In this life, what would you say is the most important question a person could ask? Would it involve your health, long life, how to achieve financial security, or perhaps wisdom? Maybe it would involve relationships? Well, it turns out that this question was asked by a jailer about 2,000 years ago, and it is arguably the most important question anyone could ever ask: “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30) Given that all people are sinners, we all deserve the wrath of God. The jailer obviously understood this fact, so he asks the most important question of all, how can a sinner be saved from the just wrath of a holy God?
By the time of the Reformation in the 1500s, the answer to this question had changed drastically from the time of Jesus, the apostles and the early church. Over time, the gospel (i.e., the “good news” of how one can be saved from God’s wrath) became corrupted. This happened slowly, over a long period of time, although it started pretty early. Indeed, we even see this in Scripture, in Galatians, where the Judaizers were adding something to the gospel. Paul corrected this strongly, as we’ll see below. As Paul showed the Galatians, and as Scripture makes abundantly clear, we are saved by faith alone in Christ alone. These two solas are inseparable, and there is a lot of overlap between the two, but for now, we’ll focus on faith alone.
It’s useful to consider how the church moved away from this Scriptural doctrine. One of the first departures from this doctrine we see in the early church relates to the teaching that baptism is necessary for salvation. This teaching was found in the un-Biblical letter The Shepherd of Hermas. This letter was read in many early churches and was initially considered Scripture (and later rejected, for very good reason). This false letter concerns a vision Hermas was experiencing, seeing a tower that was explained to be the church. He is then told, “Hear then why the tower is builded upon waters; it is because your life is saved and shall be saved by water.” Other early church fathers added to this false teaching, Cyprian being a major one. In fact, many early church fathers taught this false doctrine, including the esteemed Augustine.
From baptism, other items were added as requirements for salvation. Since they falsely taught that baptism was necessary for salvation, their theology had a problem with sins committed after baptism. For example, during severe persecutions, many Christians caved during torture and denied Christ so they could spare their life (remember Peter, anyone?). This “problem” led to Cyprian teaching that for a person who denied Christ under persecution to be saved, salvation for that person could only come through martyrdom. This is clearly un-Biblical.
One of the reasons the early church went so far off track was due in part to some bad translations in a widely used version of the Bible. In the late 4th century, Jerome was commissioned by Pope Damasus to translate the Greek Septuagint into Latin. His work, the Latin Vulgate, became the most used Bible for about 1,000 years. Unfortunately, this translation had many errors, some of them extremely significant. Perhaps one of the most egregious errors was Jerome’s mistranslation of the word for repent. The original Greek word is metanoia, which means to have a change of mind, with the view of turning from a life of sin and instead turning to God. However, rather than translate this as repentance, Jerome translated this into the Latin poenitenitam agite, which means, “do acts of penance.” This was the teaching that one must feel sorry for one’s sins committed after baptism, and in order to atone for them, one must do certain acts of penance, which the priest would give for the penitent sinner. (How the priest knew what the person should do is beyond me. Growing up as a Catholic, the priest would typically tell us to say so many Hail Marys and Our Fathers; how he knew which prayers to say and how many is obviously subjective, but such are the follies of man made religion.)
As a humorous aside, and a great example of how mistranslations can impact our beliefs, one of the other mistranslated words of the Vulgate was in Exodus 34:29. This passage correctly reads, “It came about when Moses was coming down from Mount Sinai (and the two tablets of the testimony were in Moses’ hand as he was coming down from the mountain), that Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because of his speaking with Him.” The Hebrew word for “shone” is qaran, which means “to shine, to send out rays”, but can also mean, “to display or grow horns.” Jerome translated the passage so it read, “his face was horned” instead of “shone.” Obviously, context makes a difference in what definition is applied to the word used. The result? Google an image of Michelangelo’s statue of Moses. It has horns growing out of his head!
So, due in part to these mistranslations, in addition to acts of penance, other works were added for one to be saved. These included confession of sins to a priest, prayers, partaking of the Catholic mass, up to the point where only a priest could actually absolve peoples’ sins. Since no one died perfectly righteous, this led to the false doctrine of purgatory, where a person had to go after death to pay for unconfessed and unforgiven (by the priest) sins. This ultimately led to the practice of the granting of indulgences. This practice (which remains official Catholic teaching to this day) involved the granting by the church of the forgiveness of sins so that one’s time in purgatory could be shortened. To obtain such forgiveness, one had to pay the church for such privilege. At the time of the Reformation, indulgences were being used to help finance the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. One particular fundraiser, Johann Tetzel, used a particular phrase that would have made Madison Avenue proud: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” It was in this environment that God used Martin Luther to start the Reformation, and return the church to the purity of the gospel. Part of this purity was to move the church away from works based salvation and return to the Biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone.
The doctrine of justification by faith alone really needs to be approached in at least two ways. First, we must consider God’s sovereignty with respect to our salvation. Having a firm understanding of this helps us better understand why we can say that we are saved by faith alone. Second, we need to look at what Scripture explicitly says about this subject, which, thankfully, it says a lot.
Scripture makes clear that salvation is an act of God. As we saw in the article on Sola Gratia, apart from Christ, we are spiritually dead. In order for a person to believe in Christ to be saved, God the Holy Spirit must first regenerate that person. As Jesus stated, we must be born again, and this is an act of God, not of man. Jesus says we must be born of the Spirit (John 3:6), and Peter tells us that God has caused us to be born again (1 Peter 3). Once God has made us alive, we then have the ability and desire to believe in Christ and His glorious gospel.
In particular, in Ephesians 2, right after Paul tells us that we are spiritually dead, we read, “4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” R.C. Sproul calls the word “but” perhaps the most important word in the Bible. If not for His mercy, we would be without hope. God is the one who made us alive with Christ, raised us up, seated us with Him in the heavenly places. He did all of this so He could show the surpassing riches of His grace, which we looked at in the previous article.
Paul goes on to say, “8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” We already talked about God’s grace saving us, but we didn’t talk about the means by which He saves. We read here that God accomplishes this through faith. Faith is also a gift of God, one that is given to us along with our regeneration. So, by grace, first God saves us and makes us spiritually alive. Once He makes us alive, He gives us the gift of faith.
Now, importantly, faith itself is not what saves us. Rather, faith always has an object. With respect to salvation, the object is Jesus. Therefore, it is through faith (the means by which we believe) in the Son of God by which we are saved.
The important point here is that it is God who not only is the source of our salvation, but also initiates it. He gives us spiritual life (regeneration) and faith so that we believe in Jesus as our Lord and Savior. This is not a gift He gives to everyone, but only to His elect, and all who receive this gift will believe in Jesus, because that is the very reason why God causes us to be born again and believe. How do we know? Scripture says, “So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:11) The key point here is that because God is the author of salvation and it is totally dependent upon His work, then it can never be dependent upon our works. This leads to the second point, namely, what Scripture says about salvation by faith and works.
(If you are interested in learning more about God’s sovereignty and election, we have a helpful article here.)
In response to Martin Luther’s (and other Reformers’) view that salvation was by faith alone, the Catholic church “infallibly” declared at the Council of Trent that faith was indeed necessary for salvation, but for a person to be saved he had to become inherently righteous. That is to say, a person must actually become perfect. This was done through good works. While the works were done by God’s grace, they were truly your good works, by which a person became righteous. These are a few of the proclamations from the Council of Trent that demonstrate this “official” teaching of the Catholic church:
CANON XI.-If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema.
CANON XII.-If any one saith, that justifying faith is nothing else but confidence in the divine mercy which remits sins for Christ's sake; or, that this confidence alone is that whereby we are justified; let him be anathema.
CANON XX.-If any one saith, that the man who is justified and how perfect soever, is not bound to observe the commandments of God and of the Church, but only to believe; as if indeed the Gospel were a bare and absolute promise of eternal life, without the condition of observing the commandments ; let him be anathema.
CANON XXIV.-If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.
CANON XXVI.-If any one saith, that the just ought not, for their good works done in God, to expect and hope for an eternal recompense from God, through His mercy and the merit of Jesus Christ, if so be that they persevere to the end in well doing and in keeping the divine commandments; let him be anathema.
CANON XXX.-If any one saith, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise, that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened (to him); let him be anathema.
CANON XXXII.-If any one saith, that the good works of one that is justified are in such manner the gifts of God, as that they are not also the good merits of him that is justified; or, that the said justified, by the good works which he performs through the grace of God and the merit of Jesus Christ, whose living member he is, does not truly merit increase of grace, eternal life, and the attainment of that eternal life,-if so be, however, that he depart in grace,-and also an increase of glory; let him be anathema.
As you can plainly see, the Catholic church believes that works are necessary for salvation, and they reject salvation by faith alone in Christ alone. Keep in mind, these proclamations came from an official body of church bishops, and is therefore “infallible” according to Catholic doctrine. One can only decide if what they teach is truly infallible by comparing it to Scripture (this is why Sola Scriptura is one of the Solas; Scripture is always sovereign over man).
What we find is that Scripture makes clear that salvation is by faith and not by works. While there are many places in Scripture that we can look to see this, perhaps the best place to look is in Romans 3-5. Romans 3 makes clear that all have sinned and that there are none who are righteous. With this the Catholic church agrees.
But in Romans 4, Paul starts to make clear how it is that God makes a person righteous. He teaches us this, appropriately, with Abraham, for it was through Abraham that God would fulfill the New Covenant in Jesus.
“What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, And whose sins have been covered. 8 “Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account.”
Notice the sharp contrast Paul makes between faith and works. If a person can be justified (i.e., declared righteous) by works, he has something about which to boast. If one achieves righteousness by works, it is no longer a gift, it is a wage that is earned. On the other hand, those who believe in Him who justifies (i.e., Jesus), God says that person’s faith is credited as righteousness. Importantly, this righteousness is credited apart from works. This could not be more clear.
Paul could stop right there, for he’s made his point. But in His mercy, God continues to make it clear that our faith in Christ is what saves us. In Romans 5, Paul makes a comparison of Adam and Jesus to really drive this point home. Romans 5 begins with “Therefore, having been justified by faith.” Justified how? By works? No, by faith. Although it does not say faith “alone” here, that is the clear implication. Paul goes on to compare how we were made sinners and how we are made righteous. Pay particular attention to the fact that in both cases, nothing was done on our part.
First, Paul shows that we were made sinners by Adam’s sin: “12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” (By the way, this is from where we get the doctrine of original sin.) Notice that we were made sinners because of what Adam did, not what we did. We sin because we are sinners. So, even before anyone else was born, sin and death were imputed (i.e., credited) to Adam’s progeny.
Similarly, we are made righteous not by what we do, but by what Jesus did. “17 For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ. 18 So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. 19 For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.”
Again, this could not be more clear. Verse 19 is the key: Adam’s disobedience made us sinners; Jesus’ obedience makes us righteous. This is done through what Scripture calls “imputation”, which means God imputes, or credits, Christ’s righteousness to those who by faith believe in Him. Ironically, the Catholic church accepts the imputation of the sin nature from Adam. They also accept that Christ paid for our sins on the cross. Yet, amazingly, they reject the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (see Canon XI above).
The Catholic response is almost always the same: the only place in Scripture where it says “faith alone” is in James 2: “24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” This appears to be a contradiction to what Paul said about Abraham above. Ironically, James uses the example of Abraham to prove this point, just as Paul does in Romans 4. How do we resolve this apparent contradiction?
As with any apparent contradiction, we must look at both passages and make sure we are interpreting them correctly in context. In Romans, Paul’s clear intent was to demonstrate that we are saved by faith apart from works. This is self-evident from the passage.
In James, on the other hand, the context is not to contrast faith and works with respect to how one is saved, as it clearly was with Paul in Romans. Rather, James is discussing how we demonstrate our faith. The chapter begins with, “1 My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.” He is discussing how his audience is not demonstrating the love that should come from their faith, especially when they show partiality (v. 2:9). He extends this to the person who does nothing to help his neighbor in need (vs. 15-16). A faith with no works is a dead faith; that is to say, it is no faith at all. James then uses Abraham to show that his faith was made manifest by his works when he offered his only son, Isaac, as a sacrifice to God. He trusted God so completely that he was willing to sacrifice Isaac, knowing God would have to raise him up again because He had promised to bring about the Messiah through Abraham’s line.
Did God not know that Abraham had faith? Surely He did, for God is the one who chose Abraham and gave him faith. So why test Abraham with his son Isaac, when God already had given Abraham faith? So others would know that Abraham had the faith that God gave him. Abraham was able to demonstrate to the world that he had faith. That is the context of James 2.
Therefore, James’ point here is not to say that works saves us; otherwise, we’d have a major contradiction in Scripture. Rather, James is explaining that if one has true saving faith, it will be demonstrated through works. This agrees completely with Ephesians 2:10. It is through our works that we show we are God’s children, and that is how He is glorified. If we just sit around and say we have faith, how does that bring glory to God? It doesn’t. The world can only know we have faith by our works. A. W. Tozer put it this way, “The Bible recognizes no faith that does not lead to obedience, nor does it recognize any obedience that does not spring from faith. The two are opposite sides of the same coin.” (We have a more detailed article on faith vs. works here.)
Even if we thought James was saying that faith and works are necessary for salvation, Scripture clarifies that this is not a correct view, as we see in the following Scriptures.
- “30 What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is by faith; 31 but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works.” (Romans 9)
- “8 More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, 9 and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.” (Philippians 3)
- “4 But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, 5 He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3)
Perhaps the strongest reaction to those who advocate that salvation is by faith in Christ plus anything else is found in Galatians 1. Even while the apostles were alive, Satan was already at work trying to corrupt the gospel. Judaizers had come to Galatia and were saying that in addition to faith in Christ, a person also had to be circumcised. Demonstrating how important the purity of the gospel is, Paul reacted strongly against the Judaizers: “6 I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7 which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!”
In Galatians 2, Paul confirms salvation is by faith alone: “15 We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; 16 nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.” For Paul (and all Scripture is God breathed), the purity of the gospel was paramount.
While the Reformation fought against the apostasy of the Catholic church, this same false doctrine of salvation by works is found in practically every false religion. Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Islam, etc., all teach salvation is based on one’s works. Although Satan hides the truth in many different false religions, the method is the same.
The answer to the jailer’s question was straightforward: “31 They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” We believe by faith, and by faith alone in Christ alone. This is the pure gospel that God restored through His faithful witnesses in the Reformation. May we be faithful to continue to teach and preach this pure, unadulterated, Biblical gospel.
Soli Deo Gloria!