A major issue that has been lost in the recent “neolegalism” / “Federal Vision” / “I’m into Medievalism, aren’t I cool?” / “Yeah, but I own all of NT Wright’s books, so I’m cooler” debate is what sola fide, “faith alone,” really tells us. You hear it said all the time, “We are not saved by believing in justification by faith, we are saved by believing in Jesus.” I have never met anyone who confused justification by faith alone with Jesus, personally, so I’m not sure what is gained by the assertion. So justification by faith alone is not the Savior. But that completely misses the point. What does sola fide tell us? It is not a construct that takes the place of Christ, but it does tell us about what kind of faith actually saves. A faith that is solely focused upon Christ (to the exclusion of the concept of self-righteousness and personal merit) is the faith of which sola fide speaks, in contrast to a faith that is wedded to works of righteousness. This is Paul’s point in Romans 4:4-5:
Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness,
The contrast is between working (with expectation of reward) and faith that does not expect or seek any reward at all, but instead casts itself upon another (the one who justifies) in recognition of that unworthiness (justifies the ungodly). This is the “faith” of “faith alone,” and it also explains why it is the only faith that saves (hence the “alone” part of sola fide).
So, the issue is simple: does a man or woman possess that kind of faith, or do they possess a faith that is corrupt, one that is associated with self-righteousness? Has their mouth been closed before a holy God (Romans 3:19) or are they still yapping about their goodness and how they are not as bad as someone else? That is the issue. The current rhetoric has completely missed this point. At one time I thought everyone who claimed the name “Reformed” actually believed that saving faith comes from the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the elect. It seems that the new emphasis upon “objectivity” is so over-shadowing the teaching of Scripture that this point is being lost. How very odd to see “Reformed” folks embracing an emphasis that changes things to such a degree that the meaning of sola fide is obscured, while the meaning of “false brethren” is turned on its head as well.