SUMMING UP THE SOLAS
By Roger Salter
Special to Virtueonline
April 10, 2013
The current fascination for evangelicals with Rome may be a token of respectful, and hopeful ecumenism, and it may be an education in those truths we hold mutually in the creeds and the writings of certain saints under the aegis of Rome. But it is too much to concede that for all of us Rome should be home. Some Protestants have been denied what they suppose to be available in Rome - reverence, certainty, sacramental observance, rich piety and devotion, historical continuity and authority.
Rome makes claims as to providing these missing elements in popular Protestantism but with many attendant Scriptural and historical flaws of its own in the admixture. Protestantism, too, has its flaws and has slipped away from its original moorings and spiritual maturity. Its historical perspective is largely lacking, its doctrine is diluted, and its piety is casual. What is more, in many of its expressions, its ecclesiology is almost non-existent, merely narrowly local and heavily individualistic. Rome is not our home and we shall see that if once again we reclaim our original Scriptural heritage. Speaking for Anglicanism, and with high regard for other Biblical traditions, we have a tradition that is Reformed and Catholic, and in the face of confident claims made by emigrants to Rome on behalf of their choice, one dares to say, for the sake of honesty and clarity, that John Jewel was correct in saying that Anglicanism's Catholicism is purer than Rome's.
The Reformational "solas" do not exist alone, or function in total isolation, they are instrumentalities ordained and employed by God that are sufficient in themselves for their purpose - the actualization of his method of grace. The "solas" are the sole means of our deliverance from sin and our restoration to God, but they are connected to the effects of divine goodness and power in action i.e. Scripture to exposition, faith to love, grace to good works. The redemptive measures taken by God are accompanied by their results. You cannot separate origin from outcome, root from fruit, fountain from flow in God's work of salvation.
It is an obvious matter of the unity of cause and effect. God is the cause and believers are compliant with his goodness at work in them. The Bible speaks and we are graciously enabled to hear. Salvation is wrought and we are enabled to trust. Grace is given and we are enabled to obey. Understanding, faith, and works accompany all the phases of divine action in our lives. As recipients of mercy believers are moved to respond appropriately to heavenly impulses as they occur. God initiates and Christians follow. Believers rely on the solas but they react concurrently. Grace enlivens thus authenticating itself.
The love of Scripture, the love of God, the love of neighbour, the love of righteousness are the evidences of grace communicated through the "solas". To maintain the distinction between cause and effect Protestants avoid the mixture of inspired Scripture and human tradition, justification and sanctification, grace and works. Whatever links may exist in respect of these must be in the nature of cause and effect. The saving efficacy is in the cause. The effects validate the cause. God blesses and man manifests the blessing. The solas work alone but they are not alone. They are twinned with what they create, namely belief, new status, holiness in the lives they touch.
Scripture is the written record of God's speech, his Word for us. Scripture alone speaks with divine authority and it is meant to be studied and expounded. The term Scripture alone means that the truth we hold, confess and disseminate must be derived from the sacred writings. Scripture generates preaching, commentary, and explanatory writings, but Scripture alone is to be the infallible source of all truth concerning salvation through Christ. God's Word alone is perfect and through the assistance and influences of the Holy Spirit the faithful approximations of men to Scripture in their teachings from the Bible are effective in bringing souls to Christ.
The Bible is our sufficient guide along the path to life in Christ to be enjoyed here and in eternity. There is sufficient clarity to lead us to salvation and infinite profundity to keep us humble and ever learning. Someone has opined that the Word of God is like a pool, safe enough for a little child to paddle in and deep enough to drown an elephant. The basic message is simple and the attendant insights supplied by the Bible's guided authors challenge the mind and confound the intellect. We are all mere students and never masters. The tradition we embrace is the content of Scripture and the human comment consonant with it, and we employ our Spirit-controlled reason to discern the connection. It is naïve to assert that Protestants are prisoners of a book. We are magnetized by the message. For us now the Book is the source and preserver.
What are we to make of two seemingly contradictory apostolic positions in Scripture? Paul: "If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works he had something to boast about - but not before God. What does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.' " Romans 4:2. "Consider Abraham: 'He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.' " Galatians 3:6. James writes: "You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone" James 2: 24.
Are we to choose which apostle we shall honor by our theological bias, or preference for either of them as persons? Paul's position is skillfully expounded by highly competent Evangelicals and Rome is staunchly in favor of James. Each solves the difficulty of avoiding contradiction in Scripture by a different rationale.
Catholics contend that Paul is referring to the Mosaic law (but in which sense) and that James is commending works of charity that accrue to our merit and complete our justification. Evangelicals believe that Mosaic law is not legalistic obligation that clashes with the principle of charity but the moral law established by and expressive of love to God and which enjoins love for neighbor. The law, therefore, is fatherly wisdom for the good life, the congenial standard for that which is right according to the will of God, and that man, since the fall, has no capacity to conform to the law. As both apostles use Abraham as their example of the justified man it may be significant that neither of them has the Mosaic dispensation specifically in mind - certainly not ritual or ceremonial law specific to Israel after the exodus. Abraham represents universal sinful man who has breached the law of love and cannot justify himself in any way. Righteousness before God is the state of being just. Paul is adamant that Abraham, unjust through sin, is justified - made just, put right with God - by faith. He has been granted the righteousness of God conveyed to his possession through faith and that is the righteousness which justifies him freely and perfectly. If Abraham was required to add something of his own to that righteousness then grace would cease to be grace, and justification is by grace, "And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were grace would no longer be grace" (Romans 11:6). It would be unpardonably audacious to even suggest that Christ's righteousness were not sufficient to justify the sinner that places his confidence in it. "He entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. . . How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God." (Hebrews 9:11,14). Is it not his sacrifice that procures our justification? And is it not more than sufficient? It is in this passage and like passages cited from Paul that we find the alone that Romanism cannot seem to detect. It doesn't have to be a word; it is a necessary concept. And what is more, James does not conflict with it. He is examining the genuineness of professed faith.
Both apostles speak in highly ethical terms, but James is characteristically practical, dealing with concrete issues that he has observed closely. Both men preach principle but James notes more overtly the problems that arise in community life and is corrective of abuses on a wide scale. He sees the rich honored and the poor despised. He wrestles with his brethren in temptation. He notes the suffering ones and sympathizes with the sick. He walks with those who have a dead faith. What good is it, my brothers if a man (perhaps one of us) claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such a faith save him? James is opening up a discussion on faith and a comparison between true and false faith. The faith that justifies is accompanied by love. The works engendered by love are proof of the sincerity of faith.
For Abraham the declaration of justness occurred when he believed God's promise (Genesis 15:6). His subsequent life of obedience came conspicuously to the fore, "when he offered his son Isaac on the altar" (Genesis 22). Justifying faith is faith that instantly loves and works. It is proof of regeneration and it is faith that is alive in yielding fruit. Martin Luther addresses the question, " 'Doesn't faith justify and save us without works?' Yes, that's true. But where's your faith? How does it show itself? Faith must never be useless, deaf, dead, or in a state of decay. But it must be a living tree that bursts forth with fruit. That's the difference between genuine faith and false faith. Where there is true faith, it will show itself in a person's life" (Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2005). The Reformation did care about holiness and discipleship. Sanctification and service were its goals.
We must be cognizant of the association of faith and works without confusing the two. Faith is more than assent to certain truths. It is a relationship with God that produces God-like action. Faith, under the spell of divine affection, issues in obedience. If it did not it is mere pretence, something feigned. God's love activates faith which is the conscious appreciation of his love in Christ that saves us. James is not addressing real faith but "non-faith", a profession devoid of the power of love, a notion about grace without the experience, theological orthodoxy without orthopraxy. Paul believed in fruits as much as James, but the fruit is consequent upon salvation and not contributory to it. We must look in depth at the meaning of the gospel - that it is life and not mere opinion. Faith is active and not mere academic abstraction and intellectual toying with the truth of God. That only ties us in with the faith of demons and is not saving. When we encounter James and Paul and ask them to stand together we do not find contradiction but congruity as G.C. Berkouwer observes: "On one side we are warned against religious self-confidence, on the other against a faith which is not really directed to God's grace in Jesus Christ, and is and remains dead" (Faith and Justification, Eerdmans, Grand rapids, Michigan, 1954).
George Whitfield's convert and colleague R. Elliot sums everything up so beautifully in his description of the great evangelist's understanding of justification. "The doctrine of justification by faith in Christ, he diligently and constantly taught: but he held faith not as our justifying righteousness, but only as the instrument of our justification, which some that profess to teach the same doctrine absolutely deny: we are justified, said Mr. Whitefield, three ways, viz.: (1) Meritoriously by the blood of Christ; (2) Instrumentally by the faith of Christ; and (3) declaratively by our good works. And when speaking of being justified by faith, he would always direct the sinner to Christ's blood and righteousness as the only proper procuring cause of his justification". Refer to Hebrews 9: 11 &14 quoted above.
In terms of prominence "grace alone" is the thunderous proclamation of Scripture. In terms of divine comfort and love it is Scripture's sweetest refrain that soothes and delights the awakened offender. The logic of justification leads us inevitably to the conclusion that salvation is entirely through electing love which is the sovereign expression of grace. We are chosen to salvation not self-appointed. The choice is unconditional not on the basis of anything present or foreseen in the believer. From whence would come our suitability for God's approval? What in our nature would desire him before the receiving of enabling grace? If that capacity were given to all as an equalizer why do some tilt to faith and others do not? Is grace distinguishing or do some have a talent within themselves to make a good choice and that quality distinguishes them. Better it is to settle for Paul's reply, "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy" (Romans 9:15).
Can we not settle for the word of God without disputing it?
Whitefield's friend, Elliot, guides us here in referring to possibly the world's greatest evangelist, "Mr. Whitefield taught concerning the new birth, that man by nature has no power or will at all to come to God and save himself. It is indeed manifestly absurd, and it implies a contradiction, to suppose that a man can be the cause of his own existence; or that he has power to change his present fallen condition, when it implies a change of his heart and will, and comprehends in it a new creation. Therefore man has no power or will at all to effect his own conversion, it being the entire work of God's Spirit".
Well might we heed the testimony of John the apostle: "Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit" (John 3: 6). We as individuals make no contribution to either event as regards ourselves. But we might as sinners say that we resist the latter until the Spirit exerts his power in sovereign mercy (John 1:12-13). Scripture is prized with all our heart because it tells us as habitual and helpless lawbreakers that Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believes (Romans 10:4). Faith is the precious gift that is granted to us in order to claim Christ as our righteousness without worth or works (Ephesians 2:8). Grace is the power and favor of God that places us in Christ. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:30).
It is wonderful as to how grace demolishes our pride, self-reliance, and sense of prestige and trains our eye upon Christ alone so that we ascribe our rescue and restoration by grace alone to the glory of God alone. And that is how the renewed soul prefers to see it and that is why Protestantism must say it in the solas of the Sixteenth Century Reformation.
The Rev. Roger Salter is an ordained Church of England minister where he had parishes in the dioceses of Bristol and Portsmouth before coming to Birmingham, Alabama to serve as Rector of St. Matthew's Anglican Church.
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