Sola fides — faith alone, but what’s the catch?

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Looking back 500 years to the pivotal role that Martin Luther had in history at the Reformation, I sometimes forget how pivotal his voice is even today for those of us who struggle with the challenge of theology.

This column had a different idea at its base, but something in last week’s column kept nagging at me, so I switched things up to kind of continue a tangential thought that didn’t make it in last week.

Luther’s theology contains lots of Latin phrases, many of which I have hit on in the past few months. Of those phrases, there is a group known as the three Solas. Sola is the Latin word translated “alone” or “by itself.” The first two of these I have addressed elsewhere in my columns.

The subject for March 25 was Sola Scriptura, which means “scripture alone” and indicates that everything we need to know of salvation is in the Bible. If it ain’t in the Bible, don’t worry about it.

The second is Sola Gratia, grace alone, which encompasses the overarching idea of most of what I have written and therefore of Lutheran theology that salvation comes by God’s grace alone and NOT by anything else we do.

The third Sola, and the one I have not really talked about is Sola Fides, which means faith alone.

Now, the reason I thought this would be a good time to mention the last of the Solas was sparked in my mind by a quote I used last week from “The Bondage of the Will” written by Martin Luther. I was talking about Law being the imperatives of scripture, the commands that lead us to recognize our need for God’s grace, as a free gift with nothing required on our part in works or deeds.

Luther says, “The commands exist to show, not our moral ability, but our inability. This includes God’s command of all men everywhere to repent and believe the gospel, an impossible act of will apart from a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit uniting us to Christ.”

Now, you may understand why I thought I might need to say a thing or two in regards to faith in light of that statement. In a normal discourse on “justification by grace through faith apart from works of the law,” I would tritely point out that we don’t do anything for salvation. God does it all by his grace as a free gift with no strings attached. And it comes about through faith, which is also a gift from God, in the form of our response to what God has done first.

I tritely say that now. But this was a big topic of conversation in seminary my first year, and is the point of confusion that makes God’s unconditional grace unappetizing to so many today.

The trap is set by the world in so many ways. Free offers that end up costing us an arm and a leg. Politicians who seem to look out for the best interests of the people only to hold that over them at a later time for some ulterior motive. P.T. Barnum’s pledge that there’s a sucker born every minute has us on the lookout for any deal that seems too good to be true. There will be a catch at some point. We know it!

So when the Gospel is proclaimed, that God offers salvation to the sinner with no strings attached as a free gift, our first response is: OK, so what do I have to do?

And we don’t want to take no for an answer, so this caveat about faith plays right into our distrustful hands.

In my first year of seminary, this conversation was like a theological version of “Who’s on first?”

I don’t have to do anything to be saved?

That’s right.

But faith alone is my response?

That’s right.

So what I need to do for salvation is to generate faith and believe?

That’s wrong.

Faith, you see, is also a gift from God. You are incapable of making it yourself because you are a sinner.

So, how do I get faith?

It’s a gift from God.

So, I don’t have to do anything to be saved?

That’s right, but faith alone is my response?

That’s right.

So, what I need to do for salvation is to generate faith and believe?

No, it’s a gift that only God is able to give you!

Through the years I’ve tried to get a handle on this one, because it is kind of slippery. Before we start yelling, “Hey Abbott!” I think it is easier to get if we keep thinking of faith as a noun (that would be a thing that can be given) rather than a verb which is something we can do (which would be an autonomous act).

In stewardship terms, everything we have comes from God — yes, even faith. There was a song a few years ago whose refrain was, “Even the Praise comes from you.” It would seem that we as sinners are not going to be able to generate holy stuff like faith or praise on our own. These things involve that pesky Holy Spirit whom we have even a harder time getting a handle on!

I recently tackled this in a sermon by using a phrase from the TV show “The X-Files.” The one character in the show had a poster in his office proclaiming, “I want to believe,” which he applied to everything from UFOs to Bigfoot to God.

And I at times have echoed those sentiments: I want to believe.

But, my experience is that I cannot on my own generate belief any more than I can, on my own, generate the feeling of love.

Both commodities are out of my expertise. I know them when I experience them. But they are as far out of my control as is the color of my eyes or the sound of my voice.

I may appreciate them and even take advantage of those God-given gifts, but they are still gifts from God!

So, Sola Fides, faith alone, is our only response we can make to God, and we cannot even do that ourselves, but rather we are gifted it by the Holy Spirit. If that’s not humbling, I don’t know what is.

And, that is precisely the point, to remember who is creature and who is creator, who is Savior and who is in need of salvation.

And if you want to know what gift you can use to say thanks to God, choose that gift that he gave you first, Sola Fides. It’s why God gave it to you in the first place!

Pastor Zach Harris has been an ordained minister for 25 years and currently serves Ascension Lutheran Church in Wilson. His column, “Through a Lutheran Lens: A Pastor’s Perspective,” will appear regularly in The Wilson Times. Previous columns are available at WilsonTimes.com.