Misappropriating the Reformation (1): Sola Fide
Although there were many streams of Protestant thought during the sixteenth century, nearly all of them agreed on three key ideas summarized by three Latin phrases: sola fide, we are saved by faith alone; sola gratia, we are saved by grace alone; and sola scriptura, scripture alone is the final authority in theological matters. Protestants disagreed on pretty much everything else, but if there is a core to Protestant thought, it is found in these three soli.
Evangelical and Reformed Christians today quite properly see themselves as the theological heirs of the Reformation; in fact, their thought has more in common with the Reformers themselves than many of the churches that are the institutional descendants of the Reformation. And not surprisingly, evangelical and Reformed Christians today claim fidelity to these three soli.
The problem is, though, that too many American Christians do not understand what these three critical doctrines mean. In fact, a lot of evangelicalism misunderstands all three.
Sola fide (by faith alone) is a restatement of a core concept from the Apostle Paul: that we are saved by faith, not works. This is the key argument in several of Paul’s epistles, and it is perhaps best summed up by Eph. 2:8-9: “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.” (ESV)
The Reformers saw this and many other passages in Paul as saying that our sins disqualify us from making any contribution to our own salvation. We are guilty before God, and there is nothing we can do to atone for that guilt. So what we were powerless to do for ourselves, God did for us by sending Jesus to pay the penalty we owed for our sin through the Crucifixion and to give us new life through the Resurrection.
In the last few decades, a number of New Testament scholars and theologians have questioned some aspects of this understanding of justification. Known as the “New Perspective on Paul,” these scholars raise important questions about how faithful the Reformers actually were to the Scriptures. For example, some argue that when Paul talks about the “works of the Law,” he has in mind circumcision, dietary laws, and holy days, in other words, the ceremonial law not the moral law.
There is some merit in this argument. In context, much of what Paul says about works deals with circumcision and other aspects of the ceremonial law. At the same time, Paul explicitly says that no one is righteous before God, and that we can only obtain righteousness from God through faith. While Paul certainly argues that the ceremonial law cannot atone for our sins, nowhere does he suggest that any other kinds of good works can. And it is precisely the issue of our guilt before God that the issue of justification addresses.
Along with challenging the definition of works, the New Perspective also questions faith. The Greek word pistis can mean either “faith” or “faithfulness.” If we take it in the latter meaning, then this implies that our faithfulness, that is, our obedience to Christ, contributes to our salvation.
Once again, there is merit in this argument. Obedience is an essential aspect of discipleship, and Jesus actually discipled the Apostles to conversion rather than converting them and then discipling them. But when Paul cites Abraham as his example of the faith that justifies, it is clear that the word refers to trust and belief rather than faithfulness (Rom. 4, citing Gen. 15:6 and its context). Turning justification by faith into justification by faithfulness simply does not fit Paul’s argument here.
For the Reformers, obedience did not contribute to our justification but was a product of justification. In other words, faith results in both justification and good works. This is essentially what James 2:14-25 is saying: our works demonstrate our faith, and if our faith does not result in works, it isn’t genuine faith (note vs. 18).
Getting It Wrong
American evangelicals claim sola fide as part of their theological heritage, but they typically miss the point of it on several levels.
First, the doctrine of sola fide is anchored in a profound understanding of the absolute, blazing holiness of God and of the depths of human sin. Sola fide is critical to the faith, because if we even begin to get a grasp of God’s absolute holiness, and if we recognize how far short of it we are, then we realize that we have nothing we can offer to God—all we can do is trust that Christ’s righteousness is credited to us and our sins placed upon him in accordance with God’s promise. Without understanding this, the full impact of sola fide is lost.
Unfortunately, the holiness of God is not something evangelicals tend to emphasize. We like to talk about God’s love, grace, even mercy, but not his holiness. Talking about God’s unyielding demands sounds so Old Testament, and certainly not the Gospel. No, we too often think, God loves us and accepts us as we are as long as we aren’t committing any of the more spectacular sins (or at least those sins we don’t find acceptable ourselves). No need to deal with my minor peccadilloes (literally, little sins)—God doesn’t really care about those!
And then there are the many things that our culture accepts that God says in his word are wrong. We often act as if we know so much better than the biblical authors, and since our culture has changed so much, those sins don’t really matter either. Besides, we wouldn’t want to be judgmental and tell people what God says about their behavior. That wouldn’t be loving! After all, God loves them just the way they are.
Except to God, all sins matter. They are offenses to his holiness, and they ruin our lives. Not warning people of the damage their sins cause to themselves and to others is the exact opposite of being truly loving to people.
Until we understand our desperate need for forgiveness, until we understand the true moral guilt we have incurred by our lives, we will never understand what Jesus did for us, will never understand grace, and we will never understand why sola fide is so vitally important.
Second, we delight in the verse that tells us we aren’t under law but under grace (Rom. 6:14). Since we are saved by faith, not works, we think that what we do doesn’t really matter much. I don’t really need to focus too much on obedience, because even if I fail or don’t do something I’m supposed to do, Christ will fill the lack. Given how busy I am, how many responsibilities I have to my job, my family, and myself, God will understand if I don’t do all the stuff he tells me to do. After all, I’m under grace, and doing stuff is all part of the works I have been set free from in Jesus.
Except as noted above, the Reformers understood obedience as a consequence and an evidence of faith. Even Rom. 6:14 is in the context of obedience—avoiding sin and living righteously. As James tells us, faith without works is the kind of faith the demons have (James 2:19). It won’t save you, because if your faith is real it will inevitably result in a changed life.
Further, Scripture consistently tells us that we are going to be judged on the basis of our works, which includes not simply avoiding sin but also the positive actions we take on behalf of others. And that includes us (1 Cor. 3:12-15). We may end up saved, but we will suffer great loss at the judgment seat of Christ if we are not building our lives right.
Jesus’ own warning about the judgment is even sterner: many who think they are saved because of the great visible things they did in Jesus’ name will be rejected as lawless ones whom Jesus never knew (Matt. 7:21-23).
Far from making obedience unimportant, sola fide should lead us to delight in God’s law, to obey all that Jesus commanded, and to live a life full of love and good works. True faith implies nothing less. And that is precisely what too many churches are not teaching.