“Sola Fide—Faith Alone”
Romans 3:21-31 and James 2:14-26
Sermon Preached by the Reverend Dr. Howard W. Boswell, Jr.
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2017
Kenmore Presbyterian Church
Kenmore, New York
Today, as we continue to explore the Five Solas,
those statements of the Reformation,
which begin with the Latin word for “alone,”
we look at sola fide, “faith alone.”
The Reformers believed God saves us
by grace alone, by faith alone.
In his article, “The Five Solas—500 Years and Still True,”
retired history professor, James R. Payton, Jr. explains
what “by faith alone” means.
We are not accepted by God because of any good works we have done or could do; we have no merits to offer as payment for the righteousness we need to come before him. That righteousness is received by faith alone, and we are justified by faith alone—faith in the incarnate Son who lived, suffered, died, and rose again to achieve righteousness for us. While that faith impels us to serve God as faithfully as we can—to “do good works”—nothing we do can win the righteousness we need to come before God, Jesus Christ has won that, and we receive it by faith alone.
“By faith alone” mattered greatly to the Reformers,
because the medieval church, from which they came,
taught that salvation needed to be earned by works.
Now, salvation for the medieval church meant
getting into heaven, escaping hell, or avoiding purgatory.
Purgatory was like waiting room between heaven and earth
in which people stopped until their sins were payed off.
Now, sins were violations of church law and
categorized from something like misdemeanors
up to a felony.
To pay off sins, the church issued indulgences,
which they sold freely.
Once purchased, indulgences would shave years off of
one’s sentence in purgatory.
Even before Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses on
the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg,
a variety of Christian theologians became uneasy
Yet, they grew in popularity,
because the money filled the coffers of
the bishops and cardinals, even the Pope.
They used the sale of indulgences to build great cathedrals and
to insure a luxurious lifestyle.
As Luther and others looked at Scripture,
they found no warrant for indulgences.
As a matter of fact,
they pointed to passages like Romans 3:21-31.
Paul makes it clear we cannot become righteous on our own.
In the first chapter of Romans, he quotes Habakkuk 2:4,
“Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.”
“The righteous live by their faith.”
We may say, “By faith alone,”
but I wonder whether we know what faith means.
Whenever we say, “I believe,”
do we consider what we’re getting ourselves into?
Not too long ago, I spent some time pondering this question.
You see, whenever the presbytery ordains
a minister of the Word and Sacrament,
we ask the candidate to write a statement of faith.
Most presbyteries give you one page, single spaced,
with one inch margins, and in 12 point font,
preferably Times New Roman,
to put as much of what you believe in writing.
Serving as moderator of
the Committee on Preparation for Ministry
for nine or ten years in this presbytery,
I read my fair share of these statements.
This committee reviews the statement for
obvious errors, glaring omissions, and other things.
I wrote one of these statements of faith
before the Presbytery of New Covenant ordained me
thirty three years ago.
Yet, when I wrote my Personal Information Form,
I needed to write a new statement of faith.
When I started, I became aware of
one of the most glaring omissions in most,
if not all statements of faith.
Seldom, if ever does anyone define “faith.”
While I won’t read you the entire statement,
I want you to hear the first paragraph.
“I believe…” Nearly every statement of faith starts with words like these. Yet, almost no creed or confession defines “believe.” The root of the word, “believe” means “to live by” or “to love.” The Latin word, credo from which we get “creed” means “to give one’s heart.” So, “believe” means more than affirming something; it means accepting the One about whom we make those affirmations. Trust might be a better word, because it suggests a relationship.
You see, here’s what I think:
it’s not enough to accept God exists.
It’s not even enough to affirm
Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior.
It’s not even enough to assume the Holy Spirit is
the One who gives us life and sustains us.
It may be a start, but when Paul uses the word, “faith,”
when the Reformers use the same word,
they mean something more
along the lines of what I wrote.
It’s not just a matter of believing in the abstract;
it’s a matter of living by faith in our daily life.
Now, throughout the works of the Reformers,
even down to our day, you’ll hear people pit
Paul against James.
Some will point to Romans 3, saying,
“We are made right with God
by the grace of Jesus Christ through faith.”
Others will quote James 2,
“So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”
Yet, Paul and James are two sides of the same coin called faith.
Paul speaks about what happens
when God saves us through faith by grace alone.
James speaks about what happens after God sets us right,
how the righteous live by faith.
We need both sides of the coins as the church nowadays.
If I asked us to picture those who do nothing
but talk about what they believe,
we might be tempted to call them, “hypocrites!”
This kind gives Christians a bad name,
because when non-Christians look at them,
they can’t believe they’re talking about
the same God Jesus did.
Yet, I would imagine we might have
a harder time identifying the other kind:
Those who do everything,
but say nothing about what they believe.
We might feel more comfortable with them,
since some outside the church,
many mainline Protestants, Catholics,
and even some evangelicals fall into this camp.
They think it’s enough to live a good life and
show compassion and tolerance to others
without having faith.
Or they think it’s all well and good to have faith,
but it means nothing unless we put it into action.
Or they think it’s not enough to believe in Jesus,
but you need to live a certain way, believe a certain way,
to be a real Christian, to be really saved.
So, here’s how the Reformers reading both Paul and James
balanced faith and works.
In order to be saved, to become righteous, to be justified,
one needs to believe, to live by, to love, to trust
the grace God shows us in Jesus Christ.
Yet, as one who is saved,
God calls you to serve God and others.
Yet, as one who is righteous, you live by faith,
as if grace was real and God used you to share that grace.
Yet, as one who is justified,
you stop trying to justify yourself and
stop asking others to do the same,
instead you let your works reveal
the One in whom you trust.
©2017 Kenmore Presbyterian Church