Are we Justified by Faith Alone?
Is it possible to be saved by faith alone? Well, of course it is possible to be saved by faith alone because after all we are saved by faith in the first place. What do you mean by faith? If you mean that “faith” is an initial mental affirmation of Jesus as Lord, then okay. If by “alone” you mean that a person has to do absolutely nothing else besides express faith as outlined above, then okay. I would say that this absolutely can and does justify, initially. By initially I mean that a person at that moment indeed becomes justified outside of any other type of deed or work, this I will not deny. It is how we are justified. Now this understanding needs no further explanation or thought if only a person did not live for more than a couple of hours after his initial belief. If however like most of mankind you should find yourself to live more than a few hours then more explanation is indeed needed on the subject because we are no longer talking about “one moment”, but instead about a person’s lifetime. Faith, indeed at that moment, is achieved by the person who simply believes, but faith cannot end there if a person’s life extends beyond that point. A person’s faith must also extend. This is where works and faith work together to complete faith. Faith is not to be measured in how much a person believes or how much he once believed, but also by how much a person does with what he believes. Can someone be said to have faith in a moment where they reject to follow the Lord’s commandments? If this person refuses to be baptized, to partake of His body and blood, to continually confess his sins, and to give to his destitute brother can this person be said to be expressing faith? Hardly. It does not matter if this person initially expressed faith in our Lord because by his impenitent heart He has not maintained the completed/perfect faith which our Lord is looking for. Faithfulness is the type of faith required of us and while none of us remains faithful to our Lord at all times we are still not exonerated from this requirement, but are admonished to repent.
Abraham the Father of Faith; Positive Example
Abraham is often presented as our example by the Apostles when it comes to faith. I don’t believe you can take away the element of “works of the law” from their writings and come to a proper understanding, but for the sake of the writing at hand I will refrain from discussing this. Both Paul and James prop up Abraham as an example of justification and faith. While Paul highlights the fact that Abraham was justified by faith apart from Mosaic works, and indeed other works, it is James who says that Abraham was justified by works. James also says that we are indeed justified by works and not by faith only. Both quote the same verse about Abraham’s faith being reckoned as righteousness. So Paul highlights Abraham’s faith in God broadly apart from Mosaic works of the law and James zeroes in on the action Abraham took part in that “completed faith”. So while broadly speaking Abraham was justified by faith, James reminds us that Abraham still was justified by his deeds due to faith being completed by actions. Ultimately Abraham was justified by faith, but it cannot be said that works were excluded because it is by works that faith is made complete. As Abraham’s life extended beyond the point of his call so did his faith as is proven by his attempt at sacrificing Isaac.
Unbelieving/Unfaithful Israel; Negative Example
The negative example that we have in Scripture concerning “faith” is Israel. Israel is a people group that was chosen and elect by God to be His servants on the Earth. Through their disobedience Paul says in Romans that they were unfaithful/unbelieving. Scripture often connects the idea of faith with obedient action and connects the opposite of faith, I.E. unbelief, with disobedient action. Through their rejection of Jesus, their unbelief, those of Israel had fallen yet those outside Israel who believed were grafted in to the promises of God. The warning that Paul gives to the church to those who have indeed had initial faith is that they needed to continue in God’s kindness so that they themselves might not fall. If simply believing in Jesus one time was enough for someone to be considered justified “forever” and without works then what exactly is Paul warning the church for? He is warning them to continue in God’s kindness of living under the teachings and practices given to the church. It continues to stand to reason that a working faith is needed to justify. Israel, speaking corporately, has failed time and time again. Yet there were those who didn’t and we also won’t fall if we continue in His teachings.
So what’s the big deal?
Many Protestants who hold to the inappropriate version of “faith alone” would agree with a lot that is written here. They do indeed believe works plays a role in salvation, however not as expressed above. For Protestants faith is something that is totally separated from works. Works are often described as something that comes from faith rather than something that works with and completes faith. Where the understanding above differs from the Protestant one is the idea of what follows faith. Ideally yes good works always follow faith. Is this always the case? Certainly not. Should it be? Certainly, but it is not true that just because someone has initial faith it means they will complete it with good works. Protestants have come up with new ideas which assert that if someone claims to have faith, but does not have works they were never truly a believer. The nuance is that they lied about having initial faith in Jesus and that is the reason they did not persevere in good works. The truth is that we can all have initial faith in our Lord Jesus as King, but still fall and turn away from Him by denying Him both in word and deed. James does not make the argument that faith follows works, but rather that works complete faith. This contentious matter is one of the big ones that remains a stumbling block for Protestants to enter into historic Christianity.
Then What must I do?
The obvious answer for someone looking to enter into the Kingdom of Righteousness is to have faith in our Lord Jesus. Only do not let your faith be in word only. Let it be something that continues on seeking to fulfill every teaching and practice of the church. Love Jesus and fulfill His commandments. Get Baptized, engage in the sacraments, help your brother, and anything else our Lord requires of us may you also be at work doing. While Protestants may misplace the idea of works, many still believe that works function somewhere in salvation. They believe that “a true believer” is shown to be one by his works. While the church has not affirmed their nuance of “works always following faith” the church has indeed also said that “true faith” is accomplished in action. Faith is something we continue to participate in and not something we “once did” only. If we say we are justified by faith alone then let it be a penitent, continuing faith that seeks His kingdom until the end. Remembering that He will judge us all according to our works and also that He has mercy on all the penitent let us continue on for Him.
To be fair when I mention “Protestants” I am speaking of a large group of people who hold different understandings from one another. Some Lutherans may look at some of what I portrayed as a Protestant belief and affirm it, while denying other parts of what I presented. The same with Evangelicals and other Protestants.