Friday, November 24

Thinking About Faith Alone and Christ Alone, Part 2

The previous post in this series considered the relationship between faith and Christ's work: what it means that Christ's work is the grounds for our salvation, and that faith is the means by which we receive salvation. In this post, I want to explore faith's unique suitability as the instrument through which salvation, grounded as it is in Christ's work alone, is received. We're looking at why, if salvation is in Christ alone, there is no other instrument but faith that would fit with it as a receptor for it. In other words, it's all about the reason that in Christ alone necessitates by faith alone.

In Christ alone is the refomation slogan that points to Christ's work as the sole grounds for the salvation of sinners. When we talk about grounds or cause, we are introducing the idea of something being earned or deserved, either by merit or demerit. If a worker does a job for someone for an agreed upon price, they have grounds for demanding a paycheck once the work is done. The job well done merits the wage paid. When we talk of grounds for a lawsuit, we're speaking of something done wrong by the person being sued that justifies the demand for some sort of recompense. In this case, it's a matter of demerit or harm done, rather than merit or good accomplished, that comprises the grounds. Grounds are what justifies what we get; grounds are what earns for us what we are owed. So when we say that the only grounds for our salvation is Christ's work, that means that our salvation is merited by Christ's obedience, death and resurrection, and not by anything meritorious that exists within us, nor by anything meritorious that we produce. Christ alone means that our salvation is not earned by us, but wholly by Christ. The entire basis of--or reason for--our salvation is Christ and his work; there is nothing (and no one) else.

And if that's the case--that salvation is unmerited by us, but wholly merited by Christ--Scripture tells us that the only means by which it is possible to receive those saving benefits is by faith. Romans 4:16 says that justification "is by faith so that it may be by grace." In other words, justification is by faith, because justification is God's gift, and as you can probably figure out, if it's a gift, then it is not earned by us or owed to us. Justification being by faith, then, preserves Christ's work as the sole grounds for justification, and keeps any question of our own merit off the table. You might say that faith alone is the perfect fit--and the only fit--meanswise, for Christ alone.

Can you see why that would be? Isn't true faith--saving faith--an acknowledgment of our dependence on Christ alone for salvation? Isn't the cry of faith, "I have nothing; I can do nothing; you alone are my only hope!"? Faith places it's hope, it's grounds for salvation, squarely on the only grounds there are: the obedience, death and resurrection of Christ. It is, at it's core, the negation of personal merit or work, and trust in the merit and work of Christ. The eyes of faith see Christ's work as the center of salvation, the hinge on which it all turns.

I want to quote Herman Ridderbos from Paul: An Outline of His Theology, but first, let me give you fair warning. This book was originally written in Dutch, and translated into English for us, so it doesn't read the same as a book written first in everyday English. It can be a difficult slog--like a long trudge through a deep bog--and this quote is typical of the book as a whole. But your slogging will all be worth it, I promise. So buck up, soldier. Put on your thinking cap and it's forward, ho!

Ridderbos says that the purpose of the phrases regarding the relationship of faith to justification, salvation, or righteousness in Paul's letters, like by faith, through faith, from faith to faith,
is none other than to designate the object of faith as the ground of justification. Faith does not justify because of that which it is in itself, but because of that to which it is directed, in which it rests. For this reason, the exclusive emphasis with which faith is here placed over against works has a negative significance insofar as it speaks of man and his share in justification. Man is justified not on the grounds of what he is himself or has or achieves, but precisely on the grounds of that which he does not possess and which he in himself does not have at his disposal, but which he must receive, obtain, by faith. Faith here stands over against works as that which which is absolutely receptive and dependent, over against that which is productive, which is able to assert itself (page 172).
Did you follow that? Faith does not justify because it is a kind of merit, but because it rests in merit outside of itself. In this way, as the means of justification, faith stand in direct contrast to works or merit*, because justification by faith implies that human beings have no "share in justification", whereas justification by works implies that human beings participate in their own justification by providing at least some of the grounds for it. If justification were by works, then a person would be justified (at least in part) on the grounds of what he possesses or produces; yet since it's by faith, it's the opposite: a person is justified on the grounds of something he doesn't possess or produce, but rather receives. While works produce, faith receives, and it's the receptive nature of faith that makes it the only means by which we can be justified entirely on the grounds of Christ's merit, or solus Christus.

That "by faith" points directly to the work of Christ alone does away with any claim human beings might have that the righteousness that comes to them by faith is of themselves. The "principle of faith" excludes all human boasting, something a principle of works or merit would not do.
Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded! By what principle? Of works? No, but by the principle of faith! (Romans 3:27 NET)
Because salvation is by the principle of faith, all the glory for it goes to God (Soli Deo Gloria) who gave us grounds for salvation by sending his Son to merit it for us.

So, while the point of this series was to consider the relationship between sole fide and solus Christus, we've touched on their intertwining relationships with two of the other solas as well. If salvation is grounded only in Christ's work (solus Christus), it cannot be earned by us (sola gratia); and therefore must be received by means of faith in the work of Christ (sole fide), so that the all human boasting--or any claim that we produce something obtains justification for us--is excluded (Soli Deo Gloria). It all fits together in a tidy little logical package, based in and gleaned from the other sola: sola scriptura.

In the next post, I plan to consider some incorrect ways of thinking about faith's role in the process of salvation--ideas about faith that move it out of the realm of means only, and move it over into the realm of grounds for salvation by making faith a virtue by which we merit salvation, or a requirement that we meet in order to obtain salvation--and then move on to some other wrong ways of thinking about the process of salvation that base it in still other grounds besides faith, instead of entirely in Christ's work.

*This is not to suggest that faith stand in direct contrast to works in every way, but as a means of justification, they stand opposite to each other.