Edited by Jason K. Allen
What exactly is faith? One of the problems people often have with understanding the Protestant doctrine of sola fide arises from the difficulty of defining faith without speaking to works. James is of course right—faith without works is dead (James 2:17, 26). Faith without works isn’t even faith. That is how connected and inextricably tangled they are.
When I was a teenager, I traveled with our church youth choir once to perform a musical in different churches. At the end of each performance, our youth pastor would come out on stage and deliver a gospel presentation. Every night, he included the same illustration about faith. “Imagine,” he said, “a crowd gathered at the Grand Canyon to watch a man walking across the deep gorge on a tightrope. He brings out a wheelbarrow and asks the crowd, ‘How many of you think I can push this wheelbarrow across the gap?’ Nearly everyone raises their hand. So, the man performs the trick, walking the empty wheelbarrow across and back. ‘Now,’ he says, ‘who thinks I can do the same trick with someone inside the wheelbarrow?’ Many hands once again go up. ‘Okay,’ he says, ‘who would like to get in the wheelbarrow?’ Nobody volunteered.”
This was the illustration of true faith. You can say you believe the wheelbarrow will hold you, that the man is skilled enough to get you there and back across the deadly gap, but you don’t really trust if you aren’t willing to get in.
I thought about this and thought about this, and I still have trouble untangling it in my mind. How can faith alone consist of works? Getting in the wheelbarrow is a work, is it not? It is a work sprung from faith, to be sure, but it’s a work nonetheless.
We struggle, then, to slice between faith and works, as we hold to this idea of faith alone doing the justifying. We can’t separate them, but we have to distinguish them. How do you define faith? Answer: belief. Well, what is belief? Answer: trust. Well, what is trust? The thinner we slice it, the more remains.
The Bible talks a lot about faith in a variety of ways, of course, but we are offered really only one definition. It is found in Hebrews 11:1, which reads, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Faith is an assurance of something not yet received and conviction about something which, at the moment, is invisible. This is why Paul uses the word “promise” throughout his letter to the Romans and why he uses it here in Galatians 3:21.
The patriarchs believed in “the promise.” How does this relate to faith? I think it may be helpful to think of faith alone, apart from works, as a kind of emptiness. An empty hand, so to speak, or, as John Calvin put it, “a kind of vessel.” We must believe in justification by faith alone because only God can justify us and only faith is a vehicle “empty” enough to rest on the infinitude of God. Faith is a disposition of weakness. It must have an object. (As Calvin goes on to say, “Faith of itself does not possess the power of justifying, but only in so far as it receives Christ.”) The object of faith may not be God, of course, but faith doesn’t exist where it doesn’t exist “in” something. You can have faith in religion, faith in your family, faith in yourself, but you can’t simply “have faith.”
I recall a woman I once pastored referring to her own need to “trust in her faith.” I gently suggested this was inadvisable, if only because it is nonsensical. You don’t put trust in your trust or faith in your faith. This is like saying I grasp hold of my grasp.
I know defining faith this way sounds strange since sola fide is, according to Luther, the article upon which the church is said to stand or fall. I’m essentially arguing that the article upon which the whole church stands or falls is the one about weakness. I think this is entirely acceptable, given the spiritual economy of the gospel. Grace brings the strength. Faith brings the weakness. And this is the essence of Christianity, what Luther frequently referred to as the “wonderful exchange” of our sin for Christ’s righteousness.
We are saved by grace through faith, and it’s not of ourselves (Eph. 2:8). You come to that bargaining table with all the world of treasures in your hand, and you will cheapen the righteousness of Christ. He says, “Come and bring your emptiness. Bring your nothingness. Bring your poverty of spirit, and I will give you everything.” But if you bring one penny, the deal is off.
We are justified by faith alone, but that faith must be in something. Therefore, our justification is on the basis of faith alone, but our faith is on the basis of grace alone.
Excerpted from Sola: How the Five Solas Are Still Transforming the Church by Jason K. Allen (©2019). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.