How Is Faith Alone?


During this year of commemorating the Reformation, we are enjoying conversation about the gospel with all sorts of people. These interactions are especially interesting among Catholic friends. But such discussions are not always easy.

Consider a classic landmine on which we often step: our message that justification is by “faith alone.” From an evangelical Protestant perspective, the fact that our ultimate acceptance is grounded in Christ’s imputed righteousness, accessed by faith alone apart from human works is about as central as it gets to the good news of the gospel. Why then does it not sound so good to Catholic ears? This is where some familiarity with the doctrinal underpinning of the issue is valuable.

Not Fire Insurance

Given Catholic assumptions concerning justification—that it is a process in which one becomes increasingly righteous—the assertion that God accepts us by “faith alone” often sounds like “cheap grace”(to borrow a phrase from Dietrich Bonhoeffer). It sounds like we’re saying, “Don’t worry about pursuing a life of holiness. Just say this sinner’s prayer, walk this aisle, and then you’ll be safe for all of eternity.” Thus, for Catholics, our doctrine of salvation resembles a form of fire insurance that requires a minimal investment in exchange for an eternal payoff.

Of course, the idea that one can simply articulate a sinner’s prayer and on that sole basis be assured of salvation is misguided. It’s certainly not what the Protestant Reformers taught. They were clear that justification is by faith alone, but not by a faith that remains alone.[1] As John Calvin stated, “For we dream neither of a faith devoid of good works nor of a justification that stands without them.”[2] The same emphasis continued among subsequent Evangelicals, as Jonathan Edwards wrote, “And one great thing he [Jesus] aimed at in redemption, was to deliver them from their idols, and bring them to God.”[3] From the 16th Century to the present, Evangelical theology at its best has taught that the purpose of salvation is maturity in Christ for the glory of God, not fire insurance.

More important than the writings of evangelical Reformers, is the text of Scripture. The Bible puts great emphasis upon the need for obedience. As James asserts in his letter:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (James 2:14-17).

J.I. Packer explains how this tradition is ultimately rooted in the teaching of Jesus:

A man must know that, in the words of the first of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, “when our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance,” and he must also know what repentance involves. More than once, Christ deliberately called attention to the radical break with the past that repentance involves. ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me…whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same (but only he) shall save it.”[4]

The Necessity of Good Works

An old professor of mine liked to explain the need for works in salvation in terms of a “Costco Card.” Most parts of the country probably have a Costco or equivalent. It is a membership warehouse chain where customers enjoy discounts on a wide array of products because merchandise is purchased in bulk. The decisive transaction that provides access to Costco occurs when one becomes a member. You simply pay the fee, get your membership card with embarrassing photo, and shop to your heart’s desire. Whenever you visit the store, you must present your card to the nice lady at the door to verify that you have paid the requisite price of membership. This card-showing exercise, which is performed in all subsequent visits, simply confirms that you have already completed the membership transaction.[5]

So it is with “good works” in salvation. Our virtuous behavior can never procure or somehow enhance God’s favor toward us. The cost of forgiveness and new life is infinite and we are utterly bankrupt. Only Christ can complete the transaction for us, which he did by shedding his blood. By dying on the cross as our substitute, and rising from the dead, Jesus enabled us to approach the throne of grace with confidence. But not only do we have confidence, God has also sent his Holy Spirit to live within us and has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in heaven in order for the Church to walk in good works which he prepared beforehand. Therefore, we must regard salvation to be much more than a sinner’s prayer that gets us into heaven. God’s unmerited favor must take the form of an obedient life of faith here and now, as Paul the Apostle writes: “Since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Cor 7:1).



[1] Or in the Westminster Confession: “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but works by love.” Westminster Confession of Faith. “Of Justification,” Chap. 11.2.

[2] John Calvin. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. John T. McNeill. trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960.) 1:798 (3.16.1).

[3] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol 2, “Discourse: Men Naturally are God’s Enemies” (1834 reprint, Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), 139

[4] J.I. Packer. Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1991), 72.

[5] Like all analogies, there are a few points where the Costco Card breaks down, like when your membership is complete you must purchase another one. You will also perform another monetary transaction when you buy products from the store. For some reason, I find these payments are always quite large.

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