In recognition of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary, Reformed Margins will be reflecting on the five solas this October. The five solas are regarded by many as the five pillars of the Reformation, and we at Reformed Margins are proud to uphold these Reformed principles. For sola scriptura (Scripture alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola gratia (grace alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone) powerfully encapsulate the essence of our Protestant identity.
While we recognize that much ink has already been spilt expounding upon the five solas, the aim of our brief series is to reflect on them as people of color. For centuries, the five solas have served as unifying principles for the Reformed community to rally around. And yet, far from creating a cold and static uniformity, they have inspired unique and dynamic expressions of faithfulness across various cultures worldwide. Hence, Reformed Margins would like to recognize the Reformation’s 500th anniversary by celebrating and sharing some of these diverse expressions to the glory of God.
Previous articles in our series:
This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. A fiery young (34yrs old) Augustinian monk named Martin Luther launched what became the greatest example of activism in the history of the church when he nailed his 95 Theses to a Wittenberg church door in Germany.
The Church, whatever its actual intentions were, had severely drifted from its original mission and purpose. The sale of Indulgences, often by priests with little to no theological or pastoral training, was one of many things that signaled this drift.
Following Medieval Humanism (Luther was an academic), the Reformers worked to bring Christianity back to its basic foundations and recover its raison d’etre. This meant going back to its sources.
As such, the 5 Solas are better understood as a collective heuristic lens designed to help us to get back and rightly benefit from these sources1. This helps us to see that when we read the Bible, rather than seeing rules or religion, we see Christ, His gospel of grace, and how we are to respond to Him with faith.
In this post, we want to focus on that last principle, commonly referred to as Sola Fide or Faith alone.
What is Faith?
The answer to that question is actually tricky because of how many different ways we can benefit from having faith.
pt1: Faith as Trust
In the case of the Reformers, the issue at hand was personal salvation. In that context, faith is trusting in the person and work of Christ alone for our salvation and everything that salvation entails. You are saved by sheer grace alone, apart from works because of what Christ did. But faith is the means by which we take hold of all the blessings and benefits that Christ’s work earned for us.
And according to people like Jonathan Edwards or Calvin himself, the way that you subjectively know you have faith is when you genuinely love God2 and sense that he loves you too3. It is then somewhat more objectively proved in your life when you show faithfulness by loving others, even enemies and kindly taking care of their felt needs.
pt 2: Faith as Fealty
In September, John Piper wrote a blog post entitled “Does God Really Save Us by Faith Alone?”. In it, he had two paragraphs on Sola Fide as it pertains to Final Justification. He says the following:
In final salvation at the last judgment, faith is confirmed by the sanctifying fruit it has borne, and we are saved through that fruit and that faith. As Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2:13, “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.”
and later on:
Paul calls this effect or fruit or evidence of faith the “work of faith” (1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:11) and the “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:26). These works of faith, and this obedience of faith, these fruits of the Spirit that come by faith, are necessary for our final salvation. No holiness, no heaven (Hebrews 12:14). So, we should not speak of getting to heaven by faith alone in the same way we are justified by faith alone4.
Piper began taking heat for those statements from various sections of the Reformed world. The complaints largely center around Piper’s bifurcation of Salvation and Justification. Ie. In Piper’s mind, there is a difference between Justification and Final Salvation and you need works for the latter5.
In some ways, it is understandable why Dr. Piper is getting heat.
Positing two different salvations implies to people that faith alone is not enough. While it may be true that Dr. Piper simply wants to be faithful to passages like ones found in James 2, it is also true that such prima facie interpretations of Scriptural passages without an adjoining systematic theology that orders all relevant concerns is what gave rise to our last major battle over an aberrant theology6.
Following Gaffin, it is much better to say that there are not two separate salvations, one in our Justification and one in our final salvation, but rather one and the same salvation that is expressed as an “already” (justification) and “not yet” (final salvation) reality. The character of the first will necessarily have to be the character of the second for they are, in essence, the same.
Furthermore, while it is true that Sola Fide is a bedrock Reformation principle, the Reformers, most notably Luther and Calvin, never believed that Saving Faith is ever void of works.
Calvin especially is adamant that a faith void of works is not real faith. One cannot become an anti-nomian by pointing to Sola Fide.
The way forward might be as simple as the Greek Language. In Greek, pistis can either mean “faith” or “faithfulness” (fealty). Where “faith” connotes a kind of trust, “faithfulness” is better understood as an expression of swearing fealty as to a King7.
Sola Fide means the first understanding…trust. We trust in Christ Alone, believing upon Him for our Salvation. But true faith, always produces a persevering fealty. While it is true that the Reformers prioritized the former understanding, it is clear that their intention was never to divorce the two. You are saved by faith alone. But true saving faith apart from persevering fealty simply does not exist (or is dead and thus useless).
Are works required for Final Salvation? Yes.
Both aspects of Faith, trust and feality, must be present in order for faith to be saving. They are two sides of the same coin. One cannot exist as faith without the other.
Furthermore, the works that God requires are simply expressions of Spirit-wrought persevering Faith(fulness). They necessarily flow out of faith but aren’t a kind of addition to it.
pt 3. Sola Fide and Christus Victor.
Perhaps there is one last perspective that I would like to bring up before ending. Faith, the way that we’ve been exploring it above, has been seen entirely from the perspective of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), which I wholly affirm.
If we switch our atonement theory lens from PSA to Christus Victor (CV), the need for including fealty in our understanding of pistis becomes clearer.
The Christus Victor theory of atonement basically says that when Jesus died and rose again, He fixed everything. And while we cannot see that fixing now, there is a specific day coming in the future where we will see this fixing with our own eyes. So until that day comes we need to have faith that it’s true and be faithful in executing our calling to spread the blessings and benefits of this fixing (restore shalom) to the ends of the earth.
PSA is more focused on personal salvation. In PSA, then, faith is trusting in Christ alone for one’s salvation and then, as it matures, faithfully expresses itself as love (works).
CV, on the other hand, focuses on cosmic redemption. In CV, Faith is trusting in Christ’s work even when you can’t see that it’s true (Heb 11:1) and then sticking with Him in faithfulness. Faith is better understood then as allegiance. Christus Victor posits a Victorious King who has conquered and overcome the enemies of Sin and Death, not just in individuals, but in all of creation.
When we place our faith in this Messianic King, it is an act of swearing fealty. We are the ecclesial army (host) of this King who are tasked with a mission…to be fruitful and multiply (cultural mandate), making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
From the very beginning, God had a plan to make our world look like His (Matt 6:10). It’s a plan that involved human beings. Faith is expressed as faithfulness when we stick to that plan, no matter how tough or hopeless things seem. The Christian Faith tells us that we have a God-given job to do. Having Faith in Christ means that we who have sworn fealty ought to be getting to it, using every power and resource at our disposal to see it through.
Says Vanhoozer: “…the solas, taken together, represent what we might call the first theology of mere Protestant Christianity. The solas are not isolated doctrines; they are theological insights into the ontology, epistemology, and teleology of the gospel.” Vanhoozer, Kevin J.. Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity (pp. 27-28). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Says Schreiner: “I suggest that Edwards maintains love as the necessary fruit or evidence of faith. Edwards also alludes to Gal 5: 6, where Paul says that faith expresses itself in love. His allusions to Gal 5: 6 and Jas 2: 26 suggest that he isn’t saying that faith is formed by love, but that faith necessarily expresses itself in love. Steward may be right in his interpretation, for Edwards writes imprecisely, and yet given his polemics against Roman Catholic teaching elsewhere, his affirmation that justification is by faith alone, and his insistence on imputation, I believe it is better to interpret him as saying that love is the fruit of faith.” Schreiner, Thomas R.. Faith Alone—The Doctrine of Justification: What the Reformers Taught…and Why It Still Matters (The Five Solas Series) (p. 85). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. and indexed by Ford Lewis Battles; LCC 20; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 3.2.7 and 3.2.16.
This is how Rachel Miller arranges the offending material in her post, “Salvation by Grace Alone, through Faith Alone, in Christ Alone”. https://adaughterofthereformation.wordpress.com/2017/10/04/salvation-by-grace-alone-through-faith-alone-in-christ-alone/
Piper seems to be following a double justification schema that was used by Jonathan Edwards. A similar schema, though with significant differences, is embraced by NT Wright. Still another similar, though with crucial differences, is the one by Richard Gaffin, “By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation” (p. 93). P&R Publishing. Kindle Edition
Giles, Kevin. The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0748GSV6R/ref=oh_aui_d_detailpage_o05_?ie=UTF8&psc=1
See: Bates, Matthew W.. Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Bates translates pistis as allegiance. I prefer “fealty”. For a review from a Reformed perspective see Schreiner’s review: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/book-review-salvation-by-allegiance-alone