In 1571, Queen Elizabeth I’s Reformed Church of England adopted its Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. Article 11 made its Protestant credentials clear on the doctrine of justification:
We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore that we are justified by faith only is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort; as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.
What does that phrase “faith alone,” or, sola fide, mean? To understand this is “wholesome” or beneficial to our spiritual health and well-being. It’s also “very full of comfort” to us in our spiritual struggles.
First, we’re speaking of “faith alone” in relation to the doctrine of justification, which is that “we are accounted righteous before God.” How can we—sinners—be righteous before God, who is sinless and holy? This is one of the most ancient questions: “Can mortal man be in the right before God? Can a man be pure before his Maker?” (Job 4:17). After all, the Apostle Paul later declared this universal truth: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). The way sinners like you and me can be righteous before God is “imputation,” meaning, “we are accounted righteous before God” by God Himself!
Second, how is it possible for a holy and righteous God to “account” us sinners as righteous? He can’t just sweep our sins under the rug and forget that they’re there, like a child cleans his or her room. He’s holy, just, and righteous; sin must be punished. The basis upon which God can make such a declaration is “only for [because of] the merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” He fulfilled for us the law that we have broken; He shed His most precious blood to make a sacrifice and satisfaction for us; He turned away God’s wrath and indignation against us. In His infinite wisdom, God’s justice and mercy met on the cross of Christ. There, His justice condemned His own Son so that He won’t condemn us. There, His mercy delivered us from His wrath.
Thus we have been “justified by his grace as a gift” because “through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus . . . God put [him] forward as a propitiation by his blood . . . to show God’s righteousness . . . that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:23–26). To state in the negative how our holy and righteous God can “account” us sinners as righteous, it is “not for [because of] our own works or deservings.” We cannot be justified by our own works (Gal. 2:16). In the words of the homily mentioned above, “although this justification be free unto us, yet it cometh not so freely unto us, that there is no ransom paid therefore at all.”
Third, it is “by faith,” or more precisely, “by faith only,” that we receive God’s declaration about us on the basis of Christ’s righteousness. Faith receives Christ. It is the means by which we are justified; it’s not the reason why: Jesus is. Thus true, justifying faith not only believes Holy Scripture and all its doctrines, but even more, it is “also to have a sure trust and confidence in God’s merciful promises.”1 In other words, faith is not merely knowledge nor even assent to that knowledge. The demons have this “faith” (James 2:19). This kind of “faith” allows you to still wallow in your sins:
For how can a man have this true faith, this sure trust and confidence in God, that by the merits of Christ, his sins be forgiven, and be reconciled to the favor of God, and to be partaker of the kingdom of heaven by Christ, when he lives ungodly, and denies Christ in his deeds?”2
This is why we as Protestants always need to assert that justification by faith alone doesn’t mean that this justifying faith lives alone in us without true repentance, hope, love, and the fear of God. Yet, as far as our being accounted righteous before God by God, sola fide means God graciously justified us apart from our works.
The “what” of sola fide leads to “why” it matters. Remember, it is “wholesome” and “very full of comfort.” The profit of this doctrine “advances and sets forth the true glory of Christ, and beats down the vain glory of man.” When you and I consider the infinite gifts that God gives, though we are undeserving, we are led to drop to our knees in humble adoration! Justification sola fide does not lead the true believer into spiritual slothfulness, but
to render ourselves unto God wholly with all our will, hearts, might, and power; to serve him in all good deeds, obeying his commandments during our lives; to seek in all things his glory and honour, not our sensual pleasures and vainglory; evermore dreading willingly to offend such a merciful God and loving Redeemer in word, thought, or deed . . . [to] move us for his sake also to be ever ready to give ourselves to our neighbours, and, as much as lieth in us, to study with all our endeavor, to do good to every man. These be the fruits of true faith: to do good, as much as lieth in us, to every man; and, above all things and in all things, to advance the glory of God, of whom only we have our sanctification, justification, salvation, and redemption. To whom be ever glory, praise, and honour world without end. Amen