The Myth of Sola Fide



This post is a follow up of sorts to the “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” post from the other day, but more so it is a fleshing out of things I’ve been thinking about over the past several months.

So, forgive me in advance once again. This won’t be my shortest post.

First, a story.

There’s a great episode of The Office in which Dunder-Mifflin is getting ready to launch their new website. As part of the launch they send invitations out to all of their regional branch managers inviting them to the launch party. Naturally, the regional manager of the Scranton branch, Michael Scott, gets an invite. So, he talks Jim into driving him to the corporate party in New York. When the two finally make it to the outskirts of the city Jim asks Michael for the exact address of the club where the party is being held. Michael tells Jim that the club’s name is “chatroom” and apparently they will need a password to get in. It’s at this point that Jim turns the car around and heads back to Scranton.

You see, Michael assumed that he knew what the invitation said. He assumed that since his former protégé Ryan was in charge of the launch he would be invited to the main party in New York City. So, he never bothered to actually read the invitation. It wasn’t until he did that he finally understood that the invitation was to the online webcast of the party.

I think most of us suffer from Michael Scott Syndrome. We have so many years of personal context built up around us from what we’ve learned via Sunday School teachers, pastors, parents, and pop theology books that it has become so ingrained in our subconscious it prevents us from reading or hearing what is actually being said about the faith. This is particularly true as it pertains to the Bible.

We have so many sacred cows in evangelicalism (inerrency, creationism, gender roles, sola fide, etc.) which have been impressed upon us since birth that it becomes all but impossible for most of us to recognize that many of the passages we string together to make our case for these theological positions don’t actually, or to more specific, they don’t literally say what we think or want them to say; especially when we place those passages in context.

This doesn’t mean it is impossible to interpret particular passages to support our conclusions. However, if we want to be truly faithful to what the broader Biblical narrative actually says, then we have to find a way to set aside our predetermined conclusions about what each passage “means” before we pick up our Bibles. Only then can we attempt to read the words that are actually on the page.

For example, in the previous post I stated that Jesus never preached salvation through faith alone. That is true. Passages from Ephesians and James, among others, were tossed out to prove that Jesus preached sola fide. The problem of course is that Jesus didn’t write either of these letters. Nor did he write any of the books of the Bible.

That is not to say that a case can’t be made for sola fide based on other things that Jesus said coupled with statements made by other Biblical writers. However, if this theological tenet is to be accepted as the gospel truth, then we should make sure we understand both where it came from and what it really means. And therein lies the problem. Sola fide, though derived through interpreting particular biblical passages, is in fact a product of the Reformation (1400 years after the New Testament was written). This doesn’t necessarily nullify its potential truth. Where we run into problems is our modern understanding of this 500 theological tenet. We believe in the myth of sola fide.

Here’s what I mean…

The idea of salvation through faith alone begins its formulation under the great reformer Martin Luther. In his introduction to Romans he writes,

Hence it comes that faith alone makes righteous and fulfils the law; for out of Christ’s merit, it brings the Spirit, and the Spirit makes the heart glad and free, as the law requires that it shall be.

Taken out of its context, it would be easy to read this as Luther claiming that all Christ requires of us is faith or belief, by which we mean intellectual assent to the truth of his life, death, and resurrection. However, this is not at all what Luther believed. Rather, it is the myth of sola fide that has developed in the centuries after Luther’s death. For Luther, good works were just as important as “believing” or “accepting Jesus as your Savior”. In that same introduction to Romans he writes,

Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever….Because of it, you freely, willingly and joyfully do good to everyone, serve everyone, suffer all kinds of things, love and praise the God who has shown you such grace. Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire!

For Luther our faith in Jesus was not momentary intellectual assent to Jesus’ existence. For Luther, faith is transformative. It absolutely results in good works, in a particularly way of life that is distinctly reminiscent of the life of Jesus. Like the Biblical writer James said 1400 years previously, Luther was adamant that if faith is not embodied by good works then a person is an unbeliever. For Luther, there is no salvation for unbelievers, therefore there is no salvation for Luther apart for good works.

Through a combination of misinterpretation and overzealous freedom fighters, this dual emphasis on faith and works was lost. What resulted was 2 different versions of sola fide. On the one hand there was Luther’s sola fide in which faith comes from God alone, transforming us and empowering us to be the Christ-like people God intended us to be. Then there is the modern myth of sola fide in which “faith alone” (by which we mean intellectual assent) is all that is necessary for a get out of hell free card.

The hate of the Roman Catholic Church that brewed during the Reformation continues to fester today, enabling this later form of sola fide to become the dominant narrative of salvation. As a result, any notion of “works” being attached to salvation is the basest form of heresy simply because good works “reek” of Catholicism and as any good American Protestant Evangelical will tell you, “Catholics aren’t Christians” (insert sarcasm font). As Protestants we are willing to concede that good works are icing on the salvation cake, but we make it clear that they are neither required nor fundamentally relevant to our salvation.

This was not at all what Luther taught, it wasn’t what Jesus preached, and it isn’t what the Bible as a whole teaches, no matter our best efforts to cherry pick a few passages which on the surface seem to indicate otherwise.

If we can get beyond our Michael Scott Syndrome and read the actual words that are found in the Gospels we will see that Jesus never affirmed the modern myth of sola fide. Absolutely, Jesus spent much of his time criticizing the legalism of the religious leaders. However, there is a tremendous difference between legalism and good works. Legalism oppresses people. Good works can, through the power of God, change lives for the better.

Jesus was profoundly concerned with how we live. As I have pointed out before we see this clearly in Matthew 25, but we also see it exemplified in every moment that Jesus taught about quarrels or clothing, when he healed the sick , or when he simply shared a meal with outcasts.

Simply put, it is no coincidence that Jesus spends the vast majority of his ministry teaching people how to live, not teaching them how to “believe”. God became man in the form of Jesus of Nazareth, not so that we could have another doctrinal tenet to agree to, but in order to show us how to live. And as if to clear up any doubt that simply confessing belief in Jesus was not necessarily enough to “get into heaven, Jesus said “Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

Likewise, while Paul certainly locates the impetus of salvation in the grace of God (where it should be), he was very concerned with living a particular way of life. Like Luther who would follow him and Jesus who preceded him, Paul also believed that “good works” were essential to the Christian life and in fact to our salvation. This is both why the vast majority of his letters deal with how early Christians were to live (not just believe) and why he writes that we are to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” Paul understood that salvation does not begin and end at the moment of “belief”. Rather, “acceptance” is simply the first step of the journey in which we become the hands and feet of Jesus through whom he extends salvation to the entire world.

Aside from the underlying bigotry that shapes the modern myth of sola fide, I think the myth itself speaks to a profound misunderstanding of what salvation is all about. Viewed from the modern myth of sola fide, salvation is about intellectual assent to the reality of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection so that we will not go to hell for not believing the wrong thing. However, there are serious problems with this.

If our salvation rests upon our “acceptance” of it, then salvation is not dependent up Jesus, but our own confession. In that way, salvation is very much accomplished through our own works. Likewise, though we try all sorts of mental gymnastics to avoid it, if our role in salvation is exhausted by our “belief” or “acceptance”, then we are liberated from having or needing to live any particular way of life. It was the church in Corinth that first picked up on this apparent loophole. If our actions don’t matter in regards to salvation, and in fact, if God’s grace is the response to our sin, then shouldn’t we continue living however we want (in sin) so that God’s grace will abound all the more? Paul had an answer for this Corinthian proposition: “Hell no!” (Paul’s words, not mine)

So then, how are we saved?

What I think we learn from Jesus and the writers of the New Testament is that our “acceptance” of salvation is not a one off moment that happens during a prayer at an altar. Instead, “acceptance” is a process. It may start at the altar, but that is just the beginning of the journey of salvation.

I think it would be helpful to think of salvation as a drama. Jesus’ salvific actions, or as Paul wrote Jesus’ “faithfulness” to the Father, are the opening and closing acts of salvation. However, there is entire play that takes place between the moment Jesus walks out of the tomb and when he returns in glory. During that time we participate in the divine drama. Simple intellectual assent does not constitute participation. What is required of us is a truly Christ-like life, so that “the world may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven”. It is this pointing towards God that is our responsibility in the divine drama of salvation and redemption. We live a particular way of life in order to show others the way to Christ and prepare the world for the coming of the kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven.

We must abandon the false dichotomy between salvation that is divorced from good works and salvation that is defined by good works. There is a middle ground in which salvation is given freely by God, but which also demands a particular way of life.

There are few people who have reminded the church of this need for “good living” more powerfully than the great theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was he who wrote,

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. 

In short, to pretend as if nothing is required of us after we “accept” God’s free gift of grace is to cheapen, dishonor, and ultimately render mute Jesus’ sacrifice. Perhaps for no other reason than this, the modern myth of sola fide must be just that, a myth.

There are plenty of examples that we could use in the modern church to exemplify how the myth of sola fide is carried out to the detriment of all. However, I think it would behoove us more to see how God responds when our faith is defined by the myth of sola fide. To do that, we need only to look at the book of Isaiah and a story I have mentioned here many times before.

This was the time of Solomon’s temple, when the kingdom of Israel was flourishing. In many ways, it was a time very similar to our own, not least of all because their relationship with God had come to defined by “faith alone.” They believed that God created them. They believed that they were His chosen people. They prayed and when necessary they went to the temple to make burnt offerings. So what did God think of their version of sola fide?   

“The multitude of your sacrifices— 
   what are they to me?” says the LORD. 
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings, 
   of rams and the fat of fattened animals; 
I have no pleasure 
   in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. 
When you come to appear before me, 
   who has asked this of you, 
   this trampling of my courts? 
Stop bringing meaningless offerings! 
   Your incense is detestable to me. 
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— 
   I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. 
Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals 
   I hate with all my being. 
They have become a burden to me; 
   I am weary of bearing them. 
When you spread out your hands in prayer, 
   I hide my eyes from you; 
even when you offer many prayers, 
   I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood!

 Wash and make yourselves clean. 
   Take your evil deeds out of my sight; 
   stop doing wrong. 
Learn to do right; seek justice. 
   Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless; 
   plead the case of the widow.

It was this context which set the stage only a few chapters later for the famous messianic prophecies that predicted “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Jesus was coming to save Israel from their sin. If context tells us anything, and it usually does, then according to Isaiah chief among those sins was a faith defined by “faith alone” and personal piety. This is a sin we still need saving from today.

In closing, let me be clear. I firmly believe that our salvation is grounded in the grace of the Father extended through the faithfulness of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit alone. There is no amount of good works we could do on our own to earn salvation. However, while we are not saved as a result of our good deeds, neither are we saved apart from them.

Therefore, I think it is critical to make a distinction in what exactly it is that we believe. For many of us, we believe that a person has faith or believes in Jesus when they agree that he was born, lived, died, and rose again. However, this is not the sort of faith Luther or the early church had in mind. Even the devil and his angels believe in the reality of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The true confession of faith in the early church, and the church today, is “Jesus is Lord.”

There were plenty of other gods and men who had died and been resurrected during the era of the early church. What made the church distinct was not just the idea of resurrection, but more so that this man from Nazareth who had been resurrected wasn’t simply another god-man. He alone was Lord of a heavenly kingdom that was beginning to dawn on earth in and through them.

To claim “Jesus is Lord” is much more than intellectual assent to historical reality. It is a transformative confession that has the capacity to reshape both our lives as well as the world around us. As Lord, Jesus is the one we follow by living a life that reflects the life that he lived. “Jesus is Lord” is the recognition that all things belong to him alone and as such nothing is outside the realm of redemption and repurposing for use in the kingdom of God.

If we are to be the Christ-like people of God we are called to be, then it will not happen through faith in a list of beliefs “alone”. It will only come about when the confession “Jesus is Lord” ceases to be merely a pleasant thought, and instead becomes a way of living and being in the world through which all of creation is oriented towards its Creator so that the kingdom of God begins to dawn “on earth as it is in heaven”. This is the sort of “faith” we are called to have.

Grace and peace,

Zack Hunt