Faith Alone

There is a legendary theologian of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod named Francis Pieper, who wrote back in the early 50’s that “[there are] but two essentially different religions: The religion of the Law, that is, the endeavor to reconcile God through man’s own works, and the religion of the Gospel, that is, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.” Two religions, two systems of belief, two understanding of how one achieves eternal life. One is by way of the Law, which is human work or effort or desire that completes the task of earning in some part salvation. The other religion is all gospel, all gift, all completed outside of your work, and all done by Christ. As Luther famously said, “The Law says, ‘Do this,’ and it is never done. The Gospel says, ‘Believe this,’ and everything is done for you in Christ.” One religion is certain, the other full of doubt. One brings true and lasting comfort to the conscience plagued by guilt and despair, the other points the direction to salvation but does not provide what is needed to achieve it.

Saint Paul, in his letter to the church in Rome, seems to want to grind into our hearts and minds this distinction, to make it clear that the only way to eternal life is in the religion rooted in Christ alone. It is a religion which is not accomplished by your works, nor by your prayers, your good deeds, or your faithful acts, but accomplished by Christ and then made yours by faith: Faith alone. Paul roots this confession in the story of our ancient father Abraham. Now, if there was ever a person to hold forth as an example of faith, it is Abraham. His faith in the promises of God surpasses our understanding. So, Paul tells us, “His faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness.’” His faith, not the works he did, but his faith in what God had promised is counted as his righteousness. His religion was not one of the Law but of the Gospel. God called Abraham to leave his family and his homeland, to go to some promised land he had never seen. God promised him he would become a great nation, he would be blessed, and others would be blessed through him. And though it did not seem to make any sense, though the way was perilous, he had faith God would do what He had said.

Again, Paul highlights how it was his faith that declared him to be righteous. He was not righteous by what he did. Sure, he did some tremendous things. He did venture out of his homeland. He did rescue Lot. He did try and save Sodom and Gomorrah. And, of course, he offers up his own son on the mountaintop. All of these are spectacular acts of devotion and courage, but they do not make him righteous. They do not cover his acts of uncertainty and rebellion. Like the times he tried to pass his wife off as his sister to save his own skin or the attempt to force the promises by sleeping with Hagar the Egyptian. He was a sinner to be sure, but he had faith, faith in the promises of God. As the text says, “In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations… fully convinced that God was able to do what He had promised.” This faith is counted to him as righteousness.

The reality of the salvation of Abraham is set before you as the proof for your own salvation by faith alone. Again, Paul says, “The words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in Him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord.” Your righteousness is obtained by faith. Of the two great religions, the only one which leads to eternal life is the religion of the Gospel, the religion of grace, the one that is not accomplished by works but by faith alone. But this confession comes with its own challenges, for what we learn throughout our days is that these two religions are not so easily separated out. You can establish a place where salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone is the center of all things, and yet find that the religion of the Law, of human works, will find its way in. It seeps through the walls and the doors. In fact, it hides in the hearts of the people of God and constantly pulls and tugs at our faith.

After all, the promises of God seem impossible to us. We can say all we want that we are saved by faith alone, but we sure get in a real hurry to search for some proof, some tangible marker that we are actually living by faith. And does Scripture not teach us faith without works is dead? So, we make these subtle shifts towards works and away from faith, towards the effort you put in as the determining markers of your own salvation. Do you pray enough, give enough, love enough to be saved? It turns out the religion of the Law is ready and willing to offer helpful guides and ways to quantify and measure your faith, to show progress and set you on a quest for certainty. It cannot simply be a gift. It cannot only be something you receive. That is too easy, too simple, too much wishful thinking.

We may very well think this grabbing of the Law, this turn toward our work or performance is not that big of a deal. In fact, it seems to be an effective way of strengthening our faith. It gives us some goals, some purpose for the days of our lives. If your hope is to enter the gates of Paradise, if you long for the assurance of eternal life, we can get really freaked out that we do not have any control over it. So, a little bit of law provides what we all need. But this move always turns out to be a corrupting influence. As our Lord said, “A little yeast leavens the whole batch.” That little bit of the religion of the Law will eventually become the whole of your religion. It will work its way throughout and dispel everything else.

For example, what if I told you that to be saved, to be sure eternal Paradise is yours, all you need to do is believe in the works of Christ and read your Bible once a week. Well, that seems pretty simple, right? You are not being asked to give the church all your money or to reject your family and friends, just read the Bible once a week. So, off you go. Salvation is yours. The birds are singing, and the sun is shining. But then life gets hard. Perhaps it is struggles in your job that overflow into struggles at home. Your simple joy and carefree nature are slowly being filled with depression and heartache. Perhaps it is a health scare or even worse a health scare for one you love. Maybe it is death and unspeakable grief. Then, in your darkest hour, you wonder where God is in all this. As you cry out in pain and frustration, as you desire to scream at the silence of God, you begin to wonder if you are really saved. Is this what the life of a believer ought to look like? Where can you turn? You go to the one thing you can control, the reading of the Bible, and that bible will become your new God, your only hope. Did you read enough of it? Did you read the right parts? Did you read on the correct day of the week? Does it matter? Maybe you are reading the wrong translation. Maybe your heart is not in the right place when you read. As a result, that small thing, the small slice of law becomes everything.

This is what Paul is saying when he writes, “If it is the adherents of the Law who are to be the heirs, faith is null, and the promise is void.” In the midst of the storms of life, in the turmoil of swirling fears, doubts, pains, and trials, every attempt to be righteous by your own work will be exposed as lacking. You are sinners in your thoughts, words, and deeds, by what you have done and by what you have left undone. There will always be more you could have done, should have done, need to do. So, praise be to God you are not saved by your works, and salvation is not found in the religion of the Law.

It is faith. Faith, Christ has suffered in your place. Faith, He has done what you could not. Faith, Jesus has ahold of you even in the midst of the storm. Faith, that you are loved, forgiven, and heirs of eternal life. This faith, and this faith alone, is counted to you as righteousness. It is complete. It is finished. Salvation is yours, in Christ alone, though faith. Faith alone!