The 16th-century Reformers—Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Knox and others—were derisively nicknamed, “the Sola-ists.” They distilled the essence of the gospel into five Latin slogans using the word sola, meaning only, solely or exclusively: sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, solo Christo, soli Deo gloria (grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone, Christ alone, to God’s glory alone).
Today, the solas of early Protestantism run up against other realities and claims: What does it mean to say “Christ alone” in a multi-religious world? How does scripture alone square with contemporary thought about biblical interpretation? And so on.
So, are we still sola-ists today?
Msgr. Charles Pope of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington makes a point with which I almost agree. While pondering the faith versus works issue, I intuitively thought of the words of God in the creation account: “It is not good for man to be alone.” I wondered if it would be possible to say the same thing about faith, that is, “it is not good for faith to be alone.” Apparently, I wasn’t the only one thinking along these lines. Father Pope, in a blog entitled Beware of the Solists! (or) It’s Not Good to be Alone, makes the case that one should be wary of anyone that claims that things work alone—especially in regards to faith.
Protestant Christians have always placed a priority on faith and sola fide, by faith alone, was one of the great themes of the Reformation and our Presbyterian tradition. In the words of Living Faith, “God’s grace, received by faith alone, pardons and justifies, redeems and reconciles us.” There is nothing we can do to earn this grace; it is a free gift. We receive it by humble faith.
Theologians refer to this as justification—the process by which we are saved or set right with God. In this process, there is nothing we can do to earn or achieve it. Martin Luther wrote: “For if our sins could be removed by our own efforts, what need was there for the Son of God to be given for them?”
Theologians further separate the steps in our salvation with categories, such as sanctification, by which they mean we are being saved, and glorification, by which they mean we will be saved. All along the continuum of our salvation the emphasis is not on our work, but instead upon the work of God in Christ. It is dangerous and difficult to separate each of these phases in our salvation. I think this is the point (though it is hard to tell) that Ted V. Foote Jr. and P. Alex Thornburg are trying to make in the chapter entitled, Are You Saved or Are You Presbyterian? in their book Being Presbyterian in the Bible Belt. Apparently, it is a challenge for some Presbyterians to coexist with other brands of Christianity in the Deep South.
Evidently it was even harder for the Reformers to live in the face of the church leaders of their day. Luther directed strong language at them: “As a result they pervert the gospel. Either Christ must live and the Law perish, or the Law remains and Christ must perish; Christ and the Law cannot dwell side by side in the conscience. It is either grace or law. To muddle the two is to eliminate the gospel of Christ entirely.”
Just as it is difficult and dangerous to separate the truths involved in our salvation, so too, is the separation of faith and works, by which Luther meant the law. I wholeheartedly agree with Luther’s intent that salvation is by faith alone. However, I also relate to what Anglican cleric John Stott once said, “although justification is by faith alone, this faith cannot remain alone.” And here is where I almost agree with Father Pope.
If our faith is living and vibrant, it will express itself in good works. Jesus made this point forcefully in his parable of the sheep and the goats. We will be judged at the last day, according to Jesus, by what we did or didn’t do to the very least. Jesus urged his followers to live such good lives before their unbelieving neighbours that they would see their good works and glorify their Father in heaven.
The apostles also seem to emphasize the importance of works. James, even if Martin Luther did not like it, says, “faith without works is dead … I will show you my faith by what I do.” (1:17-18) John, the beloved disciple, says in a letter, “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” (1 John 3:17) Paul—whom Luther did like—also spoke of the necessity of good works. (Titus 2:14; Ephesians 2:10; and Galatians 5:6-13)
In Paul’s love chapter (1 Corinthians 13), he commends faith as one of the triumvirate of abiding virtues: faith, hope and love. Yet, even if we were to have “a faith that could move mountains, and had no love, we would be nothing.” Clearly, faith alone without love is problematic. Most of us have probably seen Christians with strong faith and little love. Usually, their faith is not very attractive.
Eric Carmen wrote a power love ballad in 1975. The song incorporates the second movement of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. The words to that verse are, “when I was young, I never needed anyone … those days are gone.” The verse breaks into the chorus with, “All by myself, don’t wanna live all by myself.”
I can imagine Faith singing that song. In the working out of our salvation it is faith alone, sola fide. Yet, Faith does not want to live all by herself. She needs the company of Works and Love, not that those works and love save anyone, but as proof positive of that salvation.
And, that is why I almost agree with Msgr. Pope. “It is not good for faith to be alone.” Faith needs a suitable helper, though that helper is not an aid to salvation. What God has joined together no one should separate.