Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 9, Number 32, August 5 to August 11, 2007

Justification by Faith Alone

(The Sufficiency of Faith for Justification)

This article appears as chapter 5 in Justification by Faith Alone (Soli Deo Gloria Publications: Morgan, PA, 1995).

By Dr. John H. Armstrong

Dr. John H. Armstrong is the Director of Reformation & Revival Ministries, and editor of Reformation & Revival Journal, a theological quarterly for church leadership. He received his B.A. degree from Wheaton College, an M.A. degree from Wheaton College Graduate School of Theology, and his D. Min. degree from Luther Rice Seminary, Atlanta, Georgia. He is the general editor of Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Unites and Divides Us (Moody Press, 1994), author of Can Fallen Pastors Be Restored (Moody Press, 1995), general editor of The Coming Evangelical Crisis (Moody Press, 1996), and his latest book The Compromised Church (CrossWay Books,1998).

The late Paul Tillich, one of America's leading liberal theologians several decades ago, wrote, "Protestantism was born out of struggle for the doctrine of justification by faith." If Protestantism was born out of this struggle, then it stands that the greatness of evangelical Protestant religion will only be recovered when struggle for the truth of justification by faith alone is recovered. The problem we currently face should be obvious—evangelicals are moving increasingly toward Roman Catholic teaching and away from the doctrine of their spiritual forefathers. This is never more apparent than when we consider the present confusion regarding the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Had Martin Luther and his fellow evangelicals been willing to move away from the little word alone in their understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith, much of the struggle they were engaged in would have happily ceased. But in the process of such a move, the gospel movement which was underway at the time would have died a tortuous death and the fruit of the great revival, then ongoing, would have been tragically lost.

Just what did the Reformers mean by faith alone? Why did they steadfastly insist on this one word, sola, thus making the divide between Rome and the Reformation movement irreparable in the sixteenth century?

The Protestant Doctrine Stated

When Martin Luther produced a German New Testament in 1521 he translated Romans 3:28 as follows: "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith alone without the deeds of the law."

Here was the dividing point, the theological line in the sand. It may be said that this one word, alone, lit a doctrinal blaze that never went out. Luther, who was progressively coming to fuller understanding of the gospel as he carefully studied the Scripture, now stated the matter plainly. Great abuse was piled upon both Luther and his doctrine because of this one word, alone. He was accused of falsifying the Scriptures, of adding to the Bible, and of destroying the historic faith of the Catholic church. For Rome and its authoritative magisterium this settled it—Martin Luther was a heretic! He plainly added to the gospel of Christ!

It is helpful to recall that in 1521 Luther reportedly made his famous declaration, "Here I Stand," at the Diet of Worms. The gauntlet was thrown down. The reforming movement began to take on entirely new political and social tones as the German princes sided with Luther against the Roman Pontiff. Debates, councils and growing intrigue followed in ensuing years. This resulted in emperor Charles V calling a meeting known as the Diet of Augsburg. Here evangelicals were allowed to present a formal confession of faith. This confession, written principally by Luther's good friend Melancthon, was to have a most significant place in the development of the Reformation. This was particularly true in regard to what is called the material principle of the Reformation—justification by faith alone.

Melancthon, in distinction from Luther, wrote in very moderate and inoffensive terms. Contrary to Luther's fiery zeal, his spirit was naturally conciliatory. In spite of this approach two Catholic theologians at this Diet, Faber and Eckius, reacted very strongly against the evangelical articles, and especially against the doctrine of sola fide. They saw this teaching as a novelty that Luther and his followers held in serious variance with the long-held doctrines of Roman Catholicism. This event, and this particular doctrinal dispute, was so great that Roland Bainton wrote:

One might take the date June 25, 1530, the day when the Augsburg Confession was publicly read, as the death day of the Holy Roman Empire. From this day forward the two confessions stood over against each other, poised for conflict. 1

Efforts at conciliation and reunion would follow in the next decade or so. In 1541, at Ratisbon, an agreement was tentatively reached on important articles of faith, including justification. But in 1543 the open door for Rome to embrace the gospel was tragically closed by the Council of Trent. Here Catholic theologians, with some opposition from within their own ranks, pronounced their now famous anathemas against the evangelical teaching of Luther and Melancthon.

The Reformers never tired of emphasizing that justification is a legal or forensic concept. They insisted, properly, that this was the term of the law court. It is a word which described a change in status. As in Romans 5, guilty sinners are in Adam but pardoned and righteous believers are in Christ. Those who are in Christ are declared righteous because of Him and because of what He did for them. This understanding, they believed, was central to a proper view of Romans 4:5 where we read that God justifies the ungodly. The righteousness which justly declares the sinner to be right with God is properly understood to be imputed to him on the sole basis of faith. As the hymn says, "Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling." Surely, they agreed, this is the correct understanding of Paul's teaching. Faith is clinging to Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone. This faith brings the sinner into the grace which truly saves. Nothing less, and certainly nothing more!

Luther puts all of this very succinctly in scores of places. He writes, for example, ".. .actual justifying (formalis iustificatio) is left to faith alone, since without faith neither God nor Christ nor anything else is profitable for righteousness." 2

In writing to Cochlaeus, Luther states that on the basis of Romans 4:2-3, Paul is a greater champion of sola fide than he (i.e. Luther) is:

Note, then, whether Paul does not assert more vehemently that faith alone justifies than I do, although he does not use the word "alone" (sola) , which I have used. For he who says: Works do not justify, but faith justifies, certainly affirms more strongly that faith justifies than does he who says: Faith alone justifies... it is ridiculous enough to argue in this sophistical manner: Faith alone justifies; therefore the Holy Spirit does not justify. Or: The Spirit justifies; therefore not faith alone. For this is not what the dispute is about at this place. Rather the question is only about the relation of faith and works, whether anything is to be ascribed to works in justification. Since the apostle does not ascribe anything to them, he without a doubt ascribes all to faith alone. 3

In characteristic fashion, Luther expressed confidence in 1531 that the doctrine of sola fide in the Augsburg Confession would stand against contradiction and opposition on precisely this point. He wrote:

Of this article (sola fide) nothing may be yielded or conceded, though heaven and earth and whatever will not abide, fall to ruin, for "there is none other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved," says St. Peter (Acts 4:12); "and with His stripes we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5). And on this article all that we teach and practice is based against the pope, the devil, and the world. That is why we must be very certain of this doctrine and not doubt; otherwise all is lost, and the pope and the devil and all things gain the victory over us and are adjudged right. 4

John Calvin, the great theologian of the second generation Protestant movement, has perhaps the clearest statements of any theologian of the evangelical view of sola fide when he writes in his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion:

Now the reader sees how fairly the Sophists today cavil against our doctrine when we say that man is justified by faith alone (Rom. 3:28). They dare not deny that man is justified by faith because it recurs so often in Scripture. But since the word "alone" is nowhere expressed, they do not allow this addition to be made. Is it so? But what will they reply to these words of Paul where he contends that righteousness cannot be of faith unless it be free (Rom. 4:2ff.)? How will a free gift agree with works? With what chicaneries will they elude what he says in another passage, that

God's righteousness is revealed in the gospel (Rom. 1:17)? If righteousness is revealed in the gospel, surely no mutilated or half righteousness but a full and perfect righteousness is contained there. The law therefore has no place in it. Not only by a false but by an obviously ridiculous shift they insist upon excluding this adjective. Does not he who takes everything from works firmly enough ascribe everything to faith alone? What I pray do these expressions mean: "His righteousness has been manifested apart from the law" (Rom. 3:2 1); and, "Man is freely justified" (Rom. 3: 24); and, "Apart from the works of the law" (Rom. 3:28)? 5

Later Protestant confessions reflect this same understanding of faith as the sole instrument through which God gives the gift of eternal life. The French Confession of 1559 says:

We therefore reject all other means of justification before God, and without claiming any virtue or merits, we rest simply in the obedience of Jesus Christ, which is imputed to us as much to blot out all our sins as to make us find grace and favor in the sight of God.

The Belgic Confession of 1561 agrees:

Humbling ourselves before him, and acknowledging ourselves to be such as we really are, without presuming to trust in anything in ourselves, or in any merit of ours, relying and resting upon the obedience of Christ crucified alone, which becomes ours when we believe in him.

The Second Helvetic of 1566 is very explicit in affirming the same truth:

But because we receive this justification, not through works, but through faith in the mercy of God and in Christ, we therefore teach and believe with the apostle that sinful man is justified by faith alone in Christ, not by the law or any works.

And the XXXIX Articles of Religion of the Anglican Church concurs in Article XI that:

We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort.

It is important that we understand the Reformers' doctrine of sola fide clearly. Much misunderstanding did, and does, surround this affirmation. Two important conclusions must be seen to follow from the above confessions. First, the ground of justification is not faith. The "by" of the doctrinal statements is an instrumental "by." The ground of justification is Christ, and the Reformers would always be sure to add, Christ alone! Calvin is alert to this danger when he responds to opponents in his era by writing:

For if faith justified of itself or through some intrinsic power, so to speak, as it is always weak and imperfect it would effect this only in part; thus the righteousness that conferred a fragment of salvation upon us would be defective. Now we imagine no such thing, but we say that, properly speaking, God alone justifies; then we transfer this same function to Christ because he was given to us for righteousness. We compare faith to a kind of vessel; for unless we come empty and with the mouth of our soul open to seek Christ's grace, we are not capable of receiving Christ. From this it is to be inferred that, in teaching that before his righteousness is received Christ is received in faith, we do not take the power of justifying away from Christ. 6

I would submit that this kind of thinking is theologically sound, Faith, which is trust and reliance upon another, is the only appropriate instrumentality for being justified since Christ is the only one we trust and Christ is the one we rely upon entirely to save us. How can reliance or trust be meritorious or virtuous in any sense? Such is obviously an impossibility; thus the grace which saves the sinner is completely preserved by this theological affirmation.

The second important conclusion to note in these Protestant statements of faith is less obvious but equally important to their argument regarding sola fide. It is an argument which is much needed in our time when the relationship of faith to justification is discussed in a confused context. Though justification is concerned with legal change in one's standing before a holy God, and though faith itself does not justify but rather receives Christ who alone justifies on the basis of His person and work, the faith which receives Christ is itself the grace of God given to a sanctified person. Professor Paul Helm notes this point very plainly by saying:

. . .faith is the act of a sanctified person. One might say it is the most basic act of such a person. Although faith does not justify, a person must, in order to have the faith that appropriates justification, already be in a regenerated state, since the faith that secures justification is not a natural capacity or disposition but a divine gift. It is itself the fruit of Christ's redemption.... Perhaps the Reformers have been mistakenly taken to argue that because faith alone justifies, the faith that justifies must be alone. 7

Faith brings the sinner into a status that can never be altered, namely that of an adopted child of God. It is a once-for-all status. This is why the legal aspect of justification is stressed as it is by the Reformers. To confuse sanctification with justification would be to make internal renewal of the heart a prerequisite of right relationship with God. But to leave out sanctification, as if it were an optional extra, is to treat the faith that saves as something other than true faith. True faith always leads the believing one into the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit's work in our hearts always produces fruit, which is the evidence of the faith which truly exists.

The Case for Sola Fide in Scripture

The modern detractor objects—sola fide is just an argument which came from Luther's psychological experience and the medieval scholastic debates of the time. It is simply not the straightforward teaching of the New Testament. But, with Luther and Calvin, I am persuaded that if one understands the teaching of Paul in Romans and Galatians then sola fide really is the clear teaching of the New Testament. Luther's contribution was this—he brought to the light of day the clear and significant teaching of Paul's doctrine of sola fide. He did not invent it, nor did he rediscover it, at least in the sense that it had been so plainly asserted previously.

When Luther was attacked for adding the additional word alone to his German translation of Romans 3:28, he replied that "...the extra word was necessary in German to bring out the force of the original." Is he right in his assertion? 8

We should note several very important things that Paul specifically teaches with regard to faith and its relationship to our justification if we would answer this question. First, the apostle, referring to the faith of the patriarch Abraham in Genesis 15:6, writes:

For what does the Scripture say? "And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness (Romans 4:3-5).

It would be fatal for the gospel and Paul's entire argument to turn the faith referenced here into "work." Abraham's faith was not a substitute for obedience (cf. Hebrews 11:8). It was, to be very precise, a faith to (eis) righteousness, not instead of (anti) righteousness.

In Romans 4:3-5 there is a clear antithesis in view. The antithesis is not between the worker and the non-worker, but rather between the worker and the person who does not work but believes. This believing has a specific quality and direction, namely "(believing) in Him who justifies the ungodly..."

Second, Paul just as plainly teaches that believers are justified "through faith" (dia pisteos, Romans 3:25). And, later, in 3:28, it is that which is "by faith" (pistei). And, again, in 3:30 is "out of faith," (ek pisteos). J. I. Packer properly notes,

The dative with the preposition dia (through) represents faith as the instrumental means whereby Christ and his righteousness are appropriated; the preposition ek (out of) shows that faith occasions, and logically precedes, our personal justification. That believers are justified dia pistin, on account of faith, Paul never says and would deny. 9

If faith were the actual ground of justification, faith would then be a meritorious work. If faith were a meritorious work, in any sense whatsoever, then Paul is saying something that he elsewhere plainly opposes in no uncertain terms. In Romans 11:6, we hear the same apostle saying, "...if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace." Faith is not righteousness, or even a substitute for it. Faith is, rather, the empty hands of a believing soul reaching out to the One who justifies the ungodly on the basis of mercy alone.

Third, to make faith the only channel of justification is consistent with the emphasis in Paul's doctrine that works are entirely excluded from God's declaration that the believing sinner is justified. Romans 3:28 states, "For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law" (emphasis added). And Galatians 2:16 adds, "Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we may be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the Law; since by the works of the Law shall no flesh be justified" (emphasis added). The classic text for this is often quoted but infrequently appreciated. Ephesians 2:8-9 says: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and not that of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast."

It must be noted at this point that if works contribute to justification before God either before or after we come to faith in Christ, then our salvation is not by grace alone either. This leads to a denial of sola gratia as surely as sola fide. But what about the teaching of James? This epistle does not teach that justification is attained through meritorious works, or even faith that works internally by love, but rather that works give evidence of faith. James condemns that kind of faith which is non-effectual, i.e., a faith that is not genuinely trusting. Paul condemns works in terms of their adding anything of merit (or value) to the faith of the believing sinner. The conflict sometimes imagined between these two epistles is not to be found when they are properly understood. For contemporary Catholic apologist Scott Hahn to say repeatedly that Luther teaches faith alone while James teaches faith that works is misrepresentative of both Luther and James.

Fourth, and finally, Paul reveals in his reliance on Habbakuk 2:4 (cited in Romans 1:17), that he believes the godly man ("the just man") enjoys God's favor and life because of his trustful response to God. Paul says: "For in it (i.e. the gospel of grace) the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘But the righteous man shall live by faith'" (Romans 1:17).

It is grammatically possible that verse 17 is saying either "by faith" a man is "righteous" or "by faith" he "shall live." Luther opted for the first. Contemporary commentators such as Cranfield agree. Others opt for the second possibility. The first sense seems to make better use of the context of the epistle, but either way Paul is saying righteousness is absolutely necessary for salvation. But what is this "righteousness which is by faith?" How does man come to this righteousness? How does God give this to the sinner? Philippians 3:9 refers to this as "the righteousness which is of God by faith." It is the righteousness of God precisely because God provided it. The New International Version translates this Pauline expression correctly when it calls this "a righteousness from God" (dikaiosune Theou).

This "righteousness of God" may be taken as the act of God or it might be the provision of God. Either way Paul is talking about something entirely objective, i.e. outside of man. This is the obvious meaning of Romans 3:21 where Paul further says, "now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been manifested..." No law fulfillment by the believing person can add one iota to the salvation which is all of grace.

Further, Romans 4:6 says "God reckons righteousness apart from works" (emphasis added). The whole point here, as in verse 5, is this—God reckons righteousness, i.e., He imputes it to those who believe solely on the basis of their whole-hearted trustful reliance upon the gracious and kind promises of God (cf. 4:18). The concept of imputation, which is understood in the word "reckon" (v. 6), is synonymous with justification in this phrase. If this is not true then Paul's whole argument breaks down. His thesis is plain—justification is by faith and not by works, therefore it is alone, and must be alone, or something would, by necessity, be added to it.

And when Paul says this righteousness of Christ is "from faith to faith," he means that it is by faith from start to finish. It is a way of saying that grace is received by faith and by nothing but faith—i.e., sola fide. He backs this summary statement up at several points, such as in 4:6 where he says, "...the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works."

True saving faith, by biblical definition, must be alone—anything added to it would make it something other than faith. This idea is present in explicit statements, as we've seen previously, but it can also be seen in both the contrasts and the denials that we see in several of these same texts. "Alone" is part and parcel of the Pauline meaning of faith itself. If the grace of God is not given to man through faith alone, then what we call biblical faith is no faith at all. Either I bring something to the acceptance of God by grace or I do not. If I bring nothing then I am saved by, or through, faith alone. If I bring anything to God's acceptance of me as a guilty sinner, then I have some room for boasting. If I bring nothing then all I can do is rely entirely upon Christ and His righteousness. As stated in an old hymn:

Upon a life I did not live,
Upon a death I did not die,
Another's life, Another's death,
I rest my whole eternity.

Further, if justification is not by faith alone, as Paul reasons, then it can't be by Christ alone, or "by the righteousness of Christ." Why? Because faith means, simply, that Christ saves me, not the church, not my works, not another savior, but Christ alone! I can do nothing. I need do nothing but trust, and even this trust is graciously given to me by God Himself. Truly, there can be no room for human boasting in such a great divine work.

Rome Replies

Both in the time of the evangelical reformation, and in our own day, Rome has opposed the above understanding of sola fide. At the Council of Trent she closed the door on this biblical doctrine and today it remains both officially and practically closed. Discussions with Rome regarding our mission and the nature of Christian unity always break down when sola fide is properly advanced. There is a very good reason why this happens.

Three great issues were central in the sixteenth century debate. First, the nature of justification, or what is meant by this term in Scripture itself. Here, very simply put, the debate centered around the Roman confusion of justification and sanctification. For Rome these two truths are virtual synonyms. Second, there was the issue of the ground of justification. Here Rome's error was to substitute the inherent righteousness of the regenerate person for the imputed righteousness of Christ alone. The tendency of Rome at the time of the Reformation, when justification and sanctification were properly distinguished by the Reformers, was to make infused righteousness (i.e. sanctification) that which ultimately makes a person acceptable to God.

James Buchanan puts this quite well in his classic treatment of justification:

It is true, they spoke of the merits of Christ, and ascribed some influence to His sufferings and death in connection with our justification; but they denied that His righteousness is imputed to us, so as to become the immediate ground of our acceptance with God, or the sole reason on account of which He pardons our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight. The merits of Christ were rather, according to their doctrine, the procuring cause of that regenerating grace by which we are made righteous; while the inherent personal righteousness, which is produced, is the real proximate ground of our justification. 10

The third central issue in the sixteenth century, and an issue still as far as the modern disagreement goes, is the means of justification. Most contemporary Roman Catholic theologians, as well as the recent catechisms and confessional statements of the Catholic magisterium, still deny this Pauline doctrine propounded by the Reformers.

The error of Rome then, and now, is to deny that we are justified by the kind of faith which, to quote Reformation sources, "receives and rests on Christ alone for salvation, as He is freely offered to us in the gospel." 11 Rome taught that man the sinner was justified by faith in Christ, but it was a faith which was informed by love, the germ of a new obedience. This faith, according to Rome's understanding, is first infused into the heart at one's baptism, so as to delete all past sin (for infants original sin, for adults both original and past acts of sin). It is restored and renewed regularly via confession and absolution, which deliver the sinner from punishment for his sin.

The Canons of the Council of Trent, in 1547, give us Romanism's long standing definition of justification. In Canon 1 the Council declares:

If anyone says that man can be justified before God by his own works, whether done by his own natural powers or through the teaching of the law, without divine grace through Jesus Christ, let him be anathema.

Canon 3 also appears to have the same evangelical ring to it when it adds:

If anyone says that without the predisposing inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and without His help, man can believe, hope, love or be repentant as He ought, so that the grace of justification may be bestowed upon Him, let him be anathema.

How can we argue with these statements? What we must say is this—we agree with Rome that salvation is an act of God's grace alone. We agree, further, that contrary to much popular misunderstanding Rome does teach salvation by grace. Justification for Rome really is God's gracious act on behalf of the sinner. This is repeatedly asserted in Catholic affirmations.

The editors of the Roman Catholic Douay Version, however, make the following revealing comments in a footnote on Romans 3 and 4:

The justification of which St. Paul here speaks is the infusion of sanctifying grace which alone renders a person supernaturally pleasing in the sight of God. But justification, that is, an infusion of sanctifying grace, cannot be merited by us; it is an entirely gratuitous gift of God.

Catholic theologians have consistently argued that justification is "a divine act by which the sinner is internally transformed and becomes a new reality before God." Trent says "justification is not only the remission of sins, but sanctification and renovation of the interior man through the voluntary reception of grace and the gifts, whereby man becomes just instead of unjust... .it is brought about by God through the merits of our Redeemer, and communicated to men in faith and baptism" (emphasis mine).''

It would be useful to summarize, as accurately as possible, the Roman Catholic position regarding faith and its relationship to justification. Rome's view was, and essentially still is, as follows:

The merits of Christ's death are reckoned to the believing sinner not as the immediate and all-sufficient grounds of the sinner's justification, but only as a remote "procuring" cause of that "infused sanctifying grace" [given at baptism as we saw above] by which the believer would be perfected more and more, not only in this life, but fully in purgatory through the endurance of "temporal punishment." Only when the believer had been thus purged from all taint of sin could he be "made righteous" and thereby be justified in God's eyes and granted the ‘‘beatific vision.

Rome teaches is that only after a person believes, obeys, loves, produces good works according to the requirements of the church, and gives satisfaction to God by way of purgatorial sufferings, can he ever hope to be justified fully so as to be able to stand in God's presence and be fully acceptable. This is, by virtue of the New Testament doctrine of grace that we previously saw, a complete denial of the sufficiency of Christ alone to be the savior of guilty believing sinners.

Because of this kind of teaching, which Rome still purports to be a theology of grace, the Council of Trent declared, "If anyone says that a sinful man is justified by faith alone, meaning that no other co-operation is required to obtain the grace of justification.. .let him be anathema." And further, "If anyone says that justifying faith is nothing else than confidence that divine Mercy remits sins for Christ's sake.. .let him be anathema." 12

But haven't modern Catholic theologians seen this differently? Can't we afford to drop this insistence on sola fide because now we are so very close in our understanding of grace and faith? Not at all. Let me illustrate.

John Henry Newman, the famous Anglican clergyman who converted to Rome in the last century, was considered to be a mediating theological voice in regard to the debate over sola fide. It was Newman who wrote: "Faith is the sole instrument." But what does Newman really mean by this statement? Observe the context of his statement carefully. "Faith is the sole instrument as preceded and made an instrument by the secret virtue of Baptism. St. Paul, too, when he speaks of justification through faith, speaks of faith as subordinate to Baptism." And Newman adds, "An assent to the doctrine that faith alone justifies does not at all preclude the doctrine of works justifying also, though obviously not in the same sense!" (emphasis added) Because of this approach Newman can ultimately say what Rome has always said, "Faith justifies, because Baptism has justified." And, further, "Baptism is expressly said to effect the first justification." 13

Hans Kung, the modern controversial Catholic theologian, has expressed some of this same confusion, even though he proposes an understanding that appears much closer to that of the Reformers. Kung writes, "The sinner is justified through faith alone." But for Kung, as for Newman, faith generally means simple assent (a major error of both Rome and some modern evangelicalism), thus works and observance of the sacraments are added as also necessary for salvation. Kung adds, "What is all important is that faith and baptism belong together." And he concludes, further, "The sinner is justified through faith alone, but not through a faith which stands opposed to works." 14

This confusion of justification with sanctification and the attendant problems we previously noted can be seen in the new and much heralded Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), which says: "The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify us, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us ‘the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ' and through Baptism." What follows this is Romans 6:8-11. Listen to several other statements taken from this same catechism, which is considered by the Roman Pontiff and the official teaching authorities of the church to be the definitive teaching tool of the church since Vatican II.

Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy. The Holy Spirit is the master of the interior life. By giving birth to the "inner man," justification entails the sanctification of his whole being.

Justification is at the same time the acceptance of God's righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ. Righteousness (or "justice") here means the rectitude of divine love. With justification, faith, hope, and charity are poured into our hearts, and obedience to the divine will is granted us (emphasis added).

In none of the above statements is the biblical and Protestant doctrine of sola fide to be found. We must conclude that this is not simply a sixteenth century quarrel that is now finished with regard to the modern era. If the debate is over it is because evangelicals have abandoned their understanding of and confidence in sola fide, not because Rome has changed. If Rome were to change on this point the entire system of grace, merit and faith known as Roman Catholicism would be dealt a mortal blow.

Here is the Great Divide. Rome has taught, and still teaches, that justification is on the grounds of both Christ's merit and that of the sinner who, using the Holy Spirit's infused righteousness granted in baptism, performs the works of love and mercy that expiate sin and help in making him just before a holy God.

"By faith alone" (sola fide) became a slogan of the Reformation. But it was, and still is, much more than a slogan for theologians. It is a descriptive call to arms. It is, in short, the definitive issue in understanding how God makes a sinner just before Him. What the Reformers meant is that absolutely nothing else is needed, save faith in Christ and His work, to make a person righteous before God. And nothing can make him more righteous than he is at the first moment he believes. He is not becoming righteous, he is righteous! Thus, Luther spoke of being simul justus et pecatore ("simultaneously sinful while at the same time justified").

The Roman Catholic theologians of the sixteenth century were willing to concede that a man was justified by faith if that faith were clothed with love infused into the believing heart by the Holy Spirit. Since love is the fulfilling of the law, the Reformers saw this doctrine for what it really was, and still is—an attempt to support righteousness by the fulfillment of the law inside of us. Hence, the Reformers opposed this doctrine precisely because it was a subtle and deadly attack upon the free grace of God and the sufficiency of the alien righteousness of Christ to save us.

Attacks Upon Sola Fide in the Present Day

The church in every age is in constant need of reforming. The followers of Martin Luther in the sixteenth century recognized this need, speaking of semper reformanda (always reforming). Calvin and the theologians of Geneva also recognized this need. These theologians did not seek to "reinvent the wheel." They were not radicals, at least in the sense that this term has commonly been used. They were determined to express the gospel properly, believing that justification by faith alone was the articulus cadentis et stantis ecclesiae ("the article by which the church stands or falls"). For them the whole reforming movement hung upon this recovery. Here was the material of the gospel. Here evangelical religion was truly defined. Let him who denies or ignores the doctrine of justification by faith alone realize that he is no longer an heir of the evangelical movement begun in the sixteenth century. He may still use the term "evangelical" but he uses it merely as an adjective to describe his conservative beliefs. He must understand that he is not evangelical in the truest, historical sense of the term.

In our time sola fide is once again being considered by both serious theologians and interested laity. Increasingly careful readers of Scripture are coming to understand that justification by faith alone is central to healthy, biblical Christianity. It is vital that the church be shown the significance of this truth. A recovery of sola fide will clarify the gospel that we believe and communicate. It will strengthen our confidence in God to do His work through the proclamation of that gospel and it will enable us to build up holy worship which is supremely addressed to God alone. For these reasons alone we need to note several modern errors regarding sola fide:

1. Sola fide leads to faith placed in the proper person and place.

Contrary to much modern evangelistic terminology "inviting Jesus into my heart" is not the invitation of the gospel. This oft-used phrase, based mistakenly upon John 1:12, Revelation 3:20, etc., is not what the Scripture tells the sinner to do. The gospel tells the condemned man that he must "look to Christ" (in faith) as His substitute. He must "believe" and "trust." As long as we persist in thinking of faith as a mystical transaction wherein Christ comes from one place, outside of me, into another place, inside of me, we will have the tendency to fall into some of the same errors inherent in Roman Catholic confusion.

The gospel is the good news of what God has done outside of me in the actual person and historic work of Jesus Christ. This gospel is a message of historic, objective reality. It is not an experience, at least not my experience. It is the good news of Christ's experience—He suffered, He died, He arose and He ascended to the right hand on high. This is the message preached by the apostles.

The message of righteousness through Christ alone, imputed to me on the basis of faith alone, is a message grounded in something entirely external. I am "reconciled to God through the death of His Son" (Romans 5:10), not by my religious experience.

There are two aspects of God's work in salvation—His work for us and His work in us. In asserting justification by faith alone we do not confuse these as the church has been prone frequently to do. Faith, true faith, must be grounded in His work for us, not in my response or experience. A hundred ecstatic experiences and a moving testimony of how I felt when I invited Christ into my heart will not make me right with God. The essence of God's work within me is to teach me to rely wholly on His work outside of me as the sole basis of my salvation. Sola fide protects this important point, and the church today needs this protection desperately.

2. Sola fide sees ultimate personal fulfillment in the next life.

This doctrine preserves me from looking for some kind of internal fulfillment in the present life that will fully satisfy. If I receive the salvation of God by faith alone then nothing I can or will do can make me more His child. Our fascination with perfectionism is patently observable in the modern evangelical church. What we need is a big dose of the realism of Martin Luther who, writing against a man named Latomus from his cell in Wartburg, said, "Every good work of the saints while pilgrims in this world is sin." Because of sin none of us will ever experience, in this life, the fulfillment of God's salvation. The Holy Spirit, who lives within the believer, is a down payment on what is to come. He is not the fulfillment. That follows in the age to come. Justification by faith alone, properly understood, will preserve believers from much disillusionment in the area of expectations that are false and destructive of genuine faith.

Christ is our ideal Man, the only human person in whom God's purpose for man is perfectly fulfilled. In Him all aspiration is fulfilled, all hope is realized. Human nature is perfected here. This is the importance of faith alone, for through faith we are brought into union with this Man. He is the Man at God's right hand. His humanity is my humanity. His righteousness is my righteousness. As Paul writes, "In Him you have been made complete" (Colossians 2:10). I like J. B. Phillips' paraphrase of this: "Your own completeness is only realized in Him.

3. Sola fide keeps us from both antinomianism and legalism.

Justification by faith alone preserves the church from both antinomianism and legalism, both of which are rampant in the modern church. Romans 8:33-34 says, in part, "God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns?" Here we observe that the opposite of justification is condemnation.

It is faith that receives God's gift. God's gift is the righteousness of Christ. The justice of God, revealed in the Law, requires exact and perfect obedience. Man cannot be saved unless the law is fulfilled — every jot and every tittle. God does not look the other way when He saves the believing sinner. His holiness demands perfection. This is why faith alone is so important. The law must be honored and kept. If we are to be saved it must be justly and perfectly in accord with the demands of the law of God. Sola fide establishes the law. It protects against "cheap grace," or antinomianism, because it truly upholds the law. Christ's righteousness, which is ours in Him by faith, consists in perfect obedience to His Father's law in our stead, on our behalf.

This guards, furthermore, against legalism. Why? Because we cannot earn or maintain God's grace. We can only accept it with the hands of faith which look outside ourselves to Another. His sacrifice is vicarious. It is mine by faith, and it alone can satisfy God. John Bunyan said it well when he taught that Christ wove a perfect garment of righteousness for thirty-three years only to give it away to those who trust Him alone to save them.

The Holy Spirit's role in the preaching of the gospel is to bring men and women to the place where they put their faith in "the righteousness of...Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 1:1). This righteousness of faith is not a quality seen within our hearts, or felt by us experientially. It must not be confused with the work of regeneration or sanctification, which is Rome's error. This righteousness remains in and with Christ alone. John Bunyan, writing in Justification By an Imputed Righteousness, illustrates this well by saying: ". . . the righteousness is still ‘in Him'; not ‘in us,' even when we are made partakers of the benefit of it, even as the wing and feathers still abide in the hen when the chickens are covered, kept, and warmed thereby." Sola fide keeps the believer from falling into the legal ditch of associating anything done in us or with our cooperation contributing anything at all to our righteous standing before God.

4. Sola fide promotes genuine reformation and revival.

This doctrine of sola fide prompts genuine interest in true revival. The First Great Awakening in America most likely began in Northampton, Massachusetts, where Jonathan Edwards was preaching a series of sermons on this doctrine of justification by faith alone. As he set forth Christ and His righteousness one woman came under deep conviction and the spark of a great movement of God was lit.

In our time much talk regarding revival centers exclusively around experience. We desperately need the perspective of the gospel if we would pray for revival that will honor God and bring showers of true blessing upon the church. Revivalism, of the type seen in the past 150 years or so, has much more in common with Roman Catholic doctrine than sola fide. Until men and women cry out, "How can I be made just in the sight of a holy God?" rather than, "How can I find peace, save my marriage or remove the financial pressures of the moment?" I do not think we shall see another Great Awakening. As Puritan Thomas Taylor wrote, "The reason so few are willing to ask ‘What must I do?' is because so few will ask, ‘What have I done?'

Modern evangelicals, with their emphasis upon the infusion of power, security and peace are much closer to Rome at this point than most of them could possibly imagine.

5. Sola fide must not be ignored by modern evangelicals.

Finally, we need to guard against the modern tendency to ignore sola fide altogether. This particular tendency, due either to ignorance, willful distortion, or a lack of concern for this great biblical truth of the Protestant Reformation, is observable in many quarters. A recent example can be seen in the much discussed document Evangelicals and Catholics Together (1994).

Here we have a total absence of the truth of sola fide. One wonders what kind of evangelicalism lists doctrines that remain as differences between Protestants and Roman Catholics and ignores sola fide. This is precisely what was done in this document. I find it a sad day when evangelicals consider what unites and divides us with Roman Catholics, and this important evangelical truth is completely passed over in silence. Has Rome come to embrace the Protestant understanding of sola fide? Not at all, as we have seen. Has evangelicalism, on the whole, lost its grip on this truth? I fear this is so. All efforts to recover this truth are a welcome sign that the blessing of God may fall once again upon Christ's church. Let us pray and labor to that end!

Justification by Faith Alone and James 2

Those who hold to a Tridentine view of justification, denying that faith alone is sufficient, appeal to James 2:14-26 as their proof text. They state that the Bible never uses the phrase "justification by faith alone," which we grant, but that it does state clearly and emphatically that Abraham was not saved by faith alone. In fact, we are told there that Abraham was "justified by his works." James 2:14-26 reads:

(14) What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but he has no works? Can that faith save him? (15) If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, (16) and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, be warmed and be filled," and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? (17) Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. (18) But someone may well say, "You have faith, and 1 have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works." (19) You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. (20) But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? (21) Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? (22) You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; (23) and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, "And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness," and he was called the friend of God. (24) You see that a man is justified by works, and not by faith alone. (25) And in the same way was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works, when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? (26) For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.

On the surface, it would appear that Paul and James are at odds with one another. Paul teaches that Abraham was justified by faith alone and James appears to be teaching just the opposite, that Abraham was justified by his works. These are two differing views, it seems, and both are appealing to Abraham to prove their point.

It is not as difficult as it might seem at first glance to sort this out. The book of James is the New Testament equivalent of Old Testament "wisdom" literature. In the Hebrew mind, wisdom is how one lives. It is practice not theory, or, perhaps, it is practice based upon theory. James is answering the question, "What is a living, vital faith?", or what Luther called "a fides viva."

Sometimes, theological terminology hinders our understanding of the New Testament. For example, in 1 Timothy 2:15 Paul says that women will be saved through child-bearing. Now we know that women are not justified by getting pregnant. Words have different meanings based upon their context. And the Greek word for justification or justified is capable of at least seven different meanings.

In Romans, Paul is writing doctrine, and is addressing the issue of how a man is brought to peace with God. James is not writing doctrine but, rather, examining what is the essence of authentic faith, or the evidence of justifying faith. In Matthew 11:19, Jesus states that "Wisdom is justified by her children." Does that mean that wisdom is brought into a right relationship with God? No, Jesus simply means that wisdom is proved to be wisdom by the fruits of wisdom!

Strictly speaking, Paul and James are not talking about the same thing. Paul appeals to Genesis 15:6, "Abram believed God and it was reckoned unto him as righteousness." By faith, Abram (Abraham) was justified before God. On the other hand, James appeals to Genesis 22:9-18, a difference of seven chapters! In Genesis 22, God put Abraham to the test, and the authenticity of his faith was manifested (cf. 2 Corinthians 13:5). In Genesis 15, Abraham is justified by his faith. In Genesis 22, Abraham's faith is justified by his obedience.

James is not answering the question "How can I be saved?", but rather, "How can I know my faith is authentic?" We can see this from the statement in verse 18, "You SAY you have faith" (emphasis added here and below). The validation of the claim is given in that same verse, "Show me your faith BY your works." The faith exists already, but is evidenced by the necessary works that follow. My faith doesn't prove my faith to God.

He knows my heart; you don't. You can see my works but you can't see my heart. The works are a testimony to me and to you.

The noble Puritan Thomas Manton said, "By the righteousness of faith we are acquitted from sin, and by the righteousness of works we are acquitted from hypocrisy." The works of obedience add nothing to your justification; they are visible proof of it.

This is what Paul means in Romans 1:5 and 16:27 by the term "the obedience of faith." Faith is, in its essence, covenantal faithfulness or obedience. It is not that works are on one side and faith on the other, standing as opposites, but rather that saving faith, in its essence, is an obedient faith. The indispensable or intrinsic property that characterizes or identifies biblical faith is obedience. Saving faith will, in the nature of the case, produce works because of what it is.

There is no refutation of justification by faith alone to be found in James 2, or anywhere else in Scripture, for that matter. That doctrine is settled and safe in both James and Paul. May we preach it with confidence and boldness!


1. Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, (Nashville: Abingdon, 1950), p.375.

2. Ewald M. Plass, What Luther Says, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), P. 707.

3. Ibid., 707-8.

4. lbid., 717.

5. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, John T. McNeill, Editor. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), Book Three, chapter ii, pp. 748-49.

6. Ibid., 733.

7. Paul Helm, "Reformation and Mediaeval Views on Justification." Banner of Truth, November, 1990, pp. 13-14.

8. Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, p. 261.

9. James I. Packer, "God's Justification of Sinners." Christianity Today, March 16, 1959.

10. James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, l977),p. 116.

11. P. Gregory Stevens, The Life of Grace. Noted in Present Truth, 1974, p. 8.

12. Council of Trent, Canons on Justification, 9, 12.

13. John H. Newman, Lectures on Justification, (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1900) pp. 260-63.

14. Hans Kung, The Doctrine of Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection, (New York. Thomas Nelson, 1964), pp. 243-45.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

Subscribe to Reformed Perspectives Magazine

RPM subscribers receive an email notification each time a new issue is published. Notifications include the title, author, and description of each article in the issue, as well as links directly to the articles. Like RPM itself, subscriptions are free. To subscribe to Reformed Perspectives Magazine, please select this link.