Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Justified by Faith Alone, but not a Faith that is Alone

I was listening to a debate on justification between a Reformed Protestant and Roman Catholic, and in the course of the debate the question was asked what an often repeated Reformed phrase - "men are saved (justified) by faith alone, but not a faith that is alone" - actually means. The Roman Catholic was having some problems understanding how this statement is compatible with the doctrine of sola fide (justification by faith alone).

Protestants believe [saving] faith is that alone which accesses us to Christ by whom we are justified (declared righteous). This is why it is called the instrumental cause of justification. When a Protestant says faith alone justifies, then, does he mean men don't need grace? No, because grace is rather the efficient cause of justification insofar as it alone produces, for instance, the faith within an individual by which he is instrumentally justified. Similarly, when a Protestant says Christ alone justifies, does he mean men don't need grace or faith? Again, no, because Christ is rather the sole ground of justification, i.e. He by whom the righteousness is merited according to which God declares the believer righteous. These "solas" all refer to different functions of one event: justification.

Now, when the Protestant says faith alone justifies, but not a faith that is alone, one must distinguish between the function of the faith and the nature of the faith. The function of the faith has already been explained: it accesses men to Christ. It consummates union to Him such that the believer may be said to be in Him and He in the believer. Faith alone is how one has recourse to the ground of justification.

But what is this faith? What is the nature of this saving faith which is alone that by which we are [instrumentally] justified? Is it a mere profession? Is it simply understanding the gospel? No. It is understanding and assent to or, equivalently, belief in the gospel. Why is this important?

As was pointed out, the reason anyone understands and assents to the gospel is by grace alone, the efficient cause of faith and, in turn, justification. By God's grace one receives a new nature in regeneration which causes justificatory belief in Christ (Romans 8:7-9, 1 John 5:1). But moreover, this new nature will, subsequent to belief and justification, incline one to practice righteousness (1 John 2:29-3:9). Both saving faith and good works follow from grace (Ephesians 2:8-10). One can't produce good works without a new nature, and one can't come to Christ without a new nature. Or, at least, so says the Reformed Protestant. Expressing the Reformed motto logically is simple. For example:

1. If you have saving faith, then you will do good works.
2. You do not do good works.
3. Therefore, you do not have saving faith.


1. If one has saving faith, he will have received it immediately upon being given a new nature.
2. If one has been given a new nature, he will yield good fruit.
3. If one has saving faith, he will yield good fruit.

The main point is good works don't justify in any sense. They merely serve as indicators or evidences to men. What do they indicate to men? Whether or not one who professes to have saving faith actually has saving faith or if they are just lying. Whether or not one possesses that faith alone by which men are instrumentally justified correlates with whether or not he does the good works which follow from a faith which justifies.

It may be asked what if one does not show forth good fruit because he is backsliding. Of course, since works don't save, a temporary absence of them does not automatically mean one isn't saved. What it does mean is that another who has not seen a person's good works has no reason to think the person has saving faith. Nevertheless, a new nature "naturally" (!) yields good works, so such backsliding should not be or remain the case if one truly believes in Christ.

There is always room for nuance. If a person dies immediately after believing so that no one can have seen him do a good work, he will be saved. If I have just introduced myself to you and you identify yourself as a Christian, it may take some time for me to evaluate your profession of faith. Etc. The above syllogisms, therefore, may be restated for the practical benefit of men:

1. If you have saving faith, then you will do good works.
2. I have not seen you do good works.
3. Therefore, I have no reason to suppose you have saving faith [other than, perhaps, your own profession].


Nick said...

You are right to point out the phrase "faith alone but faith is never alone" has a valid, non-contradictory meaning. It rightly should be abandoned by Catholics.

Simply understood: if one is setting the dinner table, a standard set is a knife, fork, and spoon. You never just set one utensil. But clearly only the spoon is used to eat soup, not the knife or fork. Thus, if soup is on the menu, it can be said "soup is eaten by the spoon alone, but a spoon is never alone - since a fork and knife are set at the table and used for other aspects of the meal (salvation).

That said, I noticed many logical but none the less unbiblical claims you made, but I wont go there here.

What I would like to bring up is your repeated use of the phrase "new nature," implying it's not the same nature a Christian has always had. Unless there are other ways you're using that, the straightforward reading is that a Christian was born with HumanNature#1 and upon regeneration gets a 'new nature', HumanNature#2. If so, then there's a problem, since there cannot be two human natures, nor did Jesus assume two human natures.

Anonymous said...

Good article, Ryan! We differ slightly on the order of salvation, fully agree on the relation of faith to justification and works.

Ken Hamrick

Anonymous said...

Ryan, excellent after thought of the debate! I came over here from TurretinFan's blog.

I would mention two things. One, what we receive is a new nature. Two, I like it that you discuss backsliding in here with regards to it. The examples were edifying for me because I hadn't thought of it quite that clearly. Thanks.

Peter, the Apostle, seemed to have given your after thought to the debate some thought, because he really focuses on it when we read this: 1Pe 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
1Pe 1:4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you,
1Pe 1:5 who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

Heading into today, with sufficient evils all around, Peter gives me that assurance that I have His Living Hope because of the Work of Righteousness He has done for me that secured the inheritance all God's Called Elected Saints inherit.

Ryan said...

I appreciate the thoughts, Ken and natamllc.

You too, Nick. You and several other RCs I've happened to meet online consistently challenge, and responses to these challenges can only be beneficial to my understanding. In this case, I suppose I would need to see a little more reasoning as to what you think is problematic; after all, Jesus wasn't born in original sin - nor did He ever sin - as we would agree, and yet I don't suppose you would consider this grounds against which the legitimacy of Christ's vicarious (if not penal) sacrifice could be questioned.

Ryan said...

Nick, I came across this quote by A. W. Pink which should hopefully clarify my statements:

//At regeneration a “new nature” is imparted by God. But again we need to be closely on our guard lest we carnalize our conception of what is denoted by that expression. Much confusion has been caused through failure to recognize that it is a person, and not merely a “nature,” which is born of the Spirit: “ye must be born again” (John 3:7), not merely something in you must be; “he which is born of God” (I John 3:9). The same person who was spiritually dead—his whole being, alienated from God—is now made spiritually alive: his whole being, reconciled to God. This must be so, or otherwise there would be no preservation of the identity of the individual. It is the person, and not simply a nature which is born of God: “Of his own will begat he us” (James 1:18). It is a new birth of the individual himself, and not of something in him. The nature is never changed, but the person is—relatively, but not absolutely.//