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Sola Fide: Salvation by Faith Alone

Sola fide.

Martin Luther wrote those words in the margin of his Bible as a young Augustinian monk. Later he used those words (actually, the German equivalent: glaube allein) in his translation of the New Testament.


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Martin LutherMartin Luther

Those words would change the world.

A whole new branch of Christianity would rest their hope on those words.

Sola fide.

Faith alone.

Outside of the margin of Martin Luther's Bible and outside of the translation that he made of the New Testament, are those words actually in the Bible?

Have you ever wondered?

Of course not. Like me, you knew those words had to occur several places in the New Testament. Why, that's what the New Testament is all about.

They're there once. Well, almost there. In James 2:24.

"Non Sola Tantum"

Not by faith only.

The only occurrence of the phrase "faith alone" in the Bible:

… not by faith only. (James 2:24)

Sola Fide the Bible way

People don't understand sola fide today. The Reformation ruined it for them by applying sola fide to everything and every area of our Christian walk.

The Bible does say "faith apart from works," and that is sola fide. However, the Bible also says "not by faith alone," and that's true, too.

Church Overseers

Nowadays we use the word "bishop" to refer to early church leaders. It comes from the Greek word episkopos, which means overseer or supervisor.

Paul and Peter's churches were led by several elders, all of whom were called episkopoi. John's churches also had several elders, but only the head elder was the episkopos. We don't know how the other apostles set up church leadership.

By the mid or late 2nd century, all churches were following John's pattern.

Christian used to understand that. Polycarp, for example, a church overseer appointed by the apostle John wrote:

By grace are ye saved, not of works, but by the will of God through Jesus Christ. (Letter to the Philippians 1)

But he also wrote:

He who raised [Christ] up from the dead will raise us up also, if we do his will and walk in his commandments. (ibid., ch. 2)

No, Polycarp wasn't confused, we are.

Our Confusion About Sola Fide

The "whole new branch of Christianity" spawned by sola fide is not the Lutherans. It is the evangelicals, a word that applies to most Protestant denominations, Lutheran or otherwise.

"Evangelicals" is a somewhat undefined word. One book I read spent a whole chapter trying to define it. There are, however, doctrines that mark believers as evangelical. Sola Fide is one of them. At the very least, conservative evangelicals would hold to it.

Another doctrine held by evangelicals is Sola Scriptura, the Scriptures as sole authority. For the most part, evangelical denominations hold to Sola Scriptura in word only. In practice, they are relatively unmoved by what the Scriptures say unless they verify the denomination's traditions.

This is especially true in the area of sola fide.

The Bible makes many statements that are contrary to salvation by faith alone. In the more fundamental Evangelical churches you will find yourself in disfavor if you make a habit of quoting them.

Do you want some examples?

  1. You can't be a Christian unless you forsake everything you have.
  2. God will give eternal life to those who pursue it by patiently continuing to do good.
  3. Those who don't get tired of doing good will eventually reap eternal life, as long as they don't lose heart.
  4. Be afraid your whole life, because God will judge you by your works.
  5. Immoral, unclean, and covetous people will not have any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ or of God.

I could list many more. Do you recognize any of the ones I just listed?

  1. Luke 14:33
  2. Romans 2:6-7
  3. Galatians 6:9
  4. 1 Peter 1:17
  5. Ephesians 5:5

I took most of these from Martin Luther's favorite letters: Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians!

Let's look at the one I paraphrased the most, 1 Peter 1:17. It reads:

If you call on the Father, who impartiality judges according to each one's work, pass the time of your travel here with fear.

Is it not fair to say that this tells you to fear your whole life because you will be judged by your work?

I'm not suggesting that we should tremble in fear every moment of our life. I am suggesting—because this verse commands it—that whenever you are tempted, the knowledge that you will be judged by your works ought to frighten and restrain you.

Here's the point. It doesn't frighten us! Evangelicals—those that push the doctrine of sola fide—ignore, avoid, and water down these verses. (I'm pushing this evangelical issue because I am one! I want us to believe what the apostles taught and what the Bible says.)

They insist that verses like 1 Peter 1:17 have nothing to do with salvation. "You'll just lose rewards," they say.

This isn't true.

Eternal Life in Paul's Letters

Anyone who has had any evangelism training in an evangelical church knows that Christians already have eternal life. They don't have to wait for it at the judgment.

"He who believes has [note the present tense] eternal life," says Jesus in John 6:47.

That's John. Paul never uses eternal life in this way. In the few places where it's clear, Paul always refers to eternal life as a future reward (Rom. 2:7; 6:22; Gal. 6:8; 1 Tim. 6:19; Tit. 1:2; 3:7; the other 4 uses are unclear).

On some issues it's important to distinguish between authors, as we'll see below when we look at sola fide in James.

How Can Faith Only and Not Faith Only Both Be True?

Ah, finally. To the point.

Paul divides salvation into two stages.

  1. One, we are delivered from the world and from our bondage to sin. We are born again, and made into new creatures in Christ. That happens by faith, apart from works.
  2. Two, we live our lives as Christians. The grace of God enables us to overcome sin (Rom. 6:14). The Spirit of God enables us to put our flesh to death (Rom. 8:13). Then we die, and we are judged …

 by works apart from faith.

Does Paul really distinguish like that?


But let's look at the place where he most clearly distinguishes between our salvation from the world and our entrance into eternal life:

Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. (Rom. 5:9-10)

Faith and works are not specifically mentioned here. We'll look at those in a moment.

But look at how much is mentioned:

  • past tense: In the past tense, Paul says we were reconciled and justified. He also says that this was done by Jesus' death and by his blood.
  • future tense: In the future tense, Paul says that we will be saved from wrath. This will happen by his life, rather than by his death.

Jesus' death and blood are tied to our justification and our reconciliation to God in the past. Similar words are used to refer to the rest of our salvation experience in the past. We die to our old life, and in baptism we are buried with Christ. Our salvation, in the sense of our entrance into Christ, happens purely by faith, apart from works. We can never work ourselves into being born again or into becoming new creatures.

Once that happens, however, we are told not to grow weary in doing good (Gal. 6:9). We are told that we must live by the Spirit and put to death the deeds of body (Rom. 8:13). This happens by Christ's life rather than by his death. While the power belongs to Christ, the choice belongs to us. If we live according to the flesh, we will die, we are told, but if we put to death the deeds of the body, then we will live.

We can only put the deeds of the body to death by the Spirit. We do not have the power otherwise. But the choice to live by the Spirit is ours, and we are commanded repeatedly (especially in Rom. 8 and Gal. 5) to do so.

As Paul says, if by the Spirit we put to death the deeds of the body, then (and only then) we will live. In Galatians 6:8-9, Paul ties this to good works ("doing good"). If we don't grow weary in doing good, then we will reap. The context makes it clear he is talking about reaping eternal life at the judgment.

We Have Been Saved by Faith, and We Shall Be Saved by the Good Works
(Which Are a Product of That Faith)

This is important, you should not miss it.

Paul does say that salvation is by faith apart from works (sola fide), but he also often mentions works. Whenever he says salvation is by faith, he is speaking in the past tense of our deliverance from sin and our new birth in Jesus.

In contrast, whenever he says salvation is by works, he is talking about the judgment and going to heaven.

This is absolutely consistent.

Let's use the letter to Titus as an example.

In chapter one, Paul writes, "They profess that they know God, but in works they deny him, being abominable, disobedient, and unfit for any good work" (v. 16).

Here, he is discussing currently living for Christ, and he says that those without good works are not just unfit, but abominable. First John uses the same sort of very direct talk. If there's no good works, then there's no righteousness, imputed or otherwise (1 Jn. 3:7).

That is not sola fide!

But in chapter three, Paul talks about salvation in the past tense, and he writes, "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but by his mercy he has saved us" (v.5).

Again, it's what's happened to us in the past—our deliverance from our old nature—that is sola fide. Once we are delivered, we need to prove by our works that this is so.

I know how frightening it is for an Evangelical to say that we have something to prove by our works. However, the Bible talks about proving ourselves by our works repeatedly.

  • They profess to know God, but in works they deny him. (Tit. 1:16)
  •  … in all things showing yourself to be a pattern of good works. (Tit. 2:7)
  • A man may say, "You have faith, and I have works." Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. (James 2:18)
  • Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? Let him show by his behavior his works in the meekness of wisdom. (James 3:13)
  • [Jesus speaking] "Be watchful and strengthen the things which remain, for I have not found your works perfect before God… . You have a few names, even in Sardis, who have not defiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy." (Rev. 3:2,4)

We need to understand that sola fide, faith alone, applies only to being created anew—born again—by Jesus. For Christians, that is something that happened in the past.

Now, though, as Paul says, "Affirm [these things] constantly, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to maintain good works" (Tit. 3:8).

What About Other Writers?

The other New Testament authors are not Paul. Paul is the consummate theologian. He carefully explains sola fide and explains where it applies.

The other New Testament writers do not. They tie all of salvation together, and they talk about faith and works together, slipping easily from one to the other.

Thank God for Paul. He explains things and breaks things down for us. On the other hand, his long and careful explanations can be difficult to follow.

So thank God for the other authors, too. They don't explain things as precisely, but they're much easier to understand.

We evangelicals overemphasize precise explanations and doctrinal accuracy on side issues.

James, for example, is extremely easy to understand. We evangelicals like to say that James 2:14-26, his passage on faith and works, is difficult, but we only say that because we don't agree with it. Really, it's very simple. If you have faith and not works, you won't be saved. How hard is that to understand?

The problem is that we've developed a theology, sola fide, that doesn't allow us to believe it.

In that sense, we are following in Martin Luther's footsteps. He believed Romans 3:28 and James 2:24 could never be reconciled. So in his introduction to the New Testament, he calls James "an epistle of straw" that has "nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it."

Now that's a novel way to reconcile Bible passages!

Sola Fide: The True and the Mythical

Even though the Bible never directly says sola fide, or faith alone, except to deny it in James 2:24, sola fide is clearly biblical. For example, Paul writes:

For by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast. (Eph. 2:8)

This is definitely sola fide, faith completely apart from works.

However, this is not Paul's only word on the matter. Works are obviously important to him because in the same letter he warns the Christians of Ephesus that immoral, unclean, and covetous people do not have any inheritance in God's kingdom (5:5). We cannot say works don't matter.

There's some other things that we should stop saying.

It's common for Evangelicals to say, "It's faith plus nothing. You can't add anything to faith."

In the past tense, if you're talking about how we entered Christ, then it's true that it's faith plus nothing. However, once that happens you not only can, but must, add to faith. It's a direct Biblical command!

Add to your faith virtue … (2 Pet. 1:5, NKJV)

Virtue's not the only thing we're supposed to add to faith. We're also supposed to add knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love.

If we don't, and if we don't do so diligently, we won't enter Jesus' everlasting Kingdom.

That's what 2 Peter 1:5-11 says, anyway.

A Little Help with the Shock

I know the things written on this page may be shocking. Let me try to help.

First, what I'm telling you is what everyone in the apostles' churches believed. Do you remember me telling you about Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna appointed by the apostle John? He said that we're saved by grace and not works, but then turned around and also said that God would raise us up with Christ only if we keep his commandments and do his will.

Polycarp's words fit Paul's pattern perfectly. When he speaks in the past tense of our salvation, he says it's by grace and not works. When he speaks of our resurrection and entrance into the Kingdom in the future, he talks about works only.

Absolutely consistent.

Second, though it's breathtaking to think we might be wrong on such an important issue—and evangelicals generally assume they're right on everything—we've really just applied a truth too widely. Sola fide is true. We simply haven't understood that it's true about being born again only. It's not true when applied to the judgment.

A Little Story

Keith Green—the famous Christian singer who died in 1982—has a live album out with his song about the sheep and the goats of Matthew 25 on it. When Keith gets done singing it on the album, he bangs on the piano and says, "The only difference between the sheep and the goats is what they did … and didn't … DO!"

The first time I heard that, I was shocked. In fact, I was offended. He couldn't say that! It's a complete violation of sola fide.

As I thought about it over the years I got over my offense. How could I be offended? He was correct!

Nearly a decade later I was driving through Tyler, Texas listening to Christian radio. The station was making appeals for donations to a food bank for the poor.

As the two hosts talked, one of them brought up the judgment of the sheep and the goats. It was a natural fit because it focuses on things like feeding the hungry. As they talked, one of them mentioned that the only difference between those that go to heaven and those that go to hell—at least in Matthew 25—is their works.

Once it came out of his mouth, there was silence. He had suddenly realized what he had said, and he was horrified.

He stammered and fumbled around trying to take it back. I laughed as I listened. "You'll never be able to take it back, my friend," I said to my radio. "It's true, and God won't let us miss it."

A Final Word: Grace

Think of this section as a sort of appendix. I have to mention grace.

Grace is often used today as a synonym for mercy. We think that because salvation is by grace, then we don't have to do good works. We are completely misunderstanding grace!

There's an excellent description of grace in the letter to Titus:

The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age. (2:11-12)

That's clear, isn't it?

Paul adds that sin won't have power over us because of grace (Rom. 6:14). The writer of Hebrews tells us that grace helps us in time of need (4:16).

Grace is different than mercy. Mercy is wonderful on its own. Thank God for mercy. We don't need another word for it. We need grace to be what it is.

Grace is a power from God that teaches us, that gives us power over sin, that helps us in time of need, and that equips us with spiritual gifts to do God's work (1 Pet. 4:10).

Think of that when next you quote Ephesians 2:8. It may not be the sweet (but false) thought that God will simply overlook sin if we're born again, but it's a much better thought. Picture the power inherent in these verses when you actually understand what grace is:

For by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has ordained in advance for us to walk in. (Eph. 2:8-10)

It's by grace you are saved. That wonderful power from God breaks sin's power over us and allows us to be created in Christ Jesus for good works. The very purpose of grace is to produce a people for Christ that are zealous for good works (Tit. 2:11-14).

We should think of these things the next time we use grace as an excuse for our worldliness.


Faith alone, sola fide, is how we entered Christ. It is how we were delivered from our old sins, born again, and given life by God.

Works are what we will be judged by. Works are produced by walking in the Spirit so that God himself, by his grace, can be the source of the good we do.

We have over-applied sola fide as though it applied to the judgment as well as to being born again. We need to change our understanding so that we stop confusing ourselves and everyone else.

Worse, we need to change what we say so that the warnings of Scripture are no longer ignored. Paul took the judgment seriously. After telling the Corinthians that we will be judged by our works (2 Cor. 5:10), he tells them that it's the terror of the Lord that causes him to persuade men (v. 11).

He not only persuaded men, but he was an example to them. He also told the Corinthians that he disciplined his body, bringing it under subjection so that he would not be disqualified himself after preaching to others. If Paul could be disqualified and needed to work on discipline and subjection, how much more should we?

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