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Faith Alone (Sola Fide)
As the Reformation erupted onto the scene, the material principle of the Reformation and its rallying cry was that justification is by faith alone. The Christian life is not a life of constant anxiety over whether I am or am not saved because I do not know if I did enough good works, or finished my penances, or paid the right amount of indulgences to remove time off from Purgatory. Rather, I am saved because I am considered righteous before God, as if I have not even sinned. More than that, I am considered righteous as if I have lived a righteous life (the doctrine of Double Imputation c.f. 2 Cor. 5:21). This is all accomplished through God who justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). Therefore, I can come to Jesus and to God "just as I am," not because God winked at my sins as if they do not matter, but because Christ died for me and thus by faith in him I can approach the throne of God boldly.
This rediscovery of the principle of Faith Alone was not just contrary to the official Roman sacramental system, but also to the more "spiritual" side of Roman Catholic spirituality. In the high medieval period (~10th -12th century AD), various monastic orders were founded for the pursuit of spirituality and deeper devotion to God, chief among them the Franciscans and Dominicans. In the late medieval period (13th-15th century AD), an order for laymen was even founded in the 14th century AD called the Brethren of the Common Life. As opposed to the earlier orders that still focus on service through the church, this lay order focuses on the renovation of the interior life. We primarily know of this order due to the work of perhaps its most famous representative: Thomas a Kempis. In this book The Imitation of Christ, a Kempis focus on the renovation and reformation of Christian conduct to emulate the example of Christ, unto greater godliness.
It was this strand of medieval piety that led directly to the Anabaptists. Many people might assume that the Anabaptists were part of the Reformation, just that they were so "radical" they rejected infant baptism and attacked the Constantinian alliance between church and state. But that is a myth. The Anabaptists did not believe in faith alone. Rather, the focus of the Anabaptists was all about moral reformation. How one is right before God was through an increase in internal devotion, along the manner of the late medieval via moderna or devotio moderna, as the example of Anabaptist Balthasar Hubmaier has shown [Matthew Eaton, “Toward an Anabaptist Covenantal Soteriology: A Dialogue with Balthasar Hubmaier and Contemporary Pauline Scholarship,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 84 (2010): 67-93]. When the Anabaptists finally came together to write a confession, what they emphasize is practice, not faith, as we can see in the Schleithiem Confession, a fact even acknowledged by the sympathetic scholar William Estep [William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteen-Century Anabaptism, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975,1996), 65]. Anabaptist soteriology was essentially late medieval soteriology without the necessity of the institutional church and her sacraments. It was the logical conclusion from the teachings of people like the nominalist Gabriel Biel and a Kempis, thus the notion of justification by faith alone is not well regarded by the Anabaptists at all.
Instead of being justified by faith alone, the Anabaptists focused on devotion and piety, especially on the need for separation from the world. It should come as no surprise therefore that Anabaptists either go to the extreme of political revolution (e.. Peasants' Revolt, Munster Uprising), or to the other extreme of withdrawal from the world (Hutterite communes, Amish and Mennonite communities), as these are the two paths to take in order to separate from the world. Anabaptism, whatever variety it comes in, solves the problem of assurance and anxiety by externalizing the act that is considered a good work. After all, if justification is by godliness, and one mark of godliness is a certain form of separation from the world (e.g. join a commune), then a person does not need to be anxious about his salvation as long as he engages in this highly visible form of external piety (e.g. join the commune). One does not need to trust Christ alone for salvation, but rather exercise faith in the highly visible act of a separation from the world, and continuing along that trajectory. That is also why transgressing the code of conduct in these communes are such serious sins, for they breach the command of holiness required for being right before God, thus the one who transgressed has to either repent or be "put under the ban," shunned and thrown out of the community if necessary.
For most of the world especially in non-Western countries, we do not see Anabaptist communities around. And even in Western nations, it is unlikely that one would interact with for example an Amish in anything beyond surface relationships. Yet this only serves to create a blind spot for the error of the Anabaptists. In the contemporary church, how many people have no qualms with reading and recommending a Kempis' book The Imitation of Christ? How many people think that the way to deal with sin and wickedness is to preach the Law and one's obligation to do good works, instead of preaching the Gospel and God's grace to save people from their sins? How many people think that separation from the world is a good way to express holiness of life, instead of embracing God's grace to transform life while living in the world? To all these attempts of moralism, the Reformation message of Sola Fide shouts forth the only way one can be right before God. We are right before God through trusting in Christ alone, not by any type of works. Even "evangelical works" do not save a person, or make a person any more right before Almighty God. We are not justified even by our attempts of obedience to God, or by separation from the world, but purely and only by coming to God empty-handed, and believing in Him and His Gospel.
As we come to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, let us come repenting of our attempts to do good works to gain favor from God. But also, let us repent from thinking our godliness and obedience, our piety, will help us gain favor with God. No matter how ungodly you are, or how godly you are, you still remain on the same level before the Cross. We are beggars all, even to the end of our lives, and only by pleading the grace of God in Christ are we saved. Amen.