Martin Luther saw the church as a building that rests on the large marble pillar of justification by faith alone: “If this article stands, the church stands; if this article collapses, the church collapses.” This doctrine is sometimes called the material principle of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation because it is the stuff that the Reformation was made of, the main theological content of Protestantism. This is in distinction from the formal principle or primary theological source of the Reformation, which is Scripture alone (sola Scriptura).
Imagine a mountain spring bursting out of a rock labeled “Scripture” (the source or formal principle) and forming into a mighty stream labeled “justification by faith alone” (the content or material principle). The Reformers believed that unbiblical traditions, especially the sale of indulgences, had clogged up people’s free access to the water of life. When they unleashed Scripture’s plain teaching that “the just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17 KJV), a refreshing river swept across Europe, bringing peace and assurance of salvation to millions. “That we are justified by Faith only, is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort,” as it is said in the Articles of Religion (Article 11).
Properly understood, justification by faith alone is a doctrine that offers us comfort without making us comfortable in our sins.
Today, the doctrine of justification by faith alone continues to be a hallmark of Protestant Christianity. However, history has shown that a failure to carefully explain and qualify the meaning of sola fide is detrimental to the church’s holiness and happiness. We need clear teaching to avoid cheap grace, easy believism, and antinomianism on the one hand, and legalism, spiritual anxiety, and lack of assurance on the other. Properly understood, justification by faith alone is a doctrine that offers us comfort without making us comfortable in our sins.
Faith: The Grateful Reception of God’s Gift of Salvation in Christ
The doctrine of justification by faith only makes sense in light of the cross of Christ. Jesus paid our sin-debt in full, reconciling us to the Father. His once-for-all atonement is complete, perfect, fully acceptable to God. “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30), and there’s nothing more that we can add to it. God’s love and justice were fully satisfied on Calvary. Because of Jesus, God fully accepts you, and there is nothing further that you can do to earn his acceptance or atone for your sins. That would be an insult to God’s full and free salvation in Christ.
Because of Jesus, God fully accepts you, and there is nothing further that you can do to earn his acceptance or atone for your sins.
The only proper response to God’s grace is to trust in what Christ has done. Faith is like an instrument that grabs on to Christ and his cross. Better yet, it is like opening one’s hands to gratefully receive God’s free gift of his Son, rather than clenching one’s fists in resistance (Acts 7:51). Thomas Oden explains, “‘Faith alone’ rightly understood means that nothing else is required as a subjective condition than faith as the receiving cause of justification. God the Son offers an all-sufficient sacrifice on the cross, faith accepts and trusts it, and the outcome is justification by grace through faith.”
Sola fide, then, is more about Christ’s righteousness than it is about our faith. When unexplained, the phrases “saving faith” or “justifying faith” are potentially misleading because it is not faith itself that saves or justifies; rather, faith lays hold of Christ who becomes to us justification (1 Cor. 1:30). It presses through the crowds to touch the hem of his garments. It clings to his cross at any cost. It cries out, “My Lord and my God!” It knows that Christ alone can save. John Wesley understood,
Christian faith is then, not only an assent to the whole gospel of Christ, but also a full reliance on the blood of Christ; a trust in the merits of his life, death, and resurrection; a recumbency upon him as our atonement and our life, as given for us, and living in us; and, in consequence hereof, a closing with him, and cleaving to him, as our “wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption,” or, in one word, our salvation.
In the next two sections, we will consider faith’s relationship with repentance and works. But it should already be clear that faith can be the only formal condition of justification, since faith alone can lay hold of Christ and his righteousness as the instrumental or receiving cause of justification. This is crucial: when we speak of being justified by faith, we do not mean that our faith somehow merits our justification—that if we strain our faith muscle hard enough, God will be satisfied and reward us with salvation. That would be another form of works-righteousness. We would end up trusting in our faith (and thus ourselves!) instead of Christ.
Repentance: The Conviction of Sin Presupposed in True Faith
While faith is the only formal condition of justification, true faith presupposes repentance. No one trusts in Christ for salvation from sin who is not also convicted of his sin. Only those with “a broken and contrite heart” (Ps. 51:17) can have faith as it is defined in the phrase “faith alone.” The Reformation doctrine of sola fide, then, does not undermine repentance or promote easy believism. In fact, the first of Luther’s 95 Theses was this: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
No one trusts in Christ for salvation from sin who is not also convicted of his sin.
Jesus held faith and repentance closely together: “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk. 1:15). In Acts 2:38, Peter only mentions repentance in his preaching of the gospel; in Acts 16:31, Paul only mentions faith. In each case, one implies the other. Those who believe also repent (Acts 17:30, 34). Those who repent call out in faith to God, like the tax collector who “would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (Lk. 18:13).
As necessary as repentance is, though, it bears repeating that God does not justify people because they are sorry for their sin; he justifies them because they receive the Savior from sin. Oden, following Tertullian, explains therefore that “repentance is not, strictly speaking, a condition of justification, but rather that turning from evil that is presupposed in faith’s reception of God’s justifying action.” Wesley excluded repentance as a formal condition of justification when he preached that “faith … is the ‘necessary’ condition of justification; yea, and the ‘only necessary’ condition thereof.”
Works of Obedience: The Natural Fruit of a Joyful and Repentant Faith
Just as sola fide, properly understood, does not diminish repentance or promote easy believism, it does not diminish the importance of good works or practical holiness. Consider the Augsburg Confession, the main Lutheran statement of faith, first presented at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. Article 12 “Of Repentance” states that repentance entails “contrition, that is, terrors smiting the conscience through the knowledge of sin,” as well as “faith, which is born of the Gospel, or of absolution, and believes that for Christ’s sake, sins are forgiven, comfort the conscience, and delivers it from terrors. Then good works are bound to follow, which are the fruits of repentance” (cf. WCF 16). As a healthy tree naturally bears fruit, the person who truly repents and believes will always do good works in obedience to Christ.
As a healthy tree naturally bears fruit, the person who truly repents and believes will always do good works in obedience to Christ.
Paul, like John the Baptist, preached that all should “repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance” (Acts 26:20; cf. Mt. 3:8). Works of obedience are in keeping with repentance; they are the natural fruit of repentant faith. James insists, likewise, that faith is dead if it does not have works (Jas. 2:26). The faith that is alive is a “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). Faith follows the Savior wherever he goes, holding fast its allegiance to Christ as Lord of all. A person who is truly sorry for his sins will stop wilfully practicing them as he is cleansed by the blood of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit and the sanctifying fellowship of the church.
The Protestant doctrine of sola fide, then, does not undermine holiness. Quite the contrary, the Lutheran Augsburg Confession includes an article on “New Obedience”:
This faith is bound to bring forth good fruits, and that it is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will, but that we should not rely on those works to merit justification before God. For remission of sins and justification is apprehended by faith, as also the voice of Christ attests: When ye shall have done all these things, say: We are unprofitable servants. Luke 17:10. The same is also taught by the Fathers. For Ambrose says: It is ordained of God that he who believes in Christ is saved, freely receiving remission of sins, without works, by faith alone.
Carefully note that for the Reformers, sola fide does not mean that good works are unimportant or even unnecessary, only that “we should not rely on those works to merit justification before God.” We are created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:10), but these works contribute nothing to our right standing with God. We are not saved by works, and we do not stay saved by works. Finally, read Article IV of The Augsburg Confession “Of Justification”:
Men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight. Rom. 3 and 4.
The word “alone” in “faith alone” gets at the same point that Paul makes in places like Romans 3:28: “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Or in Galatians 2:16: “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” Or in Ephesians 2:8–9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Striking a Healthy Balance
Clear teaching on justification by faith is full of comfort without making us comfortable in our sin. On the one hand, sola fide reminds those who are enthusiastic about the church’s holiness to guard carefully against legalism. Relentless preaching against sin and worldliness can leave hearers with the impression that their eternal destiny depends on perfect performance. This breeds fear and cynicism.
We need clear teaching to avoid cheap grace, easy believism, and antinomianism on the one hand, and legalism, spiritual anxiety, and lack of assurance on the other.
On the other hand, sola fide reminds those who are preoccupied with God’s glory in salvation to guard carefully against antinomianism. Constant emphasis on God’s sovereign choice can leave the elect with the impression that their security in Christ means that behavior and character is unimportant. This breeds apathy and worldliness. Regardless of our theological emphasis, the Pharisee lurks in every heart, and no one is free from the danger of settling for “cheap grace.”
Justification by faith alone continues to be vital to the church’s holiness and happiness because it calls us to the hope and comfort of the gospel. The large marble pillar on which the church stands is Christ Jesus our Lord. The life-giving stream is his cleansing blood, more precious than gold or silver.