Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Insufficient reflection on Sola Fide

Some people argue that while Christians are fussing over doctrine, they are ignoring the work that Christ left for us to do. I retort that that those who don't understand the work Christ did while he was on earth are hardly capable of continuing it in any meaningful way! So talk of Christianity that is separated from truth claims on the nature of Christ's work is not particularly defensible. Further, I think that history would show how Christianity is, historically, uniquely tied to its truth claims (both dogma and pragma) in a way that other faiths (often being more practice-driven) are not. This is merely a matter of history, not of theology. And secular thinkers have said as much in recent days.

A colleague's recent thoughts on justification and faith brought to mind Luther's famous statement, that "the doctrine of justification is the article by which the church stands or falls." He was referring to its articulation in the fourth article of the Augsburg Confession that justification is by faith alone in Christ alone (Melancthon's commentary on which may be found here). Similarly, Calvin said that justification by faith is "the principle hinge by which religion is supported." To be a Protestant means that you understand salvation, however you parse that (salvation from Hell and God's wrath, restoration to right relationship with God and others, etc.) is accomplished by Jesus Christ's work plus nothing! The recent Cambridge Declaration reiterated the belief, calling sola fide the "chief article" of Protestant Christianity.

I think that we lose perspective on this belief when we aren't anchored in understanding the history surrounding it. The Roman Catholic Church, for all its errors and excesses, was doing a decent job of urging charity and contributing to social cohesion. It had hospitals, schools, diplomats, amnesty workers, etc. And when the Reformers got off the ground, they had similar organizations. Their belief in this doctrine of justification by faith was obviously a matter of great intellectual and pietistic reflection, as is evidenced by the amount of ink spilled on the topic in the following four centuries. (Turretin's work on this is massive!) But it also had a very practical outworking in the building of schools, hospitals, charitable organizations, etc... all of which flourished in Reformed countries (despite the current mischaracterization that concern for doctrine diminishes "living out the kingdom of God").

What Protestants have always affirmed is that saving faith is God's work in us. It is an abandonment of faith in ourselves and a reliance upon the work of Christ as the sole means by which we have joyful fellowship with God and (ultimately) with ourselves and with others. If we look at any thing we do as somehow changing God's mind about communing with us, we fail to trust in Christ. If we think our good deeds make God like us more, we flubbed it. If we think God will love us less if we misbehave, we've fallen into error.

For legalists, this often takes the form of a "don't" list. Don't murder. Don't fornicate. Don't steal. Don't drink. Don't smoke. Don't XXXX. People that think God loves us or thinks better of us because we don't do these things are taking glory away from the sufficient righteousness that is ours in Jesus Christ.

For others - often (and inaccurately) labeled as "liberals" - this takes the form of a "do" list. Do feed the hungry. Do clothe the poor. Do justice for the orphan, widow, and alien. Do recycle. Do activism. Do XXXX. People that think God loves us or thinks better of us because we do these things are taking glory away from the sufficient righteousness that is ours in Jesus Christ.

Both of these forms of autosoterism are detestable and are unreformed. Reformed people eschew sin (some of which is found in the "don't list") and act righteously (some of which is found in the "do list") because God has revealed that his glory is manifested in us in those ways. Our life is one of thankful response whereby we "glorify God and enjoy him forever."

Every time we move away from the doctrine - the belief - that the work of reconciliation is complete in Christ and manifested in time by its application to us through the Holy Spirit, we err in one extreme or the other. We may say that we're just trying to live right (whether that's "good, clean livin'" or "ethical, green livin'"). But if we don't trust in Jesus for all of salvation (setting us right with the Godhead, each other, and the created order), then we'll fall into the trap of autosoterism (Pelagianism, Romanism, or whatever stripe it wears). Then, the God we worship is an idol who exists to rubber stamp our failures or successes in "doing justice" or "acting righteously."

Recommended reading:

One Faith: The Evangelical Consensus, by Alister McGrath and Thomas Oden. They've both written on the topic for academic audiences (
vide infra). More importantly, they show how Protestants who identify themselves as Reformed and as Arminian have a common ground of belief. In terms of bang-for-your-buck, this is the tops!

Iustitia Dei, by Alister McGrath. This is a historical overview of the doctrine, solid and interesting but a little dry and
very, very expensive.

Dr. Sproul does a better job at detailing this within the Reformed family, but his work has a more narrow appeal than the McGrath/Oden piece. Still, if you are Reformed, his book is a better representation of our mindset on the issue. (There's an interesting critique of Sproul's handling of Luther here.)

Faith Alone, by Martin Luther. Last but not least, this is the exposition of his stance from the Smalcald Articles. I also recommend this examination of his position on how living justification by grace through faith results in our sanctification and wholeness.


regressivepresby said...

autosoterism? ;-) When asked why he used the word 'irenic' in a sentence instead of the more common 'peaceful' Wm. F. Buckley simply said, 'because, I prefer another syllable.'

Good thinking here Chris. Thank you, its very helpful.

grace & peace,

Anonymous said...

At its heart, the PCUSA debate today is, as always, a matter of debating how people are saved and what it means.

Once I finally was shown the fallacy of works salvation, that's when I truly abandoned my liberal theology. All that the contemporary heretical scene can offer Presbyterians is just more works righteousness. In that you are exactly right.

This is why modern liberals in our churches hate the doctrine of penal substitution, along with sola fide. It means that their social programms are not salvific! They replace Christ with a works do all heretics.

Chris said...

For the benefit of those without Greek training, autosoterism = belief that you can save yourself.


Tom Nettles made an offhanded but profound insight in a history class I took with him: Liberals are pietists who've lost all of their faith but none of their moralistic zeal. I think in many ways that is true. In the absence of a balanced evangelical trust in the completed work of the Lord Jesus, the human religious impulse seeks yet again to bind the consciences of men and women to human-wrought rules.

Presbyman said...

Theological liberals are often busy little beavers with various causes. They must keep themselves busy and constantly talk about why they are busy and what causes they (and we) must support.

will spotts said...

It's the same old story.

Many want to use grace when it suits them - when they are arguing for a 'justice' cause, or for permissiveness in rules to which they object, but have no focus on grace when it comes to their own preferred rules. It still amounts to tying heavy burdens on people's backs and not helping them.

Aric Clark said...

Very good reflection on Sola Fide Chris. I don't disagree with what you've said, though I think that it misses the point as a response to my post on Saving Faith.

My point is precisely that it is Christ that saves, not Faith in Christ. If you make faith a prerequisite for salvation you have turned faith into a work and you have fallen just as much into a works-righteousness orientation.

It is because Christ is faithful that we are justified, not because we are faithful. Our faith is a response elicited in us by the Holy Spirit to the saving work of Christ. Our faith _is_ therefore a matter of work more than belief because it is the evidence of our belonging to Christ, but not a precondition of our justification.

Chris said...


Thanks for taking the time to respond. I think that your statement smacks of the same sort of hard-nosed logical extremism that you regularly lampoon in your own musings of the WCF. You don't seem comfortable with the cold logic of WCF's dominating Sovereign, and yet when it serves as a reason for hope outside of the profession of Christ, you'll use the sovereignty of God. The biblical truth seems to make us live in a tolerable tension between divine action and human responsitivity (notice that I did not say responsibility). Electing grace produces fruits, including faith.

As best I understand it, faith is - in truth - distrust. Let me parse that: faith is a solid distrust in your ability to stand right before the Creator on any intrinsic character. It is absolute trust in God's provision in Jesus.

Does my faith always meet that standard? No. But that standard serves to constantly correct the object of my faith. In Christianity, faith has an object and a subject. Saving faith is faith in the work of Jesus Christ. The one who is faithful is Jesus Christ. Faith that isn't faith in Jesus can't be saving faith. Non faith (a non-trust in the work of Jesus) could hardly be called saving faith, either.

Maybe we're talking past each other, but I'd be interested in any Biblical examples you could provide where someone is saved by Christ's faithfulness while also fully relying on their own faithfulness (or having no faith in Christ's work).