Chapter 21: By Faith Alone
"By faith alone" was the battle cry of the Reformation. Can it, must it retain its priority today? Moreover, is it not a dangerous, even a false slogan? Has not this slogan become a challenge to polemical battle? Has it not produced among Christians the false idea that it depends "only" on the correctness of one's faith, and minimizes the correctness of one's life? If this is what one
understands by "faith" the taking for granted of certain dogmas, the simple acceptance of what is in the Bible as true -- there is indeed no more fatal error in Christianity than the saying "by faith alone." Faith then is a certain viewpoint, a weltanschauung, side by side with other theories and ideas. But a theory or a world-view, be it Christian or another, can never be essential. What does God ask about our theories or ideas? What does God care whether we have the "Christian world-view" or another! The spectator who strolls through life, has a viewpoint for he does not engage in the battle. God forbids us to be idlers, he wants fighters. It is only from the thick of the fight that one can understand what the Reformers and the Apostles meant by the word "faith." What do you "believe" rightly under- stood means, whom do you trust, to whom have you pledged your loyalty? Or it means what we were perhaps asked as children, whose child are you? That I belong wholly to God, that I, as the Heidelberg catechism so beautifully expresses it, "with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ . . . and makes me heartily willing and ready henceforth to live unto Him."
Just as it is false to confuse faith with a viewpoint, a mere acceptance of certain "dogmas," so, too, it is wrong to suppose that faith is only a vague "trust in God" which even the pious heathen have also possessed. Why then would we need the Bible, the Revelation of God in Jesus Christ, the Cross and his Resurrection? It certainly depends upon trusting the true God and not any sort of chimera of the divine; that we entrust ourselves to the God who revealed Himself in Jesus Christ and nowhere else as our true, real God, and not simply to a product of our fantasy. When one takes the word "faith" seriously, as it is meant in the Bible, a man cannot truly believe in any other God than Him who in Jesus Christ has shown Himself to us and called us to Himself. One believes truly only when one knows "by faith alone" and the pious heathen know nothing of that. The Bible alone speaks of this "by faith alone." Why is that?
Pious heathen of ancient and modern times all want to come to God themselves, by prayer, by a virtuous life, by stern discipline, by a holy life. They think, that if they are earnest enough about this pious life, that they are true to God, and He will accept them. All pious heathenism -- even all pious "Christian" heathenism -- is "righteousness by the works of the law," trust in what man does. But in contrast to this the Bible says that you cannot be "good enough." If you choose to go this way, there are only two possibilities: either you deceive yourself about yourself, forgetting that you are a sinful man, confusing the demands of God with the standards of middle-class integrity and thus satisfying yourself; or you really take God's will seriously and fall into despair when you see that you can never be just before that will. Frequently it happens then that the pendulum swings back and forth between false self-trust and despair. That is the religion of the pagan. In the Bible, however, it is said that you cannot satisfy God, but God satisfies Himself and you. You are not to rely on what you do, but solely, alone on what God does. We must say even more than that. You cannot know what the word "God" means until you are at the end of your strength, and can hope only in God. The man who has not yet discovered this "God only" has not yet discovered God. The gods of the heathen are not truly God. The true God is the God one finds when he can no longer help himself, and he puts his hope in Him alone. To hope in God alone, not in the power of self, one's ability or knowledge, means faith, means being God's own.
This is harder than all penances, prayers, and the good works of the pious heathen. For there is nothing in all the world so humiliating as no longer to trust in one's self. And nothing is so difficult in all the world as to trust in God alone. Difficult? Indeed -- Impossible! We cannot force our being's abdication and accept God alone. Only God can do that for us. And he has done that for us -- on the Saviour's cross. It is there that a double action is accomplished, for our pride is broken and buried -- and there God comes to meet us, He who alone can help. To believe aright means, then to receive the crucified Christ, to apprehend in his cross the end of all our self-redeeming activity, and the beginning of God's creative redemption. That God alone can and does help -- this is closed to our knowledge, inaccessible to our trust except through the cross of Christ. "By faith alone" then, means not I, but God alone creates my redemption, my salvation, the saving and redeeming of the world; He alone is good, He alone brings to the desired goal -- "with might of ours can naught be done;" -- that means to rely on God alone, to make God our whole defense.
Does not that make man lazy? Ask a Luther, a Zwingli, a Calvin whether this "God alone" faith made them lazy! Examine the lives of others who have really received this "God alone" faith in all of its depth and magnificence, and inquire whether it has made them morally indifferent or ethically lazy. It is the great mystery of God that men do not become strong until they know their weakness, and expect all things from the power of God. The strong, the real "doers" in Christendom have been those who relied solely on the work of God, and not those who trusted much in human activity. For God's power is made perfect in weakness, and only when a man knows how weak he is can God become mighty in him. It is precisely the truly good that is done "by faith alone."