“Faith” is a troubling word. The reason it’s a troubling word is that with respect to Christianity, it means we can’t. There is a false teaching in this world that if you try hard enough, if you desire it bad enough, you can be or do anything you want. Anyone who has ever failed to break the starting lineup on a sports team, or worse, been cut, knows this belief is completely absurd. Yet we hold on to this lie because it makes us feel good about ourselves.
There is nothing wrong with saying, “I can’t,” if you know, despite your best efforts, that it is the truth. I can’t justify myself before a holy and righteous God. There is nothing I can do to overcome my own sin. There is nothing I can to do to erase the stain that sin marks upon my soul. This is the crux of sola fide, “by faith alone.” It is the understanding that we are justified before a perfect and sinless God only by our faith. We cannot earn His favor. We cannot merit “promotion” to heaven. We cannot undo that which we’ve already done. We are stuck except for our faith that He can justify us. Nay, that He has justified us through the sacrifice of His own Son, Jesus!
That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. – Romans 4:22-25, ESV
Paul was writing about Abraham in Romans 4. While it is true that Abraham responded with obedience towards God, Paul’s point is that it wasn’t the action itself that justified Abraham. Rather, it was the belief behind the action. Abraham believed God. Therefore, he obeyed. As a result, Abraham’s belief was what God looked at and justified His servant. The same holds true of us. The Bible tells us that justification comes by faith alone, sola fide. It is not what you do; that doesn’t justify you. Your faith does.
However, Paul’s example of Abraham shows that if we have real faith, we will follow through with real action. This is James’ point when he declared faith without works as dead faith: not real faith. If there is no follow through, then likely there is no faith. That’s a problem, because without faith, there is no justification. Without justification there is no grace, for they go hand in hand, meaning there is no salvation. Without salvation, there isn’t heaven, but damnation. So though faith may trouble us because it reveals our weakness, it also reveals God’s graciousness and His strength. That is why we must cling to sola fide, by faith alone. We can’t, but God can!