Monday, October 26, 2009

Sermon on Romans 3:19-28 for Reformation Day, "What is Saving Faith?"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Faith Alone or Sola Fide. One of the mottoes of the Reformation. A phrase that emphasizes how our salvation comes to us, by the pure reception of faith. On Reformation Day we celebrate a living remembrance of the Reformation, where the teaching of faith alone was placed back into prominence by Martin Luther and the Reformers. We live on in that same confession of faith that was handed down through the ages. Today we’ll look more closely at what saving faith is. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Salvation is by faith alone. Alone because all boasting and all works are excluded. Boasting has no place in salvation because the law of God silences every mouth. Every sinner is crushed under the verdict that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. There isn’t any place for pride, arrogance, or claiming to be better than anyone else. Likewise, all works are excluded from salvation. When Scripture says “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law”—the word apart or without excludes works from salvation altogether. That means at no place, before, during or after conversion, do a person’s works count toward their salvation. Faith alone is a treasured motto of the Reformation for one simple reason—any addition of boasting or works to salvation takes away from the glory of God and the redemption of Christ. Trying to wedge our human boasting or works into salvation diminishes what Christ has done for us. It hides the cross from our eyes. Minimizes God’s gift and magnifies us.

Faith alone safeguards a second of the Reformation solas: Christ alone. Faith alone, without works is essential to know—but faith in who or what? Faith is a receiver. Faith is an open hand to receive, or a channel through which something pours. Faith by itself is nothing—it has to be focused on or directed toward some object. And saving faith is directed to one object: that is Christ Jesus alone. Excluding all other things that we might put our trust in, salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6). No other God can save. Faith that’s put in anything other than Christ, isn’t saving faith. A person who has weak faith, and prays “Lord, I believe—help my unbelief”, but still trusts in Christ is just as saved as a person with strong faith. Faith has its value in whom it trusts. If you put your faith in Christ, He’s able to accomplish and deliver all that He promises. If you put your faith in your own ability, or in the good works you have done, or even if you put your faith in some false god—it can’t deliver.

There is a popular misunderstanding about faith, that as long as it is sincere it must be saving faith. So the argument goes, that a sincere and faithful Jew, Muslim, or Hindu will be saved by their sincerity. This sounds really nice, but in practice it is totally false, because as I just said, your faith is only as good as the object in which it trusts. It’s not faith by itself that saves, but what faith trusts in. So false religions don’t trust in Jesus Christ alone as their salvation, and so their faith is sadly misguided. Consider this: if I have faith in a heart surgeon to successfully perform a triple bypass, is my faith well-founded? Yes it is. he can deliver what he promises. Now, if I have faith in a freshman in high school who’s had one biology class and done a frog dissection to perform the same triple bypass heart surgery…is my faith well-founded? But what if my faith is really, really sincere in that student? Does it matter how sincere my faith is? No! No matter how sincere, my faith is misguided, because he cannot deliver on that promise. The same with false gods.

Perhaps we still feel reluctant to admit that the sincere faith of the Jew, Muslim, or Hindu, for example, isn’t saving faith, and is instead misguided. After all, they can be such moral people! But what have we already established from Scripture? That good works gain us nothing for salvation. No matter how good or moral we are, we all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and there’s no room for our boasting or our good works in the acquiring of salvation. Again, Scripture says we are justified by faith apart from the works of the law. Furthermore, if we grant that sincere faith is also saving faith—then we must extend this not only to the followers of Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, but any and every person of sincere faith. To the Mormon, the Buddhist, the Scientologist, the conspiracy theorist, the Satanist, the believer in UFO’s and extraterrestrials—in short, any and all sincerely practiced faith must be good. If the value of faith is judged by its sincerity, and not by the worthiness or truth of the object in which that faith trusts, then there’s no place to draw the line. Yet all of the hundreds of beliefs that are out there cannot possibly all be true, because they’re so contradictory. However counter-cultural it seems, we must realize that faith in anything other than Jesus Christ just can’t deliver. Sincere faith is only good if it’s placed in someone who can deliver.

But back to the heart surgeon analogy for a moment—what if I had enough faith to go to him for surgery because I knew I needed help, but I was fearful and doubtful and nervous? If I had faith, but it was weak, would that mean the heart surgeon was somehow hampered or incapable of performing the surgery? Of course not! The strength or weakness of my faith does not change his ability to deliver on his promises. And the same goes for our faith in God. When we at times become weak and doubting, but we still trust in God’s promises for us, does that change or hamper God’s ability to save? Not at all! This is not the same, however as if we had no faith or trust in God at all. Then we wouldn’t go to God for help or salvation, and of course then we won’t benefit from His salvation. It would be the same as a person whose heart was a ticking time-bomb and clogged with cholesterol and needed surgery—but scoffed at the doctor and refused any treatment. So it is when our heart is filled with sin and choked with pride, and we scoff at or refuse God’s salvation. Then there is no help.

But Christ proved His ability to save. He proved He’s the heart surgeon who’s able to take our sinful heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh. He proved He was no dime-a-dozen religious teacher that claimed to present a new way to God. He proved He was no peddler of religious scams or false hopes. All other religious teachers, would-be messiahs or prophets or sages, are dead and gone, or soon will be. If any of them can rise from the dead, then I might take them seriously. But only One man, Jesus Christ, proved He was the Way to God by His resurrection. Jesus’ death on the cross and His subsequent resurrection from the dead was to show and prove God’s righteousness. To prove that God was just and had patience over the sins of mankind, and that although humans could make no way of salvation for themselves, God offered a plan of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ that was full and free. It was no 50/50 deal, or even 90/10, or even 99/1—God earned salvation for us 100% of the way, so that we could truly be saved by faith alone in Christ alone, without any merits or worthiness in us.

So we return to our question of what is saving faith? And we’ve shown that saving faith looks to and trusts in Christ alone. When the Reformers described what saving faith was, they often used three words to describe it: knowledge, assent, and trust. However, those first two—knowledge and assent, by themselves, do not make saving faith.

Consider for example that Keola was a student of Bible history and archaeology at a major university, and knew all the facts about the bible and could recount all the Bible stories. He could tell you Jesus’ life story—and even knew all the evidence inside and outside the Bible for the historicity of Jesus. Is his knowledge, by itself, saving faith? No! Saving faith isn’t being able to pass a bible knowledge exam. Saving faith must include trust or confidence that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, who came into the world to save sinners through His death and resurrection. This is saving faith in Jesus. Faith is neither opposed to knowledge nor is it burying our head in the sand of ignorance. Faith has nothing to fear from knowledge. Learning and growth in knowledge, whether it is spiritual knowledge of the Bible, or whether it is knowledge of the natural world and history, is an honorable pursuit. We should want such knowledge; but this in no way replaces or supplants faith.

Or is it saving faith to agree to the teachings of the Bible, but hold the opinion that Jesus was a mere man and a great teacher, but not truly God? Say that Harry was a fine young individual who knew and practiced the morality of the Bible. He knew it was wrong to disrespect parents or authorities, he wasn’t a grudging or malicious person and detested murder, he led a sexually pure and decent life in what he said and did, he believed that theft and greed were dishonest and scrupulously avoided them. He never slandered or defamed anyone’s reputation, and defended friends against gossip. He believed as Jesus taught that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. While Harry didn’t claim to know who God was, he still believed in a higher power than himself, and that his sincere search for truth and his honest and upright life would put him in good favor with God, and grant him entrance to heaven. Is this a saving faith?

Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). He’s the One Way to God. He’s the One Truth, and the One Life eternal. There isn’t access to God through some other path, journey, or person. He’s the only avenue to God. Those who don’t travel on this path, travel the broad path that leads to destruction. Saving faith is more than an agreement with some teachings of Jesus or the Bible, it is a confident acceptance of the Gospel message that Jesus did die for sinners, and His resurrection broke death’s hold over us.

Last of all, is it possible for Elizabeth, a newborn child to have saving faith? Can she be baptized and have faith? After all, she cannot express herself through understandable speech. She cannot articulate her faith. But does the Bible teach that faith is impossible for a child? What is faith, after all? Haven’t we established that faith is first and foremost a simple trust in God? The faith of a child illustrates better than any other example that the chief and primary characteristic of faith is the simple trust and confidence in God, and that this faith is completely a gift. The child can do nothing for herself but trust her parent’s care for her. Faith isn’t a work of human will power, striving, or effort (John 1:12). It’s a gift of God, that no one can boast (Eph. 2:8). It shows how completely we’re dependent on God.

In the end, the Reformation teaching of faith alone points us again and again to Jesus Christ and Him crucified, the true and worthy object of our faith and all our praise. So we show forth Christ Jesus to the world as the one who’s able to deliver all God’s promises, who’s our redemption and our righteousness. Saving faith is the simple trust that clings to Jesus, the open hand that receives God’s gift, and the child-like trust that rests safe in the strong arms of Jesus. Amen. Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. The 5 Reformation solas are: Faith Alone, Grace Alone, Scripture Alone, Christ Alone, and to God Alone be Glory! What does faith alone exclude from salvation? (Rom. 3:27-28)

2. How does the teaching of faith alone uphold the glory and merit of Christ Jesus? Galatians 2:21; 5:11;

3. Compare a strong and weak faith. Is a weak faith still a saving faith? Why? Cf. Mark 9:24; Luke 17:5

4. Is a sincere faith a saving faith, regardless of whom it trusts in? What’s wrong or illogical about this way of thinking? Isaiah 45:20-23; Luke 19:10; Hebrews 7:25

5. Faith has been described as knowledge, assent, and trust. How is knowledge part of faith, but not faith in itself? Who also had accurate knowledge of Jesus, but did not have the essential trust in Him as Savior? Luke 4:41; James 2:19.

6. How is mere assent or agreement to the Bible’s teachings, not yet faith? What must be added to this? Ps. 9:10; Rom. 3:22, 26.

7. How does an infant or child exemplify what faith means? How does the bible teach about the faith of children? Matthew 18:1-6; Psalm 22:9-10; 71:5-6; cf. Psalm 58:3. See Luke 1:39-45

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