It is. All the careful Latin terms, all the footnotes and citations, all the treatises and canons, in the end are but an outworking of this one question: Do you rest in the finished work of Christ alone? Consider Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. We slander the Pharisee as we do Rome, reading into his prayer a raw, Pelagian works-righteousness. He does indeed think he is better than other men. But his prayer begins, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men.” He recognizes that any goodness in him is from above, just as Rome does. He recognizes his dependence on God’s grace, just as Rome does. His failure is in thinking that God’s good grace has made him good.
The tax collector, on the other hand—his only hope is acknowledging that he has no hope outside the mercy of God. His hope is not grounded in his ability to cooperate with God. Instead, his hope is in the mercy of God alone. “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” is the essence of the Reformation, sola fide in a parable.
The simplicity of the gospel and its depth, its incomprehensibility, come together precisely because of its very nature—it’s not about me, but about Jesus, not about working but resting, not about cooperating, but about being born from above. This is why Luther so potently saw the connection between justification by faith alone and the bondage of our wills. We were dead, but He made us alive. We are sinners, but He declares us just.
He is, of course, at work in us. We are growing in grace, becoming more and more what we are now declared to be. We do so, however, by entering more fully into the gospel, by remembering that our sin became His, His righteousness became ours—His life for our death, His death for our life.
The Reformation battle over sola fide was no tempest in a teapot. Rome says His grace, as we cooperate, is poured into us. The Reformation boldly affirms that while we were dead in our trespasses and sins, the storm of our Father’s wrath was poured into Jesus for us. It is more than all the difference in the world—it is all the difference in the world to come. Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.