The Reformed doctrine of faith alone

The Reformed Doctrine of “faith alone” is a cornerstone of protestant theology. This cornerstone, however, is put in place by inserting into Scripture a term that does not exist, building on it a man-made theology, such as the sinners prayer, God’s sovereign choice of salvation apart from one’s free-will and interpreting the word “works” to refer to either God’s commands or to anything that a person might do (otherwise).

One advocate of faith alone theology wrote, “I won’t defend the truth of justification by faith alone in detail, but it’s clearly taught, for example, in Romans 3:28: ‘A person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.’ Or, as Paul teaches in Romans 4:5, ‘God justifies the ungodly.’ Both Abraham and David were justified by faith and not by works (Rom. 4:1–8; Gal. 3:6–9).” [1]

It is my intent, in this article and the next, to address these passages, noticing the context and how it does not support to teaching “faith alone” and, finally, give some attention to James 2.

This is no small matter.

The use of “works” in Romans 3

How does Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, use the word works in Romans 3? One needs to start with his use of the word in 3:20, where Paul makes clear what he means. The word “deeds” in the KJV is the “works” of the ESV, and it is here that Paul shows that he means, “…by the deeds [works] of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight …” What law? The Law of Moses, as Paul demonstrated in 3:9-19. Thus, the word “works” is properly understood to mean the Law of Moses. To show this is the case, consider further:

  • Paul wrote of the hypocrisy of the Jewish nation, contrasting the difference between one named a Jew and one who was Jewish in heart/mind (2:17-29)
  • He addressed the advantage given the Jews, that is, the Jewish nation, but again pointing out their double-standard with this advantage given (3:1-8)
  • With the advantage given them (i. e., the Law), they failed to understand and accept the Law (citations from Psalms) as it showed them (the Jews) to be guilty of the same (sin) as that which they ascribed to the Gentiles (3:9-19)

This Law, of which Paul speaks, was Law that pointed out sin and its consequence; it was not a Law given to the Jewish nation to save them from sin. It was not designed by God to justify (save) anyone who lived under its authority, because it was through the Law that knowledge of sin came to be understood (Romans 3:20; cf. Acts 13:39). This knowledge of sin was not merely an academic exercise in understanding; the knowledge given had the quality of teaching what was to motivate a person to a proper response when it was learned how significant and damning sin was to one’s life/soul (cf. Romans 7:14-8:2).

Since God’s Law to Moses could not save, then what was a person to do to be right (justified) in God’s eyes? Paul writes, “But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference” (Romans 3:21-22, KJV). What was a person who lived under its authority to do? He was to learn from the Law. “No man can come to me, except the Father that sent me draw him: and I will raise him up in the last day. It is written in the prophets, And they shall all be taught of God. Every one that hath heard from the Father, and hath learned, cometh unto me” (John 6:44-45, ASV).

The following is established:

  1. the Law of Moses was not designed by God to save,
  2. God’s Law, as given to Moses, was to teach,
  3. that which was taught identified sin and its consequence,
  4. that which was also taught points one to Jesus

In the quote by the advocate of “faith alone,” reference is made to Romans 3:28, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (3:28)? What does Paul mean when he says this? He means justification is by the system of faith (as revealed in Jesus) in contradistinction to the system of the Law given to Moses; the remaining three verses of Romans 3 bears this out.

  • God is not God of the Jews only, yet only to the Jews/Hebrew nation did God give His Law via Moses (3:29)
  • God is one, that is, He is One who justifies Jews and Gentiles by the same standard, faith (3:30)
  • The Law of Moses was not overthrown by this, but instead was established, or made complete (3:31)

If one means “faith only” in this context, then fine. But, even this says more than Scripture teaches. What is generally meant with the use of the term is that God declares one righteous or saved without further acts of obedience; instead, one needs to pray a simple prayer (commonly called the sinners prayer).

Rather than it being anything associated with a process, as the Scripture explicitly declares in such passages as Acts 18:8 and Romans 10:14-15, the process is eliminated to “save” as many as possible on the simple ground of faith. Yet, this kind of faith is not the saving faith one reads in the New Testament. “Faith alone” is foreign to the pages of Holy Writ. Man’s flawed righteousness is indeed flawed, but it is not man’s righteousness the Lord is calling on for one to use in submission to His will. The Lord Jesus is the author of salvation to all those who obey Him (Hebrews 5:8-9), and what is it that man is called upon to obey? He is called upon to obey God’s will (or righteousness)! When done, God declares the one who obeyed as righteous, justified and saved, the gift of His Son received in his trusting response to the Lord’s will.

In the next article, I will give additional attention to Romans 4 and its role in the “faith alone” controversy, along with the man-made doctrine of the sinner’s prayer.


[1] Thomas Schreiner (James Buchanan Harrison professor) (4/21/2017).

#doctrine, #faith-alone