On this blog before, I’ve mentioned quite a bit how important it is to distinguish between the law and the gospel. This was a huge part of the Reformation, from Luther to Calvin to Ursinus to Olevian forward to Turretin and Poole and ahead to Bavinck and others. What does it look like when you blend the law and the gospel? What does a distortion of justification sola fide look like? Here’s one Federal Vision example from A Faith That is Never Alone.
“Man by his very nature gains eternal life by faith alone, a wholehearted, obedient trust in God. …The only instrument by which to appropriate this righteousness (of Christ) is faith, a living, penitential, obedient faith. Sinners are justified by faith alone. They are saved entirely by the grace of God and not by means of works-righteousness or merit. (The message of the gospel) is appropriated by an active faith, which rests on God’s promises, repents of sin, and submits to the Lordship of Jesus. …This lawful gospel is the only authentic message of salvation to a dying world” (p. 243 & 247).
This is exactly why the Reformers distinguished between the law and the gospel. If you don’t do it, justification sola fide goes down the papist tubes. The “lawful gospel” is an awful gospel. The above quote says that the only way you can be justified is if you trust and obey; God will be gracious to those who do their best in faith. I guess you’d better hope 1) that your obedience is greater than your disobedience or 2) your faith repents and submits to Christ enough to be cleansed by his blood.
I cannot trust the Federal Vision because of their language games – they say “justification sola fide” but they do not mean what the Reformers meant. “Justification sola fide” in the FV means “Justification only by faith that works.” The Reformers meant “Justification by faith apart from any and all of our works.” The difference is the distance between Geneva and Rome, between faith in Christ and making a Christ out of our faithfulness.
Here is the proper Reformation view of sola fide taking into account the biblical truth that God justifies the ungodly (Rom 4.5).
“[The Christian’s good works] are of no account towards our justification, for it is by faith in Christ that we are justified, even before we do good works” (Belgic Confession XXIV).
“Only Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness make me right with God – and I can receive this righteousness and make it mine in no other way than by faith alone” (Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 61).
“We believe, teach, and confess what our righteousness before God is this: God forgives our sins out of pure grace, without any work, merit, or worthiness of ours preceding, present, or following. He presents and credits to us the righteousness of Christ’s obedience. Because of this righteousness, we are received into grace by God and regarded as righteous. We believe, teach, and confess that faith alone is the means and instrument through which we lay hold of Christ” (Epitome of the Formula of Concord III).
God justifies…”not by infusing righteousness” into people but “by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous, not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone, nor by imputing faith itself, [nor by] the act of believing, [nor by] any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness, but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them – they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith” (Westminster Confession of Faith 11).