.  Is it no wonder that we sing the gospel?

Three Observations about Sola Fide

Having taken a ridiculously quick look at the Reformation, I want to switch gears a bit and take a closer look at this idea of ‘sola fide’, and I want us to consider three things:

  1. We proclaim, ‘faith alone’ but it is not ever alone.
  2. We are not, I repeat not, saved by faith……. (I will explain)
  3. We know full well that our faith falters and sways and always needs strengthening.

Let’s consider our verses from Luke for a moment. Remember the question I asked you to think about?  In this moment of calm before the storm that would soon descend, Jesus opens a window into the very heart of God:

  • In this prayer of Jesus, we are given a Trinitarian lense
  • This prayer is personal.  The creator and sustainer of the universe has prayed for the faith of a stumbling, wavering disciple.
  • This prayer is absolutely potent!  The ‘after you have turned’……. Is as certain as the sunrise, and even that is not a good analogy, for a day will come when the sun will no longer rise, but according to Romans 8 there will never come a day when the prayers of Jesus Christ, who even now is at the right hand of God, interceding for us, will ever lose their potency.
  • Finally, this prayer is utterly unlooked for by Peter.  It will only be later that Peter will begin to understand the magnitude of what his teacher has said!

The phrase reads, ‘sola fide’ not solo fide.  Like Ray talked about a couple of weeks ago, ‘faith’ does not leave a scorched earth in its wake.  It is accompanied by works of righteousness ‘prepared beforehand, that we might walk in them (Ephesians 2:10).  It is accompanied by spiritual gifts, by obedience to the law of Christ, by a gratitude of spirit, and humility of soul, and eagerness of mind and assurance of heart that marks us as children of the king, who walk clean and forgiven even as we so often fail.  We proclaim that we are ‘justified by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone.

In addition, we do not rely on our teetering faith as if it were the active agent in our justification and salvation.  We know full well that our faith, just as Peter discovered, it is not an altogether reliable lifeline.  Our justification is through Christ alone.  It is his righteousness that saves.  It is his snow-white garment that we put on through faith.  Theologians say that our righteousness is forensic, that is imputed to us.  It is not something that we bring to the table, as if somehow our faith were a currency of the worth of our immortal souls.    The danger of course is that as we look around at one another here this morning, we are fully capable of turning even our faith into some sort of comparative measuring stick to establishing our place in the pecking order of the body of Christ. [you might want to think of our tendencies as OCD, that is obsessive, comparison disorder]! Heaven preserve us from ourselves!  Our faith, not of ourselves by the way, is the means by which we draw near to Christ and become one with him but it is not by our faith that we are saved.

One of our favorite hymns around here is ‘he must hold me fast’.  We resonate to that because like the song says, ‘we fear our faith may often fail, he must hold me fast.’  Our faith wavers in adversity, it wavers when we fail to cultivate it, it wavers when we neglect the powerful word of God, it wavers in the numbing quicksand of our sin, it wavers in our simple and inexcusable neglect.  But, it is not in the quality of our faith that our hope lies.  It is in the gospel of Jesus Christ, is it not?  And so, we sing songs like Coram Deo, where we proclaim that we live before the face of God, that if we should take the wings of the morning, or live beneath the deepest sea, he is with us, sola fide, sola scriptura, sola Christo, sola gratia, sola de la Gloria.   It is and must be our great love.

Let’s take one final look at our scripture passage, and the second question I posed for us:  What does this passage tell us about the faith of Peter?

  • His faith was weak and untested, in the cauldron of fear.
  • His faith was embedded in a pride based on a faulty set of comparisons.
  • His faith was utterly beyond his ability to bootstrap, and he never even knew it.
  • His faith had an enemy determined to destroy it, by any means, to sift him like wheat!
  • His faith grew in adversity, and in the end enabled him to ‘feed my sheep.’

Is it any wonder that for Calvin and Luther, faith is a fight, it leaves us always ‘partly rejoicing, partly shuddering?’  Calvin described faith like this, ‘faith is real because it ultimately triumphs.  For the wavering believer, it lurks as an ember beneath the ashes.’  What Peter came to understand is that with a mathematical certainly his faith minus the intercession of his Lord and Savior = disbelief!

When We Try to Add to Faith

We know enough to answer correctly about the place of works in our salvation yes?  We know enough to acknowledge that works accompany faith for the believer, and that without good works that befit the genuine believer our ‘faith’ rings hollow.  But are there things that we tend to add to our faith, things that upon reflection show that it is so very easy to slip into a formula which says, ‘by faith plus x you are saved.’? I want to tell you a story by way of illustration:

Roger and Theo [short for Theodosia?] Brewer were stalwart members of a little Baptist church in southern Michigan.   Roger had an expansive and warm personality and also had the unique knack or ‘gift’ of being able to have a conversation with a child where it seemed to the child that he was actually listening, as if the child actually might be able to speak words that meant something!   And one of the children that he greeted so warmly so often was a little 6-year-old that I married some sixteen years later.  Roger and Theo had a little girl just a year older named Susan and when Susan was about eight, she contracted polio.  For the next 50 or so years, she was brace or wheel chair bound.  She was able to lead a productive life with the help of a care giver and she died a couple of years ago.     Cath had opportunity about a year or so ago to call Mr. Brewer on the phone and offer her condolences and he spoke to her as warmly as he had done so many decades before.  They spoke for a while and toward the end he said, ‘you know Cathy, ………………………………. I have always felt somehow that Susy’s polio was God’s way of punishing me for the many sins of my younger adult life…………………………………… 

When my wife told me of this phone conversation, it struck me as almost impossibly sad.  Mr. Brewer died about a year ago, and if he were here today I would want to tell him that the God we worship and the gospel we proclaim is better than that.  We do not live by faith plus works, and we do not live by faith plus some sort of guilt based penance.  That amounts to living by the creed of ‘what goes around comes around.’  It speaks so poorly of the God who loves you, and Mr. Brewer, you have lived in and tasted of that love.  You have chosen a very poor, and ultimately barren path.  It is the path of karma, it is the path of passivity that says that the sins of the father shall be visited upon the children and just as night follows day, that is the course of this world.  It is a path that says that there can be no salvation without a pound of flesh, that the God of our justification will have his due, that the piper will indeed be paid.

The cross of Jesus Christ says ‘NO’ to karma, says NO to guilt as a kind of penance, says NO to a passive resignation in the Christian experience, says NO to all of the measuring sticks of our worth that we are so easily trapped in, and finally says ‘NO’ to a kind of self-righteous autonomy.   And it is on that subject that I want to conclude.

Where To From Here?

When I said a moment ago that the cross says ‘NO to a passive resignation in the Christian experience, here’s what I mean.  The gospel is not passive.  GKC talks about the incarnation in terms of an invasion into enemy territory. He describes the great bells of Christmas not as a pastoral backdrop to a Hallmark card, but rather as the bells of battle ringing a triumphal call to arms. The cross is vulgar, brutal and utterly, totally engaged and gives no quarter.  It is in today’s vernacular, God going ‘all-in.’  It is nothing less than the Lord of the universe taking his enemies by the throat, sparing nothing in order that people like you and me might live!

And my prayer for you Grace church is that you might begin to see that there is no particular righteousness, or noble, high minded integrity in clinging to your wavering faith as a claim check on your personal autonomy!  Translated:  

Young wavering believer riding the fences of all the rodeos of your life,

Adult believer never able to truly rejoice in the gospel because you have been treated unjustly by life and are only able to contemplate and lament a life with one too many wrong turns,

Grown up believer with downcast eyes and a boat load of guilt on your back for the wasted years of a misspent youth, believing that your best days are gone!

Believing husbands and wives whose genuine praise sticks in your throats like a chicken bone because you know that your marriages are a flawed testimony of the grace of Christ to your children, neighbors and relatives,

Wide eyed children who remember what joy and peace felt like, but now fearful and feeling alone in the world consumed with a sense of always failing to measure up…………………. 

I would like you to take that wavering, weak, tentative faith of yours, screw up your courage and nail it to the door of the gospel of Jesus Christ.   It has occurred to me that you may wonder how to do that?  It is a good question actually and it has at least two answers and both are found right here, often in this very room, and both involve submission to a celebration!  I am referring to the celebration of the Lord’s supper, and the celebration of baptism!  Both are a cry of faith to God! ........ Now, it is altogether fitting and proper to allow the plate to pass you by if you have unfinished business with your brother or sister in Christ, and we are cautioned to do so, but check your heart on this one.  As the plate leaves your hand, does your heart ache for the fracture?  Surely it ought to.  I am reminded of the old British gentleman who having celebrated the ordinance for decades with his small assembly, was restricted from participation for a season…. He would come Sunday by Sunday, and look longingly through the glass………….and weep.   Brothers and sisters in Christ here this morning, take your wavering courage and turn it into a cry of faith to God. Long to join the celebration! 

I have also prayed for you this week that you would leave here today with a lifted gaze, and……… as a cry of faith, that you would relentlessly pursue baptism in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, not because your faith is strong, or stronger than your neighbors, but because like John Newton with his 20,000 ghosts, you are a great sinner, in the company of great sinners………………. but have a greater savior!