28 July 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
Three times in this paragraph Paul underlines the necessity of faith: *through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe (22); through faith in his blood* (25) or, more probably, ‘by his blood, to be received by faith’ (RSV); and God *justifies those who have faith in Jesus* (26). Indeed, justification is ‘by faith alone’, *sola fide*, one of the great watchwords of the reformation. True, the word ‘alone’ does not occur in Paul’s text of verse 28, where Luther added it. It is not altogether surprising, therefore, that the Roman Catholic Church accused Luther of perverting the text of Scripture. But Luther was following Origen and other early Church Fathers, who had similarly introduced the word ‘alone’. A true instinct led them to do so. Far from falsifying or distorting Paul’s meaning, they were clarifying and emphasizing it. It is similar with John Wesley who wrote that he felt he ‘did trust in Christ, in Christ alone, for salvation’. Justification is by grace alone, in Christ alone, through faith alone.
Further, it is vital to affirm that there is nothing meritorious about faith, and that, when we say that salvation is ‘by faith, not by works’, we are not substituting one kind of merit (‘faith’) for another (‘works’). Nor is salvation a sort of cooperative enterprise between God and us, in which he contributes the cross and we contribute faith. No, grace is non-contributory, and faith is the opposite of self-regarding. The value of faith is not to be found in itself, but entirely and exclusively in its object, namely Jesus Christ and him crucified. To say ‘justification by faith alone’ is another way of saying ‘Justification by Christ alone’. Faith is the eye that looks to him, the hand that receives his free gift, the mouth that drinks the living water. ‘Faith…apprehendeth nothing else but that precious jewel Christ Jesus. As Richard Hooker, the late-
sixteenth-century Anglican divine, wrote: ‘God justifies the believer – not because of the worthiness of his belief, but because of his (sc. Christ’s) worthiness who is believed.’
Justification (its source God and his grace, its ground Christ and his cross, and its means faith alone, altogether apart from works) is the heart of the gospel and unique to Christianity. No other system, ideology or religion proclaims a free forgiveness and a new life to those who have done nothing to deserve it but a lot to deserve judgment instead. On the contrary, all other systems teach some form of self-salvation through good works of religion, righteousness or philanthropy. Christianity, by contrast, is not in its essence a religion at all; it is a gospel, the gospel, good news that God’s grace has turned away his wrath, that God’s Son has died our death and borne our judgment, that God has mercy on the undeserving, and that there is nothing left for us to do, or even contribute. Faith’s only function is to receive what grace offers.
The antithesis between grace and law, mercy and merit, faith and works, God’s salvation and self-salvation, is absolute. No compromising mishmash is possible. We are obliged to choose. Emil Brunner illustrated it vividly in terms of the difference between ‘ascent’ and ‘descent’. The really ‘decisive question’, he wrote, is ‘the direction of the movement’. Non-Christian systems think of ‘the self-movement of man’ towards God. Luther called speculation ‘climbing up to the majesty on high’. Similarly, mysticism imagines that the human spirit can ‘soar aloft towards God’. So does moralism. So does philosophy. Very similar is ‘the self-confident optimism of all non-Christian religion’. None of these has seen or felt the gulf which yawns between the holy God and sinful, guilty human beings. Only when we have glimpsed this do we grasp the necessity of what the gospel proclaims , namely ‘the self-movement of God’, his free initiative of grace, his ‘descent’, his amazing ‘act of condescension’. To stand on the rim of the abyss, to despair utterly of ever crossing over, this is the indispensable ‘antechamber of faith’.