The other day, my daughter did the dishes without me asking. Wait…there’s more. Get this: it is not even her job to do the dishes anymore! It is my other daughter’s job. Those of you who are parents know what I am talking about. You know, the frustrations of trying to get your kids to fulfill their responsibilities. And it is not just that you want them to do what they are supposed to. Whether it is washing the dishes, taking a bath or shower, brushing their teeth, watching their little brother (or sister), or any number of things parents wish their kids would do, you want them to do these things without being told (over and over again). I walked in the kitchen and said to my daughter, “What are you doing?” She said, with a confused look on her face, “The dishes.” “I know that, but why?” I asked. “Because they needed to be done” she answered. This is the first time I can think of in my trek through parenting when one of my kids graduated from doing something because of fear of punishment to doing it because it was simply the right thing to do. It was a proud moment for me. And, as is the case with ninety percent of the things that happen to me on a daily basis, the blog lobe in my brain started running in the background. It said: “Pssst, Michael. This is not only a monumental occasion in your life as a parent, it is also a potential blog about how people misunderstand sola fide.”
Though I don’t know where (citation needed), it is said that when Martin Luther rediscovered the idea that justification was by faith alone, without the aid of any meritorious good deeds, the leadership within the institutionalized church of the day said, “You can’t teach that. You know what will happen if you do? Everyone will be doing whatever they please.” To which Luther responded, “This is true. Now what pleases you?”
The idea Luther was promoting was not unlike the same idea posited by Augustine before him: when we become believers in Christ, our nature changes; with it, our pleasures. Our greatest pleasure, our greatest satisfaction, our loftiest ambition, and our lifelong goal, after faith is ignited in our soul, becomes to please our Lord. Why? Because we have changed, because we have graduated, because it is the best thing to do. This change will continue from the inside out for the rest of our lives.
I believe in the doctrine of sola fide. Sola fide means “faith alone.” It means you and I are justified, not by any good things we do, but by simply trusting in Christ. My Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Mormon friends do not share this belief. In fact, I don’t know of any religion in the world that does or ever has. All other systems of being made right before God involve some sort of merit system. Ultimately, for them, you have to perform well here on earth. You have to refrain from enough sin and add enough good deeds to your resume, which you will one day present to your creator. What a terrible (and fear-inducing) system. I don’t want God (or anyone else) to see my resume. It would not be pretty. I need a substitute resume. Therefore, I have acquired one which is not my own: Jesus Christ’s. His is the only resume God will accept, because he is the only one who lived a perfect life. And, indeed, I do have his resume. But I did not buy it, lease it, or put it on layaway. Nothing can be done to purchase or deserve his resume. He offers it to us freely. All we have to do is extend our hand (an act of faith) and take it. Hence, our justification (perfect resume) is a gift that comes only by faith.
It is a wonderful message. It is an unbelievable message. However, it is an offensive message. First, it is offensive because we are a prideful people. We think our resume is not too shabby. Many just want to take their chances on their own. Second, it is offensive because people are scared. They are scared of what this might mean. They are scared of abuse. They are scared of grace. Grace means it is free. If it is free then people will do whatever they please. Here are some of the common road blocks I have heard from others:
“So, what if a person becomes a believer, then goes and murders a hundred people?”
“What you are doing is giving people license to sin.”
“If you give people such freedom, there will be anarchy.”
“Pfff…So what you are saying is that I can go out and get drunk every night and all is covered?”
“Good, this mean that I can commit adultery with no consequences.”
And a thousand others like this. At first glance, it is the same as I said before: “If this is true, then I can do whatever I please.”
I agree with Martin Luther. Yes, it does mean we can do whatever we please. But if we have truly turned to Christ in faith, our pleasures will change. Some faster than others. Some more definitively than others. It does not mean that we will not be in a battle with the flesh for the rest of our lives. It does not mean that we won’t lose the battle with the flesh from time to time. Heck, I would be willing to say (from personal experience) it does not even mean that we won’t lose the battle with the flesh more often than not. What it means is that we actually desire the flesh to lose. What it means is that our ultimate pleasures come when we do beat the flesh. What is means is that we are changing from the inside out. What is means is that engaging in the sinful pleasures of this world does not taste as sweet as it used to. And – this is the key – when we do follow the Lord and make the right decisions, we are not doing it for some reward or for fear of being punished (though even as Christians there are serious “built-in” consequences to sins), we are doing it because it is right. We understand it is right not because retribution is glaring at us or because our feet start to feel more than a little cozy as the fires of hell come a little closer, but because we have been changed, from the inside out. Isn’t this the gospel?
I think John says as much:
1 John 5:3
For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.
If we stopped with the first half of the verse, we might have reason to object. However, the second half tells us the means by which following the Lord is accomplished. Far be it for me to argue with the way John worded this, but let me put it more positively (as John can be somewhat of a glass-half-empty guy). Instead of saying, “His commandments are not burdensome,” I think we are justified in putting it this way: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments; it is a joy to do so.” God does not just call on us to do something we don’t want to do, but he changes our wants to conform to the greatest joy in the universe. He is not some cosmic pleasure killer, but the creator of the very idea of pleasure. Therefore, he is qualified to say that what the greatest pleasure is.
Doesn’t God want us to be more like my daughter? Doesn’t it please him more when we find our pleasure in following him? Isn’t he, by default, the greatest pleasure in the universe? Isn’t he the one who is at work within us both to will and do his good pleasure? You see, God does is not enlisting a fearful, reluctant army. He enlists only family members who not only have the resume of Christ, but are being changed from the inside out. Therefore, the doctrine of sola fide is not only the best option to understand the Scriptures, but it just makes more sense.
Make Yahweh your joy and he will give you your heart’s desires.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]