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[Common Places] Reading Notes: Faith Alone

Categories Theology Common Places

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This year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, looking back to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and the theological debates kick-started by their posting. The Reformation continues to be lauded, cajoled, and debated in circles of all sorts today. At Common Places we will begin the year by focusing on some of the central principles and most relevant texts that shaped early Reformation theology and that have continued that conversation in the centuries that followed. Each month we will begin with a post related to an ongoing book project from Zondervan Academic that addresses the five solas of Reformation theology. We will then conclude each month with an annotated reading guide on classic and contemporary works that address that particular principle.

In September 1530, while Philip Melanchthon was at the Diet of Augsburg engaged in a struggle with Johann Eck about the role of faith in justification, Martin Luther wrote an open letter on his translation of Romans 3:28 and his decision to insert the word “alone”—i.e. “we maintain that man is justified without the works of the law, by faith alone,” (allein durch den Glauben; per solum fidem). This was hardly the beginning of what became one of the hallmarks of Reformation theology, but Luther’s German translation is the most famous and influential moment of the Reformation solas.

Luther defended the translation from a variety of angles including his desire to translate in a natural German idiom. But the heart of the matter was theological: “Just tell me: Is Christ’s death and resurrection our work, that we do, or not? Of course it is not our work, nor is it the work of any law. … Tell me further: what is the work by which we take hold of Christ’s death and resurrection? It cannot be any external work, but only the eternal faith that is in the heart. Faith alone, indeed all alone, without any works, takes hold of this death and resurrection when it is preached through the gospel. … faith alone coveys, grasps, and imparts this life and righteousness” (An Open Letter on Translating, 1530).

Luther is not the only theologian to teach and expound upon justification by faith alone, but his writings bear the greatest influence and impress their stamp on almost every other theologian in the Reformation period, whether they agree or not. For this reason, the reading recommendations will lean heavily on literature by and about Luther and the context of his own doctrinal development.

The preeminence of faith in Luther’s thought is already present in his earliest lectures in which faith is not just one of the three theological virtues so prominent in medieval theology but the very mediation of Christ’s presence to the believer (see, for example, Reinhard Schwarz, Fides, Spes, et Caritas beim jungen Luther). As such, it is faith not love that delineates the boundary of church in Luther’s earliest ecclesiology (Scott Hendrix, Ecclesia in Via).

As Luther turns to Paul (e.g. Romans, 1515-1516) he finds faith as that which pairs exclusively with the gospel and the righteousness of God, in contrast to the pairing of works, law, and human righteousness. For Luther, this exclusivity of faith is not the setting forth of a new standard of necessary doctrinal content (notitia) or even a new conviction of said doctrine’s truth (assensus). Rather this faith is the living trust (fiducia) in God’s promise that through Christ our present sin will not be counted against us and that our future eternal life will be free from sin. Hans Joachim Iwand’s treatment of this line of thought, The Righteousness of Faith According to Luther (1941), is immensely important and explores more fully Luther’s eschatological orientation of faith, and sets forth the salvation historical significance of Christ’s death and resurrection in a way that anticipates the “inaugurated eschatology” (“now/not yet”) of Oscar Cullmann’s Christ and Time (1945).

By 1520, Luther developed the concept of sola fide even further, holding that, as the correlative of the divine promise, faith not only anticipates but actually receives a new reality. This coincides with his deeper reflections on the nature of God’s word which is itself a creative act (Luther calls this a “deed-word,” or a “tettelwort”). In this manner, Luther reinterprets the entire sacramental system (The Babylonian Captivity, 1520), bringing the dynamic of promise and faith into the center of that which mediates God’s grace. The seminal treatment of this aspect of Luther’s doctrine is the essay by Ernst Bizer, Fides Ex Auditu (1961) along with Oswald Bayer’s subsequent and highly influential work (see especially Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation and Living By Faith). With a similar emphasis on the dynamic between faith and promise, Phillip Cary has written a brief and very helpful comparative study on the function of faith within Lutheran and Reformed piety, “Why Luther Is Not Quite Protestant: The Logic Of Faith In A Sacramental Promise,” in Pro Ecclesia 14 (September 2005): 447-486.

Luther would go on to write extensively about faith, clarifying further aspects of its centrality for the Christian life. In 1520, Luther published his Treatise on Good Works, an exposition of the Ten Commandments that interprets the first commandment as the commandment of faith, even faith in Christ: “This faith, trust, and confidence which come from the bottom of the heart, are the true fulfillment of the first commandment. … Thus, faith does not originate with works, nor do works manufacture faith. Instead, faith must spring and flow from the blood, wounds, and death of Christ.” Likewise, Luther’s catechisms of 1529, especially his exposition of the first commandment in the Large Catechism, focus on the nature of faith: “to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart. As I have often said, it is the trust and faith of the heart alone that make both God and idol. … For these two belong together, faith and God. Anything on which heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.”

Though faith remains a gift from God, the art of living by faith is filled with struggle. Luther recognized that doubts and fears may arise from within or may come from the evil one, but they may also come from God who tests our faith in his felt distance or apparent hostility. In these moments, faith must more ardently cling to God clothed in his promises—even against God felt or experienced. Perhaps the most striking of Luther’s reflections on such faith come in his sermon on Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman (Church Postils, Matthew 15:21-28) and his exposition of the wrestling of Jacob with God in his Genesis Lectures.

Finally, one can hardly offer a list of required reading on the Reformation teaching of sola fide without mentioning Luther’s Galatians Commentary of 1535. There the doctrine of faith appears as both a deeply embedded effort to interpret Paul and as a vivid example of how it orients a lively theology of pastoral care.

Other reformers affirmed many of Luther’s emphases on faith in the doctrine of justification. Ulrich Zwingli, Philip Melanchthon, Martin Bucer, and John Calvin all stressed the role of faith as the correlative to Christ who is the exclusive source and means of our justification and salvation. While Melanchthon’s exposition of justification by faith in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession was most influential among Lutherans (see especially Charles Arand’s detailed analysis “Melanchthon’s Rhetorical Argument for Sola Fide in the Apology.” Lutheran Quarterly 14 (2000): 280-308), Calvin’s magisterial Institutes of the Christian Religion take pride of place among the Reformed. Distinctive in Calvin’s teaching are his careful clarifications of sola fide, namely, that faith is not righteousness itself but only the means and vehicle by which Christ and his righteousness is received, and secondly, that justification by faith alone does not exclude sanctification but, through one’s union to Christ, makes sanctification possible. Barbara Pitkin has produced a very helpful and detailed examination of the development Calvin’s teaching on faith throughout his commentaries and various editions of the Institutes in her book, What Pure Eyes Could See: Calvin’s Doctrine of Faith in Its Exegetical Context

There is a lovely French saying: La bibliographie est le vestibule de la science—“Bibliography is the vestibule of knowledge.” When it comes to the bibliography on sola fide this reading list seems like it has barely moved past the front porch. In the centuries after the Reformation, much would still be written on the topic, from John Owen to Jonathan Edwards, Karl Barth to Eberhard Jüngel, Alister McGrath to R. C. Sproul. But that list must really wait for another time. I suspect the list above will keep us all plenty busy, and, God willing, move us beyond the vestibule and into the living quarters of faith.


Erik H. Herrmann is Associate Professor of Historical Theology at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and the director of the Center for Reformation Research. His research focuses largely on Martin Luther and the history of exegesis. His most recent publications include essays in The Oxford Handbook to Martin Luther’s Theology, The Oxford Research Encyclopedia on Martin Luther, and The Annotated Luther.


Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction

Our current series, The Five Solas, offers doctrinal and exegetical entries to the key principles of the Protestant movement in the sixteenth century.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors

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