Is Confidence in Sola Fide Dropping or Is the Wesleyan Tide Rising?

Thursday, September 24th, 2020

I recently read an article with the following question as a title: “Are We Justified by Faith Alone?” The question in the title was asked in this precise form because it was intended to resonate with one of the great themes of the sixteenth-century Reformation: sola fide (faith alone!). The meaning is that we are justified by faith alone in Christ and no amount of good works can accomplish one’s justification before God. Trust me, whenever I hear any of the five great solas of the Reformation—faith alone, Christ alone, Scripture alone, grace alone, glory of God alone—I want to shout Amen and Hallelujah.

Nevertheless, I wonder if the article may have missed something. The article was written in response to a Lifeway and Ligonier Ministries survey as a part of their State of Theology Project. The survey found that only 84 percent of evangelicals agree with the following statement: “God counts a person as righteous not because of one’s works but only because of one’s faith in Jesus Christ.” Only two years ago, the article points out, 91 percent of evangelicals agreed with the same statement. The author laments this slippage from and writes the following summary of his anguish: “This shows that there has been an alarming decrease in the percentage of evangelicals who express clear views on how sinful man can be justified before God.” But, does this conclusion necessarily follow the results of the survey? Let’s just say, I have doubts. The question posed never uses the word justification. The question asked about whether God “counting a person as righteous” is related to “one’s works” or only “one’s faith.” If the question had been posed, Is a person justified only by one’s faith, or is it also by one’s works? then I would share the author’s concern about the slipping percentage, because when framed this way the question is more narrowly focused on what it means to be justified before God. That is not what the question actually asked. Therefore, to conclude that this slippage represents an “alarming decrease” in “how sinful man can be justified” is not warranted.

So, what is the difference between the question and the interpretation of the response? The difference is bound up with the biblical view of salvation. To put it bluntly and plainly, biblical salvation is about more than justification. Salvation involves our salvation by faith alone in the completed work of Jesus Christ, but it also involves our sanctification which, through the work of the Holy Spirit, makes us holy and actually produces fruit in us. In other words, as much as we laud the good news of alien righteousness (i.e., that our righteousness does not belong to us, but to Jesus Christ alone), no biblical Christian believes that this is the only thing we teach about righteousness. Yes, we are condemned sinners who flee to the cross with no hope in ourselves apart from Christ. Yet, and this is the point, once we flee to the cross, God begins a good work in us to conform us to the life of Christ and to make us holy.

In other words, sanctification is about making us holy—in our thoughts, our actions, or dispositions, our heart orientation. This process will not be complete until we come to yet another stage of salvation, namely, glorification when we will be made like Christ and fully conformed to his glorious image in the final Eschaton. But, the point is this: When God looks upon us who are on this side of the cross he should definitely see two forms of righteousness—the righteousness of Jesus Christ and the emerging righteousness of the increasingly sanctified believer. John Wesley’s theology was built around the confidence that salvation must involve both the work of Jesus Christ who alone justifies and the work of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies. Even Martin Luther’s theology of righteousness is built around the distinction between the coram deo (passive righteousness before God) and the corum mundo (active righteousness in the world).

Thus, back to the original question, When God looks at us should he not see righteousness that is not merely passive righteousness received from Christ, but also active righteousness that is based on the work of the Holy Spirit which joyfully and daily includes our wills and our actions? Thus, the dropping percentage by evangelicals is likely not a sign of the loss of sola fide and the sole centrality of Jesus Christ in justifying us, but, rather, a growing percentage of evangelicals who realize that when God looks upon us, he had better see both kinds of righteousness. As someone once humorously put it, as a play on the famous “Just as I Am” hymn: “God loves you just as you am, but he don’t want you to stay the way you am!” What we are experiencing among evangelicals is not the alarming loss of the Reformation message, but the growing realization that in an increasingly post-Christian world, not only must the world see our transformed lives, but God had better see it too!

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