Too Much of Sola Fide?
This sermon for Reformation Sunday has been years in the writing. For over a decade it has bugged me that since the 17th century John 8:31-36 has been the Gospel read for Reformation. In this text and surrounding context, believers don't fare well at all. Why would our forefathers pick a text that shows believers in such a poor light for celebrating the festival where sola fide, salvation by faith alone, is emphasized?
First let me show you that believers don't fare well in this text. Earlier in chapter 8 Jesus preached that He's the Light of the world. The verse right before our text says, "After speaking these things many did believe in Him." Our text then opens with, "To the Jews who had believed in Him." But look what Jesus says to them in our text: They needed to hold to His teaching; they were slaves of sin and needed to be set free by Him. Jesus goes on to tell them in verse 37 that they seek to kill Him; in verse 41 that God wasn't their Father; in verse 43 that they couldn't hear His Word; in verse 44 that their father was the devil; in verse 45 that they didn't really believe in Him; in verse 47 that they weren't of God; in verse 54 that they didn't know God, and in verse 59 we're told these "believers" tried to stone Jesus.
These people believed, they had faith, but it wasn't saving. First Jesus tried to bring them to this realization by telling them His Word is what counts not their faith. Holding to His Word is what makes a disciple of Jesus not holding to your faith. The focus is not to be on what is going on inside our hearts but what Jesus says outside of us in His Word.
Second He tried to show them that on our own all we can be is slaves. Those who believed in Jesus in our text didn't want to hear this. They didn't need to be set free by Jesus. Jesus replies with an axiomatic statement, "I tell you the truth everyone who sins is a slave of sin." Jesus says this in the most formal, solemn way you can say something in Greek. The KJV rightly translates, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever commits sin is the servant of sin." Do any of you out there sin? Jesus doesn't say, "sin seriously," or "sin unrepentantly." Jesus says sin at all. I think I can safely say that all of us, even us believers, sin. Therefore, this truth remains: we are servants; we are salves of sin.
What frees a person? Faith? Believing? The Holy Spirit tells us they believed in Jesus. Yet Jesus plainly tells them that despite their faith, despite their believing they were still slaves of sin. And so it with us. We sin; therefore, we're slaves of sin. Only the Son can set us free. We can't set ourselves free by trying real hard or even by believing real hard. No, Jesus the Son is the only One who can set us free. Paul makes this point repeatedly in Galatians where he says were are saved by the "faith of Christ." You will have to read the KJV to see this. It doesn't say we are saved by faith in Christ but by the faith of Christ. We are saved not because we believe but because Christ believed.
Think how freeing this is. When you look inside yourself at your faith, if you're honest, if you're not self-righteous, you'll have to admit that your faith isn't adequate. It's weak; it doubts; it's no bigger than a mustard seed. Your faith continually gives way to sin. The faith of Jesus never did. He never doubted God. He never strayed from the path of God's Word. His faith remained firm on the storm tossed sea of Galilee though the disciples who believed on Him cried like babies in fear. His faith remained firm as He walked on the Sea of Galilee though Peter's gave way in the face of high winds and huge waves. Even after Easter, when His disciples met Him in Galilee Matthew 28 tells us, "and seeing Him they did worship, but they did doubt." Our faith remains feeble, shaky, fearful. The faith of Jesus remains sure, stable, bold.
Our faith is not to be in our faith. Our certainty is not to be in our faith but in His faith. This is the point Jesus tries to get the Jews who believed on Him to see. The only way they could be set free was by His Word and His Work. This is true of us too. Though our faith is weak and our works sinful, never pure, Christ Jesus can still set us free. His faith was never weak; His works were always pure. He did what we could never do. Kept the Law completely, yet He was punished for our failing to keep it. He died like a slave in Roman society, on a cross without pity or mercy, because you and I I our slaves of sin.
Now stay with me here. All of what Jesus did in life, in death, on the cross, in bleeding, sighing, suffering and dying does come to us through faith, through the trust the Holy Spirit works in us. But when St. Paul emphasizes sola fide, salvation by faith alone, he does so over against works. You heard this in the Epistle reading, "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the Law." Faith in the Scriptures and in our own Lutheran doctrinal writings is always set against works. This is to emphasize that nothing needs be added to believing, no works, no merits, no effort, no determination, no trying our best in order for us to be saved. Faith is like the extension cord plugged into the wall outlet. The extension cord doesn't create the electricity it merely receives it from the outlet. Likewise with faith, it doesn't create salvation, forgiveness, or blessing, it merely receives them from Christ's Work and Word.
Sola Fide is set against our working or adding anything to our salvation, but it is not emphasized or set against Jesus, the means of grace, or going to Church. This is the error Jesus is speaking to in our text. They believed in Jesus the text plainly says, but Jesus points them to His Word and His work. He points them away from their faith. He didn't want them emphasizing their faith over against His Word or His work of setting them free.
If you do emphasize your believing over against Christ's Word and Work as they come to you in Church through Baptism, Absolution, and Holy Communion, 2 things can happen. You won't go to Church, that is you won't use the means of grace. The one thing people who don't come to Church consistently say is that they believe; their faith is strong. Just ask anyone you who know who won't come to Church regularly. The Jews who believed on Jesus in our text were offended when Jesus pointed them back to His Word and work because they thought their believing was enough. A faith that rests in itself, a faith that follows it's own words and ideas rather than Christ's doesn't save anyone as we see later in chapter 8. Such a faith is of the devil and seeks to overthrow Christ. A faith that rests in its own works rather than in the work of Christ is mired in sins and saves no one.
But this is not you; you folks are in Church. You folks receive His Absolution, hear His Word, receive His Body and Blood, so you're grounded in Jesus' Word and Work not your believing. However, you can still be effected by the constant emphasis in Protestant theology on faith. You hear, you gotta have faith, you're saved only be faith and you start to fret over whether you really have enough faith.
How many Lutherans over the years have told me, "I don't believe enough." They agonize because their faith is not bigger as if Jesus had said if you have faith the size of a coconut rather than faith the size of a tiny mustard seed! They torture themselves for not having more faith as if only a certain amount of faith saved rather than a faith, no matter how small, that rests in Jesus' Words and works. They flagellate themselves for finding unbelief in themselves as if we sinners could ever say anything but, "Lord I believe; help Thou my unbelief."
A correction is necessary. We rightly emphasize faith when someone says we need works to be saved. However, neither the Scriptures or our Lutheran Confessions mean a contentless faith. What saves is a faith that is plugged into the Words and Works of Jesus. Jesus says, "By Baptism you are born again into the Kingdom of heaven," so we trust in our Baptisms. Jesus says, "Whoever's sins are forgiven in His name on earth is forgiven before His Father in heaven," so we trust in the absolution of our sins. Jesus says, "Take eat and drink this is My Body and Blood given and shed for the remission of your sins," so we trust that Communion puts His Body and Blood inside of us and the forgiveness, life and salvation that go with Him.
Friends, this is what Martin Luther taught. He said if you preach faith apart from the means of grace, apart from Baptism, Absolution, and Holy Communion, you will only lead people to despair. Exhorting, urging, pleading with people to believe leads them to despair because faith needs an object to hang on to. The cross of Christ, the work of Christ, the Words of Christ are all fitting objects of faith, but where on earth are they found today? The benefits of the cross of Christ, what Jesus worked in life and death, what Jesus promised to sinners are all found today in the water of Baptism, in the words of Absolution, in the Body and Blood of Communion. These are the things Jesus wants you to set against the devil, the world and your own sinful flesh. When the devil scares you with dying, you reply, "I've been given life eternal in Holy Communion.." When the world indices you to follow it, you respond with, "How can I who've been Baptized out of this world go back to it?" When sin says you're my slave, you reply, "Christ has set me free by Absolution."
Think of what happens to you when you try to use your faith against the devil, the world and your flesh. You say to the devil, "I believe." He says, "O do you really? You say to the world, "I believe," and the world says, "So do I." You say to your flesh, "I believe," and instantly your flesh slaps you with your doubts. Anything going on inside of us is tainted by sin and doubt. What Christ does outside of us, for us, and even in us, is not tainted at all. His Baptism has never failed to reborn anyone. His Absolution has never failed to send a sin away no matter how big and ugly it might be. His Holy Communion has never failed to give a person His Body and His Blood and the forgiveness, life and salvation His Body and Blood worked for us.
Our emphasis when speaking about faith is to be on what we believe not on how much we believe or even on our believing. Emphasizing our believing rather than Christ's Word and work is like emphasizing our eating rather than the food. How do you increase someone's eating by commanding them to eat or by displaying the food in all it's richness? I encourage your believing not by exhorting you to but by putting before you all the grace, forgiveness, and salvation of Christ found for you in His Word and Work of Baptism, Absolution and Holy Communion.
Just a 100 years after Luther this problem of emphasizing believing already surfaced because of other Protestants ignoring the saving grace in the Sacraments. One of our Lutheran fathers addressed the problem this way. He said that rather than seeing a thing called faith dwelling in his heart, he saw Christ there through Word and Sacrament. Baptism puts Christ on you; Communion puts Christ in you, and Absolution puts Christ over you. Our holding on to Christ may flicker and wavier but Christ doesn't. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Reformation Sunday (10-27-02), John 8:31-36