The Reformation Solas: Sola Fide
In today’s world of tolerance and conciliation even theologians have a tendency to stray from the old paths and act as if postmodernity has the ability to build new roadways to places not traveled in a long time. For example, one theologian has gone on record as saying that the Reformation’s doctrine of justification by faith alone was “a tempest in a teapot.” Another has argued that Luther misunderstood Paul. And still others can’t imagine anyone could be so insensitive as to say that people are going to hell based on what they believe! After all, a person’s beliefs are their own and who are you or anyone else to tell them they are wrong? That would be, well, dogmatic!
And yet, what we believe matters and we all know it. I can’t just say, “I believe this and you can’t tell me I’m wrong!” I beg to differ. For example, I can believe that the traffic light is green but if it is in fact red I may be the cause of a serious accident. Or I can tattoo my body with images of feathers and identify as some type of avian but my guess is that the tax man is going to expect my donation come April 15th. No, what we believe matters. And that is no less true when it comes to religious belief and certainly the apex of disagreement between the Reformers and Roman Catholics can be found in the Reformation slogan sola fide.
According to the Scriptures salvation is by faith alone. This faith is a gift from God (Phil. 1:29). It is a fruit of the Spirit’s regenerative work in the life of a believer. According to the Reformers, this faith includes knowledge (notitia) of God’s special revelation in Christ, assent (assensus) to the truth revealed and faith (fiducia) or personal trust or affection for the Christ who saves. This faith contributes no merit to our salvation. B. B. Warfield said it this way, The saving power of faith resides thus not in itself, but in the Almighty Savior on whom it rests…It is not faith that saves, but faith in Jesus Christ…It is not, strictly speaking, even faith in Christ that saves, but Christ who saves through faith.” Warfield was absolutely right.
I find it interesting that when a Roman Catholic scholar reads the Scripture on its own terms and without the interference of his tradition he finds himself to be a Protestant in his interpretation! Consider what Joseph Fitzmyer says of Romans 3:21-26, “It is important to recognize that such effects of the Christ event are appropriated through faith in Christ Jesus, and only through faith. It is the means whereby human beings experience what Christ has done.” The things Christ has done, according to Fitmyer, are “justification, redemption expiation, and possibly pardon.”
However, Fitmyer is not a Protestant. He must contend with Scripture and tradition as two streams of revelation according to his infallible magisterium. The Council of Trent is one part of Roman tradition and it clearly speaks against Paul’s letter to the Romans. Consider canon 9 of Trent’s sixth session, “If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.” Clearly, Rome speaks against Paul at just this point.
However, it is equally clear that Rome didn’t quite understand Protestantism and hence the Scriptures. They always seem to shoot with a shotgun in their canons because they don’t have an eye on the target. The same could be said of some theologians today. But whether Rome or any modern theologian has an eye toward the target or not we know that the Apostle Paul did. Christ saves the ungodly and he is pleased to save by sola fide.
Jeffrey A Stivason (Ph.D. Westminster Theological Seminary) is pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He is also Professor of New Testament Studies at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. Jeff is also an online instructor for Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and has published academic articles and book reviews in various journals. Jeff is the Senior Editor of Place for Truth (placefortruth.org) an online magazine for the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.