What Does It Mean To Say That Sola Fide *IS* The Gospel?

This is a question I’ve been wrestling with for the past few years. The idea that sola fide, the propositional statement “justification is by faith alone,” literally is the Gospel itself – was originally transmitted to me via a “cranky Calvinist” apologetics context. Anyone who hangs around us Calvinists for a while knows what I mean. A lot of us are quick on the trigger with our propositional gatling guns ratt-a-tatt-tatting out “the doctrines of grace,” yet tragically ourselves lacking in real graciousness toward those with whom we disagee. A lot of us seem to be cranky by disposition – as if the Christian life is all about going through life with a sour disposition, constantly being on the defensive as we actively look for opportunities to blast any heretical varmint that dares poke his fool head up to speak obviously “unbiblical” nonsense which we, with our “consistent” faith, our “Christianity come into its own,” can only laugh to scorn.

At any rate, the idea that sola fide literally is the Gospel itself was initially transmitted to me by men operating in this sort of cranky context* of deep concern for fixing all the errors of Modern Protestantism by turning back the clock 500 years and repristinating the ipsissima verba of the Protestant Reformers, standing on the shoulders of giants not so we can see farther than they could, but in order to act like parrots, merely repeating what they said. Of course, along with passionate outbursts about how we can’t any longer afford to “tolerate” the disgusting heresy of Arminianism and how we have to fight tooth and nail just about everything in “the Modern Evangelical church”, this program of repristination included heavy doses of polemics against Roman Catholicism, the great slavering enemy of all things True, Good, Beautiful, and Biblical.

On one level I understand and agree with the idea that justification by faith alone is the Gospel. How could I read much of what Paul wrote and not see that he connects the Gospel of Christ’s redemptive work with his message about justification? As a serious student of the Medieval Church and its connections with the Reformation, I do see some deep problems with the way that salvation was conceived prior to the Reformation, and I do believe that exegetically speaking the Reformation’s way of talking about justification is superior. Clearly, the way in which we as sinful human beings are to be made right before a holy God is a question of the utmost importance, and the biblical answer – justification by faith (alone) – just ought not to be downplayed or diluted.

Just as a matter of history, if you look at the state of the Church in Luther’s day it becomes quite clear why he uncompromisingly thundered that the Gospel is justification by faith alone. The alternative – paying your money and viewing the relics to take millions of years off your time in Purgatory and mindlessly chanting your Pater nosters and your Ave Marias while climbing the steps in Rome and being subject for the salvation of your very soul to fools in fancy costumes who had no concept of accountability for their intemperate and imprudent beliefs and actions – is just too horrific to contemplate, and in any case, possessed no spirit of truth or the Gospel in it. I have no quarrel whatsoever with Luther’s portrayal of the Gospel as justification by faith alone – in that context, it couldn’t have been anything else.

But the polemical language that “justification by faith alone is the Gospel” still doesn’t sit quite right with me. Part of my discomfort has to do with the fact that over the past 6 years or so I have increasingly realized that claiming to be an heir of the Reformation today is a very problematic affair. There is a great deal of confusion amongst self-identified Reformation-defenders about just what the Reformation was. Most seem to think it was an epochal shift in thought and life more akin to the French Revolution than to the American War for Independence (or if this analogy is easier, more like wiping the hard drive and re-installing everything from scratch than like using a cleaning program to weed out the registry). I don’t believe this is an accurate picture of what the Reformation was, and I have explained my reasons why in such posts as What Was the Reformation? and Defoliation or Weeding? Some Problems With the Radical Vision of Reform.

Few are the people who claim the vocation of “Defensor Reformationis” for themselves who can actually intelligently relate the Reformation’s idea of reform to the numerous threads of Medieval theology, philosophy, and culture that preceded it (and in so many ways positively prepared the way for it). Few are the people who can explain to you in much correct detail (that is, detail that doesn’t simply beg all the important questions) the reasons why the Reformers themselves came to be thought of as “Magisterial” and were at odds with groups that came to be thought of as “Radical.”

Almost anywhere you go on “the Reformation Web,” you can find people endlessly harping about “soteriology,” as if the whole of the Reformation vision was and is about the (ironically) American Evangelical question “How can I go to heaven when I die?” There is a nearly universal – and quite false – belief among people who claim to be defending the Reformation that the things which matter most in our lives are the “spiritual” things, and that “the Gospel” is a message that tells us how to escape from this nasty old messy world of transitory physical things and ascend to a realm of Pure Theology, of “timeless truth.” Such a view has more in common with ancient heresies such as Manichaeanism than with the world-embracing, world-transforming message of Christ’s Kingship over all things (which is, as scholars such as N.T. Wright have more than adequately shown, another legitimate way to think about “the Gospel”).

So, back to the question: What does the polemical language that “justification by faith alone is the Gospel” actually mean? Does it literally mean that what you have to do in order to be saved is to believe in your heart and confess with your mouth the propositional statement “Justification is by faith alone”? – and so if you don’t believe in your heart and verbally confess with your mouth the proposition “Justification is by faith alone,” but state some other proposition about justification, you literally are not and cannot be saved?

Does Acts 16:31′s “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved?” or Romans 10:9′s “if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” actually entail not just believing, say, the sorts of things that the Gospel of John says about Jesus and His mission, but also believing a whole set of highly-developed ancillary doctrines about the mode and meaning of the work of Christ which are so complex that you can’t understand them rightly without learning to exegete the Greek text of the New Testament and memorizing large chunks of those whopping fat Systematic Theology books that Reformed men like to write?

Is confessing sola fide then like a Reformed version of the Evangelical’s “Sinner’s Prayer” – “Say this formula, and you will be saved?” Just putting it that way makes it seem anti-Reformational. Surely the empty hand of faith that grasps the work of Christ on my behalf is not like some magical incantation or part of some set of steps for properly operating the Correct Soteriology Machine. “Crank this handle clockwise twice, pull that lever down halfway (not 2/3 of the way!), and then push these three buttons in order, and Presto! – out will come the widget of “salvation.”

Obviously such a characterization is nonsense, but I can’t help but think that there’s a disturbing resemblance between it and the lack of careful distinctions that you find in many Reformed polemics about “the Gospel.” Go read any of the standard fare apologetical stuff about imputation-versus-infusion, about the active and passive obediences of Christ, about the intention and actual extent of the atonement, and so forth, and see if you don’t see what I mean. It’s not that such distinctions are not important – of course they are. But if “the Gospel” is what you have to believe in order to be saved, are such things as that matters upon which the identity and integrity of the Gospel hangs? Let’s think about this for a minute.

Classical Reformed theology holds that saving faith has three components: notitia (intellectual knowledge), assensus (personal assent that the knowledge is true), and fiducia (personal trust in the object of the knowledge). Because the Reformed tradition leans so heavily in intellectual directions, the way a lot of us Reformed people talk makes notitia take center stage in our understanding of salvation. This is one big reason that we are always harping about “sound doctrine” – correct doctrine is of immense importance precisely because it tells us true things about God, ourselves, the world, and salvation.

But doctrine isn’t everything because the intellect isn’t everything. We are not just minds, and truth of all kinds, salvific or not, is not just a matter of the intellect. Furthermore, following Scripture itself there has to be a distinction between levels of “sound doctrine.” The publican’s breast-beating cry, “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” is surely sound doctrine, but it is obviously far more simple a statement about “the Gospel” than most Reformed people are interested in talking about. It might indeed be possible to write a 532 page book about the theological assumptions that lie behind the publican’s statement, and in such a book we would surely find a lot about justification by faith alone, but the point of the publican’s example is precisely that it is possible to believe “the Gospel” without ever saying anything at all about justification, sanctification, predestination and free will, or most of the other things that Reformed people spend 90% of their time fighting about with the world – and each other. God is not the God only of people with high I.Q.s, and He came to seek and save that which was lost even among those who wouldn’t be able to pass an exam in “Theology 101″ if their very lives depended on it.

I keep coming back to the Gospel of John, which, as everyone knows, was written by a simple fisherman in very simple Koine Greek. Non-Reformed Evangelicals frequently hand out the Gospel of John all by itself in their witnessing efforts. If the statement “justification by faith alone is the Gospel” is a true statement in the way that much of Reformed polemics means it, is this Evangelical the wrong thing to do? Shouldn’t they be handing out Romans and Galatians instead, along with selected Luther and Calvin tracts full of raging rhetoric against Romanism? Shouldn’t they be handing out 50-page legal briefs from Presbyterian denominations about how if you are a “Federal Visionist” or a “New Perspectivist” you are believing a false Gospel and are, if you don’t repent and learn to parrot one particular way of reading the Westminster Standards, quite surely on your way to Hell?

On the other hand, if a person could be saved just by reading the Gospel of John and believing what it says about Christ, doesn’t it follow that the statement “justification by faith alone is the Gospel” has to be significantly qualified? It can’t be literally true, since the Gospel of John contains no substantial talk about “justification by faith alone.” It must, then, be true on some deeper level than that of literal statements – perhaps on a level akin to the basement rather than the living room.

But back to the Reformed view of saving faith. If you’re Reformed, check your Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology on saving faith. There he says very plainly that the nature and extent of notitia, the intellectual component of saving faith, is probably impossible to spell out definitively. Put more simply, it is probably impossible to spell out a definitive list of “sound doctrines” that every person without distinction must believe in order to be believing “the Gospel.” No doubt this is because the intellectual abilities of people often vary widely, and God, in His mercy, doesn’t require mastery of the imputation-infusion debate or the Federal Vision controversy or the New Perspective mess or the relationship between predestination and free will relative to regeneration. God, in His mercy, does not require the ability to descend to the quantum mechanics-level parsing of propositions about the relationship of faith and works in justification merely to be saved.

It seems to me that unless Louis Berkhof is announcing an anti-Reformation theme, notitia does not necessarily include detailed propositional knowledge about the mechanics of justification, a particular view of the intent and scope of atonement, a particular view of predestination and free will, or anything else that is distinctively Reformed. It is not that Reformed Theology is simply wrong about these things – if I believed that, I wouldn’t be Reformed! – but that Reformed Theology is not the absolute boundary marker of True Christianity, and its understanding of “the doctrines of grace” is not the litmus test for whether a man who says he believes “the Gospel” actually does believe “the Gospel.” Such things as these should be classified as matters of doctrinal sanctification, as matters of growth in intellectual understanding of grace rather than as matters of the necessary initiation into grace.

“The Gospel” on this sort of view does indeed have a lot to do with justification (and I unhesitatingly affirm the truth that justification is by faith alone). Where this view of the matter differs from the typical Reformed gunslinger’s attitude is firstly that the information content of saving faith can be quite minimal and secondly, the question of whether the threshold has been met by any given person is best left to the judgment of the only One who is not fooled by outward appearances because He looks on the heart.

To say the opposite – to act as if the language “justification by faith alone is the Gospel” means that anyone who doesn’t toe the lines marked out by the highly-developed form of soteriology so prominent in our apologetics today is in danger of hellfire seems to me to parallel saying that someone who is confused or mistaken about the precise relationship of the two natures of Christ proves that he is no true follower of the biblical Christ, and therefore, no true Christian. Does a person have to be able to understand the Definition of Chalcedon to truly believe in the true Christ? Not according to the Gospel of John or any recorded sermon of the Apostles in the Book of Acts or any of their writings in the Epistles.

It seems to me that by just rote repeating all that old 16th century polemical stuff and shying away from any serious examination of what it actually means, the Reformed world is full of theological self-righteousness. And if anything is against justification by faith alone, it’s got to be self-righteousness. As a general rule for us Reformed people, then, I suggest we keep all the stuff from Paul about “the Gospel,” but add to it the story in the Gospel of Luke about the Pharisee and the Publican. The one who got justified (by faith alone) there was indeed the one who said all the right things – but the “all the right things” that he said were not the sorts of things on which typical Reformed polemics obsess and call “the Gospel.” “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” If that isn’t justification by faith alone, I don’t know what is – but notice that no detailed talk about the mechanics of the thing is there. What it actually takes to be saved thus seems to be a lot simpler than we seem to make it in the Reformed world. By contrast, the one who went on and on about the merits (!) of his theology and practice as over against that of others was the one who did not get justified.

Viewed in one way (as sanctification, as growth in understanding of God’s revelation and His holiness), the Gospel can be a very complicated thing because human beings are very complicated things. But viewed another way (how you get right with God in the first place), the Gospel is surely the simplest thing in the world. “If you confess that you are a sinner and you just believe on this Man who died on that cross to take your sins away, you will be saved.” It seems to me that that is the most eloquent (and universally applicable) statement of the biblical truth of justification by faith alone, and it is in that sense that justification by faith alone is the Gospel.

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