Theology in 3D

Celebrating the Solas, Part 2: Sola Fide

Layton Talbert | October 25, 2017
New Testament, Theology

Soteriology was the heart and soul of the Reformation. All five solas revolve around salvation, atonement, being put in right relationship with God. The first, sola scriptura, answers the question of authority: “Who says? How can we know? What’s the ultimate authority on this question?” The last, soli Deo gloria, answers the question of purpose: “Why? To what end? What is God’s ultimate goal in saving us?” The middle three—sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus—address the issue of how: “How do we get it?” We are saved by faith alone by grace alone by Christ alone. Which raises a question: if those three middle solas are all answering the same question (how?), aren’t they self-contradictory? How can I be saved by Christ alone if it’s also by grace alone and by faith alone?

The solution, of course, is that flexible little word, “by”—it can signify means, or basis¸ or agency (among other things). So I’m saved by faith, but that doesn’t mean that faith itself does the saving. Suppose you are lost and starving in the wilderness when you suddenly come upon a stash of food and begin shoveling it into your mouth. It would never occur to you to describe that experience later by raising your right hand and saying, “This hand saved me from starvation! When I found that food, my hand reached out and took it, and that’s why I survived. My hand saved me!” It wasn’t your hand, it was the food; your hand was with you all the time you were starving and would have died with you if it hadn’t been for the food. It’s not the faith that does the saving; that’s the sense in which I’m saved “by Christ.” It’s Christ the Bread of Life who does the saving. Faith is the instrument, the outstretched hand of a starving man, the means by which I willingly access and appropriate the salvation Christ has procured.

But is faith really the sole means by which I appropriate salvation?


James seems to blow sola fide right out of the waters of the River Elbe.†

Was not Abraham … justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?… Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.

James 2:24 sounds like the ultimate anti-sola fide text! But like every other biblical writer, James insists on being heard in context. To ignore this most basic rule of interpretation puts one among “the ignorant and unstable” who “twist” the Scriptures “to their own destruction” (2 Pet 3:16). This statement in James is an exclamation point on a discussion that begins back in 2:14 where James chides, What does it profit if a man says he has faith, but does not have works? James clarifies on the front end that he’s dealing with a very specific problem: someone who claims to have faith when nothing in his life backs up that claim.

Do you think that’s a relevant issue for the church today? James then ratchets up the importance of this issue when he follows the value question (What does it profit?) with an existential question: Can that [kind of] faith save? What kind of faith? The kind of “faith” that is in word only. What does that look like?

If a brother or sister is naked and hungry, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace! Be warm! Be filled!’—but you don’t lift a finger to give them what they need, what good does that do?

That kind of “faith”a faith that is nothing but word and wind and hot air, a faith that is all profession and pretense and posturingthat kind of “faith” saves no one because that kind of “faith” isn’t even real; it’s dead, fruitless, pointless (Jas 2:17). Even demons have that kind of “faith” and it does them no good (Jas 2:19).

That’s why James uses Abraham as a prime example of someone whose life demonstrates what actual faith looks like (Jas 2:21-23). James affirms sola fide when he acknowledges the truth of Genesis 15:6—Abraham was already declared righteous on the basis of his faith. Abraham’s life of obedience (in offering Isaac, for example) “fulfilled” the previous declaration of his faith-based righteousness.His point? Abraham didn’t just sayhe “believed”; he actually did believe and was declared righteous on that basis alone (Gen 15:6); the rest of his life demonstrated the genuineness of his faith. (Paul is no stranger to the idea of works necessarily following a justifying faith; cf. Eph 2:10.) No part of James’s teaching can be severed and isolated from his starting point in 2:14. Everything he argues is designed to reveal the difference between profession and possession.

Where there are no works—no appetite for obedience, no hunger for righteousness, no thirst for God’s truth, no compulsion to Christlikeness—there is no faith … whatever you may claim. A claimed faith that doesn’t change the life and produce works is a dead faith, and a dead faith can’t save (Jas 2:26).

If you ignore James’s starting point (2:14)—if you miss the fact that he is talking about professed faith vs. actual faith, about “faith” vs. faith—then you will completely misunderstand his argument and misconstrue his teaching.


Romans 3 is probably the NT’s most explicit statement of sola fide. Our problem is sin (Rom 3:9-10). Our need is righteousness if we are to be granted entrance into God’s presence. How does that happen? Start becoming righteous by obeying God and keeping God’s law? Isn’t that what the law is for? To tell us what to do to get right and stay right with God, right? What does Paul say about that?

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in his sight; for by the law is the knowledge of sin.

Well that’s not very encouraging. So the law doesn’t helping us to become righteous enough for God to accept. It actually has the opposite effect. The law is designed to identifyour offenses, specify our sins, quantify our failures, and prove our guilt. The law only highlights our unrighteousness and unworthiness of God.

We’re not good enough in ourselves. We can’t become good enough by our efforts. What can we do? Actually, Paul says, there’s another way. In fact, it’s the only way, the sola way. Here’s how it works:

But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith in Jesus Christ unto all and upon all those who believe …. For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; being justified [declared righteous] freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation through faithin his blood, to declare his righteousness … that he might be just and the justifier of the one who believes in Jesus (Rom 3:21-26).

The clincher comes in verse 28: Therefore we conclude that a man is justified (there’s the need: righteousness from God) by faith­­ (there’s the fideapart from the works of the law(there’s the sola). That’s sola fide wrapped up in a single verse.

But what if Paul making this up? Improvising his own theological agenda? He says that the Law and Prophets actually teach this way of justification (Rom 3:21). Where? Paul gives us an OT example that validates what he’s saying. In fact, it’s the same example James used in his letter a decade before Paul wrote to the Romans: Abraham (Rom 4:1-3).

Paul and James are not at odds (Gal 2:1-9).‡ James wrote to combat a common problem—the misconception that a mere claim to faith is adequate to save. Paul wrote to combat the opposite problem—the misconception that enough law-works and good works are adequate to save. Someone captured the relationship between James and Paul in a memorable image. They are not crossing swords with each other; they are two swordsmen standing back-to-back fighting opposite errors in defense of the same truth: sola fide.

To modify the metaphor, both passages meld together into a single, sharp, two-edged sword to combat opposite errors: (1) the necessity of works to earn salvation, and (2) the sufficiency of mere profession to secure salvation.

Ironically, in his Preface to the Book of Romans, Luther summed up the teaching of both Paul and James:

Faith is not that human illusion and dream that some people think it is…. [T]hey fall into error [who] say, “Faith is not enough. You must do works if you want to be virtuous and get to heaven.”

That’s the error Paul battles in Romans. But then, just a few paragraphs later, Luther adds,

It is impossible that faith should ever stop doing good works…. Whoever does not do such works is without faith…. It is as impossible to separate works from faith as burning and shining from fire.

That’s the error James battles in his letter.

Luther and the Reformers did not discover the doctrine of justification by faith alone—they simply uncovered it from where it lay, right there in the text of Scripture, buried beneath the dust and dirt of traditions and additions and distortions by an unfaithful church. If the church is to fulfill her role as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (NET), then we will have to be prepared to understand that truth accurately, celebrate it joyfully, defend it vigorously, and proclaim it confidently so that “the faith once delivered to the saints” will not be lost again in our generation.

The Elbe runs through the city of Wittenberg, where Luther posted his 95 Theses.

Paul’s meeting with James, Peter, and John in this passage seems to have occurred in the same year to which the letter of James is usually dated (ca. A.D. 45).

4 responses to “Celebrating the Solas, Part 2: Sola Fide”

  1. Ken Casillas says:

    Amen! Here’s another way to summarize the issue: God justifies us through faith in Christ (Romans), and works justify our faith (James). The key is the different meanings of “justify.” In the first case it means a declaration of righteousness before God. In the second case, it means a vindication of the reality of our faith. In this regard, it looks like Luther’s comments in his Preface to Romans provide the answer to his struggles about James.

  2. Ethan says:

    I like the analogy with the hand. Reminds me that people have faith even when they die without the gospel. It’s where the faith is placed that makes the difference.

  3. Seth says:

    I’ve been very thoughtful about 2 things: how a careful reading of James supports sola fide while considering that early on Luther rejected the epistle of James saying it lacked Gospel teaching. It’s not hard to piece together James’ argument in the book that a genuine saving faith must produce works or it is dead, but Luther (at least for a while) seemed to miss that.
    What is really thought provoking is the early 1500’s culture that Luther is coming out of–perhaps the counter-gospel of the RCC created a blind spot for Luther that made it difficult for him to read the entirety of James’ argument for what it said, not just for what a few phrases seemed to say. There’s probably more to it than that but I’m reminded of the need to read the Word with care, avoiding the pitfalls my own culture creates where I may miss the intent by reading what my eyes are conditioned to read.

    • Great thought, Seth. We definitely have a tendency to read Scripture through the lens of our surrounding culture (and that can include our religious culture), which is why we’re exhorted to be shaped by Scripture rather than the culture (Rom. 12:2). No individual or generation is immune. So thick and entrenched was Luther’s religious culture and heritage that his suspicions of James may be (if not indulged:) at least understood. He also remarked that there was too little of Christ in James (which, again, one can see, compared to the Pauline literature in which Luther seems to have steeped himself). I’m pretty sure Martin and James have had some interesting conversations by now.
      Take care, Seth, and don’t catch all the salmon in Alaska.

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