Some thoughts on Sola Fide

Sola fide.

Sola fide otherwise known as the Doctrine of Justification by Faith is the controversial doctrine that distinguishes most Protestant denominations from Roman Catholicism.

This basically sums up the rift that was opened between Luther and the Medieval Roman Catholic Church.

Historic Protestant theology upholds that the only instrumental cause of justification (or being made right with God), from the human perspective, is faith. While God is the ultimate cause of justification, Protestants believe that faith in Christ through the message of the Gospel is important. There are no works, no matter how meritorious they may seem, that can add to justification. This doctrine, according to Protestants, finds its roots in the teachings of Paul but was obscured in the middle ages and restored during the Reformation.

The rift is still there and the divide is still as great (perhaps even greater) than it was 500 years ago.

I remember the countless times that I’ve seen over-zealous self-proclaimed Evangelical Protestant Apologists would fire reckless words about Roman Catholics preaching what they call: “a gospel of works.”

This is a common scene (or better yet a: ‘sticky thread’) on the Bereans Apologetics Research Ministry online discussion board, where Born Again Christians in the board would go on and on in talking about how Catholics got it wrong when it comes to salvation where in retaliation Roman Catholic apologists would more than willing to oblige in a proof-text bout that costs both of them their witness to Christ whom they both proclaim to serve.

I confess that I am among those zealous Bible Christians who at one point in my life looked forward to debates like that on the Bereans forum, I admit that I rejoiced at the fact that I can proof-text my point enough to have my Roman Catholic opponent concede his point against mine.

Even as my ego is stroked by my apparent victory in such debates I am at the same time faced with the question of how do Christians enter into a relationship with God before Luther articulated it into the doctrine that we have now come to call as ‘faith alone’. In other words how do pre-Reformation Christians get saved before it was defined as receiving Christ as your personal Lord in Savior?

Going further I am compelled to ask if: "salvation also entails believing in the Doctrine of Justification by faith?"

Before you pick up stones and start branding me as a heretic let me first makes it clear that I myself am a staunch believer of the Doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone. However, I am also struggling with the question of Church history where whether we like it or not can trace a lineage to the Roman Catholic Church.

It is in that personal struggle with that difficulty in relating the doctrine of justification by faith alone with Church history that I am thankful that God lead me to a small bookstore called Bound in Tomas Morato, Quezon City where I was able to get a copy of Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright’s What Saint Paul Really Said for 40 pesos.

It is there he writes:

“There follows from this a vital liberating point, which I first met in the works of the great Anglican divine Richard Hooker, and for which I shall always be grateful. One is not justified by faith by believing in justification by faith. One is justified by believing in Jesus. It follows quite clearly that a great many people are justified by faith who don’t know they are justified by faith. The Galatian Christians were in fact justified by faith, though they didn’t realize it and thought they had to be circumcised as well. As Hooker said, many pre-Reformation folks were in fact justified by faith, because they believe in Jesus, even though, not knowing about or believing in justification by faith, they lacked assurance, and then sought to fill this vacuum in other ways. Many Christians today may not be clear about the niceties of doctrine; but however inarticulately, they hold on to Jesus; and, according to Paul’s teaching, they are therefore justified by faith. They are constituted as members of the family. They must be treated as such. This is not to say, of course that justification is an unimportant or inessential doctrine. Far from it. A church that does not grasp it and teach it is heading for trouble. It is to say that the doctrine of justification itself points away from itself. Believing in Jesus – believing that Jesus is Lord, and that God raised Him from the dead – is what counts.[1]

It is fascinating to note that in my personal study of Church history that Born Again Christians seem to look at Church history in this manner:

  1. Jesus finishes His earthly ministry then ascends into Heaven
  2. The Holy Spirit comes to the disciples during Pentecost thus starting the Christian Church whose story was told in the Acts of the Apostles.
  3. For a good number of centuries the Roman Catholic Church was there and it was evil and the supposedly ‘true church’ was re-established my Martin Luther and then we Born Again Christians in the present uphold the pure Gospel that was articulated by Luther as Faith Alone.

Please understand that I am not saying that all Roman Catholics are Christians but just the same not all professing Born Again Christians are Christians as well. All I am saying is that the problem with our ignorance of Church history puts us in a shaky foundation.

It puts us in a spot where we uphold a doctrine outside of its historical context as it was borne at the time when confession and absolution within the Roman Catholic Church could be bought by means of indulgences being sold, resulting in penance that’s borne out of a financial transaction rather than genuine contrition.

It is in this failure to recognize this context that we fail to explain it fully thus making us passionate apologists of something that we do not fully understand.

For me the beauty of the Doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone is that it is an available response for us to personally appropriate God’s saving work in Christ, who is the author and finisher of our faith. That’s why I believe that it is not the doctrine itself that saves, but the reality that the doctrine represents.


[1] Wright, Tom – What Saint Paul Really Said p. 159


Discipleship in a Consumer Society

People who know me well know how much time I spend at bargain sections of bookstores primarily because it is the best place to find theological books at dirt cheap prices. Two weeks ago I was able to buy a copy of John F. Kavanaugh’s Still Following Christ in a Consumer Society.

The book was first published when the “greed-is-good” decade of the 80s was just beginning, where words like ‘globalization,’ the ‘WTO’ and ‘free trade’ were still buzzwords in economic circles; and Evangelical Christianity is still getting itself acquainted with Republican Politics and yuppie middle-class consumer culture.

What captured my fancy with this book as I began to read it this afternoon is the fact that it finely articulates the subtle flaw that springs out of what most of us has come to call as neo-conservatism within Evangelical Christianity:

“The rise of the “new conservatism” is a case in point. As I see this movement, often associated with morality and a form of Christian faith, it is not conserving of what is richest and deepest in human beings, but a preserving of ourselves from the facts. It is conservatism not of principle, but of pragmatism. It hungers for the legitimations of power and prestige-especially economic, military and ideological. And it represents all suggestions that right order has yet to be achieved in our country. It is a conservatism of self-interest.

This new conservatism is the fruit of two complementary but dangerous tendencies: the tendency to separate faith from the work of justice (active love and service) and the tendency to equate faith with a particular form of social, political or national power.”
I believe that this statement is even more appropriate today more than it was in the 80s. The book is a really penetrating diagnosis of our culture of consumerism as contrasted with the personalism of the Christian Gospel, which speaks of a God who ‘became flesh and made His dwelling among us.’

In the book Kavanaugh speaks to the socially concerned, showing why working for peace and justice needs to support a culture-transcending faith. While to believers, the authors show how authentic faith requires doing justice –in our society, in our places of work, in our places of worship, and our personal lives.

The book offers glaring contrast of the Gospel’s meaning and social implication to that of the present Conservative Right’s support to post-911 foreign and humanitarian policy as well as on issues as varied as pre-emptive war, the environment, foreign debt, human rights and militant Islamic fundamentalism.