The Centrality of the Gospel in Preaching 13
The true nature of saving faith became one of the watershed issues during the Protestant Reformation. In his introduction to Martin Luther’s Bondage of the Will, J.I. Packer writes:
Whoever puts this book down without having realized that evangelical theology stands or falls with the doctrine of the bondage of the will has read it in vain. The doctrine of free justification by faith only, which became the storm-centre of so much controversy during the Reformation period, is often regarded as the heart of the Reformers’ theology, but this is hardly accurate.
The truth is that their thinking was really centered upon the contention of Paul, echoed with varying degrees of adequacy by Augustine, and Gottschalk, and Bradwardine, and Wycliffe, that the sinner’s entire salvation is by free and sovereign grace only. The doctrine of justification by faith was important to them because it safeguarded the principle of sovereign grace; but it actually expressed for them only one aspect of this principle, and that not its deepest aspect.
The sovereignty of grace found expression in their thinking at a profounder level still, in the doctrine of monergistic regeneration –the doctrine, that is, that the faith which receives Christ for justification is itself the free gift of a sovereign God, bestowed by spiritual regeneration in the act of effectual calling. To the Reformers, the crucial question was not simply, whether God justifies believers without works of law. It was the broader question, whether sinners are wholly helpless in their sin, and whether God is to be thought of as saving them by free, unconditional, invincible grace, not only justifying them for Christ’s sake when they come to faith, but also raising them from the death of sin by His quickening Spirit in order to bring them to faith.
Here was the crucial issue: whether God is the author, not merely of justification, but also of faith; whether, in the last analysis, Christianity is a religion of utter reliance on God for salvation and all things necessary to it, or of self-reliance and self-effort. Justification by faith only is a truth that needs interpretation.
The principle of sola fide is not rightly understood till it is seen as anchored in the broader principle of sola gratia. What is the source and status of faith? Is it the God-given means whereby the God-given justification is received, or is it a condition of justification which it is left to man to fulfill? Is it a part of God’s gift of salvation wholly of God, or does it ultimately depend on something that we do for ourselves?
Those who say the latter (as the Arminians later did) thereby deny man’s utter helplessness in sin, and affirm that a form of semi-Pelagianism is true after all. It is no wonder, then, that later Reformed theology condemned Arminianism as being in principle a return to Rome (because in effect it turned faith into a meritorious work) and a betrayal of the Reformation (because it denied the sovereignty of God in saving sinners, which was the deepest religious and theological principle of the Reformer’s thought). Arminianism was, indeed, in Reformed eyes a renunciation of New Testament Christianity in favor of New Testament Judaism; for to rely on oneself for faith is no different in principle from relying on oneself for works and the one is as un-Christian and anti-Christian as the other. (Bondage of the Will 58-59)