I’ve seen some interesting arguments back and forth about the basics of our language surrounding salvation, lately, which merit some discussion here. On one end of the argument, we are saved “by faith alone.” On the other end of the argument, we are saved “by faith and by works.” Salvation “by faith alone” is one of the five solas of the Protestant reformation. I’ve already dealt with the first sola on this blog – there I affirmed that there is a sense in which sola scriptura is a reliable and true statement, but is also easily misleading regarding the scope of biblical authority alongside the Tradition of its interpretation. As it turns out, sola fide (or “by faith alone”) also has a narrow range of accuracy which can easily become misleading.
East Orthodox and Roman Catholic bloggers like to argue against the Protestant sola statements by punching “scripture alone” or “faith alone” into the search engine of biblegateway.com and posting the results. It’s a humorous way to show that “scripture alone” is not a biblical phrase, and that the phrase “faith alone” only appears once in the Bible:
You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:24)
This, of course, brings out the Catholic/Orthodox argument that faith and works together justify us, and not faith alone. Not that this one verse proves their point, but it is a clear contradiction of the Protestant position, right in the Bible. Pretty simple argument, huh?
Actually it isn’t. There’s more going on here than meets the casual reader’s eye. The latter half of Romans 3 says this:
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…. there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith…. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.
Verse 28 is often seen, here, as the primary argument for the Protestant position: “we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works.” So does this mean the Bible is contradicting itself? Are St. Paul and St. James teaching conflicting theologies?
The key to this discussion, as is often the case, is context! In Romans 3 (and much of the rest of that epistle) St. Paul is addressing the relationship between the Law (of Moses) and Christian salvation. St. James, on the other hand, is writing about Christian morality. Paul is reconciling Jews and Gentiles, James is shaping up bad behavior. One of my seminary professors summarized the difference thusly:
Paul is writing of Christian faith and Jewish works.
James is writing of Jewish faith and Christian works.
This is a simplistic way of describing it, but what he’s getting at is correct. St. Paul is saying we’re saved by faith apart from works of the Law. His argument is against the necessity of the Old Covenant Law for Christian salvation. St. James, on the other hand, is talking about the necessity of Christian living – faith without works is a dead faith.
So how do we make a simple summary statement? To say we’re justified “by faith alone” is to say that simply obeying the Law isn’t going to help us; only the faith behind that obedience counts toward salvation. To say we’re justified “by faith and works” is to say that if we don’t live like Christ, our so-called faith counts for nothing. Both summary statements are biblical and true. Can we even choose one? I would prefer not to, as it easily clouds our understanding of the other.
So once again, I can accept the Protestant statement sola fide but only insofar as it’s said with the biblical meaning. And since many people use it with a broader brush stroke than St. Paul used it, I think I’m going to be very careful about throwing around a phrase like “faith alone” without a good biblical explanation first.