Last week, I had an interesting conversation with a friend on Facebook. Both of us noticed many churches use the identifiable slogan, “faith alone in Christ alone.” But what exactly does that mean? And is it biblical?
My friend argued that simply because some groups summarize their position with a recognizable slogan does not mean they hold to the details of that doctrine. In fact, he said churches could perhaps have ineffective doctrine and misconstrue the meaning behind “faith alone in Christ alone.”
I partially agreed. However, I said to him the slogan, “faith alone in Christ alone” is exclusive enough in the statement itself to raise suspicion. The reason I say this is because James 2:24, a verse in the Bible, reads: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
Aren’t these opposite statements? Isn’t it contradictory to hold to both “faith alone in Christ alone” and “justified by works and not by faith alone?”
Ephesians indeed says we are saved “by grace through faith.” But the important word missing is “alone.” I haven’t come across any passages in the Bible that denotes faith alone. The closest passage that hints at this idea are Romans 3:28, “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.” This simply means no one can perfectly obey the Law. Our reliance or faith is upon the finished work of Jesus, who indeed fulfilled the requirements of the Law.
Interestingly, Martin Luther attempted to add the word “alone” when he translated it into his native language, German. His rationale for doing so was that the inclusion of the word alone was more grammatically correct than its exclusion. It is true that Greek can use an exclusive particle-like μονον to express “alone.” However, if we’re being true to the original Greek passage, Romans 3:28 is saying “of the set [faith, works of the law] man is reconciled by faith,” not “faith alone.”
So why is this a big deal? I think there are two reasons. First, “faith alone” can conjure up this false notion that obedience is unnecessary; it’s all about grace. While it is true that by the works of the law, no man will be justified (Romans 3:20), and that we are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:7-9), this doesn’t imply that faith is alone.
In fact, faith and works are two sides of the same coin. James makes it clear here when he states, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says He has faith but no works. Can that faith save him (James 2:14)?” This rhetorical question is to be answered with a resounding no! James expresses that even the demons have faith, they believe in the Son of God, but they are not saved. They do not obey the Lord or even desire to do so. Therefore, if one doesn’t properly define faith, it may be used as a license to sin.
The second reason “faith alone” needs to be properly defined is to avoid the other extreme, legalism. As John MacArthur eloquently states:
“Works is not a means to salvation. Rather, salvation is a means to good works.”
When people are saved, they will produce good fruit. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22). Faith is indeed the conduit–the starting material and works naturally flow from it.
If you reverse this and say works are a means to salvation, you have lost the gospel. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. There is no one righteous. No one who does good. For the wages of sin is death. And all of us are under condemnation since we have failed to keep the righteous requirements of the Law. Only Yeshua the Messiah did. That’s why we must put our faith in Him!
So where do we go from here? I think it’s safe to say we are saved by grace through faith in Christ. It is right to say no one will be justified by the works of the law; for all of us have sinned and fall short. However, it’s also right to agree with James that we are not saved by “faith alone.”
This is not a contradiction. Faith is never alone. It is conjoined with works. The proper definition of faith is “obedience to God,” while knowing full well that your obedience doesn’t merit salvation. Instead, your obedience is a natural overflow of your thankfulness that God has saved you.
1 Corinthians 6:11 says it best: “And that is what some of you were [practicing lawlessness]. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
It is my prayer for faith to be defined correctly. This subject should be taken seriously because Revelation 22:19 warns us: “And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.
I hope this teaching was edifying for you. Please leave comments below if you want to discuss this subject in further detail. Blessings!