The Reformers insisted that justification is by faith alone.
It’s not about who we are (our human identities and status) or how we behave (our works), but about the grace of God in Christ. We are put right with God through faith. And when we come to faith, we receive Christ’s righteousness, and we are personally connected to the saving power of his life, death, and resurrection. But what is this faith?
Of course, faith involves believing the truth about Jesus—that the Son of God lived, died, and rose again, and that through the cross and resurrection he won the victory for us over sin, death, and the devil. Faith is never anything less than right belief.
Yet the Reformers insisted that faith is always more than right belief. They found their great example in Paul’s discussions of the faith of Abraham (Rom 4; Gal 3). God promises the childless Abraham a son (Gen 15), a promise that will be fulfilled in the birth of Isaac. Abraham “believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6).
Paul quotes these words (Rom 4:3; Gal 3:6) and insists they were written not only for Abraham’s sake but also for ours (Rom 4:23–24). Within these passages from Paul, the Reformers picked up on several crucial dimensions of faith: worship, trust, and action.
No greater honor can be given to God than by sealing His truth by our faith. On the other hand, no greater insult can be shown to Him than by rejecting the grace which He offers us, or by detracting from the authority of His Word. For this reason the main thing in the worship of God is to embrace His promises with obedience. True religion begins with faith.1
By worshiping God in faith, we let God be God, and we acknowledge our dependence on him.
God promised Abraham a son: Life will come from Sarah’s dead womb. Although it sounded impossible, Abraham trusted that everything is possible with God. This is the God who, in Paul’s words, “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom 4:17). This is the God “who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (Rom 4:24–25).
When we believe the gospel, we—like Abraham—trust that God can do the impossible and bring life out of death. Calvin expressed this clearly in his comments on Romans 4:20:
Our circumstances are all in opposition to the promises of God. … What then are we to do? We must close our eyes, disregard ourselves and all things connected with us, so that nothing may hinder or prevent us from believing that God is true.2
Faith deliberately disregards what our daily experience tells us is feasible or likely. Faith looks beyond our own circumstances and instead looks to God, trusting him to make a way forward.
Faith takes action
The Reformers insisted that believers are justified by faith alone, and that faith itself is a gift of God. But they also affirmed that faith works through love (Gal 5:6). “Thus good works emerge from faith itself,” Martin Luther wrote. “It is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire.”3 Although works can never contribute to justification, they are its true and proper consequence.
Abraham’s faith was not for his own sake only, but so that everyone who believes might be blessed with him (Gal 3:9). In the same way, our faith is not just for ourselves but also for others. In fact, receiving righteousness through faith equips us to obey God and serve others:
When I have this righteousness within me, I descend from heaven like the rain that makes the earth fertile. That is, I come forth into another kingdom, and I perform good works whenever the opportunity arises.4
Faith is always embodied in actions that express love for our neighbors.
Union with Christ
How are believers able to worship, trust, and take action through faith? Certainly, Paul wants believers to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:14). We should strive to be obedient. But obedience does not flow from our own ability or goodness. Obedience is possible only because faith unites us with Christ. This is the most fundamental aspect of faith on which all other aspects depend.
Commenting on Galatians 2:16, Luther says that “faith takes hold of Christ and has him present, enclosing him as the ring encloses the gem. And whoever is found having this faith in the Christ who is grasped in the heart, him God accounts as righteous.”5
Calvin also emphasizes that faith unites us with Christ. In his remarks on Romans 3:22, he explains that God delivers Christ’s person and benefits to believers precisely through faith:
Faith is therefore said to justify, because it is the instrument by which we receive Christ, in whom righteousness is communicated to us. When we are made partakers of Christ, we are not only ourselves righteous, but our works also are counted righteous in the sight of God, because any imperfections in them are obliterated by the blood of Christ.6
Present in faith by the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ himself empowers us to worship God, to trust God’s promises, and to work for our neighbor’s good. Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:57).
Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version.
1 Romans, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries [CNTC], ed. D.W. Torrance and T.F. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), vol. 8: p. 99.
2 Romans, CNTC 8:99.
3 “Preface to Romans,” Luther’s Works [LW] 35:369.
4 “Argument to Galatians,” LW 26:11.
5 “Commentary on Galatians,” LW 26:132.
6 Romans, CNTC 8:73.