Romans 3:21-31
21 But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24 they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26 it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

27 Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

Today is our second of five sermons on the “Five Solas,” the five core teachings of the 16th century Reformation that gave birth to the Presbyterian Church. Today we consider “Sola Fide.”

Sola is Latin for “only” or “alone” and Fide is Latin for “Faith.” Sola Fide means “only faith” or “faith alone.” Technically speaking (and I’m going to do a lot of technical speaking today!) “Sola Fide” in Latin is in the ablative case, so means “BY faith alone” or “THROUGH faith alone” which is an important distinction, and we’ll get to that later. But first, what is faith?

Long ago, somewhere out west in a little frontier church, an energetic young preacher ended his sermon with an enthusiastic plea: “Raise your hand if you have believe! Raise your hand if you have faith! Raise your hand if you want to go to heaven!”

To his great joy, every hand in the room instantly went up in the air, and he marveled at their great faith. Every hand, that is, except one–there was a grizzled old cowboy at the back of the room, who now stood up and said, “Preacher, that was too easy. How do you know if these folks truly have faith? I guarantee I can prove to you that they don’t.”

Confident of his flock, the preacher said, “Go ahead, stranger, put their faith to the test. Ask them anything you want.” At this, the cowboy turned to the congregation and said, “Raise your hand if you believe! Raise your hand if you have faith!” Then pulling his two six-gun revolvers out of their holsters, he said, “Raise your hand if you want to go to heaven…today!”

In Protestant Christianity, the concepts of faith, belief and going to heaven have all been wrapped up and intertwined for hundreds of years, for better or worse. In order for us to truly understand the doctrine of “Faith Alone” and to understand today’s scripture passage from Romans, we have a lot of untangling to do.

Our story begins in the middle ages in Europe–the “dark ages” when life was pretty bleak, and incredibly short. If you didn’t die in childbirth, chances are you would soon enough from famine, warfare, poverty, or the bubonic plague that claimed a third of the population of medieval Europe. And because death was always just around the corner for you and the ones you loved, there was an inordinate concern for what happened after death. Religion, in particular Christianity, stepped into this void with comforting assurances about heaven and eternity, a world very different from the one most people experienced.

Religion is also an effective tool for controlling human behavior, so it wasn’t too long before those comforting words began to have strings attached. The medieval church in Europe taught that in order to guarantee your spot in this blissful afterlife, you had to behave in certain ways, contribute to certain causes, support certain religious leaders, and in general DO a growing list of things–not just for yourself, but also for your loved ones and ancestors who were already dead, waiting in limbo because they hadn’t done quite enough, because YOU hadn’t done quite enough to tip the scales in their favor in God’s eyes.

Incidentally, there is actually plenty of support for this idea in the Bible (and in most world religions). Fortunately, there is just as much support in the Bible arguing against it. And that’s exactly what the early leaders of the 16th Reformation did — men like Martin Luther and John Calvin delved into the scriptures, and found as their champion the Apostle Paul.

Paul wrote, in passages like today’s from Romans 3, that redemption in Christ (which Luther, Calvin and everyone else in 16th century Europe equated with getting into heaven) was not dependent on anything a person might DO (Paul called these “works”) but instead had everything to do with faith and grace–God’s free gifts to humanity through Jesus Christ.

Sola Fide and Sola Gratia are attempts to answer the question, “How does God save us?” I’ll talk more about grace (Sola Gratia) next week, but in a nutshell, Grace is something that happens in God, while Faith is something that happens in us. So when the Reformers said “Sola Fide” or “Faith alone” what they meant is that salvation comes from faith alone, and not from anything else, like working really hard, paying money to the church, going on a crusade to the holy lands, obeying all the rules and laws, all those things that Paul called “Works.”

It’s important to know that the Reformers still believed that many of these things were necessary–they wanted people to work hard, give money to the poor and to support their churches, and to do their best to follow just laws and rules. Martin Luther famously wrote that “Works are necessary for salvation but they do not cause salvation; for faith alone gives life.”

This doctrine became THE core doctrine and the rallying cry of the Reformation: Salvation is through faith alone, and not works. It also became the key dividing point between Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church, which maintains to the present day that both works and faith are necessary for salvation.

Complicating things even further, over the years Protestant churches began to interpret the word “faith” as identical to the word “belief” — and not just a general belief in God or Jesus, but belief (and assent) to a list of very specific doctrinal positions.

In many Evangelical churches today, in order to be “saved” you have to 1) make a decision to accept Jesus into your life, 2) raise your hand and walk down the aisle during the altar call, 3) sincerely repent of your sins, 4) say the “sinner’s prayer” asking God’s forgiveness, and 5) believe with your heart a growing number of things that the church teaches about Jesus and the Bible. If that’s not a checklist of things to DO, I don’t know what is. So we’re right back to salvation by works, just under a thin guise of “belief.”

But belief is not the same thing as faith. In fact, there’s a word in Latin for belief–it’s “credo” (where we get the words creed and credibility). The Reformers did not articulate a doctrine of “Sola Credo.” No. It was “Sola Fide.”

So what is Fide? What is faith, if not belief? To get at that, we need to go even further back in time. Paul, in verse 26 of today’s scripture passage (and in many other places in his writings) speaks of “faith in Jesus.” Which we usually translate in our minds to “belief in Jesus.” But in Greek, that’s only two words: πίστεως Ἰησοῦ. Both words are in the genetive case–they could be translated as “faith in Jesus” but the more common way to translate the genetive case would be “faith of Jesus.” And that opens up a whole different range of meaning. The faith OF Jesus can mean Jesus’ faith, or faith like that of Jesus.

What’s more, Paul is writing in Greek, but he is Jewish, a student of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. For Paul, the word πίστις or “faith” is the closest (but not quite perfect) Greek word that’s used to translate the Hebrew word חֶסֶד (chesed). What does חֶסֶד mean? Strong’s Dictonary of Hebrew gives one short, simple definition: Loving-kindness. In Jewish tradition, חֶסֶד, or loving-kindness is a fundamental attribute of God toward his people.

Putting all that together, Paul is not saying that salvation comes from believing in Jesus (whatever that even means). He’s saying that our redemption comes from the loving-kindness of Jesus, or possibly (since חֶסֶד is something that God gives to us) Paul is saying that redemption comes from having within us the same kind of loving-kindness that Jesus had–and that this is a gift, a God-given attribute that all of us possess.

Calvin, Luther, and the 16th century Reformers didn’t quite take things that far. They didn’t need to–in their context, in their time, the point they needed to make was that our eternal happiness was not dependent on anything we might or might not do.

But as 21st century Americans, many of us have spent that last two weeks arguing (or listening to others argue) about whether or not we should “believe her” or “believe him.” What if that’s the wrong question altogether? What if instead we are called to love and be kind, regardless of belief?

I think that a 21st century understanding of “Sola Fide” has less to do with what happens to us, as individuals after we die, and more to do with the kind of world God wants to create right here among us, right now. Sola Fide means that this world, this community, this global society can only be redeemed, can only be saved, through the sort of loving-kindness that Jesus taught and demonstrated and embodied for us 2,000 years ago.

Yes, we’ve been pretty slow in embracing that, and often we take one step forward and two steps back.

But just ten years ago, Pope Benedict XVI said this: “Luther’s phrase ‘faith alone’ is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love. Faith is looking at Christ, entrusting oneself to Christ, being united to Christ, conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence to believe is to conform to Christ and to enter into his love. So it is that in the Letter to the Galatians in which he primarily developed his teaching on justification St. Paul speaks of faith that works through love.”

As a Protestant, Presbyterian Pastor and a direct descendant of 16th Century Reformers, I am fully on board with that understanding of “faith alone” articulated by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

Sola Fide, Loving-kindness alone has the power to transcend our divisions, our differences, our disagreements, bringing us together, uniting us in faith, hope, and love.