“Faith Alone” is understood by your faith’s direction
1. To yourself: “Do what I command.”
2. To Him: “Give what You command.”
The Lord is a strong tower, the righteous run to Him and are safe. His words of protection and safety before us today come from Romans 3:27-31:
Romans 3:27-31 Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law. 29 Or is He the God of the Jews only? Is He not also the God of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also, 30 since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.
Today, we merge the old with the new. We take a timeless truth, a pillar of the Lutheran Reformation and our faith, and we bring it together with the modern phenomenon of the meme. For those unfamiliar with a meme, I offer the following definition: “a humorous image, video, piece of text, etc., that is copied (often with slight variations) and spread rapidly by Internet users.” A meme is a modern way to make a point.
For many years, opponents of Martin Luther have argued that he maliciously added to the inspired Word of God. They make this claim because in his German translation of the Bible, Luther added the word “alone” to Romans 3:28. In the minds of the opponents, this error has tainted the entire Reformation movement, as well as the Lutheran insistence of a Roman Catholic error in the doctrine of justification. I could quote people at length to explain the reasoning, but the meme really says it all.
It also uses satire to make its point; harping on Luther’s use of faith alone using the helpful grammar paperclip from older versions of Microsoft Word. It’s a funny point, no doubt, but how could it be that well-intentioned Christians end up at so very different places in their understanding of faith? And the end result of such different teachings is no laughing matter.
The case could certainly be made that Luther should have left the word “alone” out of the passage. In his defense, he stated that he was trying to make the message of the verse as clear as possible to his German parishioners. Luther fully admitted that “alone” was not in the original text, but he wanted his readers to know absolutely, that no work was needed for salvation with Christ. We could hardly fault him with this line of thinking given the context of his day, when true, unadulterated justification had been thrown to the wayside. Yet, in the end is translation has probably created more controversy than confidence.
The passage itself is clear enough regardless of Luther’s translation. Whether or not you think the word “alone” fits, there is simply no room for teaching salvation by works. When God says, “we are justified by faith, apart from the works of the law” He ends the debate. But then why does this divide continue to exist today? Why do we still see shots taken against Luther’s teaching, even with the modern day format of memes? The answer is that not all faith is directed at the same location and not everyone means the same thing when they say “faith alone.”
To recognize this difference for ourselves we bring in the thoughts of another church father, one who lived long before Luther. Augustine famously said of verse 27: The principle of works says, “Do what I command.” The principle of faith says, “Give what You command.” Augustine was referring to that phrase in our text, “the law of faith.” At first glance that makes no sense and seems to defeat this entire issue. The entire point of Paul’s words here is to show the difference between the law and faith. What is this “law of faith”? Paul is talking about a principle of faith, a basis upon which one believes. One’s principle is either of the law or of faith. Obviously faith is not a law in the sense of being a work we must accomplish. But, it is the principle, or basis, of salvation in Christ.
There are ultimately two ways in which people measure their faith; or in the words of Augustine; there are two principles on which faith can rest – Us or Christ. Either faith becomes a matter of what I do before God, namely how well I keep what He has commanded; or it is a matter of what God gives me; namely how He blesses me in Christ because He has kept the commands. This is precisely where the difference rests in Luther’s use of the word “alone” in Romans 3:28 and what has separated Christians on this issue for more than 500 years.
If faith is directed at the person, their principle will be of works. They will base their hope on upholding God’s Word. They will continually hear from God, “Do what I command.” Paul was trying to defeat this idea when he wrote, “we conclude that a man is justified by faith, apart from the works of the law.” If people look at themselves when they use the phrase “faith alone” it becomes a principle of the law. This is confusing because faith is not of the law; it is produced by the Gospel.
It’s also confusing because although someone may use the word faith in this way, as soon as it becomes based on the law it stops being faith. True faith always looks to Christ as the source and the power. Faith itself is simply trust. It doesn’t necessarily define what or who is trusted. But, every context of saving faith in the Bible is always directed at Jesus, not works. It’s precisely what Paul is saying in these verses. He is trying to take the attention away from the individual sinner and putting it squarely on the merits of Jesus. This is only way to have confidence in our faith. When works of the law become the main foundation, whatever we’re talking about ceases being true, Biblical faith, even if it’s still called that.
Those who argue against Luther in things like this meme, can say all they want about his choice of translation. I can see the legitimate criticism in adding a word that isn’t part of the text. That’s not really translation; it’s more of a paraphrase or commentary. But, in the end, you have to get past Luther’s translation choice and ask whether or not the teaching itself is Biblical. Namely, is “faith alone” a valid teaching? Well, if faith is directed at the sinner, it’s not valid. It’s not even faith. The real problem is that those who continue to criticize Luther’s teaching and the confessions of our church today, continue to emphasize this hollow, self-centered faith.
The chief portion of Scripture often used against “faith alone” is James 2. In that chapter James writes of Abraham’s faith, “Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? You see, then, that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only.” (James 2:22,24) Who wouldn’t naturally see a contradiction between James and Paul, and furthermore between James and Luther? James pretty clearly condemns “faith alone” doesn’t he? Those who deny “faith alone” champion James’ words. They see “faith alone” as a teaching that allows a ‘cheap out’ of following God’s Word; a trite excuse offered for sin. Truly, it would seem to put the proverbial nail in the coffin of Luther’s teaching of “faith alone.”
But, when you take the entire context of James’ letter, it’s clear that he actually condemns the type of faith that is based on the law. James talks about the importance of works as an effect of faith, but he does that to show the Christians he was writing to that they were not beginning with Christ. James’ point is that if your faith is not squarely based on Christ’s work for you, you won’t have the fruits that give evidence of that faith. His words continue to be twisted into a contradiction of Romans 3 even today but the truth exposes that position as false.
Before James even wrote the passages in chapter 2 he said this, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” That sounds pretty close to what Paul wrote in Romans 3. Gifts coming from God alone. Being re-born by the Word of God. No partiality between Jew and Gentile with God. All similar themes to Romans 3. There is no doubt that James says the same as Paul; he just approaches it from a different perspective. Life in Christ is produced by God working through the word. Works or fruits are effects of that faith, or indications of how healthy and strong that faith is. They are never the cause.
At this point I would also add a verse from our text for today that proves the same thing. What Paul writes in verse 31 is really a summary of James’ letter, Do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law. Our entire discussion has been about the proper use of the word faith, especially when we talk about “faith alone.” But, the other side of that coin is the proper use of the law. In order to explain faith, Paul tries to better explain its complementary opposite, the law. Paul says, faith does not destroy or abolish the law. Rather, it uses the law in the only proper way. Therefore, the only correct way to use the law of God is to believe in Christ by faith apart from the works of the law.
The great fear of teaching “faith alone” is that it will somehow give a person a free license to sin. If you allow a person to believe that their sins are paid for freely by Christ (Faith Alone) and no additional effort from the person is needed; then they will naturally do whatever they want. And so it is supposed that it is a dangerous thing to teach “faith alone” and those who believe it will always fall back into sin. It’s easy to see the logic in this premise. It not only makes sense, but we experience it too, because so often we abuse God’s grace and forgiveness. We have a tendency to treat it as a free pass to sin. This always happens, in fact, it’s precisely the issue that James addressed.
But, human error never overtakes God’s truth. It can obscure it to be sure, but it can’t defeat God’s work. What Paul taught and Luther taught, that we are still saved by faith alone apart from the law, is just as true as it has always been. Human error cannot abolish that. In fact, human error proves it to be absolutely true, because it shows us there is only one way. The fact that sinful humans abuse this grace does not discredit its effectiveness. And to hammer down that point, Paul made the stunning statement that faith apart from the works of the law was the only path toward a proper use of the law. Teaching faith alone does not destroy the law, rather it upholds the law and complements the true nature of the law in a sinner’s life.
What faith destroys is the curse of the law. Don’t take my words for it, listen to God’s: For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse … Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree ") (Galatians 3:10,13). This is the principle of our faith. Christ was cursed on the tree for us. That breaks the curse that hangs over our heads because we haven’t kept the law. And we receive it by faith alone. If it came by any other means, it would not be of Christ, and it would not be faith.
You can see now why Augustine chose to word the proper foundation of faith as that which the sinner speaks to God, “Give what You command.” Faith is not by works. It is a given by God freely to all. But, faith also does not nullify that which God commands. Rather, it upholds the law. Christ did not abolish the law when He came to earth. He fulfilled it. He restored it and built it back up in our lives in its proper sense so that we could serve God by faith. Faith gives us what God commands because it blesses us with Christ’s merits. His righteousness becomes ours. His keeping of the commandments is placed on our record. Jesus destroyed the curse, by upholding the law.
Perhaps most important to state about Martin Luther is that he understood true faith alone, regardless of his translation of Romans 3:28 suffers. Luther wrote elsewhere, “A Faith without love is not enough; it is in reality no faith at all but only appears to be faith. Just so a face seen in a mirror is in reality no face but only appears to be a face.” Faith that is based on us is hollow and unstable. If we boast of this faith “alone” we are in a miserable spiritual state of life. Boasting of this type is excluded, as Paul said.
But faith alone in Jesus is the one, true foundation. It is the rock upon which the wise man built, which withstood the storms of sin. And it is the absolute boast of the Christian’s confidence, for through Christ we have died to the world and we live in Him. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.