Only Faith

The great Reformation of the Church was like the breaking forth of a new light of freedom and assurance into a once dark and manipulating world. The reformation coincided with the Renaissance, with its return to languages that had slipped out of common use. Greek and Hebrew took people again to the sources, to the fountain of the Word of God. Art, scholarship, debate, and inquiry exploded on the scene, and the newly invented printing press made it circulate faster than anyone had ever dreamed possible. And out of this great upheaval came a reassertion of the basic principles of the Christian faith which had been lost or buried beneath superstition and desire for control. Among these ancient teachings was the confession that mankind is saved through faith alone, Sola Fide. It is not faith plus a certain measure of good behavior on your part or faith plus a willing obedience to the decrees of the church council. No, just faith, and only faith. This faith takes ahold of something outside of you, outside of your doing, outside of your desire and will. It is faith which holds firm to Christ and His works alone. This faith, and only this faith, was declared to be your salvation.  

Yet, as the years roll on, this simple and powerful confession, this wonderful gift that once again was able to shine brightly during and after the Reformation, slowly but regularly gets pushed aside. Salvation by faith alone is too easy, too simple, too weak, to be of any real worth. It sounds more like the confession of one who has discovered a new curiosity or hobby. Oh, you go to church on Sunday mornings, what do they require of you to be a member? Nothing. Nothing? Yeah, I’m saved by faith alone. Oh, isn’t that nice. I’m sure it must be fun. Nice? Fun? It is like they think you are into yoga or have taken a new interest in online gaming. This is just some easy thing you do because it interests you, but you will probably get bored with it at some point and move on. One day, no doubt, you will find another hobby which will take up your Sunday mornings.  

But the truth is at some point the Christian faith, the confession that we are saved not by our works, not by our performance or obedience, but by faith alone, at some point it will cost you something. And it is not what you think, not what you want, and not what everyone else imagines it will cost you. It is not some pyramid scheme where you get in far enough only to realize that now you need to really pay, you need to really sacrifice if you want to reach the next level. What I mean by a cost to this confession is that it will take from you everything else you will want to trust in, everything else you will seek to use as a definition of your identity, as a source of security in your life. Salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone will take from you everything that is not Christ.  

The story of the Canaanite woman from Matthew 15 illustrates this reality for us. Jesus enters the district of Tyre and Sidon, a mostly Gentile region, when a Canaanite woman approaches Him. Now, to start with, the faith of this woman is astonishing. We are used to holding up Abraham or David or Saint Paul as examples of great faith, but this unnamed woman belongs right up there with them. She ascribes to our Lord lofty titles. She comes up to Him with tears in her eyes and says, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” She cries for mercy. She calls Him her Lord. She rightly understands He is the Son of David, the long-awaited Messiah. This Gentile woman rushes to Him in the hope that He might show mercy and save her daughter from demon possession. She is not shy about it. She does not hesitate. She does not care who sees her. She trusts this one is the One who can save her daughter.  

What happens next is hard to watch. It is a brutal exchange. Jesus’ first reaction is to simply ignore her. Not only does He not help her, but He does not even seem to acknowledge her. He just moves on. She has called Him the right titles, confessed her hope that He alone can save her daughter, and yet, she gets no reaction at all. But she does not stop, does she? No, she keeps after them, so much so that the disciples say to our Lord, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” She is getting a bit annoying, so send her away. And He answers, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” I was not sent for her. I was not sent to the Gentiles. Everything about this exchange is pointing towards heartbreak for this woman, no rescue for her daughter, no hope of any resolution. But she will not stop. She will not let go. She refuses to give up. She comes one more time and you can hear the desperation in her voice as she falls at His feet and cries out, “Lord, help me.”  

And just when you think that perhaps her persistence, perhaps her eagerness and desire is enough to move our Lord’s compassion, He does the exact opposite. There is no mercy, no kindness, no compassion at all. Faith alone does not allow room for one’s pride or desperate work, no matter how holy it may look to others. Jesus takes everything from her when he says to her, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” When He finally speaks to her, when He finally addresses her, He calls her a dog, a dog not worthy of the bread of the children of Israel. Here is where her faith shines the brightest. Here is where she becomes a powerful example of living by faith alone. Her response is humble and shocking, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  

Even the dogs. She has been stripped down to nothing. No pride, no arrogance, no work of hers can move our Lord to action. She holds on to His Word. She holds tight to the one thing He has given her. Jesus has called her a dog… and a dog is enough for her. For even the dogs, she says, receive the crumbs from the master’s table, and all she needs is a crumb. All she longs for is a small sliver of the greatness which is the coming of the Son of David. She catches our Lord in His Word, the one place He delights in being found. This faith is the reason for His compassion. He says to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire,” and her daughter was healed instantly. You cannot say there was no cost to this faith. Faith alone places everything in the hands of Christ and leaves you completely at His mercy. Faith is to hold to His Word even when it hurts, even when it is difficult.  

We gather together each Sunday, and our worship contains some form of a confession, a confession where you publicly declare you are sinners. You have sinned in thoughts, words, and deeds, sinned by what you have done and by what you have left undone. But how do you know you are sinners? How do you know you have fallen short of the glory of God? You may say, well, I know because I have failed to keep the commands of God. I know because my life is marked by actual sins I have committed. And I will say, yes, you know you are sinners because your Lord has said you are sinners. He said this is what you are to do, and you have not done it. This is what you are to avoid and yet you keep doing it over and over again. Just as He calls this woman a dog, so He calls you sinners.  

So, we confess to Jesus what He has said to us. We are sinners, and guess what, You have come to save sinners. You came not for the healthy, not for the righteous, but for the sick and the broken. That is us. This is who we are. We have no works to offer You, no great deeds to cause You to accept our entrance into eternal life. No, we have faith, and only faith. It is faith in what You have done, in what You have said, in what You have given. We are empty handed except for Your Word, Your promise spoken into our hopeless situation.  

And what does Jesus say to hopeless sinners like you? He says, “Let it be done for you as you desire.” By faith alone you are forgiven, you are loved, and you are heirs of eternal life itself. So, welcome to the great Wedding Feast. Amen.