Justification by faith alone was the central doctrine of the Reformation. Martin Luther said it is “the article upon which the church stands or falls.” In other words, a church isn’t a church (or won’t be for long) if it doesn’t have this central doctrine. Like a basketball team with no hoop or a marriage with no love, is a church without justification by faith alone.
You Can’t Justify Yourself
In the film Chariots of Fire, British runner Harold Abrams, is driven to win gold. In the lead up to the final race of the Olympics, he realizes his drive to win is rooted in his need to prove himself and his worth. “[I]n one hour's time, I will be out there again. I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my existence. But will I? I've known the fear of losing but now I am almost too frightened to win.”
He knows he needs to be justified, to have ultimate worth and value, but he realizes he has spent his whole life trying to get it through his own work. And now that he is about to accomplish that work, he sees it’s not enough. His work won’t do it. He can’t justify himself.
Faith Alone (= Faith, NOT Works)
One of Martin Luther’s greatest theological breakthroughs was the realization that he could not justify himself by his own works. In The Freedom of a Christian, he writes:
Our faith in Christ does not free us from works but from false opinions concerning works, that is, from the foolish presumption that justification is acquired by works.
None of his works could make God accept him. It wasn’t up to him to make himself acceptable to God or others. God had to do the justifying for him. Only trust in God’s grace in Christ can make us right with God. Faith alone justifies the sinner.
It is clear, then, that a Christian has all that he needs in faith and needs no works to justify him; and if he has no need of works, he has no need of the law; and if he has no need of the law, surely he is free from the law.
He isn’t claiming a Christian does no works or that we don’t obey God’s law. Instead, our works are done from God’s acceptance, not for it. Having been justified by God, we are free to worship Him and love others.
So also our works should be done, not that we may be justified by them, since being justified beforehand by faith, we ought to do all things freely and joyfully for the sake of others.
Get Drunk on Justification By Faith Alone
Faith sets the Christian free. Justification by faith frees us from any need to earn approval from God or others. We have everything in Christ! We can now rest in these riches and enjoy life in Him forever! Luther's passion for faith alone stemmed from the joy and peace it brought him:
[H]e who has had even a faint taste of it can never write, speak, meditate, or hear enough concerning it.
[T]rue faith in Christ is a treasure beyond comparison which brings with it complete salvation and saves man from every evil.
[T]hrough faith alone without works the soul is justified by the Word of God, sanctified, made true, peaceful, and free, filled with every blessing and truly made a child of God.
By faith we have “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7). If we have everything in Christ (1 Cor. 3:21-23), what more do we need? And when you realize the magnitude of God’s grace given to us through faith, you can’t help rejoicing:
Since these promises of God are holy, true, righteous, free, and peaceful words, full of goodness, the soul which clings to them with a firm faith will be so closely united with them and altogether absorbed by them that it not only will share in all their power but will be saturated and intoxicated by them.
Luther said we should get drunk on faith! This doctrine is so glorious, this promise so wonderful, that we can become intoxicated with it! The freedom faith brings should make our spirits sing.