By Lionel Windsor
One of the aims of the Sola Panel is to go back to basics, to remind ourselves of the importance of the ‘solas’ (i.e. scripture alone, faith alone, Christ alone, grace alone, glory to God alone). This post will look at one way in which these solas all fit together.
I'm currently reading through Timothy Ward's very helpful book Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God (Inter-Varsity Press, Nottingham, 2009). It's a good and highly accessible exposition of the Reformed doctrine of Scripture, which avoids many of the petty caricatures that are sometimes thrown about, and deals well with a number of modern objections. I highly recommend it as a book to put near the top of your reading list this year.
Early on in the book, Ward seeks to ground our doctrine of Scripture in the even more fundamental doctrine of the ‘word of God’ (or the ‘speech of God’). Ward points out that God's speech is, and always has been, exceedingly powerful. This is seen especially when it comes to God's justification of the ungodly. In this very significant case, God's speech doesn't just inform us about God's salvation; it actually brings salvation to us:
God establishes, by his own declaration, a fundamental change in our standing before him, before he brings about, by the sending of the Holy Spirit, a real change to our sinful state… he spoke, making us by that declaration to be justified in our relationship with him… Thus a fundamental aspect of God's redemptive work occurs when he chooses to speak, and in so doing unilaterally brings us to share here and now in the right standing with him that Jesus Christ has. (pp. 27-28)
This is a pretty good exposition of some of the important connections between God's word/speech and our salvation. But it's important to remember that God's ‘speech-act’ of justification is only one part of the story of salvation.1
We must always remember that when the Bible talks about God justifying us, it never talks about this justification as a mere declaration that occurs all by itself. It's not the case that God simply says to us out of the blue, “I deem you to be justified”, and that act of speech alone brings about our salvation. Of course, God's speech is mightily powerful. But when it comes to our salvation, God's justifying speech-act is connected to other highly significant powerful actions of God.
The first aspect of God's saving work that we must always remember when we think about justification is the atonement. God's justification of sinners is based squarely on the death of Jesus Christ for our sins—that one supreme act of love and grace whereby Jesus paid for our sins and satisfied the wrath of God. Paul, who of all the biblical authors spells out the idea of justification most fully, never talks about justification in a vacuum. Paul brings the concepts of justification and atonement together. He tells us that we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24). The purpose of Jesus' atoning work (Rom 3:25) is to enable God to be ‘just’ and to be the “justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26). Without the atonement, God could not remain true to his own just standards as creator and judge, and therefore could not justify us. You see the same thing in Galatians—Paul's strong defence in Galatians is that God's justification of sinners doesn't stand alone, but it is based on the fact that Jesus “gave himself for our sins” (Gal 1:4). Justification and the atonement go together; justification without atonement would be nothing and would mean nothing.
The second thing that must not be forgotten when it comes to justification is that those who are justified are united to Christ through faith. This isn't to say that our own faith is itself some wonderful meritorious action that secures a reward from God. What it means is that when God justifies us he's not issuing some arbitrary declaration that makes no sense of the reality of our own personal sin. It's not the case that God one day decides to say to us, “You are righteous”, when patently we are, in fact, miserable sinners. No, God's declaration of us as ‘righteous’ is based on the fact that he, by his Holy Spirit acting through his word which brings about faith, has actually united us to his righteous Son. This means that our own sins are truly cancelled by Jesus' death, and that we truly share in the righteousness that by rights only belongs to Christ. For example, Paul speaks about being “found in him [i.e. Christ], not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil 3:9).
In other words, the Reformation ‘solas’ all go together. God, through the supreme authority of Scripture alone, addresses us, speaks the gospel to us, declares that we are justified, and so brings salvation to us sinners. But this can only be true because Christ alone has performed that once-for-all atoning sacrifice for sins. By faith alone, the sacrifice of Christ is applied to our own reality. All of this is an act of God's grace alone—to the glory of God alone. You can only go so far talking about one or the other of the solas in isolation. They really are a package deal.
1 I'm not disagreeing with Timothy Ward here, just clarifying a possible misunderstanding. I'm pretty sure that he would agree with what I have to say here, since in the passage I've quoted, he cites Romans 5:8 (about Jesus' death), and goes on to discuss the “effectual calling” whereby God's word creates saving faith.