What Does “Faith Alone” Mean, and Why Should You Care?
To understand the importance of the statement “faith alone,” we need to remember why the Reformers sought to recover the doctrine of God’s grace. They wanted to emphasize the fact that we are made right with God not through any merit of our own but rather through God’s own free grace. In Christ, we receive unmerited favor from God. The Roman Catholics in the sixteenth century would have agreed with this to some extent. They indeed believed we needed God’s grace to get to heaven. But how do we get the grace? Here’s what they said at the Council of Trent in 1547 (which is still Roman Catholic doctrine today):
If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone, meaning that nothing else is required to cooperate in order to obtain the grace of justification, and that it is not in any way necessary that he be prepared and disposed by the action of his own will, let him be accursed. (Sixth Session, Canon IX)
Faith is the gift of God.
This is very strong language. What Rome is saying is that if you believe that it is purely by faith that you receive God’s grace, you will be accursed—that is, damned to hell. What’s the problem with this? It’s the very teaching of Scripture that they are condemning! Paul could not be clearer: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). Rome wanted to say that we are saved by God's grace in cooperation with faith and works. In fact, it even saw faith itself as one of the works that earns us God’s grace. But you can’t earn grace—otherwise, it’s not grace, not a gift. Rome taught a theological contradiction, one that Paul warned against in Ephesians 2.
In response to Rome’s perversion of biblical doctrine, the Reformers returned to the Scriptural truth that nothing we do can earn favor with God. We are saved by his grace, and the only way of receiving God’s grace is through the faith that he himself works in our hearts by means of his word and Holy Spirit. The Westminster Divines explained how faith can justify us before God, even though it’s something God himself gives us:
Faith justifies a sinner in the sight of God, not because of those other graces which do always accompany it, or of good works that are the fruits of it, nor as if the grace of faith, or any act thereof, were imputed to him for his justification; but only as it is an instrument by which he receives and applies Christ and his righteousness (Westminster Larger Catechism 73).
Faith is the instrument through which we receive Christ's benefits.
The Holy Spirit working faith in us is what unites us to Christ; and God justifies us, not for anything we do, but for Christ’s sake alone. Faith is the instrument, the channel whereby all the benefits of Christ are communicated to us and counted as ours. It is through faith that God imputes all of Christ’s righteousness to us, so that in Christ alone we “become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).
In this way, the Reformers were always cautious to make sure faith was understood in passive terms. That’s why the Westminster Confession of Faith defines the “principle acts” of saving faith as “accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone” (14.2). These three are all passive “acts.” Faith is about empty hands. It’s about leaning on Jesus. It’s about resting in him. It’s not about doing at all! This is what Paul stresses in Romans 10:
But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified (Rom. 10:6–10).
Being justified through faith alone causes Christians to be thankful and stirred up to do good works.
A common critique is that this doctrine makes for lazy Christians. The objection goes something like this: If I am justified merely by faith and not works, then there is no need for me to do good works. But the Reformers scoffed at that notion, because it misinterprets what God is doing for us through faith in Christ! Since our salvation is secured by a gracious gift of saving belief in Christ’s works, then that will stir us up to love and good works. The First Helvetic Confession (1536) put it this way: “This is the only true worship of God: Faith most pregnant with works, faith I say with no confidence in the works.”
The Reformers rediscovered this doctrine of sola fide in the sixteenth century—but the real question is, have you discovered it today?
Recommended: Faith Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification by R. C. Sproul