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



aodtohan said...

I have read your post, dear sir. But I would urge you to consider that Paul also warns in the book of Galatians of believing in 'another Christ' and ultimately in another gospel.

Though it is true that one does not have to know the specific term 'justified by faith', it is the reality that is represents. All of these are part and partial of the gospel: our sins expiated from us and Christ bearing our sin on the cross, and declared righteous in the sight of God.

I urge you to look into what the defenders of the classical understanding of this sola is and what it means today:

Also, you may enjoy this free book written by Pastor John Piper, posted on his website as a specific response to the 'New Perspective on Paul':

chuck said...

Hello aodtohan,

Thank you for commenting. Apologies for the delayed response, I've been quite busy on a number of things that is why I have not been able to update this blog for a while.

Anyways I'm interested with your thought. And that is why I would like you to qualify your statement about the Apostle Paul's warning in Galatians, because I believe that what he's warning the believers in Galatia is principally concerned with the controversy surrounding Gentile Christians and the Mosaic Law within Early Christianity.

And since this is about an insight on how Protestants and Roman Catholics I would like to know what makes the Roman Catholic Jesus different from the Protestant Jesus? After all both traditions affirm historic Christian Creeds' affirmation of Christ, more over how would you define the Gospel?

Thanks also for the references. I understand that from their resources they come from Reformed tradition, as good as they are I also believe that Reformers adhere to Ecclesia semper reformanda secundum verbum Dei (that is the Church reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God), which is a good way of saying that the church should never be afraid to always give a second look about what the Scriptures say about issues pertaining to the faith, and this is not about forming new doctrines but rather reorienting old ones by reclaiming what lies deep at the heart of Scriptures. That I believe is what makes the classical Reformed apologists miss out on, that more than their loyalty to what Scriptures say they make their adherence to reformed theology the ruling criterion in defining doctrine rather than subordinating their systematic theology to Scripture, because after all, doctrines however high we would regard them are still man made.