Sola Fide: Crucial Then, Crucial Now?
As a faithful Roman Catholic, Martin Luther (1483-1546), the father of the Protestant Reformation, strove with all of his might to attain salvation while serving as a monk in the little town of Wittenberg. He prayed earnestly, studied tirelessly, held countless vigils, recited numerous masses, and harshly mistreated his body all with the goal of bringing his unruly flesh into submission. Yet, despite all of his efforts, peace of conscience eluded the young monk. As Luther later testified in his Lectures on Genesis, “[T]he more I sweat, the less quiet and peace I felt.” (1)
It was not until later in life, while studying Romans 1:16-17, that Luther finally attained the peace he so earnestly desired. Much to his surprise, it came not as a result of discovering new and difficult works to perform, but simply by believing in Christ who justifies the ungodly with his own righteousness. In recounting his discovery, Luther commented in his Preface to the Complete Edition of Luther’s Latin Writings: “Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me. . . . Thus that place in Paul was for me truly the gate to paradise.” (2)
It should come as no surprise, then, that Luther considered the doctrine of sola fide (justification by faith alone) the first and chief article of the Christian religion. Historically, classical Protestantism has agreed with Luther’s assessment of the centrality of the doctrine of justification. More recently, however, even some within the Protestant fold are calling into question Luther’s assessment. Thus, those who share Luther’s position are being called upon to reconsider the centrality of the doctrine of justification, particularly as expressed in the slogan sola fide.
While some may take umbrage at such contemporary challenges, heirs of Reformation theology ought to rejoice at the renewed opportunity to discuss the central article of the Christian religion: justification by grace alone through faith alone on account of the person and work of Christ alone.
Sola Fide in Scripture
To say that the doctrine of justification through faith alone is the central article of the Christian faith is simply to say that Christ, as Savior, is at the heart of the Christian faith. Jesus is, after all, the true object of saving faith. Sinful human beings are not justified through faith in just anybody. Rather, faith is only as good as the object in whom it is placed. For Christians, saving faith is placed in the person and work of Christ. Not surprisingly, then, Scripture is christological in its overall content. While the Bible addresses numerous topics it is nevertheless focused in a very unique way upon the person and work of Jesus as Savior. Even a cursory review of the Bible makes this evident.
In Christ’s own teaching, for example, he presents himself as the sum and substance of the Old Testament Scriptures. In his conflict with the Pharisees, he warns: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39; ESV). The Pharisees were indeed correct in searching the Scriptures in order to discover the source of eternal life. The problem, according to no less an authority than Jesus himself, is that the Pharisees had missed what Scripture was all about: Christ as Savior.
This is not to say that the Pharisees did not see Scripture as containing important information about the Messiah. They knew that the Messiah would be a human being born from the line of David. They knew that he would be their king. They knew that he would bring deliverance. They knew that he would usher in righteousness. They knew that he would be, quite possibly, the most important religious figure in all of history. Despite all of this, however, they missed the primary reason for Christ’s advent, which Jesus lays out as follows: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10, ESV). This Jesus, to whom the law and the prophets testify, came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28b, ESV).
In fact, it is this very truth with which Jesus comforts his apostles after his crucifixion. Prior to revealing his true identity to them, the Lord approaches two of his disciples who are disheartened by his suffering and death. Rather than immediately revealing himself to them in resurrected glory, Christ makes sure that they understand the importance of his redemptive work from the Scriptures: “And he said to them, ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27; ESV). Jesus thereby gave the apostles, and by extension all of us today, an important lesson on the proper interpretation of the Old Testament: it bears witness to Jesus in his person and work. Peter aptly sums up the content of the Old Testament: “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43, ESV).
In each of the above cases, the person of the Messiah is immediately linked with his redemptive work. Jesus links the quest for eternal life with searching the Scriptures which bear witness to him. He likewise links the coming of the Son of Man with seeking and saving the lost by laying down his life as a ransom for many. Indeed, the Lord even goes as far as to say that the Christ must suffer and die, with the eventual result that “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name” (Luke 24:47, ESV).
For the apostles, the content of Old Testament Scripture determined the content of their preaching. Thus, they were called specifically to bear witness to Jesus, to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). Because Scripture is about Christ and his redemptive work, their sermons followed suit. Paul could therefore confidently proclaim: “[W]e preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23; ESV). Indeed, Christ as Savior was so central in Paul’s thought, that the apostle could confess: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2; ESV). Indeed, when instructing Christians, the good news about the redemptive work of Christ was always delivered as of first importance (1 Cor. 15:3).
Like their Lord, the apostles regularly linked the person of Christ with his redemptive work. Thus, the New Testament Scriptures were not written simply to impart information about Christ, “but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31, ESV). While John penned these words specifically about the content of his gospel, they may be applied equally to all of Scripture. Indeed, while the New Testament addresses a whole host of issues, its character, like that of the Old Testament, is uniquely christological.
But how are the benefits of Christ’s saving work apprehended? If his person and redemptive work are upheld as central throughout all of Scripture, surely the manner of appropriating the benefits of his work is no less important. Once the source of eternal life is discerned from the pages of Scripture, how is it then received? As seen above, Peter argued that forgiveness of sins is received through faith in Christ. John makes the same point, stating that belief in Christ receives eternal life. Jesus answers the question similarly: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24, ESV).
In the face of the religious leaders of his day, many of whom taught that obedience to the law was a cause of salvation and eternal life, Jesus teaches that salvation is received through faith without any reference to works whatsoever. Elsewhere in Scripture, we are expressly told that works do not save, be they works of the law (Gal. 2:16) or other so-called works of righteousness (Titus 3:5-7). Indeed, the apostles proclaimed with one voice: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28). Faith in Christ, and not works, receives all of his saving benefits: forgiveness of sins, salvation, eternal life, and so forth.
Because Christ is the sum and substance of Scripture, he is said to be at the center of the Christian faith. Yet, always and in every case, his person is linked to his redemptive obedience, suffering, and death. For this reason, his work is likewise said to be at the center of the Christian faith. Finally, the manner in which the benefits of Christ’s work are apprehended is constantly linked to both his person and his work. For this reason, justification by faith is equally said to be at the center of the Christian faith. Thus, to say that justification is the chief article of the Christian faith is not to ignore or downplay Christology (the study of Christ’s person and work) or other aspects of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), it is rather to speak of them both as comprehended in the one formula: sola fide. In theological shorthand, justification by faith alone is simply intended to communicate the eminently biblical truth that sinners are saved by trusting in Christ and not in their own works. To this, all the law and the prophets testify.
Sola Fide in Theology
In theology, the doctrine of justification through faith alone is often expressed in the slogan: sola fide. Those familiar with classical Protestant theology are likely accustomed to seeing this formula grouped with other Reformation solas, such as solus Christus (Christ alone), sola gratia (grace alone), sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), and soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone). Because of this traditional arrangement, many Christians are tempted to view the solas as a set of detached intellectual propositions, each advocating a separate truth.
In reality, however, each sola serves the same purpose: to present Jesus in all of his saving mercy for the sake of helpless sinners. “Christ alone” proclaims the sole ground of justification: the person and work of Jesus alone. “Grace alone” declares the cause of justification: the favor of God alone. “Faith alone” reveals the way in which the saving benefits of Christ are apprehended: trust in God’s mercy alone. “Scripture alone” reveals the place that troubled consciences may confidently look to find the infallible promise of God’s forgiveness for the sake of Jesus: the Bible alone. “Glory to God alone” is the jubilant cry of the justified sinner, who has been redeemed by Christ, received into God’s favor, made confident of God’s mercy, and assured of the promises of God as revealed in Scripture.
Traditionally, however, sola fide has received special attention amongst the Reformation solas. Not because it supplants the other solas or rules over them as a theological despot, but because sola fide is the crossroads at which all of the solas meet. Solus Christus proclaims the object of saving faith, but Christ and his benefits must be apprehended by faith. Sola gratia declares that God’s mercy is the result of Christ’s work, but men and women must trust in the mercy Christ won for them. Sola Scriptura reveals the location of God’s gracious promises but individuals must have sure confidence in the promises contained in the Bible. In faith, the justified person may glorify God, assured of their redemption for the sake of Christ as revealed in Scripture. In each of these, sola fide acts as the nexus for all of the Reformation solas; indeed, for all of theology. The doctrine of justification by faith alone, therefore, serves as the proper center of the theological universe, out of which all other doctrines necessarily flow.
Consider, for example, the doctrines classically associated with Christology: the two natures of Christ, the virgin birth, the sinlessness of Christ, the atonement, and the resurrection. Each of these necessarily relates to the doctrine of justification and are therefore intimately connected to sola fide. Why did God become man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth? In order to redeem men from their iniquities. Yet that redemption must be apprehended by faith in order for sinners to enjoy its benefits. Why was Jesus born of a virgin? To avoid the corruption of original sin common to all humankind in order to redeem them. Yet individuals must approach that redemption in the confidence that it was accomplished for them. Why was Christ necessarily sinless? In order to fulfill God’s righteous commandments in the place of those who could not. Yet that obedience must be trusted in order to benefit those in need. Why did Christ die? In order to reconcile the world to God by bearing their punishment in their stead. Yet sinners must believe that Christ died in their place to save them from God’s wrath against sin. Why did Christ rise again from the dead? To accomplish our justification and definitively defeat the enemies of death and the grave. Yet believers must apprehend the risen Christ through faith and thereby share in His resurrection victory. Each of these cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith, therefore, relates directly to the doctrine of justification, and more specifically, to the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
Because of its inherent organic connection with all other articles of faith, the doctrine of sola fide is likewise seen as the guardian of other articles. In essence, it safeguards all the truths revealed by God. If Christ alone is the Savior (solus Christus), then individuals must simply trust in his person and work for salvation, not in their own person or work. If grace is the sole cause of salvation (sola gratia), then individuals must trust in the favor of God Christ won for them, not in the favor they may seek to win for themselves. If Scripture is the sole infallible location of God’s promises revealed for the sake of Jesus (sola Scriptura), then individuals must believe the promises contained in his Word, not in their own traditions, reason, revelations, or personal proclivities. If glory is to be given to God alone, individuals must be confident that he, and not they, deserves all the credit for redemption. Thus, the doctrine of justification by faith alone not only acts as the nexus of all Christian doctrine (inasmuch as it is intimately connected to all other articles of faith), but also its chief protector and guardian (inasmuch as proper profession of this article puts the others into necessary perspective).
Sola Fide in History
As noted above, justification by faith alone was central in the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. It should not be surprising, then, that as the apostolic doctrine came under attack in the first century, so too, the doctrine of justification by faith alone came under attack. Indeed, one of the earliest ecclesiastical controversies recorded in the pages of the New Testament was over the doctrine of justification.
In the early church, there was a group of individuals teaching that circumcision and adherence to the Law of Moses was necessary for salvation (Acts 15:1; 5). In opposition to these men, Paul and Barnabas maintained that sinners are justified through faith in Christ apart from the works of the law (Acts 15:2; Gal. 2:16). In order to definitely settle this controversy, the church convened what is commonly referred to as the Jerusalem Council. There, the church (upon the testimony of Peter, Paul, Barnabas, and James) reaffirmed that sinners are not justified by adherence to the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.
Interestingly enough, the party insisting upon circumcision and adherence to the Mosaic Law are never accused of denying that faith was necessary for salvation. Rather, they argued that faith was insufficient; it had to be supplemented by obedience to the law in order to receive salvation. In opposition to this, the church maintained that faith was sufficient for salvation. Thus, of the two proposed means of apprehending salvation, faith and works, only faith is necessary for salvation according to Scripture. This, of course, is tantamount to teaching justification by faith alone. Accordingly, the doctrine of sola fide was championed by the New Testament church from its very inception. Beginning as early as the Jerusalem Council, virtually every subsequent debate throughout church history has had some bearing on this chief article of the Christian faith.
Another famous example of the preeminent importance of the doctrine of justification in church history is the historical debate between Pelagius (360-420), a British monk, and Augustine (354-430), the Bishop of Hippo. Pelagius taught that salvation was achieved through obedience to God’s divine commands. Contrary to this, Augustine maintained the biblical truth that sinners are unable to save themselves by their own works and are reliant solely upon the grace of God for salvation. According to Augustine, since works are unable to save, grace alone must save, and that grace is apprehended only through faith. Augustine wrote: “You may proclaim that ancient just men possessed ever such great virtue, yet nothing saved them except faith in the Mediator, who shed His blood for the remission of sins.” (3) Thus, Augustine championed the New Testament church’s doctrine of justification by grace through faith apart from works.
For this reason, many have suggested that Augustine laid the necessary groundwork for the debates that would later grip the church in the sixteenth century. It is no coincidence that Martin Luther was originally an Augustinian monk (a monastic order dedicated to upholding the teachings of Augustine). Yet in the early 1500s, Luther began to recognize that the church had greatly deviated not only from Augustine’s doctrine of justification but also from the biblical doctrine of justification by making works a meritorious cause of salvation.
Though the Reformation initially began as a protest against the selling of indulgences (documents promising forgiveness of the temporal punishments due to venial sin) the Protestant reformers (Luther, Calvin, and others) eventually came to challenge the entire Roman Catholic doctrine of salvation by faith and works. This the reformers saw as a revival of the Judaizing tendencies opposed by the apostles and the works-righteousness opposed by Augustine and many other ancient church fathers. Though Rome taught the necessity of Christ, they denied that his death was sufficient, without human cooperation, to save sinners. Though Rome taught the necessity of grace, they denied that it was sufficient, apart from human cooperation, to save sinners. Though Rome taught the necessity of faith, they denied that it was sufficient, teaching instead that faith must be supplemented by works in order to merit salvation. Though Rome taught the necessity of Scripture, they denied that it was sufficient to function as the sole infallible rule of faith for the church. The famed Reformation solas, among which sola fide is central, therefore speak not only to the necessity of Christ, grace, faith, and Scripture, but to the sufficiency of the same.
Sola Fide in the Life of a Christian
The chief reason that sola fide is said to be the central article of the Christian faith is because it addresses perhaps the most important question one could ever ask: how can I be saved? For adherents of justification by faith alone, the answer is as simple as the apostolic counsel offered to the Philippian jailer: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31, ESV).
Yes, the gospel is just that simple. No works of the law; just trusting in the one who fulfilled the law in the stead of sinners. No works of righteousness; just believing in the one who fulfilled all righteousness for fallen sons and daughters of Adam. No sacrifices; just trusting in the one who gave himself as a sacrifice for sin in the place of those mired in iniquity. Christ has done all of the work necessary for salvation and has secured God’s favor for the world. Christians simply trust that what Christ has done is sufficient, that God’s favor is sufficient, that the forgiveness which Jesus won for them is sufficient. Faith, then, is sufficient (which is precisely what sola fide was intended to signify: the sufficiency of faith) in receiving the benefit of all of these precious truths.
Not only the fact of salvation but also the assurance of salvation is at stake in the doctrine of justification through faith alone. If works are admitted into justification any meaningful assurance of salvation is simply impossible. Which works are necessary for salvation? What sort of disposition must believers have as they carry out these works? What motives must move Christians to perform these works? How many works are necessary? Such questions inevitably haunt those who deny the biblical doctrine of justification.
In reality, sola fide rules not only in matters pertaining to justification and the assurance of salvation, but also in matters pertaining to sanctification. From a biblical perspective, the new life of a Christian flows directly out of justification. A Christian who believes that they have been reconciled to God and saved only through the blood and merits of Christ ceases striving to gain God’s favor by their own works. Instead, good works are accomplished, not in order to gain forgiveness, but out of gratitude for the forgiveness freely given through Christ and received through faith alone. Indeed, truly good works flow naturally from a heart in which the gospel reigns.
This has tremendous impact upon the way in which a Christian views service to both God and neighbor. Does service to God simply become a means to seeking justification or does service to God spring out of love and gratitude for all that he has already freely given us in Christ? If the former, believers are in danger of viewing God as a miserly scrooge who only begrudgingly forgives if and when certain conditions are met. If the latter, believers are free to confidently and joyfully serve God knowing that Christ has redeemed them from sin. Does service to neighbor simply become a means toward seeking justification (after all, good works must have an object) or are believers free from compulsion in serving their neighbor and thereby freed up to genuinely love and serve others even as Christ has already loved and served them? If the former, the neighbor is in danger of becoming little more than the means to a self-serving end (i.e., justification). If the latter, the neighbor may be viewed quite simply as one who is in need of service, good works being performed purely for the benefit of the neighbor and not in order to merit something from God.
Therefore, far from being the stuff of mere theological speculation, the doctrine of justification, particularly the doctrine of sola fide, has far-reaching implications for the life of the believer: (1) in how one receives salvation; (2) in how one is assured of that salvation; (3) in how one is sanctified in his or her life of faith; (4) in the motives for performing good works.
Sola Fide: The Central Article of the Christian Faith
As has been previously asserted, Scripture is clear in its presentation of the person of Christ as central to the faith. Yet, throughout all of Scripture, the work of Jesus is consistently linked to his person. Without his saving work, his person does Christians very little good. Likewise, without his identity as the incarnate Son of God, his work would be insufficient to save. Ultimately, the person and work of Christ are also linked to the reception of his saving benefits: eternal life, salvation, and the forgiveness of sins. Sola fide concerns itself with precisely this question, and thereby, becomes the central article of the faith.
The organic connection between sola fide and all of the other Reformation solas serves to highlight this truth. In the doctrine of justification through faith alone, the truths of Christ alone, grace alone, Scripture alone, and glory to God alone come into proper biblical focus. Faith looks outside of itself to the Christ who suffered and died to redeem his people and who continues to come to them in his word of promise. Thus, as the chief article of the faith, sola fide not only puts the other solas in proper perspective, it relates to all of Christian doctrine, becoming the hub upon which all of theology turns.
This truth is illustrated in the life of the church throughout the centuries both corporately and individually. The doctrine of justification has been at the center of virtually every major doctrinal debate throughout the ages (implicitly or explicitly) and remains at the center of a believer’s life today, addressing questions such as how sinners are saved, how believers are assured of salvation, why Christians love and serve both God and neighbor, and so forth. Viewed from this perspective, it should come as no surprise that the doctrine of justification by faith alone, sola fide, has long been regarded as the central article of the Christian faith, as Luther testifies in his Prefaces to the New Testament: “[T]he true and chief article of Christian doctrine is this: We must all be justified alone by faith in Jesus Christ, without any contribution from the law or help from our works.” (4)