Does Protestant Truth Still Matter? (2) Sola Fide

On Reformation Day 2023 we returned to a series of posts we started in 2021 but never finished – the text of ‘Why Protestant Truth Still Matters: A Biblical Perspective’ by Garry Williams. This is the second post in the series. (The first post is here, and the third is here.)

The printed version of the full publication can be obtained from the Protestant Truth Society.

The piece is structured like this:

1. Introducing the Five Solas

2. The Solas Stated:
            Sola Scriptura
            Solus Christus 
            Sola Gratia and Sola Fide
            Soli Deo Gloria

3. Roman Catholicism before Vatican II:

4. Contemporary Roman Catholicism:
            In with the New
            Out with the Old?
            More of Mary
            Understanding Contemporary Roman Catholicism 

5. Protestant Truth Still Matters 

Solus Christus

In the order of our knowing, the message of Scripture comes first. In the order of being (the ordo essendi) the first place is unassailably occupied by the Lord Jesus Christ himself, the first and the last (Rev. 1:17). He is the source and the goal of creation, the one through whom and for whom all things were created, and in whom they exist (Col. 1:16–17). He alone is the ‘image of the invisible God’, the one in whom the fullness of the Father dwells (Col. 1:15, 19). The Princeton Presbyterian Benjamin Warfield, great advocate of Scripture that he was, sums up the glorious uniqueness of Christ against all other forms of revelation:

As in His person, in which dwells all the fullness of the godhead bodily, He rises above all classification and is sui generis; so the revelation accumulated in Him stands outside all the diverse portions and diverse manners in which otherwise revelation has been given and sums up in itself all that has been or can be made known of God and of His redemption. He does not so much make a revelation of God as Himself is the revelation of God; He does not merely disclose God’s purpose of redemption, He is unto us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.[1]

In this sense, any account of the Solas could rightly reflect the order of reality by beginning with Solus Christus.

The uniqueness of Christ is particularly clear when we view his person and work in terms of the three key offices as prophet, priest, and king. In the first chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Christ the Son is described as ‘so much better than the angels’ because he possesses a unique sonship (vv. 4–5), is uniquely worthy of worship (vv. 6–7), and sits enthroned as the anointed king who will endure for ever (vv. 8–12). This is his kingly office. As the book continues it becomes clear that the uniqueness of Christ is also focused in his unparalleled priestly work. He alone took on flesh so that he might rescue his brothers: the logic of 2:10–18 explains his person by describing the requirements of his priestly work. He alone was able, as the sinless high priest, to offer a final and sufficient sacrifice and to live forever to make intercession for his people (ch. 7). As Paul writes to Timothy, ‘there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time’ (1 Tim. 2:5). The Lord Jesus himself explains his work as prophet. He alone can make the Father known: ‘Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him’ (Matt. 11:27). Only the Son can reveal the Father because they uniquely indwell one another. Jesus explains to Philip: ‘He who has seen Me has seen the Father; so how can you say “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me?’ ( John 14:9–10). This explains why no one can come to the Father except through him (14:6). It is possible to articulate further offices of the Lord Jesus Christ, but these three have long been used to describe the essentials of his identity and his saving work. The passages I have pointed to attest his uniqueness in holding each office. In Hebrews he is unparalleled among the angels as the unique king, and he alone is able to defeat the devil by his sacrifice and to intercede for his people. Paul identifies him as the unique mediator. In John he alone can reveal the Father.

Sola Gratia and Sola Fide

To understand the Protestant’s delight in being saved by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) we have first to grasp his despair of himself. Any understanding of salvation makes sense only as a solution to the problem of sin. Without grasping the doctrine of sin it is not possible to understand the doctrine of salvation: soteriology responds to harmartiology (the doctrine of sin). The Reformers knew this. They realized that when they were dealing with a false understanding of salvation, its root lay in the over-estimation of human capacity. Some of their opponents saw it too. When Martin Luther wrote against Desiderius Erasmus on the condition of the human will, he commended him for homing in on this as ‘the real issue, the essence of the matter in dispute’, ‘the question on which everything hinges’, ‘the vital spot’.[2] When Calvin maintains against Rome that a man must find righteousness outside himself because he is dead in sin, he notes that ‘a controversy immediately arises with reference to the freedom and powers of the will’.[3] On this point the Reformers are the true heirs of Augustine of Hippo, who frequently argued from the bondage of the human will to the sole-sufficiency of divine grace for salvation.

The entire Augustinian tradition echoes the teaching of the Apostle Paul. It is Paul who connects the doctrines of sin and salvation, perhaps most notably in Ephesians 2. He explains to the Christians at Ephesus that they were ‘dead in trespasses and sins’ until God made them alive together with Christ (2:1, 5). A resurrection is not something to which the one raised contributes; he languishes helpless until God sovereignly breathes new life into him. Given this understanding of our salvation as an act of resurrection, it is no surprise that Paul goes on to state that we are saved by grace as a gift of God and that salvation is not of ourselves but of God (2:8). Indeed, he depicts salvation as an act of creation in Christ (2:10). As the world was created ex nihilo by the breath of God without a self-determining choice, so we are recreated solely by the gracious work of the Spirit of God: sola gratia.

Sola fide is the proper further outworking of sola gratia. It is of course best known as the most famous tenet of the Lutheran Reformation, but it was by no means unique to Luther. While there are some important differences between the Lutheran and Reformed doctrines of justification, there is much common ground. Like Luther, Calvin held that the doctrine of justification is vital for the life of the church: ‘the safety of the Church depends as much on this doctrine as human life does on the soul’.[4] And the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England teach that justification by faith alone is ‘a most wholesome doctrine’.[5]

The exclusion of works from any causal role in justification is a repeated theme in Paul’s letters. One of the strongest texts is Romans 4, where he takes Abraham and David as examples of justification. Abraham, Paul teaches, could not have been justified by works since that would have given him something to boast about before God. Righteousness was imputed to David ‘apart from works’ (4:6), hence by faith alone. The works excluded are not just works done before conversion. This is evident from the fact that Paul quotes Genesis 15 on Abraham, a text from the time after the patriarch responded to the call of God in chapter 12, as well as the words of David from Psalm 32, spoken by a man who records that he knew God from the womb (22:9–10). Scripture excludes works as the causal ground of the justification of both Abraham and David, even works done after they were converted.

A word is needed to guard against two misunderstandings of this glorious, liberating truth. First, sola fide not be taken to imply that it is our faith itself that is the moral basis of our justification. Faith is an instrument for joining us to Christ, a means by which his sin-bearing work and his righteousness become ours. Our believing does not justify us by reference to itself, but by joining us to Christ, whose merit alone justifies us. Second, it is important to remember that sola fide is a statement circumscribed in its doctrinal scope. It is not to be applied more widely than the discussion of the meritorious ground of justification. That is, when we deny a role to works, we are denying specifically a role in providing the moral basis of our justification; we are not denying any place for works. Roman Catholics like Erasmus feared that the denial of the merit of works would result in moral license and antinomian chaos. But the place of works is affirmed by Protestant theology when they are regarded not as the causal ground but as the result of our saving union with Christ. As Calvin put it, in our union with Christ we receive the double grace of his justifying righteousness and his sanctifying Spirit:

Christ was given to us by God’s generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life.[6]

As the popular epithet accurately summarizes: faith justifies alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone.

[1] The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, ed. by Ethelbert D. Warfield, William Park Armstrong, and Caspar Wistar Hodge, 10 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1927; repr. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991), 1:28.

[2] On the Bondage of the Will, in Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, ed. and trans. by Philip S. Watson and B. Drewery (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969), p. 333.

[3] The Necessity of Reforming the Church, in Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters, ed. and trans. Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet, 7 vols (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1851; repr. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1983), 1:159.

[4] Necessity, 1:137.

[5] Article XI, in Documents of the English Reformation, ed. by Gerald Bray (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1994), p. 291.

[6] Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. by John T. McNeill, trans. by Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols, The Library of Christian Classics, 20-21 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), III. xi. 1, 1:725.