Luther’s Sola Fide

martin-luther500 years ago today, Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. This marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. In his publication, Luther criticized the sale of indulgences, the papal pardons which reduced the amount of punishment for sins in Purgatory. We can all appreciate Luther’s challenge to papal authority, specifically toward the Roman Catholic Church about the selling of papal pardons to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. But did the Reformation get us back to biblical Christianity?

The Protestant position would come to incorporate doctrinal changes such as sola fide, or justification by faith alone. Sola fide has been a hallmark of Protestant theology since the beginning of the Reformation. For Luther, faith alone is specifically contrasted with good works. In his preface to Romans, Luther said, “faith alone makes someone just and fulfills the law.” By “faith alone” the Reformers clearly meant belief or trust, apart from anything else. According to Luther, good works have nothing to do with our salvation other than being the result of saving faith. Sola fide is thus formulated in the Augsburg Confession of Faith as follows:

[T]his faith is bound to bring forth good fruits, and that it is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God’s will, but that we should not rely on those works to merit justification before God. For remission of sins and justification is apprehended by faith, as also the voice of Christ attests: When ye shall have done all these things, say: We are unprofitable servants. Luke 17:10. The same is also taught by the Fathers. For Ambrose says: It is ordained of God that he who believes in Christ is saved, freely receiving remission of sins, without works, by faith alone. (Augsburg Confession of Faith, Article VI)

Luther was so insistent that justification was by faith alone and not works that, when translating Romans 3:28 into German, he added the word allein (“alone”), so that the verse would read: “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith [alone] without the deeds of the law.” But the word “alone” is not present in the Greek text. This also brought Paul in direct contradiction to James. Church Historian Philip Schaff summarized:

The most important example of dogmatic influence in Luther’s version is the famous interpolation of the word alone in Rom. 3:28, by which he intended to emphasize his solifidian doctrine of justification, on the plea that the German idiom required the insertion for the sake of clearness. But he thereby brought Paul into direct verbal conflict with James, who says (James 2:24), “by works a man is justified, and not only by faith.” It is well known that Luther deemed it impossible to harmonize the two apostles in this article, and characterized the Epistle of James as an “epistle of straw,” because it had no evangelical character. (History of the Christian Church, Book 7, Chapter 4)

Ironically, the only place “faith alone” appears as a phrase in the New Testament is in James 2:24: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (NET, or “faith only” in the KJV). James also says: “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone” (James 2:17). In context, James wrote:

What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith, and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works. Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble. But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? Seest thou how faith wrought with his works, and by works was faith made perfect? And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God. Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (James 2:14-26)

Most Protestants argue that James is merely attacking an empty faith. In order to agree with Luther, they say, “Faith alone saves, but the faith that saves is not alone.” But here is an obvious contradiction of terms in order to agree with Luther’s interpretation of Romans 3:28. In the end, an “empty faith” is nothing other than “faith alone” or “faith without works.” And James tells us that “faith alone” cannot save.

Taken at face value, James 2:14-26 contradicts Martin Luther’s doctrine of sola fide. How did Luther reconcile this glaring conflict? He sought to expel the Epistle of James from the New Testament canon. In his Preface to the Epistles of St. James and St. Jude, Luther said that the Epistle of James was “not the writing of any apostle.” Luther went on to question the authority of James:

Flatly against St. Paul and all the rest of Scripture, it ascribes righteousness to works, and says that Abraham was justified by his works, in that he offered his son Isaac, though St. Paul, on the contrary, teaches, in Romans 4:2, that Abraham was justified without works, by faith alone, before he offered his son, and proves it by Moses in Genesis 15:6. . . .

I cannot put him [James] among the chief books, though I would not thereby prevent anyone from putting him where he pleases and estimating him as he pleases; for there are many good sayings in him.

Luther not only questioned the authority of James, but also of Jude, Hebrews, and Revelation. Moreover, in his Preface to the New Testament, Martin Luther wrote:

In a word, St. John’s Gospel and his first Epistle, St. Paul’s Epistles, especially Romans, Galatians and Ephesians, and St. Peter’s first Epistle are the books that show you Christ and teach you all that it is necessary and good for you to know, even though you were never to see or hear any other book or doctrine. Therefore St. James’ Epistle is really an epistle of straw, compared to them; for it has nothing of the nature of the Gospel about it.

But Paul doesn’t have to conflict with James. The most satisfactory solution to the alleged contradiction between Paul and James is that Paul was referring to the “works” of the Law of Moses, especially circumcision (cf. Romans 4:2, 6, 9-12; Galatians 2:6-10, 12, 16; 3:2, 5, 10). On the other hand, James was referring to good “works” or works of obedience to God (James 2:14, 17-18, 20-22, 24). The raging issue for the first century Church was whether or not Gentiles needed to keep the works of the Law of Moses, i.e., circumcision (Acts 15). Preaching at Antioch, Paul said, “And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:39).

The Scriptures have a much broader view of justification than Luther’s doctrine of sola fide. The Greek word dikaioō (translated “justified” throughout Romans 3 and James 2) also occurs in other passages without reference to faith. For example, Jesus said, “For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned” (Matthew 12:37). Even Paul said, “For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified” (Romans 2:13).

Again, James also says, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar? . . . Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers, and had sent them out another way?” (James 2:21, 24-25).

The Greek words dikaioō (“justified”) and dikaiosynē (“righteousness”) both come from the root word dikaios which is normally translated “righteous” or “just.” In this broader sense, justification is the righteousness acceptable to God, more in line with the use of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

John says: “If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him” (1 John 2:29); “Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous” (1 John 3:7); “In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother” (1 John 3:10).

The Scriptures deny that one is justified by faith alone. Indeed, “by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Though our good works do not earn or merit our salvation, our obedience is in cooperation with divine grace, working together with God for our salvation (see Philippians 2:12-13).

On the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, we can appreciate Martin Luther for his challenge to reform the Roman Catholic Church and papal abuses. But we must not simply reject the infallibility of the Pope in order to embrace the infallibility of the Reformer. Pope Leo X was not infallible, and neither is Luther. Unfortunately, many Protestants hold to Luther’s doctrine of sola fide as if it were an infallible interpretation of the Scriptures. Let’s be honest with what the Scriptures actually say and reform our own lives accordingly, by the grace of God.


Faith & Works – Harmonizing Paul & James