Sola Fide (by Faith Alone): is this sufficient for salvation?

Sola Fide (by Faith Alone): is this sufficient for salvation?

Frank Mobbs

As pointed out in previous articles, the two foundational doctrines of Protestantism are Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) and Sola Fide (by Faith Alone). Both are commonly called by their Latin names and I would not insult readers of AD2000 by using anything but Latin.

One can know a person or a Church is Protestant by reference to these two doctrines. Not that all Protestant Churches give prominence to them these days, the doctrines remaining below the surface of theological systems.

Recently I gave an account of Sola Scriptura. Here I present Sola Fide.

What is meant by "Sola Fide"? The simple answer is that one is saved or made worthy in God's sight by faith and by nothing more; that is, by faith alone. In order to become what God wants of me and make me eligible to enjoy his company in heaven, that is, to be "justified", I have to do no more than have faith.

The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord of the Lutheran Churches, dated 1571 - a creed of Protestants - says: "Indeed, neither contrition nor love nor any other virtue, but faith alone is the means by which we can reach forth and obtain the grace of God, the merit of Christ and the remission of sin."

What is faith?

The language here is unfamiliar to most Catholics. They do not go around wondering whether they are justified and whether they are justified by faith. But what is this faith? The simple answer is: faith is believing that Christ Jesus by his life and his death on the cross has done all that is needed to bring about the blessed state of my salvation.

So we note that faith is the having of a belief. If we had no beliefs we could not have faith. We have thousands of beliefs but only one is faith. Which one? A unique belief - that Christ's actions have made my sins of no account and made me pleasing to God. Merely having this belief guarantees my salvation (everlasting happiness).

This belief which is faith is not brought about by any choice a person makes but is effected by God alone. Otherwise, the believer might claim credit for his faith and the Reformation tradition has a horror of meritorious acts.

Such horror was evidenced in England in 1581 when the Anglican theologians, Goode and Fulke, were examining the Jesuit, Edmund Campion, prior to condemning him to death.

Goode: "Can you love God above all things and your neighbour as yourself? Can you love him with all your heart, with all your soul and all your strength?"

Campion: "I can. For when I prefer God to all things and love him chiefly, I love him above all."

Goode: "Note that blasphemous absurdity."

Campion was hanged.

The doctrine is commonly presented in one way by Protestant preachers and in a different way by Protestant scholars. (These two ways are to be found also amongst Catholics and Orthodox.) At the popular level, the preacher, in the course of an impassioned sermon accompanied by a 15-piece band, urges his audience to come forward and signify that they have faith and so are saved. The believer experiences a liberation from anxiety about his relationship with God, often with a sense of exhilaration. Thousands of Catholics do this every day in Latin America.

In contrast, the theologians differ markedly about the meaning and value of the doctrine, meticulously examining scriptural texts to support contradictory interpretations. Since the 16th century there have been important differences regarding Sola Fide among Protestant Churches, resulting in condemnations and even executions of Protestant opponents.

A little background information will be helpful in understanding the doctrine.

Luther and the Reformers in general taught that men lack free will with regard to gaining salvation, as a consequence of original sin. Their wills are chained to sin: they can do nothing good. "Free will as constituted apart from grace has simply no faculty for righteousness, but is necess- arily in sins", wrote Luther. Even temptation is a sin. "The commandment: 'You shall not have sinful appetites' shows that all of us are sinners" (The Freedom of a Christian).

The Solid Declaration says: "Whatsoever is not of faith is sin. For the person must first be accepted of God, and that for the sake of Christ alone, if also the works of that person are to please Him." The Westminster Confession, 1647, a Calvinist creed of Presbyterian Churches, contains: "Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation".

Doctrine of works

Given this conviction it is no wonder people searched desperately for some way of becoming acceptable to God. Faith, say the Reformers, is the one and only way.

It is worth remarking that such a doctrine discredits God, for if our will is unfree, then God is unjust in condemning us.

When people are converted to Christ, believing that they have been saved, their sins are forgiven but remain - they are as sinful as ever - say the Reformers. God puts a cloak over sins, as if pretending they do not exist. Thus one remains simul justus et peccator (both sinner and righteous at the same time).

In contrast, Catholics and Orthodox believe that forgiven sins cease to exist, so God does not go through the dubious procedure of deceiving himself but accepts one as sinless and as his adopted child.

Why the insistence on the claim that this one belief is all that is needed to effect salvation? With what is it being contrasted? The Catholic doctrine of "works", namely, that God rewards with salvation those who both believe in Jesus and also lovingly obey him.

Luther and the other leaders of the Reformation were fixated on St Paul's Letter to the Romans. It was in writing his commentary on Romans that Luther worked out his novel doctrine. Today, if you fall into the hands of a Protestant evangelist, he will rush you to Romans 3:27-28 where we find: "Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On the principle of works? No, but on the principle of faith. For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law."

According to the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England (art. XI), "We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our works or deservings". However, today the Articles lack authority in many parts of the Anglican Communion.

That quotation from Romans seems to settle the question for a Christian. Does it?

Jesus' teaching

Note that the quotation comes in the course of a long and complex and obscure argument of St Paul to the effect that Christian gentiles (non- Jews) are not bound to observe the 613 prescriptions of Torah (the Law). True. However, Paul has already written: "For [God] will render to every man according to his works"; and also that the judgement of God fell on those who practised "envy, murder, strife", etc.

In his First Letter to the Corinthians 6:9-10, Paul writes: "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God, neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers ... will inherit the kingdom of God."

So God judges one on his works (deeds). Paul does not say that a Christian is not bound, as a necessary condition of salvation, to observe the commands of the Lord Jesus. Refusing to do evil works and striving to do good ones are conditions of salvation. In First Corinthians, Paul delivers his famous praise of love (charity) as being greater in importance than faith and hope, though all three are necessary. That is not faith alone.

But there is a greater authority than St Paul - Jesus the Christ. His teaching on the behaviour he requires of a disciple is frankly one of reward and punishment for one's choices, in line with Old Testament teaching. The spectacular example of this is his well-known depiction of the Last Judgement in Matthew 25: 31-46, where Christ will reward those who feed the hungry, etc, and punish those who refused to do so.

His Sermon on the Mount demands works and promises rewards for performing them. If anyone taught salvation by works it was the Lord himself. That is not his only requirement, for elsewhere he frequently prescribes faith in him. It might be a good idea to consult the clear words of Jesus before going to the complexities of Paul.

The Reformers meant by "faith" both the believing of Christ's claims about himself and also deep trust in him. Thus they made a distinction without a difference from traditional Catholic teaching, for they simply conflated the traditional virtues praised by St Paul - faith and hope. Whereas tradition spoke of faith and hope as distinct virtues, Luther and others combined them. The Catholic Church had never believed and taught one could be saved by faith without trust (hope) in Christ's promises.

It might well be concluded from the doctrine of Sola Fide that the one having faith has no obligations, no works to perform - such as keeping the Ten Commandments and loving God above all and one's neighbour - in order to enjoy blessedness with God. (These days one hears a similar message from some Catholic pulpits: "God loves you unconditionally", followed by the song, Come as You Are.)

Luther's words on this are interesting: "Inwardly, and as regards the soul, a man is sufficiently justified by faith ... He is joyful and glad on account of Christ who has done so much for him. All his pleasure consists in serving God in return, without reward, and out of unconstrained love."

So one who has come to have faith automatically does what God commands. Presumably God has deprived him of free will, which leads to Calvin's doctrine of predestination; that is, God has settled our eternal fate before we do anything.

Deleting predestination, we ask Luther: Suppose a justified man does not serve God - what then? Experience soon taught the Reformers that those who evidenced conversion to faith often fell into manifest sin, some even lapsing into the unregenerate Catholic Church and its teaching that good works are necessary to salvation. Faith did not automatically produce the doing of God's will.

The Reformers' defences against this conclusion were perfect: if one fell into sin, he showed that he never had saving faith in the first place! Thus faith is defined as faith plus works or F= (F+W). So why all the fuss about faith alone?

Accompanying the doctrine of Faith Alone is that of the assurance of salvation. Luther wrote: "Now you see how rich is the Christian man; for, though he will, he cannot lose his salvation, however great his sins may be, unless he refuse to believe. No sin can damn him, but unbelief alone" (Babylonian Captivity).

"Are you saved?" is a question often put by Protestant evangelists. "You poor Catholics are not even sure of your salvation." But this doctrine is held weakly by many Protestants and has been dropped by others.

The Reformers had to face the charge that they were contradicting the Lord's teaching as recorded in the Gospels, as well as some of those of St Paul. They tied themselves in knots to offer an explanation.

The Catholic Church had always taught that God's grace or help was necessary for our salvation but not sufficient in the case of adults. Theologians spoke of fides and fides formata, faith and faith infused with charity ("faith working through love") and it is the latter which renders us pleasing to God. The Reformed doctrine was so counter to the evidence of the Lord's teachings that the Council of Trent had no hesitation in condemning it in 1547.

Dr Frank Mobbs is a former lecturer at universities and seminaries and has written extensively on philosophical and theological issues. He has been a regular contributor to AD2000.

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