The Protestant concept of Sola Fide refers to the belief that we are justified by our faith alone and that no additional works are necessary as salvation is a “free gift” and cannot be “earned”. In support of this belief, the following verses are commonly cited: Romans 3:28: “For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.”, Galatians 2:16: “a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” , Romans 4:5: “And to one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness.”, Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God — not because of works, lest any man should boast.”
On the surface, these verses seem pretty straight forward, but are they saying what they seem? After all, there are many more verses in the Bible that support the necessity of works. Especially James 2:14-26, which is the only place in the Bible where the words “faith” and “alone” appear together, and it states clearly that “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” Here are some additionalexamples: Romans 2:6-7: “For [God] will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life…”, Romans 6:16: “Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death (Gr.—eis thanaton, “unto death”), or of obedience, which leads to righteousness (Gr.—eis dikaiosunen—unto justification).”, Romans 11:22: “Note then the kindness and severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off.”
If taken at face value, these verses seem in contradiction with each other. Are we saved by faith or by works. Because Scripture cannot contradict itself, Protestants conclude that these verses are talking about different kinds of faith (true faith vs dead faith), while Catholics conclude they are referring to different kinds of works (works of the law vs works within Christ). Scripture should always be read within context. This means: 1) interpreting verses in relation to any and all surrounding verses, 2) understanding the overall intent of the letter within which it is found, 3) it’s relation to the message of the Bible as a whole, and 4) understanding the historical context and political and cultural events of the time that it was written. At the time that Saint Paul wrote most of his letters, there was a widespread dissent among Jews and Gentiles. Many Jewish Christians at the time believed that the Mosaic Law must still be observed by Gentile converts in addition to the teachings of Christ. These Jewish Christians were known as Judaizers and they’re controversy is well attested to in Scripture:
“But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question.” Acts 15:1-2. “For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal…” Romans 2:28-29. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law — not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ — that I might win those outside the law (I Cor. 9:21). “Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well.” Hebrews 7:11-12. “The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?” Galatians 3:2-3. “Now I Paul say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness (Gr. dikaiosune—justification). For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love.” Galatians 5:2-6. And the true “circumcision of Christ” is New Covenant baptism in Colossians 2:11-12.
When the “Judaizers” insisted that the Old Covenant Law was necessary for salvation, they were, in essence, saying Christ and the New Covenant are not enough. In so doing, they were ipso facto rejecting Jesus Christ and the New Covenant. This is what Paul was rebuking when he rejected “works of the law.” He was declaring that it is faith in Christ and Christ’s teachings that lead to salvation and not any ritual purity imposed by Mosaic Law. The phrase “works of the law” also appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls where it refers solely to ritual purity. Paul’s emphasis, then, was on the fact that Jewish Christians could not boast of their salvation over their Gentile brethren based on their adherence to Mosaic Law.
In regards to salvation being a “free gift” that cannot be earned apart from Christ, the Catholic Church is in complete agreement. The Catholic Church teaches that the initial grace of salvation is entirely and absolutely unmerited. This is why the Catholic Church baptizes babies, who are completely incapable of meriting anything on their own. While faith has a certain primacy in our understanding of justification, this does not mean it is to the exclusion of good works. It is true that one needs to have faith before one can have works of charity, but it is also true that one needs the grace of god before one can have faith. Because faith is impossible without God’s grace, should we then say that grace is the sole cause of justification to the exclusion of faith? If one were to say that it is by “God alone” that we are saved, they would be correct, but does this mean it is to the exclusion of grace or faith? While it is possible to correctly say “by grace alone we are saved”, it should be understood that the recipient of this grace must respond with faith. It is equally possible to say that we are saved “by faith alone” if by “faith” one means a living faith working through love. The primacy given to any one cause of salvation should never be to the exclusion of the necessity of other causes. As stated by the Council of Trent:
CANON I.-If any one saith, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema.
CANON IX.-If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.
The Historical Development of the Doctrine:
“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
2 Corinthians 5:10
“He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.”
“Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”
“I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.”
“If you would enter life, keep the commandments”
“For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted”
“All who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.”
1 Corinthians 6:9-10
“do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
Galatians 5:6, 19-21
“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love…. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Church Father Quotes:
Clement of Rome
“Let us therefore join with those to whom grace is given by God. Let us clothe ourselves in concord, being humble and self- controlled, keeping ourselves far from all backbiting and slander, being justified by works and not by words….Why was our Father Abraham blessed? Was it not because of his deeds of justice and truth, wrought in faith?…So we, having been called through his will in Christ Jesus, were not justified through ourselves or through our own wisdom or understanding or piety or works which we wrought in holiness of heart, but through faith, whereby the almighty God justified all men.” (Letter to the Corinthians 30:3, 31:2, 32:3-4).
Theophilus of Antioch
“Give studious attention to the prophetic writings, and they will lead you on a clearer path to escape the eternal punishments and to obtain the eternal good things of God. He who gave the mouth for speech and formed the ears for hearing and made eyes for seeing will examine everything and will judge justly, granting recompense to each according to merit. To those who seek immortality by the patient exercise of good works, he will give everlasting life, joy, peace, rest, and all good things, which neither has eye seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man. For the unbelievers and for the contemptuous, and for those who do not submit to the truth but assent to iniquity, when they have been involved in adulteries and fornications and homosexualities and avarice and in lawless idolatries, there will be wrath and indignation, tribulation and anguish, and in the end such men as these will be detained in everlasting fire” (To Autolycus 1:14 [ca. A.D. 181]).
Clement of Alexandria
“When we hear, ‘Your faith has saved you,’ we do not understand the Lord to say simply that they will be saved who have believed in whatever manner, even if works have not followed. To begin with, it was to the Jews alone that he spoke this phrase, who had lived in accord with the law and blamelessly and who had lacked only faith in the Lord” (Stromateis or Miscellanies 6:14:108:4 [post A.D. 202]).
Origen of Alexandria
“Whoever dies in his sins, even if he profess to believe in Christ, does not truly believe in him; and even if that which exists without works be called faith, such faith is dead in itself, as we read in the epistle bearing the name of James” (Commentaries on John 19:6 [A.D. 226-232]).
Cyprian of Carthage
“You, then, who are rich and wealthy, buy for yourself from Christ gold purified in fire, for with your filth, as if burned away in the fire, you can be like pure gold, if you are cleansed by almsgiving and by works of justice. Buy yourself a white garment so that, although you had been naked like Adam and were formerly frightful and deformed, you may be clothed in the white garment of Christ. You who are a matron rich and wealthy, anoint not your eyes with the antimony of the devil, but with the salve of Christ, so that you may at last come to see God, when you have merited before God both by your works and by your manner of living” (Works and Almsgiving 14 [A.D. 252]).
Aphrahat the Persian Sage
“Great is the gift which he that is good has given to us. While not forcing us, and in spite of our sins he wants us to be justified. While he is in no way aided by our good works, he heals us that we may be pleasing in his sight. When we do not wish to ask of him, he is angry with us. He calls out to all of us constantly; ‘Ask and receive, and when you seek, you shall find’” (Treatises 23:48 [A.D. 336-345]).
Gregory of Nyssa
“Paul, joining righteousness to faith and weaving them together, constructs of them the breastplates for the infantryman, armoring the soldier properly and safely on both sides. A soldier cannot be considered safely armored when either shield is disjoined from the other. Faith without works of justice is not sufficient for salvation; neither is righteous living secure in itself of salvation, if it is disjoined from faith” (Homilies on Ecclesiastes 8 [ca. A.D. 335- 394]).
” ‘He that believes in the Son has everlasting life.’ ‘Is it enough, then, to believe in the Son,’ someone will say, ‘in order to have everlasting life?’ By no means! Listen to Christ declare this himself when he says, ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord! Lord!” shall enter into the kingdom of heaven’; and the b.asphemy against the Spirit is alone sufficient to cast him into hell. But why should I speak of a part of our teaching? For if a man believe rightly in the Father and in the Son and in the Holy Spirit, but does not live rightly, his faith will avail him nothing toward salvation” (Homilies on the Gospel of John 31:1 [circa A.D. 391]).
“That you may not then, when you hear that He has chosen us, imagine that faith alone is sufficient, he proceeds to add life and conduct. To this end, says he, has He chosen us, and on this condition, that we should be holy and without blemish.” -Homily 1 on Ephesians
“Since though he has said here, He that believes in the Son has eternal life, and in the same place something even stronger, (for he weaves his discourse not of blessings only, but of their contraries also, speaking thus: He that believes not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him;) yet not even from this do we assert that faith alone is sufficient to salvation. And the directions for living given in many places of the Gospels show this. Therefore he did not say, This by itself is eternal life, nor, He that does but believe in the Son has eternal life, but by both expressions he declared this, that the thing does contain life, yet that if a right conversation follow not, there will follow a heavy punishment.” –Homily 31 on John
“For transparent madness it is to despise so great a dignity, without which it is not possible to obtain either our own salvation, or the good things which have been promised to us. For if no one can enter into the kingdom of Heaven except he be regenerate through water and the Spirit, and he who does not eat the flesh of the Lord and drink His blood is excluded from eternal life, and if all these things are accomplished only by means of those holy hands, I mean the hands of the priest, how will any one, without these, be able to escape the fire of hell, or to win those crowns which are reserved for the victorious?” –On the Priesthood 3.5
Ambrose of Milan
“He calls each blessed, both him whose sins are remitted by the font, and him whose sin is covered by good works. For he who repents ought not only to wash away his sin by his tears, but also to cover and hide his former transgressions by amended deeds, that sin may not be imputed to him.” –On Repentance 2.5.35
“We have also noted already that the blessedness of eternal life is the reward for good works.” –On the Duties of the Clergy 2.3.9
Jerome of Stridon
” ‘But since in the Law no one is justified before God, it is evident that the just man lives by faith.’ It should be noted that he does not say that a man, a person, lives by faith, lest it be thought that he is condemning good works. Rather, he says the ‘just’ man lives by faith. He implies thereby that whoever would be faithful and would conduct his life according to the faith can in no other way arrive at the faith or live in it except first he be a just man of pure life, coming up to the faith by certain degrees” (Commentaries on Galatians 2:3:11 [A.D. 386]).
Augustine of Hippo
” ‘He was handed over for our offenses, and he rose again for our justification.’ What does this mean, ‘for our justification’? So that he might justify us, so that he might make us just. You will be a work of God, not only because you are a man, but also because you are just. For it is better that you be just than that you are a man. If God made you a man, and you made yourself just, something you were doing would be better than what God did. But God made you without any cooperation on your part. You did not lend your consent so that God could make you. How could you have consented, when you did not exist? But he who made you without your consent does not justify you without your consent. He made you without your knowledge, but he does not justify you without your willing it” (Sermons 169:13 [inter A.D. 391-430]).
“‘But we know that God does not hear sinners; but if any man is a worshiper of God and does his will, that man God will hear.’ He still speaks as one only anointed. For God does listen to sinners too. If God did not listen to sinners, it would have been all in vain for the publican to cast down his eyes to the ground and strike his breast saying: ‘Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ And that confession merited justification, just as the blind man merited enlightenment” (Homilies on the Gospel of John 44:13 [A.D. 416]).
Caesar of Arles
“I beg you, beloved brethren, let us consider more attentively why we are Christians and bear the cross of Christ on our forehead. For we ought to know that it is not enough for us that we have received the name Christian, if we do not do Christian works. If you say a thousand times that you are a Christian and continually sign yourself with the cross of Christ, but do not give alms according to your means, and you do not want to have love and justice and chastity, the name of Christian will profit you nothing….Above all, as I already said before, give alms to the poor according to your means. Present offerings to be consecrated on the altar; a man of means should blush to communicate in the offering of another. Those who are able should give either candles or oil which can be put in lamps. Know the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer yourselves and teach them to you children. I do not know how a man can call himself a Christian…when he neglects [this]” (Sermons 13:1-2 [ante A.D. 542]).
Pope Gregory the Great
“Neither faith without works nor works without faith is of any avail, except, perhaps, that works may go towards the reception of faith, just as Cornelius, before he had become one of the faithful, merited to be heard on account of his good works. From this it can be gathered that his performance of good works furthered his reception of faith” (Homilies on Ezekiel 1:9:6 [A.D. 593]).
Alistair McGrath, Protestant Scholar
“The first centuries of the western theological tradition appear to be characterized by a ‘works-righteousness’ approach to justification . . . The Protestant understanding of the nature of justification thus represents a theological novum.” -McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 34,215
Alan P. Stanley
“If by works we mean works prior to conversion and thus originating from ourselves, then it is clear—Jesus did not teach salvation by works. If, however, we mean final or eschatological salvation and post-conversion works originating from God himself, then, yes, Jesus did teach salvation by works—in the same way that James taught justification by works.” –Did Jesus Teach Salvation by Works?
Martin Luther, Father of the Protestant Reformation
“(the Epistle of James) is flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture in ascribing justification to works. . . . He mangles the scriptures and thereby opposes Paul and all Scripture.” -pre-1530 version of Preface to the Epistles of St. James
“I will not have him in my Bible to be numbered among the true chief books.” -pre-1530 version of Preface to the Epistles of St. James
“should throw the epistle of James out of this school, for it doesn’t amount to much.” -pre-1530 version of Preface to the Epistles of St. James
“Therefore St. James’ epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to these others, for it has nothing of the nature of the gospel about it.” -LW 35:362
(in response to adding the word alone to Romans 3:28) “If your papist wants to make so much fuss about the word sola [alone] tell him this, ‘Dr. Martin Luther will have it so, and says that a papist and an ass are the same thing.’” -Luther’s Works, Volume 35:Word and Sacrament I (Luther’s Works (Augsburg))