In the last few weeks of The Message of Habakkuk, Pastor Armstrong has shared the transformative moment in Martin Luther’s life where Habakkuk 2:4, “The righteous shall live by faith” opened his eyes for the first time to the true meaning of the Gospel. Without this revelation, the Protestant church as we know it today would not exist, and we could have still been slaves to the idea that good works would
somehow make us righteous in God’s eyes.
“Sola Fide” or “Faith Alone” is the cornerstone of our belief system. In Sunday school, we’ve been taught that Jesus alone justifies us and reconciles us to God. Nothing we do can save us from our sins but faith in Christ. So it’s not hard for us to look back at what Luther did and say, “Yes, of course that’s right,” or “How could he believe otherwise?”
I know firsthand how you can. I grew up Catholic. I attended Catholic school until seventh grade. I was taught that Jesus died for my sins, but that I still had to strive for perfection in my life to please God. If I lied, I had to go to confession, then say a certain number of “Hail Mary’s” or other prayers to make sure I was forgiven. I didn’t have to pay an “indulgence” like in the early days of the Catholic Church, but I did pay. In Guilt.
To this day, I still struggle with trying to be “good enough,” even though I KNOW I am saved by grace through faith in Christ. I have always been a perfectionist. Thankfully, by His grace I have come a long way and I have learned to let go of my perfectionist tendencies, and I try to impart to my children that God loves them no matter what they do (or don’t do). But it isn’t easy. Sometimes I catch myself
lecturing them about how they are behaving, and that God can see it and how He disapproves. It’s for a different reason, though – they believe Jesus died for their sins, and one of them has even publicly
announced their belief and was baptized. You see, I want them to want to do good works and follow
Jesus’s examples of how to live – not to “appease God” – but out of their thankfulness to Him for giving them eternal life! Here is where the conflict between faith and works gets complicated!
Luther was right – faith alone makes us righteous before God. But once we have put our faith in Jesus, we are expected to do “good works.” James 2:14-17 says, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
The problem lies not in the works themselves, but whether we believe works alone can justify us. It can’t. That was the belief of the early Catholic Church, and is the belief of many other religions today. That is why Luther took his stand at the Council of Worms. It was that important of a distinction. We alone cannot justify ourselves to a Holy God. No amount of “indulgences” or "Hail Mary’s" can do that. Jesus did it for us, once and for all on the cross. But now, we can joyfully express our gratitude to Him through our good works.
I told you it was complicated!