By Faith Alone

The doctrine of justification by faith alone has always been attacked. Of course it was one of, if not the central issue of separation between the Church of Rome and the protestant reformers. The Roman Catholic Church still rejects justification by faith alone and the imputed righteousness of Christ. But these doctrines, which go hand-in-hand are also attacked within Protestantism by liberals and pelagians. More recently, the so-called New Perspective, led by scholars such as E.P. Sanders, James D.G. Dunn, and N.T. Wright have denied or radically altered the orthodox and, I am convinced, biblical understanding of how sinners are justified before a holy God. But the problem not only comes from those who deny but from those who ignore. How many evangelicals ever hear sermons on justification by faith alone in Christ alone? What good is it to affirm a doctrine but then ignore it? If indeed it is true that justification by faith alone is the doctrine of the standing or falling of the church then this is a serious issue.

In his introduction to the timely and important book “By Faith Alone” David Wells writes:

In the sixteenth century, Luther stood his ground where Paul, many centuries earlier, had done so. Despite the light that the New Perspective claims to have cast on Paul’s doctrine, I am still persuaded that Luther actually got it right and that Paul thought about justification as the church, following Luther, has always judged that he did and not as the New Perspective now imagines. The Judaizers then and the medieval in Luther’s day alike thought that by the keeping of the law, salvation could be merited. Paul first, then Luther later, rejected this, and Luther rejected it because Paul had done so. The reason, quite simply, was their far deeper, far more realistic, and, indeed, far more biblical reckoning with the depths of human sin, its pervasiveness, and the innate corruption it has wrought throughout human nature. How, then, are humans to render up an obedience to the law which is not itself corrupt? The apple of our best works, while rosy and attractive on the outside, is always inhabited by a worm that has destroyed it from within.

So it was that Paul, and indeed the New Testament, led us to see that we contribute nothing ot our salvation except, as Archbishop William Temple would later say, the sin from which we need to be redeemed. We are as paupers who stand empty-handed and gratefully accept whatever kindness is offered to us. That kindness comes in the form of Christ’s substitution on our behalf, in our place, dying the death that we deserve, bearing in himself God’s righteous judgment for our sin, and clothing us in a righteousness not our own. That is the New Testament gospel. That is what Paul calls God’s ‘inexpressible gift,’ one received by the empty hand of faith alone, and that has always been the evangelical message. Believing this gospel, believing in its New Testament formulation, is what evangelicalism has always been about.

In the last few decades however, a second church constituency has been emerging, first in America, and now, like so many other things American, it is being exported overseas. It is made up of a generation of pragmatists, initially Baby Boomers but now spilling out generationally, who have lived off this reformational understanding as does a parasite off its host, separate but surreptitiously using its life and slowly bringing about the death of its host. These pragmatic entrepreneurs, these salesmen of the gospel, may not always deny reformational understanding overtly, but even if they do not, they always hide it from view. They shuffle off this orthodoxy into a corner where they hope it will not be noticed. To the seekers who are so sensitive and who are their target audience, this orthodoxy would be quite incomprehensible, not to say off-putting. So, it is covered up because it is judged to be irrelevant to what is of interest to them and to those who are in the business of selling Christianity; it is likewise judged to be irrelevant to their work.

From “By Faith Alone” Gary Johnson & Guy Waters editors