A Debate Over Sola Fide: Opening Essay by Jeff
Why engage in a debate on the subject of faith? As Hebrews 11:6 says, "Without faith it is impossible to please God." If God is to be pleased with the Christian, faith must have it's proper place. Of course, neither Catholic nor Protestant deny that faith is an essential aspect of the Christian life. But it is my firm conviction that only the Protestant doctrine of sola fide succeeds in giving faith its proper and due place in the Christian life; faith is its very foundation, the very substance of the gospel - through it we are justified, accepted by God; through it we obtain forgiveness from all sins past, present and future; through it we have hope in this life and in the life to come. Scripture affirms all of this. To deny that salvation comes through faith and faith alone is to rip out the very heart of Christianity - for Christ Himself preached that He was sent to give eternal life to those who believe in Him (John 3:16).
B. Summary of Sola Fide:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)
The above three verses provide an apt summary of the doctrine of sola fide, and I will use them to provide a general outline of the topics that I intend to support from Scripture during the course of this debate (as well as some general problems with any departure from this doctrine):
- By grace...: Eternal salvation is given as a free gift of God, irrespective of any merit or worth on our part.
- ...you have been saved...: Although Christians await their final salvation on Judgment Day, the assurance of eternal life and the manifold blessings of salvation can be experienced here and now. Justification is a one-time event, leading the New Testament authors to continuously refer to salvation in the past tense (we have been saved).
- ...through faith...: Faith is the vehicle through which the grace of God comes to us. In itself faith has no inherent value; faith does not itself become our righteousness, but is merely the mechanism by which the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us.
- ...this is not your own doing...: This is the bottom line of why any departure from sola fide is to be rejected - if salvation comes to the Christian by any other means than unmerited grace, received through faith, than salvation becomes not the work of God, but of the human will. This has two results: a) it dishonours God, and b) it turns the Christian life from a life of joyful exultation in the sheer mercy of God into a life of painful striving after salvation by works, a salvation which is never assured in this lifetime, and still less in the next.
- ...it is the gift of God, not a result of works...: Again, Paul re-iterates that salvation is a gift, received by faith. Salvation is not the result of works; works do not in any way effect a person's legal standing before God - those who are not justified by grace cannot please God, nor can those who are justified fail to finally be found worthy to enter the kingdom of God, for if it were otherwise, "grace would no longer be grace" (Rom. 11:6).
- ...so that no one may boast...: Salvation, from beginning to end, is wholly the gracious work of God. If our works played a role in our justification, it leaves room for us to boast before God. It matters not whether we claim our works were made possible through the grace of God, as the Catholics do, or whether we deny outright the doctrine of original sin and suppose that we may choose to perform good works without any divine aid - to allow our works to effect for us a right standing before God is to give ourselves reason to boast before God.
- ...For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them: One of the blanket accusations leveled against sola fide, which will no doubt come up in the course of this debate, is that it ignores or twists the innumerable passages which speak of the necessity of good works. However, what is at stake in this debate is not affirmation or denial that works are a necessary, indeed, an indispensable part of the Christian life. What is at stake is the role of works in the life of the Christian. The summary teaching of the New Testament is that works flow out of faith - in fact, good works must of necessity be from faith to be good works (Rom. 14:23). When the New Testament talks of good works, it is with this understanding, that works are contingent are being justified, never the other way around.
Having summed up the doctrine of sola fide, I will here flesh out the two great topics of division in this debate: the role of faith, and the role of works.
C. The Role of Faith:
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it - the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:19-26, emphases mine)
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, "Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame." For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." How then will they call on him they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!" But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?" So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:9-17, emphases mine)
1. The Insufficiency of Works of the Law:
Works are incapable of justifying anyone in the sight of God. As Paul points out in Rom. 3:19-20, the purpose of the law is not to justify, but to condemn; it is not to remove guilt, but to affirm the guilt of all those who are under the law. "Those under those the law" refers to Jews; and yet, Paul states that the law speaks (to the Jews) in order that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be guilty.
Paul, in the preceding chapters of Romans, has already shown that the Gentiles are "without excuse" (Rom. 1:20), guilty before God. Now Paul shows that the Jews also, even those who were given a law of works, are equally guilty before God. Works of the law cannot save; the purpose of the law was not to justify the Jews, but to demonstrate their guilt before God. The law works among the Jewish people the same as the knowledge of God through creation works among the Gentiles in Romans 1:18-20 - to render them guilty before God. Thus, every mouth is stopped and the whole world is made guilty before God.
Thus, obedience to the commands of God has never made anyone appear righteous before God. "None is righteous, no, not one". Jews and Greeks alike are under the curse of sin, both before the law was given, and after.
2. The Sufficiency of Faith:
After Paul establishes the problem - that no one is righteous - he then turns to the solution God has given - salvation by faith alone. "Now the righteousness of God has been manifested...the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe" (Rom. 3:21-22). Notice that Paul frames the problem as a lack of human righteousness; conversely, he frames the solution not as a new kind of human righteousness, a new kind of work that can be performed, but as the application of God's righteousness.
Even more importantly, Paul explains that the righteousness of God is received through faith. The wording is important here. The Christian receives the righteousness of God - a passive action. The believer does not earn the righteousness of God, nor work for it, but receives it as a gift. Faith is the instrument through which this righteousness is received. Thus, faith is not righteousness in itself, but simply that through which righteousness is given.
In Romans 10, Paul furthers this idea. He states simply in verse 9, "if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." If you believe, you will be saved - no qualification is given, there is not even a hint given that anything further is necessary. This is compounded by the parallel statement in verse 11: "Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame." Faith, and faith alone, is sufficient to guarantee salvation. Lest anyone should mistakenly think that some external requirement is required by the phrase "calls upon the name of the Lord", Paul makes calling upon the name of the Lord contingent upon faith - just as our Lord Himself said, "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks" (Matt. 12:34).
So, Paul holds up not works, but faith alone as the sole requirement of salvation.
3. Imputed Righteousness vs. Infused Righteousness:
Not only does the righteousness of God come to the believer through faith alone, but it is granted in a once-for-all legal declaration:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. (Romans 5:1-2)
The use of tense in these two verses make sense only if justification is considered a one-time event:
- "we have been justified" - justification is used in the past tense. It was a moment in the past in the life of Paul and of the Roman Christians. He does not say that they were being justified, in the midst of a process of being justified. They had already been declared righteous.
- "we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" - Because of the past event of justification, Paul and the Roman Christians had peace with God in the present. If the righteousness of God came incrementally, or through works, than their sins would not have been removed from them, and their indwelling sin would be counting against them. Thus, they would not have peace with God. But through faith, and by the imputation of Christ's righteousness, they have peace with God in the present time.
- "Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace" - They obtained access in the past. Grace is the object which they gained access to, and faith was the means of that access.
- "in which we stand" - They were, at the very moment Paul was writing, standing in the grace of God.
- "and we rejoice" - they could rejoice, in the present, because their eternity was secured even then. Through faith, they had obtained an alien righteousness, the righteousness of God.
D. The Rightful Place of Works.
If salvation is solely by faith, what is the place of works? Works are simply the outworking of true, saving faith. While salvation is effected by faith alone, saving faith infallibly results in works. As read in Ephesians 2:10, God has made us new creations in Christ in order that we would do good works. But our works are contingent upon faith. It is not that we must have good works in order to be saved; rather, we must be saved in order to have good works. "Without faith, it is impossible to please God" (Heb. 11:6), and "whatever does not proceed from faith is sin" (Rom. 14:23).
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)Jesus himself said that we must be born again (John 3:3) and become new creatures in order to inherit the Kingdom of God. This is the result of justification by faith - the believer becomes a new creation. The outworking of faith is right action. Again, Christ speaks: "No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit" (Luke 6:43-44). A person's work do not improve their standing with God; rather, a person's standing with God determines whether their works are good or evil. In the same way, Paul, after he has rebuked the Galatian church for departing from sola fide and beginning to trust in the work of circumcision for their justification, then lists the works (fruit) of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21) and warns that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. Why not - because they must earn their righteous standing before God? No, for that would flatly contradict what Paul had spent almost 4 chapters laying out. Evil works prove an evil, unjustified heart. Likewise, Paul then lists the fruit of the Spirit. The fruit we produce is either good or evil - we have been justified in order that we would produce good fruit (Eph. 2:10). Paul concludes his list of the fruit of the Spirit with the encouragement that "those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit" (Gal. 5:24-25). For those who believe, the flesh, the "bad tree" from which came all our evil works, has been crucified (past tense) through faith. Since by the Spirit we have been born again (John 3:6) and now live, we walk by the Spirit. Our works are either good or evil, according to what kind of tree we are. Those who have been justified will also become sanctified.
The plenary teaching of the New Testament is that we are saved, not by works, but by faith alone. While some passages may make this more explicit than others, when taken together, the right conclusion is clear: sola fide is the only consistent and biblical way to view salvation.