Faith Only

by Mark Russell
published in Biblical Insights, Vol. 5, No. 7, July, 2005

Martin LutherEven Martin Luther didn't deny baptism as an expression of faith and as necessary to salvation.

There were five Latin phrases, known as the "Five Solas" that became the mantra of the Protestant Reformation. These five ideas developed through the years and summarize the basic beliefs and emphasis as opposed to the Roman Catholic belief system that had developed into the sixteenth century.

The five phrases were, "Sola Scriptures, Soli Deo Gloria, Solus Christus, Sola Gratia, and Sola Fide." These phrases mean that the reformers believed 1) the Scriptures alone are the rule of life and faith for a believer; 2) everything is to be done only for the glory of God; 3) salvation is by Christ alone; 4) salvation is by the grace of God alone; and 5) salvation is by faith alone.

There is much to laud about these five statements of faith. Without the surrounding baggage of almost five hundred years of comments, almost every Christian would support these with some biblical reference and explanation. However, in the almost five hundred years since these five emerged in western religious thought, these ideas have gained many unbiblical accompaniments.

The Reformers, Martin Luther in particular, were fighting against a corrupt, intertwined political and religious system. The religious system they faced was bent on self-preservation and self-gratification. Luther, who has become the champion of "faith alone" in history, wrestled for years with what was believed by the Roman Catholic Church and what the Bible taught. What sparked what he was seeing was a group that was selling indulgences. (The logic of indulgences is hard for Christians to understand. To the Catholic mind they make a great deal of sense. The whole concept of an indulgence is based on the medieval Catholic false doctrine that sinners must not only repent of their sins; they must also confess these sins to a priest and pay some sort of retribution, even after death in Purgatory. Indulgences were sold to decrease the time a person spent in torment in Purgatory). What began to materialize was not a fight of "belief versus obedience," rather the fight was "faith versus meritorious works."

The modern concept of "faith only," believed by so many today, would have been foreign to Luther. After quoting Paul in Titus 3:4-5, Luther says, "How beautifully the apostle in these strong words extols the grace of God bestowed in baptism!.. Baptism perfectly and instantaneously cleanses and saves" [The Sermons of Martin Luther, VI:142-165. Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI]. Luther also stated in his Large Catechism of 1530, "that it is most solemnly and strictly commanded that we must be baptized or we cannot be saved, lest any one regard it as a trifling matter." Luther considered baptism a work of God. Luther believed that God was doing the work at baptism. At baptism, Luther's idea was that at that point of obedience the main work was God's work in forgiving the sinner. Luther's fight against salvation through meritorious works such as penance, praying the rosary, fasting, etc.

Just as Luther is misunderstood, so also is the Bible truth of good works being essential to a child of God being faithful. Modern denominations denounce any biblical doctrine that includes a believer "doing" anything in advance of his salvation. While modern denominationalists argue for a "faith alone without works" approach to salvation, the Bible is clear when James says that "faith without works is dead" (James 2:20). Notice what Paul says, "We give thanks to God always for you all, making mention of you in our prayers, remembering without ceasing your work of faith, labor of love" (I Thessalonians 1:2). Also we see Jesus, answering a question about the works of God, when He says, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent" (John 6:29).

The modern notion of "faith alone" has crept into denominational preaching and teaching due to the effect of Satan. Satan, always twisting Scripture, sought for man to disobey the Lord saying, "you will not surely die" (Genesis 3:4). The denominationalist, where cognizant or not, accepts teaching that is contrary to clear Biblical truth. The "faith alone" approach reduces Biblical faith to the point that it means nothing and is ineffectual.

Is the heart of a true disciple of Christ happy with a minimum of works of faith? No! The heart of a true believer looks to do everything he can do for the One he loves. A true believer looks to the Scriptures alone for the truth. A true believer looks to do everything he does to uphold the glory of God. A true believer looks to Jesus as the only One who can save him. A true believer understands that his works merit him nothing; it is by grace that he is saved. A true believer understands that faith is his part of a covenant relationship with God.

Is a person saved by "faith alone" as is used in the modern climate? No! Is a person saved by faith? Yes. Similarly, a believer is also saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8), by the gospel (I Corinthians 15:1-2), by baptism (I Peter 3:21; Titus 3:5), by enduring (Matthew 10:22), and by Jesus' blood (Romans 5:9).