POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

Justification by Faith

One of our small group leaders had a question on the Protestant doctrine of "Justification by Faith Alone" from a young women in here group.  I thought the response might be helpful to some of you as well.  Here is the response:

The question takes to task the term “Faith alone” or Sola Fide which is a reformation doctrine summarizing the clear teaching of the Bible. Just as we do not go looking for the word “Trinity” in the New Testament, you will not find “Faith alone” repeated in Scripture as it is language used to summarize the teaching of Scripture. For a summary see this wiki. - In this article you will see that both “faith” and “works” matter tremendously in the Bible. The question here is one of justification – how are sinful people, made righteous before a holy and just God. Are they justified, made righteous, by their works…by doing moral acts which accord with the law of God? Or are they made righteous by union with Christ, through his work on their behalf? In the former, one’s works are part of the person’s justification – their works along with Christ’s sacrifice make them justified. In the latter, Christ alone, not works justifies the sinner who then in turn lives a life of obedience out of thanksgiving and reverence for God. It will not do to simply quote James 2 or other passages which tell us that we ought to do good works – of course we should. If one desires to reject “sola fide” they must deny the clear teaching of many passages which teach man is not justified by “works of the law.”

In this brief treatment I will first lay out some important passages which teach the doctrine of justification by faith and then follow up with some responses to “objections” – namely the passages which teach about the nature of our good works. There are many relevant passages in the New Testament, mostly in the Pauline corpus, which articulate the teaching of Sola Fide. I will comment on a few of them in turn.

Philippians 3

1 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.2 Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. 3 For we are the real circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless. 7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

In this passage Paul repudiates human accomplishment, even in religion, as a place for placing one’s confidence. He is clear that his zealous works, which were in accord with the law (the law of God and the laws of Jewish custom which developed over time) are in no way the place of standing before God for the Christian. Additionally, he says that “as to righteousness under the law” he was absolutely blameless. His works, his self-righteousness did not produce blamelessness with God, but only before man. His own righteousness and pedigree before placing faith in Christ, he says is literally “dung, doo-doo, crap, poop, rubbish.” He is contrasting this righteousness by works of the law with something else, a righteousness which is not his own but one that comes through faith in Christ. If one is trusting in one’s own religious observance in order to be made righteous, Paul tells us this is not a path which meets with success.

Romans 3

The entire first three chapters of Romans should be read leading up to the passage I will post below. Paul goes to great detail in Romans 1-3 to demonstrate several things. First, all are guilty before God and without excuse. Second, those who have the law, the Jews, are no better than the sinners without the law, in fact, they have more responsible as they posses the very words of God. They who know God’s law, yet break it, will most certainly be found guilty. Also, those without the law, have the law written on the heart knowing right from wrong. All then are guilty of transgressing or breaking God’s laws. No one is righteous in and of themselves…All stand guilty, all if judged according to their works and their hearts will be found guilty. The teaching of the Bible, as I see it, states that all will be judged by God according to their works. Now, Paul culminates with stating how one indeed is made righteous in light of our status as sinners and lawbreakers:

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. 27 Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. 29 Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one. He will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. 31 Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.

This passage could not be more clear – it is only through faith in Jesus that people are justified. It is by God’s grace as a gift – redemption (God purchasing his people out of bondage to sin, death, and hell) and propitiation (the diverting of the wrath of God from sinners to his Son) are received by faith. Paul is clear here and elsewhere that the gospel excludes all boasting, self-righteousness, etc. for it is the work of Jesus on our behalf, not our own good works, or law keeping which justify us before God. What is the outcome of this faith? A life of obedience, of living works and life which accords with the ten commandments…we uphold the law.

Galatians 2:16, 17 and Galatians 3:1-14

The whole book of Galatians should be read in this discussion – it is as strong an argument for Sola Fide as found in the New Testament. I will pull out just a few verses:

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
This is simply self-explanatory. No one will be justified by works of the law.
3:1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— 6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? 7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham,saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. 10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

The language here is quite serious. What Paul tells us is that if we rely on our works, we are under a curse. The Mosaic covenant included both blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. Under the law we are in bondage to it. If you do not abide by all things in the law, you are cursed. The essence of the gospel is that Jesus become a curse for us so that we would be redeemed from the curse of the law, the judgment and wrath of God, thereby making us forgiven and free from condemnation. Why? Because of our working? No, because of faith in Christ.

Ephesians 2:8-10 I like to share this passage with others along with a simple set of instructions. 1) Read it 2) Then ask yourself, which reflects the teaching of the Bible? So here is the passage:

8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Here are two equations – which reflects the teaching of this passage of Scripture: The “-->” is a symbol from Chemistry which simply means “yields” or "leads to."

  1. Equation 1: Faith + Our Good Works --> Salvation
  2. Equation 2: Faith --> Salvation --> Our Good Works

Again, works are the follow through on true faith, not what makes one justified. So now we can come to the passage in James 2, which is a passage which should not be sidelined in these discussions. I’ll place it here in context:

14 What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? 17 So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! 20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. 25 And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? 26 For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

A few thoughts in closing. First, a faith that is not accompanied by works is not biblical faith. When the Scriptures talk of faith, it is is a faith which will bear fruit, produce works, evidence itself as genuine. If one is saying “I love Jesus and trust Jesus for my salvation” but yet has not fruit, good works – James is telling us that such a person is self-deceived. THAT faith will not save anyone. The reformers taught that biblical faith was not just a simple belief, but it involves three things. They used the Latin words Noetia, Assenus, Fiducia. First it involves Noetia – Knowing – we must know the gospel and understand what Jesus has done. Second it involves Assensus or Assent – we must believe it. Third, and I would add most importantly – it involves Fiducia – trust. We trust Jesus with our destiny, that his working on the cross is for us, for me. This sort of faith produces gratitude and love. Which in turn will bear fruit. Jesus said “If you love me, keep my commandments” (See John 14:15-24) What does the word “Dead” mean in the Bible? It means a separation of the soul from the body, a vitality removed, the life is gone and the body is left dead. A faith which does not work is ineffectual, lifeless, dead. It is as James goes on to say in verse 20 – useless.

This is further brought out in the context as James uses an analogy of body/spirit and death in verse 26. Verses 21-25 have been used to teach “justification by works” – now if one does not hold to the divine inspiration of the Bible we could play James vs. Paul etc. I will not do this as I take the Scriptures to have one author, God himself. So for me Paul and James cannot and are not contradicting one another. In fact, it is interesting that they both quote Genesis “Abraham Believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness” (See Romans 4). The following is helpful in understanding this passage:

James’ famous text that has seemed to so many to contradict Paul appears here. What we find, however, is not a collision with Paul at all. Any allusion to his teaching only stands against the very misreadings of the gospel that Paul stood against, for example, “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” (Rom 6:1). The dissimilarities between the issues that concerned James and those that concerned Paul are much greater than the similarities. The way in which James used special terms, such as “works,” is quite different from Paul’s usage. James’ unique questions about the usefulness of inactive faith and the vitality of such faith were particularly his own. Finally, James was expounding upon the nature of faith, not on the question of salvation in the end. James was emphatic about the reality of judgment, but here he was restricting his declarations to the reality of faith. Who can and who cannot justifiably claim to have faith? This justification of the claim to have faith or the unjustifiability of that claim is what is in question. Only genuine faith can stand up under trial and thereby be “perfected” as it was in the case of Abraham and Rahab. These two figures are crucial, for they represent two who resisted the wisdom of the world in favor of God’s mercy. They are a “brother” and a “sister” (cf. 2:15) who serve as examples of authentic faith.

Kurt A. Richardson, vol. 36, James, electronic ed., Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001, c1997), 127.

So James and Paul’s purposes are different. James is clearly teahcing that faith without works is not real faith – genuine faith is shown forth and claims to faith are vindicated by the fruit/works produced. I have attached the full section on this passage from The New American Commentary for your reading… I hope this helps you address these issues – I think these things are central to the gospel and not small matters. Sola Fide, faith alone, is a term used to describe the doctrine of justification taught in the New Testament. Like the word “Trinity” it is not used in the text, but is a term we use to describe what the Bible actually teaches. The 5 Solas of the Reformation were written to clarify important doctrines, this being one of them. I will close with the London Baptist Confession's articulation of Sola Fide.

That those which have union with Christ, are justified from all their sins, past, present, and to come, by the blood of Christ; which justification we conceive to be a gracious and free acquittance of a guilty, sinful creature, from all sin by God,through the satisfaction that Christ hath made by his death; and this applied in the manifestation of it through faith.

London Baptist Confession (1644)