It is alleged by some that the Reformed doctrine of sola fide—that we are justified by faith alone, apart from our good works—is unscriptural and untrue. In fact, in the words of a Catholic correspondent, it is reasonable and biblical doctrine “only if you accept Luther adding a word to the Bible”: namely, the word “alone” in Romans 5:1.
Aside from being just an honestly bizarre objection, given that Romans 3:28 says that “one is justified by faith apart from works of the law”, it’s pretty simple to work out that justification must be by faith alone. The reasoning looks something like this:
- Sin is the transgression of God’s law, by definition.
- To be justified is to be without sin before God, through means of having kept the whole law, since “to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due” (Romans 4:4); whereas conversely “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10).
- Therefore, any person who transgresses the law is not justified by his own actions.
- Any person who transgresses the law is not justified by his own actions, as per (3).
- Every person has transgressed the law, since “none is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10).
- Therefore, every person is not justified by his own actions.
- Every person is not justified by his own actions, as per (6).
- Some people are justified, since “we have been justified” (Romans 5:1).
- Therefore, those people who are justified are not justified by their own actions.
- Faith is the only means given by which we may be justified, as per Romans 3:28 and the lack of any other provision in Scripture.
- Our own actions are excluded as either necessary or sufficient to our justification, as per Romans 4:5 and (9) above.
- Therefore, justification is by faith alone.
The argument can really stop at conclusion (3), but the further inference is useful for drawing out and explaining sola fide. What it shows is that, because of the very nature of sin, Scripture’s teaching that we are justified by faith is necessarily exclusive. It does not permit the notion that we are justified by faith and our works, because it cannot permit this. Once we have transgressed the law, we could work forever obeying every statute from then on, but never become less guilty of sin. This is why hell is eternal. We can never justify ourselves once we have sinned. To obey the law flawlessly is only to do what is required (Luke 17:10); it does not gain us any actual merit.
Therefore, although there is prima facie a possibility in some passages that faith may not be the only condition for justification (though the implication is otherwise), further consideration shows that this possibility must be precluded. The whole point of all these passages which speak of being right before God is that it’s only possible through God’s own actions, because our works cannot make us less sinful. They cannot make us more righteous—let alone sinless. Thus, a foreign righteousness which is not our own must be given to us. This is the righteousness of Christ, appropriated through faith.
This simple doctrine is the essence of the gospel—anyone who has not grasped it has not grasped the gospel itself. He has not grasped what sin is, nor the solution to it. Therefore, having not grasped the solution, he is certainly not able to apply that solution—which is Paul’s point in Galatians 1:6–9, 2:15–16, and 3:1ff.
(For those of you wondering how James 2:24 fits into this argument, refer to part 5 of my series ‘Who are the Christians?’, which discusses salvation and works.)