“Keep the faith” is a rallying cry for various athletes and teams and their fans. For instance, if I were to say “ya gotta keep the faith” in a certain tone, some of my college friends would think of one specific moment after a Kansas City Chiefs loss in 1990.
Some here might be fans of Billy Joel. In 1983, Joel released a song entitled, “Keeping the Faith.” It was moderately popular reaching #18 on Billboard’s chart. But the song epitomizes a lack of emphasis on where our faith should lie – and I am not talking about Jesus, although that is where I am heading soon. In Joels’ song, he does mention being lost (but in the idea of reminiscing) and being saved (by music), and even revival (mentioning drinking beer while listening to rock and roll). But much of the song is about how he dressed and what he did and learned as he grew up in the 1960s, and apart from the three words I just mentioned, and the phrase “Keeping the Faith”, the song contains nothing related to the faith I will speak of today.
Why do I mention athletes and Billy Joel in a message related to faith? Because many people talk of keeping the faith, or having faith, or having a strong faith without considering what the idea really means. For instance, let me pose this question, “Would you rather have a little faith in something strong or a strong faith in something weak?” Consider it this way, would you rather step out on a frozen lake with a lot of faith but with very thin ice, or with very thick ice but only a little faith?
To have faith is important, but it is not what is most important. The object of our faith is what is important. You can have a lot of a faith in yourself or a little faith in Jesus. You are the thin ice; Jesus is the thick ice. So, how does this all of this talk of faith relate to our series on The Reformation? Well, the first of the five solas is sola fide, by faith alone.
Before I get into the idea of sola fide, let me remind us of what the term reformation means. Last week, on my personal blog, I discussed the difference between a revolution and The Reformation. The action and the intent is quite different. So, what does re-formation mean?
Reformation (Re – Form – Ation)
- RE – from a Latin word; has an element of “again” or “again and again”; a backward motion (like retrace or revert); return
- FORM – to construct or frame; to arrange or organize
- ATION – an act of process
If The Reformation is about returning to a previous understanding, we must establish (at least) two points of reference. We need to understand the correct line of thinking (what faith originally meant) and the faulty line of thinking (what faith meant in the 16th Century). Once we see this picture, then we can compare our understanding of faith today. Because we are talking about a need to reform, I want to cover these beginning with the 16th Century, then backing up to the early church before moving into the present.
The theological issue really comes down to a difference in an understanding of justification. Earlier this year, in an interview format, I talked about salvation. One part of the discussion related to a multi-step process for what we commonly refer to as being saved. In basic form, salvation includes being justified, being sanctified, and eventually when we are on the other side of eternity, being glorified. But the issue at hand for today is justification.
16th Century Justification
The basic argument of the Catholic Church is that faith in Christ does save us, but to be truly justified, we must add works. A key verse for this concept is James 2.24, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Thus, according to the Catholic’s viewpoint, our salvation may begin by faith, but our works make us justified. This has been the official Catholic position on justification since it was confirmed at the end of the Council of Trent in 1547 and was the position prior, just not in written form. In essence, Catholics believe that faith in Christ saves us, but works (especially those like baptism, the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) and penance (confession to a priest) fully justify us. Martin Luther, as a priest being trained by the Church would have been taught this very idea.
However, while reflecting on Romans 1.17, his mind began to question the Catholic understanding of justification. Romans 1.17 says, “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “‘The righteous will live by faith.’” This verse served as the catalyst to The Reformation. If that is true, what did it mean – not to the 16th Century Church, but to Paul and the ancient Church – to those whose faith in the early centuries were distanced only by a generation or two from the time of Jesus?
Quickly, let me break down this verse. (Romans 1.17)
For in it – What is the it? In verse 16, three possibilities exist – the gospel, the power of God, and salvation.
So which is it? I firmly believe the “it” refers to the gospel – the hope in Jesus which leads to salvation, all of which stems from God being mighty and powerful. The gospel is what makes salvation known to us and available for us.
The righteousness of God is revealed – God’s goodness is known because of the gospel. God certainly loved His people in the Old Testament. But that love was made manifest in Jesus – showing God has never been some sort of aloof God, but a personal and caring God.
From faith for faith – Many varied explanations exist for this phrase. The Greek phrase is difficult, in itself, causing interpretation differences as well. One common interpretation is “faith from first to last” – meaning our righteousness begins and ends with the gospel and allows us to understand what has been revealed by God.
As it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” – Again, some debate exists on how this should be translated. Consider a reordering of the words: “The righteous by faith shall live.” In this rearrangement, the point seems clear that Paul is not writing about how a person will live, but THAT a person will live eternally. How is this done? By having faith in the gospel which brings about salvation to all who believe. (Although the KJV uses the same order as the ESV, the word just is used in place of righteous which makes the idea of justification – a central theme in Romans 1-4 – all the more clear.)
1st Century Justification
For Paul and the early church, let me provide an important piece of evidence relating to the judicial process. The Roman Emperor would sit on the “bema seat” (judgment seat) to hear cases and render a verdict. Once the Emperor passed a verdict, no appeal was left; the decision was final.
The same is true for justification. Once faith in Christ is realized, it is final. The gavel has fallen, the decision is made. The Bible speaks of this moment as the dead coming to life, and those at odds with God becoming His children. This is the meaning of justification in the first century. But even then, some would challenge what that justification meant. Paul facetiously asks the question in Romans 6, for example, if we should abuse the grace of God because the verdict has already been declared. His answer is that such a question does not denote an accurate understanding of God’s grace.
Perhaps, this abuse regarding the idea of faith is why the Catholic Church has tied sanctification to justification over the years. According to Catholic doctrine, by combining the need for works to what God has already provided, a person can show themselves to be justified. However, Luther and others began to see the Bible as saying, we are made righteous by God, and therefore our works should be for God, not for ourselves. In other words, we work because we are saved as an expression of giving thanks, rather than trying to add to something that has already been provided for us.
This truth is made clear in John 3.16. God loved us so He gave to us and if we believe we are with Him. Now, the word believe requires a little more explanation. In our time, to believe in something primarily means to know, or at least presume, something to be true. Belief, understood in this way, is about a mental understanding of something, or in the case of Christian faith – Someone. However, the Greek word used for belief in John 3.16 is a form of the Greek word pisteo which is the word for faith. So, the original verse would have read like this: For God so loved the word that He gave His only Son that whoever faiths in Him will not perish but have eternal life.
Here faith is a verb, not a noun. So faith must be more than simply thinking something is true, it is to act on that truth. Again, this should cause us to serve. We “work” not to be saved, but because He has saved us.
21st Century Concerns
So faith is important, but does faith alone justify? Honestly, that is what most people are concerned about: “If I die today, will I go to heaven?” Well, that is the wrong question, but let me address it first anyway?
Romans 3.28 says, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” So yes, you are justified by faith, not by trying to keep God’s law. I realize the fullness of the phrase “apart from works of the law” might lead some to believe that other types of works can be beneficial, but verses such as Philippians 2.12 clearly state to “work out” your salvation, not work for it. In other words, do work, but because you are saved, not as something to put towards it. So yes, if you truly believe – if your faith is real, then you will go to heaven.
And the idea of faith is the first sola – sola fide – by faith alone. By faith, yes. Catholics and Protestants both affirm that statement. But adding the word alone brings us to the first dividing point of this study. It was the first reason reform was needed. It was the first burst of light breaking through the darkness. The light would continue to burst through as people captured the truth of the Bible above the teachings of the Church and the cries rang out all the more, “post tenebras lux!”
Before I go on, I mentioned a moment ago that most people ask the wrong question, “If I die today, will I go to heaven?” Many reasons might be given for why this question is not the right one. (I will post a few thoughts on my personal blog later this week.) The one I will focus on for this message relates specifically to faith. If you have placed your faith in Jesus, why are you wanting to wait to experience Him until you get to heaven? That is, if you believe that a “personal relationship with Jesus” is important, then why are you shoving that relationship aside until you reach eternity? Matthew records the final words of Jesus to be: “I will be with you always,” (Matthew 28.20) but too often, Christians act as if that means once we die. No, it is true now – or, at least it can be, if you have faith?
So, faith is important, and means we don’t have to wait to experience Jesus until later. Furthermore, I have established per Romans 1.17 and 3.28 that faith alone is sufficient. But what does it mean to truly have faith? The two verses below can help us to begin to understand.
Hebrews 11.1 – “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things to come.”
2 Corinthians 4.18 – “We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
To answer the question about what it means to have faith, based upon these two verses, ask yourself this: Are you more focused on your day to day experiences, or knowing that something far better exists and you haven’t fully realized it yet?
Now, someone reading this may have just connected a few dots to what I just wrote about waiting for heaven. I said don’t wait for heaven, and then just asked you if you know that something far better exists and you haven’t fully realized it yet. But that something better is not heaven – it is the Kingdom of God – the one we pray about when we say, “Thy Kingdom come”, not “to heaven I wish to go.”
Let me remind you of a song lyric many of you will know well.
“And Lord haste the day, when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.”
Whomever is here on earth on that day, it will only be well with your soul if you soul is right with God. And you are only right with God if your faith is truly placed in Jesus. How can you know? Because you want the words of that song to be more true than anything else. I have goals and dreams in my life, but none of them mean anything in comparison to seeing Jesus face to face.
When that happens, when faith becomes sight, it is no longer sola fide, it is sola optica – by sight alone. Until then, I must, we must, keep the faith and realize it is by faith alone that we are saved.
I began this sermon with a mention of Billy Joel’s song entitled “Keeping the Faith.” I grew up in the 80s and love the style of music. As a teenager, I could sing along with most any song, but as I have aged and better listened to the lyrics, and find it hard to support so many of the songs I previously enjoyed.
And that is my point about faith. Just as I sang songs without really considering what I sang, we can talk about faith without really having any meaning behind our thoughts. Billy Joel is a talented musician, and I like a good amount of his music from the 1970s and 1980s. But, he has no place in his life for Jesus, and has stated publicly that he is an atheist. (See http://www.cnn.com/2013/05/25/living/gallery/atheists/index.html) Like many, Billy Joel has commandeered a religious phrase for personal use. I do not blame Joel, nor do I condemn him in any way. I will still listen to much of his music, but we must take a warning from his example, especially, as I see it regarding this song’s lyrics. We can say we have faith, or that we are keeping the faith, but unless that faith is properly placed, and its implications properly understood, it will mean nothing. Let us never forget that our faith only matters if it is in Jesus. Therefore, our JOURNEY letter today is:
JOURNEY: J – Jesus
Learn. Consider your understanding of faith. Do you believe you must add something (e.g. works) to your faith in order to “be saved” or is faith alone enough? If you are not certain, truly examine this issue in the Bible to become convinced in order that you may truly know God’s truth on the matter for yourself.
Live. If you are convinced that your faith is real, what will you do today because of it? What can you do this week? Faith without works is dead and Jesus wants us to be alive. Live out your faith this week!