A Close Look at “Sola Fide” (Part3)

January 8, 2006 | Speaker: Bro Jurem Ramos

  Several weeks ago we began looking at the vital doctrine of Sola Fide or Faith alone. This doctrine teaches that God by grace alone justifies sinners through faith alone in Christ alone apart from the works of the law. The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines justification as “an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ, imputed to us, and received by faith alone.   We have learned that many Christians have agreed with Luther that the doctrine of justification by faith alone is the article by which the church stands or falls, and that “without it the church of God cannot exist for one hour.”   In our past studies we have focused on the term “justification” by looking at the following:  
  • The importance of justification
  • The necessity of justification
  • The nature of justification
  • The source of justification (i.e., the grace of God)
  • The ground of justification (i.e., the work of Christ)
  Now we are going to focus on “faith,” the means or the channel by which justification comes to us or actually becomes ours. Today, I would like us to look at our study  by way of response to an article written by a critic of sola fide. The article I am referring to is found in the Feature Section of the Mindanao Times, Sunday, August 14, 2005, issue. The title of the article is “No Faith on Judgment Day?” written by Mr. Lafayette A. Lim. I presume he’s a Catholic and the purpose of his article is to show that the doctrine of Sola Fide or Faith Alone is unbiblical. He says that it “has no real basis to stand on,” and that it is a “disadvantageous” invention which is less than 500 years old.   Two things really struck me regarding his article. First is the way he brushes aside Paul’s letter to the Romans as a major biblical support for the principle of sola fide. He writes:   … While anybody can quote several Bible passages, especially from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, which seems to support the concept that we are saved by Faith Alone, they cannot do it without contradicting several other Bible passages. And when an interpretation of a particular passage contradicts any other passage, you can be sure that interpretation is false, or at least very faulty.   Usually this is because of selectively quoting the Bible to prove a preconceived idea or belief, without regard for what the passage is actually saying, or what the Bible teaches as a whole. This is eisegesis, or “forcing” the Bible to mean something that fits one’s existing belief or understanding on a particular issue or doctrine. . . .   The next striking thing is the liberty which the editors of Mindanao Times gave him to quote or use about 60 biblical passages in his article to prove that Sola Fide is wrong. This is the most number of biblical references I have ever seen in any newspaper article in my whole life!   I cannot answer every point Mr. Lim raises in his article but allow me just to address three issues.
  1. One, that sola fide  is a doctrine that is quite new, less than 500 years old and was never a Christian belief for the first 1,500 years of Christianity.
  2. Second, that those who believe sola fide  misuse the Bible.
  3. Third, that using a few passages from Romans or Galatians is inadequate support for the doctrine of sola fide.

I.             First issue: sola fide is a new doctrine.

Critics of sola fide say that this doctrine was never a Christian belief for the first 1,500 years of Christianity. This is an allusion to the historical fact that sola fide was only highlighted in the church beginning in the Reformation period of the 16th century.   In response, I will simply say that this is not true. Listen to a few examples of witnesses to this doctrine who lived during the 1st, the 2nd, and the 4th centuries. Here is what some Church Fathers had to say regarding the teaching that salvation is by faith alone:
  • St. Clement of Rome, (died about AD 96) (Letter to the Corinthians, par. 32)-- "Similarly we also, who by His will have been called in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, or our own wisdom or understanding or godliness, nor by such deeds as we have done in holiness of heart, but by that faith through which Almighty God has justified all men since the beginning of time.  Glory be to Him, forever and ever, Amen."
  • Irenaeus, who lived about AD 130 to about AD 200 (Against the Heresies, IV, 2, 7)--"Human beings can be saved from the ancient serpent in no other way than by believing in him who, when he was raised up from the earth on the tree of martyrdom in the likeness of sinful flesh, drew all things to himself and gave life to the dead." -
  • St. Basil the Great, who lived about AD 330–379 (Homily on Humility)--"Indeed, this is the perfect and complete glorification of God, when one does not exult in his own righteousness, but recognizing oneself as lacking true righteousness to be justified by faith alone in Christ." -
  • St. John Chrysostom, who lived about AD 347–407, (First Corinthians, Homily 20, PG 61.164)--"They said that he who adhered to faith alone was cursed; but he, Paul, shows that he who adhered to faith alone is blessed."   -
  • St. John Chrysostom (Epistle to Titus, Homily 3, PG 62.651)--"For you believe the faith; why then do you add other things, as if faith were not sufficient to justify?  You make yourselves captive, and you subject yourself to the law."

II.           Second issue: those who use the Bible to support sola fide misuse the Bible:

  To address this issue, I’d like to read from The Roman Catholic Controversy, a book about the differences between Catholics and Protestants, written by an Evangelical author, James White. In one of the sections of chapter 10, James White deals with this very issue of how we are to use the Bible in establishing Christian doctrine. He appropriately entitles that particular section as “Using the Manual.” What he wrote there is going to be extremely helpful if we are to defend ourselves against the critics who misuse Scripture in their vain attempt to destroy the doctrine of Sola Fide. He writes:   How we interpret the Bible affects our understanding of justification. . . . many times people build an entire theology on the minority  of references to a subject while ignoring the majority. Take for example a person who wishes to learn about the headlights of his car. That person may pick up the owner’s manual and begin looking through the information provided. Now, he may find a passing reference to the headlight under the topic of the “battery, and he may find something about them under “maintenance,” and something else under “safety inspection.” But if he really wants to know about the headlights, he will first look under the all-important topic “headlights.” If he neglects to look there first, he may end up with an unusual understanding of headlights by drawing conclusion only from passing references found in sections dedicated to other topics. While this scenario seems rather obvious to us, it is amazing how often such a simple truth is ignored when it comes to interpreting the Bible. Rather than going to the primary passages that specifically discuss a given topic. Many people build their entire theology on a passing reference or concept in passages that are not specifically about the belief under discussion. If you wish to know about the qualification of the officers of the church, for example, you go to the Pastoral Epistles, where Paul provides specific, direct instruction about elders and deacons. If you ignore those passages and attempt to draw together various references to elders and deacons from other sources, you run the danger of ending up with an unbalanced understanding of what the Bible, as a whole revelation teaches about the topic. Once those primary passages are consulted, you can derive additional information from other sources. But to ignore the primary places of exposition and the primary expositors of a given belief is to mistreat the Bible and end up with a false understanding and faulty theology. This is especially true regarding the doctrine of justification. The family of terms that make up the concept of “justification” (the verb “to justify,” the noun, “justification,” and the adjective “just”) are used in many ways throughout the Bible. Yet God has provided specific passages containing particular, direct, unquestionable discussion of exactly how a sinner is made just in God’s sight. To build a theology from other references to these terms—and then try to import this into the primary passages—is to go at the subject backward. Instead, we must allow the primary expositor of this issue, in this case, the Apostle Paul, to speak first; his epistles to the Romans and the Galatians must define the issues, for it is in them that we have direct discussions of exactly how justification takes place. Once we have consulted these sources, we can then move on to garner other elements of the biblical revelation that are found in tangential ways elsewhere. A frequent objection to this assertion goes along these lines: “You are making Paul a higher authority than Jesus or Peter or anyone else.” This is simply not the case, however. The Lord Jesus did not choose to address every issue that His Church would need to know or understand. He left many things for His Apostles to address under the direction of the Holy Spirit. For example, Jesus almost never speaks directly of the Church—he leaves that for the Apostles to discuss and explain. Does this mean that the revelation given thought the Apostles is somehow “less inspired” than that given by the Lord Jesus? Of course not. God has simply chosen different means of revealing His truth. We would have a lopsided view of things if we held only to the four Gospels. God has given us more than the four Gospels, and we dare not think that He did so without reason. It is not as if the Lord Jesus did not discuss the issue of how we are saved. He surely did. But He did not deem it proper to discuss the specifics of the issues prior to Calvary. In His sovereign will He left that to the Apostle Paul, who undertook that task with great energy and clarity in his epistle to the Romans and his epistle to the Galatians.[1]   If we are going to prove that the Bible teaches that justification is by faith alone we have to use as our major support Paul’s epistles to the Romans and Galatians. To set it aside and use other passages, however numerous they are, as Mr. Lim did, is to misuse the Bible.   Now let us turn to the positive teaching of the means or channel of our justification which is faith.  

III.          Third issue: Using only the books of Romans and Galatians is a weak support for the doctrine of salvation by faith alone.

  My response is this. Actually even just using these two books is adequate to support the doctrine of sola fide. Let me prove it reading large sections from the two books.  

A. From Romans (Using Today’s English Version)

From the MacArthur Study Bible: Paul’s primary purpose in writing Romans was to teach the great truths of the gospel of grace to believers who had never received apostolic instruction.The overarching theme of Romans is the righteousness that comes from God: the glorious truth that God justifies guilty, condemned sinners by grace alone through faith in Christ alone. Chapters 1–11 present the theological truths of that doctrine, while chaps. 12–16 detail its practical outworking in the lives of individual believers and the life of the whole church. [2]   In chapters 1:18-3:18 Paul proves that the whole world is under God’s wrath and therefore is in need of His righteousness to be saved. After his conclusion in Ro 3:9-18 that all men are sinners, he shows the purpose of the Law of God. (Note that all readings in this section are from the Good New Bible):   3:19-20  Now we know that everything in the Law applies to those who live under the Law, in order to stop all human excuses and bring the whole world under God's judgment. 20 For no one is put right in God's sight by doing what the Law requires; what the Law does is to make us know that we have sinned.   After that Paul shows God’s way of putting people right with Himself. Romans 3:21-26:   21  But now God's way of putting people right with himself has been revealed. It has nothing to do with law, even though the Law of Moses and the prophets gave their witness to it. 22  God puts people right through their faith in Jesus Christ. God does this to all who believe in Christ, because there is no difference at all: 23  everyone has sinned and is far away from God's saving presence. 24  But by the free gift of God's grace all are put right with him through Christ Jesus, who sets them free. 25  God offered him, so that by his blood he should become the means by which people's sins are forgiven through their faith in him. God did this in order to demonstrate that he is righteous. In the past he was patient and overlooked people's sins; but in the present time he deals with their sins, in order to demonstrate his righteousness. In this way God shows that he himself is righteous and that he puts right everyone who believes in Jesus. 26  (SEE 3:25)   Paul then shows that man has nothing to boast about. (Ro 3:27-31)   27  What, then, can we boast about? Nothing! And what is the reason for this? Is it that we obey the Law? No, but that we believe. 28  For we conclude that a person is put right with God only through faith, and not by doing what the Law commands. 29  Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles also? Of course he is. 30  God is one, and he will put the Jews right with himself on the basis of their faith, and will put the Gentiles right through their faith. 31  Does this mean that by this faith we do away with the Law? No, not at all; instead, we uphold the Law.   Moving to chapter 4 Paul proves that salvation by faith is not new. This has been the experience of their patriarchs, Abraham and David (Romans 4:1-16):   1  What shall we say, then, of Abraham, the father of our race? What was his experience? 2  If he was put right with God by the things he did, he would have something to boast about---but not in God's sight.   3  The scripture says, "Abraham believed God, and because of his faith God accepted him as righteous." 4  A person who works is paid wages, but they are not regarded as a gift; they are something that has been earned. 5  But those who depend on faith, not on deeds, and who believe in the God who declares the guilty to be innocent, it is this faith that God takes into account in order to put them right with himself.   6  This is what David meant when he spoke of the happiness of the person whom God accepts as righteous, apart from anything that person does:   7  "Happy are those whose wrongs are forgiven, whose sins are pardoned! 8  Happy is the person whose sins the Lord will not keep account of !"   9  Does this happiness that David spoke of belong only to those who are circumcised? No indeed! It belongs also to those who are not circumcised. For we have quoted the scripture, "Abraham believed God, and because of his faith God accepted him as righteous."   10  When did this take place? Was it before or after Abraham was circumcised? It was before, not after. 11  He was circumcised later, and his circumcision was a sign to show that because of his faith God had accepted him as righteous before he had been circumcised. And so Abraham is the spiritual father of all who believe in God and are accepted as righteous by him, even though they are not circumcised. 12  He is also the father of those who are circumcised, that is, of those who, in addition to being circumcised, also live the same life of faith that our father Abraham lived before he was circumcised.   13 When God promised Abraham and his descendants that the world would belong to him, he did so, not because Abraham obeyed the Law, but because he believed and was accepted as righteous by God. 14  For if what God promises is to be given to those who obey the Law, then faith means nothing and God's promise is worthless. 15  The Law brings down God's anger; but where there is no law, there is no disobeying of the law. 16  And so the promise was based on faith, in order that the promise should be guaranteed as God's free gift to all of Abraham's descendants---not just to those who obey the Law, but also to those who believe as Abraham did. For Abraham is the spiritual father of us all;  

B. From Galatians (NIV)

From MacArthur Study Bible: Paul wrote Galatians to counter judaizing false teachers who were undermining the central NT doctrine of justification by faith (see note on Rom. 3:34). Ignoring the express decree of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:23–29), they spread their dangerous teaching that Gentiles must first become Jewish proselytes and submit to all the Mosaic law before they could become Christians (see 1:7; 4:17, 21; 5:2–12; 6:12, 13). Shocked by the Galatians’ openness to that damning heresy (cf. 1:6), Paul wrote this letter to defend justification by faith, and warn these churches of the dire consequences of abandoning that essential doctrine.  Galatians is the only epistle Paul wrote that does not contain a commendation for its readers—that obvious omission reflects how urgently he felt about confronting the defection and defending the essential doctrine of justification.[3]   After Paul’s unusual introduction he expresses his astonishment in 1:6-9. (Read Gal 1:6-9.)   After that, he says that he received his gospel of justification by faith by special revelation. (Read Gal 1:11-12.)   Next he shows that he did not receive his gospel by consulting with any other Christians. This was another proof that he really did receive the gospel by revelation. (Read Gal 1:13-24.)   Then after that he showed that even when he set his gospel before the apostles, they did not have anything to say against it. (Read Gal 2:1-10).   And then Paul cites a particular incident wherein he even had to confront Peter for his hypocrisy. He reminded Peter of some basic truth of the Gospel message. Peter had seriously compromised the Gospel by withdrawing from fellowship with the Gentiles. (Read Gal 2:11-21).   Next he goes back to rebuke the Galatians believers in Gal 3:1-5. (Read Gal 3:1-5.)   Next he uses the experience of Abraham (Read 3:6-9).   And then he says that those who rely on the Law to be saved are really under a curse (Read 3:10-14).   You get the point. If you want a support for justification by faith, use the major biblical passages; use Romans and Galatians. Our faith is not unfounded. Mr. Lim is wrong when he says that the doctrine of Sola Fide or Faith Alone is unbiblical, that it “has no real basis to stand on,” that it is a “disadvantageous” invention, and that it is less than 500 years old. We need not be intimated by the critics of Sola Fide because we stand on solid ground.

[1] James R. White, The Roman Catholic Controversy (Bethany House Publishers: Minneapolis, MN, 1996), pp. 146-148.

[2]MacArthur, J. J. (1997, c1997). The MacArthur Study Bible (electronic ed.) Nashville: Word Pub. [3]MacArthur, J. J. (1997, c1997). The MacArthur Study Bible (electronic ed.) Nashville: Word Pub.