[Common Places] The Five Solas: Faith Alone
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.
Should Protestants continue to celebrate the truth that justification is by faith alone nearly five-hundred years after the Reformation? Or is such teaching an anomaly in the history of church, such that it has provoked unnecessary divisions in the church of Jesus Christ? I want to argue briefly here that faith alone is a vital teaching of the scriptures, and thus it should not be jettisoned but celebrated and featured in our churches, colleges, and seminaries. To say that justification is through faith alone accords well with the other solas of the reformation. As Protestants we uphold faith alone since it accords with scripture alone. Furthermore, justification through faith alone testifies that our salvation is by grace alone, in Christ alone, and to the glory of God alone. In other words, to say that justification is through faith alone is important because faith glorifies God (Rom. 4:20), showing that salvation is not the work of human beings but of God himself (Jonah 2:9).
The vital question, of course, is whether scripture teaches that faith alone saves. Paul proclaims that justification isn’t by works of law but through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:20, 28; Gal 2:16; 3:10). Even more broadly he teaches that justification and salvation can’t be attained by any human works but only through faith (Rom. 4:1-8; Eph. 2:8-9). Human effort and works can’t save since all “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23 CSB). Nor should faith be construed as a work, as if faith counts as our righteousness. Faith saves because it unites us with Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen Lord, for through his atoning death and resurrection he suffered the death we deserved and has given us the life we could not attain (cf. Rom. 3:21-26; 8:1-4; Gal. 3:13; 2 Cor. 5:17-21). Our faith, strictly speaking, doesn’t save us; faith saves because through our faith, as Luther said, we are married to Christ, and thus all that Christ is becomes ours.
An objection comes to mind: is the claim that salvation is by faith alone confined to Paul? Other scriptural writers don’t use the formula that justification is through faith alone. Actually, even Paul doesn’t use these exact words; Luther added the word “alone” (allein) in his translation of Rom. 3:28. Remarkably, many Roman Catholic interpreters agree that Luther’s interpretation of Rom. 3:28 is on target. But that brings us back to the question: was Paul an outlier? Is he the only one who subscribes to such a teaching? Certainly not. When we reflect upon Israel’s history, the Lord’s work with his people was a work of grace and did not depend upon their works. The Lord did not choose Abraham and his heirs on account of their piety (Gen. 15:1-6). In choosing Abraham, he justified the ungodly (Rom. 4:1-5). Along the same lines, the Lord freely and graciously redeemed and liberated Israel from Egypt. They weren’t set free on the basis of their piety. Similarly, the Lord’s merciful restoration of Israel when it was exile is traced to his grace. Finally, Jesus’s ministry testifies to the free grace of God. We think of his table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners, the famous parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), and the astonishing claim that the tax collector rather than the Pharisee was justified, even though the former was a notorious sinner (Luke 18:9-14).
Justification by Works?
Matters aren’t so simple however. Roman Catholics like to say that the scriptures speak only once to the issue of justification by faith alone once, and the scripture denies it! James says that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:24 CSB). Does sola scriptura actually rule out sola fide? We must be very careful in assessing this matter. Slogans (like faith alone) are easily misunderstood and often misapplied. They can be understood in a simplistic way, in a way that distorts the scriptural witness. And sometimes Protestants have erred in the way they explicate the teaching that we are justified by faith alone. In other words, the teaching has sometimes been used to support antinomianism, and this is a fatal misdirection.
On the other hand, the best interpreters in the Protestant tradition were not ignorant of James, and they did not believe that what James wrote contradicted justification by faith alone. They believed justification was by faith alone, but true faith is never alone. We must understand that the formula faith alone doesn’t represent a simplistic appropriation of the biblical teaching that God saves his own. To put it another way, to say that justification is through faith alone doesn’t deny that justification can also said to be by works. The question that must be asked is what does James mean when he says that justification is by works. I would suggest, with a long line of interpreters, that James speaks against a false faith—a faith that is merely intellectual since genuine faith always produces good works. Such justification by works doesn’t contradict faith alone, for such works are the fruit and evidence of a living faith. Our works can’t be the basis our foundation of our justification since they are incomplete and flawed. James himself teaches that sin continues to defile us as Christians in that “we all stumble in many ways” (Jas. 3:2 CSB). Hence, the good works that we do can’t be the basis of our justification but are the fruit and evidence that we are right with God. Hence, James, rightly understood, comports with Paul and doesn’t’ threaten the notion that justification is by faith alone.
A final word about the practical use of the doctrine should be noted. If salvation depends upon God’s work and not ours, then we have assurance of our salvation. At the same time, we give all praise and honor and glory to God for saving us. We receive, accept, and rest upon the salvation given to us through Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord. Our salvation is by faith alone because only God could save us from the sin that has curved us in upon ourselves.
Thomas Schreiner (PhD, Fuller Theological Seminary) is the James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation and Professor of Biblical Theology and Associate Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. Among his many books, he has recently published Faith Alone: The Doctrine of Justification in Zondervan Academic’s The Five Solas series.
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.