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Saturday, July 05, 2008

Reformation Essentials - Part 5 - Sola Fide




Sola Fide: Our Only Means
The reformers said that it is not enough to say that we are saved by grace alone, for even many medieval scholars held that view, including Luther's own mentor. Rome viewed grace more as a substance than as an attitude of favor on God's part. In other words, grace was like water poured into the soul. It assisted the believer in his growth toward salvation. The purpose of grace was to transform a sinner into a saint, a bad person into a good person, a rebel into an obedient son or daughter.

The reformers searched the Scriptures and found a missing ingredient in the medieval notion of grace. To be sure, there were many passages that spoke of grace transforming us and conforming us to the image of Christ. But there were other passages, too, that used a Greek word that meant "to declare righteous," not "to make righteous." The problem was, the Latin Bible everyone was using mistranslated the former and combined the two Greek words into one. Erasmus and other Renaissance humanists "laid the egg that Luther hatched" by cleaning up the translation mistakes.

According to Scripture, God declares a person righteous before that person actually begins to become righteous. Therefore, the declaration is not in response to any spiritual or moral advances within the individual, but is an imputation of the perfect righteousness that God immediately requires of everyone who is united to Christ by faith alone. When a person trusts Christ, that very moment he or she is clothed in his perfect holiness, so that even though the believer is still sinful, he or she is judged by God as blameless.

This apostolic doctrine, proclaimed to Abraham and his offspring, has fallen on hard times again in church history. Not only do most Christians today not hear about the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone, many cannot even define it. Although justification is the doctrine by which, according to the evangelical reformers "the church stands or falls," it has been challenged. Finney openly declared, "The doctrine of an imputed righteousness is another gospel. For sinners to be forensically pronounced just is impossible and absurd. The doctrine of an imputed righteousness is founded on a most false and nonsensical assumption, representing the atonement, rather than the sinner's own obedience, as the ground of his justification, which has been a sad occasion of stumbling to many."

In our own time, Clark Pinnock wonders why we cannot even embrace the notion of purgatory:

I cannot deny that most believers end their earthly lives imperfectly sanctified and far from complete. [Most? How about all!] I cannot deny the wisdom in possibly giving them an opportunity to close the gap and grow to maturity after death. Obviously, evangelicals have not thought this question out. [We have: It was called The Reformation.] It seems to me that we already have the possibility of a doctrine of purgatory. Our Wesleyan and Arminian thinking may need to be extended in this direction. Is a doctrine of purgatory not required by our doctrine of holiness?

Russell Spittler, a Pentecostal theologian at Fuller Seminary, reflects on Luther's phrase concerning justification: simul iustus et peccator, (simultaneously just and sinner): "But can it really be true--saint and sinner simultaneously? I wish it were so. Is this correct: 'I don't need to work at becoming. I'm already declared to be holy.' No sweat needed? It looks wrong to me. I hear moral demands in Scripture. Simul iustus et peccator? I hope it's true! I simply fear it's not."

The Wesleyan emphasis has always been a challenge to the evangelical faith on this point, although in his best moments Wesley insisted on this heart of the Gospel. To the extent that the consensus-builders and institutional abbots of the evangelical monasteries have attempted to incorporate Arminianism under the label "evangelical," to that extent, it seems to me, it ceases to be evangelical indeed.

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Dr. Michael Horton is professor of apologetics and theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California).

© Modern Reformation

This article originally appeared in the Mar / Apr 1994 edition of Modern Reformation and is reprinted with permission. For more information about Modern Reformation, visit www.modernreformation.org or call (800) 890-7556. All rights reserved.

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