Why Is Sola Fide So Important?

The primary purpose of the Heidelblog is to explain the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). The catechism was written primarily by Zacharias Ursinus (1534–83) at the behest of the Elector Palatinate, Frederick III (1515–76). It was adopted by the German Reformed Church and by the Dutch Reformed Churches and is one of the “Three Forms of Unity” along with the Belgic Confession (1561) and the Canons of Dort (1619). The catechism was also widely used by Reformed Christians in the British Isles and has been translated into many languages. Here’s a brief introduction to the Catechism. To this point we are at number 61.


The Reformation was a return to the Word of God unencumbered by rationalist, a priori assumptions about what the nature of things must be. The church had always read the Word of God but it had done so under the control of a set of assumptions chief among which was that God can only call a human “righteous” if he is, in himself, properly, inherently, intrinsically righteous. So, the medieval church set up a scheme whereby a sinner might progressively become righteous by medicinal grace and cooperation with that medicine infused into us by the sacraments. In the medieval and later Romanist program, God was said to recognize as just those who are completely sanctified. The Protestants rejected that scheme as contrary to the biblical teaching that sinners are justified by divine favor alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) which rests and trusts in Christ alone as the Righteous One. According to the Protestants, Christ alone is intrinsically, inherently, personally, actually righteous. He alone has condign merit and his righteousness and merit is credited to or imputed or reckoned to and counted to those who believe.

Because of the scheme set up by the medieval church and adopted by Rome at the Council of Trent (1545–64) required our personal sanctification as the precondition to justification and that by grace (and cooperation with grace) Rome had a powerful incentive to multiple the sources of medicinal grace. Thus, between the 9th and 13th centuries the number of “sacraments” grew from the two instituted by our Lord to seven. Well, formally there are seven but in reality Rome is a veritable fountain of medicine and, as my colleague Dan Borvan said recently on the Theology You Should Know podcast, a “factory of merit.” Rome manufactures sacraments, spigots of grace, at will. Most recently, in the papal bull (from bulla or a seal) Misericordiae vultus (the countenance of mercy) Rome has declared that on December 15, 2015, the door to the Basilica of St John Lateran “the Holy Door will become a Door of Mercy through which anyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons, and instils [sic] hope.”

This is a terrific illustration of why the biblical, Protestant doctrine of sola fide is so important. Without it the church is rootless, aimless and left to its own devices, to what Paul, in Colossians 2:23 called “will worship” (ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ):

These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting will-worship (ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ) and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are aof no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

The ESV translates this the noun ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ as “self-made religion.” That’s just right but I use “will worship” because that ‘s the way our forefathers spoke. They wanted to highlight the difference between worshipping God the way he has commanded and worshipping God the way that we think is right. They called the latter approach “will worship” to capture the centrality of the human will as opposed to the divine will. The noun is composed of two roots. The first is the root word for the will or “to choose” and the second for worship.

Rome is all about man-made, self-imposed (or rather church-imposed) worship and theology. In contrast, the Reformed churches confess that we made in worship only that which God has commanded (see Belgic Confession articles 7, 32; Heidelberg Catechism 96–98; and Westminster Confession ch. 21).

What hath will worship to do with justification and salvation sola fide? Much in every way. Just as God has revealed and appointed the way he will be worshipped, so he has also appointed the one instrument through which sinners can become righteous. Whereas Rome says that justification is sanctification and the faith is itself a powerful virtue, i.e., it is sanctification because it is formed by charity, Scripture teaches no such thing. Rather Scripture repeatedly contrasts faith, in the act of justification, as trusting, resting, leaning, receiving Christ and his righteousness. When Paul, in Romans 1:17, quoted Habakkuk 2:4, “The just shall live by faith” he understood faith not as a virtue wrought within us by infused medicine and our free cooperation with that medicine. Rather, he understood it as a divine gift (Ephesians 2:8) that receives Christ and all that Christ has done for us. That’s why just before the quotation he wrote that “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith unto faith” (ἐκ πίστεως εἰς πίστιν). Faith is not powerful except insofar as it lays hold of Christ and his righteousness. It is not revealed from faith unto sanctification. It is not revealed from faith unto cooperation with infused medicine. No, it is revealed from faith unto faith because faith, resting, receiving, trusting in Christ is the only instrument. Nevertheless, Christ, not faith, is powerful. Faith, in itself, is an empty hand. As Luther said, “Wir sein Pettler. Hoc est verum.” We are beggars. this true. It’s against this background that we confess in Heidelberg 61:

61. Why do you say that you are righteous by faith only?

Not that I am acceptable to God on account of the worthiness of my faith, but because only the satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ is my righteousness before God and I can receive the same and make it my own in no other way than by faith only.

It is not by walking under arches (Rome’s Jubilee in 2000) nor will it be by walking through a magic door in December 2015 that we shall be justified and saved. It is only by faith, which looks only to Christ’s perfect righteousness, to his satisfaction of God’s justice (righteousness) for us. There is no other instrument. Baptism does not lay hold of Christ. The Lord’s Supper does not lay hold of Christ. They are divinely instituted sacraments that promise justification and salvation to all who believe. They seal those promises to those who do believe but they are not the instruments by which sinners lay hold of Christ. Only true faith lays hold of Christ and all that he has done for us.

By walking under arches or through doors all you gain is a little exercise. Without true faith in the only Savior you are still outside of Christ, outside of his righteousness, and outside of acceptance with God (justification) and salvation from his righteous wrath. Why is sola fide important? Because Christ is the only way to the Father, the only Savior and faith is the only instrument by which we gain Christ.

Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.

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