by Rev. Christopher Maronde
Faith is only as good as its object. This is the danger of misunderstanding Sola Fide: that we would focus on faith in and of itself, and forget about the object of faith. We would then spend all our time talking about our faith, bragging about our faith, and worrying about the strength of our faith, all the while forgetting about the One in whom we have faith: Jesus Christ.
Faith in Christ is bold only because of its object. When the One that you believe in is the crucified and risen One, Jesus Christ our Lord, the very Son of God, enthroned at the right hand of the Father, then your faith will be bold. Martin Luther writes: “Faith is a vital, deliberate trust in God’s grace, so certain that it would die a thousand times for it.” (FC SD IV, 12) He is simply echoing the book of Hebrews. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) Therefore, Sola Fide is a First Commandment issue, as Luther clearly saw.
A god is that which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart. As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol. (LC I, 2)
The question is not whether you have faith or not; the question is if you believe in the right thing. You can have all the sincerely held beliefs you want, but are they true? You can have the ‘strongest’ faith a person could possibly have, but if the thing you believe in is uncertain at best or false at worse, then your faith is worthless. It is not faith that saves, but faith in Christ.
Under the banner of Sola Fide, Martin Luther could stand before the Emperor in Worms, just as the princes would stand before the Emperor at Augsburg. Knowing the object of our faith makes us bold to say with the psalmist, “What can man do to me?” (Psalm 56:11) and with the apostles, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) Under the banner of Sola Fide, you can stand in the midst of persecutions and threats, sufferings and disease, you can even face death, for it is not the strength of your faith that saves you, it is the object of your faith. And the object of your faith has destroyed death and hell by dying and rising again for you. Just as nothing can now conquer Christ, so nothing can conquer you, for you are connected to Christ by faith.
Faith in Christ then does good works. Luther’s famous words, quoted by the Formula of Concord, describe the vital connection between faith and good works:
“Oh, faith is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, so that it is impossible for it not to be constantly doing what is good. Likewise, faith does not ask if good works are to be done, but before one can ask, faith has already done them and is constantly active. Whoever does not perform such good works is a faithless man, blindly tapping around in search of faith and good works without knowing what either faith or good works are, and in the meantime he chatters and jabbers a great deal about faith and good works.” (FC SD IV, 10-11)
The debate of the Reformation, a debate that brought forth the bold declaration ‘Sola Fide!’, was not between good works on the one hand, and faith on the other, but it was a debate over what relationship faith had to good works. Namely, do good works have any place in our justification before God? The Augsburg Confession gave the definitive answer; an answer faithful Lutherans still confess to this day:
“Our churches also teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works but are freely justified for Christ’s sake through faith when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by His death made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight.” (AC IV)
Sola Fide is the battle cry of the Reformation because it puts all things in their proper order. Good works follow, but they never precede; believers are exhorted to good works, but not for salvation. Sola Fide is created by the proclamation of Sola Scriptura, and its object is Sola Christi, and this is only because of Sola Gratia. Sola Fide means that faith is never alone: it always has its object, and when the object of faith is Sola Christi, then no works are needed, for Christ has done it all, for you!
The Rev. Christopher Maronde is associate pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Lincoln, Nebraska.