UPDATE: I’ve reconsidered some of the things I originally wrote in this entry and come to understand that Scripture itself, apart from people in general, speaks of both being saved “through” faith and “by” faith and meaning the same thing. The important distinction I wanted to make here was that faith itself a gift granted by God, not something we conjure up out of our dead, sinful hearts. We’re saved by God through faith, a faith that He gives. And at the same time, we’re saved by that faith, for without it, we’re lost.
The distinction between these two ideas may seem like a minute point to contest in the world of theology. But each understanding has dramatic implications for how we view our justification before God. If on the one hand we view ourselves as being justified by faith, we will see it as the ground of our justification, where our doing and willing is what saves us. From talking to many believers, it seems this is how many of us view our justification or standing before God. Yet if on the other hand we view ourselves as having been justified through faith, then we see that our justification itself, and the faith required to obtain it, all rests on Christ’s work alone.
Now of course, many people simply say we are saved by faith and the mean the same thing as through faith. I’m not here to contest that. I’m speaking here of the theological difference of these two words, because each changes our perspective on it once pondered, I believe.
If our faith is the ground of our justification, then we can often wonder if we’re believing correctly or coming to Christ in the right way (which I have often had to dismantle as a concept for a few friends who doubted they had actually believed). But if we see that our justification is rooted purely upon the work of Christ to justify us by the power of His blood alone, then we see that faith is God’s instrument to bring us to Himself; that is to say that faith is a gift of God, not something we work up from within our sinful, unregenerate human nature. Regeneration precedes faith, or the new birth of the Holy Spirit spoken of in John 3 causes, or comes before, or immediately gives rise to faith, not vice-versa.
This was the Reformers understanding of the crucial doctrine of Sola Fide, that we are justified through faith alone, not by it. And the reason our justification is through faith (instead of by it) is that even this itself is rooted in God’s grace alone, or Sola Gratia. It is a gift of God that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). All of that to say that the doctrine of Sola Fide cannot be understood unless properly rooted in a solid, scriptural understanding of Sola Gratia, that God’s grace is the only reason I am saved and another person is not, not anything within myself, including my faith, for that was God’s instrument He granted to save me. He alone, His work in the cross and resurrection, is the ground of my justification. Faith alone is the means or instrument given by God through which we obtain that justification.
“Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham.” – Romans 4:16
For more reading on this crucial doctrine of the historic Christian faith and more analysis of its implications for the believer, read this article on Lordship salvation by John MacArthur. That’s what got me thinking about this.