by Mike Ratliff
The Doctrine of Justification by Faith alone, or sola fide, was the key of the Protestant Reformation. Its recovery was from the darkness created by the dominance of man-made religiosity, which held that justification was accomplished through faith plus good works. This grew into people being required to do religious acts in order to be considered righteous. The driving force of the Reformation was captured by the Latin phrase Post tenbras lux (After darkness, light).
The darkness, of course, referred to the eclipse of the gospel that occurred in the late Middle Ages. We often make the mistake of assuming that this darkness became manifest at the end of the 1st Century A.D., however, the fact is that it came about through a gradual process of darkening which reached its nadir as the Middle Ages grinded to an uneasy end. Then history witnessed the firestorm of the Protestant Reformation, which was ignited by God in the hearts of the reformers who burned to recover the Doctrine of Justification by Faith alone.
Martin Luther called Justification by Faith Alone “the article upon which the church stands or falls.” He based this bold statement as he identified Justification by Faith Alone with the gospel. The controversy with the Roman Catholic Church was primarily based within the differences between how its declaration of justification differed from how the Reformers proclaimed how the benefits of Christ’s work are appropriated by, in, and for the believer. In other words, the issue became “how justification and salvation are received.” Luther’s insistence on sola fide was based on his conviction that the “how” of justification is integral and essential to the gospel itself.1
Since the gospel stands at the heart of Christian faith, Luther and other Reformers regarded the debate concerning justification as one involving an essential truth of Christianity, a doctrine no less essential than the Trinity or the dual natures of Christ. Without the gospel the church falls. Without the gospel the church is no longer the church.2
The logic followed by the Reformers is this:
- Justification by faith alone is essential to the gospel.
- The gospel is essential to Christianity and to salvation.
- The gospel is essential to a church’s being a true church.
- To reject justification by faith alone is to reject the gospel and to fall as a church.3
My brethren, I prayerfully ask each one reading this to take a long hard look at how your church handles the gospel. The Reformers saw their role in the Reformation as a rescue of the gospel itself from impending danger of total eclipse. Never forget my brethren, a total eclipse only blocks the light from the Sun, it does no harm to it. The eclipse only brings darkness where there was light. The Reformers sought to remove the eclipse so that the light of the gospel could once again shine in its full brilliance, being perceived with clarity.
In our day the primary enemies that seeks to once again eclipse the gospel are seemingly diverse so-called churches and church movements such as the Purpose Driven paradigm or seeker-sensitivity and gospel contextualization, which remove essential parts of the gospel in order to not offend the “unchurched.” Then there is the Emergent church, which has taken on a definite New Age spiritualism bent. The movers and shakers in this movement consistently deny sola fide and sola scriptura as essentials for the gospel and the health of the church. Instead, they pursue a complete redefinition of every part of Christianity to suit their eclectic tastes. Then we have a complete implosion and collapse of what used be called Evangelical Christianity as leader after leader buys into the newest fads, such as contemplative prayer, in order to remain “culturally relevant” at the cost of their Christian genuineness.
Just as the gospel became eclipsed over several hundred years until the Protestant Reformation, another dulling and drive to eclipse began almost immediately after the Reformers and their students died off. There have been bright spots since then to be sure, such as the Great Awakening as preachers such as George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards preached powerful Gospel messages to hundreds of people at a time as the Holy Spirit poured out His power on them. There have been intermittent revivals all through the 19th Century and early 20th Century, but the gospel fires definitely began cooling and started to become more and more watered down over time as liberalism invaded the Church.
I was born into a Christian family in 1951. I remember very well how the small town in which we lived in Oklahoma would be effectively shutdown on Sundays as all of the churches in town rang their bells (if they had them) and their auditoriums were full as their pastors preached the real gospel, which did not leave out the law and God’s impeding judgment on the unrepentant. However, as the 1960’s came and with it a cultural revolution, so did our churches’ proclamation of the gospel and justification by faith alone begin to take a backseat to sermons on morality and rebellion and cultural justice.
Here we are more than half a century later and we are witnessing the death spiral of what used to be called mainstream Christianity. Churches outside of that “definition,” however, are not immune from the disease. They too have become compromised with the ways and means of the world and culture so that what used to be considered “Christian” is now seen as only a few backward, legalistic, Bible-thumping, complainers who want to spoil all the fun of those who consider themselves to be the true Christians. However, they are so compromised by their apostasy that their spiritual blindness is complete and no matter how succinct we present God’s Word to them about their apostasy, they reject it and only hear us as background noise or they resent us so much that they threaten law suits and underground attacks of some sort.
How is your church doing? Is it preaching the Gospel, the real Gospel, or is it being consumed by a full effort to be culturally relevant? The condition of the visible Church in our time is a direct result of the abandonment of sola scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, and soli Deo Gloria, which stands for the truth that God’s Word alone tells us that Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone (Ephesians 2:1-10). Adherence to these truths causes the entire Church body to be more holy, reverent, and spirit-filled with mature believers discipling newer believers and all of them making new disciples as God provides. However, when these truths are neglected in favor of man-focused religiosity then the death spiral begins.
Soli Deo Gloria!
1 R.C. Sproul. Faith Alone. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995, p19.