On Wednesday, October 31st, millions of Americans celebrated Halloween. We are not talking strictly about children here because adults are now celebrating Halloween as much as children. Halloween has become a national holiday for many Americans. Historian Nicholas Rogers claims that “Halloween is currently the second most important party night in North America. In terms of its retail potential, it is second only to Christmas. This commercialism fortifies its significance as a time of public license, a custom-designed opportunity to have a blast. Regardless of its spiritual complications, Halloween is big business.”
Unfortunately, the national attention of Halloween has distracted many evangelicals about the historical significance of this day. October 31st is Reformation Day. It is on this day that Martin Luther posted his 95 theses, which sparked the Protestant Reformation. Many evangelicals view themselves as Protestants, but very few actually know what they are protesting. The five basic theological beliefs held in distinction to the Catholic Church can be summarized in the five solae: sola scriptura (by scripture alone), sola fide (by faith alone), sola gratia (by grace alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), and soli deo Gloria (glory to God alone).
While many Protestants recognize the importance of sola scriptura as the formal principle of the Reformation, I agree with many others that the central doctrine from the Reformation (sola fide) is just as divisive and controversial as it was during Luther’s day. I believe that this is so because sola fide is derived from sola gratia. If salvation is through faith alone, apart from works of the law, then it must be by grace alone. Virtually every Christian denomination today believes in the necessity of grace, but the necessity of grace was not the divisive of issue of the day. The true issue of the Reformation (and the true issue today as well) is the sufficiency of grace. Is the grace of God sufficient alone to save a person or must other works (whether good works or dead works) be supplied to completely save a person?
This topic has been debated and discussed ad nauseam by Reformed believers so the purpose of this blog is not to re-invent the wheel. The purpose of this blog is to give my own testimony of how I came to the conviction that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone.
The Early Years
God granted me repentance and drew me to Himself when I was about 16 years. At that time, the only thing I knew about the Christianity was that I was a sinner and that Jesus is my only Savior. After my conversion, I attended a “Holiness church”, which emphasized sanctification. Whether or not it was intended by the leaders of the church, I developed the view salvation is by faith in Jesus Christ, but my entire sanctification justifies me before God. Eventually, I became convinced that this was the full truth of the gospel. Over time, I developed a number of questions about this view of salvation, but I would just dismiss them as futile speculation. While in college, I then learned that many people from a background similar to mine had similar questions, but since we were all in the same boat, none of us had answers.
As a young Christian, I was introduced to Christian rap and from listening to these gospel-centered, Christ-centered songs, I realized that the message of the gospel being proclaimed from these artists was quite different than the message that I proclaimed. One particular artist, Shai Linne, had a very deep impact on my growth as a believer in completely affirming sola fide and sola gratia. One of his albums, The Atonement, was focused entirely on the work of Christ Jesus in atonement. I couldn’t shake the message of the album because I was convinced of the magnitude of the work of Christ on the cross, yet I still held on to my view that sanctification produced my justification.
Justification and Propitiation
A few years later, my brother sent me a video concerning justification by faith alone which featured Shai Linne. The central passage that was discussed was Romans 3:9-26
… Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it–the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
In looking back, I see that God opened my eyes concerning this issue and used this video as tool for that purpose. The major questions that I had as a young Christian concerning salvation and security were addressed by the examination of this passage. My first question was: Why does God forgive sins? If God simply forgives sins because He’s a loving God, then why was the atonement necessary? Why couldn’t He just forgive us for our sins? It is in this passage that I saw that the atonement was both necessary and sufficient for the forgiveness of sins and our acceptance before God. The atonement was necessary because God’s justice demands that sin must be punished and that it’s an abomination to Him to simply acquit the guilty (cf. Proverbs 17:15). However, the atonement is sufficient because the only requirement on the recipient of this gift is faith (cf. Romans 4:4-5). To state that the atonement is insufficient for the salvation of sinner is also to say that something else would need to be added to it. Here, the emphatic statement is that the atonement satisfies God’s full requirements for righteousness because it is tied up in God’s character. This is God’s appointed means of righteousness and the redemption in Christ displays God’s righteousness. This redemption shows that God vindicates His justice and holiness and He is the one who justifies the sinner who has faith in Christ.
This point is also made by examining the meaning of propitiation. The concept of propitiation comes from ancient religions where the worshipper will offer a sacrifice to appease the gods. Applying this to the passage, the atoning sacrifice of Christ offered to God appeases the wrath of God and makes God propitious, or favorable to sinners. This clearly states the necessity of Christ in appeasing the wrath of God, but I believe that the concept of propitiation points to a stronger truth. This passage states that God the Father set forth Christ Jesus as a propitiation by His blood, meaning that Christ Jesus absorbed the wrath of God on behalf the one who has faith in Christ. If Christ Jesus fully absorbed the wrath of God, then what wrath is left for the sinner? This doesn’t simply state that Christ’s sacrifice is necessary for salvation, but it is absolutely sufficient. If the wrath of God is fully satisfied by Christ’s sacrifice, what else is needed for the sinner? What other work can be offered that would make the worshipper more or less favorable before God? Because His sacrifice completely satisfied the wrath of God, He has sanctified us once for all (cf. Hebrews 10:10) and has perfected us for all time (cf. Hebrews 10:14). Once again, this sufficiency of the sacrifice is presented here and it is applied to the believer by faith and given to the believer as a gracious gift.
So back to the question: why does God forgives sins? He doesn’t forgive sins to make a person acceptable before Him, but rather He forgives sins because they are acceptable before Him through Christ. This is the magnitude of atoning sacrifice of Christ. It doesn’t simply make a person savable (in this case, the hope of salvation is placed in the man’s character), but rather His atoning work save us. It secures our salvation because the wrath of God is satisfied on behalf of those whom the Father gave to the Son. Understanding this point answered many of my questions and addressed my major question as a young Christian: On what basis as I secure in God?
Security in the Triune Character of God
The precious Biblical truth that the saints will persevere in faith to the end and be saved is relentlessly opposed, generation after generation. I will say that I was among those who opposed this truth as a young Christian. However, as I meditated on this topic, if a believer’s justification is tied into God’s character, then a believer’s perseverance is also tied into God’s character. Thus, sola fide and sola gratia imply the preservation of His saints. After all, if grace is absolutely sufficient for a believer’s standing before God, then why would grace not be sufficient for a believer’s ultimate perseverance and preservation?
After some time wrestling with this issue, I recognized that my perspective is wrong. When discussing salvation, it’s common to start with man as your starting point instead of the glory of God. Eternal security is not primarily about me, but it’s primarily about God. The perseverance of His saints rests firmly on the faithfulness and determination of God to complete the salvation of His people. In this way, our security in Christ is tied up in the triune character of God: He planned our salvation in eternity, He purchased it in Christ’s atoning death on the cross, and is applying it through the Holy Spirit.
In John 6:37-39, Jesus said
Everyone whom the Father gives to Me shall come to Me, and the one coming to Me I will never cast out; because I have come from heaven not in order to do My will but the will of Him who sent Me; and this is the will of the one who sent Me: that of all which He has given Me from Him, I lose nothing but raise it up at the last day.
Here, all that the Father gives to Jesus – everyone – will come to Him. When the Father gives to the Son a person, that person will come to Christ. Jesus continues by stating that when one is given to Him by the Father (the “Godward” side of salvation), and comes to Him (the human response), that one is secure in their relationship with Him. He will never cast them out. The rejection of one who seeks refuge in Christ is a total impossibility. This is repeating the necessity of Christ for salvation: those who come to Christ will find Him a loving Lord who will never cast out those who trust in Him!
However, the passage continues. Why will the Lord never cast out those who come to Him? Verse 38 gives the answer – because the Son has come to do the will of the Father, namely “of all which He has given Me from Him I lose nothing but raise it up at the last day.” Here’s the message of security – plain and simple. It is the Father’s will to completely save His people and to lose none. It’s the Father’s will that all whom He gives to the Son will be raised up by Christ on the last day. Now we see how this ties into God’s character. Will Christ do what He promises? Will the Lord ever fail to do the Father’s will? The security of the believer is based on two things: the will of the Father that none of His be lost and that His people are given to the Son by the Father Himself. Thus, there is security in the Father (He gives us to Christ) and security in the Son (He always does the Father’s will). Ephesians 1:13-14 states
… by whom also, having believed, you were sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the down-payment of our inheritance, unto the redemption of His possession, unto the praise of His glory.
We learn from here that the Holy Spirit is the down-payment or guarantee of our inheritance. James White sums up this point in his article concerning the eternal security of the believer
… we find the fact that the Holy Spirit is described in two important ways relevant to our eternal security. First, we are said to be “sealed” by the Holy Spirit of promise. This term was used in secular documents to refer to the act of placing a seal upon one’s possessions to mark them as one’s own. In this case, the presence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life is God’s way of sealing that person as His own. The believer is shown to be God’s “own property” – His possession. Paralleled with this is the phrase “who is the down-payment of our inheritance..” Both phrases speak of the same fact. Here the Spirit is described by the Greek term arrabon – a term used in secular documents to refer to guarantee money. The giving of an arrabon contracted the giver to finish the process of payment. In our context, this would refer to the fact that the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life is the guarantee on the part of God the Father of completing the work which He has begun in that life (Philippians 1:6). Both phrases are then tied together by the paralleling of “promise” and “inheritance.” These terms are used by Paul of the completion of God’s work of salvation in our lives in the end time. Hence, we see that the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives is God’s way of “this person is mine – I have begun of salvation in his/her life, and by placing My Spirit in this life. I am telling all that this person belongs to Me, and I will finish the work I have begun!”
Here we see that the picture of the perseverance of the saints starts with God, not us. The Father planned our salvation, the Father gives us to the Son, who, in obedience to His Father’s will, saves those who are joined to Him, and the Holy Spirit is placed in our lives to empower us and seal us as God’s own possession. Salvation is of God – its eternality for the believer is based on the nature of the eternality of God’s will and decision. As mentioned in Romans 3, because we are all guilty before God because of our own willful sin and rebellion, it is by His graciousness alone that any of us are saved from start to finish. The grace that is sufficient to justify us is the grace that is sufficient to save us to the end. When I understood that the security of my salvation rests in God’s character, I then understood what it truly means to affirm sola fide and sola gratia. Salvation is of the Lord – by grace alone through faith alone. I then understood that it was a dangerous proposition to walk away from this truth by believing in only the necessity of grace. Martyn Lloyd-Jones summarizes this point in terms of the security of the believer being tied to God’s character
There is no more monstrous idea than the idea that you can fall away from grace, that you can ever be born again and then be damned. The character of God is involved! It is impossible. His object is not merely to save me, it is to vindicate His own being and nature, and I am being used to that end. The end is absolutely certain because God’s character is involved in it!
As I sit back and ponder my life, I realized that I went through my own reformation when God opened my eyes to this truth and He alone deserves the glory for it. Yet, it saddens me how relentlessly our natural, religious man works against this truth. It saddens me that in spite of the marvelous work of God in the gospel, we are still prone to bring our own works to Christ in order to be accepted by Him. I would urge all who read this blog to listen to this sermon to get a perspective on the significance of sola fide in the life of Christians in Luther’s day and today. However, it is my prayer that you would not dismiss this simply because it goes against your understanding of scripture. Take the time to ask yourself these questions: is the grace of God found in the atoning sacrifice of Christ absolutely sufficient to save you or is something else needed? Did He make you redeemable or did He redeem you? Did He make you forgivable or did He forgive you? Did He make you savable or did He save you? How will you stand before Him if His sacrifice is not all-sufficient?