Sola Fide: God’s Power Revealed Through Faith Alone
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.””
Many of us know that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s church in 1517. Some of us may know that it was 4 years later, in 1521, that he made his famous here I stand speech at the Diet of Worms. But what many people don’t know is that Luther’s conversion occurred in between these two events. Not until 1519, while studying this very passage, did Luther finally understand how sinful men could be justified before a holy God.
We acknowledge and affirm that every single word of Scripture is God-breathed and is beneficial for God’s people and yet that does not mean that the weight, depth, and significance of every single verse is evenly distributed. These two verses stand as the key and Paul’s thesis statement for the entire letter to the church in Rome. These two verses introduce the core doctrine that was at the heart of the Protestant Reformation; that is, justification.
There were many benefits that came out of the Reformation. Scripture was freely translated into the common tongue. Biblical preaching replaced rote liturgy. Pastors and elders replaced priests. But none of these benefits were the center of dispute nor the reasons by which Christ’s church separated from apostate Rome. In responding to one of his critics, Martin Luther commended him for not wasting time in irrelevancies such as the papacy, purgatory, indulgences, and other such trifles, but that he attacked the real issue; that is, justification.
Luther did not mean that these other doctrines (or false doctrines) are unimportant, but that they pale in comparison to the chief doctrine of Christ’s church. I would also add that where justification is rightly understood, its implications would naturally correct such rank heresies. If the doctrine of justification falls, the church falls. As we examine the text before us, we will see that the apostle Paul provides answers to the three most significant questions regarding our justification before a holy God.
What is the Source of our Justification?
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation”
We should notice that this verse is not an island but begins as an explanation of what comes before it. Paul has already told the Christians in Rome that he has not forgotten about them and eagerly desires to come and visit them in the near future so that he can preach the gospel in Rome (vv. 11-15). It is in this context that he says he is not ashamed of the gospel. Why would he be ashamed of the gospel?
The Unashamed Preacher – The gospel is naturally offensive to all of mankind. It is stupidity to the pagan and a stumbling block to the Jew (1 Cor. 1:23). The idea that humanity is inherently evil and incapable of consistent reason is rejected by the world. The concept of humility and submission is laughable. To the Jew, it is utterly unthinkable that Messiah, God’s anointed King who will come and undo and reverse the curse, would be a humble suffering servant. No matter the audience, natural man will push back against the good news that God the Son came in flesh, lived a holy life, died in place of sinners, made full atonement, was raised by the Father from the grave to prove His victory over sin and the curse, and will come again to judge the living and the dead.
It is necessary that we understand that the term gospel ALWAYS assumes proclamation. What is the point of good news that is not announced and proclaimed? Paul does not speak of the existence of this good news, but the preaching, teaching, and proclamation of this good news. Paul does not care that this message will be scorned, mocked, and rejected. It is the message of salvation and so he is unashamed and eager to preach it.
The Power of God – Paul immediately explains why he has no shame in preaching the gospel. The gospel, the good news that the long-anticipated Seed of the woman has come and will return, is the very power of God for salvation. To think of God’s power in a general sense is mind boggling. His power is limitless. There is nothing that He cannot accomplish. This is why we simply say that God is omnipotent for we can think of no other way to describe His power. But Paul limits the discussion to a single aspect, namely, in the realm of salvation.
Our various English translations differ between stating that this power of God is for salvation (NASB/ESV) and to salvation (NKJV). The idea here is that of purpose or result. The proclamation of the Gospel is the very power of God purposed for and resulting in the salvation of men. Salvation naturally assumes that there is some sort of danger or predicament that necessitates this salvation. The predicament is none other than God’s righteous wrath (see vv. 18 ff.). Moral living cannot save us from God’s wrath. No number of good deeds, money given to the poor, or positive thinking will save us from God’s righteous judgment. But the good news of Jesus Christ preached and proclaimed is the power of God purposed for just such a salvation.
This answers the question of source. God is the ultimate source of our justification. This power by which God saves is delivered through the gospel message proclaimed.
Who Stands Justified?
“to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek”
This is the first of four uses of the Greek root from πίστις/πιστεύω (faith/belief/trust) in these two verses. This answers the question of who. Only those who believe/trust/place their faith in this gospel message will be saved. John MacArthur writes that God does not first ask man to behave but to believe (MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary Series: Romans 1-8, p. 55).
This faith certainly includes but goes well beyond an intellectual understanding and agreement. Saving faith certainly understands and agrees with the gospel proclaimed, because Scripture (where we find the gospel message) is the only and ultimate authority (Sola Scriptura). But going beyond that, saving faith trusts in the gospel exclusively. Christ’s accomplished atonement, victorious resurrection, and pending return provides, proves, and protects the salvation of wretched sinners. But only those who place their trust in this same Christ.
It is a universal message in that it is offered willingly and freely. There are no boundaries of ethnicity, culture, or color. But it is an exclusive message because the salvation that accompanies this message is reserved only for those who believe, trust, and have faith in it. Who stands justified before a holy God? Only those who trust in the righteous work of Jesus Christ alone.
How Can Sinful Man Become Justified?
“For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.””
Paul again points us back to this gospel which is the power sourced in Almighty God for salvation. When he says in it, he points back to the gospel. It is within this preached message that the righteousness of God is revealed. But what do these words mean?
Connecting Righteousness to Faith – The message of the gospel contains the revelation of God’s righteousness. God is without blemish, sin, or stain. His decisions and decrees are perfect in content, precision, and execution. There is no fault or defect in His nature, person, purpose, word, or will. The gospel message makes this abundantly clear and is also the only message by which this righteousness is revealed to man. This righteousness describes not only God’s standard, but also His status.
Paul identifies God as the source of this righteous status (of God = from/sourced in God). He is the only source of righteousness. But how can man stand before this righteous God? How can man receive this righteous status? By faith alone.
This small phrase “from faith to faith” reiterates and emphasizes what was just said in v. 16; that is, that God’s power purposed for salvation is for any and all who believe (πιστεύω). The only way one can receive this power that accomplishes salvation from wrath is through faith (πίστις) alone. One commentator explains it this way: “For in it (i.e., in the gospel as it is being preached) a righteous status which is God’s gift is being revealed (and so offered to men)–a righteous status which is altogether by faith” (Cranfield, Romans, vol 1, p. 100).
Made to be Righteous or Declared Righteous? – We should notice that Paul here quotes from Habakkuk 2:4. Paul is using the prophet as proof or evidence for what he has just claimed.
This was the turning point in the life of Martin Luther. As he studied these very words, he had two books open before him. One was the Latin Vulgate, the other a Greek New Testament. The Latin word that we translate as righteousness is iustus meaning just, fair, or equitable. The idea in the Latin is that of inherent righteousness and justice. But how then can the righteous man live by faith? Is there such a man? But as his eyes turned back to the Greek text, the language that Paul himself used when penning these words, Luther notice a significant difference. The Greek term used here is δίκαιος. This does not describe one who is inherently righteous, but one that has been declared to be righteous.
The difference between these two ideas cannot be overstated. Both Habakkuk and Paul are stating that man must become righteous (what the Latin seems to indicate) but that God declares those who believe and trust in the gospel to be righteous. The difference is between being found innocent and being acquitted. Our salvation from God’s wrath is not on account of our innocents, but on account that God has acquitted us because His Son has paid our debt. Our righteousness does not inherently come from us but belongs to Christ. Luther called this an alien righteousness, for it comes from God and is foreign to us. Those who receive this alien righteousness are those who believe, trust, and place faith in the gospel which is God’s power purposed for salvation.
The line from Habakkuk is better translated the righteous man by faith shall live. The text drives the point that this righteous man is only righteous on account of his faith, not because he has any righteousness within him. It is the man who is declared righteous through faith alone that will live.
Is this not what God said of Abraham? That he believed/trusted/had faith in God’s promise and that this same God credited it to him as righteousness (Gen. 15:6)? Was Abraham innocent of all charges or did he simply receive that which never belonged to him through faith alone? Abraham believed God, and so he lives.
Salvation is the result and purpose of God’s power expressed through the preaching of the gospel. This power is received exclusively through faith. No one is saved through intellect, philanthropy, or because of their sunny disposition. We either trust what God has declared, or we do not. We either believe that Jesus is the only way, the only truth, and the only life or we do not. We either place our faith in in Christ’s atonement or we reject it. Salvation is through faith in Christ alone. Sola Fide.
Understanding this doctrine today is every bit as important as it was in the 16th century. Evangelicalism has become every bit as apostate as Rome and is currently preaching a message that runs perpendicular to the gospel of Christ. Salvation is no longer from the wrath of God, but from social or economic oppression. Justice is no longer what one deserves by God’s reckoning, but what one desires by his own accounting. Righteousness is no longer a holy status received through faith alone but is earned through groveling and acts of contrition to the powers that be. This is heresy of the rankest nature.
The church is now at the point where she must reform or die. If the heretics will not repent, they must be separated from. These glorious reformation doctrines, sola Scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria, must be rediscovered and retaught as our forefathers have done. It is time for men to compare what the culture demands to what God has declared and trust Him. Salvation is from God’s wrath and is received through faith alone. Soli Deo Gloria!