The Fight for Sola Fide
The tinkerers be damned. I'm saved by faith
by Michael Spencer
"I visited the
no Mohammad Ali
Not long ago, someone was doing a
profile on the great boxer, Mohammad Ali. Now living in retirement and
dealing with neurological disease, Ali is still a major American icon;
a hero to millions. He's also, by all reports, an extraordinarily nice
man, who answers every piece of mail, signs every request for an
autograph and leaves no fan overlooked.
The reason for Ali's attentiveness
to the requests of his fans? At the top of the list is his devotion to
Islam, a religion of straightforward works salvation. To insure a place
in heaven, one must do more good than bad, and Ali is making certain
that he goes to paradise, by signing pictures and answering mail.
I do not have a life philosophy
that teaches me I must do more good than bad to enter heaven. I do not
approach good works with the same mindset as Ali. I value being a kind
person, but I believe that the
quest to cover up my sins with good works would be the equivalent of
trying to empty the oceans with a dixie cup. In fact, it's worse than
that. For every cup of water I took out, I would pour in five more. The
whole enterprise would be worse than useless.
I respect Ali, but Islam seems to
me to be based upon a very naive optimism, and a shallow conception of
the human problem. Any system that instructed me on how to become right
with God and worthy of heaven would fall apart because I am lazy,
selfish, trivial, petty, cruel, selfish and, yes, evil in some measure.
Mohammad Ali is apparently a
better man than me, and in Islam, that gives him hope. Allah will bless
him for his good deeds. Allah will reward him for his repentance and
love. Allah will judge him to be among the righteous. And if that's the
truth, Allah won't have anything to do with me. I'm cooked.
There's no shortage of
good ways to say it.
Ali represents something Christians frequently denounce: salvation by works. It's very common to hear Christians say that we are saved by grace and by Christ. Today, it is becoming less common to hear that we are saved by faith alone. The biblical Gospel is salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, by Christ alone. Three key points, all carefully modified to say alone. Strange to many ears, and those "alones" have- historically- been a lot of trouble. Today, even those who are heirs of the reformation aren't sure it's really that simple, and nothing seems to confuse the modern evangelical more than the outworking of the teaching of faith alone.
This is very strange because faith
alone, or sola fide, doesn't suffer from lack of a good classical
definition or discussion. For instance, this is the Westminster
Faith, chapter 14, section 2:
II. By this faith, a Christian believeth to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of god himself speaking therein; and acteth differently, upon that which each particular passage thereof containeth; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principle acts of saving faith are, accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace.
John Gerstner says
Eternal Life depends on Christ alone — nothing, but nothing, else. Predestination will not bring it. Providence cannot produce it. It does not rest on foreknowledge, divine decrees, or even the atonement itself. Eternal life is Christ dwelling in His righteousness in the soul of the justified person. So eternal life is union with Jesus Christ. And the word for that union with Jesus Christ is faith. The sinner comes to Him, rests in Him, trusts in Him, is one with Him, abides in Him; and this is life because it never, ever, ends. The united soul abides in the Vine eternally. Weakness, sin, proneness to sin never brings separation, but only the Father’s pruning, which cements the union even and ever tighter.
This is the heart of the Bible. This is the heart of the gospel. This is the heart of Christianity. This is the heart of the saint. This is the heart of the Lord Jesus Christ. Those are the reasons it was the heart of the Reformation; and this is the reason the contemporary attempt of some Protestants to unite with those who do not even claim this heart of the life of Jesus Christ is to commit spiritual suicide. No lover of Jesus Christ can consent to this apostasy.
In Romans 4:5, Paul says "To the man who does not work, but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness." Gerstner says that this one verse teaches justification by faith alone seven different ways:
The Heidelberg Catechism says:
It is critical to note that in none of these cases, nor anywhere else in Scripture, is faith (or any other grace) represented as constituting some ground of merit for justification. ... On every occasion faith is presented as the means of justification. Justification by faith alone is never justification on account of faith (propter fidem), but always justification on account of Christ (propter Christum), i.e. on account of the blood-satisfaction of the Lamb of God being graciously imputed to and received by an undeserving sinner (Galatians 3:6; James 2:23). Ultimately, the ground of justification is Christ and His righteousness alone.
could go on and on, but there isn't any real point in doing so. I could
run scriptures by the dozen and cite preacher after preacher. Salvation
by faith alone has been articulated wonderfully throughout Christian
history. But it isn't being articulated clearly today. In fact, it
appears that today's evangelicals are unclear, uncomfortable and
uncommitted to a key component of the Gospel.
the problem? We're the problem.
What's the problem? Why does such
a wonderful and Biblical truth not only receive so little attention,
but why is sola fide compromised at every turn?
Some Christians are
uncomfortable with the moral implications of faith alone. The
is scandalous in its proclamation that God justifies the wicked by
grace, through faith. Apparently, that scandal has now reached into the
church itself, where it doesn't take any effort at all to find
evangelicals ready to contend that you can't "just believe" and be
saved without also becoming a "good" person. It seems that few
have contemplated just how radically different the Christian message is
from the message of "self-improvement" or "moral reformation."
There's a lot of skepticism out
there when a morally "bad" person professes faith in Jesus. What are
they up to? What's their real motive? It's the sort of skepticism you
don't hear about when the nicely dressed children of regular church
folk profess Christ. These days, the phrase "good Christian" crops up
everywhere, as if one were the same as the other. Of course, that's
ridiculous. The Gospel constantly turns this kind of preference for the
good and the morally decent upside down. If you haven't noticed this,
you haven't encountered the Gospels on a serious level.
But this discomfort with sola fide
for real sinners doesn't just extend to notorious sinners. It crops up
among Christians for all kinds of reasons. How about those who have
different political opinions than we do?I recently had a spirited
discussion on the subject of whether Democratic Vice-Presidential
candidate John Edwards was actually a Christian. Edwards is a serious
Christian, involved in ministries in the U.S. Senate, and active in his
United Methodist Church. Yet, evangelicalism is full of people who
suspect that someone who might have a pro-choice position on abortion
or supports the Democrats couldn't really be a Christian.
Sola Fide? Or Justification by politics?
What about those who are
Christians, but sin? Probably no question occupies water-cooler
theologians more than this. Of course, what we hear is more along these
lines: "That couple is living together outside of marriage. They can't
be Christians." "He says he's a Christian, but I know he
_________________ (fill in the blank with any of a dozen things.)" If
one isn't part of a denomination that stresses revivalistic, subjective
experience matched by immediate evidence of the expected Christian
life, then you probably can't realize how much this sort of question
occupies the ordinary person.
What to do with cousin Eddie who walked the aisle and still smokes, or cusses or "sins?" One doesn't need to look hard to realize either this isn't sola fide, or to conclude we need to talk about what faith means and what faith does.
Christians have defined "faith" as the force of believing. At
this point, we ought to take some time and examine what has happened to
the word "faith" itself. If you listen for it in evangelicalism, you
will hear far more- and far less- than the Bible means when it tells us
repeatedly that salvation is for those who "believe on" the Lord Jesus
Most often, faith is used to
describe what Christians do that causes God to act. This is the
"Word-faith" message. Faith is a force where I believe God and as a
result, I am healed or enriched or blessed. Building up faith is
building up this capacity to believe. So this is not resting on
promises or embracing all that God is for us in Christ. This is
actively, assertively declaring what is true. Faith is positive
thinking and, above all, positive confession.
The Gospels are a frequent source
for stories of this kind of faith. The stories present a person who
believes and, as a result, he or she is healed. But drawing the
conclusion that faith is a string that pulls God our way is a
misunderstanding of the stories in question. Faith in the Gospels is
knowing and trusting who Jesus is: the Son of God. Faith is
acknowledging as much as we know of Jesus with all we know of our own
Of course, this may imply that he
can heal or deliver, but that is not a function of the amount or
quality of our faith as compared to someone else's faith. It is a
matter of the compassion or action of Christ. The faith Jesus is
looking for among his followers isn't some mental/spiritual capacity on
their part, but simple trust and confidence in Christ himself. How many
times did Jesus point out the smallness of true faith? Even when Jesus
doesn't do miracles because of a lack of faith, the passage isn't
teaching us that faith itself is a force that makes things happen. We
should remember that the New Testament also has stories where Jesus
heals or does a miracle in the presence of unbelief, such as healing a
blind man who had no idea what was going on!
How this distortion affects our
understanding of sola fide is obvious. With this error, faith becomes a
force that pushes God's buttons. It changes our situations. People with
faith are blessed. People with less faith are sick or poor. The true
nature of faith- resting and embracing all that God is for us in Jesus-
is obscured, if not erased, in this distortion. (The issue of faith
that continues in times of suffering and loss obviously should be
discussed, but I don't have the luxury.)
Christians have lost the distinction between faith and works.
Another distortion of faith that concerns me is confusion on the matter
of what faith does. How
active is faith? How active is the faith that saves, sola fide?
I agree with John Piper that faith
is a worker. Two verses come to mind, showing faith from two different
angles. Understanding how these verses relate is critical to not
distorting faith. (BTW- I am avoiding the James passages you are all
thinking about for the purpose of getting us all to think a little
Here's the first: "Colossians 2:12 having been buried with
baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the
powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead." In this
verse, faith rests in the working of God, because none of us can "work"
our own resurrection, no matter how strong our faith! We rest in and
trust in God, and God works on our behalf. This is Biblical faith, at
Now the second verse. "Galatians 5:6 For in Christ Jesus neither
circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love." Here
faith is a working faith. Physical signs of the covenant alone do not
"count" as true faith. True faith evidences itself by doing what faith
does for what and whom it loves.
It is clear that faith without works is dead. But it is
also, just as clear, that faith ULTIMATELY rests in God, and embraces
all that God offers. Faith does not rest in our work. Faith works, but
faith does not rest in its work. Faith rests in God and all that God
has done for us in Jesus.
Not understanding this distinction
is a pernicious and harmful error. In the camp of those of us who love
the Gospel, there are many who make holiness essential to faith in an
unbiblical way. Make no mistake: where there is saving faith there is
Holiness. There is obedience. There is fruit. But we must remember two
things: We can not judge the presence or absence of these things by our
own standards. A struggling Christian may have far more "working faith"
than the first person that comes to mind when you think of a "good
Christian." Secondly, no matter what evidences of faith or fruits of
faith might appear, these are never, in any way, the ground or basis of
faith's rest and belief.
Works are incidental to sola fide,
even works that the Bible says always will accompany saving faith. It
is faith alone, not faith as accompanied by all its companion fruits
and evidences. Faith working through love is the Christian life. Faith
repents, believes, obeys. But we are not saved by repentance,
intellectual assent or obedience. We are saved by grace, through faith,
by Christ. Charles Wesley asked us to sing of active faith, and there
is no other kind, but the essence of faith is resting on Christ, and
whatever activity or obedience results is not to be confused with that
Here's a passage that says it
well: "Colossians 2:6 Therefore,
as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and
established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in
thanksgiving." "Received" is faith that surrenders and rests in the
Lordship of Jesus. That faith is the root and foundation of the walk
that is the Christian life. The Christian life is not a root without
fruit. It isn't a foundation without a building, but we are saved sola
fide: by the root and foundation alone.
Some Christians identify
faith with what is not faith. The Internet Monk
has devoted considerable space to this in the essays on the
invitationalism found in many evangelical churches. It is in affirming
sola fide, however, that faith becomes confused with things that are
Goettsche asks these questions in a sermon on justification by
Do you have to be baptized?
Do you have to eliminate certain vices? (Smoking, drinking, etc.)
Do you have to have to hold a certain theological belief?
Do you have to be a member of a certain kind of church?
Do you have to have a certain religious experience?
Do you need to prefer a certain version of the Bible?
Do you need to dress a certain way (eliminate earrings, tattoos, etc.)?
Do you have to say a certain prayer?
Do you have to walk an aisle or raise your hand?
These questions get to those
things which are identified with faith in a way that confuses many
people as to what sola fide really means.
Is baptism faith? Is baptism the
same thing as faith? There are Christians that identify baptism closely
with faith, in some instances saying that baptism creates faith or that
baptism is the moment of faith. The New Testament probably would be
comfortable with identifying baptism as the moment when faith is
confessed, but a whole Old Testament roll of saints, and many New
Testament examples, show us that baptism and faith are not identical.
For example, here is the Auburn
Avenue Presbyterian Church's statement on baptism:
By baptism one is joined to Christ's body, united to Him covenantally, and given all the blessings and benefits of His work (Gal. 3:27; Rom. 6:1ff; WSC #94). This does not, however, grant to the baptised final salvation; rather, it obligates him to fulfill the terms of the covenant (embracing these blessings by faith, repenting of sins, and persevering in faithful obedience to God). One can only fulfill the terms of the covenant by faith, not by works. And even this faith is the gift of God, lest anyone should boast.
This statement is typical of a
close identification of baptism and faith, but still preserving a
distinction that allows sola fide to be the affirmation of the church
(and that allows us to read the Bible honestly in the case of persons
who are not baptized, but have true faith that rests on all God is for
us in Christ.)
Is faith praying a prayer or
walking an aisle? These actions are often equated with faith by
evangelical preachers, but such an equation is wrong. Faith is present
before any of the actions of faith, such as prayer or confession. This
is why we strongly say that faith is gift created by the Holy Spirit,
and not created by human effort.
Where did evangelicals confuse
faith with the outward acts of a believer? Listen to Michael
Horton's words about American revivalist Charles G. Finney:
From the denial of original sin, Finney is free to move to a denial of the doctrine of supernatural regeneration. Like revival, regeneration itself was a gift of God, a "surprising work of God," according to the first Great Awakening. But for Finney, while the Holy Spirit exerted moral influences, "the actual turning...is the sinner's own act." The evangelist's most popular sermon, which he preached at Boston's Park Street Church, was titled, "Sinners Bound To Change Their Own Hearts." "There is nothing in religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature," Finney declared, rendering the charge of Pelagianism undeniable. "Religion is the work of man," he said. "It consists entirely in the right exercise of the powers of nature. It is just that and nothing else. When mankind become religious, they are not enabled to put forth exertions which they were unable before to put forth. They only exert powers which they had before, in a different way, and use them for the glory of God. A revival is not a miracle, nor dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of constituted means--as much as any other effect produced by the application of means"
With the ascendancy of Finney's
methods, his theology came along for the ride. Faith equals what
I do. Pray. Come forward. Give up _________. Have an experience in
worship or prayer. Do a specific work that has been labeled as faith.
Finney's confusion is now rampant
in evangelicalism. And sola fide, which Finney neither understood not
loved, is rarely heard in all its reformation- and Biblical- glory.
Christians have replaced Gospel preaching with law preaching.
The result of Finney's emphasis is churches majoring in "law
preaching." The Bible is preached without regard for the priority of
the Gospel message, and those passages that feature commands and
examples take priority. Preaching becomes advice giving, or at worst,
carping and nagging. The Good News isn't announced for us to believe.
The "Good Advice" is outlined for us to follow.
Is there a place for "law"
preaching? Most Calvinists think of this in terms of "preach the law
first," then bring the Gospel, and I don't quarrel with this model, but
listen to N.T. Wright describe the "announcement" that is the Gospel,
and then consider how "law" preaching might relate.
“It is important to stress, as Paul would do himself were he not so muzzled by his interpreters, that when he referred to "the gospel" he was not talking about a scheme of soteriology (big theological word that means “a doctrine of how we are saved”). Nor was he offering people a new way of being what we would call "religious". Despite the way Protestantism has used the phrase (making it denote, as it never does in Paul, the doctrine of justification by faith), for Paul "the gospel" is the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth is Israel's Messiah and the world's Lord."
If the Lordship of Jesus
Christ-demonstrated in his death and resurrection- is
the Gospel announcement that calls us to faith, then there is a place
in the church for hearing how those who belong to Christ live as his
representatives in the world. There is a King in the Kingdom, and a law
of the Kingdom. But as Wright says, this
is not a system by which we are saved;
it is a life response to a message that changes everything. If the
Gospel is clear, law and Gospel fall into appropriate places. The law
shows us our
need of a savior, and then the commands and examples of the New
Testament show us how one who belongs to Christ will live. The Gospel
announces the basis of our acceptance by the King, and the ground of
our standing in the Kingdom. Guilty rebels are receved as obedient
servants, because of grace, Christ and the empty hand of faith.
problem for the contemporary church is the confusion of law and Gospel,
and the marring of the proper place of each. All of scripture
serves the Christian who loves and follows Christ, and those churches
preaching Christian "life principles" are not intentionally attacking
sola fide, but they are confusing Christians by a wrong emphasis on
law. They are polluting and diluting sola fide with a misplaced and
wrongly amplified kind of moralistic law preaching, often without Christ
in his preeminent place as Lord in the Gospel announcement.
St. John Chrysostom wrote this on
"That He might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus." Doubt not then: for it is not of works, but of faith: and shun not the righteousness of God, for it is a blessing in two ways; because it is easy, and also open to all men. And be not abashed and shamefaced. For if He Himself openly declareth (endeiknutai) Himself to do so, and He, so to say, findeth a delight and a pride therein, how comest thou to be dejected and to hide thy face at what thy Master glorieth in?
Can we find a delight
and a pride in what our Master glories in? Or will we join the
increasing trend in contemporary Christianity, and further obscure this
great jewel of the reformation, and of the Gospel message?
Is sola fide too easy? Are we embarrassed at the riches of God? Are we like those who were annoyed at the generosity of a certain landowner who chose to pay everyone the same daily wage? If the master delights in faith alone, because it magnifies the giver and not just the gift or the recipient, will we find our joy in his delight?
evangelicals seem to think they know more than God does when it comes
to faith. It is God's surprising declaration in Genesis 15 that "he (Abraham) believed the Lord, and he (the LORD) counted it to him as
righteousness." Paul celebrates the surprising grace of God in Romans 3
when he says "And to the
one who does not work but trusts
him who justifies the ungodly, his
faith is counted as righteousness." May the day quickly come
when all the church can say "amen" to sola fide as part of God's
outrageous Good News; Good News for all of us who have no hope apart
from resting on the perfect work of our mediator, Jesus.