What is faith? Is faith merely a feeling that we have about God, or is faith based upon our knowledge of God? And how much faith is enough? How much faith does it take to save us? Are we saved because we have faith, or instead is faith perhaps better understood as trust in the saving benefits of Jesus Christ?
Tonight on the White Horse Inn we are continuing with our series on the five great “solas,” or the five great “onlys” of the Reformation. The past two weeks we have looked at Scripture Alone and Grace Alone. Tonight we move on to a discussion of Faith Alone.
During the time of the Reformation, in the 16th century, the Protestant Reformers were forced to define just what exactly faith is and what it does. The medieval Roman church contended that Christians were saved through faith. But the key issue at the time of the Reformation was, “How do we understand faith?” and, “Is faith alone enough to justify us?”
The medieval church argued that faith was to be understood primarily as assent or agreement to the basic doctrinal truths of which the Roman church was a sole guardian.
Such faith could take two basic forms. The first type of faith, unformed faith, was described as simple, intellectual assent to the basic teaching of the church. This conception of unformed faith was applied to those nominal church members who didn’t understand much about the Bible except that it was true and who knew little theology for themselves. They simply believed that even though they didn’t understand the Bible, someone in the church must, and therefore they simply accepted the fact that the church was right even if they didn’t know how or why that was the case.
The second type of faith was called formed faith, and that is a faith working in and through love. This type of faith, it was argued, was the direct result of the supernatural enabling of God’s grace as received through the sacraments. Grace was infused into the Christian, who was now enabled and energized to move from unformed faith to a formed faith as his faith began to work in love.
As the medieval church saw it, both types of faith were meritorious. In the case of someone exercising faith working through love, God was obligated to respond to such formed faith as a matter of justice. Formed faith earned merit. In the case of unformed faith, however, God was not obligated to reward such faith but he did as a matter of grace. Thus, biblically and theologically illiterate laymen could be assured of the favor of God toward them, even if they did not know or understand what it was that God and Christ had done to save them. The church understood such things and that was enough.
While many of today’s evangelicals are often vehemently anti-Roman Catholic, amazingly many of these same evangelicals have returned to what is virtually the medieval conception of faith. Unformed faith as understood by the medieval Catholic church is, for all intents and purposes, the same thing as accepting Jesus as your personal savior but not accepting him as your Lord. The medieval conception of formed faith is virtually identical with the modern, evangelical notion of making Jesus Lord over all areas of your life, and then having the Holy Spirit help you walk in the spirit and not in the flesh. Those exercising both kinds of faith are saved, but only those with a working faith attain the victory in Christ.
According to Zane Hodges, and popularized by Baptist TV preacher Charles Stanley, the weeping and gnashing of teeth recorded in Scripture is not a hell but is instead a place in Heaven where those who do not have sufficient good works go until such time as God feels sorry for them and relents, allowing them into Heaven proper. These are the people who have accepted Jesus as their savior but have not made him Lord and who have not earned any rewards. This is nothing but a poorly conceived rehash of the Roman doctrine of purgatory. Those who do have sufficient merit, those whose faith has worked in love and has earned them enough rewards, will go directly into Heaven when they die. After all, they earned it. But the parallels between the medieval Roman Catholic Church and much evangelical teaching about faith don’t end there.
The Roman conception of unformed faith most certainly describes the person who went forward when the altar call was given, or who perhaps raised their hand when the invitation was given and when every head was bowed and every eye was closed but who is still carnal or worldly and continues to do such things as smoke or drink or, even worse, continues to listen to secular music. They accepted Jesus and they are born again. They are eternally secure even though many never do understand who Jesus is and what he did for them. They are saved because God looks on their hearts and he knows that they are sincere. But if they were really sold out for Jesus, they would take themselves off the throne and let Jesus be Lord over all areas of their life. They would move, as the medieval Roman church saw it, from unformed to formed faith.
There really is nothing new under the sun and as American evangelicals continue to move away from biblical and historical Protestant teaching, it is no accident that many of the Roman doctrines they so actively despise are paradoxically making their way back into Christ’s church. The names and the terms are new and the faces of those teaching such things has changed, but the doctrines are still the same.
Thus it is imperative that evangelicals go back to the Bible and their Protestant roots and once again recover the great sola of the Reformation, “Faith Alone.”
Tonight on the White Horse Inn the doctrine of faith alone. What is faith? How are we saved? And what must we do to be saved?
(Michael Horton, “Faith Alone” White Horse Inn Broadcast [October 10, 1993])