The Heart of the Gospel
Justification sola fide is the heart of the gospel and the broad Protestant consensus achieved on this article of faith is one of the greatest theological developments since the Chalcedon. Luther suggests the church stands or falls with this article1 and Calvin contends it “is the main hinge on which religion turns.”2 Yet there now appear to be fifty-seven varieties of justification available to contemporary Protestants.
Although justification sola fide may have been obscured somewhat by the New Perspective on Paul, the appearance of alternatives to sola fide is nothing new. Luther realized that every generation of orthodox evangelicals would have to contend for this article anew; he also understood that however many alternatives have appeared, they are all ultimately just varieties of the one common anti-grace, anti-gospel, and thus anti-Christ error or works-righteousness.
Justification Sola Fide3
The Reformers and their orthodox heirs argued that in Scripture justification is an act of grace in which God forgives believing sinners and counts them righteous through faith in Jesus Christ alone. More precisely, justification is a forensic or judicial act of God in which he does two inseparable things: negatively, he pardons or forgives individual believers all their sins and, positively, he counts or declares them righteous in his sight. Contrary to all cooperative or synergistic formulations, justification does not take into account or leave any room for an active contribution (works) on the part of the justified.
Justification, therefore, is by grace alone. The righteousness God credits to the believer is entirely Christ’s.
Justification, therefore, is by grace alone. The righteousness God credits to the believer is entirely Christ’s, whose satisfaction of the guilt and penalty due to sinners (passive obedience) and fulfillment of the law (active obedience) on behalf of his people is imputed to those who believe. Justification is received or appropriated only through the instrumental means of faith that rests in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. As such, justification is by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.
This formulation of the biblical teaching on justification, often abbreviated simply as sola fide, is not the exclusive claim of Lutherans—much less any other branch of the church—but the claim of orthodox evangelicals across Protestantism (and beyond). While important differences emerged around the edges of justification—on the imputation of Adam’s sin, the ground of Christ’s infinite merit and scope of his vicarious satisfaction, the proper use of the law by the justified, and so on—our evangelical ancestors carefully expounded and vigorously defended sola fide as a defining article not just of Protestantism but of the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
That said, sola fide was not only rejected by the Roman Catholic establishment at the Council of Trent but also criticized by many Protestant authors since the Reformation. Though contemporary critiques generally turn on more postmodern sensibilities, such as the renewed Western emphasis on communal identity, from another perspective they are little more than the tired critiques of previous generations rewrapped in fresh paper.
The error of works was the backdrop of the Reformation. The predominant family of medieval views considered justification a process through which God infuses a habit of grace into the soul of cooperative sinners, thereby making them intrinsically righteous to some degree and thus acceptable to God. Though a few counter-Reformation Catholics were more tolerant, Trent doubled down on this confusion of justification with sanctification and anathematized sola fide in its sixth session (see 6.9, 11, and 12).
Tridentine justification was not the only alternative to sola fide on the scene by the dawn of the Enlightenment, however. Some radical Reformers, for example, adopted the language of “faith alone” but defined justifying faith as something active through love, and thus inclusive of good works. Others explicitly denied sola fide, arguing sinners are justified either by faith plus works or on the basis of the transformation produced through regeneration. Either way the effect is roughly in line with Trent insofar as sinners are graciously made intrinsically right rather than declared right through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness.
Socinians went even further, arguing Jesus saves sinners simply by setting an example of self-denying obedience. On this view, God forgives sin out of sheer mercy and people are justified as they strive to follow Christ’s example. Though no one is as holy as Jesus, our “faith renders our obedience more estimable and more acceptable in the sight of God,” the Racovian Catachism claims, and it “supplies the deficiency of our obedience, and causes us to be justified by God.” What is more, “that faith to which alone and in reality salvation is ascribed [includes] not only trust, but obedience also.”
As the Enlightenment dawned, rational theologians also displaced sola fide with a limp moralism. Paul’s actual teaching on justification, Locke contends in Reasonableness of Christianity, is that sinners are justified through “faith working by love.” James demonstrates, he continues, that “faith without works, i.e. the works of sincere obedience to the law and will of Christ, is not sufficient for our justification”.4 Locke proceeds to argue that sola fide is pernicious to the divinely ordained order of justice and morality in the world.
For their part, Pietists decided the central claim of sola fide—that believing sinners are declared righteous without any regard to works—undermines personal piety. If so, then justification must be founded on some other ground than the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. In general, Pietists crafted their alternative around the two most defining points of their soteriology, and concluded sinners are judged right before God in view of their moral regeneration and the pious acts of their lively faith.
Pietist critiques of sola fide influenced later thinkers such Kant, who suggested the righteousness imputed to the regenerate sinner is his or her own future righteousness rather than another’s righteousness, and Schleiermacher, the father of Protestant liberalism, who reinterpreted justification as the expression of the consciousness of a changed relationship to God a new convert acquires.
With the possible exceptions of the broadly universalist schemes of Tillich and Barth, all fifty-seven or however many alternatives to sola fide advanced since the Reformation are just so many ways of suggesting sinners are somehow justified by works. Works-righteousness is the only ultimate alternative to sola fide and the natural impulse of everyone scandalized by God’s grace. Some smuggle works in through grace, others with faith, yet others under imputation. In the end, however, it little matters what tactic is employed: all alternatives to justification sola fide deny the heart of the gospel and rob Christ of the glory he is due as the only Savior of his people.
- Nachfolger, Hermann Böhlaus, D. Martin Luthers Werke, Kritische Gesamtausgabe 73 vols. Weimar: 1883–2009, 40/3.352.3
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1957), 3.11.1
- What follows is adapted from “The Eclipse of Justification” in The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands of Falls: Justification in Biblical, Theological, Historical, and Pastoral Perspective, edited by Matthew Barrett (Crossway, 2019).
- Locke, Reasonableness of Christianity, 118, 119.
Does the doctrine of justification make a difference in the way that we live the Christian life?
In the 21st Century, though, we not only continue to face that challenge that the Reformers had with the Roman Catholic Church but also a bigger task.
Central to our faith is the answer to this question: How is one right with God?